Review by George Simmers. See his Great War Fiction blog (with other posts on Howard Spring) here.
This is a very readable, extremely absorbing, epic of the career of a Labour politician, tracing his life from childhood poverty to the House of Lords. It can be taken as strong’s version of the idealistic rise, and later collapse into compromise, of the Labour Party.
John Hamer Shawcross is born illegitimate. It is the mid-nineteenth century in Manchester, and his mother is dismissed from her post as servant when her employers discover she is unmarried; mother and child are taken in by Gordon Stansfield, a Methodist preacher, whose lodger is a veteran survivor of the Peterloo massacre, the Old Warrior.
Young John is brought up and educated by Gordon in the hope that he too will become a Methodist preacher, but his imagination is more inflamed by the Old Warrior, who possesses a sabre captured from one of the soldiers at Peterloo. This talisman of historical revolt becomes an inspiration to the boy, and is a (rather heavily insisted on) key symbol throughout the novel. Eventually it is embalmed in a glass case, merely a historic curio.
There are two other local boys whose stories we follow. Tom Hannaway has a knack for making money (sometimes on the borderline of honesty); he rises from his slum origins to become a highly prosperous capitalist and Conservative M. P. Arnold Ryerson, on the other hand, introduced to Friedrich Engels as a boy, and inspired by Robert Owen’s New View of Society, becomes a Trades Union organiser, doing dogged unspectacular work for the miners of Wales, and never coming close to any material success.
John Hamer Shawcross is different from either. After a long period of self-education (which has much in common with Howard Spring’s own, as revealed in his autobiography) he decides to see life, so travels the world as deckhand on various ships. When he returns he is transformed into a man of ambition. Now dropping the commonplace John, he has decided to be Hamer Shawcross, and he takes over Arnold Ryerson’s lacklustre election campaign against the aristocratic Conservative candidate. He makes a name for himself and eventually is himself elected to Parliament.
The story has been told in a rather cinematic manner, with occasional flashes forward to the Hamer Shawcross of the 1930s, who remembers events ‘across a gulf wellnigh incredible’, but rejects his memories because there is ‘no use in thinking back’. (11) He has achieved success, but has lost touch with the people from whom he came. These flash-forwards mean that the whole book is read ironically; we know that the grand gestures of Shawcross’s youth (such as brandishing that Peterloo Sabre at radical meetings) will not lead to permanent results.
The storytelling is expert. Spring manages a large cast of vivid characters skilfully; even those that threaten to be caricatures can develop in interesting ways and reveal unexpected qualities.
The women of the novel are a varied and rich collection. There is Ellen, Shawcross’s mother, rescued from suicide at the start, then becoming a devoted wife to Gordon the Methodist, coping with poverty and cruelly hard work, but becoming uncomfortable when her son rescues her to a life of idleness. Shawcross marries upward, the rich Ann Artingstall; she seems a bit of a standard character until she becomes a suffragette. (Shawcross has no sympathy with the feminist campaign, because it seems irrelevant to what he sees as his personal mission.) Ann is imprisoned and goes on hunger strike; the description of forced feeding is one of the most memorable set-pieces in the book. Another strong female character is Pen, the wife of the dogged socialist Arnold Ryerson; she was initially hostile to Ann, the rich girl, but in the suffragette movement they are bonded by their common experiences.
These women suffer for their beliefs, but Hamer Shawcross increasingly takes the path of advancement and compromise. Unlike Keir Hardie and others, he supports Asquith at the start of the Great War; he has no belief in it, but is hoping for a ministerial post.
Political success comes to Shawcross, but never as much as he had hoped. His career, one gradually realises, is a metaphor for that of the Labour Party. He starts in idealism, but has his own ambitions, and loses touch with the people he is supposed to be a spokesman for. Arnold Ryserson’s Welsh miners are used as political back-up when it suits his purposes, but in the depression he will not meet their deputation, because they are linked to the Communists and politically unreliable.
Published in 1940, the book reads like an elegy for the Labour Party, almost an epitaph for it. Like Shawcross, the party had voiced the needs of the working class, had been compromised, had split and had been subsumed in National governments; now it seemed to have little relevance in an age of extremes. Today we think of 1945 as Labour’s great high point. It’s salutary to read Spring presenting the party as diminishing into unimportance at the end of the 1930s.
Fame is the Spur is of its time, I think, in another way too, in that Spring’s intentions in the book may have been altered by the events of 1939, when he was writing it. At first the presentation of Shawcross seems firmly ironic, as a man who has betrayed his origins, or who, as his embittered son puts it, ‘once demanded the Millennium and now says he’ll make do with ‘Pleasant Sunday Afternoons’ (646). Towards the end, though, Spring seems to decide that there is something to be said for him, as he turns for consolation to the quietist stoicism of Marcus Aurelius (revealed in the autobiographies to be one of Spring’s favourite authors, too). His daughter-in-law, Alice, once a staunch Communist, becomes increasingly disillusioned with Russia, and is especially crushed by Russia’s invasion of Finland in 1939. By this stage in the composition of the novel, perhaps Strong felt that there was something to be said for Hamer’s distancing of himself from the Communists.
The whole novel is absorbing, but the strongest parts are the evocation of life in the Manchester slums at the beginning of the book and the description of the suffragette movement in the middle. I definitely want to read more Howard Spring.