Anyone brought up in a left-wing family gets used to a particular joshing, voyeuristic line of questioning (“I expect you spent your whole childhood on political marches”, “Did you call each other comrade?”). This is not just an everyday nosiness about an unconventional upbringing; at its worst, it can feel like a discomfiting, albeit disguised form of spite. The question is, in other words: what’s it like to have been raised in a family that had the idiocy or courage (take your pick) to believe it might be able to change the world?
So, one can imagine the glimmer in the publisher’s eye when the idea for this book was first mooted: an authentic portrait of a much-diminished species, the British communist, through the eyes of a red-diaper baby who grew up to be a Times columnist; a tale of quaint habits with serious questions at its heart (despite that corny subtitle echoing Gerald Durrell). According to Aaronovitch, Danny Finkelstein, the Tory peer and his colleague at the Times, keeps asking him when the book is going to be out, because “I want to understand why they did it”. There it goes again – that end-of-history smugness, that needling curiosity.
The trouble is that Aaronovitch knows too much and is, in his intelligent, irritable way, too interested in the multiple backstories involved to reduce his tale to one that will satisfy sceptical, bemused Middle England. Any half-decent account of British communism and the people who made it is bound to yield a long, tortuous, multilayered narrative, and this one is no exception, although it’s a story Aaronovitch never feels fully in charge of, in either theme or tone, for reasons that become clearer by the end.
As a result, Party Animals reads more like a series of extended columns on a number of loosely connected topics. No bad thing. There is a great deal of fascinating material along the way. So we are treated, inter alia, to an early set piece on the visit of Yuri Gagarin to England in 1961, one of the few times when communists were “once again, the people of the future . . . [and] briefly touched the golden face of fashion”; a short history of the rise of the Communist Party in Britain; an account of its relationship to Soviet communism; an anthropological look at the life and habits of CP activists; a long, excoriating feature on show trials of the 1950s; an intriguing case history of domestic political surveillance; and some highly entertaining stories about Aaronovitch’s early political and romantic adventures.…