Echoes of A New Tomorrow: Life after Revolution in the Commonwealth of Britain

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The Mongrel Collective: Britain and the Global Economy, 1929–1934

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THE MONGREL COLLECTIVE
BRITAIN AND THE GLOBAL ECONOMY, 1929–1934

ROBERT SKIDELSKY

1965


Next to war, unemployment has been the most widespread, the most insidious, and the most corroding malady of our generation: it is the specific social disease of Western civilisation in our time.

The Times of St. John’s, 23 January 1943


In the advancement of this immediate policy we surrender nothing of our socialist faith. The immediate question is not a question of the ownership, but of the survival of British industry. Let us put through an emergency programme to meet the national danger; afterwards political debate on fundamental principle can be resumed.


“The Alliance Manifesto”, issued by the PLUA
8 November 1928



Two things are generally known about the year 1929, even amongst non-historians: first, that this was the year of the final victory of the syndicalist revolution in Britain; and second, that the last months of the year, starting with the Wall Street Crash in October, saw the devastation of the global system of market capitalism, leading to the lasting discredit of received economic orthodoxies. Global lending, after the Great War driven by Washington, virtually disappeared as economies on both sides of the Atlantic retreated into various forms of insularity. Calls for autarky could be heard from Germany to the United States as consumer and producer credit slumped and unemployment soared. Against this troubled backdrop, Oswald Mosley began work directing the reconstruction of the British economy following a decade of unabating turbulence and upheaval.


The basic principles of the economic reforms of the early 1930s had been outlined over the previous few years by a number of figures on the Left. Aside from the persistent calls for Marxist-Leninist reconfiguration by the CPGB, Mosley’s “Birmingham Proposals” (1925) stands out as the most innovative economic manifesto of the period. Formulated not from the basis of ideology, but in answer to the immediate twin problems of unemployment and unrest in the coal industry, the proposals outlined a departure from the orthodox economic thought of both the Right and the Left in Britain at the time. Prior to the Great War, Britain had been the world’s largest importer nation and sat at the centre of the global economic system. Reliant on the rest of the world in a network of mutual interdependence, at the heart of Britain’s economic dominance was an unswerving faith in the principle of free trade, and a stable currency pegged to the gold standard. After 1914, with the rise of the United States as a global industrial power, the economies of Europe were pushed aside following the ruination brought about by the Great War. Kept buoyant by credit extended from Washington, Europe experienced a series of economic shocks in the 1920s as its largest powers adjusted to the post-War market system. In particular, the punitive reparation measures imposed upon defeated Germany at Versailles sparked a period of lasting political and economic instability, culminating with the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933.


Having assumed the role of international economic arbiter, the United States demonstrated little outwards commitment to the maintenance of global economic stability. Whereas the British were reliant on the rest of the world, and thus had a vested interest in upholding international stability, the Unites States had no such considerations to take into account. Washington took no measures to keep the value of the Dollar stable, for example, despite its new position as the central currency of the world’s system of payments. Hence the new European economic order, with its foundations built on borrowed American capital, was thus inherently unstable. When the US experienced widespread price collapses in the late 1920s, climaxing with the Wall Street Crash at the end of the decade, a whole system founded on American credit was thus brought to its knees.


WALL%20ST%201929.jpg

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 came only months into the presidency of Andrew Mellon, formerly a respected economist, during which period the United States and the rest of the market-capitalist world suffered under dire economic conditions.


In Britain, the timing of the revolution and the preceding General Strike (1927–29) left the economy uniquely positioned when confronted by the arrival of the Great Depression. Britain’s leaders after 1918 had on the whole managed the economy as if the Great War had not happened, a reflection of the belief of many capitalists and orthodox economists that the War represented an interruption to the prevailing system, but not an ending. In this respect, they were deeply misguided. Rather than pursuing a policy of economic reconstruction in the years after the Great War, Britain returned to the comfort of old orthodoxies, with the result that during the pre-revolutionary period (1918–27) the country suffered an economic slump. Winston Churchill’s decision to return the Pound Sterling to the gold standard in 1925 set the value of currency too high against the Dollar by about 10 per-cent, hence British coal, textiles and machine parts produced for export were suddenly only competitive if sold for about 10 per-cent less than market value. This change in policy contributed in large part to the crisis in the coal industry that later set off the events leading to revolution, driving down wages and leading to the immiseration of countless members of the working class. On the other hand, the collapse in the prices of raw goods and commodities spurred on a period of increased consumption for the well-off, thus inequality greatly increased in the years before the General Strike.


To combat this disastrous attempt at influencing monetary policy, Mosley’s proposals laid out a system of control whereby prices, credit and trade would be managed by a small executive committee. The ultimate aim was to insulate the British economy from the shocks of a volatile international market abroad, while creating artificial demand at home via a system of credit expansion amongst producers and consumers, the control of banking and monetary policy by the government, and the revaluation of Sterling according to a floating exchange rate. The inclusion of an immense programme of public works to combat the immediate problem of unemployment gave the proposals a distinctly Keynesian feel, even if Mosley’s thought is ultimately of its own school.


In putting forward this view as early as 1925, Mosley was the first mainstream political figure to challenge the dominant position of the Treasury, maintained by Churchill and others and long since discredited, that the channeling of funds into public works could never ease unemployment as it would simply drain capital from private enterprise, which would otherwise create an equal number of jobs. This was a view which, prior to the revolution, had birthed stagnation and widespread unemployment. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which it might have successfully mitigated the most damaging consequences of the slump.


* * *


Mosley was appointed to direct the new Office for Economic Planning (OEP) in June 1929. He held onto the post throughout the Great Depression and beyond, retaining various powers over the management of the economy of the Commonwealth until 1945. Initially, the OEP included three ancillary departments: the Bureau of Coal and Steel, the Bureau of Trade and Import Control, and the Bureau of Transport and Infrastructure. It also oversaw the operation of the new Central Bank of the Commonwealth, directed at Mosley’s urging by the socialist former civil servant E. M. H. Lloyd. According to Mosley’s proposed governmental reforms that accompanied his economic programme, the Office for Economic Planning was to have been accountable to the legislature but otherwise separate from the rest of government and empowered to act more or less as it saw fit to resolve the crisis. This vision was not reflected in the ultimate reality: while undoubtedly the largest and most powerful of the new government departments, the OEP was nevertheless subordinate to the wider Executive Committee (Exco). For the six years between 1929–34, the Exco was dominated by a succession of Communist organisers keen to enact their own programme for the reconstruction of Britain. Mosley’s battle to enforce his programme over the Marxist-Leninist programme of the CPGB resulted in a system described by Mosley himself in 1965 as a “mongrel collective”: something halfway between his own idea of a planned economy, and a collectivised system modelled on Stalin’s programme in the USSR.


