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A Lark for the Sake of Their CountryThe 1926 General Strike Volunteers in Folklore and Memory$

Rachelle Saltzman

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780719079771

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719079771.001.0001

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From ethos to mythos: the General Strike and Britishness

From ethos to mythos: the General Strike and Britishness

(p.170) 8 From ethos to mythos: the General Strike and Britishness
A Lark for the Sake of Their Country

Rachelle Hope Saltzman

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

‘From Ethos to Mythos: the General Strike and Britishness’ surveys and analyzes the ways that different interest groups have selectively reproduced the story of the 1926 General Strike as a historical and metaphorical symbol. As a cultural product, the strike served and serves to validate the various political perspectives of former volunteers, Marxist historians, amateur historians, the Labour Party, and the Trades Union Congress, as well as museum curators, novelists, playwrights, educators, and restauranteurs. This chapter shows how one event in a nation's history can transform a multi-vocal cultural symbol into a national metaphor, making it available and relevant for present-day pundits, scholars, politicians, educators, and business people to use for redefining British character.

Keywords:   General Strike, Britishness, Ethos, Symbol, Labour Party, Trades Union Congress, Metaphor, Museum, Novelists, Historians

Of course everyone is entitled to his or her viewpoint and recollections … So many books dealing with history make mistakes – punctiliousness as I have inferred is essential for credulity. Hence my views on what you term ‘folklore’. (Spencer, Letter, 1986b)

… in five years time, we shall be writing our novels of the Great Strike. (Herlots, 1926: 133)

Contrary to most legends the British have been every bit as vigorous as the Continentals at taking their protests to the streets. We had no sans-culottes, but we had Chartists and Luddites and Glasgow Weavers and Conchies and General Strikers. (James Cameron, 1986: 17) [Radio Times review of the BBC2 documentary Stand Up and Be Counted, about the history of British public protest]

Immediately after the end of the General Strike the forces of historical reproduction went into action. Reporters, playwrights, diarists, legal authorities, historians, and others did not merely repeat what others before them had said. They recorded their own versions of the strike – and their images of the volunteers – and they have continued to do so ever since.

Certain iconic images predominate in those accounts. Thus, it was no accident that so many of the people with whom I spoke and corresponded, when queried about the volunteers and the strike, recalled particular anecdotes and referenced specific activities. They remembered the undergraduate train driver's arriving early at the station, the football match between strikers and police, polite and enthusiastic undergraduate volunteer in plus fours, Society ladies serving tea, and the old gentleman in a top hat balanced on a penny-farthing bicycle. Their likening the strike and the volunteers' activities to a holiday (Webb, 1956: 92; Cootes, 1983; Wrigley, 1984b: 6), play-acting (Webb, 1956: 94; Vincent, 1974: 2; Perkins, 2006: 207), a lark or a rag (e.g. Isherwood, 1947: 177–8; Mitford, 1960: 20–3; (p.171) Wrigley, 1984b: 6),1 even among the miners (Bruley, 2004: 236–7), further came to symbolize the uniqueness of British character.

As Patrick Renshaw put it, ‘The General Strike of May, 1926, like Peterloo and Tolpuddle, has passed into the folklore of the nation’ (1975b: n.p.; see also Renshaw, 1975a: 19). His use of the older, hyphenated punctuation relegated the strike as ‘folklore’2 to the realm of Child ballads and mummers' plays – fragments of a long-gone past, a relic that had survived because it carried some sort of spiritual ‘ur’ Britishness to inspire those who hearkened to its message. The General Strike became part of a dystopic golden age – a failed revolution because strikers forgot how to strike.

Historical reproduction and the General Strike

With the exception of the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution the 1926 General Strike may well be the most written about and reimagined event in British history. Most scholarly studies detail how the strike reified the transition of government, organized labour, and big business from a paternalistic style of obligatory reciprocity to a more modern, rationalist, and reformist model (Vincent, 1974; Middlemas, 1979; Perkins, 2006). Several observe, as I have done, the apparent media dialogue in which the two sides engaged (e.g. Martin, 1926: 69–95; Mason, 1969), as well as the distortions, claims to a prerogative on peace and order, and accusations against the other for causing harm to the nation (Archard et al., 1972). A great many, notably those clearly on the left, have focused on the General Council's and others' betrayal of both the miners and the rank and file who came out solidly in support of their fellow union members (Farman, 1974; Renshaw, 1975a and 1975b; Morris, 1976; Skelley, 1976; McIlroy et al., 2006). And a few have noted that the British world was temporarily turned upside down during the General Strike, thus causing people to act with more than their notorious British sense of humour. Not incidentally, some note, this response enabled amateurs to take charge and come through (e.g. Isherwood, 1947: 176–80; Symons, 1957; Archard et al., 1972; Vincent, 1974; Cootes, 1983).

But neither those authors nor others in recent times have written extensively about the volunteers, largely because rights to the General Strike seem to have been implicitly ceded to various aspects of the left, most of whom have come to accept that ‘the volunteers have been better served’ by historians and that such people ‘were not required to show initiative but just to carry out the tasks assigned to them’ (Morris, 1976: 12). A mere survey of the literature of the time contradicts the former contention,3 and evidence in the preceding pages dispels the latter. But this debate was less about the validity of individuals' accounts as evidence than it was about entitlement, about who had the ‘right’ to tell General Strike stories (Halbwachs, 1992: 63; (p.172) Shuman, 2005: 18). As Chris Wrigley has noted, ‘those studying the General Strike have usually paid more attention to the strikers than to the government's volunteers. Some left wing historians have dismissed them as “blacklegs” – without really examining just who they were’ (Wrigley, 1984a: 36–7). Such scholars were far more interested in explaining why the strike did not succeed and/or how unified and politically conscious were local rank and file than with investigating the conflict as a whole along with all of its players, a perspective just as crucial to understanding how strikes and revolutions fail.

In this chapter, I do refer to the strike itself from the perspective of strikers and leftist historians. Some have regarded the event as a watershed for labour, as evidence of a surprising working-class solidarity (even among women), and/or as the betrayal of the common man's cause by the TUC General Council's co-opted and reformist (not revolutionary) leaders.4 But such issues are not my main focus; many have covered this territory extensively and exhaustively (Laybourn, 1993; McIlroy, 2006).5 I do make mention of such interpretations, however, when they have a bearing on how and why such authors portrayed the volunteers as they did.

Those historical analyses of the strike and the volunteers are one sort of historical reproduction, akin to but somewhat different from fictional portrayals. Material from my interviews conducted in 1985–87 is included with contemporary material (vernacular representations of the strike) in previous chapters because, in most cases, such accounts were neither as self-consciously produced or motivated as those diaries, memoirs, plays, poems, and novels, which their authors sought to publish once the strike was over. Nor had most of those I contacted, or who contacted me, written or talked about the event since 1926. Contemporary published accounts and written records made for private purposes must be regarded in the same vein; there was a qualitative and functional difference between what people wrote or said to their families or to me as another individual and what they produced when they had an unknown and/or consumer audience in mind (Thompson, 1994: 9). For instance, I used Lady Lindsay's remarks to me in previous sections (Lindsay, Interview, 1985) but especially note her published accounts of her volunteer experience in this chapter. Her comments during our interview included rather more contextual discussion, which helped far more to explain the reasons she acted as a volunteer than did her memoirs (Grosvenor, 1961; Lindsay, 1983). And Jack Verdin's remarks (Verdin, Interview, 1986), made once we got to know each other, were far more revealing of his sentiments concerning his ill-treatment by officials than was the lengthy and detailed account that he wrote before we met (Verdin, MS, 1986).

(p.173) The GeneralStrike as public enactment

As it unfolded and in its retelling and reshaping over the years, the General Strike of 1926 resembled a folk drama. As a public enactment that reflected the national ethos (Paredes and Bauman, 1972; Bauman and Abrahams, 1981; Saltzman, 1995) it was not exactly like Peterloo, Tolpuddle, or the Civil War – or even those treasure hunts and fancy dress parties that continue as play traditions among certain groups of people in British society.6 It does, however, share certain qualities with state funerals like that of Princess Diana, festivals, games, wars, rites of passage, and fancy dress parties – patterned forms of social behaviour that reaffirm community, hierarchical social relationships, tradition, and consensus. It provided opportunities to ‘let go’, for strangers to converse, and even for marital matches to be made. Particularly for the intellectual and political left, those features became rhetorically foregrounded and allegorized as the strike became a cultural symbol and eventually part of the national mythology (Crompton, 1988: 127; McIlroy, 2006; Perkins, 2006: 257–69; Pugh, 2006; Aughey, 2007: 49–51). As such it became available to lend new meanings to later events (Bloch, 1977), most particularly labour conflicts with government and business, which occurred on significant anniversaries of the General Strike (McIlroy, 2006), for example the coal strikes of the 1970s and especially the 1980s (Smith, 1984: 11–12; Wilsher, 1984: 18; Harris, 1985; Perkins, 2006; Bruley, 2010), the London newspaper strike of 1986–87 at Wapping, and even with modern ‘Conservative’ manifestations of Britishness such as the Falklands War (Jack, 1986).

