Gerry Gable Interview: Meet The Searchlight Spymaster

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On 17th May 1959 a 32-year old Antiguan carpenter, Kelso Cochrane, was making his way from Paddington General Hospital to his home in Notting Hill following a minor work accident. It was past midnight and when he hit the junction of Southam Street and Goldborne Road, he found himself surrounded by a group of white youths. This was an unprovoked attack which left him knifed to death, and like Stephen Lawrence, this event soon became synonymous with ongoing race relations in Britain.

In the 55 years since his murder, the battlegrounds of racism, fascism and extremism have been in a constant state of flux. And during this time, one man and his organisation have consistently been on the front line of all of them. Today we’ve come to one of his many secret meeting places in central London for a rare interview.

Gerry Gable is the recognisable face of the UK anti-fascism movement, leader of an extensive spy network and publisher of Searchlight Magazine. Gable co-founded Searchlight 50 years ago – shortly after the Cochrane stabbing – but began his activism, along with countless other anti-fascist protestors, on the streets of east London in the 1950s. Today his intelligence organisation operates a group of highly trained infiltrators, who gather valuable data on the far right, from the inside ­– much of which is then exposed in Searchlight Magazine.

Half a Century Working Alongside the Arts & Artists

In popular conception, Searchlight is known for gorilla journalism, an active stance against racism and various controversies, such as the BBC furore surrounding Panorama documentary, Maggie’s Militant Tendency. Yet what is far less well known about Searchlight is its deep-seated affiliation with the arts. And that this association with both the arts and its artists has underpinned all of Searchlight’s other, more famous, efforts.

One of the very first editions of the magazine, back in the 1960s, included a woodcut print of the Kelso Cochrane murder. This image, by radical British artist Ken Sprague, depicted a knife-wielding Teddy boy goaded on to kill by a swastika-wearing Nazi SA man. Other notable long term associations have included playwright David Edgar, who also writes political commentary for the Guardian, artist Dan Jones and musician John Pandit. This artistic seam has continued throughout five decades of events and benefit gigs, which have featured performances from comedians, actors, musicians and poets from around the world.

“I suppose I was fortunate,” says Gable as we settle down to tea in the white plastered lounge area of a London hotel, “because although I grew up in a household where [although] my father had left school at 12 to support his family, because his dad had been killed in the first year of the war – he loved books. And as he got older he loved cinema and he loved jazz, and he inculcated that love of the arts into me.”

Gable was born in 1937 into a non-political family consisting of a non-practicing Jewish mother of Central and Eastern European extraction, a non-practicing Protestant father of southern Irish lineage, and an older sister. His father “although not Jewish, could understand Yiddish.” And this strongly influenced Gable who stresses: “I tend to lean towards being Jewish culturally because I find Jewish communities around the world are quite rich when it comes to preserving culture and developing their artistic generation.”

The Intense Power of Books & Theatre

Gable sees education as fundamental to both his personal love of the arts, and for the construction of a better society. This partly comes down to family history: his grandfather died in the Great War. His uncle also falsified his age in order to sign up, and was killed shortly afterwards. All this had a huge impact on his dad, who had the bare minimum of formal education, but was keen to improve himself and his son through a wide range of different culture. This included the new wave of post war Italian cinema, such as The Bicycle Thief; to an early London performance of Death of a Salesman.

He was also keen to use books, education and the arts to open his son’s mind: “My dad had a copy of Norman Mailer’s [1948] banned book [Naked and the Dead] on the war in the Pacific,” says Gable. “It had the word ‘fuck’ in it and my mother went berserk. How dare he show his son – her son – this filth?”

“And dad said: ‘this is a world where wars go on and I know – I spent six years in the air force and wanted to go to Spain – [to fight in the civil war] but don’t tell me war is ever a good thing. You see all these books glorifying the war in the Pacific… [and that is not a good thing]’ those wartime books were incredibly racist,” Gable continued, “so the book stayed and I read it.”

