Writing The Tailor's Last Stand

05 MARCH 2013

Ian Buckley on why he felt compelled to put his Communist father's story on the stage

tailorBeing the son of a Savile Row tailor, and visiting his small Soho workshop over many years (including stairwell and toilet-cleaning duties!), I got to know the trade of high-class tailor very well.

I also got to know Soho very well. The reason? My father worked from a small, somewhat dark, workshop in a well-proportioned Georgian terraced house that had seen better days. When I knew it in the early 1960s, it was full of tailors like my father, working in their often cramped little rooms, for prestigious high-class gentleman tailors whose grand shops were in Savile Row.

My father's employer was one of the most prestigious of these: Henry Poole. Dad's actual workshop was in Broadwick Street, off Wardour Street and, wonder of wonders, it was in the same house that William Blake, the great English poet, had lived in. It had the blue plaque to prove it! Unfortunately this national treasure has not withstood the march of progress. In its place now stands a squat, ugly block named William Blake House - they haven't even bothered to replace the blue plaque.

Like many tailors my father was, and still is, a strong communist (as is my mother). Fighting against Hitler led him to believe communism was the only system that could  withstand fascism. He was also a strong trade unionist, joining the NUTGW (National Union of Tailor & Garment Workers) and fighting for better conditions for his fellow tailors. He combined his communist party duties with his obligations as a trade unionist all his life.

He was blacklisted early on in his working-life. Before the Second World War, he was being trained for management by Horne Brothers. The company announced a wage cut for the company's machinists – all of whom were women. My father was the only cutter (at the time all men) to join them on strike. When the machinists reached a deal and returned to work, my father was left stranded. Banned from factory work, it was then he turned to high-class bespoke tailoring, serving an apprenticeship and becoming a trouser-maker of the highest quality.

I was born into this communist family. It was at once an exhilarating and difficult experience. Exhilarating because you grew up with such strong admirable ideals: socialist man and woman, equal in all areas, forging a finer, more peaceful world where opportunity would be for all people, where the wealth of the economy would be communally owned, where there would be no rich and poor, no exploitation and no war. Difficult because as I grew up, I realised not all communists measured up to these ideals. And in parts of the world where our socialist system was in operation, amidst the undoubted advances working people were making, horrible things could happen to people which seemed to go against the very basis and essence of my ideals.

This is why growing up in a communist family is both a wonderful and a sad experience. It's wonderful because you grow up with such admirable, beautiful ideals – ideals I cherish and fight for to this day. Sad because you have to incorporate into your system, into the deepest recesses of your personal history, the tragic and often brutal things that were done in the name of your beloved system alongside the undoubted and spectacular advances they made for working people.

All this is relevant to the writing of my play. It's the background to it, the soil it sprang from.

More immediately its genesis was as follows. One day my father, at the age of 89, told me that he went traipsing half way across London to Bethnal Green Labour Party rooms for the retired section of his trade union's monthly meeting. I was astonished. I tried to dissuade him, anxious he might have an accident, fall getting on and off the London tube. 'I've got to go,' he said. 'It's my union duty.' A few weeks later I asked him what happened at these union meetings. He began to tell me stories that made me laugh and made me cry. Just four of them left, two Jewish and two non-Jewish, in their mid to late 80s, one even in his 90s. All still firm communists – but the minute they sat down, at least two of them would be striking sparks off each other for supposed betrayals and mistakes committed an age ago.

I started to write my play. I had to capture this unforgettable group of men, one of whom was my father. In their own small way they symbolised the political currents that had shaken and shaped much of the twentieth century. I had to write a play as a memory and a tribute to them and to their continuing belief in their better world, to their amazing energy and to their comradeship. This, then, is The Tailors’ Last Stand.

The Tailor’s Last Stand by Ian Buckley is at the Baron’s Court Theatre in London until 10 March 2013