Socialist Worker

Ricky Tomlinson's autobiography: 'New Labour my arse!'

Reading Ricky Tomlinson's new book, Dave Hayes recalls when the much-loved actor was jailed for being a trade union militant

Issue No. 1874

Most of today's Socialist Worker readers will probably know Ricky Tomlinson best as Jim 'My arse' Royle in the hugely popular Royle Family TV comedy, or his past role in Brookside.

I first met Ricky Tomlinson in 1976 when standing as a parliamentary candidate for the Socialist Workers Party in Newcastle. Ricky spoke at public meetings in my support.

Ricky was one of the Shrewsbury building workers wrongly imprisoned on trumped-up charges of conspiracy for his role in the national building workers' strike of 1972. The 'Shrewsbury Two', as Ricky and fellow worker Des Warren became known, made a big impression on young workers like myself because they stood by their principles and refused to bow to intimidation.

And the experience of that struggle made a big impression on Ricky. He is open about his brief flirtation with the Nazi National Front in the 1960s. He says he was ignorant and poorly educated then.

But during the strike and his following imprisonment, Ricky first came across supporters of Socialist Worker. Ricky acknowledges that they delivered important support, both in terms of ideas and practical solidarity, to the strikers and their families.

He also began reading famous socialist novels like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Ricky was left to rot in jail by the newly-elected Labour government and betrayed by the leaders of the TUC.

No wonder he has ended up supporting his old friend miners' leader Arthur Scargill and other socialist election candidates to the left of the Labour Party.

What I remember about Ricky back then was the emotion and passion of his speeches, and both emotion and passion ooze out of this book. I'll never forget one of the stories he used to tell of prison life at numerous public meetings after his release.

His rebellion at being imprisoned for political reasons led him into regular conflict with the authorities.

In one instance a governor kept asking questions which Ricky replied to with only his prison number. The governor asked why he only gave his number. Ricky said, 'I'm at war and a prisoner of war only has to give his number.' 'But we're not at war!' said the governor. 'Yes we are, the class war,' replied Ricky. Right up to his release Ricky never stopped fighting. On one page, he writes a statement which has not lost its power: 'There is no way they can ever be forgiven, nor will we ever let them forget.'

Today, with a new young generation radicalising at a speed of knots, understanding what makes working class leaders like Ricky is important. And this book makes it easy to understand what went into the making of Ricky-a sense of community, working class solidarity and the need to challenge injustice.

His story demonstrates how people can reject racist ideas and fight for their class instead. The book is an easy read, though sometimes it idealises working class life and at others it may shock because Ricky is so open and honest about his life and his ups and downs.

As you would expect, the book is full of fun. Ricky describes starring in Ken Loach's films Riff Raff and Raining Stones as well as Hollywood blockbuster The 51st State.

On the set of this movie Ricky was constantly mobbed by fans, shouting his catchphrase 'My arse'. It goaded superstar actor Samuel L Jackson to shake his head in disbelief that this hairy old man could be a heart-throb! So when you next see him on the small or big screen, just remember how much he was a part of our movement.

If people ask if the Labour Party can ever be the political voice we need, both Jim Royle and Ricky would definitely say 'My arse'.

Ricky, by Ricky Tomlinson, £17.99. Available from Bookmarks for the special price of £16.50. Ricky Tomlinson will be reading from his book at Bookmarks soon – for more information or to order the book phone 020 7637 1848.


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Sat 25 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1874
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