“I had developed from early age an insatiable thirst for reading” (16)
Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Jeffery Farnol and Talbot Baines Reed were just some of Hymie Fagan’s favourite authors. From the age of thirteen Fagan discovered the public library where he found his passion for reading. He first began reading magazines such as the ‘Strand’ which contained stories on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Reading was very much an individual enjoyment for Fagan as he says, “Although I had joined the library there was no-one to guide my reading” (41).
The autonomy of Fagan’s reading gave him the choice to discover what authors he favoured, discovering he did not like the writing of Charles Dickens. His interest in the writing of authors such as Haggard, Doyle and Reed would have provided Fagan with entertainment. The adventure novels by Haggard and the crime fiction of Doyle would have enticed Fagan into an imaginary and creative world. The writing of Reed which focused on school boy stories was more of a non-fiction comic, which Fagan would have identified with, given his own experiences at school.
In school Fagan dismissed the extra-curricular activities, opting for the library instead. From his childhood he read comics and fairytales, usually the ‘The Gem’ and ‘The Magnet’ which were weekly story papers specifically for boys. The comics Fagan read, although not educational, they created “a world of fantasy and delight for three ha’pence a week” (17). ‘Chips’ and ‘Merry and Bright’ were comics Fagan would generally read, which were aimed for the poorer children. He distinguishes between the comics he would read, and the comics that were angled for the middle-classes, by saying, “Comics like “Chicks Own”, which I rejected, were for the middle-class child” (17), evidently, reading also reinforced class consciousness during the twentieth century, defining the different literacy levels of a working-class to a middle-class child. “The Boys Own Paper” was a comic much too expensive for Fagan, but a paper he was eagerly interested in reading.
Fagan was a keen reader, but his interest in history determined most of his reading. He would read the historical adventure stories written by George Alfred Henty and found interest in First World War novels. Reading was also defined by the historical context of the time. The outburst of World War One had meant Fagan’s childhood comics ‘The Gem’ and ‘The Magnet’ were “publishing stories which were meant to fan the hatred of the Germans” (38).
Fagan’s reading matured once he found work at the tailoring factory, reading the works of Jack London and Upton Sinclair, both advocates of socialism. Fagan’s reading was very much independent up until the age of sixteen. On entering the factory it was his fellow workers who moulded his reading, determining his appreciation of the worker and trade unionism. As the Communist party’s bookshop manager, Fagan became acquainted with Marxist literature. He developed his political views as he read the works of Marx on the Paris Commune and Engels on the revolt of the German peasants.
Writing became an ambition of Fagan’s from an early age. Although he struggled with his writing, he fulfilled his passion as he went on to publish for two newspapers, the Daily Worker and the Worlds Marxist Review. He also became the author of many political pamphlets. In reviewing the collected works of Fagan on the British Library website, the titles reveal a lot about his socialist interests. One interesting book, The Unsheathed Sword: episodes in English History is broken into two parts; The commoners of England and Champions of the Workers. Fagan can be identified as a historian given the titles of his works, since they portray a historical and Marxist analysis.
Fagan’s autobiography, although typed, does contain spelling and grammatical errors. Throughout his autobiography there is crossing out, corrections and re-writing of sentences. Although Fagan was not illiterate, it does reveal a lot about his education and the writing skills he had. In undertaking two years of research to publish his book, Fagan was assisted by two historians Christopher Mill and John Morris. Although self educated and without a university degree due to leaving school at the age of fourteen, Fagan is a prime example of a working-class intellectual closing the ‘cultural gap’ between the middle and lower classes (Rose 102). Jonathan Rose’s study ‘A Conservative Canon’ develops the idea of the middle classes losing their elite status of rare knowledge due to the access of classic literature, such as the literary canon to the working-classes.
Both reading and writing became crucial to Fagan’s adulthood life. Not only did he exceed the expectations school authorities had over intelligent working-class individuals, but his reading and writing habits enabled Fagan to create a career in politics. Reading is continually referred to in Fagan’s autobiography, in comparison to his writing habits. It was apparent he enjoyed the company of a book, more so than socialising, as he was told, “‘Comrade Fagan I think you like books better than people’” (62), to which Fagan honestly reveals to the reader, “and maybe there is some truth in that” (62).
Fagan, Hymie, ‘An Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:261
Rose, Jonathan. ‘A Conservative Canon: Cultural Lag in British Working-Class Reading Habits’, Libraries and Culture, 33 1 (1998) 98-104.