Since reading Len Doherty’s fantastic novel The Good Lion (1958) following a recommendation on Steven Kay’s 1889 Books blog I’ve been fascinated by this important, enigmatic and unfairly overlooked Sheffield writer. Steven and I have been hatching plans to republish his final novel and I’ve been in touch with friends and family to find out more about his life.
Steve Eszeryni got in touch because Doherty is one of the working-class writers he is writing a PhD thesis about. Steve has very kindly translated the biographical notes to the German edition of Doherty’s first novel, A Miner’s Sons (1955). They’re a good introduction to Doherty and the first of an intended series of Proletics posts about him.
Len Doherty was born in 1930 in one of the poorest areas of Glasgow, Scotland. The grim economic situation and the fear of unemployment were important influences in the development of Doherty’s working-class consciousness.
Doherty moved at the beginning of the 1950s to Thurcroft, a small mining community in South Yorkshire. Doherty worked down the pit and also became a member of the Communist Party. As a miner, he was entitled to living accommodation and this helped the newly married Doherty considerably.
As a member of the local Communist Party group, he was opposed to the idea of union leaders working with, as he saw it, the capitalist apparatus of the state. He fought on a number of issues which directly concerned miners: the recently introduced and divisive wage system down the pit – piece rate for face-workers and fixed wages for miners below ground; the large compensation claims of the former mine owners which were paid by the Labour government, at the expense of updating and improving the conditions for the miners down the pit; the high handed attitudes of the mining officials who sought to impose fixed working hours; miners being locked out and the denial of strike action for miners. Doherty saw clearly that the class war still existed-despite claims to the contrary by others- and that the situation of the mine worker in the nationalised industry had not improved.
Down the pit, Doherty proved himself to be a class conscious trade unionist. It was not though the experiences of the conflicts that occurred day in and day out with management that led him to communism. It was rather the identification with the intellectual superiority of Dialectical Materialism over the ideology of the Labour Party, as well as the recognition that communism was somehow morally superior to the Labour Party which proved to be decisive. Doherty said about his joining the Communist Party: “We had a communist professor who came round and sold the Daily Worker and Peace News. It was through him and a few others that I became interested in communism. We had a lot of respect for these people, and the more they were put down, the more we sided with them. They were courageous people, who lived life according to their principles. It was more out of respect and admiration for these people than any other reason, that we joined the Communist Party.”
The time in the Communist Party ran parallel with the phase in his life where Doherty began to read a lot and write. He was hungry for any form of knowledge and he used this newly acquired knowledge in Union conflicts. Doherty was more interested in how the class war played itself out in the interpersonal conflicts, than in the historical aspects of it. Honesty, courage, respect for oneself were qualities which marked a communist out from all others.
In 1956, after the Hungarian Uprising, Doherty- along with many others- left the Communist Party. “I didn’t leave the Communist Party just because of the Hungarian Uprising, but the Khrushchev speech at the Twentieth Party Conference was one of the worst experiences of my life and was a decisive factor in me leaving the CPGB. Up until the moment of the Khrushchev speech, the Communist Party of Great Britain was fully behind Stalinism and I too was convinced by Stalin’s greatness. In the period of time after the speech, it became clear to me that things were not quite as they were made out to be and that the CPGB had the wrong take on things and that the members of the CPGB had been misinformed.
I just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that the Communist Party had in effect lied to me. It was exactly that- the deviousness- which I so disliked in other political parties. I simply had to step back from the CPGB and reconsider everything. Then the Hungarian Uprising happened which was a tremendous shock for many of us. We had always taken the stance that socialism could not simply be grafted on to a country, but that it had to develop and take root in the working class of a particular country. Otherwise it is impossible for true socialism to happen. It was the basis of all our discussions that the Soviet Union was not an aggressive power. Then we heard the news from Hungary and although the reports were sometimes biased, the Hungarian Uprising made a deep impression on us all.”
In the early 1960s Doherty gave up his job down the pit and became a reporter for the Sheffield Star. From 1968 he played an important part in the creation of the 44 Group which sought to bring together all the local councils to work with common aims. Doherty received a prize in 1969 for being the best provincial journalist of the year. He wrote many reports including one in 1961 about the French and Algerian negotiations, in 1969 about Northern Ireland and North Vietnam and in 1970 about the Middle East. A Miner’s Sons was translated into twelve languages.
In 1970 fragments from a bomb, which was intended for the son of Moshe Dayan, hit Doherty as he was in a bus coming from Munich to the airport. Since then and as a result of the injuries he suffered as a result of the bomb attack, Doherty has been unable to work. In 1972 he voiced his support for the miners’ strike and also wrote numerous articles about it.
Translated from Rudolf Wichmann’s “Biographische Daten” in Drum sind wir rot geworden: Der Roman der englischen Bergarbeiter (Köln: Verlag Gaehme Henke, 1974)
I’ll post Steve’s translation of the Nachwort (literally ‘nightword’, a much more poetic term for an epilogue) next week.