Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring (1940)

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.

See also:

Review of Dunkerley’s (1946).

Review of The Houses in Between (1951).

Biography of Howard Spring and an account of the Spring reading group.

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6 thoughts on “Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring (1940)

  1. Pingback: The Houses in Between by Howard Spring (1951) | Reading 1900-1950

  2. It sounds really worth reading. I’d often seen the novel referred to, with the suggestion that the principal character was based on the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald. In his biography of MacDonald, David Marquand wrote that the politician appeared ‘thinly disguised, as the opportunistic hero of Howard Spring’s novel Fame is the Spur’. The parallels aren’t exact: MacDonald hailed from Lossiemouth, not Manchester; he worked as a pupil-teacher, activist, and later journalist, rather than running off to sea. And MacDonald was no supporter of the war effort in 1914: along with a number of other socialist politicians he opposed the war, and suffered for it at the 1918 general election, losing his seat.
    However there are some clear overlaps: MacDonald was illegitimate; he was hardly ever referred to by his first name (James); his wife – though not exactly rich – did have a private income, and MacDonald spent rather too much time later in his career hanging out with wealthy aristocrats (too much time for a Labour politician, anyway). Above all, MacDonald was judged to have abandoned his ideals for political opportunism and personal ambition: his decision to lead the National government into the 1931 general election is remembered as one of the great betrayals within the Labour party.
    As George comments, it’s interesting to think about the political background against which Spring was writing this story about the betrayal of Labour’s ideals. And just as intriguing that the film version came out during the Attlee government, in 1947 – by which point the long-term prospects of Labour looked rather different. I found one of the posters for the film on a blog site, the image showing our flawed hero brandishing that talismanic sabre:
    http://evanwinchester.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/jeffrey-richards-and-anthony-aldgate-lest-we-forget-fame-is-the-spur-british-cinema-and-society-1983/.

  3. Having enjoyed the book, I searched out a copy of the 1947 film, directed by Roy Boulting and starring Michael Redgrave. It was a disappointment.
    Compressing so long a novel into a film is bound to be difficult, but Nigel Balchin’s script for this one cuts out many of the most interesting aspects of the original. In the film Hamer is not illegitimate, and there is no trace of the story of his mother’s being taken in by a kindly Methodist preacher. In fact, Methodism, as important to the book as it was to the origins of the labour movement, is completely missing from the film. The Old Warrior is now Hamer’s actual grandfather, not his adopted one. A powerful theme of the book is the poor helping the poor, and this is greatly reduced by the film, which makes Hamer’s early life just a conventional family story.
    The novel uses the rather filmic device of flash-forwards, which cast the dramatic scenes of Hamer’s rise in an ironic perspective. Balchin’s script rejects this idea, and the narrative just plods on conventionally.
    The stripping back of the narrative to fit a limited time-frame exposes weaknesses in Spring’s original; Hamer’s move away from radicalism is never very clearly explained in the book; here it becomes very puzzling. We get no idea of why, for example, he does not sympathise at all with his suffragette wife, apart from prejudice.
    Many of the subsidiary characters who enliven the book in a Dickensian sort of way are missing. The most crucial loss is Pen Ryerson, a terrific figure of courage and integrity in the book; here she is just a name. The younger generation is also missing, which removes the element of hope that was present in the book’s ending. Now it just finishes with Hamer’s decline and disappointment; the overall effect is rather miserable. No wonder the 1947 audiences stayed away.
    On the plus side, Redgrave gives a distinguished performance, and Bernard Miles and Hugh Burden are convincing as Tom and Arnold. The scene of forcible feeding in prison is effectively done – though once again the impact of the book is greater.

    • Thanks for this, George. It does indeed sound disappointing, but it is always interesting to see what film makers choose to focus on in an adaptation, for the film can never replicate a novel.

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