Saturday, January 2, 2010

Political fiction

For once (and after a long, dreary period of drought), Iain Dale drags a better bucket from the well, inviting his window-lickers to improve on his "Top Ten" of Westminster novels.

Predictably, this being Dale and Torydom, the general tendency is dross of the airport fiction genre. And, apparently (since he includes Buy it HERE hot links) another Dale money-spinner. The only yeurgghh! missing is "Lord" Archer.

Fame is the Spur

Malcolm felt motivated to suggest what has to be the ultimate Labour political novel: Howard Spring's Fame is the Spur, originally from 1940. Hamer Shawcross rises from the slums of Ancoats (with a flash-back to Peterloo) to cabinet rank, a home in Westminster and the red benches of the House of Lords. On the way he betrays most of his principles, and his best friends. The title is, of course, from Lycidas:
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes.
[Oh, the subtle joy of being able to reproduce Milton's spelling, without it being pointed as a "typo"!]

Spring's book may be better known as an adequate BBC serial from the early '80s or as an unsatisfactory 1947 Boulting Brothers' film (script by Nigel Balchin). The New York Times' reviewer at the time largely approved of this film, and gave a generous account:
The irony of a liberal leader who forsakes his youthful ideals and finally abandons his old constituents as he acquires political power is the theme of a long, episodic and unmistakably allusive British film, "Fame Is the Spur,"... Even though boldly directed to British interests and memories, this life story of a political turn-coat should prove widely fascinating over here.

For its subject, a British labor leader, is not only made to bear a strong resemblance to the late Ramsay MacDonald, which makes for taut insinuations by itself, but he is drawn to a definite human pattern that is generally prevalent and recognized. He is the type of individual who bravely and loyally proclaims the rights of the working classes while he himself is poor but loses his high enthusiasm when his own way begins to grow smooth. He is the hot and reckless rebel who thumps for Freedom in his youth but who drifts into cold conservatism as he moves into high and responsible realms.

Based on a Howard Spring novel, this chronicle of a man's life begins with the impoverished youth of the subject in a sleazy Manchester slum and takes him to fame and a title—and a lonesome old age—in a London home. On the way, it observes him agitating for the welfare of the laboring class in the grim and depressing environment of nineteenth century industry; it follows his romantic marriage to a sincere blue-stocking girl and his rise as a Laborite in Parliament to the first Labor government in 1924. And it ends with his bleak surrender to the corrosive influences of fame and his denial of the interests of those who loved him and made him the champion of their weal.

In its sharp pictorialization of the aspects of the Labor movement and British politics in a period of historic ferment, this John and Roy Boulting film has vivid authority and fascination. Some of its episodes, such as a Welsh strike meeting and demonstration, are explosive and exciting to the full. And some of the scenes between the leader and his wife are emotionally fine. Particularly does one sequence, in which the husband permits his wife to be arrested and hauled from a meeting in which he is speaking because she shouts for the woman's vote, make as taut and revealing a personal crisis as a film such as this could contain.

But, unfortunately, a full comprehension of the principal character in this tale is missed in the broad and extended panorama of his life that is displayed. Yes, we see him as a youngster, turning in his romantic mind the glowing legend of the Peterloo massacre, as his grandfather has told it to him. We see him abandoning the project of storming a lock-out factory's gates when one of the braver demonstrators is suddenly and shockingly killed. We see him submitting to the flattery of a manifest Tory's wife. But we do not get from these appearances a clear discovery of why the man is what he is.
The moral weakness of Hamer Shawcross, the failure to discover why the man is what he is, is integral to the sophistication of the novel itself, but is implicit in that Milton quotation.

The MacDonald connection

Every reviewer seems to identify Shawcross with Ramsay MacDonald. Malcolm suggests he is a hybrid of MacDonald and Philip Snowden. Snowden, incidentally, this last week, was rescued from his obscurity by Andrew Alexander in the Daily Mail, using him as a bench-mark for George Osborne:
Chancellors who care little about their image are rare birds. Indeed, one has to go back, coincidentally, to the early Thirties era to find such an unusual creature: Philip Snowden, who became Chancellor in Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government of 1929.
Now, Malcolm has struggled for several days to respond to that (the propensity for Wordpress to lose his Great Thoughts is why we are back on Blogger). So, a bit down the line we may have that rehearsed here.

Howard Spring

Writers come into and slip out of fashion, almost with the changing of the tide. Spring is one such present victim.

He is a writer of classical orthodoxy, telling a story in well-honed prose, thoroughly readable, but — apparently, for modern tastes — too measured and wordy. He was born in Cardiff, as the son of a jobbing gardener from the County Cork: his soon-to-be-widowed mother brought up a Victorian brood of nine children by working as a washerwoman and menial floor-scrubber. At the age of twelve, Spring was at work as a butcher's boy. A job in an accountants' office introduced him to the typewriter, and from there it was a small jump to a local newspaper. The old stand-by of evening classes gave him the basis of an education; and he moved on to being a reporter, in Yorkshire and finally to a berth on the Manchester Guardian. Poor health restricted his war service to the ASC, rising to a Warrant Officer in the Intelligence Corps. He witnessed the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, and the destruction of the Four Courts.

By the 1930s he was a book-reviewer for the London Evening Standard (then a publication of some quality: his predecessors were Arnold Bennett and J.B.Priestley), and his novels were accepted by Collins. He was now financially able to remove himself to Cornwall for the remainder of his life.

Out of the blue, in August 1941, he was commissioned to undertake a mission, and found himself aboard HMS Prince of Wales, off the coast of Newfoundland, as a witness to the summit between Churchill and FDR.

Novels continued regularly until a stroke in the early '60s. When he died in 1965, he had a useful corpus of work to show. These (especially Fame is the Spur and Shabby Tiger) became a staple of BBC televised serials, possibly because of their "Upstairs, Downstairs" mixture of the genteel drawing-room and the "grim oop north" working-class roots.

If there were a British "social realism" school of writers, Spring would qualify as its doyen. Sphere: Related Content

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