Harrington: A tale of optimism from the first new romant

Friday, 29th April

John Sommerfield

Ink drawing of John Sommerfield in the late 1940s

IN 1936 novelist John Sommerfield saw his novel, entitled May Day, reach the shops – and his description of Londoners in the build up to this seminal event made it an instant bestseller.

Sommerfield, who lived in Paddington, was politically active, he fought fascists on London streets, and travelled to Spain in 1936 to defend the democratic government threatened by a coup lead by General Franco. He served in the International Brigades and in his next book, Volunteer In Spain, wrote of his experiences.

In May Day he depicted a genuine mass movement, an alliance of millions determined to build a better Britain.

Sommerfield creates a world sadly recognisable today: a post-Crash society racked by corruption and excesses of the ruling class, falling wages, job insecurity, housing in crisis, ramshackle health services and a government determined to crack down on protests.

He uses the plot to illustrate how damaging this rampant capitalist society is for all.

Author and publisher Andy Croft wrote Red Letters, a critique of the political novel in the 1930s.

He met Sommerfield, and recalls an author who carved out a unique place in British letters.

“People assume he was working-class because of the subject matter of his novels. That’s not the case,” Andy told me this week.

“He didn’t, however, go to university. He took on manual jobs and was unemployed before he earned a living as a writer.”

After leaving school aged 16, John worked on a fruit cargo ship washing dishes and as a carpenter.

“He didn’t go down a well-travelled literary path but he did have a good early education and was not self-taught.

“He is a clear, careful, literary writer,” Andy adds.

“It shows how he came up with such an original and ambitious novel.”

This gave him the base to produce work that was unique.

“It is a Modernist, communist novel, an attempt to draw a positive future,” he says.

“Sommerfield used techniques taken from cinema, to talk about class, about London, about the future, about politics.”

“When I wrote it, I’d have said it was Socialist realism,” Sommerfield stated in a preface to a new edition in the 1980s.

“Now I’d call it communist romanticism. I am not apologising for the book’s enthusiastic political idealism because it was genuine idealism and there was a lot of it about then.

“And there still is now, not in the same forms as before, but still alive and hopeful.”

Andy says: “After 1933 and the succession of fascists triumphs across Europe, there were very few Utopian novels written on the British left. There were a great many novels written by socialists and set in the future, but almost all of these imagined the political worst.

“May Day remains one of the last fictional attempts of the period to represent the future as a revolutionary one, and in such an optimistic way. By the time it was published it was almost out of date.

“Events had unfolded in Germany and suddenly the left are on the defensive.

“The desperate need to build a broad anti-fascist alliance meant the left’s revolutionary rhetoric was being toned down in the cause of the Popular Front. They needed as many allies as they could get.

“From 1935 novels dealing with political issues were more pessimistic, less critical, more defensive and rooted in compromise. But May Day is none of those things.”

May Day. By John Sommerfield. London Books Classics, £11.99

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