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Workers’ Tales Against the Ghost of Linen Decency

By Richard Marshall.

(Illustrations: Paula Rego)


Michael Rosen, Workers Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain,  Princeton University Press, 2018.

Tom Paulin’s Faber Book of Political Poetry corrects those who want to think of literature and art generally as being separated by ‘the thickest and most enduring of partitions.’ As Paulin brilliantly puts it, for these people: ‘ Art is a garden of pure perfect forms which effortlessly ‘transcends’ the world of compromise, cruelty, dead language and junk cars which Manicheans dismiss as mere politics.’ The distinction between art’s ‘formal garden’ and ‘the contingent scrap heap’ of politics makes clear the cavalier bias in the view. Cavalier in England means hierarchical, aristocratic and conservative. It’s a tradition in literature upheld and ‘floated as the major cultural hegemony’ by TS Eliot and Matthew Arnold. Criticism that dismisses the cultural , historical, and political contexts of art works within this hegemonic dream. The treatment of Milton by this tradition is instructive: David Norbrook writes of Milton that his ‘… uncompromising republicanism places his views even today outside the conventional framework of political discussion in England. Eliot and Leavis did not flinch from a drastic solution: Milton must be declared to have been a bad poet, and ‘dislodged’ from the canon.’ The result has been to separate Milton’s theology and politics from his poetry and ensure that the magic of monarchy and superstition ‘… permeated English literary criticism and education like a syrupy drug.’

There’s been a push-back of course – anyone working in the English Department of a UK State Secondary school for the last thirty or so years will have witnessed the energy with which various Tory governments have pushed their version of this ‘syrupy drug’ on generations of children and how dismayed teachers have battled against this. It’s interesting to note that Milton is still not considered a standard marker of being culturally literate in a way that Shakespeare is, but at least it is more and more difficult to pretend that art exists in a sound-proofed museum above history and events. Outside the cozy gated bunkers of the home counties and other monarchically-inclined authoritarian  regions,  where the syrup is more or less intravenously injected in between horse riding at some posh tax-averse private school and shooting up in daddy’s Range Rover, art is not anti-social but just part of the environment, an aspect of one’s experiences and feelings that inevitably become a public act. One figure at the heart of the push-back in English teaching in schools has been the poet and children’s educator Michael Rosen and he’s tireless in scooping away the syrup and replacing it with something far more nourishing. The son of Harold Rosen – a leading figure in the development of the teaching of English in schools and a founder of the London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE) whilst an English teacher in the last century, an organisation that paved way for a National Association later on – Michael has with erudition and good humour spent a lifetime in the trenches with the teachers protecting children from the authoritarian tendencies that continue to try and co-opt  imaginations and worlds.

In this terrific book Rosen stands in a popular tradition of art that begins and ends in the complaint and rebellion of the common people against the powers that lord it over them. It’s a proletarian tradition looking to images of the just society and one that links up with revolutionary sermons, nursery rhymes, ballads, popular songs and broadsheets from the past with energies detectable in the likes of Yeats and Kipling. Rosen knows his Levellers, like John Lilburne writing  in ‘Vox Plebis’  from the revolutionary times of the 1640’s: ‘ For as God created every man free in Adam: so by nature are all alike freemen born.’ This free Adam image is one bedded into Milton and Marvell, Clough and John Clare who writes:

‘ The common heath became the spoilers prey/ The rabbit had not where to make his den/& labours only cow was drove away/No matter – wrong was right & right was wrong/ & freedoms bawl was sanction to the song/-Such was thy ruin music making elm/The rights of freedom was to injure thin…’ in which we find a bitter tender elegy for a dying social class – the agricultural labourers displaced by the enclosure acts that nicked their common pasture land.

E.P. Thompson, in ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ cites a United English oath where we witness the radical complaint against authorities that destroy the working class:

‘In a full Presence of God. I a.b. doo swear to abbey the Corall but the … Peapell. Not the officers but the Committey of United Inglashmen … and to assist with arms as fare as lise in my power to astablish a Republican Government in this country and others and to assist the French on their Landing to free this Contray.’

