Reconstructing a left-wing life through the archaeology of books

Old books
Picture: David Flores
Old books
Picture: David Flores

By Jack Jonson

Jimmy Reid’s death in 2010 was particularly sad as his passing seemed to herald the end of a generation of working-class socialists in Scotland who self-educated themselves from books.

I suppose the process was started by John McLean in his Marxist lectures in George Square, Glasgow, and elsewhere around the country, in the early part of the last century which attracted thousands of shipyard and factory workers to hear the Communist orator.

There can’t be many left from that tradition but sadly another one passed away recently – and he was known to no-one other than his family and a few friends. That, I suspect, is how this unassuming but brilliant man would have wanted it.

His life though was remarkable in its own way and I fear we shall never see his likes again. Allow me to tell you about him.

John, who lived in a flat across the road from me, had been dead for three weeks before I found out. In our ten years as neighbours I’d met him just, at the corner shop where he bought his morning newspaper, and said no more than a few words to him. And yet I came to know John well after his passing – perhaps better than anyone ever had.

His middle-aged son told me. “He just slipped away, on his chair, reading a book. In no great pain apparently. He was 83. I suppose he’d had a good innings.”

I sympathised: “You’ll be lonely in the house now by yourself?”

He nodded, then said that at least he would have more space now that he had packed his father’s books for dumping.

Dismayed at the thought of books being pulped, I offered to take them, if not for myself then perhaps for a local charity. His son was delighted. “You’re welcome, so long as you do the carrying. I’ve been packing them all day and it was hard work, believe me.”

There in the hall lay John’s books, in long black-taped boxes stacked four-high. I counted 27. His son smiled. “He like reading.”

Unsure now of the wisdom of my offer – the boxes could be filled with trashy novels – I asked his son if he was certain he wanted to give his father’s books away. Perhaps, some other members of the family might want them?”

“No,” he said. “None of us read much. As a matter of fact we’re all tired of looking at my father’s books.”

It took me a large chunk of the next morning to carry the boxes down two flights of stairs and across to my flat. In the midst of my exertions, I placated my wife by insisting I would phone social services and ask them to send a van to collect the books for distribution among needy organisations.

Of course I did no such thing until I had a chance to go through the boxes. Running an eye over someone’s bookshelf will always reveal something about that person – but his books were a revelation.

Significant passages of text were underlined, notes made in the margins and, at chapter ends, summations written in his, what soon came to be, familiar spidery hand. Clearly no bibliophile collecting books as trinkets, John used his books for learning and, like all good students, made notes.

Not that the books were valuable in financial terms. Most were bought second-hand. Inside covers had the original owners’ names written in fountain pen with the faint pencil-marked price of the second-hand bookseller or stallholder.

I could find only one first edition – Rise Like Lions by William Gallaher, autobiography of the fiery communist MP for Fife after the Second World War. Costing eight shillings and sixpence, it is signed and inscribed by the author. “With heartiest best wishes, Wm Gallaher, 14/12/51.”

On the title page is the inspiration by Shelley for the book.

Rise like Lions in slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth, like dew,
Which in sleep had fallen on you,
Ye are many – they are few.

I give that quote out of respect for John because I know now that it embodied his two great loves – socialism and literature.

As I opened the boxes and went through his books it became clear he had been a socialist in the tradition of working class socialists – self-educated from books. Sixteen boxes brought forth a huge collection of reading covering politics, economics, philosophy, sociology, trades union histories. No book of importance was missing – all the seminal works for the hungry learner were there – more than 700 books.

From the remaining 11 boxes came a further 400 or so tomes, a remarkable selection of literature. The complete works of Shakespeare and Burns, as far as I could see, the great poets, novelists, playwrights, short story writers, significant lit crit works, and a fine selection of usage and reference books.

But it was from John’s notes in the books that I came to know him. As I began flicking through the well-thumbed pages I became accustomed to the copious notes presaging his quick, perceptive mind.

Here was a serious student – probing, analysing, questioning. No sycophant. In a passage from Poverty of Philosophy, where Marx, disparaging of theologians, writes: “Every religion other than their own is a human invention, while their own emanates from GOD,” John had scrawled in the margin KAUTSKY! – a learned reference to the moniker Pope of Marxism, attributed to the then leading Marxist theorist of the day.

He was not averse to pedantry either. In a line from Byron “And dashest him again to earth; there let him lay,” John spotted the incorrect use of lay for lie.

I soon warmed to this working-class man with no formal education who had the gall to correct Byron and jibe at Marx.

Inevitably, the boxes remained in my flat. The next weeks were spent engrossed in John’s books, often laughing at his wonderful notes, always learning and growing in respect for the old man who’d been a neighbour for 10 years.

I spoke to his son again. He told me his father had been a labourer moving from job to job as necessity demanded, of a typically working-class life lived from week to week on the borderline of poverty. His only interest had been books, bought from market stalls, jumble sales and second-hand booksellers at weekends when he would travel to the city and scour the streets looking for bargains.

“And reading them,” he said. “That’s all he ever did, sit in his chair reading after work until bedtime. We were the last in the street to get a TV too.”

While his son spoke, I remembered with sadness another thing he’d said: “None of the family read much, none of us.”

And I began to realise how little they must have known their father.

I tried to persuade him to take the books back. To read them and find the father they never knew.

He was adamant. “No, my father spent his whole life stuck in his books and where did it get him? Nowhere. I read the morning paper and listen to the TV, that’s all I need. Life is about doing, not reading. My father didn’t understand that and our lives were all the poorer for it. That won’t happen to me. I lead a busy life and that’s the way it’ll stay. You keep his books.”

Then I thought of another of John’s notes, scrawled at the end of a James Joyce short story, Little Cloud. It is about a meeting between Little Chandler, a clerk whose ambitions have been thwarted by marriage and parenthood, and Ignatius Gallaher, an old friend and now a sophisticated journalist travelling the world.

As Gallaher tells tales of his racy lifestyle, Chandler is stricken with self pity. At the end of the story John had noted in black ink: “Gallaher confuses quality of life with movement – he is BRAINLESS.”

John’s books lay still in the boxes in my hallway. His life interred within. I tore at the black tape and unpacked them in earnest.

In a much changed world from John’s and his comrades’ – where Kindles now prevail and politics withers on the vine – will we ever see their likes again?