Saturday, December 11, 2010

SMOKEY CRUSADE by R M Fox

Chapter 4

REVOLUTIONARY ORATORS


IN the days before the War - the romantic period of revolutionary oratory - Socialist speakers wore soft felt hats and red ties. Anderson conformed to this custom. He had, too, a well-shaped head, a good broad forehead crowned with a mass of curly hair and a slight cast in one of his eyes which gave them a fine rolling frenzy on the platform. He had energy, audacity and tireless­ness in attack. He would leap on to the platform and challenge all corners. And he was ready to leap on to his opponent's platform, too. Whether he loved Socialism or his own voice best perhaps he himself could not have told us, but if estab­lished society could have fallen before oratory, I am sure Anderson would have brought it down. He could talk all day - in fact, he did spend most of his Sundays talking - and remain fresh, ener­getic and interesting. On Sunday morning he held his meeting at West Green Corner. In the afternoon, snatching a scrappy meal, he went on to Finsbury Park. Here he occupied a disused bandstand around which the people flocked to listen. After buying cakes and tea at the Park restaurant, he took the tram back to West Green Corner and spellbound an audience until mid­night, or even later, when a small dazed group would stumble away convinced that they had assisted in striking thundering blows at the edifice of Capitalism. During his oratory he refreshed himself with long drinks from a lemonade bottle, its gassy sharpness making him hoarse or thin­ning his voice to a husky whisper, but he would talk on until his throat eased again.
     I could not resist these avalanches of oratory, especially as Anderson gave expression to all those feelings of resentment and bitterness which I could not put into words. My only regret was that I had to be up so
early in the morning that I could not stay to the end of those long-distance speeches, except when on some specially interest­ing occasion I abandoned all thought of the morrow. I was often up till one, and it seemed that I had hardly got my head on the pillow before the alarm clock sounded the beginning of another weary day. It was hard, too, having to spend the long black week waiting for Sunday, to be caught up and carried away in these denuncia­tions and appeals.
     I was delighted when it was announced that the Socialist group would hold meetings on Thursday nights at St. Ann's Corner, in the heart of a drab slum area. The platform was pitched under­neath a street lamp in an open space, where several roads joined, just opposite a public-house with stuccoed and imitation marble front. The lights behind the public-house windows winked dolefully as Anderson poured out his evangel of the new social order.
     St. Ann's was a difficult place to speak. One enthusiast got into serious trouble with his audience through referring to the number of houses in the area condemned by the Medical Officer of Health.
     "Wot sort ov a place does' e live in, comin' dahn 'ere talkin' abaht slums!" growled a hearer, voicing the general feeling.
     Anderson was a popular speaker, with personality, fervour, humour and a touch of real eloquence. It was no trouble to him to break this rough ground. The only opposition he got was from a bunch of local tradesmen, with shops around the meeting place, who resented the coming of an agitator to their peaceful district. Thursday was their half-holiday, so they were free to voice their hostility. In the saloon bar of the public-house they brooded over the affront to their dignity, and at ten o'clock, when the public­house closed, they sallied out to the meeting opposite. A big bull-like butcher was their leader, and close behind came a dried-up little chemist, a long thin baker - who was a district councillor - an illiterate fishmonger - who was a candidate for municipal honours - and several others who were attached to that side.
     Pushing through the meeting they began to sing God Save the King, and at the same time tried to knock off the hats of members of the audience who did not uncover. The Socialists responded by singing The Red Flag. The tradesmen, who were very few, were routed after a few minutes' swaying, jostling and struggling. But they were not beaten. Next week they hired a brass band to play under the lamp and so drown Anderson's voice. This might have succeeded with any ordinary man, but Anderson merely set his platform up on the out­skirts of the crowd and shouted above the music. The din and confusion was terrific. The crowds were bigger than ever. Anderson declared that a  free-speech fight was on. Presently the police began keeping the audience on the move, and they circled about the speaker like an agitated swarm of bees. Waving his arm at the baker's shop opposite,. Anderson hurled challenges at "the dough-dumper across the way." The police, the band and the excitement increased the turmoil, in the midst of which Anderson triumphed.
     The shopkeepers could not continue to hire the band each week - it was too expensive. So the following Thursday they sent a man with a cornet to walk round the meeting playing his tunes. Huge crowds turned out and this was completely ineffective - how could it be otherwise with a man who could talk above a band? The third week a barrel-organ was pressed into service. But the effect of this was spoilt for the shopkeepers by one of them running out and telling the organ man to stop just as he was grinding out the Marseillaise.
     "Don't play that!" shouted the indignant shopkeeper. "It's one of their songs."
     The red flag waved triumphantly in the breeze and the shopkeepers were defeated. I was tre­mendously thrilled by these happenings and felt that the citadel of iniquity was crumbling. I never missed a Thursday night meeting. In rain and snow and wind I listened to Anderson's voice crying woe and desolation. I heard him speak in thick fog, when, in spite of the lamp, his figure was just a dim shape on the platform, an unquiet voice that would not be still.