For the most part, the desires of the CPGB and the Mosleyite OEP were in concord. Even if arrived at from different philosophical bases, the immediate programme of economic restructuring was materially consistent across both camps. (Mosley, after all, remained a socialist even if not a communist.) Ultimately, the programmes of reconstruction and collectivisation were divided between the OEP and the Bureau of Domestic Affairs, which was directed by five different people in six separate spells over the six years between 1929–34. The Domestic Bureau included the secretariats of agriculture, education, healthcare and housing. In contrast to the OEP, which remained on the whole an enclave of PLUA organisation within the Communist-dominated governments of the period, the Domestic Bureau was under the solid control of the CPGB, with the exception of 1931 when it was under the direction of Arthur Cook – a communist by philosophy but not by party.


The revolutionary nature of the programme enacted by the Domestic Bureau between 1929–34 must not be underestimated. Agricultural reform pursued from winter 1929 was one manifestation of a wider campaign against landlordism and greatly involved the restructuring of land ownership. Large farms were requisitioned by the state and leased back to farmers at new rates. Smaller farms were collectivised and organised into worker co-operatives. All agricultural workers were organised into the new General Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU), which in tandem with the Secretariat of Agriculture controlled wages, labour conditions and working hours. After 1932, industrial and technological advances led to the introduction of tractor ploughs across Britain and by the end of the decade the country saw further advances as combine harvesters became more common, although they were not widespread until the 1940s. More so than collectivisation itself, mechanisation led to increases in efficiency and output – although it must be said that the co-operative system, along with credit extended by the state, hastened the proliferation of new machinery.


The policy of housing reform prosecuted by the Domestic Bureau from 1930 onwards took an equally firm line on the question of ownership. In accordance with the CPGB’s 1929 manifesto, the incendiary “Class Against Class”, the government set about a vigorous assault on landlordism, confiscating all landlord-owned property and leasing homes back to workers at controlled rates. The large houses of the gentry and the old aristocracy were similarly sequestered (without compensation) and turned over either to the Secretariat of Housing or the Secretariat of Healthcare, which began the enormous task of turning over 1,200 of the estates into hospitals, care homes and sanatoria. The remainder – over five hundred – were converted into blocks of rent-controlled flats. This was the fate that awaited Mosley’s own family home, Rolleston Hall, near Burton-upon-Trent on the Staffordshire–Derbyshire border, although the hall had been sold at auction by Mosley’s father in 1923. Perhaps the most striking consequence of this policy of requisition was the conversion of Buckingham Palace into a children’s hospital in 1933.


ROLLESTON%20HALL.jpg

As Chairman of the Office of Economic Planning, Oswald Mosley lived in a flat in the City of Westminster. His old family home was divided into flats and used to house miners from nearby Swadlincote.


While the CPGB’s own materialist viewpoint had little outward concern for the fate of the people on the receiving end of these policies so long as the overall goal of communisation was advanced, it must be pointed out that the collectivisation programme was not met without resistance by the landowning class. Much of the old aristocracy had already fled to Newfoundland before suffering the indignity of losing their estates, taking with them as many liquid assets as possible. (Although outside of the scope of this piece, the flight from Britain of thousands of works of art owned by the pre-revolutionary upper classes is a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, and one deserving of a fuller examination by a more informed authority.) Of those who remained, much of the old upper class found an outlet for its discontent in the various organisations of the fascist movement. Landlord farmers were less likely to turn to fascism, in some cases placated by the many subsidies extended by the state to prop up production, though collectivisation nevertheless caused a great deal of tension and contributed to the widespread antipathy with which the rural middle classes greeted the arrival of the Commonwealth. Farm labourers on the other hand were far more receptive, on the whole grateful for the distribution of land and glad of the new organisational structure offered by the GAWU. In time, these workers became some of the most dependable supporters of the early Commonwealth project, and in many instances farm labourers provided some of the most effective organisation against fascism in rural areas during the troubles of 1933–34.


With the CPGB-dominated Domestic Bureau getting on with the business of collectivisation and communisation, what Mosley had called the “fundamental principle” of challenging the question of ownership, the PLUA took control of macroeconomic management through the apparatus of the OEP. Mosley’s first financial statement, delivered to the Workers’ Assembly on 1 October 1929, took considerable steps towards alleviating the contemporary crisis. The gold standard was to be abandoned, allowing Sterling to cool off and opening up room for the more creative management of monetary policy by the state in the future. A flagship programme of infrastructural investment and industrial modernisation was also unveiled, with government funds reassigned to finance the construction of new roads, railways and housing developments across the country. The passage of the Special Roads Act (1929) by executive order outlined new powers for the OEP, allowing it to oversee the construction of Britain’s first two motorways, the M1 and the M2, starting in 1930 and 1932, respectively. The M1, stretching over 100 miles from Watford to Birmingham, involved over 400 thousand people in its construction; it was completed in 1933. The M2, travelling 60 miles from Chertsey in Surrey to Southampton, was completed in 1934. Auxiliary projects across the country updating the railways, still the most popular mode of transport in the Commonwealth, were signed off throughout the first half of the 1930s.


Significant advances were made also in the construction of housing. Between 1930–33, the OEP oversaw the completion of half a million homes throughout the Commonwealth. In some cases, these projects were managed directly by the state, although a large number ended up being devolved to regional councils via appropriate extensions of credit. Following the end of the Great War, Lloyd George had promised the construction of an equivalent number of “homes for heroes” in the same time span; only half of the promised units were ever delivered. Mosley was particularly proud of his achievement in fulfilling what the great statesman Lloyd George could not, seeing the homebuilding project as symbolic of the wider commitment of the state to the well-being of the workers of the Commonwealth. With a dip in the period 1933–34 reflecting wider political instability, construction continued at a rate of about 350,000 homes per year until the end of the decade.


HIGH%20POINT%20ONE.jpg

High-Point I (1935) was completed by Highgate Council in association with Tecton, an architectural practice coordinated by the Soviet emigre Berthold Lubetkin. Tecton had a large influence on the redevelopment of London after 1931 and were instrumental in the evolution of the style known as "Commonwealth Modernism".


Where friction existed between the desires of the CPGB and the PLUA, it was usually to be found in cases of international economic policy. The Communist Party favoured a state monopoly of foreign trade – as exercised by the OEP’s Bureau of Trade and Import Control – but saw this policy as a means of eliminating the questions of both free trade and tariff reform. Mosley, on the other hand, used a suite of tariffs to insulate the economy of the early Commonwealth from the instability ravaging the market-capitalist world at the time, pivoting towards a closer co-operation with the former African and Indian colonies now exercising self-rule within the Union of Constituent Commonwealth States. While successful insofar as the pursuit of full employment and increased production were not hampered by bad news from the Continent, Mosley’s preference for tariffs was met in kind by trade barriers erected across the developed world. The Communists saw this economic gun-boat diplomacy as interfering with the right of the workers to manage the conduct of foreign trade on their own terms, believing tariffs to be a hangover of capitalist imperialism. Nevertheless, the global trend remained one of insularity in some form or other until the early 1950s. This was without doubt an aggravating factor in the persistence of the Depression in much of the market-capitalist world until the beginning of the 1940s.


