David was born in Liverpool in 1923. He grew up in a comfortable middle class suburb during the Great Depression, and attended the local state grammar school (Quarry Bank), where John Lennon was later a pupil. When David ever went into the city centre, the tram passed the great bulk of the new Anglican cathedral rising amidst some of the worst slums in Europe. David was shocked by the poverty and waste, inequality and conflict that he saw all around.
In 1939, David and two friends joined the Left Book Club. Next year the Club published R PalmeDutt’sIndia Today. David had read socialists like G D H Cole and R H Tawney, but this was the first Marxist work he’d tackled, and it was a revelation. He wrote an essay on India largely based on Dutt’s analysis, and submitted it for the school History prize. It was the only entry – but the prize was not awarded!
The same year David won a State scholarship. Before taking it up at BalliolCollege, Oxford university, he worked for six months as a Postman/Driver in the Toxteth district of Liverpool. At Oxford he became active in the Labour Club (then the left-wing socialist society). One of the speakers during his first term was William Gallacher, the lone Communist MP, who made a deep impression. After some intensive Marxist-Leninist education at a New Year residential school, in 1942 he joined the student branch of the Communist Party.
In 1942-45 David served in the navy, mainly in coastal forces vessels in the North Sea. When studying at OxfordUniversity David had volunteered for the navy, and started basic training in HMS Collingwood, at Fareham, in 1942. As an Ordinary Seaman, he served in the Hunt class destroyer HMS Tanatside, escorting convoys of troopships to Gibraltar and Algiers. In 1943, after officer training in HMS King Alfred at Hove, he was commissioned Sub-Lieutenant RNVR. The rest of the duration of the war until 1945, he served as Navigating Officer, and later as First Lieutenant, in a number of motor torpedo boats operating in the North Sea and the English Channel from bases at Great Yarmouth, Ramsgate, Dover, Gosport and Ostend.
In 1944 he married Elizabeth Whitehead, who had joined the Party at Liverpool university. They had two sons and a daughter. David was lucky to be on leave during the 1945 general election campaign, and had the valuable experience of canvassing for a Labour candidate in Liverpool, and for Pat Devine (see separate entry), the Communist candidate in Preston.
His war was relatively quiet: “I was in only a few actions and wasn’t wounded,” he once wrote. “But I’ve never forgotten that my three best friends were killed, and another friend severely disabled. We had talked a lot about the world we expected to see after the end of hostilities. We noted that it had taken a war to put an end to mass unemployment, and to give most people an interesting and useful job. Like nearly all the folk we talked to in the forces and in civvy street, we were determined that there would be no return to the bad old days of slums and dole queues, of insecurity in sickness and old age, and of glaring inequalities in education and health care. So my dead friends would have shared my satisfaction that the Labour government elected in 1945 created the welfare system, started a massive housing drive, established the National Health Service, and took basic industries and services into common ownership. I hope my friends would also have shared my alarm that the government followed the United States in producing nuclear weapons and launching the cold war against our wartime ally, the Soviet Union, whose people had borne the brunt of the victorious struggle against Nazi tyranny.”
David returned to Oxford after the war to complete a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He was active in the student branch of the party and helped to put together their pamphlet `Oxford – a Future for our University’. He decided to make a career in town and country planning, hoping to help create more orderly, equitable and inclusive communities. As an economist, he was especially interested in measures to reduce regional disparities.
David’s first job was with a regional development organisation in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For the first time he was a member of a mainly working class party branch, and his political education was rapidly advanced by activity alongside experienced shipyard workers and railwaymen. But he was fired from his job after a year when a Special Branch officer informed his employers that he sold the Daily Worker every Saturday night in the pubs along Shields Road.
After a year at Peterlee new town, under the distinguished architect and Communist BertholdLubetkin, and a year in Bedford, with the consultant Max Lock, David moved to Crawley, Sussex in 1951 and stayed for ten years. He helped to set up the Communist Party branch in the new town, and was treasurer for five years. When, in 1956, he left the Development Corporation and went to work for the LondonCounty Council, he was able to work openly as a Communist and became branch secretary.
The branch launched a campaign against high rents, which was taken up by the tenants’ association and the trade unions. When the Corporation imposed a rent increase in 1955, workers in the factories and on the building sites stopped work for half a day and marched into the town centre. This was followed by a rent strike. The actions won some small concessions from the Corporation and the Tory government. David was elected to the Sussex District Committee and secretariat. He stood three times as a Communist candidate for Crawley District Council, the vote increasing from 59 to 115, ten per cent of the Labour vote in the ward. David was active in CND and the whole family took part in the 4-day Easter marches from Aldermaston to London in 1960 and 1961.
He was also active in the CP Architecture & Planning Group, and was one of the team that wrote `This Housing Question’, published by Lawrence & Wishart in 1954. David’s article “Lessons of the New Towns” was published in Marxism Today in March 1962. He also wrote “La planificationurbaine: est-elle possible en régimecapitaliste” for the French Communist journal Democratie Nouvelle (February 1961).
In 1961 David took a research post at the University of Kumasi and the family moved to Ghana for three years. He and Elizabeth took part in activities of the Convention People’s Party, and had lively discussions with an informal group of socialist students who were concerned that the policies of the élite clique surrounding KwameNkrumah were leading to disaster. His article “Progress and Problems in Ghana” was published in Marxism Today in November 1963.
In 1965 David joined the planning and architectural consultancy recently established by his old colleague and comrade Graeme Shankland (see separate entry). His first task was to manage a study for the expansion of Ipswich. He lived for a time at Brightlingsea, where he bought a boat and learned to sail. He was co-opted on to the East Anglia District Committee. This was at the time when it was proposed to change the name of the Daily Worker; the DC voted unanimously against a change. It was the only occasion David met his intellectual hero, the great Marxist historian and literary critic, A L Morton.
A number of things led to David leaving the party in 1976. His consultancy work entailed more and more travelling abroad. He had acquired a canal boat, which engrossed much of his spare time. And he was unhappy that, following the 1968 events, the party leadership had not initiated a thorough discussion of “what went wrong”. David remained a Marxist and never thought of joining any other party. He continued to be active in CND.
David kept in touch with some old Crawley comrades, though most of them had left the Party. He recalls sharing a table with three of them at a birthday party; one was in the Labour Party, another in the SWP, and the third in the SLP, but…they all took the Morning Star every day!
After Elizabeth died in 1997 David moved to Cambridge where he was active in the Morning Star Readers’ & Supporters’ Group, and worked with experienced CPB members. He was also active in the Cambridge Campaign for Peace, of which he became co-chair, and was secretary of the Unity Forum, a left discussion group.
In 2002, he remarried and moved to Stamford in Lincolnshire. Next year he helped to set up the Stamford Peace Campaign, of which he became chair. In 2004 he rejoined the party and became active in the Leicester branch. In 2008 he was elected branch secretary. At the District Congress he was elected to the Greater Midlands District Committee and given responsibility for developing Marxist-Leninist education. In 2011 David was elected chair of the District Committee.
David has been a prolific writer of polemical letters to the Morning Star and the Stamford Mercury. He has always been a great reader of fiction, and contributed a series of articles to Challenge on novels with a political punch. He is a member of the William Morris Society and in 2010 gave a talk to the Leicester Secular Society entitled “Marx and Morris: why we need them more than ever.”He also belongs to the Marx Memorial Library, the Working Class Movement Library, the Thomas Paine Society and the Socialist History Society.
David Nicholson Nicholson was born in Nottingham in 1956 and educated at Forest Fields Grammar School. He graduated from Bristol Polytechnic with a history and politics degree and began work in the health sphere. At […]