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Free Radical: A Memoir

Free Radical: A Memoir

by Vince Cable


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Today Vince Cable is best known as "the undisputed heavyweight champion of the credit crunch in Parliament," revered for his prescience and authority on the world economic crisis. But his journey to become Britain's most respected politician has been long, circuitous, and sometimes very painful. In this memoir he tells that story for the first time. This is a candid book, written with wit and great insight. Vince Cable's life story is a long way from that of a conventional career politician. His book is as compelling as it is timely.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848870475
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 07/01/2010
Pages: 358
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Vince Cable is a member of parliament and has been the Liberal Democrats' chief economic spokesperson since 2003, having previously served as chief economist for Shell from 1995 to 1997. He was elected deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in March 2006 and was acting leader of the party prior to the election of Nick Clegg. He is also the author of The Storm.

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Free Radical

A Memoir

By Vince Cable

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Vincent Cable
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84887-438-1


Starting the Climb

York was once an industrial city. The factories that supplied the country's railway carriages and fed its appetite for sweets have largely closed. They have joined the Roman ruins, Viking artefacts, and medieval walls and churches as monuments to a receding history.

I grew up when that history was still alive: breathing the delicious, all-pervasive smell of sugar, cocoa and vanilla; timing the day by the army of factory workers pedalling to and fro, announced by a swish of tyres and tinkling bells. My first home was a small terraced house close to the Terry's factory where my mother and our neighbours produced chocolates. Far from resembling a dark satanic mill, Terry's was built like a red-brick university, the dominating clock tower the main concession to the disciplines of factory life. The river flowed on one side, to the Archbishops' Palace; the green acres of Knavesmire race-course stretched out on the other; but around the northern city approaches were the streets of workers' houses, which remain mostly untouched by the slum clearance or gentrification of the inner city.

Finsbury Street was one of them, populated by working-class families of long standing, or by young, ambitious and upwardly mobile workers like my parents, Len and Edith Cable, stepping on to the first rung of the housing ladder. My memories are sparse: the smell of drying clothes; the excitements of the street such as the horse and cart bringing sacks of coal, and the rag and bone man; the cruel cold of the outside lavatory. Some memories are more ambiguous, like the large metal bathtub in front of the coal fire, which may well have been for me, but possibly for the family, as it was when I needed later on to impress left-wing audiences with my proletarian origins.

It was the walks along the River Ouse which remain clearly etched in my mind. Stopping off at Rowntree Park, donated to the city by the bigger chocolate manufacturer, where a magical store dispensed an endless supply of ice creams and there was a large lake which sucked my toy boats into a miniature Sargasso Sea where they remained, becalmed, for ever. Past the Rowntree's baths, whose freezing waters deterred me from swimming until well into adulthood. Under the pulleys and winches and cranes that lifted jute sacks of grain and exotic-smelling fruit from barges into the warehouses, now luxury flats. To Lendal Bridge, looking across to the Tower where York's Jews had once been herded into a medieval holocaust, whose flames lit up many a childhood nightmare. Then, inland, past the Bar walls, dodging the arrows which rained down from the battlements. To the streets off Bishopthorpe Road: on one side rows of terraced houses with gaps of rubble left by German bombs; on the other, intact, Vine Street, where my mother's family, the Pinkneys, lived.

Their house was dominated by the spirit of my dead grandfather, a sportsman of distinction, who had once been a star of the breakaway professional Rugby League and a railway clerk. His life had been dominated by the First World War: captured in 1917 after battles in France, interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp, and returned home disabled by gas and ill-treatment in prison. He never worked again, but remained a brooding presence perpetuating hatred of the Germans, firm family discipline, and working-class respectability. My grandmother, Annie, boosted the family income as a charlady, but it was not enough and when my mother reached fourteen she was sent out to work, despite the protests of her teachers who had recognized her ability and creativity. The Pinkneys stayed clear of the pit of depravity inhabited by their rougher neighbours by means of hard work, temperance and voting Conservative. Grandmother made time after her early morning office-cleaning to distribute leaflets for the patriotic, Tory, Primrose League. My mother recalled that when she dated a young Irish socialist from down the street – one Bill Burke, later Labour leader of York City Council – she was beaten with a leather strap.

The Pinkneys were a warm, close family, populated by friendly aunts from the surrounding streets, who stuffed my mouth with chocolate from blue-paper packets: factory 'waste' from Terry's, which was a luxury not rationed by the little books which then defined our food intake. Much of the warmth came from my mother's sister Irene and her husband, Reg Mothersdill, a plasterer, whom I remember for his shining, brilliantined hair, endless chain of Woodbines, and tales of his war exploits escaping from sinking ships.

Unlike the Pinkneys, the Cables – my father, his brother and his father – had no direct experience of war. My father had been an 'essential worker', making and repairing aircraft in the village of Sherburn in Elmet, near York. His battles were against the stifling hierarchy of British class and educational privilege which had undervalued him from an early age.