One must therefore conclude ultimately that the legacy of the economic restructuring programmes of the early Commonwealth remains open to questioning. While Mosley’s efforts achieved their aim of simultaneously addressing the problem of unemployment and modernising much of Britain’s industry and infrastructure, the contemporaneous campaign against ownership conducted by the CPGB complicated matters and led to the emergence of a mixed economic policy, no longer in hock to discredited orthodoxies but not yet fully divorced from capitalist systems of operation. To the lasting consternation of the CPGB, Mosley’s successes cannot be credited to Marxist praxis, Leninist or otherwise. By the same token, it was the communising efforts of the CPGB that truly worked to create a society that was fundamentally reorganised around the needs and desires of the working class. The PLUA between 1929–34 can take little credit for advancing the lot of the workers beyond putting them back in work.


From the point of view of the capitalist world, the effectiveness of economic planning in combating the worst effects of the slump, as seen in the Commonwealth and the USSR, led to a greater international interest in the restructuring of society along non-capitalist lines. The immediate effects of this loss of faith in capitalist orthodoxies touched almost every developed country in Europe, even making it across the Atlantic with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States in 1933 on a platform of comprehensive economic planning. Ultimately, an understanding of the turbulent economic situation in Europe and America in the Thirties and Forties is vital to understanding the resulting socio-political upheavals. Thus an accurate picture can begin to be drawn of a world responding to crisis.
 
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stnylan

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Sounds like the world agreed to all cleave themselves to a corrupt and unproductive future. :)
 

DensleyBlair

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DensleyBlair

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Today is the 83rd anniversary of the real life Battle of Cable Street, when an anti-fascist counter-demonstration led by Phil Piratin and others turned into a running street battle that resulted in Mosley calling off a planned BUF march through a heavily Jewish area of the East End. Here's a BBC video – although I'll warn you that the comments section is pretty nasty.

But what better way to celebrate the fascist defeat than with an update? Something a little different coming up shortly. :)
 
Millers Dale for Tideswell, pilot episode

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MILLERS DALE FOR TIDESWELL

CBC WIRELESS SERVICE

1934



One of the first serial dramas to be broadcast on the CBC Wireless Service, Millers Dale for Tideswell was initially conceived as a means of attracting interest in the new towns being built across the Commonwealth during the 1930s. Commissioned for a pilot run of four 15-minute episodes to be broadcast between 5–8 February 1934, Tideswell’s realistic depiction of everyday events proved surprisingly popular, and the programme’s run was extended. Millers Dale for Tideswell aired on the Wireless Service four evenings a week, every week from March 1934 until September 1936, when it was moved to the successor Light Service. Over time, as the programme developed from what was essentially a novel form of public service broadcasting into a more considered drama, Tideswell earned a reputation for the humanity of its writing, which often dealt with aspects of “the everyday” without resorting to romanticism or melodrama. While usually light-hearted, it occasionally dealt with grittier topics, including a storyline in early 1940 about a group of young men from the town returning from service in the Spanish War.

Reaching a peak of popularity in the 1940s, by the end of the decade its audience share had begun to wane as television ownership became more common. In the 1950s, the programme’s relevance was superseded by newer serials as the popularity of its human realism diminished in favour of more speculative fiction. The CBC announced that the programme would end in 1957, with the final episode being broadcast on 21 February.

The real Tideswell is a new town in Derbyshire, about 18 miles south-west of Sheffield. It was an existing village prior to its development between 1932 and 1936, during which period the population rose from about 1,500 to nearly 40,000. The village was chosen for expansion in part due to its proximity to the nearby Millers Dale station, which was unusually large for a rural locality and had good links to Manchester, Sheffield and London.


MILLERS%20DALE%20FOR%20TIDESWELL.gif

Map of the United Rail service between Matlock and Buxton, with Millers Dale towards the north. While the OEP greatly expanded and modernised the road network during the first years of the Commonwealth, the railways retained their popularity as Britain's preferred method of transport even after the government began to encourage car ownership in the 1950s.


* * *


MILLERS DALE FOR TIDESWELL

PILOT EPISODE

5 FEB 1934


——————————

CAST

——————————


John Baxter is a train conductor in his forties. He moved from Sheffield with his family following the expansion of the Trans-Pennine Railway in 1933 and now lives in a new worker’s cottage, which he rents with his wife, Alice, and two daughters, Harriet and Charlotte.

Dorothy Franks is in her late twenties and teaches science at the new secondary school. She and her husband David, a journalist for the fictional Manchester Worker, moved to Tideswell following the birth of their son, Gerald.

Albert and Florence Wythe are in their sixties and have lived in Tideswell all their lives. Albert is uncertain about the new development, but Florence is more enthusiastic. Their son Arthur is a former farm labourer who now manages a share of a collective farm.


——————————


ANNOUNCEMENT: Next stop, Millers Dale for Tideswell!

ALICE BAXTER: This is us, girls.

Pause. Alice and her daughters get off the train and leave the station.

ALICE: Shelley Road is what we’re looking for; ten minutes from the station your father says. He’ll join us this evening after he’s back from work – suppose he’ll be home about six. Then I thought we could all go to the pub for tea. To celebrate the move, give ourselves some idea of the place. No sense coming here just to shut ourselves away in the house.

CHARLOTTE BAXTER: Are the Formbies here already? We could go and say hello if they aren’t too far.

HARRIET BAXTER: No, I think Ella told me they weren’t to arrive until Friday.

CHARLOTTE: Oh, that’s a shame.

HARRIET: It’s alright, Charlotte. You’ll be able to see Freddie again soon.

CHARLOTTE: That’s not what I meant!

ALICE: Come on now, girls! What would your father think, getting all agitated over nothing before we’ve even had chance to get ourselves settled in the new house? This is our new start, remember. Not everything has to follow us from Heeley.

Pause.

ALICE: Besides which, Beulah Formby told me when I saw her in the butcher’s last week that they were moving into their new cottage on Thursday afternoon.


— — — — —— — —


DOROTHY FRANKS: You wouldn’t believe some of the things these children came out with, David! There was one boy absolutely convinced he didn’t need to pay me any attention because he’s fourteen now and will be leaving soon to go and work on the farm. I told him he would be doing nothing of the sort, and didn’t he know the leaving age was sixteen now? Two years off from his CGE’s and completely oblivious to all around him. Thank goodness they’re not all like that or I’d be on the next train back to Manchester.

DAVID FRANKS: You’re all talk, Dore! You’re not giving up that garden for the world.

DOROTHY: Well there is that.

Pause.

DOROTHY: Was Gerald okay today?

DAVID: A dream. Only got me up from my writing desk half a dozen times.

DOROTHY: So he is improving, then?

DAVID: Aye, I’d say so. I said to myself this morning, if it looked like he wasn’t getting any better by the afternoon then I’d pop over to see Dr Garvey at the health centre. But he’s hardly coughing any more and the temperature’s gone. Think the fresh air was probably all he needed.

DOROTHY: Well there’s certainly plenty of that around!

Pause.

DOROTHY: Was it Dr Garvey who invited us round for dinner next week? Who said his daughter’s just gone off to Manchester to read chemistry?

DAVID: That’s the one. Tall fella, lives in the old village.

DOROTHY: Very fancy.