For David Benedictus, who wrote the General Strike play What a Way to Run a Revolution,7 the very experience of working on the production hadpolitical value in and of itself. ‘It was a big thing in my life, really … And doing that rather challenging type of a show, it gave me street cred’ (Benedictus, Interview, 2009). In terms of the strike's resonance in the national imagination and the reason for writing the play, he explained:

We then felt it did have a political message which was extremely relevant at the time, because it was when Edward Heath was having his confrontation with the miners in 1973 … And the message of the General Strike for me then and for me today … and this is a clear parallel between then and now, that if the Government took the view that the strike would be a useful way of breaking the power of the unions, that they would have it at the time chosen by the Government. And that in terms of Cook and Scargill [secretary of the NUM and leader of the 1984–85 strike], it was very useful to the Government, to have a figure whom they could regard as a Bolshevik influence – or whatever phrases they cared to use. (Benedictus, Interview, 1986)

In transforming the General Strike into a cultural paradigm, key symbol, and allegory, the actions and parodies of the volunteers in the General Strike (p.174) became oversaturated metaphors.8 For a metaphor to be received as its speaker intends, the audience must have the same understanding of its primary and secondary subjects (Bauman, 1983: 84–94). This was not the case for the acts of strikers or volunteers. The former tried to claim their rightful place and entitlement as integral members of the national community, while the latter were occupied with demonstrating how ideal workers might behave.

Those who reproduced the strike – the historians, cartoonists, playwrights, museum curators, novelists, poets, and educators – took volunteer parodies at face value as play and not as serious social commentary on the upside-down world in which they found themselves. Unless the volunteers' narratives were framed as humour, they were largely excluded from public discourse about the General Strike (Shuman, 2005: 122). Instead, amusing anecdotes took the place of reports on actual events and people – or at least as proof of a traditional, everlasting Wodehousian (Perkins, 2006: 264) or Monty Pythonesque British buffoonery. Most scholars have focused on the frame that university volunteers themselves and much of the contemporary media insisted on imposing around their acts, thus providing the rationale to marginalize and dismiss rather than to examine them as among the central actors in the strike and its resolution. Thus the contemporary meaning of the volunteers' efforts – the metonymic relationship between their ethos and actions, and their own interpretation of that meaning – collapsed into the image of their own burlesque, just as one-liners during the strike came to stand for individual narratives complete with personal details.

To admit the seriousness of their playful efforts would also mean recognizing not only the imbalances produced by the rituals of class division within British society, but also the abuse of the rights and obligations implicit in a hierarchical social contract. As Osbert Sitwell, by no means an apologist for the strike, reflected, ‘to be a porter for a time, or a lorry driver, would be easy, I considered: for a time, but not for a lifetime. Only as a holiday romp did it afford the contrast that might make it seem pleasant … (They would enjoy a battle, after the manner of the pugnacious everywhere, but they wanted still more to talk about it afterwards …)’ (Sitwell, 1948: 230–1). A similarly dismissive attitude exists toward the sort of people who produce such social critiques as Spitting Image, Private Eye,9 or the novel England, England (Barnes, 1999).10

Interpretive models of the strike

Examination of the various scholarly and anniversary publications that reproduced and reinterpreted the volunteers' role in the General Strike reveals the predominance of only a few themes. Virtually every account noted (whether in condemnation or praise) that the Government defeated the strike (p.175) because it was far better organized than the strikers. But in their attempts to explain why, some scholars assumed that both the strike and its failure were inevitable (Postgate et al., 1927; Leeson, 1973; Laybourn, 1993; cf. McIlroy, 2006: 70–3; Perkins, 2006). Most deemed the TUC General Council as – at best – having resigned itself to the inevitable and thus ended the strike (Symons, 1957; Morris, 1976; Jeffery and Hennessy, 1983; Laybourn, 1993 and 1999; Perkins, 2006), or – at worst – having betrayed the cause of miners and all strikers because it feared the success of the monster it had created (Arnot, 1926; Skelley, 1976; Klugman, 1980). Even the Communist party and the Cooperative movement came in for a certain amount of criticism for not properly educating the workers – who were apparently far more conscious and capable of displaying more solidarity than anyone thought possible (Carter, 1974: 25–6; Farman, 1974 and 1976: 9; Trory, 1975: 17; Davies, 1976: 1–12; General Strike 50th Anniversary, 1976; Morris, 1976; Skelley, 1976; Porter, 1978: 352–3; Hills, 1980: 18). Such studies have characterized the volunteers as the incompetent sons and daughters of an outmoded leisure class who, in their ignorance and in the process of fulfilling childhood dreams of playing at trains (Symons, 1957; Farman, 1974; Perkins, 2006), managed to kill people and damage property (Renshaw, 1975a and 1975b; Morris, 1976: 70–3; Watson, 1976: 368–71; Klugman, 1980).

Some of the more left-leaning accounts further insisted that volunteers acted and dressed not only unconsciously but explicitly to demonstrate their class solidarity and defend their privileged interests (Farman, 1974: 240; McLean, 1976: 7–9, 13, 16). This interpretation appeared in strike chronicles published within a year or two of the event (Burns, 1926: 47–51 et passim; Fyfe, 1926: 60–83; Parker, 1926; Postgate et al., 1927: 20–1, 52). In some of the fiftieth anniversary local studies, which were among the more leftist in sympathies, students and society women were not even mentioned. Rather, the right-wing cabinet members responsible for the OMS and local Fascist or Loyalist organizations and activities were cited as representative examples of the ‘volunteers’ and their oppressive tactics (e.g. Trory, 1975; Durr, 1976: 6; Farman, 1976: 9; McLean, 1976: 7–9, 13–16; Newitt, 1976: 2; Hills, 1980: 11; Klugman, 1980: 121, 222). Particularly significant about this shift, besides its production during a time when Labour was in power, was that it made the Fascists, a group whom almost everyone who survived the Second World War regarded as extremist outsiders, the villains in the General Strike drama. By virtue of their not even being named, the students regained membership in the community. Adrian Mellor, Chris Pawling, and Colin Sparks in their essay, ‘Writers and the General Strike’, noted that ‘the proliferation of left-wing journals enabled working-class writers to begin to speak for themselves. Consequently, their perspective on 1926 is often focused through the lens of the 1930s’ (Mellor et al., 1976: 348), and, I would add, the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, (p.176) and 1970s. Thus, this particular model used the theme of conflict with an almost universally agreed ‘other’ to recreate a model of social consensus, not too far removed from that which contemporaries siding with the government attempted in 1926. If those who incited the strikers and who acted as hooligans and revolutionaries could be designated as alien, so, too, could Fascists, fifty years later (Darnton, 1984; Bodnar, 1992; Halbwachs, 1992: 46–51; Tuleja, 1997).

A more sophisticated and wide-ranging argument placed the General Strike in a larger and more far-reaching economic perspective. Scholars who took this view portrayed the General Strike as the watershed for modern labour-industrial conflicts, demonstrating the power and necessity of organization and unity, as well as the uselessness of the old violent methods of labour protests (e.g. Morris, 1976: 13; Middlemas, 1979; Perkins, 2006). Still others argued that while the strike was the most important, significant, or critical event in twentieth-century industrial relations, it was a result of the transition and not the cause of it (Laybourn, 1993: 6, 120; McIlroy, 2006). In other words, the failure of the General Strike was a necessary rite of passage from the old-style confrontations between management and labour, in which neither side attempted to understand the other, to a more rationalized ‘business-like’ approach (Vincent, 1974; Middlemas, 1979; Laybourn, 1993 and 1999a).

In some of its incarnations, this model credited the working classes with the volunteers' victory and thus the necessary defeat of the strikers. While upper-class undergraduates and Society women received most of the publicity, the government's plans for an emergency situation succeeded only because vast numbers of unemployed workers were eager for even a temporary job. It was their skilled knowledge that enabled the successful running of one-tenth of the trains and power stations in Great Britain. Because of their inherently reasonable British demeanour, and that of their fellows who struck peacefully and maintained good order, the General Strike was defeated (Hornsey, 1976; SEARCH Project, 1979; Wrigley, 1982: 2, 6; Crompton, 1988).

An interesting inversion of this inevitability model, and one most often iterated in volunteers' memoirs, favoured the ‘loyal’ ordinary citizens who supported the government. Such accounts claimed that they (often people whom others might label upper class and who describe themselves as middle or at most upper-middle class) and other ordinary citizens of Britain defeated the strike with their determination to carry on. The everyday difficulties created by the strike motivated their actions. In fact, they enjoyed the chance to prove themselves in a crisis, to talk to strangers and even to marry them, to demonstrate their refusal to be bullied into something for which they were not responsible. The majority of British people felt sympathy for the miners and (p.177) little but disdain for mine owners. Yet they also felt that the method of a general strike did not justify its ends, which, even if they were not intentionally revolutionary, was their implication. Thus, those who acted as strike-breakers during the strike and who gave their monies to charities for miners' wives and children during the seven subsequent months the miners were out were also portrayed as having exemplary British qualities: they were compassionate but not willing to be victims themselves (Cartland, 1971: 274; Cogswell, n.d.).

