I’ve been looking forward to getting my teeth into this for months. The powerful and widespread thirst for knowledge amongst the British working class is a seriously underdocumented historical subject.
Getting the time to do so is until the Christmas holidays is unlikely though so I’m consoling myself with this taster article in City Journal until then.
The first snippet has the author reminding us of the extraordinarily rich literary culture of the South Wales colliers:
In the mining towns of South Wales, colliers had pennies deducted from their wages to support their own libraries, more than 100 of them by 1934. The miners themselves determined which books to buy. One such library, the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute, devoted 20 percent of its acquisitions budget to philosophy. Another spent 45 pounds on the Oxford English Dictionary. (In the best of times, a miner could not earn much more than a pound a day.)
Here is a great phrase which sums up the working class enthusiasm for literature, this time from further North:
No doubt Thomas Carlyle was a cranky male supremacist, but for Elizabeth Bryson (b. 1880), the daughter of an impoverished Dundee bookkeeper, he offered “the exciting experience of being kindled to the point of explosion by the fire of words.”
And lastly here’s an early example of a phenomenon anyone who crinkles their nose and winces at the Guardian today might recognise:
Ewan MacColl was a Communist and the son of a Communist iron-founder, but he had been raised on Gogol, Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and he found the party’s agitprop drama an insult to his intelligence. “We had a strong feeling that we were being written down to,” he remembered. “I’ve noticed frequently that among middle-class party people that I’ve worked with, over the years, that there’s an idea that workers will accept anything, providing the message is OK. The quality doesn’t matter, the form doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we agree on the correct slogans.”
Which reminds me – if anyone has a copy of the now out of print Lost World of British Communism – I’ve got a good home for it.