Paulin tunes in to the Irish accent of this and notes how the republican urge transcends any whittled thin nationalist stuff. It’s a patriotism that is cosmopolitan, lending arms to French and Irish workers, finding hope in the common cause across national boundaries in an antitheisis to monarchical powers and any little Englander fascism. This popular tradition takes non-conformism and the individual conscience that threads unease if not out-right hostility to a political economy and unbridled capitalist ethic, also then finds  a sort of conservative impulse, conservative with a small ‘c’, one which finds a sacral sense in the value of tradition where tradition trumps new fangled ways that dissolve older realms of connection and solidarity.

Thanks to the work of Rosen and the bands of tireless workers in the London and National Associations of English it’s still possible – just – to teach poets with deep libertarian instincts and a demand for social justice even if the assessment system clogs up popular tradition responses in deliberate ways – disallowing vernacular and non-standard English ways of expression for example, and insisting on close up readings that are more interested in naming parts rather than naming parties. But that’s for a different time.

Michael Rosen’s collection of worker’s tales has put together another element of this tradition to stand with the ballads and nursery rhymes and all. Princeton’s blurb sets the scene :

‘In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unique tales inspired by traditional literary forms appeared frequently in socialist-leaning British periodicals, such as the Clarion, Labour Leader, and Social Democrat. Based on familiar genres—the fairy tale, fable, allegory, parable, and moral tale—and penned by a range of lesser-known and celebrated authors, including Schalom Asch, Charles Allen Clarke, Frederick James Gould, and William Morris, these stories were meant to entertain readers of all ages—and some challenged the conventional values promoted in children’s literature for the middle class. In Workers’ Tales, acclaimed critic and author Michael Rosen brings together more than forty of the best and most enduring examples of these stories in one beautiful volume.

Throughout, the tales in this collection exemplify themes and ideas related to work and the class system, sometimes in wish-fulfilling ways. In “Tom Hickathrift,” a little, poor person gets the better of a gigantic, wealthy one. In “The Man Without a Heart,” a man learns about the value of basic labor after testing out more privileged lives. And in “The Political Economist and the Flowers,” two contrasting gardeners highlight the cold heart of Darwinian competition. Rosen’s informative introduction describes how such tales advocated for contemporary progressive causes and countered the dominant celebration of Britain’s imperial values. The book includes archival illustrations, biographical notes about the writers, and details about the periodicals where the tales first appeared.’

Rosen explains that in the tales collected life and work become emblems, single vignettes that flow into each other and both converge and contrast with each other. The stories can be read as stories without conclusions – a never-ending form that reveals the drudgery, folly, the wrongness of work organized like this. And beneath their surfaces lie various variations of socialist dreams, the sort William Morris writes about when he says;  ‘Whatever system of production and exchange we may come to, however justly we may arrange the relations of men to one another we shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating sleeping loving walking running swimming riding sailing we must be free to enjoy all these exercises of the body without any sense of shame…I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.’

Between 1880 to 1920 socialists produced these nonrealist tales of which Rosen has presented a good sample. They appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals of socialist parties and groups. Their aim had the same rationale as Bible stories for children – to make the socialist cause accessible.  The Labour Church founded in 1890 by Unitarian John Trevor, editor of the Labour Prophet was a continuation of the ideas of the working class radicals the Levellers and Diggers, mixing the poetry of Blake and Methodism, an ideology that informed the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 who were sent to Australia for trying to start trade unions. Alongside this popular tradition we find also the complexities of the Puritan/Republican tradition too where in rejecting traditional monarchy and the authority of the established church, the Bible was read for inspiration, drawing on the belligerant verses from St John ; ‘ And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?’

