Ken Biggs was a lifelong Communist, internationalist, editor of Postmark Prague and Morning Star columnist, who passed away in Prague in April 2006 after a protracted illness. He will be remembered for his unswerving devotion to the working-class movement, his continuing optimism for a better – and avowedly socialist – future and for his lively reportage of the survival of radical Czech politics in the aftermath of the November 1989 counter-revolution.
Ken attended Dulwich College, in South London, in the mid-1950s. Dulwich was then as now, a rather select Public School but for some years before he became a pupil, under a socialist head called Patrick Gilkes, it had decided to admit several hundred South London boys who had done well enough on the 11 Plus exam to study there on government scholarships. This was an extraordinary social experiment in what had previously been a traditional public school. It led to deep divisions in the Staff Room. This has all been described in a book about the school and the experiment called In God's Gift. Ken, and his boy-hood friend, Peter Papaloizou (now Loiszos), was one of these scholarship boys. His father was a policeman, in Brixton and was, seemingly, very strict with his son, who was early on, in his own way, a bit of a rebel.
Dulwich directed boys at the age of 12 to start to specialise in the Sciences, in Modern Languages, in Classics, and in History. Ken and Peter were placed in the History stream, of which they did lot. By the time they ended up in the History 5th form, and then the History 6th, they were preoccupied academically with A Levels, and with university Entrance. Dulwich was a very hot school academically and many of pupils were encouraged to try to get into Oxbridge.
Loiszos recalls: "Ken had intense blue eyes, mouse coloured hair, was tall, gangly, very gentle and good natured, bookish and articulate, and passionate about jazz. There was something shy about him, too. As I recall, it was New Orleans and Dixie land jazz, although the small group of us who attended meetings of the Jazz Club also listened to bop, swing, big band, all sorts. We were never more than a dozen and were regarded by staff and fellow pupils as wild, possibly immoral. Jazz already had a public image of smoky dives, drugs, mixed races, and other things which the well bred middle classes were worried about."
Ken had a very big record collection of a couple of hundred �78� records, the very old fashioned kind, made of a brittle medium. He was known for his passionate collecting. His friend, Peter, lived in a very cramped back-of-shop working class terrace house with his mum, her sister, sister's husband, and their new baby. He remembers "great warmth, being relaxed, having an ally, a mate. Ken was bright and a good student. We both greatly admired our form teacher, C D A Baggley, a man short of stature but a giant in his authority. He went on to become Head of a top grammar school in Yorkshire. Baggley got us to work really hard on History because we wanted to please him. I am sure Ken and I would read each other's essays and compare marks. One day I came into school, and there was an odd atmosphere in the classroom. Ken was standing apart, everyone else whispering in a corner. Ken looked a little awkward. I asked someone what was up. `Ken sold all his records, and bought the collected works of Marx and Engels', I was told. There was a general feeling of awe among the rest of the class. It was true." Peter was to see Ken years later on a demonstration, "So, you're still a Marxist, then?" he asked. Ken called out: "All the way!"
Having joined the Communist Party, Ken cut his journalist teeth on Challenge, the YCL paper, writing a series of insightful and pithy articles for it in the 1950s. He became a school-teacher in Nottingham and District Chair of the East Midlands Young Communist League (YCL), playing a big part in the development of the Young Anti-Apartheid Campaign in
In the 1960s, he was a teacher in Coventry and magnificently boosted the presence of the Party through his leadership of tenants' and other struggles in Cheylesmore, an area of the city not previously noted for its militancy; nonetheless, his vote in the municipal elections rose dramatically with the studious and efficient electoral machine he crafted.
Having thereafter enjoyed a successful career in the Post Office, held union office and worked in anti-racist and solidarity organisations, Ken planned for his retirement in Czechoslovakia and bought a modest apartment in the newly built garden city of Jablonova on the outskirts of Prague.
What should have been a time of relative comfort among his jazz records and books was quickly overturned by the dramatic collapse of the socialist state, the restoration of capitalism and the assault upon living standards launched by the new neo-liberal government.
A lesser man might have packed up his possessions and flown straight back to Britain, together with his new Czech bride, but Ken's instinct was to turn to writing in an attempt to understand the failure of socialism in Czechoslovakia and to stay to fight for the values in which he believed.
The result, launched in June 1991, was Postmark Prague – an eclectic digest of left-wing news and views drawn from across the soon to be separated Czech and Slovak republics. Originally a cut and paste job, quickly photocopied and edited anonymously by Ken alone, the little journal rapidly grew in terms of professionalism, circulation and influence.
Indeed, during the 1990s, when mainstream commentators dismissed out of hand the survival of socialism in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, there was nothing quite like it for Marxist analysis, news and lively comment.
Ken had a true flair for journalism, a keen nose for a story and a rare commitment to recording the experiences of those otherwise silenced and forgotten in the headlong dash towards the free market. As a consequence, lively historical pieces, speeches in the Czech legislature and appeals for help campaigning for the rights of Romanies taunted by racist gangs or for miners newly made redundant jostled side-by-side between the covers of the little paper.
By the late 1990s, many of the best radical journalists in the Czech republic were submitting pieces for publication and an editorial board was established which embraced both members of the resurgent Czech Communist Party and representatives of the British labour movement.
Yet success came at a price. Postmark Prague and, by extension, its editor became the target of organised attacks by the right wing and bands of criminals. A burglary at Ken's home on the eve of the millennium cost him his computer and databases, together with many of his and his wife's favourite possessions. This forced a hiatus in production and a consequent loss of momentum, from which the journal never really recovered.
Deteriorating health, the death of his much-loved mother and spiralling production costs finally forced the closure of the paper in December 2002. Yet help was at hand from the Morning Star, which, to its great credit, recognised the value of his work and offered Ken a regular column in its pages. In this manner, the name of Postmark Prague survived for several more years and opened a window onto events in central Europe for British readers that transcended the journal's original circle of subscribers.
An Englishman by birth, an internationalist by inclination and a true friend to the Czech people by both sentiment and deeds, Ken managed to fan the embers of socialism in the most difficult of times and to recreate a genuine sense of radical identity and pride among his readership. Not least among his achievements was his work in preparing a fresh, uncut, edition of Julius Fucik's Report from the Gallows, which brought the words and sacrifice of an anti-fascist fighter fresh to a new generation of activists.
Those of us who had the pleasure to know him, to walk alongside him through the true Prague of beauty and horror, struggle and heroism – a million miles removed from the tourist traps and stag nights – will remember him as a generous, passionate and thoroughly humane individual who combined the best instincts and virtues of the British working class.
Sources: John Callow obituary, Morning Star Friday 26 May 2006; additional material: `Reminiscences of Ken Biggs `Dulwich College 1955-56' by Peter Loizos (Papaloizou), personal knowledge of GS