Come the Revolution
Friday, December 9, 2011
Justinian in Critics' Corner

Andrew West reviews journalist Alex Mitchell's memoir Come The Revolution ... Tabloid reporter and Sunday Times investigative hound ... Idi Amin ... Muammar Gaddafi ... Vanessa and Corin Redgrave ... The Bellevue Hotel set ... The mad, bad and the beautiful against the backdrop of a stunning career  ... Further evidence that journalism is riddled with Trots

Not long after I joined The Sun-Herald as a reporter, at Christmas 1998, I was assigned a desk outside the office of Alex Mitchell.

He bore the lofty title of "Associate Editor" and wrote, in addition to news and feature stories, a gossip column that annoyed the spivs and hucksters who ran NSW politics.

I had met Mitchell a few years earlier, most likely around the dinner table of the publican and philanthropist, Susie Carleton, whose son, James, was one of my closest friends. So I knew Mitchell had a reputation as a brilliant raconteur ... and a past.

Deadlines being what they are on a Sunday paper - much talk early in the week, manic work later on - I would often wander into his office and quiz him about the stories I had heard of his 20 years in Britain as an ideological and professional Trotskyist.

"So you knew Yasser Arafat?" I would ask. "I heard you met Gaddafi and discussed Shakespeare? ... Is it true the Workers' Revolutionary Party only had five members - the Redgrave family, Gerry Healy and you?" 

On this provocation, Mitchell erupted, insisting party membership had reached 15,000.

My persistent questions raised Mitchell's suspicions so much that one evening, when he was dining at the Carletons', he said to James: "That Westie, he's got to be a spy!"

If only my life were that interesting, I would lament. If only it had been as interesting as Mitchell's.

Finally, after years of cajoling, encouragement and harassment by family and friends - including the late NSW attorney general and judge Jeff Shaw - Mitchell has produced perhaps the finest Australian memoir in a decade, Come The Revolution (NewSouth).

More precisely, I should say it is the finest memoir by an Australian because most of the story takes place in Britain.

At a recent launch, the former NSW Labor minister, Rodney Cavalier, suggested Mitchell had spent much of his career "slumming it" as a tabloid reporter, when, given his literary talent, he should have been an essayist at a broadsheet.

I disagree. Throughout Mitchell's career, which included a stint on Sydney's now defunct Daily Mirror, owned by the then left-wing Rupert Murdoch, he has honoured the progressive heritage of tabloid journalism, going back to the great muckrakers of the late 19th century, who used popular storytelling techniques to expose the corruption and greed of the filthy rich and their political enablers.

When Mitchell arrived in London in the late '60s, with a generous reference from Murdoch himself, but no job, he went first to the mass-circulation, but traditionally left-wing, London Daily Mirror.

His editors indulged his extra-curricular activities as a spokesman for the anti-Vietnam War movement, in which he met the luminous establishment radical Vanessa Redgrave.

He did graduate, if you like, to the broadsheets in 1967 - specifically The Sunday Times and its legendary investigative Insight team.

This was a relatively brief but, by any measure, outstanding, period in Mitchell's career, as he worked alongside fellow Australian journalists Philip Knightley and Murray Sayle, whose reputations would rival those of Woodward and Bernstein.

Mitchell was part of the team that tracked down Kim Philby and the Cambridge spy ring.

Amin: swam with MitchellBy 1971, he had joined Granada Television's World In Action program, where he introduced its 23 million viewers to the new leader of Uganda, Idi Amin.

Trained by the British and Israeli armies and feted by western governments, Amin already had a fanatical, if not murderous, reputation when Mitchell and a TV crew flew to meet him in Kampala.

Mitchell and Amin met at a hotel swimming pool. The Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas fancied himself an aquatic champion and challenged Mitchell to a race.

Mitchell, who had grown up on the beaches in Townsville, wanting an interview, never swam as slowly as he did that day. 

It was an ingenious way to land that exclusive, first interview with the dictator. 

Yet for all Mitchell's journalistic encounters, what animates this book, what elevates it well above the standard life-in-the-trenches-of-an-ink-stained-wretch journalistic memoir, is the story of his 16-years as a founding member and operative of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party.

