A Working Class Literature podcast double-episode in which we talk to acclaimed author, poet and Professor of Children’s Literature, Michael Rosen, about his anthology, Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain, which gathers together short stories from the labour and socialist press between 1880 and 1920.
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- Part 1: Michael explains the social context for the stories, why their authors put socialist ideas in this form, and the radical content of popular folk and fairy tales.
- Part 2: Michael shows how popular children’s stories (like Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland) are shot through with the political content of their adult authors. He also reads a story from his anthology by William Morris and explains how all culture, including children’s writing, contains contest
- Bonus episode: More from our conversation with Michael, in which he goes into more detail about the historical context for these stories as well as the history and ideas of a tradition within the labour movement called syndicalism – available exclusively for our patreon supporters.
You can get hold of a copy of Michael’s book, below:
Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain
We always endeavour to be as accurate as possible, but we are only human so occasionally we err. In part 1, Michael makes reference Aesop’s fable ‘The Dog and the Wolf’, but says fox instead of wolf.
- As always, huge thanks to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible.
- Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here. Or stream it here.
- This episode was edited by Jesse French.
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Matt: The years between 1880 and 1920 saw a number of key moments in British working-class politics: the rise of powerful unions, strike waves and new political organisations, including the Labour Party.
This period saw numerous publications from the working-class movement criticising the present state of things and putting forward ideas for how it could be different. One way in which they did this was to draw on traditions of popular storytelling, using fables, parables, allegories, fairy and folk tales to present why – and how – society should be transformed. This is Working Class Literature.
Matt: Before we start, a quick note to say that we’re only able to continue making these podcasts – both Working Class History and Literature – because of the support of our listeners on patreon. If you like what we do and want to help us with our work, join us on patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you can get benefits like early access to episodes, exclusive bonus content, discounted books, merch and more. Link in the show notes.
This is the first part of a double-episode with author, poet and Professor of Children’s Literature, Michael Rosen, about his anthology, Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain. Part two is available now for early listening for our Patreon supporters.
The Workers’ Tales anthology is a collection of short stories from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century labour and socialist press, which were written to entertain and educate readers of all ages on the nature of class society and the principles of socialism.
This period is one of particular significance in the history of working-class politics in Britain: it’s a period that encompasses the major strikes of ‘New Unionism’ in the 1880s and the ‘Great Labour Unrest’ in the lead up to World War One. It saw new workers’ organisations, radical ideas and political parties as well as huge wars and the expansion of empire. Michael gives an excellent historical overview of the period in our bonus episode, available exclusively for patrons.
However, another important – but often forgotten – bit of context for the stories in this anthology is that of the Socialist Sunday School.
Michael: Well, the first thing to say about the Socialist Sunday School movement is that it’s a Sunday school and that tells you a lot. What that tells you is that embedded in British culture was ‘The Sunday School’. Some young people may not even know what that is. I was brought up in a time when maybe as many as half or two-thirds of the children in my primary school class would go to Sunday school on a Sunday. These were the formal Sunday schools, the religious Sunday schools, which were run by most of the churches in different forms. For the Catholic church, it was a way of training children in preparation for confirmation and so they were learning the Catechism and that sort of thing. The Church of England would have another set of principles at Sunday school and there were also the Methodists. By and large, most of the Christian kids in my class belonged to those three versions. There’s a Jewish version: Kheder as it’s called in Hebrew and they were Hebrew classes where children will go and learn Hebrew. That’s a bit equivalent to Muslim kids going to the madrassa and learning Arabic. This idea of going on a Sunday for a form of religious training was deeply, deeply embedded in British culture. In fact, when we talk about literacy and when we talk about story or we talk about consciousness, it’s a crucial part of growing up for millions of people at this time. In fact, you could argue that a lot of these stories really rely on the fact that the way in which people configured ideas was through the tellings that went on in places like Sunday schools.
