Keith Narey Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Andy Beckett

An end to the struggle

(October 1997)

From The Guardian Weekend, 18 October 1997, pp 26–32.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labour’s landslide victory at the general election was tainted by the accidental death the following day of lifelong activist Keith Narey. A long-time member of the far-left Militant Tendency, he nevertheless had friends from across the political spectrum. He was, in the end, an old-fashioned, tub-thumping socialist, and his death marked the passing of a generation of campaigners who fought tooth and nail to shape Britain’s post-war politics. By Andy Beckett

The night in May after the general election, Keith Narey was so happy he fell over a wall. It was just tall enough to catch him: about knee height, smooth with new bricks, topped by a sharp red ridge that ran its entire length beside the path to his front door. He did not need much help in falling. He was thickly drunk – thrilled to be drunk, in fact, his head roaring with beer and after-hours whiskies and cheers to the Labour victory.

He tripped quickly. Though 50, Narey was not a heavy man; but as the wall lurched towards him, and its ridge jabbed into his right knee, his momentum and his big talker’s head and his beginning of a belly cast him firmly forward. The grey paving rushed up from the darkness.

Narey almost saved himself with his arms. As he fell, his right shoulder glanced off the wall, and his knee was bruising, but the rest of him thudded unscathed to the concrete. Except that he began to vomit, his stomach rebelling at the jarring, and as he lay, surprised and winded and suddenly unconscious, he breathed it in. He began to die.

He was being watched: nearby, high on the side of his tower block, a security camera perched. Bradford City Council had positioned it there to stare protectively down at the estate’s tenants and their visitors, and record them. Around 12.15 that night, the camera caught Narey’s stagger and fall, and fed it back – a small, flailing blur – to one of four screens in the security office. Each screen was split seven ways, one grainy postcard for each camera on the estate; a single security guard, marooned out of sight in another tower block up the hill, watched them all.

About 25 minutes after Narey fell, the guard phoned the police. He did not call an ambulance. Sixty-five minutes after that, a van of officers arrived – they only came to this estate in numbers – and quickly found Narey, beached behind the wall. The police’s telephone operator had just speculated that he “had fallen asleep under the stars”. But Narey had been dead for quite a while.

It seemed a parochial tragedy. “Man found dead after election celebration,” as the Bradford Telegraph and Argus first reported. It was a cautionary tale: or, at most, a dab of sourness in the great, sweet stew of public happiness since the election. It meant rather more to Narey’s family and friends, of course – and their sadness was stiffened with anger, which seemed justified, at the way he had been left to choke – yet all that was for the inquest to come and, afterwards perhaps, for local recriminations against the council and police. Men had died neglected on estates before.

Not many of them, however, have had a funeral like Keith Narey’s. The crematorium chapel became so crammed that the crowd burst into the room next door. In turn, that grew so squeezed that it spilled eager mourners out into the cemetery. The whole city seemed in these three places: as a jazz band parped away, and the literary agents circled around Narey’s brother Brian, there stood Bradford’s Lord Mayor and it’s Labour MPs, its besieged Conservative councillors and entrenched union leaders, its keen new Liberal Democrats and City Hall veterans, socialists still. The surprise was red in their faces: that Narey was abruptly dead, but also for many of them, so opposed for so long, in so many curt West Yorkshire ways, were all there together.

Narey was on benefits when he died. He lived alone. Yet after his funeral, his commemoration echoed on: his ashes would be contested in an annual cricket match; there would be a memorial stone near his flat; a kind of shrine, with glass front and side lighting, in the wall of his favourite pub. And this all began to spread beyond a local matter. Narey’s death was mentioned on Radio 4’s Today programme and on Radio 5 and at length in the London Evening Standard, usually less than concerned with events in the Pennines.

Each of these tributes recorded one particular thing about Keith Narey: he had been a member of the extreme left Militant Tendency. In fact, he had been rather more than that. During the late Seventies and throughout the Eighties, Bradford, after Liverpool, was Militant’s second city. And Narey was the movements’s heart and lungs there: organising, energising, fundraising and frightening councillors, securing the election of a Militant MP. Twice he battered his way past the Labour establishment to be nominated for office in City Hall; twice he was blocked by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). Neil Kinnock personally had him investigated.

