‘This book is the discharge of my debt to the Russian people for their boundless hospitality and generosity to me.’ From Harry Young’s mouth to our ears!
Aside from a representation of his gratitude to the Russian people, Harry declares that his motive for writing his memoir is ‘because I am sick to death of being repeatedly told – “You must write it all down.”‘
The memoir itself is, largely a recollection of his experiences as the Young Comintern Apparatchik attached to the Communist Party in Moscow, but you would be forgiven, dear reader, for assuming this is a dry political commentary; quite the opposite! Interspersed with humorous anecdotes, his writing is largely about his personal experiences of life in both London and Moscow, and his observations of the various people he meets along the way.
Although he never directly identifies his audience, it would seem obvious that his memoir is aimed at anyone with a particular interest in the peculiarities of the organisation and day-to-day running of the Communist Party in both Russia and Britain. I would, however, suggest that Harry’s memoir can be enjoyed by those without any Socialist preferences, or even political awareness. His writing avoid technical political references, and where it does delve into the inner workings of the Communist Party, he does a very good job of explaining his experiences in a language that can be appreciated by even the most politically ignorant person. David Vincent emphasises this point, suggesting that the working-class autobiography ‘constitute[s] a rare commodity. […] and as they are more than accounts of isolated events, they offer unique insights into the continuity and coherence of the individual’s life.’ (‘Love and Death,’ 1980, 224) Although I’m not sure Harry, the Socialist, would agree that his work is a ‘commodity’, Vincent’s observations certainly suggest a measure of validity to his endeavour.
Simply, this is a rip-roaring tale of the life a London-born, working class, cheeky-chappy, who, through his (mis)adventures, encounters some of the most iconic figures of the early twentieth century, and consistently finds himself in the kind of situations that would be more suited to an adventure comic. His early recollections of poverty, familial stagnation, and educational mediocrity, situate him firmly within the proletariat, but he resists criticising the bourgeoisie that reinforce his place in society. Instead he counteracts institutionalised Capitalist subjugation by extolling the virtues of the working classes, through tales of political adventure, travel, and inspirational acts. One must be careful, however, to consider the authenticity of Harry’s subjectivity, despite his attestations of transparency. Jonathan Rose makes it clear that ‘although] autobiographies will probably prove to be the richest source of history for audiences, they must be used with caution and balanced against other materials.’ (‘Rereading the English Common Reader.’ 1992, 51) For me, however, Harry’s work provides the contextual information that serves to authenticate his work to a certain degree. His recollections are based around events that can be situated historically and, for me, he avoids making unsubstantiated statements based on incomplete information. Instead, he provides you, dear reader, with the facts and leaves the judgement to you. This, in my eyes, is part of what makes this memoir so stimulating.
From my reading of his work, however, there is an unintentional purpose that begins to materialise the further on one reads. Chronologically organised, Harry embodies the very essence of working-class resilience that began to emerge after the end of the Second World War. He is constantly battling against a British Capitalist system that, despite his best intentions, persists in trying to subdue his ambitions. His memoir can be read as an example of how a person, through sheer wit and determination, can be part of a movement that began to change the thinking of societies on an international scale.
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’ Social History 5.2 (May 1980): 223-247.
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53.1 (January-March 1992): 47-70.