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WALTER BRIERLEY & LESLIE WILLIAMSON

John Lucas

 

 

In his introduction to the 1983 re-print of Brierley's novel, Means-Test Man, which had been first published in 1935, Andy Croft remarks that it took the author ten weeks to produce this "simply-told tale of a week in the life of an unemployed Derbyshire miner and his family, leading up to the visit of the Means-Test Inspector." He also notes that although on publication the novel was warmly praised in some quarters, approval on the left was noticeably more muted. And he quotes the view of the Daily Worker that it is misleading for Brierley to imply that Jack Cook's passivity in the face of his degrading treatment is somehow typical. "The unemployed worker who sits at home waiting for the investigator is not the rule, but the exception." Ernie Wooley, who wrote these words, couldn't then have known of Georg Lukac's argument that the best kind of "progressive" fiction, which also happened to be that in accordance with historical inevitability, was one in which the "average" hero embodied the hopes, and energies, of the emergent class to which he belonged. But Wooley plainly felt that Brierley's protagonist was hardly a model of working-class resistance to capitalism and therefore no help to readers wanting to understand the forces shaping contemporary history.

That Cook is profoundly passive in his acceptance of what is happening to him is undeniable. There is something very English about this and it isn't confined to the working class. "We must face reality", university colleagues haplessly reiterated as Thacherite minions and then, later, Blair's, set about wrecking just about everything that made the UK university system worthwhile. To my protest that on the contrary we make reality they responded with a shrug, a shake of the head, a wry smile. "The culture of consolation" Gareth Stedman Jones called the music hall, and argued that its hey-day coincided with the spread of fatalistic acceptance of the status quo among those who had most to gain by challenging defeatism. About the only consolation on offer to Jack Cook, who is not merely unemployed but who day by day sees his pitiful savings whittled down by me need to feed and clothe his wife and son, is to take the boy to a cricket match. No cinema, no pub, no social life. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation", Henry Thoreau wrote, who could hardly have anticipated the desperation of "respectable" working class people like the Cooks. I put the word in inverted commas because one of the best things about Brierley's novel is the way he establishes Jack and Jane's desire for a kind of modest but decent existence that circumstance denies them. They go short of food, they can't afford to buy new clothes, they struggle to maintain a modicum of personal cleanliness and to keep the house trim. And it's a losing battle.The coming of the Means Test man is a final, terrible humiliation.  

The master and mistress of a household - the two heads of a home - husband and wife in their castle -- English.And this man sat here at the table where grace used to be said, where friends used to come and laugh over tea, always on the first Sunday in the year, that nearest to [their son's] birthday. And this man sat where those friends had sat, he was like a lord and they stood trembling before him. No, that wasn't the relation at all, there was something soulless in this, callous. Means Test. It was something else beside a means test, it tested one's soul, one's being, and the soul and the being were poorer every time. It could not but leave mem worse, disturbing as it did the calm and quietness of the inner life. However far back into one's self one retreated, still the test followed, measuring, measuring.

Jack's helpless reply to his wife's grief-stricken storm of tears after the means test man has taken his leave - "If all the women of England could feel for a minute what you've gone through this morning, there'd be no more of it", is, in its forlorn impotence, deeply affecting. We need only recall that at more or less the moment Brierley's novel was published the Jarrow marchers were being told that "Jarrow must work out its own salvation",to register the full pathos of his words.

Means-Test Man is remarkable for its detailed study of lives, outer and inner, being worn away by misery for which there seems precious little alleviation. And I'd also want to pay tribute to Brierley's handling of dialect and local idiom. Nevertheless, there is something odd about Cook's isolation, the fact that he keeps himself apart from others, and his isolation does, as Wooley implies, seem atypical of the kinds of lives with which the novel engages. To put it rather differently: it isn't so much Cook's failure to raise a red duster against the system that disturbs me as Brierley's apparent indifference to community.

