Doris Lessing on the ‘dispiriting’ folk dances of the Scottish communists

It’s probably not very fair to use the death of Doris Lessing to recall a very minor episode in the annals of the Scottish Folk Revival. I’m going to do so anyway as it brings to light some neglected characters of her close acquaintance and offers a small insight into how the 1950s revival circulated in networks well beyond Scotland.

A key figure here is the Glaswegian actor Alex McCrindle, once a household name, who is now comparatively forgotten other than for his appearance as General Jan Dodonna, leader of the rebel force in George Lucas’ Star Wars. In the early 1950s, McCrindle was at the height of his fame having played Jock in the radio programme Dick Barton, Special Agent. Although it ran for 700 episodes and attracted 15 million listeners, McCrindle struggled to find subsequent work after being blacklisted as a communist. He eventually directed his energies into the actors’ union, Equity, setting up a life in London where he married the children’s author and Daily Worker film critic Honor Arundel.

The home of McCrindle and Arundel in the fifties was a hub of Communist Party activity and organisation. And the Party had, perhaps surprisingly, thrown its weight behind the resurgence of folk music under the auspices of the Edinburgh People’s Festival which ran between 1951-1954. Hamish Henderson was of course a driving figure in the Festival even if he was by this stage held in political suspicion by Party stalwarts like McCrindle. What I find interesting is how the influence of the Folk Revival extended to the networks of Doris Lessing. In her autobiography*, she remembers that:

In a garden on the canal known as Little Venice, now very smart, then dingy and run down, there were held ceilidhs, where Ewan MacColl sang […]. The house belong to Honor Tracy (sic) [Arundel], an upper-class young woman whose education had destined her for a very different life, and her husband Alex McCrindle … who was in a radio series of immense popularity. There were people from the worlds of radio, music, and nascent television, and of course, women with children. Most of them were communists, but none of them were communists ten years later, except for Alex. And Ewan MacColl, the communist troubadour and bard. I found these occasions pretty dispiriting, all these people doing Scottish folk dances, often in a cold drizzle.

For Lessing, the point is how the revealed horrors of Stalinism massively shifted political allegiances in the course of one decade. McCrindle never departed from the Party; he saw it through to the bitter end, living just long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. While I find it hard to comprehend McCrindle’s politics, his commitment at least feels more authentic than that of his friend Hugh MacDiarmid. It takes a particular type of villainy to wait until after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 to rejoin the Communist Party. Not for the first time, Lessing’s preoccupation with the grey British weather also stands as a judgement on some of the dismal political choices of the era.

*Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade: volume two of my autobiography, 1949–1962 London: HarperCollins1997, 108.





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