Interwoven Histories – working-class writing and immigration

Working-class writers have for centuries understood the interwoven histories of their own position within British society and that of colonised people overseas. The radical rhetoric of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drew parallels between the plight of the African slaves who picked cotton in the American South and the children who carded and spun it in the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of the North of England. I’ve just started a piece examining the continuities of this tradition in two post-war writers’ treatments of ethnicity, racism and immigration. Like so many of the issues that I’m interested in, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists provides an early and important twentieth-century example. At the beginning of the novel Owen and his colleagues are sitting on upturned buckets, slurping tea from jam jars during their lunch break. One of the decorators, Easton, is reading the Obscurer, which provokes in him

a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that it was about time we did something to protect ourselves … The papers they read were full of vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country. The enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.*

When he was writing in the early 1910s, Tressell was dismayed by the way in which those in power distracted the people from their own colossal greed and corruption by blaming foreigners. It’s a sad statement on our own times that a century later the right-wing press are up to the same dirty tricks. Another subject of a previous post, Jack Hilton, was disarmingly honest about how he was brainwashed by such racist propaganda, describing how the foundations were laid during his education:

What a fighting chance we were given to understand the happenings of world significance – it was not a dog’s chance. It worked out this way. 1st: Heaps of God; 2nd: England first – the world nowhere; 3rd: Blatant swagger; one good honest Christian blue-eyed English schoolboy equalled twenty infidel Japs …

Having been schooled in the bigotry of British imperialism, Hilton was swept up by the anti-German feeling of the First World War and later flirted with eugenics, a despicable and discredited philosophy not a million miles from Boris Johnson’s. True to the enduring internationalism and anti-racism of the radical working-class tradition (stretching back to Joseph Mather and beyond), Hilton came to see the working-class movement as related to the anti-colonial struggles of his day. Gandhi visited Lancashire whilst Hilton was writing his first book and slept on the sofa of a Labour family in Salford. Renewed interest in the historical theft of common land – linked to the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 – forged a more concrete connection between these twin struggles and in the post-war era working-class writers continued to show a progressive interest in the intersection of class and colonialism.


Gandhi in Lancashire

Writers whose work was shaped in the post-war era by these interwoven histories include Sheffield’s own Len Doherty, Shelagh Delaney (whose A Taste of Honey, in Colin MacInnes’s memorable phrase, was the first play to portray black and gay characters ‘without a nudge or shudder’), Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow (whose narrator Vic says of a racist character ‘she could hardly open her mouth without showing everybody what a stupid, bigoted, ignorant old cow she is’), Buchi Emecheta, Jeremy Sandford, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the list goes on…

The project I am starting looks at two more whose lives and works traverse British inner cities and former British colonies. In the pages of these writers’ work we find out much more about the changing nature of the working class and the spectrum of working-class responses to immigration than we ever can from the journalists and politicians who blame immigrants for everything from putting too much strain on the NHS (it would collapse without them) to roasting swans.** And indeed more than we can from phenomena like the BBC’s White Season of a few years back, which managed to be racist by labelling all white working-class people racist – a pretty spectacular feat when you think about it. What we find in these books is what many people from diverse neighbourhoods know through their daily lived experience – what Paul Gilroy has described as ‘demotic multiculturalism’ – which is that the working class co-authored multiculturalism alongside immigrants, largely from the colonies. The history of immigration into Britain following the Second World War – and in many areas before the war – is a history of immigration into working-class areas.


Grave of a Muslim miner killed at Beighton colliery in 1922, Bunrgreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Working-class writers deal with the realities of what this means. They don’t shy away from appalling racism or seek to present a rose-tinted view of things, but nor do they ignore the rich history of tolerance and conviviality that many contemporary commentators ignore and efface. The tradition of internationalism and radical anti-racism in working-class writing constitutes an eloquent historical response to the absurd and offensive notion that the working class is somehow inherently racist or intolerant.

In our own times, as recent work by Beverly Skeggs, Stephen Garner and Owen Jones has shown, there is a worrying trend for journalists, politicians and academics to vilify working-class people in ways that are sinisterly reminiscent of the how ‘racial others’ have been demonised since the beginning of the colonial era. Working-class writers often intuitively understand this and deliberately position themselves alongside the ‘other’. In the opening sonnet of his brilliant collection The School of Eloquence, Tony Harrison connects his exploration of working-class history – and his search for an identity and a voice to express it – by analogy with Aimé Césaire’s founding text of the Négritude movement:

…I call these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,

My growing black enough to fit my boots.

With these lines – and the dedication of the poem to members of the Angolan independence movement Frelimo – Harrison aligns his own project with that of the anti-colonial poets of Africa and the West Indies. It is this interwoven history that I will be exploring in my current project.

