Harry Young (1901-1996): Жизнь и труд (Life and Labour)

Life and Labour. In Harry’s memoir, these two terms have very different associations, but perhaps they should do. In an attempt to show just how my favourite Mr. Young experienced both, I will dedicate a post to each concept. Let’s start with LIFE!!

In the months following the end of the First World War, Harry’s father sent him off to Germany (!!) to visit an acquaintance in ‘Sudwigesburg’.(Southwest Germany) Harry himself calls the ‘whole venture quite absurd,’ (unsurprising seeing as it was his father’s suggestion!) as ‘the Germans were actually starving.’ His survival was dependent on his ‘scrumping’ for the apples which constituted the main part of his diet, ‘arriving back home after three months at least three stone underweight.’ Needless to say, this small detail did nothing to quench Harry’s thirst for adventure. Within weeks of arriving home, he had ‘answered an advertisement for an assistant to a Music Hall turn, a magician, a Dutchman “The Great Lucas” Illusionist’ with whom he travelled to Paris, Brussels and Antwerp before the ‘act broke down completely.’ This little excursion ended up with Harry being ‘sent home D.B.S. (Destitute British Subject).’

Unhappy with being back in London, he ‘resolved to do anything to escape’ the misery and futility of life working in his father’s bicycle shop. He announces in his memoir that ‘Thus it was one fateful Sunday morning, while my parents were still asleep I packed everything I possessed in a small bag and boarded the Tuppenny Tram to Waterloo to seek fame and fortune in the Docks in Antwerp.’

Fast forward to 1923, during Harry’s time in Moscow, and to the ‘Youth Club’ provided for the Y.C.L. members. The Russians, ‘utterly convinced that all Englishmen were champion Footballers, World Class Athletes, and champion Boxers,’ convinced Harry to ‘take a turn in the ring’ for a ‘friendly’ bout with a local comrade. Cue the calamity! It wasn’t until after the fight that Harry discovered he ‘had taken on the up-and-coming lightweight champion of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), and eventually of the Whole Union!!’ Harry reports that midway during the second round, his ‘body was black and blue, with lips split, one eye closed, and a face like a male baboon’s backside.’ Even after this comprehensive beating, he insists that is challenged ‘a year later, [he] would have given him a run for his money.’

Now we come to the ‘steak pie’ episode…as promised (Introduction Post). in a chapter entitled ‘THE STEAK PIE COMMUNE’, Harry describes how he and his comrades should ‘all contribute to a fund to employ a local Russian girl to prepare meals for [them],’ with the normal Russian food getting ‘somewhat monotonous.’ Having agreed, the local girl was presented with the recipe and instructions on how to make ‘Anglisky “Steek-Pye”‘, a meal which was eagerly anticipated. The results are as follows:

‘What eventually came up beggars description, […] the German boy looked on unbelievingly in silent bewilderment. We (the English) stared in silent despair. We couldn’t even hack it apart, and almost damaged the massive oak table whilst “Sonia” (the ‘cook’) gazed anxiously awaiting our verdict. When it became obvious that we were forsaking the unequal battle, she burst into floods of tears, howled her grief aloud and promptly “resigned”, saying [she] was sick and tired of the whole lot of us, and our brainless stupidities anyway.’

I confess that I still laugh aloud when I read this and imagine destroying an oak table with a steak pie.

This entry could go on forever with the multitude of anecdotes and amusing incidents that Harry illustrates in his work. Instead, however, I will limit myself to just one more, the story of ‘THAT COMICAL THREE-WHEELER.’

‘The Soviathan’

Nicknamed the ‘Soviathan’, it was a ‘queer looking mechanical monstrosity with tiller steering on one wheel, a three wheeler with one wheel in front.’ It was Harry’s job to collect this contraption from an ‘East End garage’ that was ‘part of the “underground” network of the Communist Party.’ Upon arrival, he was ‘met by a shady character with a frightful stutter and a criminal record’ and proceeded to take possession of the vehicle. The trouble began before he even drove it when, upon trying to start it, the starting handle ‘flew off, […] and struck [him] a fearful smash on the side of the face – just under the left eye, slightly bending [his] nose.’ The slightly disfigured Harry (who couldn’t drive) then went for a ‘few goes around the block, narrowly missing lamposts and cats, and was in business!.’ He goes on to mention that from the basis of this joyride, he ‘drove professionally for 30 years without even passing any driving tests.’ Incidentally, Harry’s opinion was that at the time, ‘licensing was a joke.’ Frankly, on the evidence of Harry’s memoir, it’s a miracle no-one was killed!

Even with these select few anecdotes and incidents taken from his memoir, it is clear, to me at least, that the life of Harry Young, despite his bleak upbringing and serious political career-path, was filled with adventure after reckless adventure. Nestled within more serious posts regarding Harry’s memoir, I hope this entry has provided some light relief. If only such carefree abandon was possible nowadays – can you imagine the carnage? What fun it would be…!

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

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