In memory of Harry Whittaker (9 August 1938 – 16 March 2020): a working-class hero

There are some people who leave an indelible mark on the lives of everyone they ever met. To have known such a person is something that enriches one’s life and makes it a fuller and more rewarding experience. The passing of such individuals always leaves an immense empty space that can never be filled.

It was thoughts like these that came flooding into my mind when yesterday morning I received the tragically unexpected news of the death of my old friend and comrade, Harry Whittaker. I say unexpected because, although Harry was not a young man and had had more than his share of health problems recently, he was always so full of life, and the love of life, that it seemed impossible that he would ever disappear from this earth.

But all men and women are mortal, and sooner or later must take their leave of life. That we understand. But what is important is not the fact that we cannot live forever, but what we leave behind us when we are gone. We can live on in our families, children and loved ones. We can also live on in the heritage we leave behind in the struggle for a better life for humanity. And every once in a while, a man or woman of exceptional worth leaves behind a rich heritage of memories that will live on long after their life has run its natural course.

Harry Whittaker was just such a man. Born into a poor working-class family in the slums of Glasgow’s Gorbals district just before the Second World War, Harry was brought up in the hard conditions of those years of privation, class struggle and religious sectarianism. His childhood was affected by the atmosphere of sectarian bigotry that surrounded him. His life was made even harder by the fact that his father, an industrial worker, was a Protestant, while his mother, a courageous woman who he loved dearly, was a Catholic.

He often talked to me about those years, but he never spoke of them with bitterness or resentment. On the contrary, he spoke of the warm atmosphere of comradeship that existed among working-class people and constituted a firm psychological bulwark against that harsh and unremitting environment. All Glaswegians have a great sense of humour, and that too was born out of the same conditions. Harry’s sense of humour was even greater than most.

His father was a hard man who was very handy with his fists. These were absolute requisites for survival in the Gorbals of those days. Harry himself participated in more than one street fight and he was no shrinking violet, but he lived in awe of his father’s ferocious right jab, which left more than one opponent sprawling unconscious on the pavement.

But religious bigotry was a corrosive influence on working-class life in those days. Harry remembers one occasion when it was the birthday of a good friend of his, who was a Catholic. He was not invited to the party, and the reason was given when the friend’s little brother knocked on the door and told Harry’s father that no Protestants were allowed.

It was experiences like this that made Harry doubt the validity of religion from a very young age. On one occasion, when a teacher, astonished by his temerity in denying the elementary truths of religion, asked him if he had read the Bible. Harry answered nonchalantly: “Oh yes, I have read it from cover to cover, and the more I read it, the less I believe in religion.”

For many years, I tried to persuade Harry to write his memoirs, which I was convinced would be a remarkable personal, political and historical document. But Harry’s innate modesty inclined him to refuse, on the grounds that his life story would be of no interest to the general reading public.

That was quite untrue, and when, finally, Harry started to write his memoirs under my persistent pressure, the result was a really wonderful human document: beautifully written and full of interesting experiences, colour and a wicked sense of humour, as when he describes one of his teachers as “the biggest pain in the backside since Vlad the Impaler”.

The title of these memoirs is, in itself, a stroke of genius. He called it: The Streets of Long Ago. He sent me the first part of it, dealing mainly with his school years and adolescence, and it made a deep impression on me. I begged him to continue, and send me it, chapter by chapter. In my heart, I was fearful that he would not be able to finish it. In the end, my fears proved to be well founded.

But I should perhaps begin with how I met Harry in the first place. I think it was in 1989, during the struggle against Thatcher’s Poll Tax. The Militant Tendency, to which I belonged, launched the Anti-Poll Tax Union and I attended one of its meetings in Bermondsey, where I lived at the time.

Before the meeting started, John Bryan, a building worker and member of the Militant who had been selected as Labour Party candidate for Bermondsey, approached me. Pointing to a man in the audience whom I did not know, he said: “That’s Harry Whittaker. He is a leading militant of the building workers. I have tried to recruit him to the Militant, but with no success, can you speak to him?” I said that I would.

I went up to Harry and introduced myself, and we arranged to meet for a pint the following evening. We met in a pub in Bermondsey, and from the beginning we got on very well. It was immediately evident to me that Harry was no ordinary trade union militant, but the man with a keen interest in ideas, history and theory.

