He would have established a brutal dictatorship in Britain, seizing property, ruthlessly crushing dissent and sending his opponents to labour camps. But he still loved his little son Brian. I know, because I’ve held in my hand a postcard from him with a drawing of a man peeking out of the moon and the message, ‘When I come home, we will have some fun. With love from Dada.’
Harry Pollitt was General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1929 to 1956. I was researching him for a novel I’m writing about Communists in London during the Blitz (you can read an extract from it on my website.) As he was tracked by MI5 throughout his career, there is a bulging file on him: reports of his movements from agents who followed him around London, intercepted letters, stolen minutes from confidential party meetings, verbatim accounts of speeches he made round the country – and the postcard that never reached little Brian. Together, it contains a man’s life and work. And it’s all there, tied up in red ribbon, for anyone who wants to read it, in the National Archives at Kew.
One of the glories of London is how much is available for free. I don’t like the notion of ‘government funded’; I prefer ‘belongs to all of us’. The National Archives are free because they belong to all of us. They’re housed in an imposing, cool, modern structure set back a hundred yards or so from the river amidst the suburban calm of Kew, a short walk from Kew Gardens Tube. You approach it via a wide, welcoming front area where fountains play and you can sit and eat your sandwiches on a hot day. Inside, an efficient cafe is served by screens playing rolling twenty-four hours news as if to drag researchers back into the present. There’s a celebratory exhibition, and a bookshop dominated by social history and almost as many different books about the First and Second World Wars as soldiers fought in them. You can’t just walk straight into the archives: you have to present a driving licence or a utility bill, be photographed, and pass an online test on how to handle documents with clean hands and respect. Once you’re in, you can place an order, and before long an intriguing cardboard box appears in your own personal transparent locker. Take it past the security men into the reading room, and you literally open up the secrets of the past. As with all research, it’s best to keep an open mind; you can be trawling through pages of tedium when you stumble on the unexpected and the revealing, like the flash of humanity in a would be dictator. I’m sure little Brian Pollitt thought his Dad was a lovely man. Maybe he still does. Maybe he was.
It’s a very democratic place. Professional scholars rub shoulders with curious citizens. Its most popular use is by people researching their family histories (hence the contents of the bookshop), but it also hits the headlines every New Year’s Day as newspapers present to our hangover-clouded eyes the contents of confidential government papers released under the thirty year rule, letting us in on the secrets of plans to use the army to break the miners’ strike and how much Mrs Thatcher’s ironing board cost. It also hosts a number of talks and events, and will be a major part of the commemorations of the various First World War centenaries, putting soldiers' and civilians' diaries online, bringing back ordinary men and women from the dead. It’s all there, the life of our nation, kept for us, belonging to us. You should use it, to stop them taking it away.