Diaries and memoirs

Published diaries and memoirs as well as in novels written at the time and after presented a more elaborated version of this last model. Some described a uniquely British characteristic in which the holiday-like attitude of the volunteers was meant to be understood as just one more (peculiarly British) way of making the best of a bad situation. This interpretation came closest to the ways volunteers at the time described the strike and themselves, and not surprisingly, since many of the authors were former volunteers (see Bibliography: Biographies and memoirs).

Such a perspective, however, differed from the satirical and sardonic portraits painted in university and Society magazines in that they attempted to explain, rationalize, or otherwise justify why individual volunteers acted as they did. Excuses ranged from not having known what the strike was about, to pleading a youthful desire to have a good time, to outright apologies for having behaved in thoughtless and foolish ways, or to a combination of these reasons along with a continued insistence that patriotism required such action, no matter how callous it may have seemed at the time and to their heirs. Using hindsight to reframe their stories and thus the event itself, those diary and memoir accounts reaffirmed and rationalized the existing ideology (Shuman, 2005: 82–6): in sum, this was how British people behaved and that was that – a sentiment echoed by many of those with whom I was in contact, as well as by written sources (e.g. Balfour, 1933; Mellor et al., 1976; Lindsay, 1983; Perkins, 2006).

Christopher Isherwood's memoir, Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (1947),11 first published in 1938, contains a scathing commentary about the volunteers' role. His account, however, differs somewhat from the rest of the memoirs in that he does not quite align himself with the status quo. Instead, he created a finely crafted send-up of all the pertinent issues concerning the volunteers: larks, rags, a joke, social class, extreme civility, and even war. Describing the start of ‘the tremendous upper-middle-class lark’, Isherwood wrote,

(p.178) by lunchtime, the Poshocrats were down from Oxford and Cambridge in their hundreds – out for all the fun that was going. And the medical students … paraded the streets in their special constables' armlets, licensed to punch at sight. Every bus and underground train was a ragtime family party … If you fussed … you were a spoil-sport, an obstructionist, even a trifle unpatriotic. Not that anybody talked about patriotism – this wasn't 1914. Everything was perfectly all right, really. The strikers were all right – except for a few paid agitators controlled by Moscow, and some gangs of professional roughs. The great mass of the working class entered into the ‘spirit of the thing’. (Isherwood, 1947: 177)

Isherwood continued, tongue-in-cheek, retelling an anecdote about Sandy, a friend who had volunteered as a driver; this particular tale perfectly exemplifies the fool story, in which the volunteer tricks the workers and triumphs. Sandy ended up in a ‘bad’ area, and escaped by shouting ‘with his best accent: “Are there no Scotsmen here?” And at once, a dozen voices had answered him: “Aye, laddie, we’re with ye.” And every day … these compatriots had formed a bodyguard … till he was safely through the district. Such anecdotes … showed the Englishman's heart was in the right place′ (1947: 177–8).

Further along in the passage, Isherwood cut to the quick, likening the strike to a generational rite of passage, comparable to the Great War (note his reference to war poet, Wilfred Owen), in its magnitude – and in its betrayal:

It wasn't that I seriously expected street fighting or civil war. But ‘war’ was in the air … This was a dress rehearsal of ‘The Test’ and it found me totally unprepared … I tried to get on with my novel; instead, I found myself opening Wilfred [Owen]. He, at least, had understood what I was feeling: ‘Waving good-bye, doubtless they'd told the lad….’ But Wilfred hadn't buried his disgust in the cushions of a Kensington drawing-room … isolated above the battle. (Isherwood, 1947: 179–80)

Isherwood's solution to this intellectual dilemma was to do penance: he volunteered to work on a sewage farm. But the strike ended before he was required. An ironic disclaimer, typical of many volunteer narratives, concludes the passage. But Isherwood's condemnation of his class surpassed irony and laid bare the nature of its hegemony: ‘The Poshocracy had won, as it always did win, in a thoroughly gentlemanly manner … so now it was quite prepared magnanimously to pretend that nothing more serious had taken place than, so to speak, a jolly sham fight with pats of butter’ (Isherwood, 1947: 180).

Historian A. J. P. Taylor, who was up at Oxford in 1926, also invoked the Great War in his recollections. ‘No one even among the rowing men had any feeling that the miners were wrong or the government right. But when the general strike started … it was August 1914 all over again [emphasis added]. One of the departing heroes even said to me, ‘I wonder if I shall ever come back again′, quite in the spirit of Rupert Brooke’ (Taylor, 1983: 79).

(p.179) In quite a different spirit, Christ Church (Oxford) alumnus and author Emlyn Williams recalled going off with a group of thirty undergraduates to Hay's Wharf, where after eating, they ‘milled around aimlessly in the gangways, holding mugs of beer while a piano played and the hearties gathered round and swung their jorums to the inevitable Gilbert and Sullivan choruses. Everybody was excited to be playing trams in such a new way [ … ] The cheery come-and-go was stimulating, and at the same time I was a workman doing a foolproof job … I was a potato at peace’ (Williams, 1976: 388–9).

Besides noting their own and their friends' automatic responses, still others commented on the social function such crises served. In his memoir entry for 4 May 1926, photographer Cecil Beaton observed, ‘people felt important for being a part of the general crisis. Apart from the many pedestrians, a stream of unfamiliar traffic moved slowly through the streets. Lorries were piled high with giggling typists; old carts were chock-a-block full of women dangling legs and loving it all. “Such a lark”, they seemed to be saying, “so new, so amusing, so bohemian”’ (Beaton, 1961: 92).

Novelist Graham Greene, then working for The Times, remarked on the implicit class divisions apparent during the strike and the free-for-all atmosphere it called into being:

A few years later my sympathies would have lain with [the strikers], but the great depression was still some years away: the middle class had not yet been educated by the hunger marchers. On the side of the Establishment it was a game, a break in the monotony of earning a secure living, at its most violent the atmosphere was that of a rugger match played against a team from a rather rough council school which didn't stick to the conventional rules. ‘I'm almost sorry now that it's over’, I wrote home, ‘as we had as much free beer as we wanted at the office while it was on … I felt accepted now. I even received a silver matchbox from the management … In the camaraderie of free beer and unusual duties I had become an established member of the staff.’ (Greene, 1971: 178)

Beatrice Webb recorded a more critical, patronizing response in her diary for 14 May 1926, observing that the strike was

little more than a nine days' wonder, costing Great Britain tens of millions and leaving other nations asking whether it was a baulked revolution or play-acting on a stupendous scale [emphasis added] … A strike which opens with a footballmatch between the police and the strikers and ends in unconditional surrender after nine days with densely-packed reconciliation services at all the chapels and churches of Great Britain attended by the strikers and their families, will make the continental Socialists blaspheme … Let me add that the failure of the General Strike shows what a sane people the British are. If only our revolutionaries would realise the hopelessness of their attempt to turn the British workman into a Russian Red and the British business man and country gentleman into an Italian Fascist! (Webb, 1956: 92–8)

(p.180) Diana Cooper's comments in the first volume of her autobiography, with their allusion to the Russian Revolution and implicit reference to the English Revolution of 1648, give some hint as to the very real fear that lay beneath all these responses and later observations about them. Wrote Cooper, when the General Strike began, ‘I could hear the tumbrils [sic] rolling and heads sneezing into the baskets, and yet and yet, the English could not be like that. Then where would it end?’ (Cooper, 1959: 71).

Fiction: novels, plays, and television

Unlike its appearances in memoirs and autobiographies, most fictional representations of the General Strike gave a bit more space to the main event, though even they devoted at most only one chapter or segment to the volunteers. Novels usually focused on one of two images: the devil-may-care student out for a lark, which Evelyn Waugh's hero in Brideshead Revisited, whose actions greatly resemble Waugh's own, epitomized; or they indicted the Fascists, also known as Loyalists, for their aggressive and destructive role as members of the OMS and/or special constabulary (see Cary, 1955; Mellor et al., 1976: 356–7). R. F. Delderfield's novel, To Serve Them All My Days, invoked the image of the undergraduate bus driver and the general public enjoying an ‘impromptu national spree’ as an implicitly understood code to castigate insensitive members of the upper classes (Delderfield, 1973: 209).12

Ellen Wilkinson, a Labour MP as well as a popular speaker and organizer during the strike, wrote her novel, Clash, shortly after the event. She portrayed the volunteers as gentleman (and lady) amateurs, ‘young men in plus fours’ operating on the general assumption ‘that the whole thing had been rather a lark’ (Wilkinson, 1989: 50, 148, 126, 149). Besides making significant points about the role of women in the work place, marriage, and politics, her book, like Isherwood's, unsheathes the class consciousness of the era. Gerry Blaine, the novel's hero, wounded in the Great War and a fervent convert to the miners' cause, has devoted his work and inheritance to the labour struggle. In a conversation with Joan, the female protagonist, torn between her upper-middle-class and upper-class friends and her labour work, Gerry argues against her continued involvement with the former.

