The West Bletchley Left Book Club Circa 1936
By Andrew Coates.
John Sommerfield, May Day, London Books 2010/1936
April 29th, London, early 1930s, “In this whirlpool of matter-in-motion forces are at work creating history.” May Day (1936) sets out “a new world painfully fighting to be born from the filth, the rottenness, the miserable decay of capitalist society”. John Sommerfield’s ‘collective novel” of the London class struggle portrays and celebrates this struggle. It is full of high optimism. In a Postscript he calls it “early ‘30s Communist Romanticism.” A worker-writer and a Communist (remaining so up to the 1950s), this, his second novel, is red with the flush of Leninist enthusiasm. The Stalinist Zhdanov would call such committed literature, “a new type, revolutionary romanticism”. “Socialist realism” then is not just about showing how “things really are” or should be. Sommerfield, is concerned with love, with passion and despair; his characters’ souls are not engineered to react like cold automata.
There are many of them; too many to pay close attention to them all. There is John, a unionised Carpenter at Langfier’s Carbon Works. He life is ruled by deep affection, for his young wife, Maritime, and their baby David. This craftsman, while pleased with the new employment his trade has won him, is revolted by conditions in the Works’ machine shops, and the lot of the hard-driven factory workers affected by speed-ups and a rising numbers of accidents. But when union brothers urge action he remembers his “long miserable months of unemployment” and Martine’s “little ambitions for a nice home with bright curtains and new furniture.
The machinists, all women, are “silly girls with their synthetic Hollywood dreams, their pathetic silk stockings and lipsticks”. Yet, they are the “raw material of history” touched by “deep discontent” at the way the “automatic lathes” are to be operated on piece-work. Carbon Works is drawn into the conflict between bosses and workers. A Communist, Ivy Cutford, is there to bring them to class-consciousness. “The girls are beginning to take a good deal of notice of what she says because they like her.” While the bosses rear up at the prospect of conflict, aware that these “Communist elements” pose a threat. John equally comes to realise that “Life is a struggle for us, life is a battle under the long shadows of the factory chimneys.”
The employers are changing; the firm is becoming part of a larger holding. Capital is being concentrated. Sir Edwin Langfier, the founder of Carbon Works, is now in thrall to Amalgamated Industrial Enterprises, and their agent, Dartry. In Park Lane the Cabal of Monopolists behind the Corporation meet to decide on the future, “they are scheming to close down factories and speed up others, to consumer their lesser rivals. They making their class an ever-smaller and more exclusive society: control of production passes into the hands of an ever-shrinking group.” Below, there is a shout, “Workers, all out on May Day. Demonstrate for a free Soviet Britain!”
The Bus Drivers are out on strike. Mr Raggett Secretary of the Transport Workers; Union, “the owner of a fine house and car, a man of weight, with a large income and twelve-thousand pounds’ worth of securities” tries to break it.” May Day gets nearer. “The Communist cells have sprayed out leaflets like machines guns scattering bullets”. All out on May Day! It’s as if the world has become laid out in the columns of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker.
Sometimes one follows this, other times words scuttle past like beetles (I nicked that phrase from Roberto Bolaño). The frequent clumsy metaphors and language don’t help, “colours of halted waterfalls”, “soft lights glow unaudienced” to cite but two at random. As for the Communist tracts, “like autumn leaves falling into running rivers” “dropped into the living torrents of the homeward-hurrying workers” all leftists have given out bits of papers that get swept away.
But the narrative holds. On May Day an accident happens in the carbon Works Big Shop. A hand, Mabel, is scalped by the shafting, and the plant strikes. There is a fine description of how Sir Edwin Langfier is revolted by this result of speed-up. The callousness of the agent of the Monopolists, Dartry, who is only concerned about the hold up to orders, is heightened by his realisation of his ageing, and “the spectre of senility and impotence.” As a virile contrast the Monster Demonstration bursts forth, streaming out from the East End. A baton falls on one marcher’s head, “and the world exploded into a scarlet oblivion”. “Men and women who have never marched in a demonstration before are becoming revolutionaries in the course of a few hours”. Marble Arch is the destination, with the “flag-draped body is held up and saluted by a hundred thousand clenched firsts raised”…”Red Front!”
You don’t read May Day waiting for an unexpected conclusion. The “party-minded” Sommerfield lays on the Daily Worker line with a trowel. But is not Proletkult ‘pure’ proletarian literature. There is a freshness that is hard to dismiss. Unsettling modernist techniques, of the “Camera-Eye”, collages of newspaper reports, a montage of scenes, interrupt the narrative. As important as the lives of May Day’s characters are the Carbon Works, the Docks, Charing Cross Road, West End cinemas and theatres, the powerhouses of Battersea and Lots Road, the Print, Bus garages, the March, newsbills, statistics on unemployment, industrial accidents and strikes. There is a genuine tenderness and complexity of feeling (John’s hesitations, Langfier’s scruples) at work. True, the revolutionary vortex they are all thrown into has more magic than realism about it. Yet its picture is not consoling. The energy at work is agitating, dividing. Sommerfield is not bent on drawing together people of “good will”. One could say that for these reasons, the 1934 novel would not have gone down well with the mixed liberal, communist and pacifist audience of, say, the West Bletchley Left Book Club circa 1936.
Today, after May Day 2010, “everyone’s talking about politics”. But Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown, hardly represent the kind of new world that John Sommerfield (1908–91) would have revelled in. The present-day unions efforts at “mobilising the masses” have been singularly muted – the RMT (a donor for the book’s production, excepted). Only the routes of the London Streets, portrayed with great vigour, remain fixed in the same direction. But as foreign leftists sometimes say about the British Capital’s roads, they are wide and long enough for demonstrations to get lost in. Not, at any rate yet, highways filled with a swelling Red Front.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Coates is long-standing socialist and trade union activist who lives in Ipswich, near the Sunshine Suffolk Coast. He owns one of the best collections of sectarian left literature in East Anglia and 540 Everyman Classics. To while away the long-days he posts incessantly on the Web, pursuing vendettas and the line of his international organisation, Tendance Coatesy. His pastimes include putting slug pellets down on his allotment and watching the creatures die.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 10th, 2010.