Donation to ACR in memory of Paul Yenan Key

We received a very kind donation into our fighting fund, in honour of Paul Yenan Key who died recently. It only seemed fitting we published his obituary written by his best friend Gregor Benton.

Paul Yenan Key, 1945-2022

On March 28, at seven in the morning, with Margot by his side, Paul died in hospital in Tasmania, of cancer. Many are left in tears at the loss of this wonderful open-hearted open-minded human being. Paul was my oldest, best, kindest, bravest, most original friend. Paul’s Dad was a Communist, like mine, so his three sons each bore an appropriate middle name – Lenin and Stalin in the case of the two oldest and Yenan in Paul’s case (just as I ended up Gregor, after Zinoviev). Paul was touchingly proud of being Yenan (the Chinese Communists’ wartime capital at the time of Paul’s birth), and he made the most of his unusual name while working for two years in Xian as a physicist.

I recruited him to the Communist Party in Cambridge in 1963. We were both expelled (rusticated) from the University in 1964, for covering the entire town (including King’s College chapel) with slogans demanding the release of Nelson Mandela, then on trial for his life, and – so it was intimated – “other activities not befitting of a gentleman.” We both became Trotskyists in 1965. I was expelled from the Party in Cambridge, after my return from a year’s rustication, and he was expelled later after organising a small Trotskyist focus in his Party branch in London.

Paul was the only one of us in the movement at the time with wheels – a motorbike, the engine of which exploded, knocking out his front teeth out (he never replaced them), and later an improbably posh Aston Martin in which he bombed around England with terrifying abandon. Paul was a brilliant scientist. After Cambridge, he went on to get a PhD in physics at Royal Holloway and later worked for a year in Africa, as a teacher, and in Russia and China, as a physicist. Up until his mid-twenties, he toiled tirelessly for the revolutionary cause, before giving in to his essential anarchism and going overseas. He continued to believe in the need for socialism and revolution and to accept the main thesis of Trotskyism, that you can’t have socialism in just one country, but he was far less engaged in the world of revolutionary politics in later years, mainly because of his dissatisfaction with Trotskyist sectarianism and dogmatism (a peculiarly British affliction).

He spent several months at one point in a Burmese gaol after an illegal border-crossing (Paul had not the slightest respect for laws and conventions). As a result of his experience in jail, he became very active after his return to Wales in Amnesty International, and humanitarianism became his main concern. For a while he was a dedicated Buddhist, a ghost of which clung to him forever. He had originally left Britain feeling world-weary after a major disappointment in love, but he resisted the fatal urge and decided instead to travel the world, which he did on and off for several years.

According to Josie Pollentine, mine and Paul’s close friend, it was on an African riverbank that he abandoned his plan to take leave of the world. Hearing a lion bellowing in the jungle, he flung himself into a crocodile-infested river to swim to safety on the other side. At that moment, he knew he very much wanted to live. Later, he paddled down the Zambezi on a log-canoe. When his backpack was stolen, he travelled on in just the clothes he was wearing. He worked his way between continents as a casual worker on oil-tankers. He had hundreds of stories to tell.

On one occasion, in Southeast Asia, he was invited to a wedding by a random acquaintance. Being shoeless, he visited the market to buy a pair so he could look decent for the party. A frugal man, like the rest of our generation, he spotted a very smart-looking pair on sale for a few pence, and bought them. During the wedding, held outdoors, it suddenly started to pour with heavy tropical rain. The shoes immediately fell apart. It turned out that they were funeral shoes made of cardboard and destined to be burned or buried along with the deceased, which is why they were so cheap.

Later, Paul interrupted his travels for two years to come and live with us in Leeds, where he got a job as a researcher in the University. In Leeds, he fell in love like the rest of of us with Wang Fanxi, who he described as saintly. (I decided not to pass this assessment on to Wang.) He then returned to his wandering and ended up in South America, where he worked his way north on horseback, in the company of his Argentinian ranchero friend Roberto. Eventually, he came back to Britain and settled in Wales, as a smallholder (raising goats and chickens) and beekeeper (later rising to the rank of bee-inspector). He learned Welsh, to add to the Russian and Chinese he had picked up during his stay in those two countries.

On his final round of travels, he met Margot, a teacher from Australia, and she left home to join him in Wales, as his partner. Later, they moved to Tasmania, where Paul had three jobs – again, as a smallholder and bee-keeper, but also as a cave-guide, in Mole Creek (in Cambridge, Paul had stood out on the somewhat dour and one-track left as a serious caver).

Wherever Paul settled down for a year or two, he created small paradises by meticulously and lovingly renovating ruined or neglected cottages and farmhouses. He renewed two such houses in Penty-Parc (Sir Benfro) and Rhydlewis (Ceredigion) in Wales and, together with Margot, three more in Tasmania, where together they made the most beautiful home. Paul, we will all miss your brilliance, your humour, your compassion, your honesty, and your daring. You enriched the lives of everyone who met you.

On behalf of the steering committee at Anti*Capitalist Resistance we thank Daniel Benton for the donation into our fighting fund. Our condolences to Paul’s family and friends, may he rest in power.

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Gregor Benton is emeritus professor of Chinese history at Cardiff University. He has published many books on China and other subjects. His principal research areas are modern Chinese history, dissent under communism, and Chinese diaspora. His Mountain Fires: The Red Army's Three-Year War in South China, 1934–1938 won several awards, including the Association of Asian Studies’ prize for the Best Book on Modern China. His translation of Mei Zhi’s F: Hu Feng’s Prison Years won the English Pen Award.

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