1974 was the tumultuous year Britain endured two General Elections. It was also the year that, during endless hours of leafleting and canvassing, Corbyn met the woman who’d become his first wife.
Jane Chapman was 23, an attractive graduate studying for a doctorate at the London School of Economics. ‘Jeremy professed love early on,’ she recalled, ‘and said that I was “the best of the best”, so I thought this must be the thing.’
Consumed by what she described as a ‘whirlwind’ three-month romance – ‘he constantly urged us to marry’ – she agreed because ‘he was friendly and lively and seemed bright and not bad-looking’.
Naturally, both were hard-Left activists – she says ‘Jeremy was a Trotskyist, no doubt about it’ – and their respective local Labour branches selected each to stand in the council elections for the North London borough of Haringey. Both were elected and two days later, on May 4, 1974, they were married at the town hall.
Neither set of parents was impressed by their child’s choice. Chapman’s mother, a lifetime Tory, was not pleased that her ambitious daughter was marrying a poorly off, uneducated trade union official.
‘Jane was shocked that Corbyn didn’t read a single book in four years of marriage’ (pictured: Jane Chapman)
Corbyn’s mother Naomi disliked her new ‘alpha female’ daughter-in-law. It was wrong, she thought, to have such an obvious competitive element in a marriage.
Tensions were aggravated when Corbyn’s brother Piers arrived at the wedding looking even more scruffy than normal. Embarrassed, Naomi swept him off to buy a shirt and a suit, but they did not return until after the ceremony.
Following a brief honeymoon in Ireland, the newlyweds returned to a tiny ground-floor studio room in Haringey, moving a year later to a bigger ground-floor flat nearby. There, several chickens, a cat christened Harold Wilson and a dog named Mango ran around the garden.
Married life became a succession of political meetings and demos. Some mornings they would head for a picket line at 5.30am to support strikers.
Among the biggest surprises for Chapman was the total absence of books in her husband’s life.
Throughout the four years of their marriage, he never read a single one. He did not think deeply about ideology or political philosophy. Her initial judgment that he was ‘bright’ was mistaken.
His other handicap, Corbyn was acutely aware, was his lack of a working-class pedigree – especially when his childhood family home had been Yew Tree Manor, a five-bedroom 17th Century farmhouse in Shropshire.
From there his parents – scruffy, unconventional but undeniably middle-class – moved to a new home in Wiltshire, chosen to enable them to pursue their burgeoning interest in archaeology.
During Corbyn and Chapman’s visits for Sunday lunch, politics were politely discussed, but Corbyn’s parents never mentioned that they had been present at the Battle of Cable Street, or that his father David had ever considered going to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Their son’s introduction of those key events into the biographies of his parents would come much later. As Jane Chapman discovered, her husband’s understanding of their domestic finances was no better than his dismal grasp of economics. In line with his lifelong disapproval of aspiration and success, he never talked about buying a bigger home or car or increasing his income. When he returned home at night, he’d happily open a can of beans, swallow them cold and declare himself satisfied.
Jane Chapman addressing a Labour Party event in 1975 during her marriage to Jeremy Corbyn
Occasionally, he returned late from a meeting of the Hornsey Labour Party with friends to sing IRA songs while they all got drunk on beer.
He would sit on the floor in his greasy, unwashed army surplus store jacket, oblivious to his wife’s irritation.
They rarely went out together. Dinner invitations were refused. Chapman spent lonely evenings in their small flat with Mango the dog and Harold Wilson the cat as her only companions, while Corbyn met political cronies.
Among them was fellow Haringey councillor Bernie Grant, a bombastic Black Power Marxist from Guyana.
‘It’s racism to control immigration’, Grant frequently declared – an opinion that Corbyn quickly adopted.
In the summer of 1976, Corbyn and Chapman set off on his 250cc Czech motorbike for a camping holiday across Europe.
‘Jeremy always chose to go on holiday in August,’ explained Chapman, ‘because there were no political meetings.’ She feared the holiday would be as uncomfortable as the previous year in France, Spain and Portugal.
The ordeal was not just riding pillion on Corbyn’s bumpy bike, but his passion for abstinence.
While Chapman wanted to sleep in a proper bed and eat in interesting restaurants, Corbyn insisted on a small tent and cooking tins of beans on a single ring Calor gas stove. The nearest Chapman got to comfort was after a rainstorm flooded their tent outside Prague.
Begrudgingly, Corbyn agreed to spend the night under cover – not in a hotel, but in a student hostel. He became furious when his motorbike broke down in Czechoslovakia, assuming that because it had been manufactured there it would be easy to have it repaired. Instead, he was introduced to the realities of a communist economy.
Following a brief honeymoon in Ireland, the newlyweds returned to a tiny ground-floor studio room in Haringey, moving a year later to a bigger ground-floor flat nearby
The bike had been made exclusively for export, and no Czech garage mechanic knew how to fix it. For two days he fumed until it was finally repaired.