     Inevitably I joined this group. They met weekly in a room behind the Sunbeam coffee tavern, and, as I walked through the stuffy little shop, past the tired men who sat in the pew-like wooden seats, a stale odour of kippers and cab­bage filled the air. But I was oblivious to this as I entered the room and looked round at my fellow ­crusaders. Some were stolid young men lounging on the wooden forms smoking cigarettes. A few had eager, thoughtful faces and looked as if they had brooded long over the misery and injustice of the world. My eyes rested on Anderson, who sat at a table, with two or three men, facing the others. The white profile of his face - straight nose, firm chin, high forehead - would have marked him out in any gathering. He was plainly the leader. I noticed that he was poorly dressed­ though his clothes were neat. His light-brown overcoat was stained and his felt hat, tilted on the back of his head, was old and shapeless. Yet he sat nonchalantly, his legs crossed, apparently quite satisfied to be serving the Cause. I signed a Declaration of Principles and, upon being admitted, received a red membership card. Then the secre­tary produced some little stamps of a lovely delicate pink, on each of which was printed in black letters, The Socialist Party. Each stamp, I was informed, was a receipt for a week's subscrip­tion, but to me they were passports to a new world.
     The group I had joined was the smallest and, theoretically, the most extreme of the various Labour organizations. It attacked all the others with fervour, maintaining that its few hundred members were the only light in the dark world. During its few years of existence, it had already suffered from bitter internal feuds. The most serious of these had been when Mr. Con Lehane­ a tall handsome Irishman, who had been General Secretary of the party, left, taking a good number of his supporters with him. The night I joined a letter was read from one of the dissentients describing his opponents as "the embodiment of political filth," but beyond being a little puzzled at signs of division where I expected a unity like the head of a spear or a single flame, I was not disturbed. There was nothing I found here that I could not, with a little adjustment, fit comfortably into my dream world.
     Soon I was busy in my spare time selling Socialist papers, carrying the platform, listening to talk which made me feel that we were on the verge of great events. I was a good listener, but had very little to say, and so I had to suffer from bores who were always on the look-out for prey. I have painful memories of one man, with bushy eyebrows and an intent look, who would walk home with me and halt under the big lighted clock at the Tottenham Gas Offices while he expounded some point in economics.
     "This is what I want to. do," he would say, fixing me with a pitiless eye, when I was dropping with fatigue. "Take this pipe" - he pulled it from his mouth and I surveyed the hateful object with disgust - " Then this pouch." I looked with similar loathing at that. "And then that lamp­post" - he pointed with the stem of his pipe at the post in question. "Now what I want to do is to explain to the ordinary man the relation between the amount of labour power in these three objects."
     I  could not see how the ordinary man would be benefited even if this were explained. But I kept very quiet, in the hope that by so doing I would dodge further voluminous explanations. It was a vain hope. I was lucky if I could shake him off in half an hour. I saw the hands creeping over the face of the lighted clock while I stood in a state of coma. If I attempted to escape he would clutch my coat and begin again. In time, however, I developed a sense which warned me of his approach, and I crossed over to the other side of the road before he could see me.
     Anderson was always interesting. He was a man who lived for his ideas and cared little for anything else. Poverty and unemployment were familiar to him. He and his family had to move hurriedly on many occasions when the landlord pressed for rent. Even in these circumstances he did not forget his beliefs. Once, before he left, he tacked a printed slogan on the wall of the empty room, proclaiming in thick black type "Rent is Robbery and Profit is Plunder." What the landlord said when he found it is not recorded.
     He never allowed his domestic difficulties to interfere with his political life. I have known him debate with the local M.P. one night, making a great hall resound with his eloquence; carry out a surreptitious moving operation the next; and put in his nomination for the local council election on the third day. Though he ran many times and had large enthusiastic meetings, he was never elected. His propaganda did not appeal to rate­payers. For the ordinary worker, his attractive personality was counteracted by something too nebulous in his talk of a Social Revolution. He had nothing of an immediate practical character to offer, and would have scorned to offer it if he had.
     It was just this lack of contact with reality which made an irresistible appeal to me. I had no use for the kind of realities I knew. I sat at the feet of the leaders. I attended economic and history classes run by Jack Fitzgerald - a studious and solemn little bricklayer who taught me to understand the mysteries of Karl Marx. I listened to Hans Neumann - an excitable German who had translated the writings of Karl Kautsky. I progressed in my knowledge of Socialist theory, but, as time went on, I became increasingly conscious of the lack of something. Life was bigger than an economic class or even the gorgeous dream of a future Socialist Order in which the rosiest apples would grow on every tree.
     It took me a long time to realize that Anderson and his colleagues were completely satisfied with preaching Socialism. They had no real desire to accomplish any change, even though they thought they had. All they wanted was to gain artistic expression, to put into words the dreams that formed in their consciousness, to feel the joy of creation and of sharing that creation with an audience. For this they were prepared to endure hunger, to face hardship, provided always that they could interpose between themselves and that hardship a barrier of beautiful words. For a long time I found compensation in exactly the same way. Day dreams in the workshop and night dreams on the Socialist platform masked the uglier realities of life. But in my mind the ques­tion would keep rising: "Where do we go to from here? What do we do next?" Yet my guides had no perception that any further move was required.

No comments:

Post a Comment