*pp. 41-3 – as a member of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, I have copies of this book to give away. If you’d like one, please email me your address and I’ll post one to you.

** ‘SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen’s birds for barbecues’.The Sun has removed the article from its website but Nick Medic’s Making a Meal of a Myth details its complete lack of any factual basis.


Still the Greatest Novel of the 20th Century

Half way through Shut Out the Light‘s fantastic Still Ragged, Andrew Lynch – one of several writers to have dramatised the novel for radio – describes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as a classic, iconic text, going on to say:

It stands as a great novel and then its political significance makes it rise above just a novel.

Lynch condenses into a single sentence a century of criticism about this controversial, mysterious masterpiece. Since first emerging in heavily abridged form a century ago it has become a set text of British socialism and a popular classic whose readership is several times the number of printed copies. Over the last hundred years it has been handed down through generations, passed around workplaces, union branches and armed forces and – in a way only a book that has generated its own folklore could – won a general election (in 1945). As Lynch suggests, its unparalleled political potency has overshadowed its considerable literary achievement and it is one of the strengths of Still Ragged that both elements of Tressell’s genius are considered by the impressive cast of passionate enthusiasts the film gathers together.


An example of Tressell’s highly skilled painting

Only The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could require such a cast, including trade unionists, painter-decorators, singer-songwriters, playwrights, writers, actors, MPs and, yes, literary critics to even come near to doing its genius justice. Those who share their thoughts about the book include well-known fans such as Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Skinner and Len McCluskey, as well as readers at a Liverpool book group. A painter-decorator talks us through the difficulties of the job – still plentiful in the early twenty-first century – and an actor gives entertaining solo performances of some of the book’s most memorable and important passages to give the viewer unfamiliar with the text a flavour of its tone and message.

One of the most fascinating contributions is by Stephen Lowe, who has adapted the novel for the stage several times, including for the Isango Ensemble’s musical re-imagining of the text against the backdrop of Apartheid-era South Africa. Lowe argues that Tressell’s book is a major literary landmark, skilfully blending influences as diverse as Dickens, Zola, Flaubert and Swift in order to find ‘a new form able to take a lecture in the middle of it almost Brechtianly’. As Nicola Wilson points out, Tressell self-consciously comes out of the Victorian tradition, using an intrusive narrator and the foregrounding of the men’s labour to subvert the country house novel and represent the way in which society is constructed by its members. Still Ragged manages something that literary critics have largely failed to do: it advances some decent literary criticism of a book that has always been primarily considered a political text and in doing so calls for a well-overdue reassessment from a literary-critical perspective.*


 Tressell’s Oblong, still a depressingly accurate breakdown of British society.

As well as giving literary credit where it’s due, Still Ragged gives plenty of space to the impassioned political polemic of the book and its continued relevance today. Dennis Skinner is visibly livid as he likens the current scourge of zero-hours contracts to the instability of the men’s employment in the novel. Ricky Tomlinson tells the extraordinary story of how the prison governor introduced him to the text whilst he was in solitary confinement on purely political charges. The film shows how urgently relevant Tressell’s political message is in our own time and urges viewers to return to it and consider how it can help us in our current crises. The recurring account is that the book is passed on to people and it changes their lives; as Dave Harker points out with his extensive collection of translations, it persistently has the power to change people’s lives across space and time.**

The film also conveys some of the incredible story behind the novel’s publication, which would provide enough material for a whole film in itself.*** But what it achieves most convincingly is to celebrate the triumph of this most brilliant working-class novel. Despite being butchered by editors and publishers (who we nevertheless have to thank for the survival of the text) and ignored or patronised by critics, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has managed to become the most important and influential British novel of the twentieth century: Still Ragged passionately conveys this and will hopefully recruit more readers and change their lives. In my case it was very much preaching to the converted but the film was hugely effective at that: I immediately ordered more copies to give away.^ If you’ve ever read the book, buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant. If you’ve never read the book, email me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Then buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant…

Still Ragged trailer

*Welcome progress was made in this direction with the publication of Revisiting Robert Tressell’s Mugsborough in 2008.

**Peter Miles’ intro to the 2005 OUP edition includes this quotation from a website in the Philippines: ‘the injustices suffered by Owen (the hero) at the hands of the vicious foreman, the corrupt politicians, the hypocritical churchmen are all around me in Manila. It makes me so angry that we have made so little progress over 100 years’.

***It was burnt, rescued, passed on, lost and eventually bought – in a tin box handed over in a station café by a mysterious stranger – by Fred Ball, a Hastings painter-decorator and Tressell enthusiast who painstakingly restored the manuscript to as close as possible to its original state. Have a look here.

