A. Gordon James (b.1885): Reading and Writing

‘I read a number of Thomas Hardy’s works. His delineation of West Country folk was so true to life that fiction became fact and fact fiction’ – (18).

Alfred writes to some extent about his reading habits and how it informs his cultural observations. We have already read his compelling introduction to the manuscript in the Purpose and Audience blog on the value of autobiography and how he places himself as an ‘ordinary individual’ writing about his life (2).

Interestingly, Alfred finds a great deal of turmoil in the idea of being an intellectual, or someone who engages in intellectual discourse. Alfred explains that ‘in after years I have had periods of depression, doubts of my own spiritual and intellectual worthiness…but I have always known that my office as a Christian minister was of divine appointment’ (16). What Alfred explores is the dynamic relationship between working class identity and writing and reading, that is often associated with the wealthy and privileged. Alfred exhibits a kind of self-deprecating tone whenever the topic of reading is breached in the manuscript. He comparatively regards himself as lesser than his friends and peers, stating that ‘the books I thought good were second rate, as I soon discovered’ (23). Some readers might presume to think these kinds of thoughts to be shallow, that Alfred is concerning himself so much with how his intelligence is perceived by the people around him. I disagree. What Alfred demonstrates is a conflict shared between the religious constancy of a desire to be a minister and the intellectual politicking that apparently surrounds it.

Screenshot of a photocopied version of the ‘Methodist Leader’ from 1929, including an advertisement for Hovis.

Alfred values literacy, not just because it makes people employable or that it demonstrates their status, but because to him it shows a development of character. He was surprised and delighted to meet working-class people during his circuit in Scotland who had such opportunities open to them to read; ‘I remember once asking a tram driver how he had spent his sabbath. He replied, “I sat in my garden and read Spinoza”’ (75). Alfred considers the ‘ordinary’ reader more valuable and wanted to understand what ‘ordinary men and women’ thought about god and religion more than anybody else (54). It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Alfred’s theological education in Richmond Theological College, specifically a Wesleyan Methodist college with more emphasis on social work and charity, would greatly influence his attitudes towards reading and writing. Vocational religious practitioners like Alfred would engage in their own discourses regarding theology, that encompasses its own circulation of literature. Alfred writes that during his ministerial training, ‘I delighted in G.K. Chesterton, whose articles were appearing regularly in the press’ (12). Sarah Williams argues that the previous interpretations of working-class religious history don’t take into account the rapid emergence of popular culture, and the ‘dimension of religion in modern popular culture’ (Journal of Victorian Culture, 1996, pg 310). The emergence of newspapers and the printing of photographs was implemented and circulated among Methodists, like the ‘Methodist Leader’, exhibiting advertisements for Bird’s Custard and Hovis in illustrated fashion. It should be noted that Alfred’s manuscript is not wholly a religious text, and that he was reading and writing as a British working-class person just like any other lay person he would have preached to. Lay people also played an important part in Methodist church practise in early twentieth-century Wesleyan Methodism. According to Dale A. Johnson, ‘supplementary’ ministers from the congregation would be trained alongside full-time vocational ministers, and there would be lay people who sat in ‘Conference’ (Church History, 1982, pg 305). This dynamic would mean a more varied circulation of ideas and reading within its ministry, as we have seen James display in his work.

Alfred explains how reading was also a source of enjoyment for working-class people before the advent of radio and television. The landlady he lived with in Dorset during his ‘probation’ (a year of chastity and contemplation before ordination) shared a subscription with him for Punch Magazine and the Daily Mail, which they both considered to be ‘light relief’ (20). Even in a country cottage so different from urban life, the working-class farmers would read the newspapers and culture magazines for pleasure.

Dorset farmers practising ‘Sheep-dipping’ in the early 20th Century.

Works Cited:

James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering: An Intimate Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Johnson, D. (1982). The Methodist Quest for an Educated Ministry. Church History, 51(3).

Williams, S. (1996). The Language of Belief: An Alternative Agenda for the Study of Victorian Working-Class Religion. Journal of Victorian Culture, pp.303-317.

Images Used:

Scanned copy of ‘The Methodist Leader’ found at: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:15m2578&datastreamId=FULL-TEXT.PDF

Photograph of ‘West Country’ farmers found at: http://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2010/10/part-of-the-madding-crowd/

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