When he first met Gerry Healy, the veteran leader of the WRP's predecessor group, the Socialist Labour League, Mitchell had a grab-bag of inchoate left-wing positions on the war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa and the corrosive effects of colonialism, driven partly by his exposure to the politically inspired famine in Biafra, which he had witnessed as a correspondent.

Healy: gave Mitchell a narrativeBut it was Healy - blue serge suit, dark socks, sandals, bull-necked, captivating as a speaker – who gave Mitchell a narrative for his politics.

As the memoir illustrates so vividly, Healy's world was also that of Britain's artistic elite, who gathered at London homes on Friday night to hear him speak: the film-maker Ken Loach, writers Fay Weldon and Kenneth Tynan, actor Malcolm Tierney, playwrights Tom Kempinski and David Mercer, literary agent Clive Goodwin, and, of course, the Redgraves.

It is easy to see how seductive this could have been.

Mitchell is one of the greatest tabloid journalists this country has produced, and I mean that as a high compliment, so he knows the importance of star power to a story.

The Redgrave family, especially Vanessa and her brother Corin, loom large in this book. They get their own chapter. When Vanessa bolted the Labour Party to help form the WRP in 1973, it delivered enormous publicity to what would have otherwise been an obscure sect. Mitchell writes: 

"In the party Vanessa and Corin went to extraordinary lengths to take on 'duties' to prove they were rank-and-file comrades and not simply celebrities - even if Healy often treated them as if they were." 

The wily old stager knew he was on to a good thing. Corin stood for the WRP in elections. Vanessa campaigned up and down Britain for other candidates. She also brought along her friends.

Sellers & Redgrave: fundraising for the Workers Revolutionary PartyThere is a wonderful picture in the book of Peter Sellers doing a fundraiser for the WRP. Can you imagine, say, Cate Blanchett, doing a fundraiser for the Socialist Alliance candidates at the next NSW election? Nor can I.

While the WRP may, ultimately, have been a political irrelevance, getting a small percentage of the vote wherever it ran, it had extraordinary political networks around the developing world and they took Mitchell into the heart of many Arab regimes.

He met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (it turns out they discussed Napoleon, not Shakespeare) and Iraq's then vice-president Saddam Hussein.

Mitchell does not romanticise these figures; he is clear-eyed about what Gaddafi became and what Saddam always was.

Mitchell was, and remains, an unapologetic supporter of the Palestinian people and their struggle, and believes that their leader, Yasser Arafat, has been given a bum rap by the West.

In the conversations that Mitchell recalls in the book, Arafat evinces affection for his Israeli Jewish "cousins" and his preference for a two-state solution.

The Workers Revolutionary Party imploded, as it was bound to do, and Mitchell knew that having been such a public face of the movement he could not return to mainstream journalism, despite his brief but brilliant record at The Sunday Times and World In Action.

In 1986, he and his wife, Judith White - a clever, cultured working class comrade in the WRP, with two degrees from Oxford - returned to Australia and got jobs on The Sun-Herald.

Mitchell became one of the few must-read journos in Sydney, covering crime, corruption and NSW Labor politics (often one and the same).

Mick Young: Bellevue Hotel setHe also fell in with the Bellevue Hotel set, which included the writer and priest Ed Campion, the former SBS and ABC boss Brian Johns, the speechwriter and historian Graham Freudenberg, and the Labor minister Mick Young.

Mitchell is still a socialist - don't expect one of those cookie-cutter repentant leftie conversion-to-the-hard-right – but he has an  ecumenical set of friends, including the Liberal NSW Premier, Barry O'Farrell, who helped launch the book, and the NSW Governor, Marie Bashir.

To sit around a dinner table with Mitchell is to feel the full and mesmerising force of a master storyteller, a skill he imbibed undoubtedly from Healy.

To hear him canvass history, literature, theatre, film and politics, and to get a barrage about the way the world could and should be, is to walk away thinking that the revolution really is imminent. 

Andrew West is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, soon to be a broadcaster with ABC's Radio National

Come The Revolution by Alex Mitchell. Published by NewSouth. $39.99.  

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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