The revolution will be minuted

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Left Book Club, whose books looked like this:


It would be easy to look on the 1920s and 30s as a golden era of middlebrow literature. The novels of Arnold Bennett, Frank Swinnerton, Horace Walpole and L.A.G. Strong all forming part of a big metaphorical lens through which to view these two decades. Being the easy thing I would normally recommend strongly that we all look through that lens and not think too deeply about Stephen Spender’s study of modern literature The Destructive Element published in 1935 (he was twenty six when he wrote it – I read it when I was fifty and felt I was in the company of a giant).

Auden, sitting in a bar on Fifty-second Street in New York, called the 1930s a low dishonest decade. But in the redraft of the poem that he never did, I feel sure he would have included the 1920s too. Characterised by a failure of political leadership and a feeling shared by many people in Europe and  America that maybe the Jews had it coming, the inter-war years were just that, a brief pause in the slaughter. Apart from driving ambulances in Civil War Spain or taking on Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the East End of London, what else could a person do to show that modern democracy was not moribund?

If you were Victor Gollancz, owner of the publishing firm that he founded and gave his name to, you set up the Left Book Club. Like many of the writers mentioned above (and the majority of those not mentioned), it has largely been forgotten. But from its foundation in 1936 until the opening years of the war, it was incredibly popular. The idea was simple. For two shillings and sixpence, you received each month a book on a political theme. Gollancz’s idea was to help create a politically literate class that would put pressure on the British government to participate in a Popular Front against fascism. The 9,000 members who had joined by the end of the second month agreed and added the extra component of setting up discussion groups in which to debate the issues raised in the books they read.

Announcing Left Book Club meetings could be a problem. The Hull Daily Mail of October the 17th, 1937 reported that it took a motion by Councillor Wray to allow the local Left Book Club to display its meeting cards in the public libraries. The Popular Front had to be explained. At the Nottingham branch of the Left Book Club, and as reported by the Nottinghan Evening Post in October 1936, Mr. R. Bishop, who had travelled from London, used the example of the divisions in the German working class and how they were exploited by the Nazis in their rise to power to argue for the creation of a Popular Front which, having defeated Hitler, could focus its energies on creating Socialism. There were, of course, those that opposed it. J. Baker White of the right wing Economic  League wrote to The Hull Daily Mail in April 1937 accusing it of being a “..vehicle for Communist propaganda.”  There was even a Right Book Club. But books continued to be ordered in their thousands and discussed. At Uglow’s Cafe in Plymouth Mr. John Foot led the discussion on Stephen Spender’s latest book Forward from Liberalism. As reported in The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette of March the 20th, 1937, Mr. Foot argued that the objective of mankind was happiness allied to liberty. My mother remembers her father and his friends, like him miners or ex-miners, discussing that month’s book.

The Left Book Club was, however, overwhelmingly middle class. Seventy five percent of its members, who at the club’s peak in 1939 numbered 57,000, worked in white collar jobs. Members of the working class, on the whole, did not come along to the club’s discussion groups or attend its sell-out rally in the Albert Hall in the summer of 1937. If Stephen Spender had wanted to share his ideas with the working classes, he would have been as well as to go along to the nearest Gaumont cinema and buy a ticket for the next showing of the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup because that’s where he would have found them (the British working classes were notorious for their hatred of  the quota quickies, films the American studios were legally obliged to make in Britain so as to be able to show movies made in Hollywood; the quota quickies had titles such as To Brighton with Gladys and Oh No, Doctor! and had actors who pronounced bath as baaath.) I’d have been as keen as the next person to see fascism defeated, but if it came down to it, and I had to decide between that Friday night lecture on Stalin’s socialist paradise and the late showing of After the Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, I’d have gone with American wisecracks, the drinking of cocktails on an industrial scale and pretty nifty gun play from Mr. Powell.

In my beginning is my end. I began this post with a dismissal of the middlebrow, domain of the middle classes, and here they are again at the end. Perhaps by being on the left they would not have read Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form It, although they did want to be appear intellectual and well-read. But they shared that defining middle class tenet that tomorrow would be better than today.

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  1. There was not only a Right Book Club, which was founded by Foyle’s as a reaction to the Left Book Club in 1937, but also a Socialist Book Club (‘the batty book club’) founded by Christina Foyle’s husband as an undermining technique against the Left Book Club, and a National Book Association funded by the Conservative Party. There was also the Labour Book Service, the Peace Book Club and the Liberal Book Club. Whoever would have thought that reading politics was held to be so important?

    • I don’t think my mum and dad saw any great difference between what they read in the 1940s and 50s and the world of politics. It was all part and parcel of making the world a better place and not returning to the moral failure of the 1930s. Perhaps it was the economic upturn of the 1950s that sounded the death knell for this kind of political literature.


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