Sunday, 20 January 2013

One, two, many Phil Cohens

Phil Cohen is the editor of a book that came out in the 90s called Children of the Revolution which comprises essays  by long-since-grown-up people who were children of Communist Party parents during the Cold War. Among those writing in the book were Jackie Kaye, Michael Rosen and Alexi Sayle (all of whom have mined that period for material elsewhere, and all of whom are still on the left). I've read the book more than once over the years and, though I've never met the author, I have met his sister Norma Cohen a few times - and heard her speak about her period in Unity Theatre. Two or three years ago I was in email discussion with Phil about a book marking a particular world anniversary. We discussed the format at some length but unfortunately work commitments at his end made the book impossible in time for the anniversary. We parted amicably, perhaps with a tacit agreement that at some stage it would be nice to work together on another project. I was vaguely aware of Phil's interest in East London, and had read some copies of the former print journal Rising East which he wrote for. In due course Phil approached me with a very different book, a memoir of reading, provisionally titled "Reading Room Only". The timescale wasn't ideal as he was working on a book about the impact of the Olympics on the East End (due out next month) from Lawrence & Wishart, which happened to be the publisher of Children of the Revolution, but we coped with that and his Reading Room Only comes out later this year. It is a memoir of all sorts of things, including his time as "Dr John" the squatters' leader, being the son of a Marxist, becoming an academic and his lonely bookish childhood. Lonely? Only in the third rewrite of the book - in a meditation on the implications of his very Jewish name - did Phil mention that he had a namesake working in a similar field... Ah. Bloody hell. I thought I was publishing the other Phil Cohen. There were so many things they had in common, and so many things not in common - not least one being a sole child and the other having a sister who I'd met - but somehow their areas in common had excluded their differences in my mind. I'll have to reread their email archive, but I can only assume I never said, for example "Give my love to Norma", which the second Phil Cohen might have thought a bit odd (though I do remember once sending out a mail-merged email to all the members of the Labour Party in Nottingham East which included a sentence congratulating the recipient on their new baby - and not one person later mentioned it).
What would have been stranger still if the first Phil Cohen had been able to write the book we discussed but had to abandon. I could easily have had the two Phil Cohens on my list thinking they were one... though I imagine at some stage it would have been obvious they were different (not least in crediting their past writing on the book covers). I do like the idea that we'd only have found out at the book launches when I met them both for the first time.

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