^I’m a member of The Association of the Ragged Trousered  which was set up to help the book reach new readers and whose founder Kevin Jones appears in the film

The Evergreen in Red and White – Review

Steven Kay’s self-published debut novel, The Evergreen in Red and White, is about the first professional footballer of Romany descent, Rabbi Howell, and his final season at Sheffield United in 1897-8. Kay has dedicated a post on his blog to reviews of fourteen Sheffield novels – a great reading list for anyone interested in the city’s representation in fiction – and invites a review of his own effort. So here goes…

The action starts with a friendly in Glossop in such horrific conditions the teams agree to play half an hour each way. United are preparing for an ambitious tilt at the title and Rabbi and his best mate Mike discuss how long they can expect to last as professional players. United’s matches punctuate the narrative, sometimes from Rab’s point of view in italicised passages and always true to contemporary reports from United’s most glorious season. There is fascinating detail about football history: players are forbidden from training with the ball to make them hungry for it on match days; they are confined to the club house the night before games to keep them away from pubs and music halls; managers travel in first class whilst players go in second. Kay is clearly a die-hard Blade and has meticulously researched the club’s finest year. There is much here for fans of football history more broadly, too, but the novel has more to it than that.

sheffield united 1891 2

Sheffield United in 1891-2: Rabbi Howell is 2nd from the right on the middle row.

Rabbi returns from matches to a fractious home life where there is no enthusiasm or respect for his profession. Having been cheered by thousands of fans, he is sneered at by his father-in-law for playing ‘schoolyard games’ and becomes increasingly marginalised in a household that is dominated by his wife’s family. As in many novels of working-class life, there are sharp contrasts between the predominantly feminine domestic sphere and the macho worlds of mining, manufacturing and match days. Having turned pro, Rabbi has far more time on his hands than his brother and father-in-law who still work at the pit, and spends it walking over Wincobank, smoking his pipe and strumming his Spanish mandolin. His estrangement from family and ordinary working life, compounded by away matches and training camps at a hotel in Matlock, make Rabbi restless and unhappy whenever he isn’t playing. The Evergreen imagines how these tensions played out through Rab’s playing career and private life using what little evidence remains about his life.

Rabbi and his wife, Selina, are from Romany families who have recently left the old nomadic life to settle in ‘chooreste-gav‘, or ‘knife town’, the Romany name for Sheffield. Rabbi was the first Romany player to be capped for England and Kay presents his hybrid identity with skill and sensitivity. Rabbi’s speech switches between Sheffield and Romany dialect and he brushes off his team-mates’ jokes about gipsy spells and Egyptian ancestry with the kind of good humour in which they are made. Prejudice, though, plays a part in the management committee’s treatment of Rabbi at the end of his United career – something which, to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into here.

jubilee decorations

Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations feature in the novel. With a healthy dose of republicanism…

The other character that is meticulously researched and lovingly brought to life by Kay’s prose is Sheffield itself. Rabbi’s home in Brightside  is a short walk from Wincobank Woods, which overlooks ‘the Don valley and its majestic array of chimneys’. Sheffield is painted as a friendly, bustling place where the clanging and hammering of industry provides the backdrop for a vibrant cultural scene. Crowds flock to football matches and music halls and a scene in which Rabbi visits the theatre – to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, stage superstars in their day – captures the class anxieties of a rapidly expanding city. Kay does a good job of evoking late-19th-century Sheffield and giving its inhabitants genuine depth and humanity without over-romanticising, a difficult balance for a historical novel to strike. Readers from Sheffield will enjoy encountering familiar places and well-written dee-dah dialect; it’s great to see industrial Sheffield come to life on the page and have well-drawn working-class characters walking its streets.

This is the best Sheffield novel I’ve read for a long time and anyone interested in the city’s history will find it a fascinating and entertaining read.

Ray Hearne’s Songs of South Yorkshire – ‘the language of ordinary people’

I first met Ray Hearne at Sing-Folk-Speak at the Greystones Pub last year, where we had a bit of a natter in the interval and established that he’d gone to De La Salle College in Pitsmoor, just round the corner from where I was born and brought up. When Now Then magazine asked me for a follow-up piece to my article about Joseph Mather (there’s a longer version on this blog here) I immediately thought back to that night, where I’d been lucky enough to hear Nancy Kerr sing Mather’s alternative national anthem, God Save Great Thomas Paine. It struck me that Ray was a modern-day Mather, singing songs about industrial South Yorkshire and the great injustices of our times just as Sheffield’s original radical balladeer had done 200-odd years ago. I tried to track Ray down before I wrote the piece but he was away in the States, so it appeared in Now Then in this form, minus the final few paragraphs that I’ve added since meeting Ray for a couple of pints on Westgate in Rotherham.

