“If we have said we’d face the dungeon dark
And gallows grim, and have not meant to face
The thin time, meals alone, in every eye
The comfortless kindness of a stranger – then
We have expected a privileged treatment.
And were out of luck.”
– Margot Heinemann [From `Grieve in a New Way for New Losses’]
Margot Claire Heinemann was born on 18th November 1913. Though the Heinemanns were certainly upper middle class, Margot herself described them as "neither rich nor smart"; they were poor relatives of the wealthy Frankfurt Japhet family, founders of Japhet’s Bank. Her grandfather kept a school and died young so that his son, and her father, the young Max could not continue his education but was sent to work in his uncle’s bank, as an employee rather than a banker, though he eventually rose to Board level.
Although they lived in a comfortable house in West Hampstead both Max and his wife Selma were socialists and attended ILP meetings. Margot and her siblings were brought up with the knowledge that they would have to earn their own living, something that was unusual for Hampstead Jewish girls at that time. Her parents seem to have sent her to Roedean and King AlfredSchool, which they could not easily afford, mainly so as to give her the best possible preparation for doing just that. She even went to NewnhamCollege, Cambridge only because she had won a scholarship. Unlike Noreen Branson, who became her great friend at the LRD, she did not have a London Season or any private income.
Conscious of those few privileges she had enjoyed, Margot would fight all her life for privileges to those who did not have them, never once expecting special treatment for herself. Indeed, she became a life-long Communist, first joining the Party in 1934 while a student at Cambridge, where she and student Communist leader, John Cornford (see separate entry) fell in love with each other. Margot Heinemann and John Cornford are perhaps the main example of the great love affair in the British Communist movement, rivalling Noreen and Clive Branson’s (see separate entries for both) personal loss (he was killed in the Second World War) by their remarkable poetry.
Her carefully non-romantic poems were always utterly clear about the human cost of war and yet tear at the emotions. For her understanding was intensely personal. Cornford, serving in Spain with the International Brigade, had sent her one of the great love poems of the century, “Heart of the Heartless World” (itself a quote from Marx) before he was killed the day after his 21st birthday in Cordoba; she had written her own poem, `For RJC’ – entitled, of course, from John Cornford’s initials.
“For R J C”
“…Thought, which our masters cannot use,
Walks on the slag heaps, wags on broken wires
At the old pit head, hears no news.
Thought rakes the fires
That keep our furnaces at even heat
Capricious as a starving flame
Frail inspiration flickered till he came
To give the fire a world to eat.”
Despite the closeness of the events of Margot’s writing of ‘For RJC’ and Cornford’s death, the poem is not an elegy, in the sense of a poem mourning or reflecting on a death, for it was written when Cornford was still alive. This point was important to Margot, who felt very strongly that `For RJC’ should be dated correctly and once sued a scholar who got this wrong in an anthology. She did however write two elegies for Cornford. The first, written early in 1937, is `Grieve in a New Way for New Losses’ (see above for extract). The second, `Ringstead Mill’, was read at Margot’s funeral by the actress Tilda Swinton. It was written as late as some time in the 1990s and Margot’s sister Dorothy found it among her papers after her death.
After taking a BA with first class honours at Cambridge, Margot abandoned research at Cambridge to work at Cadbury’s ContinuationSchool in Bourneville, Birmingham, teaching 14 year old girls on day release from the chocolate factory. In 1937, she joined the staff of the Labour Research Department. Part of her Jewish family was exterminated in Germany in the death camps during the period of total war. During the war, she worked closely with trade unionists such as Bill Jones, of the London bus workers, Julie (Julius) Jacobs, of the London Trades Council, and Will Lawther, Abe Moffat and Arthur Horner of the miners. During the war, at LRD, she prepared the Miners’ Federation’s evidence for the Greene Board of Investigation into coal mining wages. In this period, she wrote two books – “Britain’s Coal” in 1944 for the Left Book Club, and “Wages Front” (1947).
In 1949, she left the LRD to work full-time for the Party, amongst other things editing “World News and Views. She stood as a Communist candidate for Vauxhall in London at the 1950 General Election. In 1953, she had a child, Janey, with J D Bernal, the crystallographer and holder of the Stalin Peace Prize. Margot left full-time work to be a mother but continued to be active as a member of the London District Committee and on the editorial boards of Labour Monthly and Marxist Quarterly.
She published a novel in 1960, “The Adventurers”; this focused on life in the Left in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, especially the crisis in the Party in 1956. In 1959, she returned to teaching at the CamdenSchool for Girls, until she moved to Goldsmith’s College, from 1965-1977. She also began a study of the Jacobean dramatist, Thomas Middleton, which did not come to fruition since she found herself nursing J D Bernal through a series of strokes until his death in 1971.
She and her old friend Noreen Branson published their “Britain in the Nineteen Thirties” in 1971. Margot was made a Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge in 1976 and stayed in that role for five years. She edited a collection of essays, “Culture and Crisis in Britain in the 1930s”, published in 1979. Her “Puritanism and the Theatre” came out in 1980, to considerable acclaim. She was still teaching at New Hall up to 1989 and stayed with the CPGB until it was dissolved into Democratic Left. Margot Heinemann died on 10th June 1992 aged 79.
Sources: The Independent? Edited cutting of Andy Croft’s obituary c. June 1992; additional miscellaneous material