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May Day by John Sommerfield

The country is in turmoil – the people are angry at the excesses and corruption of the ruling class; workers are told to increase production for less pay; bosses meet to discuss ways of increasing their profit margins; unions mobilise the masses; a march takes place; police clash with demonstrators and a man is killed on the streets of London. This could well be a snapshot of Britain in the 21st Century, but it is also an outline of some of the events driving May Day, a novel first published in 1936.

Taking place over a three-day period leading up to and including the worker’s holiday of May 1st, sometime during the 1930s, on one level May Day is a political novel, but more than that it is a book about people. The political is made very personal as an unusually large number of characters fill the pages, some returning again and again, others glimpsed only once, but each appearance moves the book forward as individual stories link and build layers, ultimately creating a unique sort of narrative. There is no main character in May Day, no single voice dominating the book, and this unusual and highly-experimental approach could easily have failed, yet author John Sommerfield pulls it off. May Day is a fluent and exciting read.

The book begins with a description of a sleeping London before showing the early-morning arrival of James Seton, a returning seaman and Communist who we assume has spent time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. From James we are taken into a nearby factory where his brother John is employed as a carpenter, and from Langfier’s Carbon Works the story spirals out through the dockyards and East End before finding the bosses in Central London and John’s wife buying fruit and veg on the Portobello Road.

We quickly learn that the busmen are planning to strike, and will be airing their grievances on the May Day march into the West End. Rebellion is in the air. The workers and bosses are both waiting to see what happens next, along with James’s fellow Communist and friend Pat Morgan, a sub-editor on a large Fleet Street newspaper. This feeling of revolt feeds into the Langfier’s workforce and helps spark the simmering anger of its young, mainly female workforce. The company has demanded a ‘speed-up’, and as the girls are on piecework rather than proper wages more and more accidents are occurring. The slogan ‘All Out On May Day’ is painted on walls and printed on leaflets. The tension builds.

John Sommerfield was a politically active man and in May Day he captures a time when it wasn’t just party activists and intellectuals flirting with Communism. Millions of working-class people, up and down the country, were demanding change and prepared to make sacrifices to achieve a better way of life. Being a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s was very different to being one in the post-war years, when the gulags and Stalin’s terrors became common knowledge.

Sommerfield, while obviously sympathetic to the workers’ cause, avoids taking a one-sided approach and considers the lot of those in control. On the surface they might seem to have it all, but he reveals emptiness and regret, particularly with regards the Langfier family. There is an ongoing conflict between the paternalistic Langfiers and the faceless corporation that has bought into, and is effectively running, the Carbon Works. The reader can’t help liking and pitying the Langfiers. Everyone is an individual and deserves a chance.

This even-handedness doesn’t detract from the general stance of the novel. If anything, it reinforces the book’s politics. Everyone is searching for love, irrespective of their background and sex, but it is John and Martine who have found it, despite their relative poverty. The Langfiers, meanwhile, are lonely and unfulfilled. The dignity of labour is emphasised. A fairer society will benefit everyone.

Other elements of the ruling class appear in a less sympathetic light, especially those corrupt individuals involved in business, government and the media. Sommerfield also looks at a range of people involved in the trade-union and Communist movements, from grassroots workers to one particular leader who is looking to appease the bosses and so maintain his own benefits. He had become comfortable and is clearly enjoying his wealth and power too much. People are people. The mass of workers in the middle are largely unpolitical in a party sense, but they know the score, on the one hand worrying about the revenge that will come their way if they strike and lose, on the other seeing what is going to happen if they don’t make a stand.

London is always present in her factories and terraces, docks and river, grand parks and mansions, street markets and salons. As one reviewer put in back in 1936, Sommerfield ‘gives us the true London – smelt, seen, understood.’ Nature pushes through the cracks of the city. Trees blossom as spring arrives. May Day offers fresh hope and a new start. The march proceeds and events quickly escalate, tragedy striking as the book reaches its dramatic conclusion. The common people fill the streets, flowing out of the East End and only stopping when they reach Marble Arch. A body is carried beneath a raised flag. Everyone agrees that a change is needed.

John Sommerfield would later describe May Day as more like ‘Communist romanticism’ than ‘social realism’, but he was being modest. There is plenty of realism in with the romanticism, but the book stands out for the vitality of its prose and the originality of its storytelling. He also recalled the great idealism that was around when he wrote the book, along with his own naivety. But there is nothing wrong with being idealistic. May Day might have been written in 1936, but the ideas expressed in the novel hold firm today. And surely it’s better to be naive than cynical. May Day is as relevant now as when it was first published. Everything changes, nothing changes.