I had a bit of Sunday school education in two ways; one through Hebrew classes, which I went to for a bit, but also through the kind of religious instruction that we had at school. These involved not simply just telling the stories in the Bible, but also the retelling of Jesus’ parables. Let’s just hold, let’s say, one of the most famous in our mind there, The Good Samaritan. As is told in the Bible, Jesus tells a story about a Jewish bloke lying by the side of the road in rags and he’s been beaten up or he’s hurt and so the good Samaritan comes along and helps him and this is the story about helping your fellow man, even though Jews and Samaritans were not getting on very well at the time of the Bible and so Jesus tells this story about loving your neighbour which is part of it. In Sunday schools, these kinds of stories were told. When you’ve got a socialist movement developing, when they’re thinking, ‘Why do we, in the socialist movement just think that the only place children can go for ideas should be those controlled by the churches?’ They basically said, ‘We can run a form of Sunday school.’ What they’re doing is taking the prevailing culture and saying, ‘We can adapt it.’ Basically, this movement (and it was a movement) spread. I’ve seen various statistics on it but some people suggest that there were hundreds of branches involving tens of thousands of children. Of course, they needed stuff to read and to talk to the children with and so that’s why you get someone like FJ Gould, who is represented in the book, who wrote specifically socialist tales. In fact, he wrote a huge number of tales and some of them were more like saying, ‘This is how the world works.’ They’re almost like adjuncts to school. These socialist Sunday schools had almost ten commandments of their own to learn about being kind and good with each other and so on. It was a very strong movement and then it dwindled and dwindled as these things do. It can be seen alongside somebody’s else, who is represented in the book, called Blatchford who we might come back to. He is a very interesting figure because Blatchford believed in a form of – I have to use this phrase very carefully – national socialism; in other words, a sort of form of patriotic socialism. I’m not talking about Hitler here at all. Robert Blatchford (1851-1943) is a crucial figure because he did set up a whole set of organisations, like cycling clubs and the like, to support the idea that socialism could go on in a social way amongst working people. This is not the same as anarcho-syndicalism because it’s not about a formal organisation taking power. In a sense, it’s almost just the opposite. It’s saying, ‘We can organise ourselves into working people’s cycling clubs,’ and so on. Famously, Raphael Samuel in his book, Theatres of Memory, places quite a strong emphasis on the idea of self-organisation no matter where and no matter how. Other people think that, in some ways, it was more of a kind of distraction but this is a matter of debate. Blatchford himself appears in the book with various stories. For some people, he’s rather a dishonourable figure because he did as much if not more than anybody at making sure that working people got behind the flag and went off to fight in the First World War but I wasn’t going to get particularly into that.
Matt: The authors in Workers’ Tales come from a variety of political backgrounds and traditions. Michael discusses a few of them here and he also mentions quite a few different people and groups, some of which listeners may be unfamiliar with, so I’ll try to summarise some of the more significant ones:
- The Clarion was a weekly socialist newspaper started in 1890 by Robert Blatchford (who Michael spoke about earlier) and was the best-selling socialist publication of its time
- The Commonweal was the newspaper of the Socialist League, a revolutionary socialist group started by (among others) the painter and textile designer, William Morris, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter;
- The Labour Church was a Christian socialist organisation which produced the Labour Prophet newspaper and the Labour Hymn Book. At its height in the mid-1890s, it had over 50 congregations across the UK as well as some in Australia, New Zealand and the United States
- The Independent Labour Party was a political party set up at the end of the nineteenth century that was to the left of the Labour Party
- Keir Hardie was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party and then, later, the Labour Party itself
- The Fabian Society was (and, to an extent, still is) a British socialist organisation promoting progressive change by reform rather than revolution
- Michael also mentions a movement called syndicalism, which is a rank-and-file tradition within the labour movement that seeks to advance working-class politics through direct action rather than politicians. Michael discusses syndicalism in a bit more detail in our bonus episode, available now for our supporters on Patreon.
