Harry’s wartime recollections are a subject of particular curiosity in his memoir, given that over the course of the two World Wars, he inhabits a unique position among many of the authors in this collection. I shall explain…
As with many of the boys too young for conscription, Harry spent much of the First World War moving between various factories, chasing the ‘rumours of fabulous wages’ that accompanied the demand for labour. Following a stint in ‘“Brown and Melhuishs” Motor Body Works’, Islington, as a tea boy and then polishing ‘rusted old motor body panels’, he migrated to ‘“Turners Ironworks” producing horseshoes for the cavalry’ and ‘grinding down fittings for ambulance stretchers.’ He then worked in the Woolwich Arsenal for a time before the realisation that ‘the fabulous wages never materialised. They were fables.’ Perhaps inevitably, and ‘despite the wartime regulations forbidding leaving work without permission, Harry Young ended up once again working in his father’s bicycle shop.
At this point, his role in the war changes dramatically. Following an offer from a ‘peculiar acquaintance of [his] father,’ Harry was ‘presented’ with a bookshop in Holborn. Despite, by his own admission, having ‘no experience whatsoever of bookshops,’ Harry ‘still had a go.’ Having already adopted a Socialist, anti-war outlook (Politics and Protest) Harry ‘made quite a stir by stocking and selling all the anti-war newspapers and magazines’, leading to his shop being raided by Scotland Yard ‘once or twice’ for selling publications like the ‘Anarchist “Satire”, the Y.L.P. “Socialist”, and the Workers’ International.
When the conflict ended in 1918, so did Harry’s bookshop adventure. He now moved on from selling anti-war propaganda, to creating it. His political life and achievements are explored over the course of the next three posts (Politics and Protest 1, 2, and 3), but suffice it to say that this point in his life laid the foundations for his roller-coaster political career.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Harry was driving a London cab, and thoroughly enjoying it! ‘With my new Driver’s Cap with it’s [sic] shiny peak (46d) and my Badge (4477) in its correct “conspicuous position”, I sallied forth to serve the travelling public.’ Perhaps, dear reader, you are expecting an anecdote or two about his cab-driving during the war, but alas! We are not that lucky. Harry notes, rather frustratingly, that ‘The full story of my Cab-driving adventures during the days of the “Blitz” can only form the subject of a special book.’ As far as I understand, it was a book he never wrote.
Harry, instead of Adventures of a Wartime Cabbie, gives a stark representation of the growth of anti-war feeling and protests that became increasingly common during the war years. His own opposition to the conflict led him ‘frequently’ to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park which hosted the SPGB (Socialist Party of Great Britain) speakers, where he was ‘in complete agreement with the Anti-War stand’ they adopted.
The rising opposition to the conflict, Harry notes, meant that ‘more and more young people of call-up age were registering as Conscientious Objectors and/or simply going on the run.’ When the age limit for call-up to the Armed Forces was raised enough for Harry to qualify, he, too, ‘knew [he] could “dodge the draft”, […] and registered as a conscientious objector.’ After appearing before ‘the Fulham Tribunal’ he obtained ‘“conditional exemption”’ and was instead conscripted into the ambulance service (again!) as a driver. Remarkably, his duties gave him ‘considerable free time’ which, perhaps unsurprisingly, he spent at Hyde Park, speaking to the growing anti-war community utilising, as mentioned in his obituary in the Socialist Standard , ‘his rumbustious wit to good effect’. (February 1996, n.pag)
I have already mentioned the unique outlook of Harry’s memoir in terms of wartime recollections, but the closing quote to his chapter, entitled ‘OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR’, is perhaps the best way of showing you, dear reader, just what Harry Young’s war meant to him:
‘As the war dragged on so the opposition grew. It reached the point, when in Hyde Park for instance huge crowds would clap and cheer our burning denounciations [sic] of all Capitalist Wars. It was a wonderful enjoyable time of growing enthusiasm for the Socialist cause.’
…all this during the Blitz!
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858