An at least partial explanation for this may lie in Brierley's own circumstances. He was born in the Derbyshire village of Waingroves, in June, 1900, where his father was an engine winder at Derby Hall Pit. A bright boy, he nevertheless left school at the age of 13 to start work at Waingroves Pit. But he attended night classes in French, English and Maths, and as a young adult applied for a place on me Miners Welfare Scholarship for a non-vocational course at Nottingham University College. According to Philip Gorski, "Between 1927 and 1931 he studied two days per week at the college, working the other three days at the pit. However, out of the four subjects, History, English, Latin and Logic, he first failed Logic and then Latin, consequently failing to secure a full-time place." As a result he had to go back to pit work, though he was soon made redundant, "despite the supposed guarantee covering his job. He was then out of work until 1935. " The publication of Means-Test Man turned him into a full-time writer (the story of his progress can be found in Croft's commanding Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s); two years after its appearance came Sandwichman, which as Gorski points out in the Introduction to the Merlin Radical Fiction edition of the novel (1990),is based on Brierley's own experiences, especially his struggles to enter higher education. Gorski also mounts a vigorous and I think entirely successful defence of the novel against those on the left who see Sandwichman as deeply compromised by its fatalism. Certainly Arthur Gardner, the main protagonist, gains nothing from his higher educational studies. He loses his job, his girl deserts him, his mother dies (after a visit from the means-test man) and Arthur himself is reduced to tramping the streets and then taking the only work he is offered -that of a sandwich board man. A grim tale, as Gorski says, if not a tragic one. But he rightly dismisses Carol Snee's absurd claim that Brierley's prose is at once "self-consciously literary" and "lifeless and static." (You can't get language much more self-conscious or lifeless than hers.) On the contrary: Sandwichman is marked by vivid prose that catches both the talk of miners and that of the adult students yearning for a life elsewhere; and it explores in harrowing detail the collapse of Arthur's hopes and dreams. But what gives the novel its especial distinction is the way in which Brierley depicts the tensions that inevitably arise within and between those for whom the life of the pit is where they "naturally" belong, and those who yearn for an alternate existence. And if Snee and others think that this somehow untrue to or a betrayal of "inherent" working-class values, she should consider the lives of, among others, John Clare and D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence in particular is hugely important. Not only did he manage to break away, his novels act out and in a sense live through the inevitable emotional complications, the opening up of psychic wounds, the hostilities and accusations of betrayal, that such breaking away habitually entails, the deep fissures it opens up between those who stay and those who go, the cultural divisions - how to speak, to dress, to behave- and the damage done to (and by) those whose class and regional identity is, it must feel, rejected as inadequate. (Though such splits are, I'd guess, far less pronounced nowadays, and a very good thing, too. Class is still a key issue in any consideration of Englishness, but it is less significant, less a defining matter, than when Brierley was writing.) I am not going to claim that Brierley manages to attest to, far less explore, these matters with anything approaching Lawrence's range and intensity, (only Philip Callow comes near to that, most especially perhaps in his memoir, Passage from Home), but Sandwichman undoubtedly contains moments which register the cost of wanting away. As here, for instance, where, after a long day's work down the mine, Arthur settles down, as he hopes, to an evening's study.  

His mother came in when he had been working at his history essay for about half an hour.

"You'd better come and give your Dad and Sid a hand in the garden. They're going to put some potatoes in."

"Crikes," he said, with a touch of bewilderment and disappointment. "It'll throw me all behind. He looked into her face, then at his pages. "No logic tonight. I s'll be too tired."

"There'll be a row if you don't.... You shouldn't stay out so late, you wouldn't be so tired then." A touch of anger was in her voice, not at him directly, but that such a circumstance had arisen through what she felt could have been avoided; she was angry that he would fall short of the point the had aimed at.

"I shall stay up and finish this, anyway."

He followed her out and put on his pit shoes again, turned up the bottoms of his shifting trousers, then went into the garden. His father and Sidney were digging; neither had washed....

"You thought of gettin' out of it nicely, didn't you? [the father said], when Arthur came up with the last spread of manure. The man was standing at the end of the row, his face slightly pale with the exertion just ended. He spoke with the suggestion of a sneer. "Runnin' into t'parlour every night."

"What are you talking about?" Arthur looked the man straight in the eyes, after momentary surprise had wavered across his face. "I didn't know you were coming into the garden tonight."

"Didn't want to know." Arthur walked away to the other end of the row .... "Nothink else but books and women. Other folks can sludge-pump."