Harry Whittaker joined the Militant and later was active in Socialist Appeal. I convinced him to join, not on the basis of trade union militancy, but on the basis of Marxist ideas and theory. There is a lesson here for those who wish to learn. Advanced workers have a thirst for theory and ideas. There is no point whatsoever trying to appeal to them on the basis of what is called “bread-and-butter issues”. They need something more than that. They need a broad view of politics – something far more advanced than mere trade unionism.

There was no point in my trying to explain trade unionism to Harry Whittaker, who knew far more about that subject than I did. One thing sticks in my mind about this conversation. In order to get an idea about his trade union work, I asked him what his base of support was. I remember his response vividly. He chuckled quietly, paused for a moment, then said: “Well, let’s put it this way. If I were to go into work tomorrow and say: ‘Lads, we’re out on strike because it’s Donald Duck’s birthday’, they would all down tools.”

I hasten to add that there was not a hint of boastfulness in this unusual reply. Harry Whittaker was the most modest and self-effacing man I have ever met, and he was not one to make empty boasts or to engage in any kind of self-promotion. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was merely making a statement of fact, which was that his personal authority among the workers was absolute.

This authority did not drop from the sky. Harry had an impeccable record of fighting consistently for workers’ rights. He was entirely fearless, and always prepared to take on the bosses. And he would accept no nonsense from anybody, including the trade union officials, with whom he frequently came into conflict.

Harry was not the kind of mindless militant who would engage in pointless disputes with management. He was sufficiently intelligent to know that the struggle for better wages and conditions requires not just brute force, but also a grasp of tactics and strategy. As a result, he won fantastic conditions for his members. The employers feared him, but they also respected him in a way. They knew that any deal struck by Harry Whittaker would be scrupulously and honestly maintained.

If the bosses feared him, the trade union officials hated him, and did everything in their power to undermine him. They resorted to all kinds of tricks and manoeuvres to prevent him from getting elected to positions in the union, but every time they did so, they came off worse. The reason was very simple. Harry had the support of the rank-and-file, and that support was sufficient to defeat every manoeuvre and intrigue on the part of the bureaucracy.

It is true that Harry had an especially privileged position, insofar as he was working in the exhibition industry. When big firms like Fords and British Leyland launched a new model, they had to exhibit their products in different countries. That meant sending teams of building workers to erect the necessary structures in different exhibitions.

As a result of his work, Harry travelled all over the world, building up a rich supply of experiences that helped further expand his vision, and strengthened his indefatigable spirit of proletarian internationalism. He told many stories of his travels and contacts with the workers of other countries. These stories invariably contained anecdotes about gargantuan drinking sessions.

Now, Harry was certainly no slouch when it came to drinking. Some Basque friends of mine were amazed when he came to dinner at our house and consumed vast quantities of red wine before and after dinner. When he finally decided to go home at a very late hour, he refused all offers of a lift and made his own way home, getting up early in the morning and setting out for work, as if nothing had happened the night before.

But even seasoned drinkers like Harry sometimes meet their Waterloo. In Poland, on one of his work trips, he and the boys were drinking vodka with some Polish workers. Even for a Glaswegian, this was formidable opposition. Of course, none of the British workers could speak Polish, neither could the Poles speak English. But somehow, the proletarians of all countries get on very well without speaking a word of each other’s language.

The session began, as usual, with a large glass of that liquid fire, which the Poles tossed off in one go, as if they were drinking water. Amazed at this feat of drinking, one of the British lads gasped: “Jesus Christ!” This remark was assumed by the Poles to be atypical English drinking toast. So they cheerfully raised their glasses – once more filled to the brim – and shouted out: “Jesus Christ!”

For the reasons I have already described, the exhibition workers had a lot of power. They only had to threaten to down tools, and the bosses would potentially lose millions. Therefore, even the threat of a strike was often enough to force the bosses to retreat. Harry made use of this power in order to achieve excellent wages and conditions. But gradually he began to put forward more political demands, in order to raise the level of the workers.

One of his proudest achievements was when one firm wanted to advertise an armoured vehicle that was clearly designed for repressive purposes. Harry immediately denounced this fact to the workers, arguing that it was impermissible for British workers to collaborate in the repression of fellow workers in other countries, like South Africa. They voted to boycott this vehicle.

This immediately set the alarm bells ringing in trade union headquarters. The bosses complained to the officials, who immediately took their side against the workers. Heavy pressure was put on Harry to cancel the boycott, but he steadfastly refused. The right-wing officials were frothing at the mouth, but in the end, they could not do much about it.

