A review by Mike Hamlin
I first learnt about British Labour History as a student in the 1960s, through such books as Allen Hutt’s British Trade Unionism (1941), and A. L. Morton & George Tates’s The British Labour Movement (1957). These were grand, chronological narratives, starting early in the
nineteenth century and finishing around the time of the second world war. They would cover, in the course of a few brief chapters – The Growth and Decline of Chartism, The New Unionism 1880-1900, The Origins of the Labour Party 1900-1910, The Great Unrest 1910 -14, The Post-War Crisis 1919-24 and finally, The General Strike and After 1925-29.
They were written in a clear, confident style and broadly reflected the political outlook of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Empirical exemplification was sometimes rather thin but the overall narrative was straightforward and often uplifting, even through periods of setback and temporary defeat. Morton and Tate in particular, had a well-thumbed chapter on ‘Socialism and the Great Unrest’ and judging by my detailed annotations, I must have used it as the basis for more than one long forgotten essay or talk!
Re-reading for this review, much came flooding back and I was surprised how well it had prepared me for Ralph Darlington’s important new study. ‘Labour Unrest’ is here, more accurately, replaced by ‘Labour Revolt’ and the incisive focus on the years 1910-14 are given the space they deserve across 336 detailed pages. The book’s starting point is that the ‘Labour Revolt’ that swept Britain in the four years leading up to First World War was one of the most sustained, dramatic and violent explosions of industrial militancy and social conflict that this country has ever experienced.
‘The strike wave involved a number of large-scale disputes in strategically important sections of the economy. A protracted strike in the South Wales coalfield in 1910-11 was followed in the summer of 1911 by national seamen’s, dockers’ and railway workers’ strikes, as well as a Liverpool general transport strike. There were national miners’ and London transport workers’ strikes in 1912, a series of Midlands metal workers’ strikes and Dublin transport workers’ lockout in 1913, and a London building workers’ lockout in 1914.’
During this time, a significant proportion of the industrial workforce took part in 4,600 other strikes for higher wages, better working conditions and union recognition. Women workers were also involved, often for the first time and school students walked out of their schools in the September of 1911. The strikes were on a totally new scale and mobilised a wide and diverse range of often younger workers.
‘It was a revolt dominated by unskilled and semi-skilled workers, encompassing both members of established and recognised trade unions, and also workers hitherto unorganized and/or unrecognized who became engaged in a fight to build collective organization and for union recognition against the hostility of many employers. Action largely took place unofficially and independently of national trade union leaderships’
This youthful energy and the spontaneous dynamic of the militancy, from both men and women, once unleashed, took most of the more traditional Labour movement leaders by surprise. However, Jim Larkin, a leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, acutely and accurately observed that ‘labour has lost its old humility and its respectful finger touching its cap’ . Outcomes were impressive. Across the four years, overall trade union membership increased by 62%, from 2.5 million in 1910 to 4.1 million in 1914. The proportion of workers who were union members (union density) rose from 14.6% to 23%. And the number of women workers represented by trade unions increased by an encouraging 54%, breaking out into areas beyond its previous textile industry enclave.
Inevitably, there were underlying limitations and weaknesses, serious strike setbacks and defeats. On the industrial front – ‘national trade union officials were able to reassert their authority and control over embryonic rank-and-file networks’. And in terms of national politics – ‘The Liberal government was able to accommodate the simultaneous three ‘rebellions’ (labour strikes, threat of civil war in Ireland and the campaign for women’s suffrage) because they were essentially discrete struggles only bound together tangentially in a diffuse and uncoordinated fashion’. But most significantly of all – ‘the strike wave was to suddenly shudder to a halt, stopped in its tracks by the onset of the First World War in August 1914.
This is an important book, in many ways definitive. For me, its main strength lies in its specific focus on those four crucial years 1910-14. Its structure is also, to my mind, exemplary. It’s arranged in four parts. Part one (two chapters) provides the general backdrop and context to the revolt: industrially, socially, economically and politically. Part two, which forms the majority of the book (five chapters in all), details the scope and outcomes of the strike waves themselves, moving chronologically, across the years under consideration. Part three, is a thematic and analytical assessment of the most distinctive features of the strike wave with a focus on new forms of industrial organization and militancy, along with broader aspects of explicitly political radicalization. Finally, part four looks at the aftermath and legacy, industrially and politically, both during the war years and immediately after.
The concluding bibliography, too often missing from studies these days, is also worthy of a mention. And here, taking up a full chapter-length to itself, we have a resource which is both richly extensive and incredibly useful in its own right.
Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 fundamentally aligns with Bob Holton’s earlier study British Syndicalism 1900 -1914 (also published by Pluto), in concluding that much of the ‘labour revolt’ of these years acquired ‘proto-syndicalist’ aspects – i.e. demonstrated ‘forms of social action which lie between vague revolt and clear-cut revolutionary action’. At the time, Holton (writing in 1976) made the challenge that ‘writers on the ‘labour unrest’ have not however, taken up and developed this theme. Analysis of social consciousness and behaviour during the strike wave remains extremely thin and often superficial, with the activities and motives of those who participated still rather obscure.’ With this new book, Darlington has categorically risen to Holton’s challenge and has answered each of his points fully and convincingly.
In short, Ralph Darlington and Pluto Press have produced a lively, impeccably researched and politically informed work – it deserves to be read and enjoyed by any serious labour historian.
This review first appeared in the newsletter of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Labour History Society
Labour Revolt in Britain is available at Five Leaves Bookshop or by mail order at fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/labour-revolt-in-britain-1910-14/
How do you choose to read a book? a recommendation or a good fly leaf ? I often wonder at gems which disappear through the cracks. This book which came to me via a promotion event at the Five Leave Bookshop which I was drawn to because of my interest in the poet John Clare.
John Clare known as the ‘peasant poet’ had little education, was poor, and worked as a farm labourer. At times relying on parish relief. The brilliance of his poetry, filled with intelligence, and lyrical beauty, was a giant leap from the expectations of his class. He brought language, grammar and detailed observations of the natural world which could only be born from his experience of working rural life. For these reasons, in addition to the struggles he had with his mental health, he was someone who my parents loved and championed. Hence my interest.
A Length of Road is written by the poet Robert Hamberger, it is his account of walking in 1995, from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire. Retracing the route take by John Clare in 1841, when he escaped from a psychiatric hospital in Essex and walked over 80 miles home. Later that year he was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrews Hospital) eventually dying there in 1864.
Robert Hemberger, chose to make this journey in reverence to John Clare, and to face his own personal demons. At the time his relationship with his wife was ending and he was on the cusp of permanently moving out from her and their three children. The book is well written and stands alone as a reflective memoir. Robert leads us through a working-class childhood, his loss of father figures, meeting his wife and having children, the cherishing and loss of male friendships. The strength of this book lies in his honesty and his own sense of culpability. There is an avoidance of placing blame on others which enables us to share with Robert his struggles with mental health and considerations of gender and sexuality. Without gaining conclusion Robert emerges from the roadside with knowledge as to his own resilience.
This writing skilfully takes you between the landscape of John Clare, his life and works to Robert’s story and poetry. Contrasting a landscape, which passes the same road markers and plants as Claire did in 1841 and is now also populated by lorries, the A1 and fast-food restaurants. Change and our journey through it, appearing to be the theme of this book.
This is a thoughtful account of personal growth, and a great introduction to the poetry of both John Clare and Robert Hemberger. I have read many well promoted books and memoirs which I have enjoyed much less. All hail to John Clare.
All nature has a feeling by John Clare
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.
This interesting book brings to the forefront the struggle of Palestinian women for National and women’s liberation between 1969 to 1984. Comprising eighteen oral testimonies with Palestinian women, including a round table discussion, the author is to be commended on the quality of the translation and her perseverance in bringing these to the attention of a wider audience. That it took two years to translate the testimonies from colloquial Arabic into English, highlights the passion and commitment to this project.
The introduction to the testimonies by the author is a necessary requirement as it reminds the reader of the long period of struggle waged by women from the diaspora, as well as the occupied territories as part of the Palestinian Revolution, with most of the grassroots mobilisation and organisation through the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) – the umbrella organisation for the women’s movement.
As the Women’s Liberation movement emerged during the 1970s, many dedicated women’s journals, magazines and newsletters portrayed prominently the image of the Palestinian woman fidayi guerrilla fighter, which in turn became a symbol for revolutionaries all over the world. What this book does particularly well is not to underestimate the importance of those women who did not carry a gun. Reflecting instead on the equal importance of women organising and working in the fields of education, politics, health and providing child- care during periods both of relative peace and full-scale war.
The book is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/making-palestines-history-womens-testimonies/
For someone will remember us / I say / even in another time
After Sappho tells the stories of a group of women artists, feminists, writers, actors, most of them lesbians, networked across Europe and the US but centered mainly on Italy and Paris from the late 19th century up to 1928 (when Orlando by Virginia Woolf was published). Orlando is significant as in many ways this book riffs on the structure of Orlando. Each ‘chapter’ is headed by a fragment of Sappho’s poetry and that too is significant in how the book is written.
