Two friends of Bill Ash, who died last month aged 96, share some memories of the Party’s first editor...
Back in the mid-1960s when we first met him, Bill was talking about a failed and farcical attempt to set up a new communist party in Britain. He said that in his opinion success would only come if led by Reg Birch, toolmaker and veteran leader of the London Region of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, and he was waiting for Reg to make his move.
Bill Ash, a founder member of the CPBML and the first editor of The Worker.
Bill had grown up in Texas and found himself in the late 1930s with a university degree and a conviction that the most worthwhile thing to do in life was to fight fascism. The problem was that fascism was in Europe and he was in America.
In September 1939, reluctantly, the British Government declared war on Germany. Suddenly Bill saw a way forward. Canada, which in World War 1 had lost brownie points by not joining in until two years after the war started, this time waited only one week.
Bill made his way to Canada, signed on in the Royal Canadian Air Force, learned to fly, turned out to be very good at it, and in 1941 was sent to Britain to fly Spitfires with 411 Squadron. In 1942 he was shot down over France and spent the rest of the war either as a prisoner-of-war or an escapee from prison camps. His adventures, including twice being sentenced to death, also his postwar life in India just after its independence and then in London, were later described in his autobiography, A Red Square (London: Howard Baker, 1978).
Bill was not the typical show-off autobiographer, carefully shaping his past to fit his present aspirations; he presents himself as in many ways a clown, socially inept, just happening to find himself in extraordinary world-significant events in Europe and the Indian subcontinent, yet the observant, cultured and humorous person is always there.
Bill had learned a lot fighting fascists, neo-colonialists and racists but he had no experience of an organised working class such as the British. When he got to know Reg Birch and began finding out about the class here and its long history of struggle, he was very surprised.
He and Birch used to meet in a Camden Town wine bar, where he said he couldn’t hear half of it for the noise, and couldn’t quite understand the other half. But he knew it was important enough to be worth the struggle to understand. And he understood enough that, when challenged that the Party was too small, he used to reply, “It isn’t the Party that makes the revolution, it’s the working class.”
At Easter 1968 Bill attended the founding Congress of the CPBML, called by Birch. In January 1969 the Party launched its newspaper The Worker, with Bill as its editor until he retired in the mid-1980s. First a monthly, he moved it in the early 1970s to fortnightly and then weekly publication.
Journalist and editor
This man was an established novelist, a poet, a playwright and a moral philosopher. He wrote later: “I always intended to be a writer but I never intended to be a journalist”. But the Party needed a journalist and an editor for its newspaper, so Bill became both, overseeing the production of each issue and, in the early days, writing much of it himself – and unpaid, because no member who works for the Party gets paid.
In time, as the Party grew, the external printers tried to interfere with the content, so all production processes were taken in-house. (In 1997 the publication format changed to that of a magazine, the title to Workers and its frequency back to monthly, as it remains to this day.)
When Bill was in India he was there as the BBC representative. He worked for the Corporation for the rest of his career but, where others hope to progress upwards, his movement (the BBC being the BBC and Bill not covering his political tracks) was ever downwards. At the end he was a script reader of other people’s radio plays – a job he actually found extremely fulfilling and stimulating (but that paid very little).
Bill was always active in his trade union, the Writers’ Guild, its co-chairman twice, and in his honour the Guild is introducing what it plans to call “B ASH” awards for new writers. ■