There is something extremely genuine about Gable. His lifelong fight against fascism is dealing in absolutes – blacks and whites – it is a fight of good and evil. Yet there is none of the preachy moralism that you get from many people who approach life on these sorts of terms. On top of this, solutions available to counteract violent hate crime are not always easy, yet Gable peppers his vignettes with simple evaluations of people’s characters: “he was a nice guy” or “he was a thoroughly nasty piece of work.” There is also a lot of laughter and many of his stories feel like something out of John le Carré:

“A friend of mine knocked a Nazi down an escalator once,” he says sniggering. “He deserved it – he had a very bad reputation. And this friend of mine, who is about five foot nothing, but was a baker and they have very strong arms kneading dough, he saw this guy coming up and just went wallop…”

Gable has been in the game so long many people have told him he should write a book about his own life, but he is keen to stress: “I don’t want to write a book about fighting fascism, that is a Searchlight book.” Instead he would prefer to write about other aspects of his life. This could cover any number of things: his time as a trade union organiser in the Young Communist League [YCL]; his stint with Unity Theatre – they put The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist on at an RAF base one year; the period he was an industrial organiser for the East London Communist Party; or maybe something about his other great hate – corruption.

“My parallel career in journalism [including London Weekend Television and BBC Panorama] has always been about police corruption, municipal corruption, political corruption and I like to think that, possibly, I’ve made marginally more friends than I’ve made enemies. But there is some stuff in there that has never been revealed.”

Fighting injustice is how many people feel history ought to be written, and Gable himself was strongly influenced by a history teacher at school, Freddy Thomas, “hero of the Spanish civil war ended up as a tip-top educationalist – a brilliant man. Started as an apprentice cabinet maker, went to Spain, was wounded three times, joined up at the outbreak of war, got a battlefield commission and came out as a major.” He earned intense classroom respect explains Gable, even from the roughest individuals, through his abhorrence for capital punishment and refusal to use the cane. “Biggest influence on getting me to be a young Communist, was Freddy. He was a hero,” says Gable, “and never pushed left stuff in class.”

The Cultural Communist Party in 1950s London

Interestingly Gable crossed paths with a range of iconic artistic figures through his early life. These included Alan Sillitoe through his son [David] and Arnold Wesker via his aunt. Yet, besides his own father, the second biggest cultural impact on Gable’s life was the Communist Party.

“The thing about the Communist Party and the Young Communist League [YCL] which I joined the day I left school at 15,” explains Gable “was that apart from political indoctrination, the whole objective in a way was not to narrow your thinking, it was to broaden it. A lot of the time they did this with the arts.”

Gable tells us that at a standard Young Communist League branch, “like the one I was in in North Hackney” the typical weekend would consist of: “if there was ballet on, or a new opera or jazz club, or theatre, we’d block book it on the cheap and we’d all go off. So you’d be pounded with culture – decent culture.”

“And the other thing was,” continues Gable “on the political side they didn’t just want you to read the Daily Worker. If you were destined for this, or if they saw you as a potential organiser, they wanted you to read the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph to learn what the class enemy were about, so it made you develop your powers of negotiation and thinking.”

During Gable’s final year of school he was hardly there two days in a row. Instead he was keen to educate himself: “I managed to get a ticket for the British Museum Library, I’d sit in the British Library reading, I wasn’t Karl Marx, but reading all sorts of stuff. And I’d go to art galleries and I’d try to get into cheap matinees in the theatre. I was very hungry to improve myself by learning and understanding different things.”

In fact in the years since leaving secondary education Gable has racked up an impressive collection of formal qualifications, including: an MA in Criminology, an Honorary Degree for his life’s work against fascism and racism, a Social History Diploma and an Adjunct US Professorship. He cites the memory of his father being forced to leave school at such an early age as a driving force to achieving academic success.

Directly after leaving school Gable joined the Daily Worker, where he manned the telex machines and worked the boxing beat. Many of the staffers of the time went on to have incredibly successful careers in journalism and it was there he met Maurice Ludmer, one of the driving creative forces behind Searchlight Magazine’s development and the man who acted as editor through various stints, until his tragically early death in 1981. Gable clearly has a huge amount of respect for Ludmer: “If you wanted to talk about the theatre, painting, Maurice was like that, into everything and could explain everything very well.”

This cemented the magazine’s long established relationship with the arts. And in the mid-1970s, David Edgar wrote his debut play Destiny [BBC adaptation, 1978, YouTube] with the help of Gable and Ludmer. “He came to see me and I was living in a cottage out in Essex,” explains Gable. “He arrived on the mail train in the morning and left on the milk train in the early hours of the following morning.”