Many of the women in the book are wealthy women, but not exclusively and Schwartz tells their stories, parts of their stories, interweaving the characters in both time and space in small chunks. Little sketches. Almost threads. She structures it around fragments of Sappho’s poems… and riffs on those themes. So there is much to discuss about the structure of the book but there is also the history, the rich history.
For me, this was a page turner. Yes, there is some exasperation at the entitlement and wealth of some of the characters. And some of them frankly behaved badly. Our characters were often privileged but almost all of them had escaped abusive fathers, husbands and/or rapists. They found ways to escape and ways to be with each other. To find a way of being lesbian. Some had no resources and were supported by those that did. Throughout the book Schwartz uses an authorial voice that includes us in the ‘us’, like a chorus, I thought. The lesbians in particular, were trying to ‘make us’, make a way of being. They were all brave and I found this very moving.
Interwoven with the stories of the women are snippets about the latest theories on lesbians and legislative attempts to outlaw and silence them. The Italian codes of law affecting women (as property) were an eye opener, but shouldn’t have been surprising. As a reader you get a full sense of the rising feminism, especially in Italy, and the very real dangers to women.
As we get towards the end of the book, we hear the drumbeat of fascism. Some of these women became involved in that and some were annihilated by it. The many different stories here and the times they lived in led me to want to know more and to look things up. In particular I was lead to read a book I should have read long ago, No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami.
Fiction or not? It is an alternative way of writing history. Schwartz riffs on facts, on Sappho, on Greek nouns and, I think, on the structure of Orlando. I’ll leave you with this. She refers to the ‘kletic’ in Greek. The kletic poem is one that calls or summons assistance. This book is maybe that. An invocation. A conjuring. I do think this book is about remembering. A colossal sweep that invites us to remember these women. And I’m thankful to the author and to the wonderful Galley Beggar Press for bringing it in to being.
Illustration: Romaine Brooks called Peter, A Young English Girl – a portrait of the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein)
After Sappho is available here: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/after-sappho/
A number of Jewish people I know have found a few letters and postcards in Yiddish among their parents’ and grandparents’ possessions, sent by half-forgotten or unknown relatives living in Eastern Europe prior to the war. These ghostly messages from the past, in a faded script that could not be understood by the finder, sometimes disappoint when translated. The messages were often simply “hope you are well, hope your children are well”; flowery greetings with little news other than an engagement or a wedding. They sometimes seem like not very subtle ways of asking for financial support, perhaps for an engagement gift, sent to someone living here thought to be better off by those left behind.
Merged, the three collections of letters enabled Alfandary to reconstruct the lives of his family. Except it was a jigsaw with missing pieces, pieces that will likely always remain missing. The first cache included letters to Rita from the family in Salonica and from her brother Leon who had emigrated to France. The second and third boxes had belonged to Leon. which finished the triangle – letters from Salonica, letters to and from Palestine and France. The last of the letters were from November 1942. Leon and his family were rounded up in France and did not survive (though his wife’s sister did, whose family inherited Leon’s letters). His Salonican relatives were among the Jews taken to their death from that city out of the Jewish population of 50,000, only a thousand of whom survived.
The poet Gerda Mayer, who died last year, came to Britain on a kindertransport. Her father was last heard of in Russia in 1940. At every reading Gerda included her much-anthologised poem “Make Believe”, a poem imagining her father had survived and came across her work in a bookshop, ending
when some publisher asks me
for biographical details
I still carefully give
the year of my birth
the name of my hometown:
GERDA MAYER born ’27, in Karlsbad,
Czechoslovakia…. write to me, father.
Reading Alfandary’s book I was reminded of this poem, feeling that in some ways that the volume under review is a message in a bottle that might be read by someone who knows something, at least to fill in more of the jigsaw. Indeed, in private correspondence with the author he mentioned that one early reader of his book was able to add a little information about a mutual connection. And, when writing the book, Alfandary was able to find two very distant relatives, whom he describes meeting. I said earlier that it appeared that all the Salonican Cohens save for his grandmother died. But what happened to Isaac and his wife Martha? Isaac was Leon and Rita’s brother, Martha his gentile wife. Early in the book Alfandary says both died in the Holocaust, but later he is less clear. They certainly vanished from history in France. They appear on no lists of prisoners, no lists of those transported. And Martha was a gentile. It’s likely Isaac did not survive, but what of Martha? Martha who? Her maiden name is unknown. Was she left behind when her husband was taken, did she remarry, are her children and grandchildren out there? This is one of the pieces of the jigsaw still missing, another is what Isaac did for a living… letters from Salonica to Leon and Rita complain that Isaac never writes to his family back home. Isaac’s own letters to Leon – usually asking for money, sometimes large sums desperately needed at once – come from all over France. Was he a gambler, or what? Alfandary writes that it often seemed like he was on the run.