I know they have nice manners. They don't care enough about the miners – at least, when they are not dangerous – not to be perfectly charming to anyone who cares enough to defend them. But you think what that crowd did during the General Strike … We saw them with bared teeth all right when their classprivileges were in danger … It's not what their class consciously does to the workers' leaders that matters, Joan. It's easy to fight against that, but it's the mass of idea which they take for granted, and which they assume … all decent people will take for granted, the atmosphere they create that is so difficult to fight (p.181) against…. All their class privileges are bound up with not being converted, not seeing the ugly truth … [B]etween them and the working class the gulf is fixed, and when a crisis like the General Strike comes they make no bones about which side they are on, even when the best of them admit that the workers have a case. (Wilkinson, 1989: 293–5)

In contrast, Galsworthy's A Modern Comedy (1950), focused on the uniquely English character the strike called forth. This book also represents one of the few novels in which women had an active role as volunteers. Although Galsworthy's characters did escape the strictures imposed on women in other novels, they also conformed to the stereotypes, the available categories, of office flappers and canteen workers. The latter, though they did a certain amount of work, did it in the service of grateful and well-mannered menfolk and in places where they got to meet those whom they would normally meet at social events (Galsworthy, 1950: 608–10).

It would not have been natural that Fleur should rejoice in the collapse of the General Strike. A national outlook over such a matter was hardly in her character … Recruited by Norah Curfew, by herself [Fleur], Michael, and his Aunt Lady Alison Charwell, she had a first-rate crew of helpers of all ages, most of them in Society. They worked in the manner popularly attributed to negroes [sic] … They got up at, or stayed up to, all hours. They were never cross and always cheery. In a word, they seemed inspired. (Galsworthy, 1950: 630)

A young cockney woman, whom Soames Forsyte's driver picked up, represented her gender and class: ‘“I think it's rather fun, don't you?” said the young lady. “Carrying on – you know, like we're all doing”’ (Galsworthy, 1950: 601). Forsyte, whom some strikers called a ‘bloated plutocrat’ (1950: 599), regarded himself as a solid member of the English middle classes – ‘modestly attired in a brown overcoat and soft felt hat’ (Galsworthy, 1950: 599) – though all alone in his chauffeur-driven car. Despite his initial disdain for the cockney lass, he found himself enjoying their conversation, even catching a bit of her enjoyment of the strike, though he did not really understand her, her generation, or their music. For Forsyte, the strike posed a test of British character for men and women of all classes: as in the Great War, ‘with a grim humour the Briton had just “carried on”, unornamental and sublime, in the mud and the blood, the stink and the racket … The Briton's defiant humour that grew better as things grew worse, would … get its chance again now’ (Galsworthy, 1950: 581–2). Yet Soames Forsyte was not a Churchillian extremist, something which his late-night thoughts on hearing the tanks rolling through London revealed. ‘Those great crawling monsters! … Playing the strong man! Something in Soames revolted slightly. Hang it! This was England, not Russia, or Italy! They might be right, but he didn't like it! Too-too military! … No sense of proportion in things like that! And no sense of humour!’ (Galsworthy, 1950: 606–7).

(p.182) The television series Upstairs, Downstairs took a middle-of the-road stance and devoted one of its episodes, ‘The Nine Days Wonder’, to the General Strike (Paul, 1975). Lord Bellamy's son, a wealthy war veteran with nothing else to do, drove a bus in the strike. Although he started off to do his duty for God and country, by the end of the programme he has come to the unprecedented (for his class) notion that perhaps the conflict was not as simple as it seemed. One of the young male servants came to the same conclusion; he even wondered if perhaps they ought to come out in sympathy with the miners. Much like Galsworthy's Soames Forsyte, Lord Bellamy, a member of the government, was against the strike but also indicated that such things as tanks and armed soldiers in the streets of London were just not quite English. The butler was the only person in the cast, besides the strikers who disabled young Bellamy's bus, who was positive that his views were correct. Always the Conservative, unquestioning supporter of traditional hierarchy and authority in the show, the butler strongly sympathized with Baldwin's methods and position. Oddly, given their usually prominent roles in the programme, the women did not have much to say on the topic – or do, for that matter. Housemaid, Ruby Finch, whose uncle was a miner in Barnsley, did speak up for the miners, but (before the butler and the cook told her to keep silent) only as the female relative of miners and not as a woman in her own right.

Two plays, G. D. H. Cole's The Striker Stricken (1926) and David Benedictus's What a Way to Run a Revolution (produced in the West End in the 1970s and shown on television in May 1986), fostered the popular and stereotypical view of the volunteers, albeit the more self-aware one popularized more by contemporary Varsity publications. Benedictus explained:

Most of the university places at the big universities would be paying places … You had in the twenties, a university structure that applied to Lloyd's, to the Baltic Exchange, as they say in the show, and the big London money markets, just as the Civil Service, the Foreign Office, and Parliament to a large extent, was basically part of the upper-class structure of the country. And Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary, knew that he could call on these people, who came from basically Conservative backgrounds, to support their government, right or wrong. There were a few who refused to do so, and they were mainly intellectuals, from amongst the upper classes, people like the Webbs and so on … If you read all the political diaries of that period, you see just how little understanding how many of them did have …

The song of the Plus Four Boys, I tried to show, that the reason they did it really [was] because … it was wonderful to play at trains. It's what they all wanted to do. (Benedictus, Interview, 1986)

  • (p.183) The Song of the Plus-Four Boys
  • Claude was knocking back the champers
  • and Hilary was sloshed on beer
  • When we heard that Jix was in a bit of a fix
  • And he wanted us to volunteer.
  • Well, …
  • We are the Plus 4 Plus 4 Boys
  • A credit to our Varsity and nation
  • We get the Plus 4 Plus 4 joys
  • of working for a while beneath our station.
  • For Hilary is working on the buses – what a larf;
  • While Claude is on the footplate shovelling coal
  • from here to Barf;
  • … Charles is bashing pickets on the bottom
  • With his bat
  • And I am in the tram-supply
  • And wear a stunning hat.
  • And actually I'm driving an underground train
  • and it's all rather jolly actually, and I've only
  • had two collisions in the last two days …
  • Shut up Charles.
  • We are the Plus 4 Plus 4 boys.
  • They call us blacklegs.
  • (Benedictus, 1985: 37–8)

Benedictus's volunteers were either frivolous, childlike, irresponsible Bright Young People or undergraduates, out for a good time and with little knowledge or interest in the political-economic conflict that called them into action. While his depiction includes ironic and explicit references to the class disparity between volunteers and the strikers, what also comes through is that the volunteers were able to combine fun with patriotic action. A more naive and gentler image of the gentleman amateur, rather than the somewhat sinister one Benedictus puts forward, comes across in a song written and apparently performed in 1926. It appeared in Upside Down – A ‘Striking but Unofficial Commentary on the Work of London's Underground Volunteers’, amagazine that the Metropolitan District Railway distributed to volunteers in July 1926. Certain pages of the manuscript were included in an unpublished typescript in the Clare College Archives, Cambridge University, Cambridge University and The Great Strike, the ‘Log’ of three Undergraduates from Clare College Cambridge, written by one of them.13 These lyrics reference the FirstWorld War but differentiate the General Strike as a sort of happy-go-lucky adventure rather than a battle. At the very end, however, is a subtle jibe at their (apparent) ignorance about the strike; like Benedictus's Plus 4 Boys, they were just doing their duty.

  • Written at a few minutes notice for a Concert at Earl's Court.
  • With a ho! heave ho! and away we go,
  • The train pulls out of the station.
  • If you're bound for North, South, East or West,
  • We'll get you to your destination.
  • It doesn't matter if your home's in town,
  • Or fifty miles away,
  • We guarantee to get you there,
  • So roll along to the U.D. [underground] Fair,
  • And it's three pence all the way:
  • Refrain:
  • Roll up! Roll up! Roll up! Roll up!
  • There's room for one and all;
  • And if the train is full, you find,
  • Be sure there's another one just behind.
  • So don't you worry, nothing's quite as black as it appears;
  • Until the spot of trouble's gone
  • We'll stick to it and carry on
  • And you can bet your shirt upon
  • The jolly old Volunteers. Roll up!
  • With a ‘Tickets, please’, and ‘Mind your knees',
  • We push them into the train, sir.
  • If it's wet outside, come and take a ride,
  • We never feel the rain, sir.
  • So, pack your troubles in the old kit-bag,
  • And lend a helping hand;
  • We're here to do the best we know,
  • And if we’re just a trifle slow –
  • We crave indulgence, and:
  • [Refrain: … ]
  • If you are squeezed till you're black and blue,
  • Well, so are the other people too,
  • Just pay your money, take a trip, and put away your fears;
  • We've got a job; we'll see it out,
  • We don't know what it's all about,
  • But when it's over, give a shout
  • For the jolly old Volunteers. Roll up!
  • (J. A. L., 1926)

(p.185) Throughout What a Way to Run a Revolution, Benedictus collapsed and extended the Bright Young People's fancy dress proclivities into a society bash for the socially prominent of the 1980s. Part and parcel of his conceit was to obfuscate which characters were real and which were merely costumed actors, further demonstrating the continued relevance of this form of traditional play.

