Saturday, 5 August 2017

Betty Papworth.

One of the people I miss most of all is Betty Papworth, who died a few years ago at the age of 94. I can't now remember whether we first met in London or Moscow - it doesn't really matter. For Betty the whole world was her battlefield.

There was one problem with Betty, she had a knack of finding jobs for you to do and it was impossible to say no.

When I first met her she once persuaded me to help out at the Hampstead Morning Star Bazaar, which meant I ended up spending four Sundays a year humping around boxes of second hand books. This lasted for years, but I wouldn't have missed the people I met there, the bagels I ate, the conversations I had, for anything.

We became friends because I introduced her to the secret and seductive delights of The Oriental Tea Room at The National Hotel in Moscow. We ended up on the same cheap holidays to the old Soviet Union more than once - staying in Trades Union Hotels meant for Russians. It was all a bit basic but neither of us had much money.

But I had discovered that if you had a hotel I/D card it got you access to all the hotels - including the really expensive ones like The National, which was aimed at wealthy American tourists. It didn't seem to matter that you were staying in a dive on the edge of town. Unfortunately the prices inside were normally a little out of our range.

Except that at The National, there was an anachronism from the old days. The Oriental Tearoom was just that - a room with carpets up the walls, brass lamps over the tables hidden in intimate booths where smartly dressed waiters brought you copper teapots full of steaming hot 'Chai', which were put in dishes of sand to keep them hot. For some reason this cost just a couple of roubles - pence only.

Whenever we were there Betty and me would meet up in The Oriental Tearoom and drink Chai, either before or sometimes after a night out on the town.

Betty had been involved in every struggle worth fighting in the twentieth century. She was Jewish and born in Stepney where, as a young girl, she built barricades on Cable Street and fought the Police to stop Mosely and his Blackshirts marching through The East End.

She raised large amounts of money for Republican Spain.

She not only knew Paul Robeson but when he was in London he stayed at her house. Then again, most of the major figures in the National Liberation Movements of the 1950's stayed with her, many of whom ended up Presidents or Prime Ministers.

When the war broke out she was one of a number of Communists who took 'Afternoon Tea' at The Savoy Hotel on The Strand.

Except that on a signal they stormed the air raid shelter in the basement to highlight the fact that a handful of rich people in the West End had a shelter against the bombs while millions of people in The East End didn't. When the Police dragged them out, the Press were there to take the pictures - including one of a smartly dressed Betty.

Later, Betty was one of a number of people who took bolt cutters to the padlocks on the Tube station gates in The East End - to open the deep stations up as bomb shelters.

Betty's husband, Bert, was leader of the London Busmen and a nationally known figure.

After the war, Betty herself was a leader of The Squatters Movement, a communist inspired campaign to open up empty houses in The West End so that returning soldiers and their families could have somewhere to live. She would be scurrying around with her bolt cutters once again or organising food supplies for the Squatters.

When I became friends with her, she was in her 80's and living in a tiny flat just off The Chalk Farm Road, which was Camden pretending to be Belsize Park.

She loved the Opera and the Ballet but lacked the money to enjoy them - she found numerous scams and subterfuges to obtain cheap tickets.

In those pre internet days Betty had also discovered a novel way of living beyond her means - she hooked up with an organisation which linked together students from rich countries like America or Japan with people like Betty looking to raise some income by letting out a room.

Whenever you visited her you would meet a suitably bemused or frightened American WASP Trustafarian, trying to work out how they had ended up living in the flat of an elderly revolutionary and just a bit worried about where it was all going to end.

The highlight of knowing Betty was to get an invite to her Christmas Dinner - which, of course, took place every year at the end of January. I always suspected that Betty lurked around the shops on Boxing day looking for bargains.

Amazing people would be there - I met Bernard Vorhaus, the blacklisted American Film Director once. You could be sat next to a Trades Union leader, an actor, a spy or a revolutionary on the run.

You never knew who Betty knew or how she would have met them.

In 2004 Morechai Vanunu was due to be released from prison in Israel after serving 18 years, 11 of them in solitary confinement. Vanunu had revealed to The Sunday Times the full extent of Israel's illegal nuclear weapons programme. He was lured to Rome where he was kidnapped by The Mossad.

Betty, a committed anti Zionist, travelled to Israel with Jeremy Corbyn to provide a welcome for him on his release. Corbyn has described how Betty stood there waiving her umbrella at a huge and very hostile crowd of right wing Zionists throwing missiles at them, before they were both manhandled away by The Israeli Defence Forces.

Betty was 90 years old at the time but nothing was going to stop her. 

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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