Inspiring Older Readers
Betrayed Spring by Jack Lindsay
I must admit that, before reading this novel, I had a somewhat romantic view of England in the years after WW2 - I tended to think they were characterised by a sort of universal optimism and relentless social reform in terms of employment, housing, education and health. I suspect that, like many people, my understanding that actually the events and debates that took place in this period of history were far more nuanced and complicated is quite poor. We tend to conjure-up a world that is shaped by the dominant narrative of the founding of the Welfare State and how it changed ordinary people’s lives in unimaginable ways.
Of course it did – but all this was, nevertheless ,a very slow and hard won set of reforms that continued for many years against a complex background of intrigue between the main political parties as well as between the various left and right factions of the Labour Party (sounds rather like today). The clue to the theme of the novel is in the title because the keen national appetite for a new beginning that had been promised by politicians to keep up morale in the last years of the war was soon soured by the challenges of trying to put reform into practice within a capitalist economy.
This is an ambitious novel with a huge cast of well- drawn characters and four memorable locations, all helpfully outlined at the beginning in the manner of a play. At first I found that I had to refer back to this a few times to remind myself of who was who. The story begins with Phyllis, a young girl living in London, squatting with her family and others in a disused hotel. One of the consequences of the heavy bombing in all major cities was the lack of housing and the terrible overcrowding that made people’s lives miserable, claustrophobic and very unhealthy. Phyllis finds living in the hotel rather thrilling, partly because it is against the law, but also because the experience wakes her up to the effects of injustice. She is ashamed when her father worries about whether they will be able to return to their previous lodgings if they give up squatting:
‘It was a stinking place,’ she interrupted vehemently; and only now, at this moment of giving up did she seem to realise just how ugly and confined their old quarters had been. Even in its blasted condition, with boards and sacking in most of the windows, with its thick dust and its bare rooms, with its cracked plaster and its damaged roofs, the hotel had been a new world, of breadth and dignity, full of adventurous possibilities’.
They eventually have to return to the squalor but Phyllis is determined that she will escape one way or another as she watches her parents sink back into a downtrodden life where owning a decent mattress is the most important way to signal ‘a decent status in society’ and her younger brother begins to get tangled in with a local gang of hoodlums. She continues to develop an interest in the wider world by keeping in touch with some people she met via squatting and through making new friends who are involved in various disputes, particularly Hotel workers and Dockworkers.
A contrasting but parallel story in Lancashire is explored through the experiences of Dick who has recently been demobbed. He had thought that he wanted something different from returning to the coal mines when he came back from the war and at first struggles to slot back into a familiar but somewhat mundane life with his family and friends. The war has changed him in lots of ways, including making him more aware of politics and how he might play his part in building a better future. Mining has also changed because with nationalisation, it seems that the workers are going to have better conditions and pay – or are they? His dad reminds him that improvements have only come about because his generation and the one before him fought so hard to build up the union, and the struggle continues. He decides to be part of the improved mining industry by returning to the coalface and becoming involved with his trade union, trying to decide whether to join the Communist Party. He falls for Joan, a girl who is very politically active at the textile mill where she works and she helps him to understand why this is important.
The third perspective is seen through the life of Will Emery, a long-time rather pompous Tyneside trade union official who is trying to refashion his role in tune with post-war times. He knows that this is going to mean some uncomfortable compromises with employers and workers. His marriage feels stale and he is angry with his long suffering wife, Jean for not making more of an effort:
‘You don’t grow with the times’, he said briskly. ‘Don’t you understand what’s happening? Don’t you understand how important it is for me to keep my end up? He banged his fist on the table, surprising himself with his vehemence. ‘We’ve got to make ‘em respect us. We’ve got to make ‘em meet us on equal terms’.
We are given another angle via Kit Swinton, son of a Yorkshire milllowner who is wrestling with the decision about whether to work with his father to build up the business. He has also returned recently from the war where he rubbed along with less privileged men and developed ‘ a heavy incoherent rage against the world’. Should he join his father and submerge his instincts to do something more worthwhile and less middle class? Perhaps he should join the Labour Party and set about being a reforming and modernising manager, if that is possible.
I knew that it was a novel that put trade unionism at its centre because my husband used the novels of this writer as part of his PhD research, extracts from which are published elsewhere on the website. This framed the way in which I read it because it certainly contains an awful lot of trade union related content with plenty of scenarios of meetings and disputes which I sometimes found rather hard going. On the other hand, this attention to procedural detail is absolutely vital in conveying the way in which the main characters have to dedicate so much energy and commitment to making sure that reform happens, because otherwise they will be side lined and exploited.
What I liked about the novel is that it is so beautifully written throughout with evocative descriptions of the four very different landscapes and the cast of people living their often difficult lives. This made the story visceral and compelling in a way that I didn’t expect. I could quote lots of examples but this powerful extract about the fierce and punishing winter that caused so much misery and hardship made me feel cold:
‘Frost was a mad invisible enemy tearing, cracking, hammering with sharp picks, filing away. Birds died frozen in the copses. The grouse froze in the snow where they crouched. The hares did no more scampering. Ice was creeping over the land like a new glacier age.'
I learnt a lot of social history from becoming so engrossed in the complicated lives of these well -drawn characters and am delighted to find out that Jack Lindsay continued to write about them in subsequent novels. These could keep me going for rather a long time.