DAVID: They’re not the ones with the indoor toilets, love.


— — — — — — — — — —


The front door shuts back in Shelley Road.

JOHN BAXTER: Evening, all!

ALICE: Hello, love. Good day?

JOHN: No complaints. Same old life at 100 miles an hour. Any chance of a brew, dear?

ALICE: It’s just on now. I’ll bring you a mug through when it’s done.

JOHN: Ta. Calling through to the other room. Alright, girls?

HARRIET: Hi, dad. Good day?

JOHN: No complaints. You had a good look round the area? And what’s your sister up to? Is she around?

HARRIET: She went to the Post Office. I reckon she might be expecting something from Freddie Formby, but I asked her and mum said not to pry.

ALICE: Returning with the tea. What did mum say?

JOHN: Not to go snooping into our Charlotte’s affairs at the Post Office. And quite right, too. You listen to your mother, Hattie. She’s very wise.

Pause.

JOHN: Mind you… Freddie Formby, eh? Good lad, he is. Handsome kid and all. Aren’t the Formbies moving in on Friday?

ALICE: Thursday. But don’t you start, John! Last thing our Charlotte will want is her father joining the inquisition into her private life.

JOHN: Well if that isn’t my role here I don’t know what is! I approve is all I mean to say. Always have liked the boy.

ALICE; Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, eh?

JOHN: No, I suppose not.

Pause.

ALICE: Thought we’d head down to the pub for dinner. The Anchor, over in the old village. Do a good steak pie, apparently.

JOHN: How can we refuse?


MILLERS%20DALE%201956.jpg

A local service train stops at Millers Dale on the way from Buxton to Matlock, 1956. The outskirts of the town of Tideswell can be seen in the background.


— — — — — — — — — —


FLORENCE WYTHE: Our Arthur came round for tea earlier, love. Did he mention he was going to call in? Had all sorts to say about the new houses!

ALBERT WYTHE: Oh aye?

FLORENCE: Aye! Been reading about the architects and all. Something in Country Life. All for a return to the land, apparently. Putting the working man back in touch with the natural world or something. I don’t know. But he said they all look very smart, the new streets.

ALBERT: Did he and all?

FLORENCE: He did! And don’t you go giving me your doom and gloom about spoiling the landscape, I can do without that this evening thank you very much.

ALBERT: I wasn’t going to say a word!

FLORENCE: Oh, I know you too well for that, Albert Wythe.

ALBERT: All I was going to say—

FLORENCE: So I was right!

ALBERT: Well, (he sighs) all I was going to say was that I didn’t like to think of the village being overrun, that’s all.

FLORENCE: Overrun! What sort of talk is that? Overrun by who?

ALBERT: By the city lot who are coming here, taking in their little slice of the countryside. This new government are giving out a good deal of things that aren’t theirs to give out. Hasn’t a man the right to be suspicious of an institution so public with its bribery tactics? Lord only knows what they’re purchasing all of this good-will for.

FLORENCE: I’ve heard a lot of things come out your mouth over the years, Albert, but this has to be up there with the most absurd. Bribery? You can talk, love, but it hasn’t stopped you taking your state credit, has it?

ALBERT: They took the farm, Florence! What choice did I have?

FLORENCE: We’re still here, aren’t we? In the same house, working the same land. And think of our Albert: he’s got himself a plot now, too.

ALBERT: He’d have had ten times what he’s been given by the government after I’d gone. But now he’ll just inherit a state tenancy. Talk about generosity!

FLORENCE: Talk about generosity, indeed! There’s a Depression on, love. You know as well as I do that sheep farming was hardly going to make millionaires of us, Commonwealth or not. I say we might as well show some gratitude to the side that’s at least sending some support our way. The hand that feeds, and all that.

ALBERT: There have been Wythe’s farming this land – Wythe land – for three centuries. We were proud people, Florence. We had the security of owning the soil beneath our feet. Now what? These johnny-come-latelies in the Communist Party have come in thinking they know what’s what and taken everything, and now we just have to trust that they will keep the food on our table and the roof over our heads!

FLORENCE: Losing a bit of that Wythe family pride would do you good, Albert! And it doesn’t need to be at the cost of your dignity. Look! We’ve got more security than ever before now: a guaranteed income and the backing of a union. And we’ve got rights now, as tenants. They can’t just kick us out. Where would we have been if the Depression came and we didn’t have this safety net? Do you think the price of wool would’ve given second thought to whether we lost the farm? I sure as heck don’t think so.

ALBERT: I’m just worried, Florence. I’m an old man, and I’ve seen many governments come and go in my time, and we’ve always held on. But what if it all goes up in smoke? What if Churchill comes back and kicks the Reds out? Where does that leave us?

FLORENCE: That’s why we’ve got to have some faith, love. We’ve got to decide what’s good in this world and fight for it. That’s what our Arthur said to me earlier. He said everything will be fine because the new world is here, if only we fight to keep it alive.

ALBERT: I’m a sheep farmer, Florence. I’m sixty-one years old. You tell me what I’m supposed to know about fighting for a new world.

FLORENCE: You mustn’t think such things, love. Everything will be fine. We’ll go on working the land, and the state will provide for us. It will all be fine. You’re a strong man, Albert. I’m sure you’ll know how to fight if ever the time comes.

Pause.

FLORENCE: Now, I don’t know about you but I reckon it’s time we got ready for bed. Early start tomorrow.

Pause.

FLORENCE: Tell you what – you go on up, love. I’ll check the barn. You go and get some rest.

ALBERT: He sighs. Aye – maybe you’re right, love. Best not to worry too much, not when there’s work to do. We’ll be alright.
 

stnylan

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And intriguing look into the Britain of this world. Very finely crafted :)
 

avalanches

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A great look into the popular culture of Britain after the revolution, something I feel we don’t normally get in timeline’s and stories covering these sorts of things.

Also, interesting to see rail remain the dominant form of transport over cars - makes a good bit of sense given how things have developed over the past few years. ;)
 

DensleyBlair

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And intriguing look into the Britain of this world. Very finely crafted :)

Thanks! I wondered how interesting people would find this sort of thing, but I felt like exercising my character-writing chops. Glad you enjoyed it. :)

A great look into the popular culture of Britain after the revolution, something I feel we don’t normally get in timeline’s and stories covering these sorts of things.

Cheers! I’m a sucker for pop culture histories so it’s something I really enjoy writing. Often when I’m reading AH I just sort of think, I enjoy finding out who’s in charge – but I’d really like to know what the houses look like and who’s on the radio. :p

Also, interesting to see rail remain the dominant form of transport over cars - makes a good bit of sense given how things have developed over the past few years. ;)

Some people use AH to fulfil their deepest political desires. All I want is a decent regional rail service and an end to the hell that is traffic on the M42. :D

_____________

Thanks everyone for your comments and feedback. Summer is now officially over and I’m back at uni so unfortunately I’ll probably be largely absent from AARland until the middle of December. That said, I was organised enough to leave myself enough updates to tide over the gap until I have time to write again. I’ll start out keeping up the weekly posting schedule, but if I start to sense the holidays might be busier than anticipated this could slow down to once a fortnight. I’m hoping it won’t come to that, though.