  • Oh, there was Leonard, Virginia
  • And Lytton looking miserable
  • Conan Doyle increasingly invisible …
  • And Nancy Lady Cunard
  • Al Capone and Peter Pan
  • Over in a corner there was charming Cecil Beaton
  • Trying to take a photograph of Buster Keaton
  • ‘Clap if you believe in fairies’ …
  • At Maisie's at Maisie's
  • The world decays in many ways
  • Empty phrases, vain displays
  • And nothing lasts and nothing stays
  • Except the memory of the days
  • We spent at Maisie's for the general strike …
  • Agate and Beerbohm, Winnie the Pooh
  • Princess Margaret and you know who
  • Julius Caesar, Ben Hur in his chariot
  • Enoch Powell, Judas Iscariot
  • Jack the Ripper, Atilla the Hun
  • Margaret Thatcher, everyone!
  • Not forgetting Koo Stark! …
  • (Benedictus, 1985: 42–5)

Benedictus made the underlying connections between prominent social and political figures then and now explicit – a method that ‘shows what lies underneath, in the same way that Spitting Image and Private Eye do’ (Benedictus, Interview, 1986). He used this tactic to draw an analogy between the actions of former Secretary of State for Defence Michael Heseltine, who resigned in 1986, and those of William Joynson-Hicks, Home Secretary in 1926. In the play, each of the leading characters

had a song in which you saw symbolically how they saw their role. And it's nothing very subtle to say that Joynson-Hicks … did say, ‘I am the ruler of England.’ And that therefore was important to point up, that Home Secretaries tend to get above themselves. After all, we have a clear memory – and that's why we had [Joynson-Hicks] picking up the mace – of Heseltine doing just that in the House of Commons. He picked up the mace from the table of the House of Commons and he threatened the Labour front benches with it, like that. But for those who wished to pick it up, I had Joynson-Hicks doing exactly the same thing. (Benedictus, Interview, 1986

(p.186) Another, albeit accidental, connection between characters and political figures occurred, which Benedictus left in. The actor playing Joynson-Hicks imitated Margaret Thatcher's voice throughout, which further emphasized the similarities between Baldwin's Government in the 1920s and Thatcher's in the 1970s and 1980s (cf. Booth and Pack, 1985) as well as the paradigmatic meaning of gender-switching behaviours discussed in Chapter 3.

While Benedictus's play provides more of a satirical commentary on the use and abuse of political and social power by groups and individuals,14 G. D. H. Cole's drama, The Striker Stricken, written just after the strike, focuses more on demonstrating the hypocrisy of politicians from across the political spectrum (Cole, 1977). The satirical styles and messages of those two plays, written fifty years apart, are quite similar, however. Judging by media reviews (Aubrey, 1976), other plays, most of which Labour or other left-wing groups produced for fiftieth anniversary celebrations and symposia (McIlroy, 2006: 78–83), did not portray the volunteers very differently from either Cole or Benedictus.

That references to a multitude of historical and contemporary cultural meanings occur in the plays, poetry, sermons, and other forms of verbal art concerning the strike is not surprising. Some sort of creative reframing of the General Strike, or any topic, is necessary to catch paradigmatic historical relationships and convert them into recognizable symbols and useful allegories. Yet such layering of symbolic references is not nearly so common, or particularly acceptable, for those who perceive their function to be to uncover the ‘facts’ about an event – rather than to discover just why those ‘facts’ have been so obscured (Shuman, 2005: 18, 26, 82, 87). And perhaps that is why so few have indicated the symbolic importance of the folkloric images of the General Strike and the volunteers. Historian John McIlroy's most recent essay illustrates this point. McIlroy has made a considerable contribution to our understanding of 1926 as well as to its commemoration and influence on other industrial conflicts. But when he cited my article (Saltzman, 1994a), which focused specifically on working-class critiques of the 1926 volunteers, he mentioned neither the volunteers nor their role in the event (McIlroy, 2006: 96).

Public histories: aniversary studies, exhibitions, and educational packets

There was one more version of the strike and the volunteers' role in it – that of the contained conflict – most often found in books and publications for school children and in museum exhibits, as well as implied by private memorabilia collections,15 institutional exhibits, and anniversary publications of General Strike editions of various newspapers (e.g. ‘1926 Strike’, 1972).16

(p.187) The fiftieth anniversary of the strike seemed to provoke most of this need to exhibit and reassess the past. But while that was most likely due more to a cultural obsession with round numbers and half-century markers, that anniversary conveniently coincided with labour victories of the early 1970s, which, in the minds of many, were vengeance for 1926 (McIlroy, 2006: 77).

Literally scores of local histories and exhibits were produced for the fortieth and especially for the fiftieth anniversaries. A particular focus was on the ‘good times’ or ‘lighter-side’, which emphasized exemplars of real British behaviours and spirit (Renshaw, 1975b: n.p.; Cootes, 1983: 54–5). Just after the fortieth anniversary, Michael Hughes's compilation of strike cartoons and accompanying commentary came out. While in sympathy with the strikers, whom he depicted as wholeheartedly supportive of the miners, Hughes emphasized that ‘the public's good humoured response to the Strike and the light-hearted seriousness of the volunteers were celebrated as a uniquely British characteristic. If anyone deserved praise for these qualities, it was surely the strikers, the majority of whom conducted themselves like the Rotarians’ (Hughes, 1968: 54). Hughes observed that, for ‘a large proportion of the population, it was not a revolutionary threat or a challenge to the constitution, but a lark – a holiday with entertainment provided free’ (Hughes, 1968: 46). Yet he also pointed out that the ‘surprisingly high proportion of the volunteers were undergraduates, who in plus fours and the newly fashionable pullovers became the public's favourites’ were also the darlings of the media, especially the cartoonists (Hughes, 1968: 48). As Hughes noted, ‘if Dunkirk had not lain in the future its spirit would have undoubtedly have been invoked’ as evidence of this characteristically British reaction (Hughes, 1968: 54). Felicia Stallman claimed the opposite, however; the strike was not like Dunkirk, because the latter signified defeat (Stallman, Interview, 1986). Either way, the good humour and typical British reaction under fire were credited with the strike's resolution.

One key to this model was the statement that ‘no one was killed’, or some variation of it – violence was denied or diminished Thus, all involved were responsible for what became construed as a victory for all British people. A slight variation on this interpretation can be found in many of the fiftieth anniversary exhibitions and educational packets, which located the General Strike in a visitable past (Karp et al., 1992). One exhibition catalogue pointed out: ‘the political drama, the unity of the workers, and the loyalty of the patriots are all brought vividly to life in this splendid collection of newspapers published at the time, photographs taken at the time, and a host of other documents and personal records’. It invited the reader to ‘travel with us into the past and re-live the strike that shook a nation’ (Hornsey, 1976: 1). Because those involved believed they acted sincerely and in the best interests of their country, even if they might have been mistaken, everyone could be regarded (p.188) as part and parcel of the same British heritage. Thus the conflict of the strike itself, in which persons on each side attempted to designate themselves as British and their opponents as ‘others’ and therefore not truly British, had its resolution in the bounded space of a museum exhibition or a social studies packet (e.g. Tames, 1972; SEARCH, 1979; Labour Museum, n.d.; Cootes, 1983; Harris, 1985; Spencer, 1988).

This contained-conflict model is the one most commonly used for educational purposes (see MacCannell, 1976; Curtis, 1978; Deetz, 1981; Fortin, 1981; Norberg, 1981; Nye, 1981; Nichols, 1984; Wright, 1985), though General Strike exhibitions and educational packets have included more controversial issues than one might expect (Tames, 1972; SEARCH Project, 1979; Spencer, 1988), especially for products aimed at students. Nonetheless, the overall conflict was packaged as a marketable past (MacCannell, 1976; Wright, 1985; Karp et al., 1992; Barnes, 1999).

