John Sommerfield (1908-1991) was born and raised off the Portobello Road in Notting Hill, West London, and despite being considered highly-intelligent and having the chance to further his formal education, he left school at the age of fifteen to work as a newspaper-runner, carpenter and merchant seaman. His experiences and a willingness to challenge authority would go on to power his later writing.
His first novel, They Die Young, was published in 1930, and drew on his time at sea, and this was followed by a non-fiction work, Behind The Scenes, dealing with stage carpentry. Being hard-up at the time, he took a fee rather than a royalty for this second book, something he later regretted, as it went on to sell in numbers.
Moving to the World’s End area of Chelsea, he experienced spells of unemployment and joined the Communist Party, his writing appearing in Left Review, New Writing and The Daily Worker, where he had a column. He was active within the party, talking at meetings and taking part in marches, some of which turned violent as communists, fascists and the police confronted each other. In one such disturbance he had his front teeth knocked out.
He was by nature a sociable man, an optimist with a great sense of humour, someone who liked a drink and engaging with people, his interests ranging from politics and literature to butterflies and birds. He was a familiar face in the Fitzroy Tavern and a contemporary of Gerald Kersh and James Curtis, and was most likely also on speaking terms with George Orwell who also used the pub. Well-known around the drinking dens of Soho and the West End, The French House and The Pillars Of Hercules were two other venues Sommerfield used on a regular basis.
His second novel, May Day, was published in 1936, and while the book is experimental in form and openly political, it is also a vibrant and fluent read, concerned as it with with human beings rather than party dogma. He may have believed in Communism at the time, but it was as a collection of individuals rather than an obedient mass. He left the party in the 1950s. His stated aim as an author was to write straightforward, understandable literature that could be read and appreciated by ordinary people, and despite the large number of characters he employs and the unusual structure of the book, he achieves his ambition. Sommerfield was an optimist, and this is another quality that shines through in the novel.
Shortly after May Day appeared, he went off to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, serving in a machine-gun unit and losing his friend and fellow writer John Cornford to the conflict. On his return to England, Sommerfield found that he had been reported dead, his obituary appearing in two newspapers. Volunteer In Spain appeared in 1937 and was dedicated to Cornford, but he felt that he had been rushed in writing it, despite mainly positive coverage. He followed this with the more localised Trouble In Porter Street in 1938.
During the Second World War he served as an armour-fitter for a Spitfire squadron, based first in Burma and then India, and while stationed near Karachi taught himself Urdu. An incident occurred at this time which shows the impact books such as May Day had achieved. As a corporal and Communist, Sommerfield was chosen by the other men to complaint about the food they were being served. The officer he went to see listened and then walked over to a filing cabinet, pulling out a file and dropping it on the desk in front of him. Sommerfield was ‘known to the authorities’.
He kept writing for John Lehmann’s New Writing during the war, and a new book, The Survivors, appeared in 1947. A collection of short stories that drew on his time in the RAF, it was followed by more novels in the post-War years – The Adversaries, The Inheritance, North West Five and The Imprinted, while May Day was republished in 1984. He also wrote for the Mass Observation movement, the Ministry of Information’s film unit and for various advertising companies.
John Sommerfield was married twice during his life – first to Stella, with who he had a son, Peter, and later to Molly Moss, an illustrator who designed several of his book covers. He lived in around Kentish Town and Hampstead until his death in 1991, and with Molly was a regular visitor to the West End and the Soho pubs he had first used in the 1930s. He remained an optimist, and this is one of the many qualities than shine through in the literature he left behind.