Harry Dorrell (B.1903): Reading & Writing – Writing Lives

Harry Dorrell (B.1903): Reading & Writing

‘Seeking answers as I did then and still do… It is the seeking that counts.’ (50)

Although Harry always disliked school he did enjoy reading, and educated himself with books for most of his life. From a young age he becomes ‘more interested in brother Charlie’s big collection of books’ (24) such as ‘The Positive Outcome of Philosophy'(24) and ‘Dead Souls’ (24), although he does not quite understand them at this age and describes them as ‘language without meaning’ (24). This idea of self-education is a common theme in many of our working class memoirs. In Self-Help, a book popular with many working-class readersSamuel Smiles says that ‘the best culture is not obtained from teachers when at school or college, so much as by our own diligent self-education’ (Smiles, 140). I think this links to Harry’s own experience. One of the only teachers that he mentions as a positive figure is Mr Harvey. Harry says that the ‘hatred for my school days was softened somewhat’ (20) when he was moved into Mr Harvey’s class. Mr Harvey noticed Harry’s interest in books and encouraged him to go to the public library; here Harry gained access to a wide variety of books. He says that the more difficult books encouraged him to ‘almost study them to get the full meaning’ (26). This shows how he was very willing and enthusiastic about reading and educating himself. The idea of self improvement is a theme in a lot of our memoirs. Writing on Elizabeth Rignall (1894),  

I find the passage about Harry’s experience of the library very interesting. He describes his first visits as confusing but his experience is written with clear excitement and interest. It is also a section that shows Harry maturing. He gains ‘personal importance’ (26) because he is ‘joining those other grown up people’ (26) and he is beginning to interact with the world beyond his family and school. This shows how important a place like a public libraries and reading rooms were in making the transition from childhood to adulthood. Harry also writes about the other men in the reading rooms. He describes them as ‘looking very shabby’ (26) and then goes on to say how it wasn’t until his later years that he realised ‘these poor old men went into that reading room not to read but to keep warm on winter days’ (26). This detail not only gives us an insight into Harry’s mind and the way his view has changed, but also shows that the reading rooms were much more than a place to get books.

Harry’s interest in reading continued throughout his life and he built up a collection that ‘ranged across wide territories’ (50). He speaks about reading as an exercise of ‘seeking answers’ (50) which again links with the idea of self-education through reading. This wide range of reading material confirms Jonathan Rose’s challenge to what is often assumed about working class reading and goes against Herrnstein Smith’s claim that classic literature did ‘not have value for them’ (53). Herrnstein Smith said that working class readers were less likely to relate to classic literature and therefore did not read it but, as Rose shows in his study of autodidacts’ love of the classics, this claim this is based on speculation rather than evidence.

Harry ‘always liked writing’ (63), and this can be seen in the style and construction of his memoir. He had a ‘paid article’ (63) published in The Daily Herald when he was around 18 and then went on to write articles for The Daily Worker. Around this time he received copies of a journal which encouraged ‘working writers’ (63) which ran competitions. He won one and was invited to a conference in London to discuss worker writing. When he replied to them saying he ‘could not afford to attend’ (63), they told him everything would be paid for. Harry also, with the help of his parents and friend, published a ‘fortnightly discussion sheet for Left Book Club members’ (62) called ‘The Wessex Bulletin’.

Reading and writing was not only for enjoyment or self-education, it was also a window for political information and expression. Harry himself says that when he is living in the cottage his ‘only political contact with the outer world was a postal subscription for the Daily Worker.’ (55) This shows how important reading and writing was to give working class people access to politics.


Dorrell, Harry, ‘Falling Cadence: An autobiography of failure’, TS, pp.161 (c.97,000 words). Fragment published in the POEU Journal, Aug 1983. BruneI University Library. AWC- 2:0231

Rose, Jonathan, Journal of the History of Ideas.  53. 1 (1992): 47-70

Soraya Nas, ‘Elizabeth Rignall (1894): Education and Schooling’, Writing Lives December 9, 2015 /education-and-schooling/elizabeth-rignall-1894-education-and-schooling-2

Smiles, Samuel, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, Floating Press, 2009


































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