His widowed mother – another Annie – lived in Layerthorpe, close to a notorious slum in which the family owned a grocer's shop. Their house was separated by a railway line from the mean streets that Joseph Rowntree had surveyed a century before, and, as its name implied, Glen Avenue was respectable enough – but not far enough away to escape the foul smell of the gasworks, which penetrated every nook and cranny.

Grandma's shop and, when he was alive, Grandfather Cable's income as a draper's assistant were enough to lift one foot out of the working class, but not both. My father's elder brother Reg was sent to a grammar school, then fee-paying, to prepare for a professional career, but there was not enough for my father, who was sent out to work as soon as possible. He recalled being sent around the streets shovelling manure from behind passing horses to earn a few pennies. But through aptitude and application he progressed to skilled work in the joiner's shop in Rowntree's factory, where his brother, after school, began a managerial career.

The resentments created by this sibling discrimination continued for many years, and family history as it was passed down to me was undoubtedly coloured by it. My mother – who sided with my father in this family feud, if not in much else – insisted that Grandma Cable was illiterate, though her copperplate handwriting suggests otherwise.

It was inevitable that, for a man of my father's intelligence, frustrated ambition and energy, the factory jobs and small terraced house were mere staging posts. And so it proved. One day, when I was just over four years old, a van came to carry away our furniture and I was carried, my feet dangling over the tailboard, to a new home.

* * *

The next step on our long social climb was Grantham Drive and a small, semi-detached house with a garden. My father, planning his next career move, was away at teacher-training college, which equipped him to impart his technical skills and not just practise them. My mother, at one bound, was promoted to the status of a middle-class housewife. And I started my own ascent of the educational Alps at the base camp of Poppleton Road Primary School.

In appearance and in reality, Poppleton Road Primary – still virtually unchanged in its century of existence – was an education factory, producing batches of children neatly sorted for the next, selective, stage of their manufacture. It towers on a hill above the low-lying river basin of the Ouse, rivalling the Minster in elevation, if not in architectural distinction.

I remember little of the early years beyond the smell of heaving, damp children on rainy days and the sordid mess of the toilets which dictated the rhythm and programme of my day, desperately holding on until I could get home without the humiliation of being caught short. There were memorable treats, like the boxes of red apples from kindly Canadians, sent to ease our post-war deprivation (I am not sure if the Canadians knew about our hoards of chocolates).

I struggled most of all with writing and never mastered the art of dipping the metal pen into the ink-pot and reproducing the required italicized print. I owned a pet spider who followed my pen round the page, leaving frequent blobs of black or blue. Until rescued many years later by the great Hungarian inventor László Bíró, I distressed teachers and parents alike by my lack of nib control.

But I clearly did something right. One hot summer day, the seven-year-olds were assembled in the playground and a roll call divided us into four lines. We knew that something momentous was afoot. As the clever goats gradually separated from the duller sheep, and even lesser species, we began to understand the choice was not random. I was relieved to be in the line assigned to Miss Whitfield, who always taught the top stream. Whether through astute judgement or self-justifying prophecy, the same group remained pretty much together in our respective schools for the next ten years or so. Our friendships with the other children became gradually attenuated.

Schooling acquired a new sense of purpose and direction: gaining more and more stars to add to the line snaking across the wall against my name, and achieving higher and higher ranking in the endless competition in 'mental' and 'mechanical' maths, composition and spelling, and the gamut of academic subjects that entered the curriculum. Praise at home followed praise at school, and I had plenty of encouragement to become a school swot.

Most swots had a hard time from their less academic contemporaries. Segregation by class did not provide protection in the playground or on the way home. I somehow survived that. I was tall and, also, in one fortuitous episode, acquired a fearsome and wholly unjustified reputation as a playground warrior. A small boy called Higginbottom demanded a fight at playtime and dozens of boys gathered round, chanting 'Blood! Blood!' His fists flailed wildly but they did not reach me on account of my having longer arms. Out of frustration he charged and I ducked from his blows. The duck, somehow, became a well-directed headbutt and soon the ground was fertilized with blood from his broken nose. I found myself carried around the playground in triumph and was never attacked again.

I was also rescued by reasonable competence in sport, achieved through endless games of street football and cricket, both played with tennis balls. I learned the importance of earning grudging, classless respect by heading a heavy ball or winning a tackle in the middle of the bog that passed for the school field, or being familiar with the weekly exploits of York City, thanks to my father who was a fan, and York's Rugby League team, with which I had an ancestral connection.

Along with books and ball games, like most children, I endured my share of terror and boredom. Both of these centred on God. My parents were God-fearing folk who attended the Baptist church for services twice a day with, for me, the added spiritual bonus of Sunday School. I heard it said that my father had studied to be a pastor and had attended a Bible college in Northern Ireland to this end, but there is no corroboration for this family story. Church was, nonetheless, a central pillar of their existence. Like most small boys, I understood little of what was going on and endlessly fidgeted with boredom, but was a dutiful little Christian, earning many heavenly credits by identifying obscure quotations from the lesser prophets.

