Not once during People > Ideas does George raise the subject of why he’s writing. Neither purpose nor audience is addressed; we are given no clue as to his motivation. The memoir is 139 pages long and is made up of over 40,000 words. A piece of writing that long isn’t created accidentally or through boredom alone, it has a purpose.
Roughly 60% of the content in People > Ideas is actual auto-biographical narrative, the remaining 40% seems more concerned with political and economic discussion. I think it is fair to assume that not only did George want to be remembered personally through his memoir, he wanted to pass on ideas and concepts that he considered important. People > Ideas is therefore part-memoir, part-manifesto. I think each of the two ‘parts’ of George’s work have different aims and purposes. I will address the manifesto element first, then the memoir.
It’s very interesting, and I think unique, that a working class auto-biography, which presumably was written with the knowledge that it was not for the world at large to read, has such a large focus on a political message. George writes extensively about the issues present in capitalism, and how they presented themselves in his early working life, exemplified in two quotations – ‘justice was not the rule in business that was intended to make profit for investors’ (79) and ‘the temptation to make gain and profit became strong enough to acquire the direction of effort until it became an extreme form of selfishness’ (116). After a lifetime experiencing the highs and lows of working class life, I think George felt he was in a position to leave a record of it, and I think his political/economic digressions are just that – his take on the world he lived in. His work could be viewed as explicitly anti-capitalism but I don’t think that is the intention. George writes objectively and fairly; it is clear that he isn’t writing propaganda but rather just collecting observations he has made through his individual experiences.
Isolating the purpose of the auto-biographical segments of his memoir is a little bit more difficult. There is a level of detail in George’s recollection of life that is hugely important to consider when analysing his purpose. I mentioned in my previous post that George was in his late eighties when he was writing People > Ideas, and this, paired with the extent of detail he includes, pushes me towards considering two main motivations for writing.
The first is the possibility that George wrote to leave a legacy, perhaps in an attempt to battle anxiety about his mortality. There is no concrete textual evidence to reinforce this but I think the writing has an archival style to it, demonstrated especially in the final pages which are filled with pictures and explanations of (now obsolete) mining techniques, which implies George had a desire to preserve something of his life. David Vincent says in his book Bread, Knowledge and Freedom (about the genre of auto-biography) ‘few other forms of source material will bring us closer to this crucial area of class consciousness’ (p. 10-11). Perhaps George felt a responsibility to pass on his perception of the ‘working class consciousness’.
My other theory for George’s purpose in archiving his life is that it could have been a cathartic experience for him to recall his past. Often when referencing childhood events George takes on a nostalgic tone, demonstrated as he writes, ‘there was however something that could be likened to the sea, which was a field of growing wheat or barley, either of which had a great fascination for me… we went to the field and took all our clothes off, and swam about as though we were in actual water’ (10). It is feasible that George’s sole purpose in writing his memoir was to relive the moments as he wrote them – writing as entertainment.
Whether or not George was writing for an audience, real or potential, is another matter entirely and is unfortunately just as indecipherable. Again, however, there are clues which can help us make a guess. The most important of these, I think, is the effort George put into the presentation of the memoir. It is split into chapters of sorts and there are pictures and documents attached to add context. It seems, to me, unlikely that this much effort would be put into the aesthetic of a piece of work solely for your own eyes. Perhaps George always intended People > Ideas to be read – if so, I’d like to think this blog would fulfil his wish.
Gregory, George, ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:283.
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.