Rosen is quick to remind us that it’s very recently that universal sufferage was granted to people over a certain age and that each of the reform acts that brought this about were hard fought and resisted by conservative authoritarian forces. The 2ndReform Act in 1867 increased the vote to 1 in 3 men. It was as late as the 3rdReform Act in 1884 that the vote went to 2 in 3 men by bringing in much of the rural population. It wasn’t until the Representation of the People Act in  1918 that more or less all men over 21 and women over 30 had the vote, and it wasn’t until 1928 via the Representation of the People [Equal Franchise] Act in that all men and women over 21 had the vote. It’s throughout this period of reform that Rosen has taken his tales. And it is worth pondering that fact that it has been less than a hundred years since everyone over 21 had a vote.

In that period education spread via working class associations plus guilds and apprenticeships for high skilled trades and literacy. Newspapers and magazines grew. Sheet music and songs circulated in pubs and clubs and festivals and folk music told the stories of the workers and their grievances against the ruling classes.  Literature was written and read along stratified class lines. Children’s literature was for the middle class children. It was left to the avant garde to circulate more adult orientated themes, in particular stuff with sex and foreign material in them. It’s through this that we have radical movements beginning, such as an early gay rights movement led by such as Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). We have Christian socialism, Utopianism and the works of Marx and Engels, movements for birth control and eugenics, for Universal suffrage, secularism, coop and guilds movements plus the antiracism of Zola passed on through French socialism to the British.  We have the growth of a working class education movement, sexual liberation, feminism, pastoralism, temperance movements, scientism, Fabianism, syndicalism and anarchism. And throughout this time there was a central conflict raised by the question whether  socialism would  be brought about by activity of working people or enlightened leaders. The spectre of vanguard politics was forever rearing its ugly head and the disastrous results of its Bolshevist version in Russian Communism at the beginning of the twentieth century has worked against the socialist cause ever since. I suspect its vanguardism that makes many on the left suspicious of the Corbinites in the UK, for instance, although Rosen himself is an active and powerful presence in the Corbin Labour Party movement. (So maybe it’s just me who is suspicious!)

But as Rosen points out it was out of all this heady stuff throughout the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries that the socialist tale was created. Fairy tale, allegory, fable and mystery tale were the chief four genres these tales used. Fable grew out of the tradition starting with Aesop, allegory came from the Greeks, fairy tales from the Renaissance, and moral tales from the great sermons – and of course none of these were exclusively socialist. Aesop was always in print. Two great allegorical texts were very popular at the time – ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and ‘Gullivers Travels’. The first of these is, with Paine’s ‘The Rights Of Man’, the foundation text of the English working class movement, and Tom Paulin writes of this as where we see the anti-establishment attitude fusing the puritan with the popular tradition with its sense of social and economic  disadvantage, a text where ‘…Bunyan’s Valiant –for-Truth straddles both traditions.’

Fairy Tales were developed at this time into written texts by, among others, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Andrew Lang and Joseph Jacobs and it was Jacobs who put together the nationalistic ‘English Fairy tales (1890, 1894) even though the tales were not all English and not all fairy tales. It was a distinct break from the works of Perrault and Grimm, however. It’s in this collection we have Jack and the Beanstalk (1890) and Tom Hickathrift (1894) where in both we see the little guy beating the giagantic one! ‘The History of the Three Little Pigs- (1890) again shows this idea where after the first two improvident pigs perish, the 3rdgets revenge on the wolf. The message to the working classes was ‘Be prepared and cunning.’ Rosen makes much of the way this is distinct from other tales although within the fairy tale genre  Jack Zipes has shown that many of these fairy tales also held these anti-establishment views and morals.

