Clancy Sigal

by Harry on January 27, 2018

A couple of friends just gave my daughter a lovely-looking edition of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which I have never read, but will do now if she forgets to take it away with her) for a graduation present. Seeing it made me look up Clancy Sigal, and I see that he, sadly, died last summer. I didn’t know Clancy well, but i knew him well enough to have a little story about him.

I started listening to Saturday Night Theatre (Saturday nights on Radio 4 — and presumably, before that, The Home Service) before I went to infant school, and used to demand to be allowed to go to bed early on Sat nights so I wouldn’t miss it. If it wasn’t a thriller or a ghost story I would fall asleep, but if it was I’d be up till the news and often late enough to listen to the rambling talk show that Brian Redhead presented late night called A Word in Edgeways. 4 guests would just talk about whatever they felt like talking about, for 45 minutes, guided by Redhead. I don’t know how Clancy got on the show, but he was a regular and, to me, particularly fascinating probably because he was American and therefore had an accent (we didn’t have a telly, and there weren’t many Americans in small villages in Monmouthshire) but also because he was funny, an ex-communist and seemed to have read everything that had ever been written. I know A Word in Edgeways lasted many years, and maybe I stopped listening in college, but I am pretty sure Clancy stopped appearing sometime in the late 70’s.

After a couple of years as a graduate student at USC in the second half of the 80’s, I became friends with a journalism student who told me about this amazing journalism professor Sigal, and I twigged at a certain point that it was my (as it were) Clancy Sigal. At her behest he started turning up at political meetings I was organizing for the group I belonged to, often accompanied by other ex-communists also from LA. We were not, I hasten to add, stalinists, or in any way sympathetic to stalinism, but Clancy was ecumenical, and we became.. well, not friends… but very friendly acquaintances. I was impressed with myself at the time that I never let on how in awe of him I was, although I did, at some point, tell him that I grew up listening to him on the radio.[1]

He once wrote a terrific piece in the LA Times about the Young Americans for Freedom on campus at USC. He first noticed them at anti-apartheid rallies, which they loyally attended, despite the early morning starts, to counterprotest. Like Clancy, to be honest, I rather liked them, because they were genuinely interested in ideas and in politics and, like the lefties on campus, knew that they didn’t belong, either politically or culturally (the two that I knew were, like a lot of the handful of lefties, not from the social class that a lot of the other undergraduates were). Clancy understood all this, and identified with them: his piece (here) was a lesson to me in how to see — and treat — people with whom you are at odds politically.

USC was a very conservative campus — nearly the most conservative in the area — so it was a surprised that on the day that gulf war broke out it hosted the largest demonstration in Southern California — about 1500 people. This was newsworthy, and Clancy wrote a piece in the LA Times about how it happened. But his story didn’t tell the whole truth.

In the week before the war began, I got wind of a move by a campus religious group to call for a silent vigil on the morning it broke out (whenever that would be). The anti-apartheid group I was in agreed this was a terrible idea, and we needed a proper demonstration (which we knew we could organise easily). So it was agreed that one of our delegates to a broader meeting where the vigil would be proposed (and which Clancy would be attending) would preempt the vigil proposal. We also agreed that the delegate to do that would not be me, the overweight English Philosophy grad student who was a usual suspect. Instead, we’d have a freshman — a skateboarder with lovely long flowing blonde hair and a lot of charm — make the proposal. So he and I went to the meeting and at the appointed time he made the proposal. We knew the Muslim Student Association people, and the Black Student Union, and we knew that basically we could mobilize pretty much everyone on campus who was an outsider. Even YAF, now I think of it (though they counter-protested). So we got about 1500 protesters on the morning it began, about 500 beumsed onlookers, and about 100 angry counter-protesters. In Clancy’s story this was a groundswell, proposed by an neophyte, apolitical lad who was just naively opposed to the war (I’m fb friends with the then-young lad, and he’s definitely not apolitical). This was exactly the story I wanted to have told. But I am certain that Clancy knew me well enough, and knew politics well enough, to see perfectly well that a faction was behind the whole thing and the young proposer was not the innocent he seemed. For me it was a lesson in why not to trust journalists even if you like them, and, in particular, never to believe stories about political protests emerging spontaneously. Sometimes they do, but mainly there’s some sort of experienced troublemaker standing at the back.

So. Goodbye Clancy, it was great to know you. I now, of course, wish that I’d been a little less cool when I knew you, and had let slip the awe in which I held you. Then again, I gather, that awe will diminish when I finally read about Saul Green.

[1] Mercifully, when I first met Norma Barzman (a friend of his, but not there because of him) at one of these events, although I did know perfectly well who she was, I lacked the key bit of information that she had been a writer on the Richard Greene Robin Hood, so was not, actually, in awe of her. If I had known that, I’d have been unable to speak in complete sentences. Semi-off-topic, I once chaired a meeting with Harry Hay at it. Funny place, USC — I also met Yusuf Islam when I was there, who was utterly charming. As was Ernest Mandel, believe it or not. Betty Friedan and Jacques Derrida, by contrast, weren’t.



Alan White 01.28.18 at 12:18 am

Great story (-ies) Harry. For me the striking comment was about Yusef Islam! In college I actually serenaded women outside their dorm windows in his voice (I have a knack for imitating voices, but especially his)–and I have several of his albums memorized even today. I envy you that!


john mcgowan 01.28.18 at 8:59 pm

Hope you will write about your reactions to The Golden Notebook, once you read it. Recently re-read it–first time since 1976–and was surprised at how little it seemed a feminist tract, but was so fully a deeply melancholic rendering of communism’s (self-inflicted) collapse. Not the state communism of the East, but the party communism of the West.

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