Wednesday, December 11, 2013

True to the End. Norman Harding

SAD NEWS reaches me from friends in the North.

Dear comrades

Norman died a few hours ago. I understand from his stepson Graham that he had been free of pain over the past 2-3 days thanks to care by staff at St Gemma's in Leeds. A vigil had been maintained at his bedside by family members for the last day or so.

After his admission to St James' Hospital in Leeds with a serious chest infection, Norman's stay there became a nightmare as they were unable to control his pain properly. His underlying condition was pulmonary fibrosis that possibly resulted from his time working as a cutter in the textile industry. He went home 2 weeks ago, but it soon became clear that he and his wife Pauline could not cope. His admission to a rehabilitation unit still didn't relieve his pain and lack of rest, so he was taken to St Gemma's palliative care unit last Thursday. I spoke with him on Friday and he had managed to sleep and was lucid and free of pain, though very frail.

Others have told me that he continued to be pain free over the weekend, but sedatives made it increasingly difficult for him to converse. At the end his family was with him.
As soon as funeral arrangements are settled I will let you all know.


When Norman Harding was admitted to St.James's Hospital in Leeds for that last painful period of his life, he was not far from where he grew up, in Shakespeare Street. His travels in between were eventful, and far from easy. 
Norman was born on 25 June 1929, just before the great depression. His dad was an engineer, but because of the slump he had to take part time work on the railways. His mother worked in a mill, and Norman remembered hearing how she secured a wage rise for the mill workers by taking the advice of her father, which was to kick the belt off the pulley which powered the looms
Wikipedia tells us that Norman Harding's father played piano, singing in public houses to supplement the family's income, but also sang at Leeds Town Hall in a production of Handel's Messiah, and with the Huddersfield Choral Society. That helps explain something I discovered when staying in the same flat as Norman from 1976-7, his knowledge and appreciation of music. He knew his Jussi Bjorling from his Count John McCormick, and more beside.

Leaving school aged 14, in 1943, Norman did various jobs before starting as a trimmer at John Barran’s clothing factory.

It was after the war that Norman Harding was called up for National Service, completing his basic training at RAF Padgate, RAF Honiley, Castle Bromwich, and Hereford. Sent to Germany, he served in the RAF's 5352 Wing at Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel airport, which was involved with the Berlin Airlift. Although fraternisation was still forbidden he made friends with German families in the area, strengthening his view that ordinary working people of whatever nationality would find more in common with each other than with the officer class.

After being demobbed, Norman went back to the clothing trade in Leeds, becoming a delegate for the Leeds No. 2 branch of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, and then a delegate for the Leeds City Labour Party. In 1957 he joined the Cross gates Tenants’ and Householders’ Association, and edited a community newspaper. 

 Having joined the Trotskyist group in the Labour Party known only as 'the Club', comrade Harding participated in its expansion around Peter Fryer's little paper The Newsletter, working with local teacher Jack Gale to win over Communist Party members and YCLers whose views had been shaken by Khruschev's "secret speech" and the invasion of Hungary. Thus was gathered the Socialist Labour League, immediately proscribed by Labour, but proceeding to gain a majority in the youth movement, the Yong Socialists.

Something else which loomed important at this time was the nuclear issue. Britain had exploded its first hydrogen bomb in May 1957, and the first big Aldermaston march took place the following year. If any young readers of Norman Harding's autobiography 'Staying Red' are surprised to find a chapter devoted to nuclear disarmament they may also be surprised to learn from it that militants like Norman formed an organised contingent on that march. As he reminds us, it was the Norwood Labour Party, in which the Trotskyists were influential, that brought the unilateralist, anti-H-bomb call to Labour Party conference, in a resolution moved by Vivienne Mendelson, and opposed by hitherto left-wing hero Aneurin Bevan, who said it would mean him going "naked into the conference chamber".

