Eric Gordon

Intrepid Marxist journalist held for two years in Beijing hotel room during China’s Cultural Revolution


The founder editor of the Camden New Journal, Eric Ephraim Gordon, who has died aged 89, was an old-fashioned editor, still pursuing news during his final weeks, including an expose on the NHS hospital in which he was being treated.

The influential, left-leaning, award-winning newspaper, one of the few remaining independents in the country, is said to have been on Tony Blair’s reading list. With its slogan “Open to all, coerced by none”, it has run numerous campaigns, successfully halting the closure of Whittington Hospital’s A&E. Critical of Labour-controlled Camden Council, it was once banned from its libraries.

The paper was born out of the closure of the Camden Journal by its former owners and the resulting strike by journalists. Gordon, its editor, and two other journalists bought the title for £1 in 1982 in an end-of-strike deal. They turned it into a free newspaper and maintained its quality content, massively increasing its distribution via street dispensary bins and paid distributors. The paper was named Free Newspaper of the Year five times at the Press Gazette industry awards.

A self-taught businessman, Gordon built on the CNJ’s success by opening up two sister titles in neighbouring boroughs, the Islington Tribune and Westminster Extra.

Gordon was brought up on a council estate in Wythenshaw, Greater Manchester, where his parents ran a newspaper shop. His family later settled in a small rented house in Cheetham, north Manchester. At the age of 11, he was one of four Jews in a school of 400, and was beaten up numerous times for being Jewish. He became increasingly aware of the strong undercurrents of antisemitism unleashed by the Second World War in that part of Manchester.

His proficiency in Hebrew led to an offer to attend Gateshead Yeshiva and later another in Stamford Hill, London, but he ran away after two years. His elder brother Jeffrey, who had become a communist, persuaded him to read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, among other books, which led him to reject institutionalised Judaism. On his 18th birthday, he joined the Young Communist League, writing: “I only had to look around the grubby working-class Manchester district I was growing up in, at the crowded terraced houses … at the men and women being daily swallowed up by dingy backstreet clothing workshops.” His own grandfather, Philip Gordon, who had emigrated to the UK with his wife Leah in the 1880s from Eastern Europe, was just such a tailor in a Manchester backstreet clothing factory.

During his late teens Gordon developed an ambition to write about the lives of the working classes, and learned shorthand and typing as the first step to becoming a journalist. After three years of National Service in the pathology labs of the Royal Medical Corps, he got his break into journalism, working on a series of local newspapers, including the Brighton Evening Argus and later the pro-Labour Daily Herald.

During the 50s and early 60s he took regular family holidays to Eastern Europe but these helped sow the seeds of disillusionment with the Soviet system. When disagreements between China and the USSR began to grow, Gordon sided with the Chinese, whom he regarded as more fervent, evangelical communists.

In February 1965, he took his wife Marie née Binney and eight-year-old son Kim to Beijing to work in the Chinese government’s foreign-language publishing house.

The following year the Cultural Revolution broke out, leading to economic and social turmoil. Gordon and his family were among a handful of Westerners who remained in China and he enthusiastically supported the movement at his office, while Kim became a Young Red Guard. Chairman Mao had urged the young to “bombard the headquarters” of his own government and Gordon regarded this as an expression of people power against bureaucrats and party officials. He vowed that on his imminent return to the UK he would write a supportive but warts-and-all book about the movement, and collected many notes and artefacts. But, anxious that officials might not be happy with an honest portrayal of their movement, he hid his notes. They were discovered, however, during a customs check in November 1967 as the family prepared to return to the UK. They were arrested on the train to Hong Kong.

They were held for nearly two years in one 13x13ft room in a Beijing hotel and only allowed out for interrogations in a similar room across the corridor. The police hoped incarceration and a semi-starvation diet would force Gordon to confess he was a spy.

In October 1969, six months after cancer surgery, he negotiated a cleverly worded ‘confession’, admitting to being anti-Marxist and bourgeois but not a spy. The family was released and returned to the UK. This followed not just a change in China’s foreign policy and the release of other Westerners, but a campaign led by his brother Jeffrey, sister Anita and parents Samuel and Sarah, who lived in Hove, East Sussex. During the family’s incarceration, more than 50,000 birthday and Christmas cards were sent to the Chinese Embassy in London for Kim, but none ever reached him.

In his book about the China ordeal, Freedom Is a Word, Gordon described the battle with the Chinese security police as a fight against “all the dark totalitarian forces in the world. Ours had become a cry of protest from … the underdog, the people who are always being pushed around.”

His experience in China made him more determined to challenge what he saw as bureaucratic or corporate power. He was elected to the executive of the National Union of Journalists, became editor of the Camden Journal and led the strike against his employers when they sought to close the paper as a loss-making business.

Until the end, Gordon remained a Marxist – but as he said in an interview on his release, his family’s ordeal left him disillusioned with China and power politics. “To me the individual is important,” he said. He never re-joined the Communist Party, admitting, “I’m not an organisational man.” In later life he described himself as a “Jewish, communist, individualist”.

Over recent decades he began to explore his Jewish heritage, reading widely on what he called the philosophy of life embodied in Judaism.

One of his last wishes was to get a mezuzah for his Primrose Hill home – “to tell the world a Jew lives here and that I am not afraid”. The wish remained unfulfilled as he died beforehand from complications following a fall. He is survived by his second wife Samantha, née Harding; children Kim, Leigh and Elly; six grandchildren and a great granddaughter.


Eric Gordon: born May 28, 1931.

Died April 5, 2021

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