‘The working class of the British Isles made great sacrifices during the 1914-1918 war (…) the Capitalists were in competition with each other for markets and trade routes. And although it was called the “the war to end war” we know now that this slogan was just another con-game that the Capitalists of Great Britain played with the working class as the pawns’ (pg. 3)
After a lifetime of work, Joe Ayre chose to spend his time writing his autobiography The Socialist. His autobiography is fascinating, but one could have forgiven Joe if after spending the best years of his life toiling away on farm fields, markets, and ships, he had not taken on the work of documenting it. As readers we are in luck however, as The Socialist is available for us to enjoy. This does raise the question however of why Joe chose to write his autobiography, and who his intended audience was.
In literature, something that can often be overlooked is the importance of the title. In the case of Joe Ayre, the title of his autobiography offers a possible answer as to why he wrote, and whom he was writing for. Knowing it would be the first thing read, Joe chose the title The Socialist in reference to his political beliefs. Immediately, this suggests that Joe’s intended audience was others who shared the same socialist ideology as him, or those who wished to read about it. The best way to attract people of this mindset was to appropriately name his autobiography.
When one reads Joe’s story, it is impossible to not recognise the unfair circumstances he and many others found themselves in. In relation to the opening quote, much of Joe’s disdain for capitalism derives from the First World War. This is not without reason. The historian Kenneth O. Morgan describes how following the war ‘the inadequacy and squalor of working-class housing and living conditions became increasingly well documented’ (2000, 28). This situation was ‘made more severe still by the endless unemployment’ (2000, 28). These were troubling times in which government did little to help.
Joe makes sure to detail his own experiences in this unfair era. His introduction highlights perhaps the most tragic of these experiences, the death of his mother. With his father out of work and the family crippled financially, his mother ‘died of consumption no doubt brought about by an inadequate diet. She denied herself sufficient food in order to feed her brood of kids’ (pg. 3). Joe’s mother made the ultimate sacrifice for her family, simply because the help wasn’t there. One should not ignore the fact that Joe’s family were so financially stricken because his ‘father was often unemployed or on strike’ (pg. 3). The government of David Lloyd George quickly quashed these strikes against inadequate pay, leading a government Kenneth O. Morgan describes as ‘capitalism with a human face’ (2000, 16).
Unfortunately for Joe, the troubles he experienced in childhood never left him. Even when writing his autobiography in 1978 he references how ‘there are 1,6000,000 unemployed in Britain and 1,000,000 in Canada’ (pg. 5). Joe clearly recognises strife as a defining feature of his life. Going into detail explaining how he was overworked in England, Canada, and America during the depression, he receives no help from those above him. Instead he banded together with those in similar positions to him and worked to change workers rights as a member of the National Union of Agricultural Workers.
When reading Joe’s story it is hard not to become aware of the harsh reality he and many others lived in. One cannot overlook the possibility this was the intended purpose of Joe’s writing. Joe offers a first hand account of the unfair system that plagued his life, and did nothing to help him. We become emotionally connected to Joe, and grow to disdain the forces which entrapped him. One begins to question if there are alternatives to such forces. We need not look far, as Joe is happy to detail the socialist ideas and work he did which inspired his title. I’ll stop well short of defining the purpose of Joe’s autobiography to be a propaganda piece. His memoir is in stark contrast to an interview conducted with John Gibson, a politically motivated individual whose entire memoir is defined by politics and protest. Born only one year after Joe, John encounters many of the hardships Joe faced, and supports the socialist ideas Joe promotes. Unsurprisingly, he makes a passionate attempt to move society away from such flaws. Joe, however, produces a much more composed piece employing a more subtle approach. Rather refreshingly, his work seems to encourage the reader to come to his or her own conclusion. Rather than create an ‘us against them’ ideology, it simply provokes thought on the matter. I believe that making people aware of the strife of the everyman, and provoking thought on what the fairest system going forward may be, was the motivation behind The Socialist. Joe Ayre didn’t have all the answers, but if his autobiography could get more people aware and provoke debate, maybe we can get closer to finding them.
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). Brunel University Library.
O. Morgan, Kenneth. Twentieth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hogg, David. John Gibson (1887-1980): Politics & Protest [Part One]. 18th April 2018. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 26th April 2018.
Lloyd George image – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lloyd_George
NUAW Badge – http://country-standard.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/national-union-of-agricultural-workers.htm