Through the evening, over copious bottles of wine, Edgar worked to get to grips with what members of the far right were really like. “He kept saying: ‘tell me about this person – how did they think?’” says Gable.

Comedy as a Weapon Against the Far Right

After that David Edgar began writing a column for the magazine called ‘What Their Papers Say’. This was later taken over by Professor Michael Billig: “Sometimes it would have us in hysterics when we were putting the magazine together,” says Gable.

However, whilst this direction may have added greater depth to the content, it was not always welcomed in some of the more dogmatic readership quarters. “When Maurice [Ludmer] died we went from the cemetery to David Edgar’s house,” Gable tells us.

“And [when we got there] said: ‘this is going to be a live editorial meeting, but mainly it will be a tribute to Maurice’. There were lots of photographs and everything, but we also asked if anyone wanted to say anything. This old guy gets up and said: ‘I just really want to say I object that you have jokes.’ We looked round and one of the guys actually took him gently by the arm and said: ‘the front door is there – now fuck off.’ And everybody applauded.”

“I mean humour is bloody important,” he continues. “Taking the piss out of them is so powerful. They don’t like it. They say ‘we can take it’ but they really do not like it.”

Gable has had rather a roller coaster of a life. This has included four marriages – the first at 19 – and six kids. His youngest is a teenager and lives with him and his wife Sonia, who is also a seasoned campaigner in the fight against fascism and the far right. Over the last decades he has received numerous death threats – including a letter bomb to his family home – and has proved the subject of a large amount of internet bashing. Yet it has not all been one way: the tributes came flying thick and fast at the recent 50th anniversary event and he himself has appeared as fictionalised cameos in at least one novel and a BBC drama serial.

50-Years Pursuing One Cause

Half a century is a long time and we ask Gable how he has stayed motived through the decades. “In 1962, ‘63, ‘64, ‘65, ‘66, when we’d run them off the streets of this country and our intelligence was building and they didn’t have much wriggle room,” says Gable after a pause, “I think all of us thought at some point in the next five, seven years, there were going to be laws… and things were going to be good. Then after 10, 15 years you think: why are we still here? After 50 years: why are we still here?”

“Because it is necessary,” he answers firmly. “If we weren’t here and we weren’t damaging them, they’d have more clout than they’ve got. We can’t go out and take a group of guys and girls with sub-machine guns and do it that way…”

“Sonia [his wife of 34 years] is a great example. She’d get embarrassed to hear you say this, but if anyone destroyed the BNP and finished Griffin it is her. Her knowledge of tax and money and hidden accounts – she destroyed them. She got a glimmer of something [and] she was in there like a whippet. She did the report for Parliament, she did the File on 4 programme [about BNP finances, 12th Feb 2008] and the thing is she’s never been shy to ring some of them up if she thinks they have the crappy end of the stick over money.”

“You can be on the streets and it’s a good thing and I am at heart a street activist, but there are occasions when you can go on the street and have the opposite effect. It can bond them together. I think this is truer amongst the hard line National Socialist, true believers. Actually I’d rather have enemies who are true believers because then I don’t feel any remorse or shame about ruining them if I can.”

Over the next few years Gable sees Searchlight progressing in three distinct directions. Firstly, to do more on the arts to build a wider readership; secondly, to do more with the trade unions to deepen that relationship; and thirdly, later down the line, more really in-depth international investigations. “We can really build something there,” says Gable. “I’m 77, I’m not an idiot, I am not going to be around for ever, but I’d like to be around to initiate some of this…”

The arts may be an offshoot to some of the more obvious Searchlight work, but this association has always underpinned the movement because, for Gable, a large part of the work is about education. It is about showing the truth, opening people’s minds to different ways of thinking and ending a cycle of racist bigotry:

“The people I always hated and still do – look at what they did with the arts,” says Gable. “They burnt books, they sent people to the camps, they sent people into exile. The cream of the intellectual life in Germany and Austria, whether it be educationalists, psychologists, filmmakers – Bertolt Brecht – people like that they cast out of the country… and its education became impoverished. The level of education in German schools just plummeted.”

The arts and education are topics that never lose pertinence and few could argue that a happier more tolerant society is a bad thing. Yet the story of Searchlight provides a brief glimpse through many of the more uncomfortable sides of European history over the last 50 years. And as we pack up our tape recorders and prepare to head off for our tube, we realise that we’ve been in conversation with a very unique spymaster.

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

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