One day, however, a serious religious schism occurred. We were late for a bus and I released a torrent of profane abuse learned in the school playground, but not understood. My father warned me that I would be punished and I was severely beaten when we returned home that evening. I felt a bitter sense of grievance and, for long afterwards, blamed God for the injustice of it. I also experienced nightmares centring on the figure of God in the religious painting hanging over my parents' bed, and screamed until it was removed. My apostasy must have been infectious, for the family stopped attending the Baptist church soon afterwards because of a bitter row the spiritual or personal origins of which were never explained to me.

The weekly cycle of boredom reached its climax with the ritual Sunday visit to Grandma Cable, for which I was required to be well scrubbed, seen, but not heard, and exceptionally well behaved. I suffered badly by comparison with my angelic cousin John, the adopted son of Uncle Reg and his wife Evie. I knew, however, that cousin John was not real, because I had helped to choose him from a book of orphans. The Cables had agreed that 'coloured and half-caste' children were unacceptable, and some of the other waifs and strays looked, even as toddlers, as if they were destined for a life of crime. In the middle of this unsavoury band of infants there was, however, a cherub with blue eyes and blond curly hair, lacking only wings. He duly became cousin John, the exemplar against which I was to be measured: his cleanliness advertised by a permanent smell of carbolic soap; his godliness undimmed, like mine, by doubt; and his heavenly voice untouched by late adolescence, remaining firmly stuck in the castrato range. He seemed, even as an infant, altogether too good to be true. He was. But the full scale of the ensuing disaster only became apparent after a couple of decades, when his hereditary Huntington's disease manifested itself.

My appetite for terror and my flight from boredom were both met in the fantasy world of films, radio and books which filled my childhood. Television did not arrive until my mid-teens. It was the vivid images from the weekly visit to the cinema that lingered in the imagination. My dreams and daydreams were long haunted by the early scenes from David Lean's Great Expectations, which my parents unwisely judged to be the best occasion for my cinematic baptism, aged six. The misty marshes of the Thames Estuary seemed uncannily like the familiar river-scape of the Ouse, and I could all too easily envisage a Magwitch-like convict emerging from the fog to snatch me. I progressed to the comfort zone of Westerns, where the good guys in the cavalry always managed to wipe out the Indians, and war films, where heroic Englishmen could be relied on to blast the Hun out of the skies or the seas. Some films had a profound influence: Where No Vultures Fly, which graphically captured the cruelty of ivory poachers in Kenya; Humphrey Bogart fighting off leeches in TheAfrican Queen, before a kamikaze attack on a German gunboat on Lake Victoria; and later, Simba, a horrifying depiction of Mau Mau oath-taking rituals and murders, also in Kenya. I had decided at an early age that, unlike my contemporaries, who were preparing to be train drivers, motor-racing drivers or spacemen, I would become a Big White Chief in Africa, ruling over the natives.

By the time I was eight, my father was on the move again to a bigger and better semi in New Lane, overlooking Holgate Park, near the rapidly expanding suburb of Acomb, our upward mobility underlined by the fact that our new neighbour was a bank manager. Our move was at least partly precipitated by our noisy neighbours, the Smithsons, who, these days, would probably have been in line for an ASBO. My father's main retaliatory weapon was to place our radio against their wall at full volume, covering it with blankets to dull the sound on our side. He failed. We moved.

For me the new home in New Lane sat in the middle of a vast adventure playground. Opposite were the woods of a park opening up to playgrounds and playing fields. The road itself led into a country lane lined with hedgerows, which led in turn to the wilds of Hob Moor. In the other direction was a disused windmill surrounded on three sides by a wilderness of scrub and trees, which were a perfect setting for Custer's last stand and for ambushing the Sheriff of Nottingham. Though I understood nothing of economics at the time, the country lane and the wilderness were becoming prime sites in the post-war scramble for development land, and they gradually disappeared during my childhood. But these were the happiest years of my early life: friends (all boys), boundless space, and a freedom to roam that would be inconceivable today. It is tempting to romanticize the days before family cars, televisions and expensive toys, but even in the more protective and disciplinarian homes like mine there was a degree of trust – in neighbours, in strangers, in the safety of roads, and in the common sense of children and their instinct for self-preservation – which has largely gone. We somehow survived without protective helmets and without encountering predatory paedophiles or murderous gangs. Occasionally there was a really serious treat: a day in Leeds on the trams and trolleybuses; or a week in Scarborough or Filey, by train to a dreary boarding house and the hope that the weather would permit the use of buckets and spades. But it was treat enough to own the streets and the wide-open spaces.


Excerpted from Free Radical by Vince Cable. Copyright © 2009 Vincent Cable. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Also by Vince Cable,
1 Starting the Climb,
2 You've Never Had It So Good,
3 Ivory Towers,
4 Olympia,
5 Facing Mount Kenya,
6 Red Clydeside,
7 Latin Detours,
8 A Passage to India,
9 Big Oil,
10 The Long March,
11 Political Triumph and Personal Tragedy,
12 New Millennium, New World,
13 A Taste of Leadership,
14 Fame, Fortune and Notoriety,
15 Stormy Waters and Unfinished Business,

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