Yet this alone cannot explain Narey’s funeral, with its rude fondness for every political quarter, or its wider aftermath. Nor, in its broadest context, his death: why was this Militant, unrepentant and scornful of New Labour, so thrilled at the final victory of his party enemies? The answers are in his life, and in the grand ruin of a city he lived it in.

Bradford, in its broken saucer of hills, was where the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded in 1893. The history of this gusty place since then is, in its way, the history of British socialism. In the 1890s, Bradford was already the quintessential Victorian industrial city: close-packed, tumbling with terraces, brutal in its economics. And for the next 80 years, as the thick-walled textile mills clanked away, their chimneys like fortress towers on the high ground, the ILP – and the unions and the Labour Party it helped to lead to – strove to alleviate that brutality.

Then, in the Seventies and Eighties, the mills began to empty and quieten. Dead land opened up in the city centre with buddleia growing instead of jobs; and Bradford’s socialists and self-helpers and self-appointed saviours had to struggle all the harder. In the litter-strewn city, with its racial tensions and its Yorkshire Ripper and its terrible fire at its ancient football stadium – the city taken, this time, as Britain’s emblem of fraught, post-industrial decline – Keith Narey was the noisiest activist, the most controversial, the most liked.

At his funeral, some sensed more than his passing. A Labour Party far to the right of Neil Kinnock’s was in government now. Socialism, like Militant, seemed to be slipping back, ever faster, into distant history. But Narey, for all the dramas of his political career, for all his dogmatic beliefs, did not live only to defend and symbolise a fading faith. He joined Militant in his late 20s, and effectively left it seven years before his death. These early and late parts of his life were as different from street-corner Trotskyism as it is possible to imagine. The West-Yorkshire rabble-rouser had already been, variously, a west-London bohemian, a would-be Beatnik and a world-girdling hippie traveller. After Militant, he wrote plays and fought causes without a banner in sight. Narey’s funeral guests knew him only in fragments.

Keith Anthony Narey was born in Bradford in January 1947. His family were Catholics from Sligo in the west of Ireland, who had come to Yorkshire to sweat in the mills at the end of the 19th century. Narey’s father was a monumental mason, his mother swept factory floors. They lived on the Canterbury Estate, south of the centre of Bradford, in a maze of council brick. When residents went away on holiday, they took their gas meters with them for safe-keeping.

Narey was one of five children. His father read Jack London, and remembered the Thirties as an era of great socialist struggle. Narey absorbed these enthusiasms – not so much for their content as for the wider horizons of thought and deed they suggested. He studied hard enough at school to pass the 11-plus, and became a rare Canterbury boy at the local grammar. Rarer still, he was reading Jack Kerouac.

In the summer of 1963, aged 16, Narey disappeared to Yugoslavia. For the next three months, he picked through the rubble of the Skopje earthquake as a relief worker. When he came back to West Yorkshire, he had a purpose – to earn the money to get away again. This was a common enough instinct in the Narey family: “We’re always off to the next port of call,” says Brian Narey, Keith’s elder brother. And Brian, who was eight years older but close to Keith in more than appearance – both were thin and almost tall, with thick bearskins of hair – already personified the price of staying put. He was working in the mills.

Keith chose a different routine. For the first few months of the year, he took jobs in shops and offices in Bradford. “He wasn’t right fond of hard manual graft,” says Brian. In the summer, Keith and Brian shipped off to the Isle of Man to make cocktails in hotel bars. And at the end of August, when Brian went back to the mill, Keith went to Kathmandu and India. Narey was intoxicated, appalled and drawn back to the subcontinent, and in 1965 he applied for Voluntary Service Overseas. He spent the year in Bihar, north-east India, teaching children history and, more convincingly, football. At the end, he was given a pound of cannabis. Narey carried it through Gatwick.

At 20, Keith moved with Brian to London. By now, he had grown into someone rather different. “We’d go to Petticoat Lane, and he’d wear a blue mac, blue denim shirt and blue knitted tie,” says Brian. “I’d say, ‘Why’s everyone calling you guv?’ Then the penny dropped: they thought he was the law.”

