Les Foster, 1919-2016
Roots and early years.
Leslie was born in Maryhill 1919. His father and grandfather came from Leith, had a blacksmith’s shop at the corner of Bilsland Drive. They held the contract for shoeing soldiers’ horses at Maryhill Barracks, circus horses at the Kelvin Hall Zoo. His grandpa was over 6 feet tall, “a believer in physical force.” He once caught a burglar in his house and dropped him out the window. Leslie’s mother’s people were Munros from Brora. This coastal region in Sutherland is where thousands ended up waiting to be shipped to Canada, cleared off the land by the worst of landowner aristocracy. Some stayed and tried scratching a living off the shore and the sea. Grandpa Munro was a stonemason; he moved to Glasgow and found work at Maryhill Barracks. Les and brother Archie attended Garrioch Primary then Allan Glen’s. “We saw the light of day inside a two-storey tenement house at 970 Maryhill Road... The Kitchen window looked down on the blacksmith’s shop ...” Archie was seven years older and a bit of hero to the young Leslie. Not only did he go to Glasgow University he was a hustler at snooker, learned at Johnnie May’s billiard saloon which was just along the road, in that one-storey building next to the garage. Les didnt have much time for school, nor its “history books...‘Gung Ho’ propaganda tracts” he called them, “heavily laced with Rule Britannia. Our tiny feet marching to the strains of Onward Christian Soldiers.”
The dignity of labour.
He went his own way; left school early. “Sometimes I feel like throwing up when I hear pundits talking about the Dignity of Labour. One Monday morning I sold my dignity to a company called the Saracen Foundry, by the time Friday came round I asked for it back...I began to study the moulders’ physique...a complexion of ashen grey, sunken cheeks, backs permanently bent, old before their time...sparks flying all over the place, odd bits of burning ingot dropped onto the floor. I asked the Gaffer for my cards - and got them.” Later he entered the building trade as a plasterer’s labourer, reading voraciously, keeping his eyes and ears open”
His love of Maryhill.
His own family moved to Milngavie but his heart was in Maryhill. He was a fund of local knowledge, from cinemas and backstreet singers to the political agitations. George Millar stabbed to death by a blackleg during the 1833 printers’ strike at Dawsholm, buried at Duart Street. Keir Hardie’s remains? Right here in Maryhill. A Memorial stone to Donald Macrae, the Alness Martyr? Right here in Maryhill, where they buried him. What about the Chartist leader Arthur O’Neil leading off the Maryhill contingent from Gilshochill, led by an Orange flute band, probably from the same Lodge that stares back at ye to this day, when ye look up the hill at Sandbank Street. Les laughed at that. At the same he could be touchy on certain subjects and in conversation ye had to tread cautiously. But he was always interested in people themselves. His first questions were on your family and his interest was absolutely genuine.
Football and a dark period.
He was a passionate man. Completely non-sectarian. In football his position was along the lines of: I’m not biased, I don’t care who beats Rangers and Celtic. What a memory! Rhyming off the great players of the past. Never mind Hibs’ Famous Five what about the 1950s Third Lanark team, or the Ansell Babes of Motherwell. The professional game nowadays left him cold. But he still loved football. Nothing gave him more pleasure than watching Maryhill Juniors at Lochburn Park. It was getting out to watch the ‘Hill that helped him through the worst period of his life, the dark time following the death of his beloved Gracie, almost 20 years ago. Her family were the James’s and McLeans from Lambhill. Gracie made her home in Milngavie and was well-known there - far better known than Les, and he enjoyed that.
Politicised mother and the Communist Party.
He was 18 when his dad died. Him and his mother flitted to Garnethill. She was politicised, came to political meetings: a friend of Johnny Muir of the Clyde Workers’ Committee. When Les got involved she encouraged him. He became Secretary of the City Branch of the Communist Party in his early twenties, met with Jimmy Mclaren, then Hugh Savage. The three were close pals. Until tragically Jimmy McLaren died of TB at the age of 28. Like many young Glasgow Communists Les and Hughie were taught to be wary of Harry McShane. He had a reputation for ‘awkward individualism’. He said what he thought, and acted accordingly, and it didnt go down too well with Party chiefs. But the ability to think for yourself went down well with Les and Hughie; avid readers, avid thinkers; activist to the core. They had the utmost respect for McShane and were close friends to the end.