The Communist Party, and the unions it still influenced, also opposed the unilateralist call, and when they did decide to join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) they swamped it with their emphasis on summit talks, flag-waving and anti-Americanism, which Norman describes in his book.

In the 1970s, Norman Harding moved to London, where he would spend the next two decades  working for the Socialist Labour League, which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party, and a very different kind of party from the one he had tried to build. One of the stories he tells which illustrates the difference was the time he went canvassing a working class estate with Vanessa Redgrave. When a poor woman with kids clinging told him about the problems in the flats and difficulty getting repairs done, Norman asked if there was a tenants association on the estate. Redgrave interrupted him to tell the woman it was down to capitalism, and that was why she must vote for the revolutionary party candidate. Later the newcomer Redgrave reported the veteran revolutionary Harding for his "reformism"

When I came to London in 1976 to work for News Line, I knew a bit of Norman's past activity and from reading old back issues of the Newsletter that he had written news and articles for it, before the emphasis started being put on "professional" journalists. Norman was kept busy behind the scenes with jobs like despatch and driving, and seemed to work all hours, so even though we lived in the same flat and worked in the same centre (before I was 'exiled' to the Midlands) I can't say I got to know him well.

But one evening I was able to join Norman and my News Line colleague Paul Jennings for a drink in the Plough, and while we were there a bunch of women came into the pub who were the Friends of Fulham football team that practised on the Common. One of them came over to speak to Norman, and thanked him for some music tapes which she said had "worked like a treat". It seemed that this couple whom Norman had got to know had a troubled, autistic child. Norman had put together a selection of classical tapes which soothed and relaxed their youngster, making the family's life much easier. I don't think he ever put a brass plate on his door as a consultant, but a few years ago when a Facebook friend was asking whether anybody knew anything about music and autism I put her in touch with Norman. 

Trivial as this anecdote may seem (I don't think Norman even thought to mention it) it remained in my memory because it was so atypical of the 'hard' attitude the party seemed to encourage, and it may give a clue to the significant role Norman Harding was to play in the downfall of tyrant Gerry Healy. Working so close to the WRP leadership, yet in the background, Norman saw and heard how people were treated, and he was often the one older comrade to whom young members confided their troubles and got a hearing. What's more, he remained in touch with his working class roots and did not sever "ordinary" people and human problems from his socialist aspirations. That meant his loyalty and dedication was to the class, and to socialism, and not to dogma or a leader.

Having learned how far the corruption of the Healy regime went, Norman Harding joined those who drove Healy out, having uncovered, among other things, his systematic abuse over the years of no less than 26. female comrades. If you want to know more, and how such things could happen, you have got to read Norman's book.

Having helped and consolidated that victory, Norman finally did something to improve his own life, by returning to some of his old links in Leeds, and at 58, marrying and acquiring a ready-made family. Before long he was once again leading a tenants movement, and writing about his thoughts and memories. ,

Incidentally, something else I remember about Norman besides his record collection was the book I found on his shelf, a well-worn out of print .'Memoirs of a Bolshevik' by Osip Piatnitsky, who like Norman once had the task of organising the despatch of the party paper, Lenin's clandestine Iskra. Indeed, Piatnitsky had previously worked in the clothing industry, and devised garments into which the papers could be stitched, to be worn by the party's women couriers. 

Already it depicted a different kind of Bolshevism to the version we were sold, and it is still out of print I believe, its author having been dispatched by Stalin's murder machine.I don't know whether it helped inspire Norman, but now his work should help inspire and educate a new generation.

Steve Drury has suggested those who knew Norman Harding may wish to write tributes and reminiscences, and one possibility is that they are collated on Norman's blog at and will also be passed on to his family and perhaps read out at the funeral.


Lawnswood Crematorium
Otley Road,
L16 6AH

Date:  Weds Dec 18th     Time: 15.40

Afterwards at the Lawnswood Arms, Otley Rd, Leeds LS16  7PH  0113 2671823     

Please let us know if you planning to attend:
07950 870733

Best wishes

John Davies



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