x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

He had a fierce sense of equality and no time to suffer fools

Brian Behan "Onwards and upwards to the stars." My father's letters to me at university were always energising in their brevity.

Brian Behan.
Brian Behan.

"Onwards and upwards to the stars." My father's letters to me at university were always energising in their brevity, providing an immediate picture of the family life I had left behind for three years - but they always ended with an almost impossibly romantic and idealistic motto. That was him, really - an exhilarating person in both public and private, a man whose ability to rouse the senses and set the heart racing was always underlaid with a greater purpose. His life story still inspires me, and the briefest outline of it puts most people's achievements (or lack of) to shame.

Brian Behan went to England ("the land of big money and small shovels") from a poverty-stricken Ireland in 1948; alcohol and gambling had lain waste to the ancestral fortunes and his entire family - mother, father, seven brothers and one sister - had lived in one room in a Dublin tenement. When he arrived in Britain he was 22 and had three shillings and sixpence (Dh1) in his pocket. Making that journey was the turning point of his life and he never looked back, despite some people's obsession with his Irish "roots". "The only ones I ever saw weeping were those left behind," he later wrote. "I wished to Christ that the bloody boat would push off and let me get the hell out of there."

Not looking back is a lesson I've tried to draw on, but I've never met anyone who embodied the principle quite as much. When he arrived in London, my father worked as a labourer on building sites all over the capital, including on the new South Bank project, where he was a piledriver, living 10 to a room in a basement in Southwark. "To get dressed you had to stand on the bed," he later told me, "there was no room on the floor." He soon became active in the trade union movement, fighting for basic working conditions for himself and fellow workers - including gangs from Connemara who spoke no English and had no idea what a trade union was.

He became a paid-up member of the Communist Party and helped instigate a series of strikes, including a go-slow on the day the Queen was due to visit the Festival of Britain site. He went to prison several times: on his release he rose higher up the ranks and joined Communist delegations travelling across China and Russia, meeting Mao and Stalin along the way. Yet he was disappointed - Russia, he said, was particularly Victorian and un-revolutionary, and he despised the way both countries' leaders lived. He left the party in 1956, after Russia's invasion of Hungary, and had a brief sojourn with the Socialist Labour League before abandoning party politics altogether.

My father's formidable grasp of history was ignited when he attended Sussex University as a mature student in the 1960s; 30 years later he was delighted when I got British Academy funding to do an MA there. By the time I was born in 1976, he was working as a media lecturer at the London College of Printing and was already writing his autobiography. We had been discussing politics at the dinner table for as long as I can remember, and I always had the sense that I was talking to someone extraordinary, someone with a lifetime's worth of wisdom and experience, interlaced with humour. I still miss this now. But he had mellowed, and seemed to enjoy the company of his family the most. When I was at primary school he'd enthral and terrify us with stories of monsters coming to get us - I think he taught us to use our imaginations so that we'd never be bored. At night when I couldn't sleep he'd take me walking through the streets of London, telling stories till I felt drowsy. He'd take me to school on the back of his bike every morning - in later years we'd cycle for miles along the canals.

Throughout his life, my father demonstrated an ongoing lack of respect for middle-class notions of creativity by rising at 6am to bang out a few chapters on the typewriter every day before work. "Balzac wrote 10,000 words in a night, so a dissertation should be no trouble to you," he would tell me at university. It worked. From later years I remember my father's healthy disdain for other's opinions - something he successfully passed on to me - his lack of respect for conformity and equal disdain for political correctness, his positive attitude and his energy and determination, from which sprang his willingness to embrace new ideas. He also had a fierce sense of equality, which he instilled in me from an early age. "Remember," he would say, "there's no one in this world better than you." This was backed up by the very real promise to annihilate anyone who touched me or my brother.

My father embodied what I have always believed - that you can do anything if you really want to and that most people only make excuses. The other lesson is that one should live by one's convictions, but when experience contradicts theory, one should also have the courage to change and not to hang on to beliefs like an ideologue. There is more than one way of achieving anything. While my father was idealistic, he was also realistic. He made me get a paper round at the age of 12 so that I'd know the value of money - I also worked in a supermarket on weekends - and at 16 he sent me on a secretarial course in case I ever found myself out of work. I didn't, but giving me the ability to type 100 words a minute was one of the best things anyone's ever done for me. When I got a job at The Daily Telegraph, he was thrilled - not least because it paid well. For him, life had paid off. He worked hard so I didn't have to.