Grand Hotel Occupation.
“The Grand Hotel at Charing Cross was used as a club by the American Army during the War. Later it stood empty - a must for potential squatters. So Harry McShane, Bill McCulloch, Bob Saunders and myself broke in through a side door taking in tow a fair number of families. Crowds gathered, the Police arrived, sirens blazing. Several Party Leaders stood there without lifting a hand to help. When the Assistant Chief Constable saw Harry McShane come out the front door he said, I might have known...” Les was a Shop Steward; a leader of the Merrylee Housing struggle of 1951 along with his comrade Ned Donaldson. The Tory Council wanted to sell off 622 council houses at a time when 100,000 people were on the waiting list in Glasgow. “In those days workers did not get pestered by the absurd rigmarole of postal ballots. Decisions were made at the point of production. After discussion and debate a vote was taken. Those in favour one side...those against the other. The strike lasted ten days.” Guy Aldred’s Strickland Press printed 30,000 leaflets for the strike and when told the committee were skint Guy [said] forget it, it’s a worthwhile cause.” The Tories lost that one but in the aftermath Les was sacked; him and Ned, blacklisted. Les joined British Rail and stayed until retiral.
Lenin’s last will.
In 1953 he, Hugh Savage and Bill McCulloch resigned from the CP alongside Harry McShane and took to spreading the message; chalking pavements, publishing The New Commune, the Socialist Revolt. “Lenin’s Last Will and Testament had been suppressed by the Soviet Communist Party. The British Party made sure it never saw the time of day. In the Will, Lenin, after making a number of serious criticisms said that Stalin was dangerous and unfit to don the mantle of Leader. We procured the text and published.” One night Les, Hughie, Harry and Matt McGinn were up in Bill McCulloch’s house planning stuff. A chap at the door. Gerry Healy of the WRP, the Workers Revolutionary Party, up from London on a recruiting mission. He was wasting his time. They had had enough of Vanguards. “Our aim was to go it alone, no pretensions or ambitions...we thought there was a great need for Socialist Propaganda, and nothing more than that.... We took to the Soap Box holding regular open air meetings at the corner of Drury Street. Controversy was encouraged, questions never fudged.” At one such meeting in bleak November two hundred people turned up on the anniversary of John Maclean’s death. “Sometime after the Hungarian events the Socialist Workers Federation ran into hard times. We ran out of cash...our paper The Socialist Revolt was put to sleep. Alas only three of us soldiered on, Hugh Savage, Harry McShane and myself - we still remained Revolutionary Socialists.”
Research, writings and Workers’ City.
Meantime Les continued in British Rail, always working on his own research and writing projects, contributed to the Glasgow Labour History Project; wrote on the 1911 Clydebank Singer Strike and the crucial role of women there, the SLP and the Wobblies. He did a history of the NUR, did the Introduction for McShane’s 3 Days That Shook Edinburgh. He and Hughie published a life of the forgotten 19th Century Marxist, Willie Nairn who influenced a generation of working class activists, including John Maclean, Arthur McManus, Willie Paul, Neil Maclean and Tom Bell. In the 1980s Les, Hughie and Ned came out of ‘political retirement’ and were in at the early stages of Workers City, with Janette McGinn, Freddie and Isobel Anderson, Farquhar McLay and other friends and comrades. Les wrote a couple of pieces for that scurrilous rag of fond memory, The Keelie! Les even found time to write his autobiography and left unpublished articles. At the very end he was talking football, politics, music, and memories. Plus he was reading Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread. At 96!
His passing left a mark.
He had been in hospital since August; in a Maryhill nursing home since early December, a stone's throw from the old Bilsland Drive smiddy. He was making the best of it. But a few days ago that was him transferred to the Royal, back with the breathing mask and still with the tubes. Purgatory. He was fed up with it all. Plus the knowledge once recovered it was back to the nursing home. No, it wasn’t for him. His generation spoke about ‘contributions’. The big compliment to pay a comrade? What a contribution! To the Labour movement and to the Socialist movement, a lifetime’s commitment. Leslie Forster - what a contribution!
Written by James Kelman
posted by John Couzin.