Life and Labour Continued: Harold Heslop, 1898-1983.

Trouble in the Twenties. Artist: Nicholas Evans

When the Heslop’s left South Shields to begin a new life in London, things were difficult. They had to squeeze themselves into Phyllis’ mother’s little house in Princes Square, SE 11, and they struggled to find work. Phyllis eventually secured some work, but for Heslop, as a North-East coal-miner, work did not come quite so easily. Still, he was eventually taken on at a meat factory. Here his days were made up of hoisting huge sides of bacon and preparing the kilns for smoking. In his spare time, when materials and light allowed, Heslop continued to write.

In 1929, Harold Shaylor, editor and manager of Brentano’s Ltd, agreed to publish a novel that Heslop had worked on for some time. Drawing on his experience within the trade union movements and his affiliation with the communist party, his novel, titled The Gate of a Strange Field, set at the time of the general strike, explores the life of a young miner in the Northern Coalfields. On publication, it was considered by some to be nothing more than ‘communist propaganda’ and an untruthful and cynically negative representation of miners and trade unions.[1] However, other reviewers, such as The Bookman Spring, described the novel as:

[A] strong story told with delicacy and beauty. The closing pages rise to greatness in their noble and simple summary of a soul’s triumph over a sordid and tragic atmosphere.[2]

Following on in quick succession from the relative success of this novel, Heslop had his second novel Journey Beyond published. This was also warmly received by the critics, with one reviewer remarking how it was:

[A] very human story, written in a vivid, moving style, which leads one to the inevitable conclusion that much of it is a record of the author’s personal contact with the bitter disappointments of the search for work in these dark days of industrial distress.[3]

The Communist: A Political Meaning. Artist: Evans Walters.

However, Heslop did not get the opportunity to bask in this praise, as he, and his good friend Bob Ellis, were aboard a ship, heading to Leningrad by the time any reviews for Journey Beyond had hit the press. Thanks to the popularity of Goaf, the novels mentioned above had also been translated and published in Russia. The novels, Heslop recalls, had been ‘quite widely discussed and [had] caused much interest’ (166), and consequently Heslop’s reputation as a working-class writer of proletarian literature had been growing. So much so, that Heslop received an invitation by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, to speak at The International Bureau of Revolutionary Literature conference being held in Kharkov.

Heslop’s class-consciousness was such that he believed strongly in the social responsibility of the working-class author, and believed proletarian literature was a necessary and functional way of engaging in political and social debate.[4] In his memoir ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey’ he does not discuss the speech he gave at the conference, though all the speakers there had their words translated and transcribed. Still, in a recent study of cultural politics, gender and class,[5] it was reported that during his speech Heslop lamented the state of working-class literature in Britain at

Heslop would continue to write through-out his long life, despite numerous rejections. Image Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

that time. He claimed that authors, such as ‘James Welsh, John Clarke, and Joe Corrie … had “sold out to the capitalist class” and that they “lacked any degree of Marxist training.”’[6] He also criticised the left-wing press, which he believed was failing to support working-class writers. He is reported to have said that ‘“during the five years of life of the proletarian newspaper the Sunday Worker – the scarcity of short stories from the pens of proletarians was most pronounced.”’[7]

On his return to Britain, Heslop continued to write and had several more novels published, including his first novel Goaf which was published in Britain in 1934. A few years later in 1936 he collaborated with Bob Ellis on a book titled The Abdication of Edward VIII which sold over forty thousand copies. However, by the end of WWII Heslop experienced first-hand the difficulties faced by proletarian writers and struggled to get even a short magazine story into print. Heslop’s politics, and fierce Marxist beliefs would not allow him to compromise his work. He explains:

I had long despaired of ever making a show in the world of literature. I ought to have taken a much deeper notice of the harsh criticism which Phillip Toynbee concocted in a small book he once published when he was sheltering on the edge of Marxism. But I did not. I went on writing in my own secrecies, tempting no man (274).

Heslop sought work wherever he could get it in those days of economic depression. For several years, he worked as advertisement manager for the Russian firm Intourist, and later as a civil servant at the Ministry of Labour. All the while he continued to write, although he would never enjoy the success of those pre-WWII years. In a rare reflective moment in his memoir, Heslop has the final word on his long writing career:

[A]s an old man, I am still unsoured by the lack of success. I can still lay my hand upon my old heart and whisper to my own inner being that so many who have plodded on have not all been unworthy of the success which has attended their efforts. Midnight oil is a precious thing (278).

 

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.

‘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.

Footnotes

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

[2] THE GATE OF A STRANGE FIELD. 1929. The Bookman, 76(451), pp. 96. Periodical Press. Web. Accessed 30th March 2017.

[3] “journey Beyond” Bath Chronicle and Herald (Bath, England), Saturday, October 25, 1930; pg. 14; Issue 8833. British Library Newspapers, Part IV: 1732-1950.

[4] Bell, David. Ardent Propaganda: Miners Novels and Class Conflict, 1929-1939. Uppsala: Umea University Printing Office, 1995. 15.

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

[6] Ibid,. 59.

[7] Ibid,. 59.

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