It was 1967, and London seemed an infinite stage for the likes of Narey. The two brothers went to see Mannfred Mann and the Rolling Stones; they lived in Notting Hill with the head of the British Witches as their landlord (“Keith tried that stuff out,” says Brian); and Keith , on his own this time, brassed his way into a certain pub called The Blind Beggar. The Kray’s milieu didn’t bother him: “The challenge,” says Brian, “was to go somewhere he wasn’t known and strike up a conversation.” And Keith Narey could do that. His voice seemed flat Bradford at first, but it had a cheeky curl to its “r”s. Deadpan, Narey could say things directly that others didn’t dare; after a few drinks – and he rarely bought them – he could take over the bar with his put-downs. He stayed in London for more than a year.

By the end of the Sixties, Narey knew how to get almost anywhere. He could be forward in French, Spanish, German and Italian. He knew his Greek poetry and the work of Allen Ginsberg. He decided he would be a writer. His bohemian American heroes were the obvious models, writing what they had seen and lived, and seeing and living with that end in mind. In 1972, he flew to Calcutta to become a beggar. On good days, he earned enough for a bowl of rice. Narey lasted into 1973 among the lepers and the beds in boxes, then developed jaundice and yellow fever. He had no money, and had lost his passport; the Indian Government had to fly him home. Convalescing in Bradford, Narey had the material he wanted, and he was already writing – vivid, untutored unspoolings of his travels and speculations – but the experience of begging had stung him. Narey joined a union.

He was working as a council keeper in Lister Park, the city’s stately triangle of Victorian planting that sloped down from the great, grand mill complex of the same name. In 1973, the council decided to “rationalise” its parks workforce. A union meeting was called at Bradford’s central library.

“I saw him on the back of a lorry, heading down,” remembers Allan Brack, then a fellow union member. At the meeting, Narey spoke, less than clearly, in a very loud voice. That night, Brack took him to a meeting of the Bradford West Labour Party and signed him up. Narey joined the local trades council too, but here a realisation rapidly occurred to him about Bradford’s ruling Labour establishment. It was dominated by cautious unions such as the transport workers’ and, despite the decades of post-war Asian immigration to the city, overwhelmingly white. Narey’s excited notion of socialism was not to be satisfied here.

There was, however, another Left at work in the city. Allan Brack was a member of Militant. The group had started as a Trotskyist micro-faction in 1964; by the early Seventies, Militant’s membership was still in the hundreds. But it had momentum: as Edward Heath’s government wobbled, and picket lines seemed to wrap the country, Militant’s apocalyptic predictions about workers battling bosses grew persuasive. In 1974, a new, more confident strategy was unfurled from headquarters in London: “We must dig roots in the wards and constituencies ... Many are still shells dominated by politically dead old men and women.” Bradford looked a good target.

Militant’s main tactic was infiltration, or “entryism”: members were to join Labour Party organisations and take unofficial control of them. The political life Narey had chosen was hard – a ceaseless round of canvassing and weekend conferences and paper-selling on raw Pennine afternoons – and made doubly so by the need to live for two masters, officially for the Labour Party and, more surreptitiously, for his true cause.

Yet Narey was good at it. On voters’ doorsteps, he was easy and natural, just striking up another conversation with a stranger. Selling papers was the same: every Saturday morning, at the bottom of Bradford’s main shopping street, lightening his bundle by asides and nerveless button-holing. People soon knew his anorak.

Narey made more eccentric contributions too. He organised a Yorkshire pudding-eating contest to raise money. “He was unusual in Militant circles,” says Tim Moon, now a DJ on Bradford’s community radio station, then a Militant too. “The real world didn’t touch a lot of those people, but Keith wasn’t always in meetings.” Quite a lot of the time, in fact, Narey was in the pub. He wasn’t a big drinker – three pints usually carried the evening – but he knew his ales. He became the first Bradford chairman of the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra), using good beer as a battering ram against the local brewers. This was more than a happy convergence of his appetites and politics, however. At Camra meetings, he had to persuade and befriend members who were mainstream Labour men, Liberals, Conservatives, even. Despite his new, dogmatic politics, Narey kept his pragmatist’s twinkle; it would serve him beyond Militant.

In Bradford in 1974, though, confrontation was more their norm. The issue Militant hoped to mobilise around was race. Immigrants had been arriving in the city for a century – Irish, Poles and Germans – but many of Bradford’s white residents remained far from reconciled to incomers of more obviously different skin tones and customs. On the steep streets of the Asian inner city, the National Front was at work. Militant saw this as an outrage, and an opportunity to win Asian allies. Narey and Allan Brack and the president of the trades council, another Militant called Pat Wall, attended an anti-racism conference in Birmingham, organised by the TUC. The National Front was planning to march in Bradford; Narey and his colleagues were instructed to march against them.