There is one golden rule in trade unionism: if you have the backing of the workers, you can do anything. Without it, you can do nothing. When news of the action spread to other workers in different parts of the country, they decided to support the boycott. The action was a complete success: an outstanding victory for proletarian internationalism and revolutionary trade unionism.

That was in the heyday of British trade unionism. But things were about to change for the worse. The reactionary Tory government of Margaret Thatcher launched an all-out offensive to smash the trade unions. The defeat of the miners was a turning point. From that moment, the situation of the trade unions went from bad to worse. Many active trade unionists either retired or were sacked and blacklisted.

The economic crisis of the late 1980s led to an increase in unemployment. Finally, the counterrevolution hit Harry’s own industry. He complained to me that a new generation of young workers were entering without any knowledge of trade unionism, accepting worse wages and conditions than those that had been won through hard struggle in the previous period. Harry himself was sacked and blacklisted for years.

Because of his record, no employer in the building industry would take him on. He suffered a sharp reduction in his living standards. Then one day, a former employer recognised him in the street and asked him what he was doing these days. Told about his position, the employer immediately offered him a job. He knew that Harry was a first-rate worker, and moreover, as I said, he had respect for him as a serious person.

However, the new conditions of employment bore no relationship to those of the past. Harry was by now no longer a young man, but he was forced to work next to young, energetic kids and to keep up the same pace, for fear of being sacked. Now in his 60s, he was working seven days a week, from early in the morning to late at night, with no right to time off, sick pay or holidays.

In fact, he had to work harder than any of the youngsters in order to prove that he was “still up to it”. Ana and myself used to invite Harry and his second wife, Phyllis, to dinner quite often. One day, when he was in our small flat in Bermondsey, I noticed that he was limping.

I said: “what’s the matter with your leg?”

He explained that he had injured his foot while kicking a skirting board into place. But despite severe pain, he had to continue this operation without stopping. No question of seeing a doctor, or taking a single day off work. Such was the result of the Thatcherite counterrevolution in the workplace.

From that point until his retirement, Harry’s life was full of difficulties. Phyllis died of cancer. Later, he was very concerned about his elderly mother, who was in her 90s and lived in Glasgow. Eventually, that concern led him to move back to the city of his birth, where he remained for the rest of his days.

But despite all the difficulties, I can say that I never once saw Harry downcast, pessimistic or depressed. He had an inexhaustible thirst for life and ideas. He read voraciously – particularly history books, which filled the little flat to bursting. He was particularly fascinated by the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and specifically the peninsula wars, about which he was an expert.

If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is the ingrained prejudice of middle-class ignoramuses that workers are not interested in culture. I personally grew up in a poor, working-class town in South Wales. My grandfather and my mother were both members of the Communist Party. And our house was full of books (I still have treasured copies of Engels’s Anti-Duhring, belonging to my mother; and Darwin’s Origin of Species, belonging to my grandfather).

In our house, in the 1940s, there was always classical music, particularly Italian opera, which was very popular with the workers of South Wales. The famous Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli was looked on as a kind of God, followed only by the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling.

Harry was also very fond of classical music. He particularly liked Ravel’s Bolero, which he said always reminded him of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes galloping on horseback across the steppes. I am not sure if that was the composer’s intentions, but it is the privilege of the listener to interpret his music in any way that he or she wishes.

He was also a great lover of poetry. His particular favourite was the ‘Rubaiyat’ of the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam, which he could quote by heart. However, he had some prejudices against the great Scottish poet Robert Burns; mainly, I suspect, because of the stupid antics of upper-class Scottish twits who prance around in their kilts on Burns Night, making a mockery of a great revolutionary poet who detested their sort. In the end, I managed to convince him, and he thanked me by making me a present of a splendid illustrated edition of that wonderful poem ‘Tam o’Shanter’.

Harry had mixed feelings about his father. On the one hand, he admired him for his courage and strength – qualities that were absolutely necessary for the hard life in the Gorbals. But he could also be brutal, and that brutality finally led to a break between Harry and his father. As a born rebel who hated injustice of any sort, Harry could not stand the extreme authoritarianism that his father represented.

Harry moved away from home at quite a young age, and as far as I know never had any contact with his father after that. Yet despite everything, he still had fond memories of his father, who was quite an accomplished singer. “My father thought he was Jussi Bjorling,” he said, remembering those Saturday nights when his father would sing opera arias, and the kind of songs sung by the Irish tenor Josef Locke.

