The fourth meeting of RSN on 24 April 2013 featured talks by Nottingham Trent’s Cathy Clay and the University of Salford’s Elinor Taylor.
Elinor Taylor, a final year PhD student at the University of Salford (and RSN co-convenor) gave the first paper, entitled ‘James Barke and the Popular Front: Communism, Scottish Nationalism, and the Spanish Civil War’.
Taylor’s paper drew on her doctoral research and discussed the relationship between the Scottish novelist James Barke and dynamics of communist politics in the 1930s. In particular, her paper sought to explore how Barke negotiated the ‘national turn’ in Communist politics introduced by the Comintern in the 1935. While for socialist writers like Edgell Rickword and Jack Lindsay the new popular front line opened a space in which to imagine a new Englishness, celebrating traditions of popular radicalism and resistance, the new line presented problems for leftist Scottish writers like Barke.
The discussion focused on two of Barke’s novels, Major Operation (1936) and The Land of the Leal (1939) to consider the differences in their relationships to Scottish history. These differences, Taylor argued, can be related to the outbreak of the war in Spain in 1936, just as Major Operation was about to be published. Overtly, The Land of the Leal seems the more conservative text, with its emphasis on a long history of struggle narrated through the formal paradigm of the family saga, as against the aggressively modern, experimental Major Operation.
Barke’s Major Operation is fiercely anti-nationalist: nationalism is a middle-class affectation figured as kitsch: he describes the ‘city folks’ with ‘their kilts and their bastard Gaelic’ drawing from their ‘peculiarly dull wit, a superficially attractive semi-Celtic tartan ragstore twilight’ (Major Operation, London: Collins, 1936, p.81). The novel does not imagine a national or nationalised solution to the crisis it depicts. Instead, the solution is obviously implied in the novel’s title: a massive and immediate intervention in the body politic: revolution. Taylor sketched the novel’s arguments to this end at the level of its form – the central plot of physical collapse and painful rehabilitation, and the regular figuration of Glasgow as an afflicted beast – and argued that were a sign of the novel’s ‘sustained dialogue’ with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Grey Granite (1935).
Taylor then drew on published letters and unpublished manuscripts held at the Mitchell Library to identify the way Barke’s thinking exhibits an interlocking of two issues: the national turn and the defence of the Spanish Republic. She described how Barke argued that it was against the traditions of Scotland to abandon the Republic at its time of need – a marked shift from his earlier line.
Finally Taylor turned to Barke’s 1939 epic of the Scottish working class, The Land of the Leal, which she described as ‘a history of Scotland that ends in Spain, but also a story of Spain that begins in Scotland’. She described the novel’s positioning of the war in Spain as the latest front in the working-class struggle that was both national and global. This in itself is quite a conventional proposition, and can be found elsewhere in the literature of the period. But what is most compelling in the novel is the way that the text suggests that the war in Spain is also a war for definition, for the meaning of class experience: the communist character Tom senses that:
‘Only now was his life having point and significance. But not only his own life. Now the life of his father and his mother might be fulfilled. They had toiled and laboured from the Galloway fields to the city itself – from one century into another. […] They had been exploited and victimised without ever understanding why and without being able to make any conscious effort to save themselves’. (The Land of the Leal, 1939; London: Collins, 1950, p.596.)
Taylor noted the rather strained, even hyperbolic feel to this passage, but also pointed out that through it Barke is attempting to resolve the contradiction between the national and the international. It maintains a kind of national emphasis: a connection to the land, and to the labouring of the land, in a particular place; and it’s crucially about family, about inheritance, while also accepting that those things cannot be fought for or won on home ground alone.
Cathy Clay’s talk — ‘Eleanor Farjeon’s “Weekly Crowd”: Work, Leisure and Socialist Politics in the Feminist Periodical Time and Tide’ — was exemplary in its handling of poetry in periodicals and the politics of print culture. As a poet Farjeon came into conflict with Time and Tide’s editorial policy on the subjects of socialism and war. For the periodical’s editors, the intersection of socialism and feminism in Farjeon’s poetry was a liability. Post 1922 there was an overt tension between feminism and socialism, which impacted on Farjeon’s position in the periodical. The poetry in her column ‘Weekly Crowd’ advocated pacifism, while its editorial line was that ‘war was the only way out’ of the dispute in Greece between 1919 and 1922. She was, however, extremely popular with readers, with one writing that her contributions were ‘worth the price of the whole paper’.
Another major flashpoint in the relationship between Farjeon and Time and Tide was the General Strike of 1926. The wealth of Lady Rhondda, Time and Tide’s owner, came from coal and the periodical was dependent on this wealth as it did not generate profit. Time and Tide was, unsurprisingly, unsympathetic to strikers and ‘Weekly Crowd’ did not appear in the periodical during the strike. Farjeon’s poems in which she expressed solidarity with the strikers were printed in this period, however, by the British Worker.
Clay’s analysis took into account the formal qualities of periodical culture and poetry. She argued that ‘Weekly Crowd’ functioned as a liminal space in Time and Tide with Farjeon’s poetry introducing a nineteenth-century oral aesthetic associated with radicals and the working class that was in tension with the editorial line. Changes in the periodical’s title banner, with the icon of Big Ben being reduced in size to make way for the depiction of a crowd on Westminster Bridge but later shifted back to prominence, reflected Time and Tide’s politics.
The Radical Studies Network will reconvene after the summer break with a seminar scheduled for October 23rd, when we will be hearing from three postgraduate researchers. Full details will be published soon.