In Birmingham, the Bradford Militants had met a young Indian communist called Raghvir Virdee. He had settled in Bradford, and been disappointed by the Labour Party’s racial make-up. Narey, however, impressed him: “He was a natural commander.” Virdee joined Militant. On the day of the march, he walked alongside his new comrades, and trades unionists, and families with pushchairs, along Manningham Lane, the wide and straight main road that rises through the middle of Asian Bradford. Narey strode along, carrying an ancient union banner brought out for the occasion. The National Front’s supporters boiled alongside. As the march was passing the trades council building, the National Front attacked him.

Narey was beaten with knotted tree branches. Brack was assaulted too, the banner thrown on the road, urinated on and burnt. Gary Armitage, another Militant member on the march, saw it happen: “All Keith said was, ‘The problem is the banner is battered.’”

Narey, and Bradford Militant, had made their public statement. In the north of the city in particular, recruiting strengthened. But Narey was still a park keeper; he was tired of the rest of his life. In 1975, he decided to go to university. That year, Bradford University was starting a new course, the first in the country, in peace studies. A hundred students would examine economics and politics and internationals relations, not in the traditional way, but as areas of struggle for ordinary people. The students could range about and read almost what they wanted. Narey could not have invented a better degree himself.

“You had the sense of a person who was genuinely trying to keep his mind open,” says Tom Woodhouse, a senior peace studies lecturer at Bradford, who taught Narey from 1975 to 1978. The new department, although politically neutral, was noisy with internal debates. Narey was “always at the forefront of things ... very good on his feet.” His thesis, which came with less facility, was about the birth of the Labour Party in Bradford’s Victorian textile trade. Narey was learning his own family’s history.

At the same time, he was trying to change it. The Monday before he graduated, Keith was interviewed on Panorama as a major Militant activist. The same television presenter welcomed Narey onstage for his graduation. Narey made a weak joke of it, but Militant was about to absorb him much further. In 1978, he became a paid-up Militant “full-timer”.

As the Callaghan government disintegrated, Militant members were winning council seats in Labour colours. In West Yorkshire, Pat Wall and Gary Armitage were both elected. They gave Narey direct points of influence: “He’d come to me,” says Armitage, “and say, ‘Number 39 down the street needs their trees cutting. I’ve guaranteed that you’ll see to it.’” But Narey and his colleagues wanted a Bradford Militant MP. In 1981, the Bradford North Labour Party, now busy with Militant members, dropped the constituency’s MP, a right-wing Labour man called Ben Ford, in favour of Pat Wall as its candidate at the next general election. Narey began running Wall’s campaign.

Like Narey, Wall was a fierce speaker, fond of jazz and a pint. Unlike Narey, he had been in Militant from the beginning. Narey admired him, worked endless hours for him, and regularly visited the Wall family home. Then, in 1982, Narey’s boss became infamous. The Sunday Times secretly taped Wall debating against the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP); at one point, he laid out what a Militant government might mean: “The abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, the sacking of the generals, the admirals, the air marshal, the senior civil servants ... and people of that character ... We [Militant] will face bloodshed. We will face the possibility of civil war ...”

No matter that Wall had been warning of, not welcoming, national unrest; soon Wall and Narey were being filmed as they ate their cornflakes. And their notoriety, while good for national publicity, was less appealing to Bradford’s more conservative Labour voters. For the 1983 general election, Ben Ford put himself forward as an Independent Labour candidate and drew away 4,000 votes. Wall lost to the Conservatives by 1,600.

Militant’s enemies could celebrate: the faction and its fanatics, it could be imagined, would retreat back into their rooms in pub, their lonely paper-selling, their back-burner domestic lives. Narey, at 36, was still sharing a messy house with a bunch of students. But order at home, like easy political victories, had never been his priority or expectation. Narey lived for different rewards.

