“For many years it had been my intention to record my experiences as an active Trade Unionist” (1).
The very first line of Arthur T Collinson’s Foreword – albeit handwritten – is an emphatic and telling statement that explains the purpose of his memoir. Here, we are told that the politically-conscious Collinson wishes to document and highlight his life as a (founding) member of Trade Unionism. Although Collinson’s rhetoric is forceful and clear, he argues that some or indeed all of his work could have been in vain:
“There is still so much to accomplish that one is inclined to forget or belittle the progress which has been made over the years. True it is, in these days of comparative affluence, greed and selfishness are very pronounced but one must keep hoping that human nature which can on occasions rise so high, will one day prove worthy of its inheritance” (Foreword).
Despite the downbeat nature of that statement, Collinson, perhaps for the good of his fellow union members and sympathisers, decided to persevere with his memoir:
“Reasons for which I am at a loss to understand compelled me some eight or nine months ago to “Have a Go” as Wilfred Pickles might say and try that which I had given up as impossible. I at least could try and with my memory as my book of reference, and the odd letter or newspaper cutting I decided to do my best and albeit a poor result, it is my best, and I crave the indulgence of the reader” (Foreword).
Perhaps most telling and in accordance with his humanist outlook, Collinson dedicated his autobiography to his loved ones; “I dedicate the result to the most loving parents any man ever had and to my girl wife who died a long ago. My gratitude to my wife Geraldine for her love, patience and kindness, which has enabled me to win through” (Foreword). This dedication does not dilute the memoir’s meaning for other readers; instead it acts as a constant reminder of Collinson’s giving nature.
Collinson’s family do feature heavily in the initial pages of his autobiography but instead of being intimate or littered with in-jokes and in-knowledge, the memoir highlights a bigger, much more desperate social-struggle; “Before long we were brought face to face with the realities of life for the under privileged. The local parson suggested that my father should learn to play an accordion and get out on the streets and make an appeal to the hearts and minds of Christian folk” (4). Therefore, the audience could be stretched beyond fellow union members and sympathisers and maybe pique the interests of people who occupy a different social standing. So, whereas the memoir is littered with socialist idiom, through these peeks of ‘real life’ it manages to escape the confines of inclusivity.
Collinson shows his socialist beliefs throughout the memoir, “I became a choir boy at Holy Trinity Church and basically I was a deeply religious boy. I accepted the “pie in the sky, by-and-by”, with a childlike simplicity, though I often queried it to myself and wondered why there was such a shortage of “pie” for the multitude of folk like ourselves”(6). Here, whilst strengthening his socialist views – through the communist-led rhetoric of ‘no religion’ – Collinson also allows the reader a glimpse of what life was really like for the working-class. Collinson may have focussed on Trade Unionism, but his memoir offers more than that. This is a humane memoir that could provide further knowledge of the lives of people born on the cusp of the twentieth century.
‘Arthur T. Collinson’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, Vol.3, no. 30.
Arthur T. Collinson, ‘One Way Only: An autobiography of an Old-time Trade Unionist’ in Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:30