The year 1926 and the National Strike brought traumatic experiences for many people and it was then that I became deeply involved in politics as an individual. But when I reflect precisely how this came about I realize that it was strangely connected with some apparently purely domestic incidents in the previous year. These were the acquaintance we struck up with two Norwegian ladies in the spring and the birth of our first child, Peter, in June 1925. At first we had taken the Norwegian ladies for mother and daughter, but it was not so. The elder was Marie Kleppe, who had some sort of a domestic post in Oxford, and the younger was Ilrid Holdö, a girl about twenty who was in Marie’s charge, being in England for most of that year to perfect her English. Her father was a liberal member of the Norwegian parliament, the Storthing, and she was well-educated in Norwegian and English literature and eager to learn everything she could about English life. She was, I think, the first really well-educated young person we had ever been in contact with, and whilst we tried to give her every help we could, we actually learned far more from her than she from us. Our baby was
They also brought books and the following Christmas, when Ilrid was back in Norway, there came more books. These were English translations of works by Ibsen, Bjornson, Hamsun and Lagerlof. They were books of a kind which, apart from such a chance, we should not have come upon nor read. They made a mark upon me, but I never realized what it was until I came to ruminate upon it many years afterwards. At that time I was confining my reading to such established classics as Dickens, Thackeray, Sterne, Fielding, Macaulay and Ruskin, so as to avoid wasting my time on things more contemporary, since I did not know how to sort the good from the ephemeral rubbish. I had not yet realized the connection between literature and life. It was Ibsen who broke through to me—and strangely it was not his later plays, which explicitly address themselves to social questions. These were not the books which Ilrid sent us or directed our attention to. It was Ibsen’s poetic plays, Peer Gynt and Brand, which most impressed me.
These had to do with the individual: What drives his action within the external world? What makes him tick? What does he think he is about, and what is it that is really worth doing? At this time I was participating in affairs in a rather passive and uncommitted kind of way, supporting this lead or opposing that, but deferring to the louder voices who seemed to have more knowledge—and therefore more confidence—than I had. The study of Peer Gynt created a sense of uneasiness and of the need to become more sure of where I stood.
Another of Ilrid’s books was Bjornson’s novel Synnove Solbakken, impressive in a very different way from Ibsen’s writings. This stays in my mind still as the most perfect novel of idyllic rural simplicity that I have ever read: a lyrical picture of peasant Norway before urban development had begun to undermine it. I recognized in it an idealization of all that I had felt good in my own early childhood at grandma’s. These things had been relics, mere surviving echoes of a similar country life there had once been here. But with us it had been gone for centuries, whereas it had passed in Norway only a generation or so ago. I warmed to Bjornson’s picture, but with a sharp consciousness that it had now nothing to do with the world I lived in. This was the kind of inwardness, these were the ways in which I was thinking in that winter of 1925 and 1926.
When the annual meeting of our branch of the union—the Railway Clerks’ Association—took place that winter, the chairman’s office was vacant because of the retirement of an old stalwart. I was asked if I would stand, and in my earlier frame of mind I would have deferred on the ground that it required a more experienced member than I. But I agreed and was elected. For some time now there had been a left/right split in the branch, and as I did not indulge in personal attacks on either side I was on friendly terms with both wings. This was not a tactic on my
The course of events had been that up to 1921 there had been post-war inflation, during which working men generally had made some gains. Then there had been deflation, deliberately created to increase the competitive position of British exports. For many, including railwaymen like myself, there had been ‘fodder-basis’ reductions supposedly related to the cost of living. But these were now regarded as insufficient by the companies. The three best organized bodies of trade-unionists in transport and the mines had been putting up resistance, and in 1925 had been brought to the very brink of a three-union strike. The government had bought time by a subsidy, and during the next nine months had built up its Organization for the Maintenance of Supplies (oms). The General Council of the Trade Union Congress was then quite new, and the feeling grew that resistance should not be left purely to the three big unions. Everyone knew that some sort of a showdown was coming, and it was a common topic of conversation in work-places for months.
There was, of course, a ‘Left’ in the unions which knew that it was a minority, and had indeed formed the Minority Movement in 1924. This was warning the workers that the leaders showing militancy were unreliable and needed to be watched. Within the Minority were a few communists, who confined themselves to demanding the resignation of the Baldwin government and its replacement by a Labour one. In our own branch of 400 members there was no communist. There were four or five Minority members, one of whom had been a communist in 1920 but had left the party two years later.