They came most easily, perhaps, in the Jacob’s Well, a small, whitewashed pub marooned between the Leeds Road and a roundabout. On the outside, it was just an old inn with a few picnic tables, greying steadily. Yet inside, in the gloom, was all the city’s political life. Saturday afternoon was a good time, after the Militants had sold all their papers, or their fingers and toes had grown too cold, and they had come in for a drink and a row with the SWP. Evenings during the week were good too: City Hall was just across the road, spiked with Victorian spires and perennial intrigues, and councillors got thirsty. The Jacob’s Well had good beer, board games and dark panelling. Narey, in his own mind at least, was the ruler of this low-ceilinged kingdom. And, over time – time when, outside the Jacob’s Well, Militant was fighting the sourest battles – Narey’s bar quirks had a serious bearing on his reputation. Here was the Trotskyist, the sectarian, who would have a drink with anyone. “Keith was never part of the macho Militant culture,” says Jeanette Sunderland, a Liberal Democrat councillor. As Narey put it, “You don’t allow political differences to interfere in your relations with people. We’re all human, we eat, we bleed.”

When Narey needed to eat, he would go round to Raghvir Virdee’s. “He would knock any time,” says Virdee, “And say: ‘Raghvir! What have you got in the fridge?’ My wife used to cook for him ... He was part of the family.” Women liked Narey, too: invited first to parties, propping up someone’s fireplace with a beer, eyes flocking around beneath his fringe. But nothing lasting seemed to come of it; long term, Narey appeared attached only to the struggle.

Beyond Bradford, Militant had done well in the 1983 elections. It gained its first two MPs, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, when most of the country was moving to the right. Both men retained their popularity; in the mid-Eighties, with the Labour Party becalmed in the polls despite its nascent “modernisation”, a return to fundamentalist socialism had its appeal. In Bradford, as in most cities, the beggars were living in boxes now, just as they had in Narey’s Calcutta. Pat Wall put himself forward for Bradford North again. There was only one problem: at party headquarters in London, they had noticed what Militant was up to.

By 1986, the Labour leadership’s view of Militant had darkened: the irrelevancy of the Seventies and the irritant of the early Eighties had become the irreconcilable enemy within. In Liverpool, Derek Hatton led a council in open conflict with Neil Kinnock. In Bradford, at this point, the reprimands from headquarters were milder – Liverpool was enough to deal with – but they were growing. In the spring, the NEC halted Wall’s candidacy and examined his selection. Wall survived. With Narey commanding his Militant cadre again, Wall won at the 1987 election by almost the same margin that he had lost by in 1983.

But Wall was not the NEC’s real target. To secure its approval, he had stopped appearing on Militant platforms or writing for its newspaper; once elected, he joined Labour’s respectable Left. The unrepentant Narey made a better target. In August 1987, a regional party inquiry began, then a national investigation. In December, it reported: Militant, it claimed, had set up its own parallel party apparatus in Bradford North, complete with a separate headquarters. The Bradford North Labour Party was suspended.

Narey was thrilled at the prospect of battle. In January 1988, as the NEC met to consider his expulsion from the party, Narey decided to stand for the council. Challenging the city’s chairman of education, John Ryan, he won selection by a single vote. Ryan accused Militant of intimidating local members and, almost immediately, the NEC declared “procedural irregularities”; Narey’s candidacy was vetoed. He picked another ward and stood again. In March, he was once more, again by a single vote against a council grandee, this time Marilyn Beeley, the wife of the city’s Labour leader.

To Labour’s national hierarchy, Narey at his apogee was beyond infuriating. His disloyal antics with the “Bradford North Seven”, as the Militants were excited to be known, threatened the loss of the council. Meanwhile, Narey gave great, mocking interviews: “if Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley have got a strategy for achieving socialism,” he would say, “they are keeping it bloody quiet.” Even the allegations of Militant bullying would not stick to him: “Violence is an admission of failure,” Narey would reply without a blink.

Then, quite quickly, it was all over. By 22 votes to four, the NEC barred him from standing for the council. Narey threatened a High Court challenge; it never came. In May 1988, the Conservatives took control of Bradford on the mayor’s casting vote. And in September 1989, barely two years since his boss’s triumph, Narey was expelled from the Labour Party. He had been waiting for it: he had booked a bar to mark the occasion. That night, Narey held court attached to a plastic ball and chain. But his life’s main channel had been blocked. A year later, the blockage became permanent: Pat Wall died, aged 57. “It put the light out of Keith’s life,” says Brian Narey.

