Friday 22 September 2023

Solidarity with Ken Livingstone


“He was perhaps the greatest anti-racist leader the Labour Party has ever produced. So the allegations of antisemitism were in my opinion an obscenity. His crime was telling the truth about the Haavara Agreement in the 1930s – in which some Zionist organisations played a role in breaking the anti-Hitler trade boycott that threatened to bring the new Nazi regime to its knees.” Graham Bash, Jewish Voice for Labour.

I am sad that Ken Livingstone has Alzheimer’s disease. I have known him for 8 years and the conversation I had with him and Jan Woolf over a meal in an Afghan restaurant, is the subject of a chapter in my food and memory book, ‘My World CafĂ©. I confirm Graham's opinion about Ken and it is clear that he had no need to apologise for telling the truth. Apologies should be offered to him and the many socialists expelled from the Labour Party.

Chapter 19 • Kabuli Pulao
"Political issues are decided at table". Talleyrand

Kabuli pulao is said to have originated among wealthy families in the Afghan capital, who could afford to prepare this elaborate meat and rice meal. Its name derives not from the city of Kabul, but from the word qabil which means ‘capable’, as it was considered that only a skilled chef had the ability to make it. Due to the price and quality of the ingredients, this dish of lamb and steamed rice, mixed with raisins and apricots, is considered an Afghan festive dish. Its unique flavour comes from a mixture of spices: cumin, cloves, cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon. The pulao is placed in the centre of the table. It is a shared food, eaten in community with others.
My introduction to pulao took place in the company of a politician known for his dedication to the community.
I met Ken Livingstone for the first time in 2016 at a supermarket, soon after he had been suspended from the Labour Party in 2016. I found myself behind him at the cheese counter and told him that I sympathised with what fate had dealt him and that we had a lot in common.
He asked what had happened to me, and I told him that I had been sacked from the charity I had founded after blowing the whistle on corruption. I added that in my late middle age, I had been left without a job and little money. One day I was a charity director, running a music centre in an ex-war zone, and the next day thrown out of the organisation I had built. I said I understood what he had been going through.
I knew that Ken’s fate had been much worse than mine. Everyone from Margaret Thatcher to the Labour Party leadership had ensured his political destruction. She had described him as an ‘East European tyrant’ who would set up a communist regime if elected mayor of London. Tony Blair said of Ken that, “we did not create New Labour only to throw it all away and return to the disastrous politics of the early ‘80s.” The Sun, queen of the gutter press, called him, “the most odious man in Britain”. This, despite the fact that, as Mayor, he had been responsible for much that promoted good community relations: free bus passes for the elderly and disabled, anti-traffic congestion and anti-racist policies.
I am amazed at how a social democrat who wanted to keep the traffic flowing can be transformed into a Stalinist tyrant or a revolutionary Trotskyist. These slurs were not going to end with poor Ken. They would go on, be recycled and used to topple Jeremy Corbyn.
Three years after our chance meeting in the supermarket, I was invited by my friend and fellow writer, Jan Woolf, to join her and Ken for dinner at Ariana II, an Afghan restaurant on the Kilburn High Road in north west London.
I had known Jan from the time we had worked together on music and theatre projects at Stop the War Coalition Her contribution to the anti-war movement was, like mine and Ken’s, an expression of her moral outrage at the illegitimacy of the Iraq war and occupation.
Ariana II is a bring-your-own-booze eatery. When Ken arrived, he put three bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon on the table. The waitress who took our orders offered him her hand. She thanked him with a short speech enumerating all he had done for her city. This was eleven years after he’d left the job.
In Livingstone’s London, Ken tells us who he would like to dine with. He went for JF Kennedy and Lenin. Sadly, they weren’t able to be in Kilburn that evening ,so Jan and I had to stand in for them.
We ordered Kabuli pulao. While we ate our starter, a delicate mashed spiced pumpkin topped with yoghurt, I asked him his opinion of Thatcher and Blair.
“She created me,” he answered. As for Blair, “He was always polite when we met, but his expertise was the knife in the back. Before Regan and Thatcher, it was very different, even with Conservatives. In the 1970s when John Major was Chair of Lambeth’s Housing Committee, he oversaw the building of more council estates than any council, before or since. Under the Macmillan Tory government in the 1950s, the top rate of tax for incomes over half a million per annum was 98%. As soon as Thatcher came to power, that was cut to 40%.