In the meantime, it’s been a blast having you all along for the ride over the summer. I’ll look forward to keeping things going over the autumn, and hopefully you’ll all be good enough to stick around. :)

Cheers!
 

Anuerin

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A world where TTL's Archers doesn't make it to the present day, truly the darkest dystopia I've ever read, makes For All Time look like My Little Pony.
 

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A world where TTL's Archers doesn't make it to the present day, truly the darkest dystopia I've ever read, makes For All Time look like My Little Pony.

A moment of silence for the gripping dramas of life in Ambridge, never to be heard on the airwaves.

________________________

Evidently, I haven't got around to posting the next update yet, but it will come soon – probably tomorrow morning. You can look forward to an overview of the film industry in the early Commonwealth very shortly. :D

Until then!
 

avalanches

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Evidently, I haven't got around to posting the next update yet, but it will come soon – probably tomorrow morning. You can look forward to an overview of the film industry in the early Commonwealth very shortly. :D
AAAAAA

So excited for the next update, can’t wait to see what post-Revolution film looks like!
 

DensleyBlair

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AAAAAA

So excited for the next update, can’t wait to see what post-Revolution film looks like!

Appearing a little later than advertised, but the update is finally imminent. :)
 
The New World in Motion: Film in the Workers' Commonwealth, 1929–1934

DensleyBlair

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ECHOES%20HEADER.jpg



THE NEW WORLD IN MOTION
FILM IN THE WORKERS’ COMMONWEALTH, 1929–1934

WOLF MANKOWITZ

1961



The trajectory of the history of British society during the first third of the Twentieth century follows a series of fatal shocks. Edwardian Britain, a Victorian hangover period of fine and comfortable living for many outside of the working classes, suffered a violent and belated death at the hands of the Great War (1914–1918), whose unwelcome arrival marked in many ways the start of the century as we know it. After the War, the untold physical and psychological damage wrought by the horrors of the conflict upon this gentle society were, it was soon realised, irreversible. In politics, the British ruling class attempted a policy of maintaining things as they were before the War, only to meet with stern resistance from the new economic order. Their arrogance, in thinking that they could refashion the new world to be as it had been before, proved their downfall, and the revolution (1927–1929) erupted as a final rebuke to these efforts of restoration.


In the arts, the arrival of the new world was far more willingly heralded. Across visual and literary culture, the Modernists spent the decade after the War unpicking its effects upon the collective psyche, producing art from everything that was confusing, alienating and – it must be said – hopeful about the “Modern” world. The new art was spurred on by advances in the realms of science and medicine revealing new truths about the world and ourselves within it, playing with time and subjectivity to pick apart the old order with relativity and free association. The advance of technology, too, influenced both the form and content of artistic production, and cinema emerged as the predominate popular medium of the age. The development of a truly commercialised system of film production after 1920 saw over 18 million people attending their local cinema each week by the end of the decade, with box office receipts in 1930 accounting for two-thirds of all entertainment expenditure in Britain.


Without doubt, the transformation of the United Kingdom into the Commonwealth of Britain had a marked impact upon the country’s popular culture. New literary and visual idioms emerged in response to the fundamental reorganisation of society, reflected particularly in the state control of the cinemas after 1930. The existent literature of the gentry evolved even further in its disenchantment with the modern world (both for better and for worse), and for the first time a prominent literature of the working class began to emerge that was, on the whole, neither overly sensationalised nor cloyingly romantic. All of these changing trends contributed towards making the first years of the Commonwealth something of a cultural golden age.


* * *


In 1930, in accordance with the cultural programme laid out in its 1929 manifesto, the Communist Party of Great Britain, operating via its chief governmental organ the Bureau of Domestic Affairs, unilaterally brought the cinemas of Britain under state control. The immediate predicted result was a suffocation of the nascent film culture; weekly attendance at local cinemas in 1930 dropped by over 4 million compared to the previous year. But the decline cannot entirely be attributed to state control. In the first years of the new state cinema, the transition from a pre-revolutionary (undeveloped) production system to an industry of production backed by the state required significant investment, both in terms of capital and in terms of artistic labour. The lifespan of a film averaged about four months, and consumer demand for novelty (in the early years of cinema, novelty far more than cultural merit was the main driver of receipts) meant new films had to be produced at a pretty much constant rate.


For the purposes of this production, two new studio campuses were acquired. The first, Elstree Studios, was managed by a company called British International Pictures. The company was nationalised as part of the new cultural apparatus of the state and renamed Commonwealth International Cinema, and expanded its operation to include new studios at Heatherden Hall, which in time grew to be the most significant studio within the Commonwealth apparatus.


The star director at British International Pictures had been Alfred Hitchcock, then at the beginning of his career, and he was retained as the new nationalised venture’s greatest talent. His work at Elstree was significant for being amongst the first British-produced cinema to feature a recorded soundtrack. Between 1930–1934, Hitchcock produced five films at Elstree and pioneered numerous techniques in the use of the soundstage. As remains typical of Hitchcock, arguably the most recognisable stylist of British cinema even today, his films in this period are chiefly atmospheric thrillers that usually depict working people who find themselves in dire situations at the hands of the state. Murder! (1930), an exemplar of this type, saw Norah Baker star as a young actress wrongly condemned for the murder of a colleague. An adaptation of the book Enter Sir John (1927), the film is also an early example of the license with which the Domestic Bureau oversaw the re-writing of pre-revolutionary literature to change class dynamics and make plots more favourable to the working class. Originally, Baker’s character is vindicated thanks to the efforts of the upper-class actor Sir John Saumarez; in the Hitchcock film, her innocence is proven by a young fan from the East End, played memorably by Ernest Mills in his film debut.


HEATHERDEN%201934.jpg

The elaborate studio complex at Heatherden shown in 1934. The Hall itself, used for office space and workers' flats, can be seen in the front of the image.


This overriding idea of working people coming out on top against grave opposition is present throughout much of the early era of Commonwealth cinema, pervasive across genre and plot. The upper classes were presented in an almost uniquely bad light, and the few attempts to show more sympathetic characters were soon swept under the rug by the censors. An example is My Lady, an aborted romantic comedy starring Robert Donat as a young factory worker who falls in love with the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat (Anna Neagle) in the years after the Great War. While by no means a bad script, the portrayal of a relationship across class lines did not find favour with the directors of the Board of Film, and the scenario was rewritten to make Neagle’s character a young miner’s widow. Eventually released as From the Ground Up (1932), the film took on a much more sentimental tone and found success for its juxtaposition of film industry stars with an honest treatment of real-to-life social issues.


Depictions of the upper classes that survived the censors’ board were usually stock villains in thrillers and adventure films about about plucky, working-class leads battling the odds to find some sort of redemption. Alternatively, a number of actors made careers during the 1930s out of playing toffs for comedic effect. The old music hall character of the lion comique – an absurdly parodic portrayal of a blue-blooded man about town – made a return in the form of minor characters in numerous comedies. Jack Hulbert was a stand-out repeat performer in such roles.


