Harry Alfred West (b.1880): Politics, Protest & Class – Writing Lives

Harry Alfred West (b.1880): Politics, Protest & Class

Although his work is never explicitly political, Harry West has plenty to say about his country and the condition that he finds it in. West doesn’t align himself with one political ideology, however he does express traditional values and small-c conservatism when he describes how he feels that society is declining:

The character of any society, of any race, or any so called civilization, is but the sum of the individuals that compose it. (…) I will definitely and categorically assert that we are not living in an age of progress absolute, but of decline. Jung knew and asserted, and I know, that morals have declined, therefore the barrier that was set up against evil by stricter living is breaking down, and a tide of evil from the collective unconscious is rushing in, expressing itself in various forms and insidious ways. Consumption of alcohol, gambling in various forms, bingo, betting shops, football pools. Mere passive pleasure, unreliability. Irresponsibilities, Sex Mania, Sex Murder (…) Violence and Cruelty with no sense other than to inflict pain and destruction. Anybody who can’t see that must be mentally blind. (45)

There is a certain cynicism in the way that West complains about politics being intertwined with propaganda: “In my opinion the simpler age of my earlier life was more conducive to true, organic, coherent evolution of the deeper faculties of the soul than is possible in the ferment and complexity of the modern world, its collective movements, universal unrest and the subtle propaganda which from many directions solicits our time, our money and our lives and souls.” (1) However, elsewhere in his work, West takes a far simpler view – seeing the world as nothing but what a man makes of it. He certainly doesn’t see class divisions or boundaries, perhaps because they never impact on his life in the way that they do upon some working class people of the time.

West does take a stance on several political issues. Unsurprisingly, considering his work in education, one of these issues concerns the schools. He is worried that “The second stream from the colleges, grammar schools, universities is being dammed back. This stream is called “humanities” is not concerned merely with learning a trade, or a profession, but learning something of vaster importance, namely the “Art of Life” (…) This study is being slowly – with increasing speed – put aside for more technological science, of which we already have too much for the little wisdom to control and direct where it is more direly needed.”(46)

File:Bristol Grammar School, Tyndall's Park.jpg
Source – Wikipedia


West also has an opinion on government spending, and warns that “most science is being used for space travel, armaments and mechanical devices to prevent individual creative influence, and mechanical devices to prevent individual creative interest, and to amuse bored people in consequence. Thousands of millions of pounds, which is badly needed for homes and care of the old, and houses for the young, hospitals for the sick, and even prisons for the criminals is thus wasted.”(46)

Ultimately, Harry West’s approach to politics is one of quiet discussion rather than protest. He certainly has views on many of the important topics of the day, however he settles for writing about them rather than campaigning for them.


West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745

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