Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here).
Be warned: this book’s title doesn’t describe its contents. This is nothing like a full autobiography, but is a collection of Spring’s three volumes of pleasant discursive memoirs, which ramble from topic to topic, without overmuch regard for chronological order or completeness. Interesting subjects – life in the Manchester Guardian newsroom in the teens and twenties, and Spring’s experience as a clerk in the department of intelligence at Field-Marshal Haig’s GHQ during the Great War, are touched on in ways that leave one wanting more. The only actual glimpse of Haig is of him riding ‘one with his horse like a centaur, a posse of lancers behind him, with their pennons undulant and whickering in the air, towards his château outside the town.’ (146) I’d like to know much more.
The portrait of C.P.Scott, the great editor of the Manchester Guardian, is fuller, but not sympathetic; Spring presents him as a man possessed by love of humanity, but without kind feelings for his fellow men (and he was grudging in his praise for Spring’s contributions to the paper).
The first volume of memoirs is mostly about childhood in working-class Cardiff. After the death of Spring’s father (a rather unpractical jobbing gardener) his mother supported the family by taking in washing. Spring describes his rudimentary schooling – he left at twelve in order to earn money – and the determination with which he and his brother educated themselves after school; Everyman’s Library and evening classes played a major part in this. Chance got him a job in a newspaper office, and he gradually worked his way up to becoming a reporter. This first volume is the best of the three; there is a most coherent attempt to tell the story of his early life, and the depiction of life in working-class Cardiff is engrossing, and often picturesque. One spots details that later turned up, fictionalised, in Fame is the Spur..
The second volume, In the Meantime, was written during the Second World War, when a partial writer’s block prevented Spring from writing fiction. He produced instead this chatty and discursive book which rambles over his past, in no particular order.
We learn something of his career. He got a job on the Manchester Guardian in 1915, but almost immediately went off to war; because he had taught himself shorthand and typing, he was put in the Army Service Corps as a clerk, and spent most of his time at Haig’s GHQ. His War was one of ‘dullness without danger; an occasional heightening of excitement at second hand’ (147). He gives glimpses of some notables, including John Buchan, and has a good paragraph defending staff officers from the slurs often cast on their reputation (132), but most subjects are rather tantalisingly underdeveloped.
There are glimpses of his personal life. He was engaged to a young woman, then visited an office, and as soon as he saw the secretary there, knew that she was the girl he would marry – and he married her. It’s a good anecdote, told twice in the three volumes, like several other stories, but we learn little more about the marriage. He lets us know that at one time he had a drink problem, but we don’t discover how much of a problem it was, or how it affected his life.
He became a novelist in the thirties; a children’s book in 1932, then Shabby Tiger in 1934. He is interesting on the way that this book grew organically, improvised from a first sentence. Fame came in 1938 with Oh Absalom! (later called My Son, My Son, to avoid confusion with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (1936)). There is good stuff on the finances of novel-publication, and how it was only when he had written a best-seller that he could give up journalism (213-6)
The third volume And Another Thing… is even more discursive, and frankly disjointed. If it has a thread it is Spring’s religious feelings. Some of the material in the first book, such as his attendance at a Plymouth Brethren Sunday School, is treated again, in a similar way. There are long digressions on religious topics, especially the Christian attitude to war (in which he comes close to pacifism).
In the culture wars of the period, he is firmly on the side of the middlebrow, insofar as that means attachment to a traditional, humane and accessible kind of literature. He praises Georgian Poetry (which had published some of his own verse) and is critical of modernists, especially Eliot and Auden ‘No poetry is “successful” today except poetry which is successful with a coterie [….] Communication has somehow failed between the poets and the people.’ (153-4) Middlebrow does not mean second-rate, however; here, as in Fame is the Spur, Spring shows a working-class man leaving school at twelve and educating himself with the classics (while also reading boys’ papers like the Gem and the Magnet).
It is a sign of Spring’s reputation and popularity that these rather slight and poorly organised volumes could be published (and then be reprinted together in 1972). The second and third volumes, written during the Second World War, show a man struggling to make sense of life. In the third especially he seems to be writing for himself, to sort out his own tangled thoughts about war and religion.
The original publications are:
Heaven Lies About Us (London: Constable, 1939)
In the Meantime (London: Constable, 1942)
And Another Thing (London: Constable, 1946)