Politics and Protest: Harold Heslop, 1898-1983.

From an early age, Harold Heslop demonstrated a keen interest in politics. In his memoir From Tyne to Tone: A Journey. Heslop recalls his school having a day’s holiday on voting day when the Balfour administration handed over to Campbell-Bannerman:

As soon as we were set free from our school I made my way to the other school just to see what there was to see. I was soon deeply interested in the process. I stood in the porch to watch and wait for anybody I knew who might take me in (32).

A Review of Heslop’s Novel Last Cage Down. Courtesy of Derby Evening Telegraph (Derby, England), Thursday, November 14, 1935; pg. 6; Issue 16940. British Library Newspapers, Part IV: 1732-1950.

And so, began a keen interest in politics that would continue through-out Heslop’s long life. At sixteen, Heslop joined the Durham Miners Association and became actively involved in the Independent Labour Party.[1] He soon became Branch Secretary, and then later, in 1923 he was elected as ‘Council Delegate’ for his lodge (116). It was also around this time that Heslop successfully gained a two-year scholarship to study at the London Labour College.

It was during this time that Heslop was introduced to philosopher Karl Marx’s theory and studied his work Capital. Heslop describes this book as having ‘more concentrated human anger, more pity, and infinitely more understanding than there is in all the pages of political economy since the publication of The Wealth of Nations’ (134). Clearly the college had set Heslop on a journey of political discovery that continued through-out his own literary career. His novels, such as Journey Beyond and Last Cage Down, draw heavily on his own experiences of working life in the coal mines of the North East and for the search for work during the depression of the inter-war years. It was through his writing that Heslop became known as a miner-novelist. And he successfully raised awareness of the dangerous working conditions of the mines and the humiliating experience of unskilled labourers, such as himself, trying to achieve gainful employment in industries other than mining.

Portrait of a Working Man. Artist: Cyril James Frost.

As a proletarian author, he was particularly concerned with issues surrounding the publication of working-class writers’ work. He was critical of some proletarian authors, such as James Welsh, for ‘selling out’ to the capitalist publishers, yet he also acknowledged that these authors were impotent in the editorial process. Speaking at a conference for The International Bureau of Revolutionary Literature, held in Kharkov in 1930, he was also scathing of the left-wing press who, he believed, had failed to adequately publish and represent working-class authors and their work.[2]

After the second world war Heslop struggled to find a publisher willing to publish his work, and this may have been because of an interpretation of his work as ‘communist propaganda.’[3] This is further supported in Andy Croft’s introduction to Heslop’s memoirs, were he reveals that Heslop had concerns that his connections to the communist party would ‘prevent his novel The Earth Beneath from being published in the US.’[4] Still, Heslop did eventually move away from the Communist Party, becoming a member of the Labour Party shortly after his move to Taunton.

Interestingly, Heslop mentions nothing about the nationalisation of the mines after the second world war despite this having been his dream for so many years. Maybe he felt it was too little too late. It is difficult to know for sure, and certainly, nationalisation of the mines was not as successful as many socialist had imagined. As attempts were made to forge a new and distinct image for the mines from the one they had under private ownership, the relationship ‘between the workers, management and the public was a difficult, [and] often critical one.’[5] Still other miners, such as Richard Morris, whose author blog you can read here, were highly critical of nationalisation and felt that it had a detrimental effect on the mining community.

Bob Smillie, See also Sankey Commision. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Having left his communist affiliations behind him, Heslop ran as Labour parliamentary candidate for North Devon in the general election of 1955. The ‘stalwarts’ of the party appear to have been particularly unhelpful in offering Heslop their assistance during the campaign, and he recalls his urge to defect was only thwarted by not wanting to let other members of the party down. He was unsuccessful, as was his opponent Jeremy Thorpe.

Heslop’s recollections, whilst being autobiographical cannot be confused with a personal account of his life, as he reveals very little about his personal family life or his published novels. Instead Heslop recalls dates and any momentous events based on the current political situation that concerned him and his contemporaries at that time. For example, Heslop recalls 1919:

The year 1919 was a year of intense proletarian dreaming. The general election had taken place just before we were demobilized. I voted for the first time in my life at that election (112).

Durham Gala. ‘A Sight for all Men to Witness’ Image Courtesy of Chronicle Live.

Another example is when Heslop recalls the first Durham Gala after the end of WWI, which he describes as ‘a sight for all men to witness.’ His recollection of the event is in the context of Bob Smillie – a trade unionist and socialist activist, who was deeply involved in the Sankey Commission – coming to address the men attending the Gala. Heslop remembers Smillie as being ‘a showman in his own right’ and recalls how Smillie ‘accept[ing] the acclamations of the concourse…mounted a chair, and when the noise had died away … began to speak’ (113).

There are numerous examples, such as those mentioned above, that reveal the political tone of Heslop’s memoir and demonstrates how he assumed the authority to write a working-class history, which ultimately has resulted in a political representation of working-class life.

 

Works Cited.

Batsleer, Janet. Tony Davies, Rebecca O’Rourke, Chris Weedon. Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class. (1985). London: Routledge, 2003.

Bell, David. Ardent Propaganda: Miners Novels and Class Conflict, 1929-1939. Uppsala: Umea University Printing Office, 1995.

‘Cabinet Papers: Labour Legislation.’ Nationalarchives.gov.uk. Web Accessed 23rd April 2017.

Campbell, Andy. Nina Fishman. John McIlroy. British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: The Post War Compromise, 1945-64. Hants: Ashgate Publishing, 1998.

‘Harold Heslop’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 3:0075.

Heslop, Harold. ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:005, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/11000

Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994.

Wainright, Lynne. ‘R.W. Morris b. 1895: Politics and Protest.’ 17th April 2017. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 23rd April 2017.

 

Footnotes.

[1] Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994. Introduction, p8.

[2] Batsleer, Janet. Tony Davies, Rebecca O’Rourke, Chris Weedon. Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class. (1985). London: Routledge, 2003.

[3] Bell, David. Ardent Propaganda: Miners Novels and Class Conflict, 1929-1939. Uppsala: Umea University Printing Office, 1995.

[4] Heslop, Harold. Ed Andy Croft, Graeme Rigby. Out of the Old Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994. Introduction, p33.

[5] Campbell, Andy. Nina Fishman. John McIlroy. British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: The Post War Compromise, 1945-64. Hants: Ashgate Publishing, 1998. p27.

 

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