Hearne was brought up in the Parkgate area of Rotherham. The son of Irish immigrants, he was steeped in the folk tradition and, like Mather, uses its centuries-crafted tunes as the scaffolding for distinctly contemporary content. The parallels don’t end there: both balladeers try to make the folk tradition speak to (and for) the specific locality of South Yorkshire and its industrial past and present; both adopt an unabashedly radical stance and repeatedly return to the importance of working-class representation; both combine a radical internationalism with a proudly local focus; and both achieve a potent mixture of melancholy and humour in their songs.

Hearne’s two albums to date – Broad Street Ballads and The Wrong Sunshine – are on the No Masters Co-operative label, which promotes the development of traditional and radical songwriting. The long list of folk luminaries who have performed and recorded Hearne’s songs – including Kate Rusby, Roy Bailey and Coope, Boyes & Simpson – is testament to his craft as a songwriter. Hearne himself is a great performer, yarning between songs with warmth and humour. His delivery is crisp and crystal clear in his beautiful Rotherham accent and he switches skilfully between seriousness and a warm, humorous tone. Recent songs include one about a murder in Attercliffe and one about the annual mock beach in the centre of Rotherham.

Hearne is adept at tackling serious global issues in a way that grounds them in local experience. The Wrong Sunshine features two of the best songs about the Iraq war you’re ever likely to hear. ‘Baghdad-on-Dearne’ graphically captures the traumas of war from the perspective of a soldier. The infantryman’s nightmare visions make up the verses and these are set against a chorus that evokes everyday opposition to the war and a sense of resignation at its inevitable grim logic. Hearne wraps up what could so easily be the banal “will they never learn love?” in the everyday warmth of a bus stop conversation in Broad Street: “Will they never learn, love, will they never learn?” The chorus reflects the down-to-earth decency of ordinary people’s responses to a brutal and unpopular war.

‘March of the Daffodils’ skilfully weaves the 24-hour rolling news representation of 21st century shock and awe warfare with the slower rhythms of the passage of seasons at home. Hearne draws on the well-worn poetic pedigree of the daffodil but turns it into a fresh and hard-hitting image of the globalised nature of conflict and communication. The song’s first verse exemplifies its energy and contrast:

Baghdad’s a bigger bad body-bag than even last night
Slowly the cistern fills
Till under the sound-bites suddenly it’s light upon light
Here come the daffodils
Over the unseethroughable mind-high hills
Here come the daffodils

The daffodils become grim reminders of the indifference of nature to human suffering and at the same time emblems of hope for new life emerging out of the barrenness of winter. Part of what is so hard-hitting about Hearne’s war songs is his disarming honesty in dealing directly with the war’s effect on him. “I need my late news fix every wine-dark night” – that sense of the need to bear witness, coupled with powerlessness and resignation, is one familiar to the millions in Britain who were anti-war.

But Hearne is far from just a protest singer. Other songs on The Wrong Sunshine deal with work (‘The Long Song Line’, ‘The Navvy Boys’ and ‘The Collier’s Elegy’), grief (‘Well’ is about the death of his father) and artistic inspiration emerging out of post-industrial renewal (‘Manvers Island Bound’). ‘Pudding Burner’ celebrates the hard work and resilience of women in the steel industry and ‘Things to Say’ is dedicated to Doncaster Advocacy, a charity that supports adults with learning disabilites. This is perhaps the unifying principal of all Hearne’s songs: he tries to give a voice to ordinary people, to reflect the lives of working-class people in South Yorkshire and to foster a sense of shared cultural identity inherited from a rich and important history. Hearne has said that it was the vicious policies of the Thatcher government that initially galvanised him to write radical songs about contemporary society. In the age of austerity we need his conviction, his compassion and his voice more than ever…

…and that’s where the Now Then piece left it. When I met Ray he’d just finished one of his writers’ groups – he’d been running several across South Yorkshire – and although he was sad to see it go he was very pleased to be writing as a full-time occupation. He’s writing more page poetry and I was priveliged to have a look at a few: the stand-out one for me was ‘Pollen Count Blues: The Opening Bars’, a wonderful skip through the wildlife that explodes from the verges of South Yorkshire that manages to invoke John Clare and skat singing all at once. Ray’s also working on a new album and sent me the words to one of his new songs, ‘Motes Art’, inspired by a well-meant event in Rotherham where they broadcast live opera in All Saints Square. All I can say here about the song is that if every one on the new album is as good, then it could be his best record yet.

