‘Religion has been called the opiate of the poor, but the majority of the poor of the neighbourhood preferred the tonic of political thought as an escape from their poverty’
Researching John Edmonds’ memoir has taught me the many ways that the ordinary can be made into something full of life, charm, and vigour. John’s memoir is not concerned with the grand themes that are so central to the lives of some of the Writing Lives authors. It has been fascinating to read about the harrowing nightmare of war in some working-class autobiographies. Cecil George Harwood’s (1894-1983) announcement that ‘This was the end of the old life’ (21) upon being forced to fight in the First World War or ‘there would be no more work’ (Harwood, 20) communicated the crushing reality of war for the working class. Similarly, Charles Whiten Sanderson’s (1906-1990) changing perception is emblematic of the shadow cast over working-class lives in the early twentieth-century. From ‘great excitement and admiration’ (Sanderson, 41) at a military parade, to family tragedy and fears over conscription that prompted the realisation that ‘war was no game’ (Sanderson, 48), Charles was emotive in relaying the horror and shock of war. Other writers dedicate their memoirs to their working lives – a crucial aspect of working-class identity. Frank Prevett’s (b.1904) memoir, ‘Memoirs of a Railwayman’, concerns much of its lengthy content with the subject for which it was named – the industry Frank gave his life to. James McElhone contends that ‘The main theme of Anthony Errington’s memoir [was] Life & Labour’ (2018), in that it was so integral to his character due to his class: ‘it was something that provided him with an identity and a powerful sense of pride’ (McElhone, 2018).
John’s memoir, ‘The Lean Years’, is strictly concerned with the years in between the two World Wars. He does not discuss either war, except to comment on the ‘plans for the rebuilding and reorganisation of those districts that had suffered severely’ (1). John’s mind and memoir is strictly home-focused. Everything relates back to the small, close-knit community that he cherished growing up. Whilst for Frank and Anthony (1788-1848), work was central to ideas around their own identity, John omits his adult working life from his memoir. John’s ideas of class resonate with family traditions, the narrow streets he was brought up on, and the characters that gave them the raucous thunder of South East London street life.
I wanted my final post to round off my blog nicely. Celebrating these fantastic authors and these huge aspects of their lives seems fitting when comparing with John. In my first themed post, I claimed that ‘”The Lean Years” is a grounded text of a grounded childhood’ (Walker, 2018). This statement has become all the more apparent as I have written my blog and read others. For this theme, it has been exciting to read the exploits of “The Socialist”, Joe Ayre (b.1910), whose eventful life revolved around the standards he held for social justice. John Gibson’s (1887-1980) immensely political story has been great to read too, stating at the beginning of his interview: ‘‘If there was a party on, I was in it’ (1). Again, John Edmonds does not divulge too much in the battleground of political debate. He remains characteristically “grounded”. But I feel that despite not having a war to fight, a lifelong job to dedicate himself to, or a party to fight for, the politics of class are simply what defines John and his writing. The grand themes are few and far between. Yet, the basic, almost unconscious programming learned from his class and community are the reason for almost every word of John’s memoir.
For John, class was in everything he did. Others, like his father, who ‘held strong socialistic views’ (60), channeled this into political thought. John never entertains alignment with a particular party, but there is a continued thread of sympathy for Labour values throughout the memoir. If not born out of appreciation for the party itself, this manifests as a result of experiencing troubled times himself and having empathy and appreciation for those with very little. ‘The First World War demonstrated more clearly than any previous conflict the importance of adequate food supplies’ (Burnett, 1979, 283), and the “Lean Years” were particularly tough on the working class. Mike Savage recounts a modern exchange between Nottingham workers when asked their class. Richard attempts to justify his assertion that he is middle-class, adding: ‘I go to work , I’ve got a car’ (Savage, 2015, 339). Joe qualifies his working-class identification by making the distinction that he is ‘educated’ (Savage, 2015, 339). The same class consciousness does not seem as relevant for John, who rather feels a togetherness in a ‘strong connection to community belonging and values’ (Savage, 2015, 352). Whilst John’s father ‘stoutly supported the Labour Party and blamed Mr Baldwin for every and anything’ (6), John ‘thought this a little unfair but kept my opinion to myself’ (6). He later adds that it is ‘remarkably easy to sell leftish principles to people who have very little of the worlds [sic] possessions to preserve’ (60). In these instances, John demonstrates that he is open to fairness and balance instead of blind political partisanship.
John appreciated the principles of community and care. His mother practiced a strict selflessness he admired. Her wardrobe was comprised of ‘gifts from neighbours little more fortunate than she’ (38). John ruminates on the humbleness of giver and receiver: ‘There existed among these people a pattern of behaviour which employed all manner of subterfuges designed to hide want’ (38). This ‘gesture of compassion, and an expression of common cause against poverty’ (38) instilled class pride and a belief in the power of helping the less fortunate that aligns with his father’s political views. John claims that ‘the most generous to the poor are the poor’ (49) and I think this succinctly encapsulates his views on politics and class. Whilst like most things in life, John is not garishly outspoken on this. Yet, the little signals in his writing point to a good man. He is full of heart and compassion for his fellow man, and holds immeasurable pride and dignity in the working class.
2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9517
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). BruneI University Library.
1:231 ERRINGTON, Anthony. Coals And Rails: the autobiography of Anthony Errington, a Tyneside colliery waggonway-wright. 1776 – c. 1825.
3:O232 GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
2:638 PREVETT, Frank. ‘Memoirs of a Railwayman’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.
688 SANDERSON, Charles Whiten, ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century: A Book of Memoirs’, TS, pp.115 (c.78,000 words). Extracts published in Mansfield and North Nottinghamshire Chronicle Advertiser (Chad), 13 March – 31 July 1980 (Sutton-in-Ashfield Library). Brunel University Library.
Burnett, John. Plenty & Want: A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day. 1966. New York: Methuen & Co., 1979.
Hogg, David (@DavidHoggWL). ‘John Gibson (1887-1980): Politics & Protest [Part One].’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/politics-protest-class/john-gibson-1887-1980-politics-protest-part-one Web. Accessed 24 April 2018.
McElhone, James (@jamesmcelhone1). ‘Anthony Errington (1778-1848): Life & Labour (Part 1).’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/anthony-errington-1778-1848-life-labour-part-1 Web. Accessed 24 April 2018.
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Pelican, 2015.
Smith, Lucy (@LucyJMU). ‘Cecil George Harwood (1894-1983): War and Memory I.’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/warandmemory/cecil-george-harwood-1894-1983-war-and-memory-i Web. Accessed 24 April 2018.
Tilstone, Hannah (@HannahTilstone_). ‘Charles Whiten Sanderson (1906-1990): War and Memory (Part One.).’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/warandmemory/charles-whiten-sanderson-1906-1990-war-and-memory-part-one Web. Accessed 24 April 2018.
Walker, Jordan (@JordanWalkerJMU). ‘John Edmonds (1911-1984): Purpose and Audience.’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/purpose-and-audience/john-edmonds-1911-1984-purpose-and-audience Web. Accessed 24 April 2018.
Chambers Street, Bermondsey – http://www.centenarynews.com
John Pitt, Felling – https://commons.wikimedia.org
Labour Party poster – http://spartacus-educational.com
Lockyer Street, Bermondsey, 1936 – https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com
Socialist banner in Bermondsey – http://www.eastendwalks.com