Tuesday, June 01, 2010

May Day by John Summerfield

"Men make history, but not as they please."

"Art and literature were a racket without the saving grace of gunmen."

Reading London Books' reprint of John Summerfield's May Day is a welcome antidote to the doldrums of post-election Britain. First published in 1936, Summerfield's novel, his second in a career interrupted by serving in the International Brigade in Spain, portrays a country in which the ruling class is squeezing workers more than ever, making them work more hours for less pay. The novel takes place over a three day period, leading up to the May march in London. Lacking a single protagonist, May Day moves through an assortment of characters and classes affected by the turmoil and the coming march, focusing on, amongst others, a seaman, a carpenter and young female works in the East End and factory owners. Portraying an era when class consciousness was rife and the proletariat was ready to take to the streets, the novel utilizes a montage technique delineated by circumstance, speech, observation, rumination, time and place. Born and raised off the Portebello Road, Summerfield was a member of the Communist Party and wrote for the Daily Worker and Left Review. In his Afterward, written for the 1980s edition of the book, Summerfield says, "When I wrote it I'd have probably said May Day was socialist realism. Now I'd call it early 30s Communist romanticism. I'm not in any way apologizing for the book's enthusiastic, simple-minded political idealism. Because it was a genuine idealism." Perhaps that's selling his book short, because May Day even today is a moving and poetic novel, sometimes satirical, but always lyrical and even pastoral, reminiscent of the film Naked City, John Dos Passos's USA, Wyndham Lewis's Apes of God, and Mass Observation's Humphrey Jennings. Like Simon Blumenfield's Jew Boy, Robert Westerby's Wide Boys Don't Work and Alexander Baron's Low Life, it's part of a genre that's no longer with us- working class London fiction. This at a time when such writing is needed more than ever.

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