I asked him how he felt now he was no longer in the Labour Party. Suspended and accused of anti-semitism, he resigned his membership in 2018. He smiled. “In more than 50 years in the Party, I never saw or heard anything anti-semitic. If you’re anti-semitic, you’re not going to join the Labour Party, are you?”
I asked him what he had been accused of.
“I told the BBC that, in 1932, Hitler had championed Jewish emigration to Israel and was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
I asked him if he remembered the furore over Jim Allen’s play 'Perdition'. Commissioned by the Royal Court in 1987, they then refused to stage it. Directed by Ken Loach, it tells of the collaboration of Zionists with the Nazis in Budapest in 1944. The writer Eric Fried, many of whose family were murdered by the Nazis, wrote: “I am envious I have not written this play myself ... To accuse the play of faking history or anti-Jewish bias is monstrous.” At the time Loach said, “The charge of anti-semitism is the time-honoured way to deflect anti-Zionist arguments.”
Ken poured out more wine for us, smiled and shrugged.
“It’s never-ending, ism’t it?”
He said that when Labour Party General Secretary, Iain McNicol, suspended him without a hearing, he joined Marc Wadswoth, Christine Shawcroft, Jackie Walker and Glyn Secker, all of whom had been accused of anti-semitism. It didn’t seem to matter that many of those suspended were Jews. It does, perhaps, matter that Secker is an executive committee member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, and captained a Jewish Gaza solidarity boat to the Gaza coast in 2010. “Do you know that, under Starmer, more Jews have been suspended from the party than ever before?”
I asked Ken whether he still gets abuse, and he answered that he does, but many remember his role as Mayor of London and stop him in the street to shake his hand.
Ken told me all this without any anger, and it struck me that he joins Jeremy Corbyn as being too nice to be a political leader.
I put this to him.
He said, “I can’t answer for anyone but myself, but I have never heard Jeremy say a bad word about anyone.”
I asked him what his life was like now and he said he had written five books. He added, “but my main task is to go shopping, cook and look after the family.”
“Are you still writing?” I asked.
“Do you watch TV, follow the news?”
“It’s all so depressing.”
I didn’t know if he meant the content of the news or the manner of its delivery, so asked him is he followed online media such as The Canary or Novara Media.
“No, I don’t use the internet. I don’t even have my own email. Too many death threats. Diane Abbott gets ten a day.”
I found it sad that someone who had been so actively involved with society was now so excluded from it.
When Rachel Cooke interviewed Ken for The Observer, she wrote, “there’s something rather frail and depleted about him … if he talks proudly about being a house husband, behind the boast, it’s possible to detect a certain purposelessness.”
She was right. I recognised that look, not just frail, but not quite believing you are where you are. Delayed shock in body and mind.
I love cooking, so wanted to know his favourite dishes. “I get the ready-to-eat meals and just heat them up. Chicken and leek is very good. Eating this here of course, is a delight.”
When he wrote his memoir, 'You Can’t Say That', there is a chapter devoted to restaurants, about which he used to write for the Evening Standard. It revealed that his favourite restaurant is the Nautilus, a fish and chippy in Fortune Green.
I didn’t want our meal to end without delving into what had made Ken the unique political figure he had been.
“Did you come from a left-wing background?”
“Not at all. My uncle, also named Ken, was a member of the National Front. He went through the Radio Times each week with a marker pen, obliterating any programme listing that included blacks, Irish, gays, lesbians or David Frost.”
Our conversation went silent as we finished the pulao. I had enjoyed the savoury sweetness of the carrots and raisins, the saltiness of the rice and meat, the crunchiness of the almonds, pistachios and cashews. At the same time, I had become increasingly sad at the rotten deal this man had been served.
As we were getting ready to leave, a woman got up from her table, smiled at Ken and said, “You were the best.”
I returned home on the London Overground. Oh yes, that was revamped by Ken and made free for you and me.

½ kilo lamb cut into pieces
2 large onions
1 cup of long grain rice
2 carrots, grated
4 cardamom pods
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup raisins
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbs almonds
1 tbs pistachos
1 tbs cashew nuts
2 tbs sugar
2 sticks of cinnamon
½ cup olive oil
Heat the oil and slow cook onions, then add the lamb and fry until a golden brown. Add 1 cup of water and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover and simmer until the meat is tender. Cook the rice with 2 teaspoons cumin seeds and 1 teaspoon salt. Drain the rice and set aside.Add the raisins, apricots cardamom, almonds, pistachios, cashews, and cinnamon and 1 tsp black pepper. Add to the meat and cook together for a minute. In another pan, cook the sugar until it melts and add ½ cup water and mix well. Pour the sugar mixture on top of the rice mixture and add to the meat. Simmer for 20 minutes