The bad feeling between Arthur and his father is very different from the mother's anger. She wants Arthur to succeed, his father simmers with hurt at his son's rejection of a life that he himself has had to accept as all that's on offer. I don't see how you can read a passage such as this and not recall the great opening of The Rainbow: nor can I believe that it hadn't affected Brierley when he came to write Sandwichman. This is emphatically not to say that his novel is in any way a pastiche or, worse, tamely derivative of Lawrence. It is, however, to suggest mat for all his novel's virtues, Brierley needed Lawrence to show him how to articulate and give fictional shape to his own experiences. It is also to say that where Sandwichman differs from, and improves on, Means-Test Man is in Brierley's ability to write about Arthur as both within and resistant to a community that is largely absent from the earlier novel. The narrow focus of Means-Test Man almost makes the Cook family into a case study. (Though I don't want to suggest that this brings the novel down to the level of Mass Observation, that pruriently intrusive device by which certain individuals in the 30s chose to document "our" world.) Sandwichman feels a more confidently achieved work, and a measure of Brierley's growing sureness of touch is the way he trusts to unobtrusive detail to achieve his effects. It's worth noting, for instance, that in the passage quoted above, Arthur sounds the final g to certain words - talking, coming - whereas his father cuts them off- getting', runnin' - or uses the equally idiomatic k. (Nothink). Even more worthy of note, as the bickering between the two men starts up, Arthur, through whose eyes we see the incident, looks not at his father but at the father. The older man is no longer seen as standing in unique relationship to his son, but merely plays out a conventional role. By such socially and psychologically convincing devices we are able to register me growing gap between the two men.

Jobey also registers gaps that open up between apparently "natural" allies. But Leslie Williamson's novel was published getting on for fifty years after Sandwichman, and although it is recognisably about the same area of the East Midlands, the scene has moved on. This however may not be at first apparent, given that the novel's ostensible subject is the General and then Miners' Strike of 1926, a defining moment in working- class history of which Williamson, who was born only four years before the Strike began, clearly knows a great deal. Some of this knowledge must have come from anecdotes handed down by and through the Eastwood community where he has spent his life. But Williamson has a keen and well-informed historical interest in the region. Hence Bread For All, (1992), his novel based on the Pentrich uprising of 1817. (Which brought about the execution of a number of Derbyshire miners, led to the naming of what is still Australia's largest prison, and prompted Shelley's great Essay on Liberty. And he is also the author of a charming prose-poetry sequence called D.H. Lawrence and the Country that he Loved. (2003). Lawrence is his hero, both for his love of the countryside round Eastwood - "the country of my heart" Lawrence famously called it - and for the fact that, in Williamson's own words, "He was afraid of nothing and nobody." The upshot, among much else, was that "he managed to alienate his friends and neighbours and practically the whole of Eastwood as well." At one time I toyed with the idea that the eponymous hero of Williamson's novel is meant as a tribute to Lawrence, but I doubt that this is intended, though I do think that Joe Bird, the novel's wise socialist, bears more man a passing resemblance to Willie Hopkin, Lawrence's life-long friend. Jobey is a man of great physical prowess, someone who loves and is loved by Margaret Booker, the daughter of the manager of the colliery where he and most men in his community work. His love for her leads to tension between him and his workmates. Early on in the novel, when, Margaret and Jobey are engaged in one of their semi-clandestine meetings, she says to him "You should live out here [in the open country]... .Men such as you belong in the open air." Jobey replies: "That's where I belong." He pointed down at the water. "Under there, where a man doesn't have to know when to sit or stand, when to shake a hand or stand respectfully. We use the words our fathers taught us and ... and" ... The word Father was like a ball and chain.

This neatly enough touches on allegiances mat are pulling Jobey in different directions, allegiances which are then put agonisingly to the test when Booker recruits him to protect the mine from the wrecking intentions of the striking miners.

Nevertheless, the fraught relationship between Jobey and Margaret which matters most. The best things in Jobey are, first, the unsentimental accounts of community life, and second the underground explosion that occurs after the men have returned to work, a disaster written about with an intensity and narrative drive that makes it a genuine tour de force. Many novels of the 1930s that revolve about mining communities include accounts of such disasters, but none approaches the sustained power of Jobey.