This time, Narey did retreat. During his selection struggles, he had already moved away from the middle of Bradford, to an isolated northern suburb called Idle. Here, on the far slope of a tall hill, facing away from City Hall and towards the forest-green depths of the Aire Valley, he had set up a quieter kingdom. Narey had his own flat now, with two bedrooms, on the fifth floor of a beige brick tower block at the centre of the Thorpe Edge estate. He had made the second bedroom a study and filled it with books: Marx and Trotsky, of course, but a Thomas Hardy collection too, and Oscar Wilde and Paul Theroux, and C.P. Cafavy, the Alexandrian Greek poet. Then there was the kitchen, Narey kept it clean, unusually for him, and cooked pheasant in brandy, and bacon and eggs with the same knowingness. He marinaded, he drank port, he listened to his folk records – and not always alone: Brian came round for supper, and there was Kirsty MacLean. Narey had had his girlfriends, but Kirsty was allowed to move into his dusty lair. She stayed.

Narey did not miss the city too much. He had the moors above Thorpe Edge and the bluebell woods below, and would walk off into them for hours in his leather jacket and unsuitable shoes. He would go to Scotland to sight a rare bird. And he had a new pub.

The Brewery Tap was small, dark and careful with its ales. Narey began working behind the bar three evenings a week. Sunday nights drew him too: his quiz team, Academic Ali, always won – Narey’s reading and real-world wanderings overwhelmed a pub full of rugby league fans. And on summer afternoons, there was the cricket. The Brewery Tap played Camra, and Narey umpired.

Yet he was barely 40; he couldn’t just retire with his anecdotes. From the toppling paper stacks in his flat, he pulled out his old manuscripts. During 1990, he wrote a play. Union Man was not Chekhov; it was autobiography and family history, tersely bolted together, presented as the story of a politicised and victimised textile worker called Alan McCarthy. But Narey wanted it performed. A professional company took up the play, then collapsed for lack of cash, so in 1991 he set up his own, the Phoenix Theatre Group. Narey got his friends to stand in for actors. Then he turned director.

It worked. Narey’s cast, in truth, had no more need to act than he had to make things up: he and they – old Militant comrades, his brother Brian, local trades unionists – shared the same language and world-view. Surprisingly, other people wanted to hear it. During 1991 and 1992, three Narey plays were put on at Bradford University’s Theatre in the Mill. “They brought a totally new audience,” says Tony Liddington, who was running it. “The local white working class.” Narey’s plays began to be booked at working men’s clubs. Some seats filled up with his former enemies. Labour and Conservative councillors came, and moderate unions took block bookings.

Partly, they were relieved to see Narey busy in a different arena; but all these no-politics drinks in the Jacob’s Well were paying off as well. Not that Narey let on that he knew; his plays were partisan to a fault, spiced with scorn for feeble unions, councillors in the pockets of businessmen, compromised “moderates”. His characters were either bosses, plotting and paring back wages, or workers, gruffly ecstatic at the power of collective action.

If there was an element of wish-fulfilment about all this – The Promised Land, for example, featured Neil Kinnock losing his seat in a Militant landslide – there was also a deepening tint of nostalgia. In 1993, Narey finished A Party That Will, a play about the foundation of the ILP. It dramatised the Manningham Mill strike of 1891 and its escalation, in Bradford and then beyond, into a demand for a political party to challenge capitalism. Narey himself played Keir Hardie, one of the ILP’s co-founders. The play was potently done, fast and short and clear in its exposition of the reasons for socialism. Like Narey, it switched engagingly from fond and earthy banter to an informal didacticism: you could learn how to strike by watching it.

Yet there was a sadness about the play, too, a sense that the contours of an old optimistic struggle were being lovingly gazed over from a less hopeful age. “To a certain extent, it was a world we had lost,” says Kevin Wilson, then a Militant, who played one of the strikers’ leaders, “where everybody had a job, had solidarity, had the possibility of progress.” By 1993, Lister’s Mill in Manningham, the towering Italianate backdrop for so much of Narey’s politics, was a weed-colonised shell.

Militant had emptied of potency, too. By concentrating on particular places rather than a more general infiltration, it had made itself vulnerable to city-by-city suppression. Meanwhile, its brazen occupation of Bradford and Liverpool, in particular, had angered Kinnock into action. Narey’s removal from the party was just one, rather public expulsion in a thorough campaign. By the mid-Nineties, Militant’s hold on Bradford had shrunk to memories and a few hundred defiant members, marooned on the estates – the Canterbury in particular.