The moral tale overlapped with the fable and according to Rosen originated in the parables of the Pharisees of the middle east – street preachers – and these stories fed through Jesus’ parables and Petrus Alphonsus’s ‘Disciplina Clericalis’ (c. AD 1100) and the Religious tract Society established in 1799. I think the influence of ballads and sermons was also likely to have been enormously important here as well. And of course the idea of turning the world upside down was a conceit that had been in use for centuries. The broadside ballad of 1646 called ‘The World Is Turned Upside Down’ was played when Cornwallis surrended at Yorktown in 1781 and it’s clear that its moral was a live presence in the antinomian rebel imagination and remains so. Mystery Tales had been popularized by ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822) and Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Shadow’, alongside the French symbolists with their unsettled and unresolved narratives. John Ruskin’s ‘King of the Golden River’, William Makepeace Thackery’s ‘The Rose and the Ring’ (1855), Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christman Carol (1843), Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince and other Tales’ (1888), the literary tales of Laurence Housman (1865-1959), George MacDonald (1824-1904) and E Nesbit (1858-1924) all critiqued greed, materialistic attitudes and fed into the socialist tales as they developed. Rosen writes in his fascinating introduction:

‘This is socialism at its most hopeful, perhaps at its most innocent, untouched by world war, Stalinism, or the Holocaust. That innocence is hard to recycle, and it may be unwise to try, but I think there is another way in which these works have contemporary potential: in their apparent desire to lay bare the processes that make the majority of people’s lives such a struggle. We can read in the stories the idea that the display of these processes would educate and motivate readers to join movements and work toward making a fairer, more just world.’

So in this collection we meet St Michael, an angel charged with fighting the devil in Daniel 12; ‘ At that time [the end of the world] shall Michael rise up, the great prince, who standeth for the children of thy people’: we meet the Myrmidons, warlike people from Homer converted into hangers on, hired ruffians and sycophants; we meet Theocritus the poet (300-260 BCE), whose pastoralism assigns peasants capacities for language and sentiment equal to aristocrats; we meet three acres and a cow; babbles o’ green fields’ out of Henry V Act 2 Sc 3, Falstaff’s death scene, where he dies in urban squalor dreaming of the green fields of his memory: “ A made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child: a parted ev’n just between twelve and one, ev’n at the turning o the tide, for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his fingers’ end. I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a babble of green fields…’; we are told that Dullards never, never, never shall be slaves,’ a sly variation of Rule Britannia by James Thomson (1700-1748); we have Little Red Riding singing Ting-a-ling-ting-tay by Harry Dacre who wrote Daisy Bell “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…’; we suck on purple sweets, the violet  representing modesty, virtue, faithfulness, love, and willingness to take a chance on love; we walk from Embankment to Temple Gardens where the homeless gravitated in the nineteenth century; hear Rudyard Kipling who lived near Embankment station once upon a time, asking “Winds of the World, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro -/And what should they know of England who only England know?-/ The poor little street-bred people that vapour and fume and brag,/ They are lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English Flag’; travel out to Bethnal Green and the Old Nichol rookery used by Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) as the setting for ‘A Child of the Jago’; listen to Faust’s lone prayer ‘I willingly would such a throng behold,/Upon free ground with a free people stand’; worry at Lenin’s ‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth’; and feel Byron’s ‘But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men’; frown at Moloch to whom the children of the Canaanites were sacrificed; know Tennyson’s ‘Tho Nature, red in tooth and claw’; and the financiers and Bourse thieves; all to Irving Berlin’s 1912 song ‘I Want To Be In Dixie’.

Monarchist TS Eliot criticized Blake for lacking ‘a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own.’  Tom Paulin comments that when he does this ‘… he is really saying something like “ what a pity Blake was a radical Protestant prophet.”’ There’s much to enjoy in this collection and once you get the lines of influence you identify the traditions that fuse against the old possum and the anti-socialists. Rosen has given us stories that express a populist democratic ethos, springing a youthful Wordsworth’s belief in  ‘mountain liberty’ and ‘equal ground’, and  poet, socialist, feminist and republican Arthur Clough’s belief in the pure republic fighting against ‘ … the whole great wicked artificial civilized fabric -/All its unfinished houses, lots for sale, and railway outworks…’ and seeking to bring everything back, ‘… resumed to Primal nature and beauty.’ It’s always good when we get written down rude intellectual eagerness and freshness that rails against ‘… the ghost of a linen decency’ of Eliot’s reactionary kingdom of letters.


Richard Marshall is biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 3rd, 2018.