Nor does any of them rival Jobey's disenchanted realism in its depiction of how, for all the selflessness of some, others are conditioned by a self-serving determination to survive that, in the case of Pokey Jordan, amounts to an Abhorson-like readiness to kill anyone who stands in his way. Pokey is a man who can "sink enough beer to float a canoe without once relieving his bladder. When he finally did go, he stood back about three feet from the wall, hands behind his back, staring at the ceiling.... As Sid Perkins used to say, 'He sounds like a bloody great station hoss' ..." He uses and humiliates the local prostitute, bullies his family and anyone weaker man himself, he is, in a word, unregenerate. At the moment of me pit explosion, Pokey is trapped below with forty or so other miners, one of whom he batters to death, another of whom he half strangles, and when eventually some are saved by Jobey's intervention, Pokey is the first to scramble out, "to a very subdued cheer." Not that he cares. Simply the thing he is shall make him live.

Williamson's refusal to make heroes out of all his working-class characters is as admirable as his avoidance of costume drama. So, too, the easy authority with which he handles dialect and idiom. Above all, though, we should note the way he writes about the underground explosion and its consequences, for this constitutes a sustained narrative of quite extraordinary power. Because it unfolds over the best part of a section that runs to 11,000 words it is impossible to offer any quotation that will give an adequate sense of just how impressive Williamson's achievement here is. To understand that you will simply have to read the novel. One other notable feature of Jobey is, however, more easily pinned down.

As the strike takes hold, Joe Bird, "fearless, far-seeing, incorruptible, yet quietly resolute", knows that he will need to be at his most persuasive to prevent local miners from backsliding.

A lot of districts with no coal near the surface had been accusing him of letting them down. 'Watch Nottingham' they had said at the National Conference. "That's the weak spot. That's where the wall will break.' he had sat there taking it all. Not because the men were any less resolute, but because the coalfield was so exposed, the temptation was enormous in this area. 

And so he orders his men to fill in the outcrops.

Given that Jobey was published in 1983, this is ominously prescient. For in the miners' strike of 1984-5 it was of course Nottinghamshire miners who broke away to form the UDM, and one of their leaders, Roy Greatorex, as good as said that whereas the Yorkshire pits, being deep, were expensive to maintain, Nottingham coal was for the most part nearer the surface, and that the future of Nottingham mines would be guaranteed under that nice Mr Heseltine. Fat chance. A very few years later the plug was pulled on the Nottinghamshire mines.

There is another parallel between Jobey and the events of 1984/5. In Jobey, Yorkshire miners march down to Nottinghamshire after the local miners begin to drift back to work. They hope to persuade them to change their minds. But they fail as surely as did those picketing miners who, sixty years later, tried to stop filled coal lorries driving off from Nottinghamshire pits. And although I doubt that Williamson intended the explosion that ends his novel to be read symbolically, the havoc it causes, and the deaths of miners it results in, reads uncannily as a foretaste of what would happen to the mining industry after the collapse of the strike in 1985. Not that Williamson in any way demonises the miners whose reluctant return to work is, they plead, undertaken for the sake of their wives and children. But it leads to disaster. During the strike the pit has accumulated what ought to be unacceptably high levels of gas, but though Booker knows of this, he still allows the men to go back down. He's under pressure from Waverley, the mine owner, to re-start the pit. As a result of the explosion, Waverley drops dead from a heart attack, an outcome in which wishful thinking rather triumphs over probability. This isn't how it happens, as more recent outrages - Potter's Bar and Hatfield, say - make plain. Nor am I much persuaded by Jobey's love affair with Margaret Booker. This, too, seems a piece of conventional fiction. But to say this doesn't damage Williamson's overall achievement That rests on qualities which between them make Jobey a novel of real worth and one that deserves to be far better known.

 

Note:

Walter Brierley's Means-test Man, first published in 1935, was reprinted by Spokesman Books in 1983. (Bertrand Russell House, Gamble Street, Nottingham, NG7 4ET.) Sandwichman, first published 1937, was reprinted in Merlin Radical Fiction, under my general editorship, Merlin Press, London, 1990. Merlin Press was a small but very important press specialising in radical writing (it published most of EP Thompson's work) which ended with the death of its publisher, Martin Eve, though the stock, or such of it as wasn't sold off, survives. Leslie Williamson's Jobey was first published by Robert Hale in 1983, then issued in paperback by Methuen, and in 2002 became available in a large-print edition, "complete and unabridged": The Ulverscroft Foundation, The Green, Bradgate Road, Anstey, Leicester LE7 7FU. Ulverscroft also issue a large-print edition of Williamson's mystery, The Crowded Cemetery, first published by Hale in 1981. The following year the same publishers brought out another Williamson mystery, Death of a Portrait