Narey settled for a more muted and diffuse struggle. He would campaign culturally: remember and celebrate the workers’ cause rather than seek to impose it on the political system. Some of his Militant comrades had made the same decision. Allan Brack helped set up the Bradford Festival, and sought to unite the city by marquees instead of marches. Tim Moon began working at Bradford Community Broadcasting.

In 1995, these old colleagues gave Narey his next platform. As a local literary figure of steadily rippling reputation, he had been interviewed a couple of times on BCB; now, in the autumn, he joined the station as an unpaid volunteer and, soon, was a presenter. BCB was hardly the big time – broadcasting to a few thousand people in Bradford and a scatter of villages – but Narey found radio quite bewitching. Here was a chance to charm and teach on a large scale.

He quickly settled in among the old posters and coffee cups. At first, he just had five minutes on a show called The Write Stuff, to chat about play-writing, or literature in general, or growl out a poem or two of his. Soon, “the biggest problem was getting him to shut up again”, says Lucy Robbins, who presented the programme with him.

Narey was given another show, Under The Clock, a political phone-in. From the small, dark studio at the back of BCB, spectacles perched near the end of his nose, he co-hosted with abrasive zest. Councillors and community leaders were invited on, and questioned until they gave clear answers. Narey’s background spiced the encounters, but it did not overpower them – an unyielding sharpness towards official opinion seemed to satisfy him. When, in 1995, several hundred young Asians rioted through Manningham after perceiving police harassment, Narey was quick to link the words “Bradford” and “racist”.

Yet for all the surprised admiration his stances drew – with Militant no longer a threat, his intransigence began to look like integrity – he was saying rather than doing. Meanwhile, the city’s struggles were all around. Narey’s own estate, Thorpe Edge, exemplified the worst of them: heroin addiction, condemned housing, whole crumbling concrete streets without work, young men indoors all day with their droning televisions. Once, the tower blocks had had their own High Rise Tenants’ Association, but it had dissolved away. Narey saw the opportunity: in 1995, he gathered the tenants together and took them to a council meeting. “He’d say, ‘I want them to come forward’,” remembers Gary Armitage. “’The buggers are sitting on their arses.’” Narey quickly began a general campaign for refurbishment: the blocks got new radiators, an intercom system, a new coat of paint that wouldn’t take graffiti. They even got closed-circuit TV cameras.

For the first time, perhaps, Narey’s politics had found a simple, symbol-free aim: the tangible transformation of ordinary lives. Some of his projects were small and specific – he founded the Friends of Haigh Beck to clean up a beech-lined stream that ran through the estate and that had become a ravine choked with rubbish; others were grand and city-wide – he joined a committee bidding for money for all Bradford’s estates from the Government’s Single Regeneration Budget.

Nevertheless, by the start of this year, Narey had settled into a middle age of routines and niggling ambitions. “A lot of people saw Keith in the pub, and they thought, ‘Keith’s in the pub again,’” says Brack. “But I always saw him as coming into town with a mission: to drop off some papers, go to a union office, go to the library to research local labour history – and then be in the pub looking like he’d been there all day.”

Narey was dreaming of television. BBC2 had shown an interest in Union Man. Then there was a new play, The Day They Shot Martin Offiah, about an assassination plot by the National Front against the rugby league player. And an autobiography, Rainy Day City, full of India and remembered sex and rushes of Kerouac-style rumination. Narey wanted to expand beyond populist, barely fictional dramas. Not everyone saw this as wise: “You could’ve wall-papered his flat with rejection slips,” says Brian.

When Allen Ginsberg died in April, Narey was moved to make a special broadcast on BCB. It was his best: carefully weighted and slow, his thick vowels delicately wrapping the dramas of the poet’s life – his “mad chase across America”, his “smashing into pieces” of conservative icons, his “leading role in the peace movement”. As Narey’s voice steadily rose, it was not hard to hear the words as autobiography. At the end, he declared it so: “With the death of Allen Ginsberg, I suppose a part of me dies as well. Certainly that part of my footloose, adverturesome youth.”