One exception to the tight restrictions on importing films – particularly American films – was the output of Charlie Chaplin, whose silent films featuring his beloved Tramp character were enthusiastically adopted by the Board of Cinema as blockbuster sentimental comedies that nevertheless remain true to some sort of socially conscious grounding. City Lights (1931) was one of the most popular films of the year on Britain, despite its foreign origin, and sparked a number of imitation productions that showed the worthy poor getting the better of amoral capitalists and finding love in spite of adversity. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), while released after the end of CPGB control of the Domestic Bureau, was perhaps even more appreciated for its treatment of the hardships of the modern industrial world. The anti-fascist message in The Great Dictator (1940) found great acclaim amongst British cinemagoers. Following the warm reception enjoyed by this trilogy of films in his native country, it seemed a natural choice for Chaplin to move back to Britain after running into legal difficulties in the United States, where he was suspected of holding communist sympathies. From 1942, he was the star director working out of Heatherden.


Some comment should be given also to emergent cultures within the new art of cinema. As with contemporary literature, where a new perspective was being offered by women writers who explored a distinct female subjectivity, so too in popular cinema was this new conception of the liberated woman represented. In contrast to some of the more genteel stories offered up by Hollywood for the American bourgeoisie, where errant women were usually forced back onto a path of moral decency by the resolution, a number of films produced in Britain throughout the 1930s offered an alternative portrayal of the new social freedoms offered to working-class women. Significantly, no moral repositioning was demanded of the resolution: the heroines in these films were allowed to have things their way. Gracie Fields enjoyed a string of hit appearances playing such women in a number of musical comedies throughout the decade, though her role as the eponymous Sally in Sally In Our Alley (1931) offered a more challenging take on topics such as sexuality and marital ties.


A final word must be given to the work of Ivor Montagu during the period, who was instrumental in the founding of the London Film Society in the years before the revolution. An associate of both Hitchcock (for whom he did much post-production work) and Sergei Eisenstein in Russia, who revolutionised techniques of editing and montage, Montagu was a crucial innovator within early British cinema who did much to further the presence of independent and “art” films in the Commonwealth. He worked as a director in the 1930s, and as a member of the Communist Party himself was arguably given more room to manoeuvre with regard to his output. A trilogy of technically daring documentary films about the revolution – Bluebottles (1930), Exodus (1933) and Cliveden (1934) – were, to the surprise of many on the Board of Cinema, received enthusiastically by the attendant public, evidence of the broad tastes of many cinemagoers in the period. The extravagant montage and editing processes used by Montagu seemed to his audiences to reflect something of the building of the new world, recreated in motion-picture, and established his reputation as one of the chief recorders of this period of change. Taken as one body, Montagu’s “Revolutionary Trilogy” was arguably the first artistic masterpiece of the new British cinema, and the first evidence of an emergent, domestic cultural tendency able to challenge the supremacy of the Russian avant-garde.


MONTAGU%20CLIVEDEN%201934.jpg

A still from Ivor Montagu's Cliveden (1934) showing an allegorical, ahistorical scene in which workers flood down the steps towards the parterre at Cliveden.


* * *


After six years, Britain went from possessing only the barest bones of an industry of film production to boasting one of the most well-organised operations in Europe. From uncertain origins, British cinema during the early Commonwealth came to embody something of the excitement and optimism of the changed society, highlighting new roles for working men and women while attacking orthodoxies previously held sacrosanct. This sense of freedom touched both plot and form, as interest soared in popular cinema and avant-garde film-making alike.


Yet it is important to bear in mind that, however free its characters and editing may have been, film-makers were forced to work under a strict system of management handed down from the Communist Party leadership. Censorship was commonplace, and many actors who had had some taste of fame in more middle-class roles before the revolution now found themselves out of favour. Even today, the debate over the extent of state control of the film industry continues, and last year the conviction of the Heatherden Twelve following their campaign of direct action in support of the Free Cinema Movement served as a timely reminder of the violence that surrounds this question.


In many ways, the emergence of a new mass medium of working-class expression through the development of British cinema between 1929–1934 is illustrative of the wider social freedoms which opened up for workers in all spheres following the revolution. From the start, this liberty was subject to a rigid code of regulation. Looking back thirty years in the future, at a time when previous orthodoxies are once again beginning to be questioned, it is worth evaluating afresh the true cost of our art.



Wolf Mankowitz (b. 1926) is a novelist, playwright and CAFTA Award–winning screenwriter. In 1958, he helped to set up the Partisan Coffee House off Soho Square, and remains active within the circles of the New Left.
 

stnylan

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So I should explain what this reminds me of. I went to university in St Andrews, which back then was served a rather small (if much loved) cinema. However it did not always get much choice about what it could show. Lethal Weapon 4 was its only offering for something like 5-6 weeks. Now, Lethal Weapon 4 was ... not so good. People so often complained about it being the only thing on offer that the management had to put up several notices explaining the situation under which they operated.

I mean, I recall this becoming something of a running joke amongst the student body, or at least amongst that part of the student body of which I was a part. And yet ... people still occasionally went to see the film, even second or third time, because it was still something to do. St Andrews being a rather small town (ridiculously small to host such a fine university, which for me - having largely grew up in Cornwall - was one of the attractions I must admit), with a limited amount of stuff to do not of one's own devising. Dundee (if you were that desperate :) ) was an unreliable 20 min bus trip away. Of course, this was a bit before the internet really took off in the UK, otherwise I am sure folks would have rectified the situation in other ways.

Anyway, retrospective aside this account of the British film industry in part reminds me of people agreeing to see Lethal Weapon 4 again, despite them knowing it was rubbish, just because it was something to do.
 

Anuerin

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Very fun update, the mention of the Heatherden Twelve at the end was an interesting reminder of the lingering repression at least into the sixties. Chaplin still making The Great Dictator is also an interesting nugget.

So I should explain what this reminds me of. I went to university in St Andrews, which back then was served a rather small (if much loved) cinema. However it did not always get much choice about what it could show. Lethal Weapon 4 was its only offering for something like 5-6 weeks. Now, Lethal Weapon 4 was ... not so good. People so often complained about it being the only thing on offer that the management had to put up several notices explaining the situation under which they operated.

I mean, I recall this becoming something of a running joke amongst the student body, or at least amongst that part of the student body of which I was a part. And yet ... people still occasionally went to see the film, even second or third time, because it was still something to do. St Andrews being a rather small town (ridiculously small to host such a fine university, which for me - having largely grew up in Cornwall - was one of the attractions I must admit), with a limited amount of stuff to do not of one's own devising. Dundee (if you were that desperate :) ) was an unreliable 20 min bus trip away. Of course, this was a bit before the internet really took off in the UK, otherwise I am sure folks would have rectified the situation in other ways.

Anyway, retrospective aside this account of the British film industry in part reminds me of people agreeing to see Lethal Weapon 4 again, despite them knowing it was rubbish, just because it was something to do.