As well as to discuss Ray’s recent work, one of the reasons that we met up was to talk about Joseph Mather. We never quite managed it because we had so much other stuff to talk about, so I’ll close with a brilliant anecdote he told me about how he brought the working-class hero of contemporary poetry, Tony Harrison, to Rotherham. During the Miners’ Strike, Ray read in a Yorkshire arts magazine that Harrison was embarking on a ‘tour of Yorkshire’, with dates in York, Harrogate and Ripon. Thinking this a slightly limited tour, Ray wrote to Harrison, describing the gist of the letter to me as: ‘Rotherham’s in Yorkshire too tha knoas. There’s a strike on down here. Bloody hell.’ Weeks later he received an Airogram from Miami: Harrison gave the details of his agent and promised to come. And so Harrison ended up reading ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ in Rotherham. The forthrightness, pride of place and love of language that prompted him to write to Harrison fuel Ray’s work. Talking about writing that tackles the current political situation, Ray cited the recent song ‘House of Cards’ – whose chorus continues ‘and a pack of lies’ – as an example of phrases lifted from everyday language that can simply and powerfully articulate important truths about our times, saying ‘we need to be in tune to it, it’s all there, these phrases waiting to be found – it’s there in the language of ordinary people’.

There’s a film about Ray Hearne, featuring performances of a few of his songs, here.

And Ray’s website is well worth a look too.

Jack Hilton’s Caliban Shrieks

It’s been a while since the last Proletics post, partly because I’ve been working on plasterer, trade unionist, unsung Rochdale genius and subject of a chapter of my thesis, Jack Hilton. I gave a paper on him at the recent Culture Wars 1900-1950 conference at Sheffield Hallam (where I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Alison Twells and got to hear fascinating stories about her aunt Norah) and then was delighted to discover that Ben Clarke – the first person to mention Hilton to me at a conference on Hoggart back in 2009 – was giving a paper on Hilton’s relationship with George Orwell in London. We had a good old chin-wag about our favourite Rochdalian and agreed to pool our resources to try and get Caliban Shrieks back into print. A big obstacle to helping Hilton reach the audience he so richly deserves is the mystery surrounding the copyright holder: anyone who owns the rights or knows how we can trace whoever does, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you. What follows is a brief biographical sketch and an account of the weird and wonderful story behind the publication of Hilton’s 1935 masterpiece, Caliban Shrieks.

Hilton was born in Oldham in 1900 and moved to Rochdale as a young child. He had his first job as a barber’s lather boy at the age of nine and at ten he was hospitalised by a bout of rheumatic fever. When the doctor wanted to discharge him, his father – a committed socialist and autodidact – refused to take Jack home because of the dangerously squalid conditions in the slums and so he was admitted to a convalescent home, where he witnessed what he later called the ‘indifference to humanity in the hearts of Liberal Methodists and Tory Churchmen’. Hilton gives a grim insight into the fragility of slum life:

Of eleven children (maybe there were thirteen) seven died before reaching two years. Only four of us became adults […] [My] mind doesn’t recall how many brothers and sisters I had because they died too soon for me to have memories of association. This was normal for slummies.

At twelve, under the half-time system, he worked in a cotton mill before leaving school at fourteen, when he got a job as a guide for the secretary of the local Blind Association. Like many of his peers, he then lied about his age to join the army, in which he served as stable boy to two officers before being sent to Belgium. Into his first fifteen years, Hilton packed a variety of jobs and experiences that took him across class boundaries and this equipped him with the necessary experience for his later critique of the class system. The episode most integral to understanding Hilton’s motives has to do with his union activity. Having become an active member of the plasterers’ union in Rochdale, Hilton was its secretary from 1929-35 and he was also active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM). As an organizer and agitator he was arrested several times and served a few stints in jail before being bound over to keep the peace and banned from public speaking in 1932 following a ‘disturbance’ at Rochdale’s Public Assistance Committee, during which he was ‘struck with a sergeant’s stick’ so hard that he ‘could hardly move [his] legs’. This coincided with a fruitful period of attendance at Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) literature classes. Hilton later phrased his reaction to being silenced in typically pithy fashion: ‘Said I: I’ll write’.

The manner in which Caliban Shrieks came to be published is a fascinating story that gives us an insight into the relationship between working-class writers and the literary establishment in the 1930s. Hilton says that he mistakenly handed in a notebook containing private essays rather than his WEA assignment and that he was so embarrassed he didn’t raise it with his tutor for several weeks. That tutor, a Mr Mason, professed to have no recollection of the exercise book but a few months later Hilton received the latest edition of the Adelphi, a left-leaning journal of literature and politics, with a letter from its editor, Richard Rees (a baronet and WEA tutor and Treasurer who was shortly to volunteer as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War), thanking him for his contribution and asking him to submit another piece. Hilton writes: ‘It was dead easy to decide what to send for I had only the stuff I was recording – the dozen penny exercise books on the mass-working lad’s experiences’. Rees replied suggesting publication in book form. Through this convoluted process, almost by accident and without ever being intended as a single, cohesive piece, Caliban Shrieks came to be published in March 1935.

