Harry (Larry) Wayne - An Ordinary -Extraordinary Life - 1934-2008

Naomi Wayne, whose father wrote 'Union Bread', is mainly active in Jews for Justice for Palestinians. But here she writes about her father's life.

Harry Wayne was born in the East End of London. His English-born mother 'returned' to Lithuania as an infant, and arrived back in London, a Yiddish speaking 10-year-old, while his father came from Lithuania as a baby. At 24, Louis met 16-year-old Rachel, and they were married and parents within 12 months. A master cobbler, skilled and ferociously hard working, but in an industry ripe for mechanisation, Louis was permanently unemployed by the time Harry reached adolescence.

Harry's family started as 'high day and holy day' Jews, only becoming extremely Orthodox when he was eight. However, deeply intellectually curious, Harry rejected religion by his mid-teens after he had explored a different shul each Saturday to see if any had something to offer. Instead he became a Communist - a common path then for Jews with a strong sense of justice. His passionate love for his mother was cemented after he was 'reported' to his father for selling the Daily Worker on a Saturday. With no money, and nowhere to go, but vowing to leave home if his Sabbath political activities were stopped, he was saved by his deeply religious mother's declaration: 'If he goes, I go'. Nobody went.

Reading history at the London School of Economics (LSE), he was one of a handful of working class university students. Though 1930s LSE was regarded as a radical hotbed, Harry's memories were of a largely reactionary student body. His experience was defined by his background. Penniless, he walked between home and college, and hugged corridor walls to be inconspicuous. He only had his first cup of tea in the college canteen when his older daughter followed him to the LSE 36 years later.

Graduating in the Depression, Harry's correspondence college job ended after he and two friends organised a strike for higher wages. His next three years were with the Jewish Refugee Committee, where he met the resentment of middle class German Jews for having to rely on support from working class East Enders. Post-war he became a teacher, but had to fight for the job he wanted against the bewilderment of London County Council (LCC) bureaucrats who objected to an LSE graduate 'wasting' his degree on secondary modern school kids.

In the late 1940s Harry met fellow Communist and East Ender Lily Bloom. Committed and independent minded, even in the 1940s Harry (or Larry as Communists called him) and Lily were anguished by Stalinism, especially Stalinist antisemitism. They were appalled at Jewish experience in the 'socialist' countries and at the British Communist Party's largely uncritical response. Yet, as others who had previously defended the Soviet Union, fled the British Communist Party after Krushchev's 1956 speech, Harry worked even harder for the cause.

His 1957 resignation came, not because of Hungary, but because he doubted the British Communist Party would democratise. (With similar views, Lily stayed, convinced in those pre-feminist days, that her leaving would be attributed to him!)

Fewer outside commitments meant that Harry focused on proving the error of writing off children at the age of 11. Today, all children are expected to get 'five good GCSEs', but entering secondary modern boys for public exams in the 1950s required determined dualling with the local authority. Harry's battles were vindicated by his students - only one ('little sod' as Harry called him) failed to get an 'A' grade.

Though successfully treated, when Harry contracted throat cancer in 1972 he had to retire.

This meant a return to political activism, fundraising super-effectively for Medical Aid for Vietnam, and later, with Lily, establishing the Redbridge Trade Union and Pensioners Action Group. And his curiosity never diminished - when a friend complained that it was too painful even to think about the Soviet Union, Harry said he was tired of secrets and lies, and wanted to know everything!

Harry always saw himself as Jewish. He admitted to irrational food aversions (no pork or shellfish), would always challenge antisemitism, and spoke with the cadences and occasional Yiddishism of a Whitechapel Jew of his generation. He - and Lily - were among the earliest jews for Justice for Palestinians signatories and, when too frail to march, indeed, barely able to walk, he would take the Tube into London to stand at the kerbside in solidarity with demonstrators campaigning for an end to the Occupation.

Harry came from a large, noisy and talented family. His two older brothers sought work on leaving school and emigrated to the US, but the youngest followed him to the LSE and became a government statistician, while all four sisters were teachers. When asked for his happiest memories, he said it was growing up with so much love, laughter and family feeling.

Most of all, Harry valued his partnership with Lily and was devastated when she died at 83. To everyone's surprise, he lived another five years, critical faculties unimpaired, still passionate about theatre and film, struggling to central London matinees, as political as ever. He would have been overwhelmed at the publication of his little book. His only (and serious) complaint would have been the failure to recognise those whose work on his manuscript ensured publication. On his behalf, many thanks to Sid Kaufman (and any others) for that.
 

Naomi Wayne

(first published in Jewish Socialist no.58, Autumn 2009)
 

 

 

Posted: 5 September 2014