RA PAGE argues that if radical literature is to make an impact, it has to deal with realities that some on the left might be uncomfortable with
IN RESPONSE to Paul Simon’s largely positive recent review of Protest: Stories of Resistance in the Morning Star, I’d like to take issue with one particular comment it made — that the omission of several industrial actions in the book’s cross-section of British protest “suggests at something rather tiresomely sectarian” on my part as the book’s editor.
The entire point of the book was the opposite — to show individual British protests as part of a wider continuum of resistance, where different movements informed and influenced each other, rather than stood alone as discrete struggles.
But even at 460 pages and with 42 contributors covering 20 different protests over six centuries, Protest cannot claim to be exhaustive.
And if a bias can be found in the methodology I used to commission the book, then I’d be happy to have it pointed out. The first priority when putting the book together was to get buy-in from the authors.
You cannot commission a fiction writer — or any kind of artist — to take up one political cause or another. They won’t be conscripted.
Instead, I presented the authors with a far longer list of 50 protests in Britain, some well-known, others with practically no trace left of what happened — the Wiredrawers Strike of 1934, anyone?
All of the omissions pointed out in the Morning Star review such as the General Strike, the Dagenham women’s pay strike and Grunwick were on that original list, as well as many other famous movements — Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Newport Rising, the Liverpool Transport Strike, the Battle of Cable Street, Jarrow and the Dockers’ Dispute.
Most of them had historians or witnesses already lined up to give their time as consultants.
But the authors simply chose other protests. Artists need the freedom to choose their own subject, or perhaps more accurately, to be chosen by it — not just inspired, but physically grabbed by it or by some detail hidden within the story.
Bad writing might follow well-worn formula’s or collapse into cliche — the maverick hero fighting against the system, the dramatic moment when history turns on a sixpence — and you might argue that these tropes lend themselves to conservative, capitalist narratives such as the private “hero” versus the collective/ public “system.”
Indeed, it’s not immediately obvious how “drama,” in these terms, can be drawn out of collective stories, like union action. That may lead to bad writing.
Good writing actively avoids all these tropes, shuns simplification or hagiography and seeks to grapple with precisely what we don’t already understand.
Protagonists in good fiction don’t have to be “relatable,” like they do in ratings-driven TV. In fact, the less relatable they are, the greater the achievement of the final work, if the reader does connect with them.
As such, good fiction is one of the few things that can free itself from the identity politics that so often divides ideological debate into sects and demographics.
The writer’s love of the unknown is, I suspect, the reason why several of the above-mentioned protests were omitted. The fact that high-profile films have been, or are currently, being made about many of them — Comrades, Made in Dagenham or Mike Leigh’s forthcoming Peterloo, — no doubt deterred authors. Why go there, when others have already?
Instead the lesser-known protests, like Maggie Gee’s May Hobbs, a union story that Paul Simon seems to have skipped, had more immediate appeal.
This impulse to understand what we don’t currently understand must also be at the heart of our political engagement and several of the authors deliberately chose unsympathetic characters to pin their story on — a brutalised soldier conscripted by landowners to evict the Diggers, a religious zealot defying proven fact in clinging to her cause, a South Yorkshire miner who, bowing to pressures, breaks the strike.
Good fiction tries to reach out to its opposite sensibility, to the far bank if you like, and understand it.
As lefties we may feel that we are the ones on the far bank much of the time and that we need to be understood. But if we’re not capable of reaching out to our opposite, we may as well close the history books now.
Protest: Stories of Resistance is available from Comma Press, commapress.co.uk, at the reduced price of £13.50.