‘I [have] written it all down, just as it flowed. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No preservatives, No colouring matter. The boozing and the snogging. The intrigues and the plots, the [joys] and sorrows. The tragedies, comedies, triumphs and disasters. Above all, the presentation of the everyday lives of the so-called dedicated revolutionaries, who underneath, as I have shown, were ordinary human beings, with failings and foibles, and all too frequently, victims of circumstances. What emerges is the personal effect of the amazing story of one of the most remarkable events in the entire history of organised human society, paling even the French Revolution.’
This is the testament of Harry Young, taken from his self-titled memoir, ‘Harry’s Biography’, completed in 1983 at the age of 82.
The ‘Cockney Commissar’ recounts the incredible story of his life, focussing, in particular, his time as a ‘genuine British-born Comintern apparatchik’, in service of the Youth Communist League throughout the majority of his young-adult years. Beginning, well…at the beginning, Harry paints a literary picture of his early life growing up in London, under the care of his father, ‘the most unfortunate, unluckiest, unhappiest man’ he ever knew, and his doting mother, who, aside from her daily ‘twopenny worth’ of beer, lived in a ‘hell upon Earth’ due to her husband’s failure in all matters of business.
Hyperbole aside, the nature of Harry’s childhood, and his relationship with his parents was dictated by the almost stereotypical working-class poverty that seems, now, to be synonymous with life in turn-of-the-century Central London. Hindered by a father who seemed void of any business sense, and a mother who, despite her love for her son, was shackled to her own existence by ‘her natural affection [and] loyalty to her legal husband,’ Harry seemed destined to join the ranks of the ‘lumpen proletariat’ – before he’d even heard of Communism.
Despite the bleakness of Harry’s childhood, the anecdotes with which he retells his story carry a degree of nostalgia. These concern, not only his youth, but also the simplicity of life without the pitfalls of the political stage that he encounters into his adolescence and beyond. He remembers the rich variety of ne’er-do-wells that became part of his early years: the ‘“Totters” (rag and bone men), [the] “Dippers” (pick-pockets), [the] Buskers (performers),’ and, of course, in true cockney style, ‘the “two by Fours” (whores)’ that would congregate outside the ‘Beer-Shop’ which neighboured his father’s bicycle repair business.
While his childhood adventures provide necessary background to his memoir, Harry’s journey through adolescence, into adulthood, provide the real intrigue into this fascinating man’s life. Following his committal to the communist party and their cause, Harry’s adventures take him ‘farther and wider than any other British Communist.’ Travelling repeatedly to and from Russia as Comintern apparatchik*, as well as through ‘Central Asia, the Ukraine, […] down the Volga and up the Caucasian mountains to the Chinese border,’ Harry Young reports ‘objectively, dispassionately and, yes, affectionately’ his various exploits in the same anecdotal style as the story of his youth in London.
*(a professional member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union with some level of political responsibility)
Harry’s recollections of his travels with the Young Communist League give a unique insight in to the political climate of the time, and the chaos that was the Communist movement, in the early twentieth century. He recounts how he watched with admiration, Vladimir Lenin, ‘the greatest political genius of the 20th Century’, speak in Moscow, and, with sadness, Leon Trotsky being forcibly ejected from the ‘Communist International.’ In addition to these two communist powerhouses, Harry offers his observations on the political and personal lives of a number of prominent party members. ‘Harry’s Biography’, however, is far from being a dry political commentary. Instead it combines the serious message of the struggles of the proletariat within the growing capitalist society with the inevitable capers of a young, outspoken Londoner mixed up in one of the largest social movements of modern history. Wives, girlfriends, affairs, friends, drinking, shootings, police raids, and a rather amusing incident involving a steak pie, fill the two hundred, or so, pages of his memoir.
After his days as Comintern apparatchik, and on his return to London, Harry discovers that the shadow of communism and his own political exploits adversely affect his attempts to regain some semblance of a ‘normal’ life. His employment at the London Telephone Exchange and the Ambulance service were all scrutinised by the authorities because of the fear of having a communist as part of the Civil Service. Ultimately, he pursues a career in academia, teaching science at various schools and academic institutions, as well as later obtaining a B.A History degree of his own.
I have no intention, dear reader, of revealing more about the gems of ‘Harry’s Biography’ in this introduction – these are reserved for future posts. Suffice it to say for now, however, that the life of this fascinating man, laid out for all to read in these pages, is something to behold. It is an emotional tapestry of humour and sorrow, honesty and deceit, love and loss, and even philosophical contemplation – welcome, dear reader, to the remarkable life of Harry Young.
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