‘(T)his is the story of 60 years of a very eventful life in the most eventful period of social history spanning the greatest Revolution in the history of modern society; two cataclysmic World Wars; Riots; Insurrections and a General Strike and spanning half the countries of the world from Central Asia to California, Leningrad and Moscow; to London and Paris, Berlin and Barcelona. During these times i met and worked with thousands of comrades.’
Harry Young’s memoir, simply entitled ‘Harry’s Biography’, details his early life growing up in Islington, London, in 1901, following through to his involvement in the Russian Communist Party from 1921-1929 and his return to England. He details his family life, occasionally his personal life, and goes into great detail about his political and professional life.
Harry’s memoirs begin by stating his reasons for writing his autobiography; ‘Firstly, because I am sick to death of being told “You must write it all down” Second, because I am in the unique position of being objective and impartial’. He obviously wants to present his account as neutral and informed, with the advantage of hindsight and many years of reflection. His writings are mostly formal and well-worded, suggesting the types of readership he expects; well versed, knowledgeable in politics and with an interest in the Communist party. However he does occasionally slip into a relaxed and enjoyable tone in recounting tales of his past, such as when he recounts his father’s ill health ‘Viruses were probably terrified he would infect them.’ – I enjoy reading moments such as these as it feels much more personal.
He begins by detailing his childhood, writing short chapters on his Mother, Father, cousins and school teachers, briefly describing their lives and their influence upon his own. He wrote a chapter entitled ‘Women’ describing his encounters and relationships with various women, some humorous, some romantic, and some sorrowful. He then recounts his work as a Russian ‘apparatchick’ – or full-time professional worker of the Russian Communist Party – when he moved to Moscow in 1922. He writes short chapters on his personal experience and impressions of leading Russian figures of the time: Trotsky, Stalin, Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, as well as chapters about his fellow party members. Shortly after his arrival in Moscow, he saw Lenin speak, swathed in fresh bandages around his neck from a bullet wound in an assassination attempt. He was also present when Trotsky was expelled from the party and physically carried out to the nearest train station!
Harry recalls funny moments such as trying to get a young Russian girl to cook English steak pie, or ‘Steek pye’, which comes out as a rock-hard inedible substance – the story ends with the girl crying her eyes out as, despite trying her utmost, everyone finds themselves unable to face the horror she has made, and she immediately quits her job and leaves the kitchen.
Upon his return to London, Harry spent time working as a taxi driver, working at the local ambulance service and for a while working as a teacher, obtaining the necessary qualifications. His account ends on him obtaining a degree from the Open University, and going on to lecture about both the Russian Revolution and the Working Class Movement to eager young students. He ends by stating ‘Perhaps I can now give back a little of what so many great teachers have given me.’
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
‘Cockney Commisar’ photo taken from www.ericisawake.com