Anyway, like I was saying, these authors came from a variety of political traditions…
Michael: What I’ve put in the book is really quite a mixture in terms of intention and, if you like, their source or their provenance, as it’s called, or where they come from. You’ve got to imagine a time before telly and radio and you have the first major, mass-market newspapers and magazines coming out of the Rothermere press and so on. These are circulating amongst working people and almost in reply, there’s a huge network of socialist newspapers. It’s very difficult, I noticed, for the historians to even keep track of them because they rise up, say, in the South Wales coalfield or the Yorkshire coalfield and then disappear. They’re kind of self-made newspapers that are trying to support working people in their actions but also in their social lives. It’s amazingly lively and fertile because these are, by and large, working people writing about what they want and their conditions of work. You have the formal ones like The Clarion, the Commonweal and then you’ve got the Daily Citizen and so on. You’ve got smaller ones: Labour Prophet, for example, which was the official organ of something called the Labour Church. You have Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly. You have Today: The Monthly Gathering of Bold Thoughts which then turned into The Monthly Magazine of Scientific Socialism. You have Workmen’s Times, a weekly periodical published first in Huddersfield, and then in London, and then in Manchester which was largely affiliated to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which many people will have forgotten the ILP and which went into the Labour Party. You have Labour Leader that was founded in Glasgow by Keir Hardie in 1888 which, in turn, came from a newspaper called The Miner. You have this whole network of newspapers, and many others that I’m not referring to that just popped up and then disappeared again, which were trying to represent forms of socialism, syndicalism or, indeed, the main organs of the Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the organisations that preceded it, like the Social Democratic Federation. In this book, in a sense, I’ve culled these stories from these newspapers and magazines. So they’re circulating and not all of them but, by and large, most of them are actually written for adults which is slightly misleading because we’re so used to the idea of the word ‘fairytale’ meaning ‘therefore, for children’ but fairy stories and folktales… that’s a whole other complicated issue. They were meant for as wide an audience as possible. Let’s forget there are adults and children. They’re for people. That’s one of the intentions of them. They’re actually what you might call ‘populist’ tales. It’s a way of configuring socialist ideas into popular forms like parables, allegories, fables, fairytales and even using a couple of literary ideas like science fiction and what I call ‘mystery tales’. That’s the source, if you like, for these stories.
Matt: There isn’t any writing from the authors in the anthology explaining why they thought it was important to put socialist ideas into the form of fairy tales and fables. However, Michael speculates, with reference to British Communist folk singer, Ewan MacColl, and Russian Communist novelist, Maxim Gorky, that these writers may have have been trying to draw on easily recognisable forms to promote potentially new ideas.
Michael: I can’t say that I’ve read any theory from any of those people saying why exactly they thought they could or should cast socialistic ideas into these narratives, into these little short stories. I’ve heard people like, say, Ewan MacColl talking about what he thought he was doing. So, to jump forward to Ewan MacColl and to then work backwards, if you like… and to others, so people like Maxim Gorky in Russia. We’ll just pick on some of these people. So, someone like Ewan MacColl thought that he was distilling the best ideas that came out of working-class movements and working-class action, whether he heard that in the speech of working people or in what he saw written down, and turning those into forms that already existed amongst working people. With the help of Charles Parker, he would go out and record working people talking about the nature of their work and then turn those into songs and, in a sense, kind of feeding them back. It was a mixture of class consciousness or resistance that MacColl tried to express through the songs and he was doing this very, very knowingly. He knew what he was doing. You can go through the songs and I could almost underline the bits where I know that he took that phrase from somebody he either interviewed or Charles Parker did and put them into the songs. One of the first songs he ever wrote was about the great Kinder Scout resistance to get the paths open on Kinder Scout and he wrote his song I’m a Rambler and some lyrics are ‘I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester Way. You may think I’m a wage slave on Monday but I am a free man on Sunday.’
[I’m a Rambler by Ewan MacColl]
Matt: The Kinder Scout resistance that Michael mentioned was a mass trespass which took place in 1932 at Kinder Scout, a large moorland plateau in the Peak District between Manchester and Sheffield. The mass trespass was organised by activists from the Communist Party in response to the Duke of Devonshire, who owned the land and had restricted access so that the area could be kept for the local upper classes to use for shooting grouse.
Ewan MacColl took part in the Kinder Scout trespass and he wrote this song shortly after. The song undoubtedly deals in serious subjects; but, as cultural critic Ben Harker explains, it does so in a playful way with a “jaunty melody” and “waltzy swing” as well as musical theatre-style storytelling. MacColl, therefore, draws on popular forms and rhythms for his political message.