The fluke of Hilton’s first publication sets him apart from other working-class voices of the twentieth century: unlike Walter Greenwood and many other writers of the period he hadn’t modified his work in response to repeated rejections or had it heavily edited by publishers with a keen eye on the market for ‘gritty’ books; he wasn’t ‘declassed’ by a grammar school or university education; nor was he driven by a writerly vocation from an early age (like Alan Sillitoe, for example). Hilton is remarkable in that his first publications were the experimental and private essays of a working-class man with no real literary training or ambition and he became increasingly aware, and proud, of the unique status of the book, describing it in his unpublished autobiography as ‘probably the only undiluted proletarian book of the twentieth century’ and going on to say that it ‘is unique in the sense that no other book is less of the English literary convention and because of this I’m fond of the ugly duckling that is a ‘literary’ curiosity’.

Jack and Mary HiltonJack and Mary Hilton, who is pushing the handcart they used to carry their belongings when they tramped around the country. Jack wrote English Ways and English Ribbon whilst they travelled around with itinerant labourers and tramps.


The success of Caliban Shrieks – it was favourably reviewed by Orwell and Auden – led to a Cassell Scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, and the publication of a few novels and a travelogue, English Ways, in 1940. This can be read as Hilton’s working-class response to The Road to Wigan Pier (which Hilton dismissed as ‘piffle’ and ‘a waste of time and money’) and his final published work, English Ribbon (1950) was a post-war follow-up. Hilton’s is a unique and brilliant working-class voice that has been overlooked by criticism and gives us a rare insight into working-class perspectives of the economic crises of the inter-war years. If you can help us to get his important work back into print, please do get in touch.

Richard Hoggart – ‘so good that it annoyed me’

‘This is a difficult chapter to write, though one that should be written’: so begins the eleven pages of Richard Hoggart’s ‘Scholarship Boy’, the first half of chapter ten of his masterpiece and founding text of Cultural Studies, The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart’s death and its coverage in the press – Fred Inglis’s excellent obituary and Lynsey Hanley’s comment piece – sent me back to those eleven pages, which I first read as an undergraduate in 2007, fifty years after they were published.* I remember how lucid and penetrating Hoggart’s insights were and how applicable, despite the intervening half-century’s social change and educational reforms, they were to people I knew. Hoggart had had the same effect on two previous generations, for many of whom those eleven pages were difficult to read but were also a thrilling, liberating moment of recognition and connection.

One of the reasons ‘Scholarship Boy’ was difficult for Hoggart to write is because, at one level, it is about his own experience. In the introduction to The Uses of Literacy he quotes Marlowe, Conrad’s narrator in The Heart of Darkness: ‘Of course in this you fellows see more than I could see. You see me’. Throughout the book Hoggart’s personal experiences of working-class life in the 1930s and ’40s are drawn upon to evoke and examine, sympathetically and in great detail, the meanings made by that culture. It can be difficult to read, too, for any reader whose working-class background has ever made them feel uneasy – ‘uprooted and anxious’ – because there is an uncanny sense that not only is Hoggart writing about people you know, he is writing about you. The incisive potency of ‘Scholarship Boy’ is due to Hoggart’s unique combination of a sociological eye – the ability to identify and describe the characteristics of groups of people – and a novelist’s skill of entering imaginatively into the internal, emotional reality of individuals’ personal experiences.

The formal range and rich analytic and emotional complexity of Hoggart’s prose, though, was acknowledged far more widely than amongst those whose experiences chimed with the culture described in the book. Jean-Claude Passeron, in the introduction to the French translation, calls Hoggart’s technique ‘novelistic sociology’ and argues that his ‘style of analysis deliberately breaks with’ the phoney objectivity of academics, journalists and politicians whose attitudes towards the working class are ‘as racist in their own way as those of pre-scientific ethnography’. On reading Passeron’s translation in a single sitting, Claude Levi-Strauss was compelled to write immediately to Hoggart commending it as a ‘great classic’ that is ‘not only a scientific study, but also and at the same time a literary work’.**

‘Scholarship Boy’ is the passage that best exemplifies Hoggart’s skillful novelistic sociology: his technique is to identify and describe a type or group and then to focus in and evoke the lived experience of individual members of it. The result is that, whilst describing the effects of social mobility in terms of people’s changing class relationships, he never loses sight of those people as individuals and is always alert to the problems of a too-scientific approach. He reflects on his sketches and encourages the reader to register their limitations: ‘this description simplifies and over-stresses the break; in each individual there will be many qualifications’; ‘that is over-dramatised, not applicable to all or even to most’. Despite his qualifications, everywhere neat phrases perfectly capture the complexities of conflicting class identities as they are experienced by the ‘upwardly mobile’: there is ‘an underlying sense of some unease’; the scholarship boy ‘is at the friction-point of two cultures’; success brings with it ‘the tendency to vertigo’ and leaves some ‘gnawed by self-doubt’. There is a candour and sensitivity about the ‘fear and shame’ that can erode working-class students’ self-confidence and cause crippling stress and anxiety and a subtlety in dealing with the odd cocktail of superciliousness and inferiority that can emerge from a dependence on academic success and acknowledgement.

