Harold Heslop’s desire to continue his education was realised when, at the age of twenty-six, he was granted a scholarship from the Durham Miners Association to attend the London Labour College. Heslop’s formal schooling ended at the age of thirteen when he began work in the coal mines of South Shields. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that he possessed little knowledge of the mystifying theories of philosophy when he first attended William Craik’s lecture on proletarian philosopher Josef Dietzgen. Heslop recalls how the lecture was received by him and his fellow students: ‘[it] hit us where it most certainly hurt. We were left rolling about … in a state of utter bewilderment’ (131). As their education at the college continued Heslop explains:
We were thrust even deeper into the morass … we were never offered even a potted biography of Kant, Locke, Butler, Hume, Hegel and all the tribe of German philosophers. All we were instructed to do was to locate them and reject them on the grounds that they were not relevant to the needs of the working-class (132).
This, Heslop suggests, was no surprise to the body of students attending the college, as they understood that whilst these authors could fulfil their intellectual needs, they would be of little use back at the coal face. Nevertheless, Heslop was introduced to a variety of authors and after two years of studying, and a closer study of Karl Marx and his contemporaries, Heslop describes how he ‘passed out of a phase of ordinary, almost unintellectual life into one which held the imperative demands for understanding’ (134). Heslop makes it clear, through his memoir ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey,’ that he feared he would never attain a deep enough understanding of Marx , and yet he became, and remained, a dedicated Marxist.
As an autodidact, Heslop continued to read vociferously through-out his adult life. Occupying himself, primarily, with social realism, he explored the literature of British authors such as George Gissing, H G Wells and John Galsworthy. He also read a variety of Russian authors such as Yevgeny Zamyatin and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Undoubtedly, the authors that Heslop read influenced the way he thought and wrote, and there are numerous examples though-out his memoirs to support this. Through the research that the Writing Lives team has achieved we have been able to identify many working-class people, who, as autodidacts, became deeply involved and affiliated with their chosen political party. An example of this is the wonderfully named Hymie Fagan, who was passionate about Karl Marx and a staunch communist. You can read more about him here at Writing Lives.
Heslop reveals his class-consciousness through his writing. Often drawing on, and identifying himself along-side authors of social realism, he articulates how he had become disenfranchised with what he saw as the ‘capitalist means of production.’ When Heslop, on an extended visit to Leningrad, visits a church named ‘The Church on the Blood’ he writes:
Through-out my adult life I have not lost the pleasure of reading Dostoevsky. My reverence for him has always been greater than my worship of George Gissing …. I was here in Dostoevsky’s own city, and I felt myself utterly alone with him … there I sensed the quietude and poverty of the city … I could not escape the feeling that I was walking with him. As we approached the church we had to pass through two lines of mendicants mostly women, who asked alms in a low sing-song. This astonished me. How often had the Russian novelist described this scene. Did the old Russia still exist? (185).
This visit was thirteen years after the Russian revolution. The promise of the emancipation of the peasantry and the hope of social stability still appeared, to Heslop, a long way off. Perhaps for Heslop, this realisation brought it home to him that real change would be a long time coming not just in Russia but in Britain too. And this is made clear when Heslop compares the meagre difference thirteen years has made for the Russian working-class and the five short years the labour party of 1930 were asking for, in order to ‘banish all poverty and woe from the land’ (185).
On returning to London, Heslop writes about walking to Walnut Tree Walk in Lambeth, a part of London that Heslop had come to know intimately, he writes:
It is strange how to the reader of Gissing his spirit hovers over that street which he gave to Thyrza. There were times when … I wondered if it was my own fate to relive the crucifixion of George Gissing. Perhaps it was my own ego refreshing itself on my own less poverty-stricken existence (239).
Heslop, it seems, was struggling to reconcile his steep climb out of the mining poverty of New Hunwick, with that of the London working class whom Gissing so poignantly portrayed in his novel. Indeed, Heslop describes how he would ‘quicken [his] footsteps and get beyond [the streets] screaming poverty, its tumults, its people almost exhausted of hope’ (239). Whether Heslop felt an ‘exhausted hope’ at his own ineffectiveness at alleviating the grinding poverty of his fellow proletariat, or whether there was an awareness that the precarious career of the proletarian author was as fragile as that of the humble miner it is difficult to say.
Ainsworth, Megan. ‘Hymie Fagan (1903-1988): Reading and Writing.’ Writing 10th November 2013. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 22nd March 2017.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960. London: Routledge, 1994
‘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
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. London: Yale University Press, 2001.