During their journey, Chapman discovered that her husband was not interested in equality within marriage, or in sharing any domestic chores. ‘He never spoke about sex, music, fashion or books. He put class first.’
Equally distressing was his indifference to Europe’s most beautiful cities. In Vienna, he refused to enter the palace of Schönbrunn, the Kaiser’s summer retreat, because it was ‘royal’. ‘You go in,’ he told her, ‘I’ll stay outside.’
European culture offended him. He stood in Vienna’s Ringstrasse – said by many to be the most beautiful boulevard in the world – and pronounced it ‘capitalist’. He walked past all the museums and art galleries, and found no pleasure in medieval towns.
In villages, he was only interested to watch the peasants going about their lives. In Prague, soaking wet from torrential rain, he did not lament a missed visit to Hradcany castle, and turned down a walk through the old town. Nor did he comment on the dilapidation of the city’s old buildings, all neglected by its communist overlords. ‘Preservation of architecture and heritage,’ recalled Chapman, ‘didn’t appear to be on his agenda.’
For similar reasons he had always refused to accompany her to Paris, where she did occasional research, or to Los Angeles to visit her aunt. He spoke only about elections, campaigns and demos, although his knowledge even of these was incomplete.
By contrast, he expressed a deep interest in Britain’s manhole covers, especially their dates of manufacture: ‘My mother always said there’s history in drain covers.’
Most travellers who crossed into Czechoslovakia from Austria during the Cold War were shocked by the experience.
Running just behind the customs buildings were two rows of electrified barbed wire and between them a minefield. Looking out over the eerie silence were armed soldiers in guard towers, with orders to shoot on sight anyone approaching from the Czech side.
Those caught within five miles of the border without police permission could expect imprisonment. Any Western visitor riding a motorbike through those fortifications would be left in no doubt that Eastern Europe was a prison. Czechs were badly dressed, had limited food, and lived in decaying buildings.
Czechoslovakia, a rich democracy before 1939, was a police state. But Corbyn uttered not a single word of criticism, and expressed no sympathy for the country’s 1968 attempt at liberation from the Soviet Union.
He said nothing about the thousands of skilled and scholarly Czechs forced to take menial employment as street cleaners or worse, as punishment for opposing the Soviet occupation.
‘He was a Tankie,’ said his old friend and constituency agent Keith Veness, meaning that Corbyn had supported the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and the Prague uprising 12 years later.
When in conversation Veness mentioned Stalin’s cruelties, ‘Jeremy walked away. He couldn’t do political arguments.
‘He was a communist fellow-traveller. The bastard never apologised for the Moscow trials.’
The Corbyns returned to London with Jeremy unaware that their marriage was cracking up.
‘Jeremy never thought there was anything wrong,’ recalled Chapman. ‘He assumed that, because our politics were compatible, that amounted to a proper relationship.’
‘She tried to make it work,’ said Keith Veness, ‘but he was uninterested. He never came home, and the relationship just slowly broke up.’
Chapman’s requests for more than just a political life – cinemas, restaurants, clubs, children – were ignored. ‘He didn’t acknowledge my emotional side,’ said Chapman. ‘He doesn’t recognise a woman’s feelings.’
At Christmas she prepared a special five-course vegetarian lunch for Corbyn and his brother Piers. ‘They stuffed it down their gullets and never said thanks,’ she recalled. Her husband, she knew, would have been happy with a can of beans: ‘Usually Tesco, not Heinz, but he wouldn’t know the difference.’
Just before Christmas 1979, Chapman walked out of the family home. According to Keith Veness, she ‘just gave up on him’. As she packed her belongings, Corbyn told his wife: ‘You should read Simone de Beauvoir.’
Clearly, ever the non-reader, he had heard about de Beauvoir from someone, and had failed to understand the author’s philosophy. Women, de Beauvoir complained, were regarded as ‘the second sex’, and defined by their relationship to men. To rescue themselves, they should elevate themselves by exercising the same choice as men – precisely what Chapman had decided to do.
Corbyn was exhibiting all the contradictions of an unresolved personality, disconnected from the real world.
His self-portrayal as a universal ‘do-gooder’ was at odds with his inability to care for his wife, or indeed any female companion. He was quite incapable of understanding why his marriage had collapsed.
‘He thought I left him on a feminist kick,’ recalled Chapman, ‘but it was because I wanted some fun. His lack of emotional awareness didn’t change. My emotional life as part of a relationship was forgotten.’
Finally, she realised that his judgment at the beginning of their relationship that she was ‘the best of the best’ was because ‘I was the only woman who would put up with his political obsessions’.
Nearly 20 years later, Corbyn invited Chapman for tea in the Commons. ‘You should lighten up,’ he advised her, convinced as usual that he had been in the right.
If anyone lacked a sense of humour, thought Chapman, it was her joyless former husband.
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