It's the same to this very day, although the rate of film rotation is a little better.
 

stnylan

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It's the same to this very day, although the rate of film rotation is a little better.
So the New Picture House lives on? I will confess that makes me smile.
 

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So I should explain what this reminds me of. I went to university in St Andrews, which back then was served a rather small (if much loved) cinema. However it did not always get much choice about what it could show. Lethal Weapon 4 was its only offering for something like 5-6 weeks. Now, Lethal Weapon 4 was ... not so good. People so often complained about it being the only thing on offer that the management had to put up several notices explaining the situation under which they operated.

I mean, I recall this becoming something of a running joke amongst the student body, or at least amongst that part of the student body of which I was a part. And yet ... people still occasionally went to see the film, even second or third time, because it was still something to do. St Andrews being a rather small town (ridiculously small to host such a fine university, which for me - having largely grew up in Cornwall - was one of the attractions I must admit), with a limited amount of stuff to do not of one's own devising. Dundee (if you were that desperate :) ) was an unreliable 20 min bus trip away. Of course, this was a bit before the internet really took off in the UK, otherwise I am sure folks would have rectified the situation in other ways.

Anyway, retrospective aside this account of the British film industry in part reminds me of people agreeing to see Lethal Weapon 4 again, despite them knowing it was rubbish, just because it was something to do.

I think it's important to remember that this is right at the birth of mass media cinema anyway, so novelty is basically the driving factor behind going to see new films. I read a paper which suggested that in the Thirties people would basically go and see anything so long as it was new. Nowadays of course we put up with a load of awful stuff getting pushed through by the studios, but back then people were a bit more receptive to formulaic dross just for the fact that it was formulaic dross on the big screen. :)

Also something I didn't realise was that from the 1930s–1950s the film industry in Britain was protected by quotas and other barriers that effectively acted as tariffs. So I don't think the whole pedestrian nature of things is that far from the mark for the period, it's probably just that in this case the stories produced skew one way rather than the other.

And I very much enjoyed the St Andrews story. :D

Very fun update, the mention of the Heatherden Twelve at the end was an interesting reminder of the lingering repression at least into the sixties. Chaplin still making The Great Dictator is also an interesting nugget.

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. The situation in the Sixties is something I'm looking forward to getting onto in due course. Seeing as that may end up being a fair amount of time away, these hints have to do in the meantime. :)

I couldn't not take advantage of having Chaplin around! I think once the Red Scare hits Hollywood I'm sort of imagining a whole group of people emigrating, I guess led by people like Paul Robeson and maybe Orson Welles (more just because I like the idea of having Welles in the UK). The payoff is that by the early Sixties I have this idea that people like Lindsay Anderson are probably having to make their films somewhere like Belgium, Tarkovsky-in-Sweden–style.

______________________________________

The next update is about literature, though tries something a little different. It's also jam-packed with familiar faces. I've been having a bit of a time sorting out some welfare stuff this last week, but I should have a free moment at some point over the weekend to settle into the right frame of mind to put up the next update.

Until then!
 
Book Club at the Partisan

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ECHOES%20HEADER.jpg



BOOK CLUB AT THE PARTISAN

1960



“I’d just like to thank everyone for coming – I know this isn’t exactly people’s top priority, but as I say, it’s something I’ve been working on with Cord and we’d like to hear what our friends have to say.”


In the back of a small coffee house in central London, a group of men and women sat closely-packed across three sofas. The speaker was in his early forties, wearing a shirt and tie and leaning forward to address the rest of the group. It was early on a weekday evening, and a number of tables at the front of the house were still occupied by people lingering over one cup of coffee. Some were playing chess, others reading and talking.


“Don’t flatter yourself, Will. We’re only here because we want to get good seats for Peggy’s set later!”


“Thank you for reminding me, John. I’d’ve talked all night otherwise.”


“And we all know he’s being deadly serious,” said the woman to Will’s left with mock severity. “I’m sure some of us still haven’t recovered from last month’s extended monologue on the Board of Cinema. —Speaking of which,” she turns to an older man to an older man on a different sofa, “how is Vanessa doing, Michael?”


Michael said Vanessa is doing fine, but his eyes showed more worry than his voice suggested. “We don’t hear much, truth be told.”


“Well all of us send our solidarity. You know you can ask anything of us, Michael, we’ll help however we can.”


“Thank you, Cordelia.” He smiled slightly. “She’s a strong girl, she’ll be alright.”


A pause took over the conversation and nobody quite knew how to react to the quiet. A woman to Michael’s right turned to him and smiled, putting her hand on his in a comradely gesture. The noises of scraping chairs and drinks being poured tided over the lull.


“Anyway,” Will started up again, “time is money—”


“No one told it about the revolution, apparently.” A young man with dark hair approached the group and took a seat perching on the back of the nearest sofa.


“Ah, sorry Ralph. We’re good on the rent still though, aren’t we?”


Ralph reached for a cigarette and lit it before answering.


“We’ll be alright, Will. Just as long as those two,” he nodded surreptitiously towards two older men playing a very slow game of chess by the front door, lowering his voice “just as long as they don’t become regular patrons, if you know what I mean.” Will understood perfectly well what Ralph meant.


“Not big drinkers, then?”


“More interested in the conversation, I think.” Ralph turned to give the two men one more look, taking a drag of his cigarette and breathing the smoke out away from the group. “But don’t let their interest get in the way of your fun, Will.”


Will nodded and resumed his talk. “As I was saying, me and Cord have been working on an idea for new piece for the Review and we wanted to share it with you all first. After the success of last month’s investigation into the links between Anglo–Canadian literature and the counter-revolutionary movement after 1929, this time we thought we might take a look at something a bit closer to home. Therefore, we’d like to talk a bit about the new literature that evolved in Britain after 1929, and the extent of its relationship to the building of the new society.” Will took a look around the group. “I appreciate a lot of you aren’t entirely old enough to really remember the literature of the early Commonwealth, but even I was only 10 when the revolution happened and Cord was 9, so if we’re entitled to an opinion then what’s stopping anyone, frankly?”


“God, I always forget how old you are, Will.”


“You never fail to make me feel good about myself, Ken.”


Ken nodded with mock humility. “Famously, the job of any good critic is to make his subjects feel good about themselves.”


PARTISAN%20COFFEE%20HOUSE%20FLYER.png

A flyer for the Partisan, showing the legendarily unappetising bill of fare.


Muted laughter. Ralph turned round to see the two chess players looking up from their table. He glanced back at Will.


“Now,” Will continued, looking first at Ralph and then back to the rest of the group, “to give a little background, it’s worth just making a brief comment about the state of literature before 1929. —And before you say anything Cord,” he shifted in his seat to see her looking at him sceptically, “I do mean brief.”


“I’ll give you a kick to let you know when your time’s up,” Cord addressed her retort more to the group than to Will himself.


“The psychological and material damage done by the Great War had, needless to say, massive implications on society – both among the upper– and middle classes, for whom the Great War pretty much spelled the end of life as they knew it, and among the working classes, who were, as we know, to be the prime beneficiaries of the instability opening up in the bourgeois world.