He clearly regretted not having more dealings with this remarkable, if difficult man. But then, Harry himself could be a difficult man – as stubborn as a mule, when he was convinced that he was in the right. I cannot help thinking that, after all, he was his father’s son. He had one son from his first marriage, Stephen, who lived in France, with whom he had a difficult relationship, just as he had had with his own father. I am pleased to say that this relationship was healed in the last years of his life. Harry visited his son and grandchildren in their home in La Rochelle, and even took to learning French, with some degree of success, to be able to speak to his grandchildren.

Harry went back to Glasgow some years ago, but I maintained regular contact with him by phone. His mother died shortly after he arrived, but he met and formed a relationship with a woman he had known since his childhood in the Gorbals. He and Ena had a very close and loving relationship right to the end. It was very consoling to think that he found happiness in his last years while returning to his Glaswegian roots.

Harry Whitaker plant

That end came yesterday suddenly and without warning, although for years he had been suffering from a horrible disease caused by MDF, or Medium-Density Fiberboard. Invented in the United States, it is a compound of wood dust and scrap bonded together by a resin containing formaldehyde: a recognised carcinogen. This poisonous substance, made up of the residues of wood production, such as hardwood sawdust and softwood sawdust mixed with wax, resin, or glue was made fashionable by trendy interior designers and furniture makers, and was popular with the do-it-yourself mob. It was cheap and convenient. It was also deadly. But that was never explained to those like Harry who had to work with it.

Speaking at the TUC conference Roy Lockett, deputy general secretary of Bectu, said: “MDF is the asbestos of the Nineties. It is carcinogenic. It causes lesions. It damages the eyes, the skin, the lungs and the heart. It is vile and pernicious.”

When MDF is cut, sanded, shaped or machined in any way, it releases clouds of dust particles coated with formaldehyde. The particles, much smaller than those emitted by most other commonly used woods, can be inhaled deep into the lungs. As a consequence of years working with this material, Harry’s lungs became clogged, as if they were filled with solid concrete, his breathing was severely impaired, and he ended up dependent on oxygen.

During my last conversations with him, Harry expressed his frustration that he was no longer fit to climb stairs or engage in other activities that were so natural to a person of his vitality. He particularly regretted not being able to climb the stairs to reach Ena’s flat, and also no longer being able to travel to France to visit his son and grandchildren.

But despite everything, Harry retained his positive outlook on life, his vitality and optimism right to the end. He spent a lot of time working on his memoirs, and was sending me it, chapter by chapter. The last chapter that he finished was on his experiences in the army, and I’m sure it will be every bit as good as the other marvellous material he had sent me.

He promised to send me this chapter in our last conversation on Saturday. Sadly, it never arrived. Yesterday morning, when Harry was supposed to be going to hospital for an appointment, his taxi arrived a bit early. The driver rang him, and noticed that he was a bit flustered. It may be that it was the last minute rush and the stress involved that brought on the heart attack.

From what I understand, Harry managed to reach the bottom of the stairs when he collapsed. The concierge immediately came to his assistance and rang the emergency services. They did their level best, pummelling away for 40 minutes. In fact, they did succeed in resuscitating him. But it was not to last. He suffered a further catastrophic heart attack and died.

Harry Whittaker had a huge heart. He was one of the most noble men I have ever met in my life. He died, one of the innumerable victims of the capitalist system against which he fought every inch of the way, right to the end. That great heart has now ceased to beat forever. Harry is no more, and today the world is a poorer place.

It is with great difficulty that I write these lines. It is always hard to say farewell to a dear friend, and Harry Whittaker was the best friend one could ever have. Ana and I loved him, and we will always remember him. If these few lines can serve in some way to preserve his memory in the minds of others, they will have served their purpose.

We send our heartfelt consolations to his faithful and loving companion, to his son Stephen and his wife and children, and to Nicola, Ena’s granddaughter, who has done so much in these difficult hours to help ease the pain with her indefatigable work.

I think it would be fitting to end this short tribute to the life of Harry Whittaker by citing the words of the poetry he loved so much – that great poem of life, love and death, the final moving words of the immortal Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in the celebrated translation by Fitzgerald:

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again--

How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;

  How oft hereafter rising look for us

Through this same Garden--and for one in vain!


And when like her, oh Saki, you shall pass

Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,

  And in your joyous errand reach the spot

Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!