The line that struck me most brought back an experience that exemplifies the lasting relevance of ‘Scholarship Boy’: ‘Once at the grammar-school, he quickly learns to make use of a pair of different accents, perhaps even two different apparent characters and differing standards of value’. As an undergraduate I worked as a cleaner in the Arts Tower from 7-10 every morning. On the module in which I first encountered Hoggart, I had a class at ten so I often arrived late and out of breath. On one occasion I’d borrowed a buffer from Pat (a jovial colleague with a beautiful, thick Sheffield accent who commuted in twice a day from Intake) on the 15th floor and when I returned it at the end of the shift she asked how my studies were going. ‘What is it you do again? Oh English, that’s right. Oh I wish I’d done better at English at school, you speak properly you do’. The seminar straight afterwards was on women’s poetry from the Miners’ Strike and when I apologetically bustled in late the tutor asked if I’d mind reading as my accent wasn’t too far from Barnsley. In the five minute rush across campus I’d gone from the plummy-mouthed top rung of the ladder down the  snake of the class system to token proletarian: although for me it was a matter of how I was perceived rather than how I acted – in those five minutes I didn’t have to switch accents, characters or values – Hoggart’s alertness to the slipperiness of multiple and conflicting class identities seemed to speak to my own experience and helped me to understand the class dynamics that so profoundly shaped university life.

Many of the novelists of the post-war era dealt with the scholarship boy phenomenon (e.g. Stan Barstow and David Storey) and it was also an important factor in the development of British realism in cinema. Along with decolonization and mass immigration, the scholarship generation spawned by the 1944 Education Act was the most significant social and cultural development in British society in the post-war era, and Hoggart had his finger squarely on the pulse. John Braine felt that Hoggart had articulated something that himself and many writers of the time were grappling with: ‘Your book was so good that it annoyed me – there was so much in it that I was saving to write about myself’.**  I’ve since had the opportunity to read and discuss Hoggart with students, who often remark on the same sensation of having their own complex and often awkward and difficult feelings suddenly articulated for them. It is testament to Hoggart’s genius that his best work still has the capacity to teach working-class readers something about themselves nearly sixty years on.


*Hanley’s ‘Wall in the Mind’ chapter in ‘Estates: An Intimate History’ is a brilliant reworking of ‘Scholarship Boy’ for the comprehensive age. And the whole book’s fantastic, you should give it a read…

**Levi-Strauss and Braine’s letters are in the Hoggart Archive at the University of Sheffield

The Life and Adventures of Harvey Teasdale

Thirty years after Mather died, the teenage son of a pen- and spring-knife maker was inspired, by a production of George Barnwell at the Theatre Royal in Tudor Street, to become an actor: he would become an eccentric local celebrity and another amazing Sheffield character who deserves to be more widely known. Harvey Teasdale started a spouting club* and staged illegal and often chaotic shows in pub back rooms, where it was not uncommon for unimpressed audiences to hiss and pelt performers off the stage. In the mid-1830s he was recruited to a travelling theatre in Retford and then to one at Conisborough: this show was such a flop that the actors had to steal potatoes and cabbages ‘to stifle the cravings of hunger’ that their ‘non-success had occasioned’.

Over the next fifteen years Teasdale performed in casinos, pubs and theatres as an actor, clown and skin performer**. Audiences on the northern circuit, and especially in Sheffield, were rowdy and sometimes violent and the players could be too: in Stockport the actor playing Hamlet picked a fight with Teasdale, who was playing the Gravedigger, and they came to blows in Ophelia’s grave (‘the source of great amusement to the audience’). After a run of shows at the Adelphi on Blonk Street in 1847, Teasdale staged an incredible publicity stunt for his benefit night:

I hit upon a very novel expedient to draw a full house and it succeeded admirably. I advertised, in flaming placards, that I would sail down the river in a washing-tub pulled by ducks.