Kirsty McLean had moved out. “She said he was a very mucky person,” says Raghvir Virdee. But Narey kept talking about her, even as he started going to singles’ nights. He wanted a wife, and children. His only paid work was in the pub. Yet Narey was not all melancholy. For one things, the weeks were melting away towards election day. Narey liked to bash on about “Tory Blair”, but he was thrilled to see the Conservatives imploding. Brian remembers: “He said to me before the election, ‘I can’t wait for Blair to be in power ... then I can attack him!’”

On election night he worked at the Brewery Tap as usual. It closed noisy and late. The next day was giddier still. In the Pennington Midland Hotel in the city centre, the jazz night, a favourite of Narey’s, was given over to victory marches. He stayed until the last bus, swallowing down his bitter like champagne. Then it was on to the Brewery Tap. Harry Parkin, one of Narey’s activist allies on Thorpe Edge, saw him walking from the bus stop: “He was overjoyed ... I was off to the British Legion, and he said, ‘Aren’t you coming for a drink?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to sell raffle tickets.’ He said, ‘I’m going to celebrate.’”

There were two inches of whisky left in the bottle when Narey left the Brewery Tap, just before midnight. He lurched towards home by his usual route: across the road that bordered Thorpe Edge, along the path through the trees and past his tower block’s garages. The wall running up to his front door, in this light, was the same colour as the rest of the building. Narey wasn’t feeling careful.

Years before, when their father was dying of cancer, Keith and Brian had agreed to help each other avoid the same fate. “If either of us ended up like that,” says Brian, “The other would sneak in a Lucozade bottle of whisky and 200 aspirins.”

Actually, though, he died rapidly. His lungs were fatally flooded, most likely, within three or four minutes of his fall. This information was not well received at the inquest. Brian Narey stood up from his seat for much of the proceedings, the ceiling tiles of the coroner’s court low over his fury of red hair. He blurted despairing questions. Why had the security guard called the police so late? Why hadn’t the security cameras, as it turned out, recorded what it saw? Why hadn’t he gone to help?

The answers were saddening and routine as the beige courtroom walls. Security guards were not permitted to leave their posts: they might be attacked, or deliberately distracted. An ambulance had not been called because drunks had abused ambulancemen. The police had not arrived for an hour because they had been dealing with an armed robbery, and an intruder on someone’s premises, and a sprawl of drunk drivers, and a scatter of “domestics”. The kinder city that Keith Narey had lived to create seemed to recede, palpably, as the witnesses mumbled on. The council couldn’t even maintain the security cameras he had lobbied for.

For his verdict, the coroner said a few stern sentences about a lack of “good Samaritans” and “a reflection on our society”, and concluded that “Mr Narey was the author of his own downfall”. Brian Narey walked rigid from the court, promising “further action”.

Brian is 58, and still works in a mill warehouse. He lives in a box of a council house, with broken bottle glass on the pavement outside. There are big gaps in his neighbours’ garden fences, only tabloids are on sale behind the heavy shutters of his estate’s one shop. In a sense, his brother’s life was a series of labours to escape all this. More generously, it was about aiding others to do the same. In both tasks, it can be argued, he failed. Militant fizzled, Haigh Beck still fills with litter, Narey met with a prosaic and neglected end.

Yet his worth can be felt, perhaps, in the changes to those once around him. Brian talks about Kerouac now, and seems a little reluctant to distribute Keith’s book collection. To relax at weekends, he tries an Indian remedy his brother taught him. The Phoenix Theatre Group has renamed itself the Keith Narey Players and has just put on a performance of A Party That Will at the Alhambra. The profits are to be spent on a Keith Narey playwrighting scholarship.

Raghvir Virdee, in the meantime, has gone from ethnic agitator to Bradford city councillor. He has a semi with coriander waving behind, and a photograph on his mantelpiece, of white and brown Bradford faces holding a banner reading “Labour Conquers All”. These days, the city he helps govern seems a little cleaner, more bustling, more hopeful. Keith Narey, Virdee says, was “a very practical and romantic socialist”.

Narey also left an excuse for a cricket match. The first one, in mid-May, was rained off. It was attempted again, a month later, on a cool Pennine day of racing clouds and lowering grey. Water had to be brushed off the wicket. Then someone said a few gruff words over the wind about “our Keith”. A buttery sun slid out, and stayed for an innings. And the Brewery Tap, who always lost against Camra, clunked the winning run as the first fat drops hit the wicket.

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Last updated: 29 August 2016