May Day: Sommerfield – the first new romantic

In 1936, novelist John Sommerfield used May Day as the backdrop for a tale of political optimism, writes Dan Carrier

Friday, 29th April — By Dan Carrier

John Sommerfield

Ink drawing of John Sommerfield in the late 1940s

MAY Day, the international workers’ holiday, has long held an important place in the political calendar.

And in the 1930s, when the left were warning of the rise of Nazism and fascism, May Day in London was seen as vital to rally support, raise morale and show the strength of the left.

In 1936, novelist John Sommerfield saw his novel, entitled May Day, reach the shops – and his description of Londoners in the build up to this seminal event made it an instant bestseller.

Sommerfield, who lived in Gospel Oak, was politically active – he fought fascists on London streets, and travelled to Spain in 1936 to defend the democratic government threatened by a coup led by General Franco. He served in the International Brigades and in his next book, Volunteer In Spain, wrote of his experiences.

In May Day, he captures how political activism then was not seen as the preserve of a handful of enlightened do-gooders or intellectuals. He depicted a genuine mass movement, an alliance of millions determined to build a better Britain. These were the days before the murderous Stalin regime was incorrectly linked in the public mind to communism, and its appeal against fascism and to build a better world was pronounced

May Day takes place in the last days of April and on the international workers’ holiday itself. Sommerfield creates a world sadly recognisable today: a post-crash society racked by corruption and excesses of the ruling class, falling wages, job insecurity, housing in crisis, ramshackle health services and a government determined to crack down on protests.

This provides a political backdrop, but Sommerfield’s work is deeper: he creates characters that show how politics impacts on everyone. He uses the plot to illustrate how damaging this rampant capitalist society is for all.

His factory-owning family, the Langfiers, are not shown to be despotic exploiters. Instead, their material wealth does not bring them happiness. While showing the rich being lonely and unfulfilled, his financially struggling husband and wife John and Martine are happy because they love each other. Sommerfield gives his workers dignity and illustrates how a more equitable, more equal society is happier for everyone.

Author and publisher Andy Croft wrote Red Letters, a critique of the political novel in the 1930s. He met Sommerfield, and recalls an author who carved out a unique place in British letters.

Sommerfield grew up in Paddington and went to the fee-paying University College School in Hampstead. He was already left wing as a student – he stood in the school elections as a communist and gained one vote, which happened to be his own.

“People assume he was working-class because of the subject matter of his novels. That’s not the case,” Andy told the New Journal. “He didn’t, however, go to university. He took on manual jobs and was unemployed before he earned a living as a writer.”

After leaving school aged 16, John worked on a fruit cargo ship washing dishes and as a carpenter.

“He didn’t go down a well-travelled literary path but he did have a good early education and was not self-taught. He is a clear, careful, literary writer,” Andy states. “It shows how he came up with such an original and ambitious novel.”

This gave him the base to produce work that was unique.

“It is a Modernist, communist novel, an attempt to draw a positive future,” he says. “Sommerfield used techniques taken from cinema to talk about class, about London, about the future, about politics.”

It was a trait Sommerfield recognised.

“When I wrote it, I’d have said it was socialist realism,” he said in a preface to a new edition in the 1980s.

“Now I’d call it communist romanticism. I am not apologising for the book’s enthusiastic political idealism because it was genuine idealism and there was a lot of it about then. And there still is now, not in the same forms as before, but still alive and hopeful.”

Sommerfield, who later wrote a book based in the area he lived called North West Five, used the city’s streets in May Day as a plot thickener.

“It is very specifically a London book,” adds Andy. “It is pinned to London, unlike other left-wing, working-class novels of the period that are more generic in their urban descriptions. It was his hymn to a city he knew well.

“Coming down the Thames early one morning as he returned from a voyage to New York, he had seen dawn break over London. This panoramic view of the sleeping city gave him both the book’s technical model and its opening sequence.”

As Andy points out, Sommerfield wrote the story as the war loomed.

“After 1933 and the succession of fascist triumphs across Europe, there were very few Utopian novels written on the British left,” adds Andy.

“There were a great many novels, written by socialists and set in the future, but almost all of these imagined the political worst. May Day remains one of the last fictional attempts of the period to represent the future as a revolutionary one, and in such an optimistic way. By the time it was published, it is almost out of date. Events had unfolded in Germany and suddenly the left were on the defensive. The desperate need to build a broad anti-fascist alliance meant the left’s revolutionary rhetoric was being toned down in the cause of the Popular Front. They needed as many allies as they could get.

“From 1935, novels dealing with political issues were more pessimistic, less critical, more defensive and rooted in compromise. But May Day is none of those things.”

May Day. By John Sommerfield, London Books Classics, £11.99

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