I vividly remember when John Curry won a gold medal for figure skating at the 1976 Winter Olympics. My memories aren’t of his beautiful, balletic athleticism, but the hostility towards him of my parents, which I, as an 11 year-old, then echoed. At the time – and since – I didn’t really understand it. But I recently watched “The Ice King”, a documentary about his life and it’s all fallen into place.
Sadly, John Curry was the embodiment of many things my mum and dad disliked and/or were scared of. I remember mum, who was a wonderful, caring person, ridiculing his mannerisms with the “limp wristed” mimicry that was so common back then. She loved sport, but in her view, ice-skating wasn’t one. My dad hated sport and would just leave the room when it came on the telly, but in this case, with various exclamations about why he particularly disliked Curry. One of them would have been dad’s perception of Curry’s social background, which the documentary confirmed as classic English upper-middle class, complete with factory-owning father, clipped accent and public school. It also became apparent that Curry had close connections with the USA, a place my parents viewed with deep suspicion and disgust. This, of course, related to their long-held commitment to the Communist Party (CP), through which they had met and imbued many of their socio-political and cultural views. It was this aspect the documentary really opened-up for me. It showed footage of an interview with Curry in which he was extremely critical of ice-skaters from the Soviet Union. This, almost literally, was a red flag to the bull of my parents loyalty.
It’s become an after-dinner turn for me to relate how my childhood was influenced by the CP’s view of the world. As well as the “hard” politics of support for the labour movement and advocacy for socialism, it came in the form of a cast of heroes and villains. For example, anybody who had a record of co-operating with the US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by “naming names” of suspected CP members was anathema and never to be forgiven. So the likes of Humphry Bogart, John Wayne and Gary Cooper were effectively banned from our TV. My partner is still amazed that I hadn’t seen “Casablanca” until my 30s. Conversely, people who didn’t collude with McCarthyism, like Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Miller, were lionised, as were any celebrities who expressed support for the left. But the Party lines went beyond that. Until recently, I had an antipathy to Bob Dylan and as with John Curry, I didn’t really understand why. Only latterly have I discovered that the CP actively – and absurdly – campaigned against Dylan’s adoption of electric music. So I’m sure the CP’s official channels would have had something to say about John Curry’s public criticism of Soviet Union ice-skaters and that my parents were aware of this.
The more insidious and damaging aspect to all this, personified by John Curry, was the CP’s promotion of a deep social conservatism, particularly around sexuality and gender. Curry was one of the first prominent athletes to “come out” as gay, something that remains fairly rare, nearly half a century later. Watching “The Ice King”, I became uncomfortably aware that one of the reasons for my parents’ disapproval of John Curry, which I absorbed and repeated as a young person, was his unapologetic homosexuality. I feel ashamed of that now, but my family and the CP weren’t alone in homophobia. Such reactionary attitudes were common on the left during my formative political years in the 1980s and although, as in society as a whole, there’ve clearly been some improvements, the role of the Morning Star (the CP’s newspaper) in the current argument about rights for transgender people makes me wonder how deep those changes have been.
These questions about my political upbringing have also been in my mind recently because of the Russian State’s invasion of Ukraine. During the 1976 Winter Olympics and in any similar events of the period, in my home, we cheered for the Eastern Bloc countries, especially the USSR, a country whose abuses I distictly recall denying. The revolution was betrayed long ago and I think my parents knew that and would no longer defend the indefensible. Likewise, I hope they would join me in offering John Curry (who died in 1994) a very belated apology.