The Jackdaw packet (Tames, 1972) took the strikers' side in its presentation of issues, documents, and images. Its explanatory essay pamphlet started out with a photo of ‘Society ladies manning the tea urns at the Scotland Yard Special Constables Canteen’ as well as the obligatory photograph of the ‘police v. strikers football match, played at Plymouth’, both pointing to thedemocratic all-encompassing nature of the strike. Unlike other such materials aimed at students, however, Tames hinted that not all were in consensus by including a little-known cartoon caricature of J. H. Thomas, leader of the railway men (and hardly, as Tames indicated, on the miners' side). While Tames acknowledged the volunteers' efforts in beating the strike, he also noted that most were just ‘doing their bit’, though some of ‘the younger ones were “out for a lark”’. Tames' presentation also had a subtly misogynistic message, surprising for its time but apparent through his choice of two Punch cartoons: one (see figure 5.16) with a maid's asking her mistress what she'd like to wear for the strike (Reynolds, 1926a: 525) and the other (see figure 15.17), with two status-climbing female office workers' comparing who managed to ride in the higher class of vehicle to work (Mills, 1926: 541); this section was captioned, ‘Social attitudes of the day are captured in these two cartoons’ (Tames, 1972).

In contrast, the Factpack about the General Strike (Spencer, 1988), produced around the time of the 60th anniversary, and just after the miners' devastating defeat in 1984–85, was somewhat more sympathetic to the volunteers and supportive of the government's efforts to defeat the strike – not the usual stance taken in modern histories of the event. This educational packet also contained far more extensive materials than the Jackdaw packet and was most likely aimed more at advanced secondary or undergraduate students. Beyond the photos, cartoons, reproduced newspapers, and a striker's letter, Spencer also and surprisingly included letters from volunteers, thank you certificates to volunteers from various businesses, strike bulletins, strike (p.189) and volunteer statistics, and sympathetic photos of volunteers and women workers.

Regardless of their differing stance and inclusion of primary documents pointing to the complexities of the times, the effect of such educational modules was to represent the General Strike as only one more significant event in British history, like the Civil War or the Great Reform Act, to be consumed by school children and/or tourists (Karp et al., 1992; MacCannell, 1976, 1992). Volunteers and strikers became merely two sides of the same coin, and people in other countries were designated as the ‘others’ who looked on in amazed admiration at a Great Britain in which such a momentous event could be conducted peacefully, in an orderly manner, without revolutionary consequences, and with an even more solid constitutional and parliamentary government its unprecedented (except in England) result (Barnes, 1999).17 Education modules portrayed this behaviour during the General Strike as inevitable, fated even, and such narratives reaffirmed belief in the national mythos that Great Britain was somehow different from other nations, not prone to revolution or contamination from alien outsiders (Shuman, 2005: 96).18

Nothing like the amount of material produced in 1976 appeared in 1986, which, given the then recent 1984–85 miners' strike, should have been a far more politically, if not symbolically, relevant time – a point that John McIlroy in his analysis of memory, commemoration and the strike did not make; nor did he mention the various iterations of the strike produced in the 1980s and noted below, in this paragraph (McIlroy, 2006: 84). For instance, there was an unadvertised exhibit at the Royal Festival Hall, a lecture at the Marx Memorial Library by historian Margaret Morris (Morris, 1986), as well as an article in the Morning Star and some requests (not mine) for strike memories by the Sheffield Weekly Gazette (13 February 1986). What a Way to Run a Revolution was shown on Channel 4 at the beginning of May 1986, and there was an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The Times produced a magazine entitled The Times – Past, Present, Future on 1 January 1985, which included a page on the strike. That same year, Sarah Harris's textbook, How and Why: The General Strike appeared, decidedly on the side of the strikers, despite thebook's intended use to teach students how to weigh and analyse historical evidence. Three works were published in 1988: Gerald Crompton's article on railway volunteers; R. H. Haigh, D. S. Morris, and A. R. Peters' Guardian Book of the General Strike; and Ralph Spencer's Factpack, The General Strike – Living History. I found little else to mark the General Strike's 60th anniversary. Yet all these pieces were filtered by the trauma of the 1984–85 miners' strike and could not help but portray the strikers as inevitable victims, even martyrs for the cause – betrayed by the TUC and the government, the latter assisted by the volunteers.

(p.190) Unlike materials aimed specifically at a school-age audience, museum exhibits about the General Strike provided a more orthodox take on the past. The London Museum, which presented British history in its vast panorama, from Roman times to the present, had a one-panel strike display. A paragraph explained that the strike was called to support the coal miners and, indeed, there were photographs of miners and pickets. But the implication, given the London Museum's inevitably telescopic view of British history's triumphant trajectory into the present, was that the strike was just one more crisis averted, thanks to that unexplainable quality of British character – as displayed by strikers and volunteers. John McIlroy noted this same characteristic for those General Strike exhibits on display at Covent Garden in 1976 (McIlroy, 2006: 76).

I was privileged to have the opportunity to observe one exhibition from planning stages through to completion. From November 1986 until February 1987, the National Portrait Gallery put on a medium-sized one-room (seven panels of text, two exhibit cases, numerous photographs, paintings, and a short video) exhibition about the strike. According to the curators, who were not initially overly enthused by the topic dropped in their laps, the museum customarily put on one documentary exhibition per year, and this was it. I would not even have known about the topic had not Barbara Rusbridger, mother of my London host, Alan Rusbridger, seen a National Portrait Gallery flyer listing future exhibitions. Running concurrently with the General Strike display was a much more publicized one about Queen Elizabeth II, who was celebrating her 60th birthday (see figure 8.1). The juxtaposition of two such themes (embodied in the posters displayed on the railings outside the museum), in such a place as the National Portrait Gallery, gives some sense of how much the General Strike has become a part of the modern British mythos – at a time when the government openly approved of and encouraged union-busting.

Despite the polarised political climate at the time and their space limitations, Robin Gibson and Honor Clerk, the exhibition curators, created a reasonably fair-handed and in-depth treatment (see figure 8.2). Their written explanations for dense displays of artefacts, photographs, newspaper clippings, and paintings made it clear that the curators (and presumably the museum administration) sided with the intellectual and moderate left's consensus about the strike, that is, that the miners were victimized by both larger economic forces and mine owners, not to mention some over-zealous police constables (though the specials probably did not intimidate the strikers as much as the exhibition text claimed). Gibson and Clerk depicted Churchill as one of the villains of the drama and A. J. Cook as a brave man sincerely fighting for his men; the TUC General Council members came off as naive pawns. A largish bust of James Ramsay MacDonald with its accompanying (p.191)

From ethos to mythos: the General Strike and Britishness

8.1 National Portrait Gallery railing with General Strike and Queen Elizabeth II exhibition posters

From ethos to mythos: the General Strike and Britishness

8.2 Interior of National Portrait Gallery's General Strike exhibition

(p.192) text identified him as the ‘strikers' chief spokesman’ in the House of Commons – and not as the betrayer of union interests, as most of the rank and file thought him. J. H. Thomas, who spoke up far more in the House of Commons on the miners' behalf than did MacDonald (House of Commons, 1926), received little mention. Gibson and Clerk gave the impression overall that ‘compared with later industrial conflicts, the General Strike was notably well-mannered’ (Waymark, 1986).

But the volunteers themselves did not get much coverage in this exhibition. They appeared in a video of university students driving buses and in newspaper photographs with the occasional titled lady serving tea and food to them. The exhibition implied that non-strikers had a rather good time and a chance to demonstrate their patriotism. The video also conveyed that despite some violence on the strikers' side, being a volunteer was a bit of a lark, though perhaps not as much of one as the volunteers would have liked.

In one of two glass cases were displayed some of the volunteers' mementos from the strike, including Lady Lindsay's souvenir sterling silver ashtray (see figure 8.3), a selection of certificates, a special's armband and truncheon, and a letter and programme about a dinner (at 20s. per guest, not including wine) honouring special constables. The other case contained a series of mostly leftist publications about the strike, a photograph album of press pictures showing the hard conditions in a Fife mining community, and so on. Visitors were not given a sense of the vast numbers of ordinary men and women who did so much of the volunteer work or what they received for their volunteer efforts, though it was abundantly clear from newspaper clippings that prominent members of Society were quite active in support of the government. Ironically, I may have been responsible for this neglect, since I did make more of a point of stressing the dominant image of privileged volunteers in the strike when I discussed the matter with the curators during the planning stages of the exhibition.

But aside from the issue of volunteers, a more subtle subtext was present in the tertiary text,19 the small print – and not the larger captions – explaining the newspapers and items on display. While the larger type tended to describe what was on display, the smaller and harder-to-read labels noted, for example, that ‘many national and provincial newspapers managed to produce makeshift editions during the strike. These were complemented by the hundreds of propagandist bulletins and information sheets issued by unions and other organizations.’

