Book Review

May Day by John Sommerfield

May Day by John Sommerfield

When interviewed by Mark Thwaite for ReadySteadyBook, I named May Day as the book I would most like to have written, without having included it among my favourites. Mark has suggested I might care to explain myself.

In his introduction to the paperback edition of May Day brought out by Lawrence & Wishart in 1984, Andy Croft gives us some background information about John Sommerfield. We learn that in 1936 he returned from Madrid, where he had been fighting with the XIth International Brigade, to find obituaries for himself in both The Daily Worker and The Times. Clearly he was in those days a well-known figure both within the Communist movement and beyond it, the latter presumably on account of his achievements as a writer. May Day, his second novel, had been published earlier in 1936 - which means it must have been completed some time in 1935, the odd references to Spain probably being added at the last minute to avoid its seeming already out of date. It is a book which makes no bones about its purpose as a weapon in the class struggle.

The action covers three days of an unspecified year. The plot, as such, could not be simpler. The Party attempts to persuade the workers to down tools and attend a mass rally on May Day - a matter of symbolic importance at a time when the Labour movement was content to march on the nearest Sunday - and it succeeds. If that strikes you as a recipe for boredom, I can only say that, having decided I ought to refresh my memory of the book before writing this piece, I found myself unable to resist re-reading it from cover to cover. Stylistically Sommerfield has taken on an astonishing challenge: to tell his story through a panorama of interdependent characters - more than 90 by Andy Croft's count - comprising capitalists and carpenters, actors and merchant seamen, prostitutes and aristocrats, print workers and women in maternity wards. Links between episodes are contrived in a manner which acknowledges the artifice. But there are more subtle connections, accomplished by repetition of words, which may at first appear as felicitous errors - or even, should we be ill-disposed, infelicitous errors - but which soon reveal themselves as a deliberate plotting of parallels between, for example, two people's experiences of getting out of bed or two people's nostalgia for the countryside. Conversely, the surface of some longer episodes is broken up by an occasional switch to the present tense and back again: a device which in most hands does not work well, but does in Sommerfield's because it forms part of a consistent strategy. Cliché, likewise, is not avoided where it can serve to imply general social endorsement of a perception or a thought.

In some ways the book is reminiscent of the 'rhythm-of-a-city' films - Ruttmann, Vigo, Dziga-Vertov - which enjoyed a vogue in the 1920s, or, with its fragments of business correspondence emerging from a cacophony of typewriters, of the sound montages of Song of Ceylon. Such things were in the blood. Every so often, we pull back from detail to view the city as one, vastly complex organism. Rivers of humanity flow from factory gates; ships' engines throb on the distant estuary; packed Tube trains worm through the clay; May buds burst into blossom. There are even a few paragraphs devoted to the activities of a weather front passing over London. But more remarkable than such bravura muscle-flexing is, at the opposite end of the scale, Sommerfield's power of imaginative engagement. He enters into the subjectivities of the most diverse of characters - not excluding a baby and a dog. His bosses and foremen are human beings, not caricatures. Only a rich women's bridge party seems to defeat his empathy altogether. Otherwise, anyone who cycles or stumbles across the page for no more than a sentence or two is credited with attitudes, preoccupations, needs.

In today's parlance May Day might well be designated a London novel in the company of Moorcock and Sinclair. But the wild contrasts of scale and perspective are not arbitrary. They derive directly from Sommerfield's take on Marxism: crowds are made up of individuals; and everyone's choices count. Of a canteen full of factory girls he says: 'Beyond their own individuality there was their individuality as a mass...' And a few pages later we find: 'Only in those invisible spiderweb lines in time and space that mesh lives with material objects is there change. It is the shape of these patterns that fashions and records history.' Even his sweeps of montage are seldom bland. A passing reference to men asleep in prison cells has: 'Their lives were wasting away, rusting in the stream of time, corroding like the machines in disused factories.' There is a mind at play in every clause and sub-clause. It is worth noting, too, that Sommerfield has the skill to turn structure to dramatic effect, as when he releases a veritable flood of fresh characters about two thirds of the way through, just when we expect the story to begin narrowing towards its climax. Yet for all its air of drawing on a lifetime's knowledge of the world, we are occasionally reminded that May Day is a young man's novel. It is a young man's novel in the sense in which The Battleship Potemkin is a young man's film. Both are the work of people sure of what they think important. I am reminded of those three 13-year-old schoolgirls who, with complete confidence and enviable articulacy, addressed a crowd of half a million at one of the demonstrations against the Iraq war.

I dare say some of our present virtuoso writers could match Sommerfield's encyclopaedic reach in displaying all facets of society. But would we quite believe their accounts; or, more to the point, would we feel it mattered whether we believed them or not? Let me put this another way. In the mid-'80s I began work towards a television adaptation of May Day in which readings by four actors, two men and two women, would be set against newsreel and documentary imagery from the period. I reluctantly abandoned the project when it became obvious that it would take a huge amount of expensive picture research even to determine whether the thing was practicable, whether sufficient imagery to match the specifics of the narrative could be found. (You cannot pitch an idea to a TV executive with the proviso, 'I'm not at all sure whether this can actually be made to work.') But what is significant is that I had felt it essential to use not reconstruction but actual visuals from the time - with all their connotations of authenticity. Something in the nature of the text demanded it. My own small moment of closure came when, in a cluster of 1930s documentaries generously loaned to me free of charge by Stanley Forman and his now defunct ETV, I came across a shot of a man in a cloth cap chalking on a pavement the slogan: ALL OUT ON MAY DAY.

Sommerfield himself contributed a foreword to the 1984 edition. Other than that, I have found no reference to anything written by him later than 1978. As he was born in 1908, it is possible that he is still alive. Otherwise it looks as if he may, unjustly, have had to make do with those two premature obits

(Dai Vaughan is the author of Moritur, Germs, The Cloud Chamber and Totes Meer.)

-- Reviewed by Dai Vaughan on 25/11/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0853156107
ISBN-13: 9780853156109
Publisher: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd
Publication Date: 01/09/1984
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 264

Readers Comments

Leave a Comment

If you have not posted a comment on RSB before, it will need to be approved by the Managing Editor. Once you have an approved comment, you are safe to post further comments. We have also introduced a captcha code to prevent spam.




Enter the code shown here:   [captcha]

Note: If you cannot read the numbers in the above image, reload the page to generate a new one.