Teasdale tells us 70,000 turned out ‘to witness this marvellous and unprecedented sight’ shortly before admitting that a hundred people had died when a bridge gave way at Yarmouth during an identical caper not long before: in Sheffield, a wall collapsed in a yard on the Wicker and thirty people ended up in the river ‘with severe bruises’. Reports from the time suggest the ducks were ‘completely unmanageable’ and Teasdale ‘rolled and rocked about’ until he ‘got a good dousing’. Barry the Clown, pictured, was successful in 1840 on the Thames with geese, which are apparently much more trainable…


During this period Teasdale perfected the act for which he would become most famous: the ‘man monkey’. In Grantham he took this act to new heights in an event he describes with characteristic modesty:

It was in this theatre that the most daring feat that ever was performed in any theatre took place. The times were dull, the drama was getting stale, and it required something out of the common line to bring people into the theatre […] It was announced that the man monkey would make the daring and unparalleled leap from the gallery to the stage! […] I need hardly say it was a splendid and great financial success.

In Darlington people apparently asked if Teasdale was a real monkey, and along with his clown act – acclaimed in Cardiff but slated in London – he enjoyed a period of relative success, playing in Edinburgh and across the north and even undertaking stints as manager at several provincial theatres. This success elsewhere, combined with desperation on the Sheffield entertainment scene, which endured several poor seasons in the 1850s, led him to become manager of the Adelphi in 1855. This is one of his playbills:


The sheer variety of entertainment on offer is amazing: there are musical acts, Shakespeare plays, ‘low’ comedy and skin performers, crime and sensation dramas and pantomimes. Teasdale’s spell as manager wasn’t a great success, but it reveals him to be a committed and driven actor and manager who sought to provide Sheffield audiences with entertainment of every height of brow and opportunities to see many of the era’s biggest stars.

The life of a showman, though, was a precarious one full of temptation: Teasdale omits to mention in his wonderful – if perhaps slightly fantastical – autobiography that he was twice brought before the magistrates for neglect of family. He is more candid about his struggles with drink, calling the aptly named Clown’s Head, which he managed for a time, a ‘cauldron of insanity, vice and folly’ and admitting that he often performed ‘in a complete state of inebriation’ (he also managed The Three Tuns in Silver Street Head, which to this day remains Sheffield’s most triangular pub).

Teasdale’s nomadic lifestyle and his problems with drink and gambling took an immense toll on his marriage, bringing about the calamitous event that would see him sent to Wakefield Prison and eventually emerge as a zealous teetotaler. In August 1862 Teasdale arrived at a house where his estranged wife, Sarah, was staying. He begged her to take him back and when she refused fired a blank pistol at her, before attacking her with a razor and attempting to cut his own throat. Teasdale’s statement in court suggests he was paranoid and thought Sarah was ‘getting her living in the streets’ and bringing their daughters up to do the same. Surprised at the leniency of the jury, who found Teasdale guilty of the lesser charge of ‘unlawfully wounding’, the judge sentenced him to the longest possible term of two years hard labour.

This event forms the pivot between the ‘Dark Side’ of Teasdale’s autobiography and the ‘Light Side’, which sees him convert in jail and join the Hallelujah Band (a forerunner of the Salvation Army) on his release. At a widely publicised event at the Temperance Hall in 1865, Teasdale burnt his costumes – including his monkey suit – along with scripts, scores and props. There were accusations that Teasdale had already burnt his costumes elsewhere, but he stuck to his new calling: he listed his profession as ‘lecturer’ in the 1871 census and advertised his services in the back of his book, The Life and Adventures of Harvey Teasdale, the Converted Clown and Man Monkey, which had apparently sold 42,000 copies by 1881.

Kathleen Barker, historian of provincial theatre, argues that Teasdale’s life has much to tell us about the history of entertainment in the nineteenth century. It is a unique insight into ‘the twilight shows of provincial city pubs of the 1830s: not quite gaffs, not yet casinos; and [into] the travelling booths still criss-crossing the country’ and  ‘his career as a performer illustrates particularly well the interrelationship between the various genres of entertainment in that period. Teasdale could move from Shakespeare to pantomime to circus to music hall, without an eyebrow being raised at such versatility and breach of type-casting’.^ Teasdale’s is a remarkable Sheffield life that grants us an insight into the working-class culture of the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of temperance in the 1860s. His brilliant autobiography is a rare document of the seedier side of the entertainment scene in Sheffield and a moving account of an ambitious and driven performer who dusted himself down after every failure and bad review – and there were many – to try his hand at something new and put on a show for the public who he tirelessly tried to please.

* ‘A meeting of apprentices and mechanics to rehearse different characters in plays’, according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

** An actor in full costume, like whoever was Chewbacca in Star Wars…

^ Barker’s papers at the Bristol University Theatre Collection, in which there are several files pertaining to Sheffield’s theatre scene, include a short, unpublished essay, ‘Spanning the Entertainment Scene – Harvey Teasdale, Clown of Theatre, Circus and Music Hall’.