“In the arts, broadly, this shock of instability carved out space for new modes of creativity that owed as much to previous cultural expression as it did to developments in technology, politics, science, psychoanalysis, and so on. Ford and the War poets did much to chart the decline of the old gentrified order, also playing around with time, consciousness and subjectivity in ways which were entirely innovative, and soon taken much further by a number of writers, particularly women like Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys. Many of whom, it should be pointed out, duly signed up as good antifascists when the time came.


“Popular literature of course was much more of a continuity, thrillers and adventure stories and the like. Though Graham Greene was perhaps a little harsh on himself in dividing his own work between ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’. Greene of course was one of the most popular authors of the early Commonwealth period, and was very good at weaving loftier questions about morality and social commentary into otherwise quite formulaic plot lines.”


“Thirty seconds, Will.”


“Thank you, Cord. You’ve got to give me some credit, though, I’m getting through things pretty quickly.” Cord gave a look of concession. “Okay, so we’ve addressed Modernism. After 1929, the Communist Party, our beloved CPGB—”


“Rest in power, Comrade Pollitt!” Ralph called out, sarcastically.


RALPH%20SAMUEL%20C1960.png

Ralph, getting down to the business of running a coffee house, c. 1960.


“—the CPGB took over control of literary censorship through the Board of Publication, an organ of the Bureau of Domestic Affairs.” Ken gave a melodramatic hiss. “The Communists broadly approved of Modernism, which they saw as a useful vehicle for dismantling old hierarchies within the literary world and building new hierarchies in their place. Whereas early Modernism in British literature had given us unprecedented examinations of the anxieties and schizophrenia of the inner world, the Board of Publication were more interested in developing a national body of work that applied this sort of analysis to the collective world, though inverted where necessary to allow for the vindication of the working classes. Graham Greene, to use an earlier example, came to prominence in the early Commonwealth for his unsparing accounts of people trapped in modest circumstances, though what he would call his more ‘serious’ manuscripts were usually far too morbid for the censors and more often than not had to be injected with a dose of optimism inspired by the new workers’ collective. To get around this, he crafted a successful career writing gritty thrillers starring working men and women, gradually translating his improving status into the latitude to inject nuanced social critique and more honest accounts of working-class subjectivity. We’ll all be familiar with 1938’s Brighton Rock as an example of this sort of double game.


“An another, earlier popular example of a writer injecting a new, workers’ sensibility into an otherwise quite standard scenario – in this case a tragic romance – is Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel Love on the Picket, which examined the hardship of a young couple’s life together during the protracted general strike. No doubt owing to the involvement of the censors, the novel becomes thinly-veiled propaganda for the new regime thanks to its denouement, in which the couple are shown happy and untroubled in a new OEP cottage in Salford.


“It was inevitable, once the Party involved themselves with literature, that the uncertain regard in which early Modernism held the future would be tempered into a more even optimism. A rather ingenious tactic for getting around the censors’ distaste for anything that let too much darkness into the new world was the use of speculative settings and allegory, some of which were sufficiently nuanced to allow for some fairly serious critique while going completely above the heads of the Publication Board members. When Aldous Huxley completed the original manuscript of
Brave New World in 1932, it offended the censors for its flagrant sexual politics, but they were enthusiastic about its grim depiction of a society hyper-stratified according to class, and thus a heavily revised edition was quickly released. The original manuscript surfaced on an underground network of pirated literature, and I was lucky enough to encounter one when I was in secondary school. When a state-approved version of the so-called ‘original text’ was released in 1937, with the sexual politics transplanted onto a sensationalist critique of fascism, I for one was therefore less than impressed. Not in the least because I read it during basic training at Duxford, and by this point I knew that real fascists were far more insidious in their exercise of hatred than any pulp fiction villain.” Will paused for a second, the evocation of the war disrupting his flow. He looked round at Cord, who had put her hand on his knee, and smiled, a little comforted. When he began talking again, his voice was softer than before.


“I was going to talk a little bit about Orwell’s reportage from the period, or maybe about Day-Lewis and his group – and actually there’s a whole bit about John Dos Passos that I’ve left out – but I think it might be best to save that for another day seeing as we’ve only got, what, half an hour before Peggy. Cord, do you want to give us something about Jean Rhys?”


“Yes, yes I can do. Maybe it’s just worth mentioning a bit about Voyage in the Dark, seeing as it’s probably one of the most striking novels written in the early Commonwealth to find its way past the censors.


“Published in 1934, Voyage in the Dark is an ambiguous account of a girl, Anna, growing up in neglected emotional circumstances after moving to England from the West Indies. She is treated harshly by the world and descends into a tragic existence after being left by her older lover. I say find its way past the censors because, as part of its exploration of female subjectivity, Rhys describes a botched abortion, which for most people is probably as shocking today as it would have been in the 1930s. The Board of Publication were happy enough to issue it because in the end Anna survives, but otherwise Rhys leaves us with a fairly ambivalent idea of her fate.


“I suspect the censors allowed it because it is set in the years just before the revolution, so the whole thing becomes a sort of warning of the kind of barbarism that awaits outside of the security network offered by the new state. But it remains striking all the same. And an excellent reminder of the fact that, as Will said, a lot of the most innovative work in pushing Modernist literature forward during the early Commonwealth was done by women. I think in many ways the censors felt that they could be more tolerant towards stories that depicted downtrodden women because the state, in essence, remained paternalist in the most fundamental sense, and like with Voyage everything could quite neatly be turned into a allegory for how effectively the new order provided a sense of protection against the meanness of the world. You couldn’t get away with that writing as a man, I don’t think. I’m not convinced the state would be quite as taken with the idea of having to save desperate men in the individual, rather than working men in the collective. And somehow the idea of men writing about fallen women feels a little exploitative, don’t you think? As if it would necessarily be missing some sort of truth that would allow us to believe that its harshness wasn’t just the exercising of a saviour fantasy.” The group nodded and mumbled their varying degrees of approval. Ken looked like he was about to speak, but he decided against it and just sat there, contemplating.


At the front of the house, the door swung shut and Will looked up in time just to see the two chess players walking slowly past the modern glass windows and onwards down Carlisle Street. Ralph was looking too, and said:


“Probably just as well they’ve gone. Peggy will be here any minute and they didn’t really look like big fans.” He got up from his perch on the back of the sofa. “Speaking of which, I need to go and make sure everything is ready in the basement. Will, Cord; would you come with me? Just want to ask some advice on something business related.”


Will and Cord got up from their spot on the sofa and followed Ralph downstairs. The rest of the group started up their own conversations, and when Peggy arrived soon after the mood turned from worthy intellectual enquiry to genuine excitement. It had only been a few months since Peggy’s marriage of convenience to a moody Glaswegian folk singer, and newly naturalised she was unrestrained in her enjoyment of the avant-garde club scene London offered. When she began to play, the coffee shop regulars soon forgot about censorship and struggles with the party. Their minds turned towards an altogether more universal freedom.


 

stnylan

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The "problem" with a censored regieme is the sort of, well dismissiveness isn't quite the right word, but it breeds a cynicism.