Michael Shapiro, from Stepney to Peking
There is no reason why you should know the name of Michael Shapiro. He is one of the missing people of East End history. Even his closest friends and colleagues knew little of his ultimate fate, and those still alive who remember him talk of him like a man lost at sea long ago.
In the 1930s, however, he was one of the principal intellectuals of radical politics in the capital; a lecturer at the London School of Economics who gave unofficial legal advice to the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was a campaigner passionately dedicated to liberating his neighbours from the miseries of damp flats and exploitative landlords – the author of a crusading pamphlet, Heartbreak Homes: An Indictment of the National Government’s Housing Policy (1935). He was one of the leaders of the group of demonstrators who, in September 1940, invaded the air raid shelter of the Savoy hotel to protest about the poor protection for those who lived in the areas where the bombs were falling most thickly. After the war, he was propelled into local government and took office as a Communist councillor for Stepney. But then began his love affair with Mao Zedong’s China – an affair that brought him close to destruction and estranged him from the country of his birth.
Owlish and prematurely bald, Michael Shapiro combined his devotion to theoretical Marxism with a passion for the quickstep, and once smuggled a ticketless girlfriend into a dance at St Pancras Town Hall by yanking her up through a window. The state treated him with suspicion: during the war, MI5 took an interest in his activities – though by 1943, the Ministry of Labour made enquiries about employing him and his fellow East End radical Phil Piratin to write official propaganda material in a sphere “where their technical qualifications could be utilised and their views do less harm.” Two years later, they both had something better than the indulgence of Whitehall. They had power.
In the summer of 1945, democracy returned to Britain. The General Election that brought Clement Attlee his landslide victory also gave the Savoy invaders cause to celebrate. Voters in the East End remembered how the Stepney Communists had campaigned for deep shelters; knew that fewer of their neighbours would have died in the fire and falling masonry if the National Government had listened to their demands. They handed out their reward at the ballot box. Twelve Communists took their seats on Stepney Borough Council. Among them were Michael Shapiro and the leading man of yesterday’s blog, Max Levitas. Phil Piratin was elected MP for Mile End.
Finding people with clear memories of Michael Shapiro was not easy, but I did talk to someone who knew him in the post-war years, as a prospective stepfather. Anna Shepherd told me about the romantic friendship that blossomed between her mother and Shapiro in the late 1940s, after his separation from his first wife, Eileen. Anna recalls the jaunts they took together – visits to the Tower of London, to a fortune-teller’s stall in Petticoat Lane market, and longer trips, under the aegis of the Communist Party, to campsites in the New Forest. Once the children had gone to bed, the adults danced into the night. “All this time,” Anna recalled, “he was studying Chinese and couldn’t wait to see the victory of Mao over the Kuomintang. I asked him why he was so interested in China. He knew all about the Long March and then said that Jews had settled in China thousands of years ago. I was very surprised.”
In 1950 Shapiro left England to work as an advisor to the state news agency in Peking. After his departure, few of his friends and family ever saw him again. In 1955 his name appeared in a Ministry of Defence report on the treatment of British Prisoners of War in North Korea. Two witnesses claimed to have encountered him as he toured the prison camps under the protection of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. One, a sergeant in the Royal Ulster Rifles, alleged that Shapiro had threatened to have him executed by firing squad. The charge was never substantiated, but the damage was done.
Unable to return to England, Shapiro started a family in the serviced bungalow provided by the Peking government, wrote articles applauding his hosts and became a shadowy presence in hostile accounts of China in the British press. In the 1950s a Daily Express reporter clocked him at an official banquet in Peking and dismissed him as an “ingratiating, even obsequious figure [who] trotted about eagerly, trying to make friends, or at least acquaintances with the British visitors.” The Times reported him as being one of a number of expatriates who helped the Red Guard ransack the British Mission in Peking in August 1967. Another report cast him as the tormentor of Harry Lloyd, another British defector who suffered a nervous breakdown after being accused of anti-Maoism. “While he was in Peking recuperating, a group of radical foreigners led by British Communist Party member … Michael Shapiro came to his bedside to harangue him about his political errors.”
This zeal did not save him from suffering: the Chinese authorities rewarded his loyalty with five years of detention without trial. Shapiro was fortunate, however, in that he was rehabilitated without being killed first: when he died in 1986, Deng Xiaoping hailed him as “a staunch international soldier and sincere friend of the Chinese people.” In February 2010, I wrote to Michael’s brother, Jack, to request an interview. He died with the letter unopened on his kitchen table. At his funeral, tributes were offered by representatives of the governments of China and North Korea, and by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), a minuscule group of die-hards of which he was Honorary President. At the time of writing, it is still possible to view Jack Shapiro on Youtube, denouncing Khrushchev’s revisionism. His brother Michael has his memorial, too – a journalism prize given to promising young reporters in Beijing. Perhaps the time will come when one of them will feel able to write an honest biography of the man after whom the award is named.
A pamphlet written by Michael Shapiro while a councillor for Stepney.
Michael Shapiro’s brother Jack (1907-2010) eulogises China in 2008.
Archive images from Bishopsgate Institute
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