What can we make of this? At whom were such comments aimed? They were not intended for school children, or the elderly: the print was too small. And they probably were not directed at the average, casual museum visitor who may have stumbled upon the strike exhibition, for they would take too (p.193)

From ethos to mythos: the General Strike and Britishness

8.3 Lady Lindsay's Great Western Railway silver tray, Inscription: ‘General Strike, May 1926, To Miss L. Ponsonby, with the grateful thanks of the Great Western Railway’

much time and effort to read (Karp and Lavine, 1991). Although I did not deliberately engage anyone in conversation, since I was busy taking pictures and looking at the exhibition myself, from the talk I overheard and from the comments directed at me, most of the visitors on that afternoon seemed to be former strikers – an unlikely audience for commentary framing their perspective as propaganda. Eventually I came to the conclusion that such comments were indeed meant to be subtexts – indicative of a dissenting, alternative point of view. In the course of sixty years, a vaguely leftist interpretation of the General Strike had become the dominant one – yet the other side was acknowledged in this National Portrait Gallery exhibition, as it was in a fiftieth anniversary exhibition at the TUC (Hornsey, 1976; cf. McIlroy, 2006).

But why should anyone really care about any of this? How many people went to such exhibitions or encountered educational strike packets? Or read books on the topic? Judging by the number of people with whom I was in correspondence who asked if I had been to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, there were a surprising number still concerned. And not just on the Labour side, for most of those with whom I was in touch were volunteers or sympathized with them. Many of these people had saved newspapers from sixty years ago. Several offered them to me to make copies; others just sent theirs for me to keep. Lady Lindsay was quite pleased to show and allow me to photograph her souvenir sterling silver ashtray, given her by the Great Western (p.194) Railway in thanks for her volunteer service in the Paddington canteen (see figure 8.3). Lord Denning still had his truncheon (see figure 5.7). And a great many correspondents had kept their certificates of service and sent me copies (see figures 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 et passim).

This response could be attributed to older people simply wanting to share their memories and knowledge, especially of such a nationally significant event experienced during their youth, with a younger person (Thompson, 1994: 11). After all, most westerners like to think what they have done will be of more than a transitory importance and existence. What they did, tried to do, and why they did it, as well as what they thought about it, ought to be acknowledged.

The General Strike volunteer as cultural symbol

In so many histories, memoirs, plays, and novels, the General Strike tends to boil down to a highly condensed picture, a part of which almost always includes those colourful volunteers in plus fours who drove buses and trains (Renshaw, 1975a: 19; Perkins, 2006). This image itself does not mean much, for it depends on how people interpreted it – how they used it for their own purposes – to explain what they remembered and felt about the General Strike and about being British (Thompson, 1994). Osbert Sitwell commented that when he sat down to record his feelings about the strike, ‘I could not but notice with what singular persistence, as I approached the subject, the clichés clustered round and clotted the nib of my pen … and even such ancient sobriety tests as “the British Constitution” rang in my head, and leapt in and out of my inkpot while I wrote’ (Sitwell, 1948: 229; Passerini, 1984; Eber and Neal, 2001: 176–7; Shuman, 2005: 87–8).

The condensation of such a complex event admittedly distorts the ‘real’ meaning of it and its participants, for it does not begin to answer to those complexities, as John McIlroy pointed out in his analysis of the memory and commemoration of 1926 (McIlroy, 2006: 73, 104, 107). But in another sense, it does far more than that. The image of the General Strike distils rather than distorts more culturally significant meanings and preserves their complexities in the very paradoxical ways it enables people to interpret it. The parodic subtitle – ‘1926 and All That’ – to John McIlroy, Alan Campbell, and Keith Gildart's introduction to their edited collection (McIlroy et al., 2004), made this point explicit. And John Halstead's review of that collection, entitled ‘1926, 1984 … And All That!’ (2005) took the irony still further.

As Shuman 2005 and others (Geertz, 1968; Turner, 1973; Ortner, 1979; Sahlins, 1981; Passerini, 1984; Vansina, 1985: 137–46; Portelli, 1991; Bodnar, 1992; Halbwachs, 1992; Tuleja, 1997) have observed, such key cultural symbols, such commonplaces (Renwick, 1980), become so powerful because (p.195) they are clichés, because they can be reproduced and used in a multiplicity of ways – in jokes, in restaurants, in local histories, in museums, or even on souvenir coffee mugs.20 And in fact, such seemingly inexplicable excess can be necessary for meanings to emerge (Shuman, 2005: 160), especially as significance has shifted over time and for different groups. The photographic display at the restaurant Strikes! is a pointed example of how the past can be co-opted for purposes that contemporaries could not begin to imagine (see figures 1.1 and 1.2).

Those who spoke and corresponded with me insisted on a particular image of themselves as volunteers: they were serving their country by keeping things moving. Several could not understand why a folklorist was interested in the volunteers; still others regarded folklore itself as having debased the volunteers' image and hindered political advance for organized labour. Correspondents and interviewees who placed themselves to the left politically required less explanation as to my interest in the volunteers. As either union members and/or former strikers, self-styled outsiders in mid-1980s' England, they had a better sense of the folkloric nature of the volunteers' image – its importance as a cultural signifier. And a few of those who had been volunteers were concerned to set me straight as to what the volunteers were really like and to dispel what they believed to be my misconceptions or ‘folklore’ about them (Spencer, Letter, 1986b).

Yet the persistent image of the volunteer is that of a fool, someone considered by many to be a somewhat effeminate, effete, and mannerly university lad out for a good time. Like the man-woman character in mummers' plays, adolescents in ‘pre-industrial’ societies, tricksters, and other liminal beings, volunteers had licence to play fools – without any consequences. They used their suddenly public and publicized position to comment on various aspects of their society, though their critiques were certainly neither as blunt as those of strikers nor taken as seriously. Women volunteers were not permitted nearly so much latitude, though some women's magazines did attempt a more covert sort of criticism of the men in charge. But even their satire was taken in the spirit of holiday tomfoolery and received nowhere near the serious attention paid to relatively minor attempts at opposition from the strikers' side.

Such dismissive treatment, combined with the fact that the volunteers were also young at a time when meaningful rites of passage were not available for young men or women of their class, added another layer to the symbolic value they placed on the General Strike and their memories of it. These young people did not have a Great War to usher them into a disillusioned adulthood (Fussell, 1975); thus the General Strike provided the next best thing – even better, because so few were killed.21 According to one Cambridge undergraduate who worked at Grimsby docks, ‘I thoroughly enjoyed the strike. That and the Anti-Aircraft mobilization in 1938 have been the high (p.196) spots of my life – much more fun than the war’ (Symons, 1957: 88). A national crisis coincided with both a social rite of passage and a traditional calendrical occasion (May Day) to add further layers of significance to such an event.

That concurrence of ritual times (Leach, 1979b) gave rise to an emergent allegory that gave the volunteers' participation a meaning qualitatively different from other experiences in their lives (Coser, 1992: 28–9; Halbwachs, 1992: 48–9). The generation before them had the First World War, the one after had the Spanish Civil War, the next, the Second World War. Without a doubt, those events reduced the strike's importance for those who had volunteered as well as for future generations who might have behaved in similar ways, had they the chance. Because of those other larger and more tragic national events, and as a result of the Left's largely undisputed entitlement to interpret the General Strike's meaning, the volunteer has been reduced to a lad in plus fours – the men, and especially the women, who served without any pay, have been almost entirely excluded.22

The result of this reproduction of the past has involved a marginalization of the volunteers and their role by all. Neither the British political nor academic Right have made much, if any, effort to challenge Labour and Marxist interpretations of the General Strike; there was little to be gained from celebrating the Right's heroes or reproducing their ideological interpretation because victory was so complete. Only sacrifice needs to be legitimized by cultural reproduction, such as remembrance and veterans' days, Easter, saints' days, or 9/11. Societies commemorate victories only when loss is involved, and neither the volunteers nor the government suffered any losses for which they had to compensate. Nor would they have gained anything by celebrating anniversaries of the General Strike's defeat, for that would have served to emphasize needlessly the social and economic divisiveness whose existence both the government and the TUC had an interest in denying.

Furthermore, as a result of Labour historians' casting (correctly, in my opinion) the General Strike as the political and economic rite of passage for organized Labour, most downplayed and trivialized the volunteers' efforts as well as their humour and that of the strikers.23 From the Establishment side, such innovative, out-of-context use of commonplace traditions represented a challenge to the socio-political order, despite the advantageous use to which that sort of method can be, and has been, put. Bureaucracies in business, labour, and government did manage to instil these forms of popular protest with more rationalized meanings. But to admit openly that the Establishment could co-opt the verbal art, and particularly the vernacular aesthetic, of its most unjustifiably frivolous sector, would have reduced government, publicly and explicitly, to the level of schoolboy silliness. The persistence of this particular image of the General Strike volunteers attests to its relevance for modern-day British society (Santino, 2004: 370).

(p.197) Notes


(1) One of Jessica Mitford's sisters used the strike as an opportunity to dress up as a tramp and frighten the others, who were running a canteen for volunteers during the strike (Mitford, 1960: 14–15).

