Nine days that shaped the words

Issue: 151

Bob Light

A review of Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill, Writing the 1926 General Strike: Literature, Culture, Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2015), £55

This is an exemplary book which does exactly what it says on the tin, examining how the 1926 General Strike is inscribed in writing in a variety of genres over the subsequent 50 years.

Much of this involves the authors Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill carrying out a form of literary archaeology, digging up novels and play scripts that have been out of print and long forgotten. But they do also look at the impact of the strike on more established writers like John Galsworthy, D H Lawrence, H G Wells and Virginia Woolf before discussing the “Poshocratic” output of W H Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, etc. So this book packs a prodigious amount of scholarship into its 225 pages.

The section on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is especially interesting in view of its canonisation as a feminist classic. We knew from Alison Light’s (no relation) Virginia Woolf and Her Servants that beneath the affectation of her modernist politics Woolf was an inveterate snob. However, with forensic precision Ferrall and McNeill, uncover how this class contempt oozed in the various drafts of To the Lighthouse which Woolf was writing and rewriting during and immediately after the strike. Dryly, Ferrall and McNeill conclude that “the strike draws out the acutely felt difficulties of class relations and identity that Woolf explored with such intensity”.

Ferrall and McNeill pick through the various drafts of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was completed in the very week that the miners’ lockout ended in defeat. Lawrence’s experience of class was more dichotomous than Woolf’s, marked by “at once a devouring nostalgia and an infinite repulsion” for his Nottingham upbringing. Again using the skills of close textual analysis, Ferrall and McNeill look at how that class sensibility changed through the various drafts. Lawrence himself was dismissive of his first draft and its “flirtation with class politics” but they argue that nonetheless “the novel’s self-aggrandising sexual politics and male delusions lead to a political vision of class conflict” (p101). That can hardly be the final word on Lawrence’s endlessly vexatious novel but it is a bravura reading nonetheless.

Lawrence provides the conduit for Writing the General Strike to traverse the class divide to discuss working class writers who wrote about the class struggle “from the inside out”. This for me is the most exhilarating section of the book. These are writers and novels—indeed a whole tradition—that have been buried under the contempt of history. Yet Ferrall and McNeill argue, quoting Raymond Williams, that “from the 1920s through to the 1940s there was an effective tradition of novels…about the industrial crisis…remarkable in Europe as a form of writing by, about and largely for a conscious working class” (p166).

Ferrall and McNeill show how writers who frankly I had never heard of like Idris Davis, Jack Jones, Gwyn Thomas as well as more famous names like Williams and Ellen Wilkinson used class experience to produce “working class narrative and politically engaged storytelling”. They judge this tradition to be “an explicitly working class modernism”. This really is exciting stuff.

So this is a book that I can recommend without reservation to all students (and teachers) of literature. However, writing as someone who is neither I want to focus my most lavish praise not on the content of this book, but rather on its method.

Those of you who have seen The Theory of Everything will know that the dream of contemporary science is to find a paradigm that makes quantum mechanics (which deals with the smallest minutiae) compatible with relativity (which deals with the universal). There is (in my opinion) a similar rift in the world of cultural analysis—a disparity between approaches that deal with the small (fixating on the tiniest of textual details) and those that flap around with the big (rarely stepping down from the celestial world of theory). A friend of mine was recently awarded a PhD for her frame by frame study of a single movie made in 1955 and which almost no one alive (except her) has ever seen. Meanwhile absurdly inflated academic reputations and bank balances are built on the basis of vapid generalisations. Anyone who has read the work of writers like Laura Mulvey, for example, will know exactly what I mean.

As I write these words I can spirit up an image of Tony Cliff exhorting in meeting after meeting to “generalise from the concrete to the abstract”. This is exactly what Ferrall and McNeill achieve in this book. They are scrupulous in their painstaking attention to detail—this is what gives the book its subtlety and finesse. But this is placed in its historical and cultural context and used to make more general observations and connections. How rare is it to read a work of cultural analysis that has 12 pages of bibliography that include works of history and political theory (including analyses by contributors to this journal like Cliff, Chris Harman and Duncan Hallas)? This is an excellent work of literary analysis and an even better demonstration of the continuing richness of Marxist scholarship.

Bob Light is a sacked dock worker and retired film lecturer now writing a book on the Italian partisans.