Telling these stories is a way of remembering, and honouring the dead. The author uses psychoanalytic theory to try to create a coherent narrative of the experience and the impact on himself. Others tell their stories through drama and even children’s writing. I’m thinking here of Tom Stoppard’s partially autobiographical play Leopoldstadt, and Michael Rosen’s book The Missing, which is about the gaps in his family history he was able to fill in.
One of Rony Alfandary’s other books is a psychoanalytic study of Lawrence Durrell. While I can recommend the book under review I think he sometimes allows his other interests to edge their way in, not always successfully. He wonders, for example, whether Leon’s path could have crossed in Paris with Henry Miller. Alfandary asks “Is it a justified interpretation to support my wishful thinking that perhaps he [Leon] was also influenced by the likes of Henry Miller?”. My answer would be “I don’t think so”. The strength of the book is the background story and the letters, reprinted in yearly chapters from 1923 to the end. They are incomplete, at times mundane, at times confusing, but I was drawn into the life of a long-dead family, and I cared about them.
The book is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/postmemory-psychoanalysis-and-holocaust-ghosts-the-salonica-cohen-family-and-trauma-across-generations/
On April 22 1978 Harry Murray went to a bungalow in the town of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, on the pretext of meeting Millar McAllister to talk about pigeons. Millar was a well-known and respected photographer of pigeons in the journal Pigeon Racing News and Gazette. After a brief conversation Harry took a revolver from his jacket, shot Millar in the chest, aimed another shot at the head, and then shot him again twice in the chest. Millar’s young son Alan witnessed everything and screamed for his mother as Harry ran from the scene. As well as his hobby of taking photographs of pigeons Millar McAllister was an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Harry Murray was an active member of an Active Service Unit in the IRA.
Anatomy of A Killing tells the story of what led Harry and his three accomplices to this point. The level of detail is remarkable. Author Ian Cobain traces the lives of all involved not just from childhood, but for several preceding generations, and in the process tells the story of the island of Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries. He describes the process of radicalisation, training and organisation that enabled them to participate in a political assassination. Contrary to the myths put about by British politicians IRA member were not ‘mindless thugs’, and Cobain reveals the reality in terms of background, gender, profession and why they had arrived at this point.
News of the murder was sparse in Britain, many British people taking the view that this was all happening in a far-off place and that with any luck British troops would prevail. Ironically on that same day Nottingham Forest secured the First Division title, which would have been of much greater interest to me as a 17 year-old. I was studying for my A-levels and knew more about 17th century French drama than what was happening much closer to home. That was exactly how the British state wanted it. They were correct in assuming that most people had little interest in visiting Northern Ireland for themselves, therefore making anti-Republican propaganda all the easier. One government minister who did visit Belfast was however truly shocked at the dire levels of poverty, unemployment and housing that the Catholic community had to endure.
The backgrounds of those who took part in the killing give countless examples of the hardship and discrimination going back several generations, ultimately leading to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The stance of the British government of the time was that, over time, the IRA and its supporters would run out of steam. After all, the British state had infinitely greater resources with the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, plus a licence to engage in shocking levels of brutality. Cobain details the horror – there can be no other word – of what happened in Castlereagh Police station, where all suspects were interrogated and sometimes tortured. He quotes from official police accounts of interviews and contemporaneous doctors’ reports, plus statements from those being questioned. As for the bigger picture Cobain contrasts what was being said in parliament – if anything was being said at all – with how Gerry Adams and other republican leaders were trying to keep the profile of the struggle high with the ultimate aim of getting the British to realise that they would never secure a military victory.
You know what is going to happen, and the murder of Millar McAllister is described with deep sensitivity by Cobain with no needless sense of drama; but by this point you why it was happening. Cobain has also traced those involved as they were released as a part of the Good Friday agreement, and he asks them to reflect on what happened; their answers are fascinating. The same privilege is accorded to Harry’s family. Anatomy of a Killing is an outstanding work, we get the historical sweep plus the perspective of the individual. The extensive bibliography is pointing me to other works. Ignorance on these issues is still shameful in Britain, as evidenced by recent Brexit-related events, but for those who wish to find out for themselves the truth is close at hand.
Book orders: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/anatomy-of-a-killing-life-and-death-on-a-divided-island/