(2) John Dummelow of Lincoln noted that his great-grandfather, William John Thoms, coined the word ‘folklore’ in the early 19th century (Dummelow, Letter, 1986a).

(3) See discussion near the end of Chapter 1.

(4) In his 1942 memoir, Brockway argued that ‘the General Strike was led by people who did not believe in it. They rather than the workers, cracked. Of course a General Strike must be revolutionary; it is of necessity a conflict between the workers and the capitalist state’ (Brockway, 1942: 193).

(5) Both Laybourn and McIlroy have written illuminating, extensive, and nearly exhaustive historiographic analyses about the General Strike.

(6) While travelling one evening on the tube in London during the Christmas holidays in 1985, I overheard some young people of university age talking about having to count the railings at Buckingham Palace. I realized they were on a treasure hunt.

(7) Benedictus wrote this musical play in the early 1970s, and it was performed at the Labour and Conservative party conferences in 1973. It was also performed at the Young Vic theatre in London, and then filmed by Channel 4 and shown on television at the beginning of May in 1986 on the strike's 60th anniversary. Benedictus told me in our 2009 talk that the earlier productions were more satisfying than the 1986 one; the grittier milieu made it much more exciting than the polished televised version.

(8) In Let Your Words Be Few, folklorist Richard Bauman discusses the concept of oversaturated metaphor. In the chapter entitled ‘Going Naked as a Sign’ Bauman describes William Simpson's appearing unclothed in public to make the point that we all come naked (physically and spiritually) into this world, and that we should strive to divest ourselves of corrupt, worldly religion. Simpson's appearance so overwhelmed his performance with secular meaning that observers saw only his actual physical nakedness; his metaphorical intent and meaning were missed entirely (Bauman, 1983: 84–94).

(9) According to an article in the Observer Magazine, Private Eye is ‘a tacky, badly printed, crudely put together and wickedly puerile paper’, produced in ‘dusty, untidy and somewhat stark’ offices in which a ‘school-like atmosphere’ pervades. ‘The staff and contributors are irrepressibly noisy and boisterous, shouting insults at each other, and making rude signs and even faces from time to time … It is this blend of privilege and irresponsibility that makes the Eye so uniquely and proudly what it is … Auberon Waugh … says, “… it's a particular form of English humour which produces completely intemperate attacks on people”’ (‘Who's Who at Private Eye’, 1986: 36).

(10) In the novel, England, England, the country's historical imagery and pageantry becomes ‘Disney-fied’, commodified to the extent that the country consumes itself, leaving only its image.

(11) I am indebted to Peter Kingsford for the relevant pages from Isherwood's ‘mainly (p.198) autobiographical’ account. As Peter noted, ‘the passage in question is quite a little gem’ (Kingsford, Letter, 1986).

(12) See also Ian Jack's (1986) review of three books, one a novel and two life histories, concerned with the mining industry, in which the Falklands, the General Strike volunteers, the Wild West, and the 1980s miners' strike were invoked to describe a certain mentality, for example Thatcher's speech to the Parliamentary 1922 Committee in the early months of the 1984–85 miners' strike: ‘in the Falklands we had to fight the enemy without. Here the enemy is within, and it is more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty’ (in reference to Ian MacGregor's The Enemies Within, Collins, 1986, with Rodney Tyler); ‘The Wild West appeals to him. InMartin Adeney and John Lloyd's admirable analysis of the strike he [MacGregor] is, in his own words, “a hoary old bastard who only wants to win” by “pulling our wagons round in a circle”’ (in reference to Adeney and Lloyd's The Miners' Strike: Loss Without Limit, Routledge, 1986); and also in reference to MacGregor, ‘Hisbrothers drove trams in the General Strike. He has always known what he believed and perhaps for this reason, seems never to have felt at ease in England.’ As Ian Jack wrote with regard to a fired miner's wife in Tony Parker's novel, Red Hill: A Mining Community (Heinemann, 1986), ‘She has quite failed to understand that herhusband's sacking is a sacrifice for the greater good’ (Jack, 1986: 28).

(13) I have not been able to locate the original of the Upside Down.

(14) Benedictus, reflecting upon the evolution of the show, told me: ‘When I first did the show I think I regarded Cook as the hero of the piece. Certainly his speeches are inspiring stuff. Now, I believe that in a way he's the biggest betrayer of them all. Because he must have known if he wasn't living in a world of fantasy that he could not win. And I had a line in the … television show where the Miner, after the song of the destruction of the House [of Commons], the call for let it all come down, and … he said “So much for Cook and his fantasies.” And I'm afraid to say that the commissioning editor here at Channel 4 insisted on that line being taken out. He would not conceive that Cook could be the villain of the piece.’

‘There was also a song called “The Song of Working-Class Solidarity”, which [is] to the tune … of “Ten Green Bottles” … and one by one the other workers, like in “Ten Green Bottles”, make an excuse … Gradually they peel off until there's only the Miner left … In that song it seemed to me the encapsulation of the other message you should take from′26 or from’ 84–85, which is that, unless there is working-class solidarity you cannot win. And the mistake that Scargill made was, he wasn't able to carry the TUC with him, and he should have stopped in his tracks' (Benedictus, Interview, 1986).

(15) Just after the strike, three volunteers from Clare College, Cambridge University, put together a diary of their experiences, complete with a list of the ‘dramatis personae’. They presented this book to H. H. Thirkell, their senior tutor (Cambridge University and the Great Strike, 1926). While others with whom I was in contact did not keep such elaborate records of their participation in the strike, several did have collections of newspapers and other memorabilia; some had written out their experiences for their families or for limited circulation.

(16) Other reprints in this series include the Daily Express (World War II 1939) and the Daily Mirror (Abdication of Edward VIII).

(p.199) (17) Following the strike, the Survey, an American magazine with vaguely liberal leanings, printed a series of articles about the event. One, entitled, ‘Plus-Fours to the Rescue’, by Cornelia Stratton Parker (Parker, 1926: 411–15) was specifically about the volunteers. According to the author, ‘the organization of the voluntary service during the strike and the English temperament’ were what kept Londoners from suffering, although the strikers as well deserved ‘a large bouquet’ for their ‘calm and good temper’ (Parker, 1926: 412). While Parker mentioned nothing about Society women running canteens (she credited the YMCA), she did note that women volunteers drove lorries (Parker, 1926: 413–14) – a fact not advertised in the British press and most likely due to the greater degree of freedom accorded women in the United States. Parker's impression was of an egalitarian, working holiday and not a class war at all. In the same magazine, William Crook commented that the university volunteers regarded the whole experience as a lark. He also gave several examples of how the British seem to think nothing of opposing opinions and actions being permitted and expressed, frequently by the same people at the same time (Crook, 1926: 419).

(18) The two most extensive and educationally-based online sources (Simkin, 2009; Trades Union Congress, 2009) also tend to follow this model, though they do tend to tilt toward the strikers' perspective. The BBC's site is considerably smaller and leans a bit more to the right of centre, declaring the 1926 General Strike a failure. Interestingly, however, and taking in that larger view, it also links to Simkin's Spartacus Educational site, which provides more extensive and more left-leaning coverage (BBC, 2009). Renaissance London's website, Exploring 20th Century London (produced by a consortium of London museums), also seems to be trying to have it both ways. The General Strike portion of the website has far more volunteer-related images than those for strikers, but the site also refers visitors to the TUC site (Renaissance London, 2009).

(19) Museum exhibits traditionally use three levels of labels with correspondingly sized type: primary (headline labels), secondary (basic information), and tertiary (detailed explanations and arguments) text.

(20) In 1986, Marion Bowman, a fellow folklorist and kitsch aficionado, spotted a General Strike souvenir mug in one of the tourist shops near Whitehall.

(21) A song line in G. D. H. Cole's play, ‘So, pack your troubles in the old kit-bag’, clearly referenced the Great War (J. A. L., 1926).

(22) Taking women seriously has never been a part of the British ethos. It has continued to be much easier and more acceptable to criticize women for acting in ‘unfeminine’ ways and for bothering men, than to praise their strengths. In the mid-1980s, ‘Spitting Image’, a Channel 4 political satire, portrayed Margaret Thatcher as a domineering nanny in control of an infantile all-male cabinet.

(23) Sue Bruley's The Women and Men of 1926, which focuses on the role of working-class women in the coalfields of Wales, is a notable exception to this omission. Bruley's chapter on ‘Having Fun, Getting by, and Outside Help’ (60–85) examines the carnivals, jazz bands, fancy dress parties, comic cricket matches, Ladies football and other ‘comedy’ football matches, and the like, which did much more than just pass the time for members of coal mining communities during the nine days as (p.200) well as the ensuing seven months' lockout. Bruley especially looks at the role of women pickets and notes their continued use of ‘public shaming’ rituals, such as white-shirting, which has its roots in the ceffyl pren tradition, to censure scabs (2010: 108–9). As she notes, this behaviour was clearly not ‘just a game’ (2010: 111).