Michael: So that idea of ‘I’m a free man on Sunday’, he took from what was in the air from a political movement and then he created this song. If you look at that and then, again, if you go a bit earlier and you find somebody like Gorky in the 1930 – I can’t remember the exact year – sitting down and saying, ‘What are we trying to do?’ This was in the Soviet Union but one of the key things that Gorky and others were looking at was, ‘what do we do about the tales and the traditional stories that already exist amongst the working people?’ that, in theory, the Soviet Union was supposed to be acting on behalf of. We know that, or at least I know, that all got corrupted heavily. It was worse than corrupted and it became a disaster. Just in cultural terms, Gorky identified certain aspects of what they called ‘the folk tradition’ where there are resistant elements in it. He identified, for example, the German trickster stories of somebody called Till Eulenspiegel and said, ‘This has got class content.’ It’s about a peasant who, in a sense, is poking fun at and resisting the rising middle class or, indeed, the aristocracy or the church. He said, ‘We can, in a sense, ride on that and create our own stories using those sorts of stories.’ If you then work backwards to this collection, I can see aspects of that. There are versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. There is a story called ‘The Man Without a Heart’. Now these are very much along the ideas of the folk and fairy story but adapting it for the use of socialist story. You have those stories which are very much in this longstanding tradition of adapting a form that’s already there and then others are looking sideways, if you like, into literary traditions. You’ve got what I call ‘mystery stories’ that I’ve already mentioned and this was a vogue that started up in the 19th century of creating stories that… if I tell you, for example, there’s a Hans Christian Andersen story called ‘The Shadow’. This is about a man who has a shadow and the shadow takes over from the man. It’s a very mysterious, you might call it a fantasy, and other people might use the word ‘expressionist’ but the idea is that we are divided in our heads and the shadow represents that. There’s then a power struggle between the man and the shadow. That idea and that way of telling stories, I’ve represented in the book as well. You’ve got a guy called Winchevsky, for example, who has got a story called ‘He, She and It’ which is very like that. There’s another tradition which is really like a science fiction one. You’ve got a story called ‘The Martian’s Visit to Earth’ and another one I’m very fond of called ‘The Aerial Armada’ about what took place in AD 2000. In a way, it’s predicting the Battle of Britain and it was written in 1913. If you think, air flight and militarised air flight was just beginning and there was someone writing in a socialist journal predicting that what will happen is that all these battles that we’re being told and forced to join in, it’ll all go into the air. As we know from the whole history of aerial bombing that came to pass. There are these traditions that these stories rest on and I think people thought they could rejuvenate and revolutionise forms that already existed and that way, you made them more accessible. I can sit there and paraphrase a socialist writer, like Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx for that matter, and do it as a speech and it will be full of abstract ideas. The advantage of a story is that it will be attached to beings that we recognise which may be humans or they may be animals. The William Morris story uses talking animals which is a very old tradition going all the way back to Aesop if not earlier, as we know, so thousands of years old, in order to show the follies of humans. In fact, some of the Aesop fables I could almost have put in the book because they are, in their own way, quite revolutionary.
Matt: Aesop was a former slave and storyteller from Ancient Greece credited with inventing the stories now known collectively as Aesop’s Fables. These stories were short and, as will be seen, concluded with an ethical or political lesson for the listener.
Michael: I’m thinking of the one where the fox is very envious of the dog and thinks, ‘Wow! How can you be so well fed?’ The dog says, ‘It’s no problem. Where I live, all I have to do is just keep guard.’ The fox says, ‘Wow! Is that all you have to do? By the way, while we’re talking, I’ve noticed you’ve got a thing around your neck. What is that?’ The dog says, ‘You don’t want to worry about that.’ The fox says, ‘No, what is it?’ The dog says, ‘Oh, it’s just a thing I wear. The person who looks after me, I call him my master. He attaches a lead.’ The fox says, ‘How do you mean a lead?’ The dog replies, ‘In a way, the master kind of owns me.’ The fox says, ‘I’ll tell you what. In order to get food, if I’ve got to give up my freedom, I think I’ll forget that.’ That’s my quick adaptation of an old Aesop fable which is three thousand years old, I think. In a way, that’s what these stories are. They encapsulate ideas in the beings, human or animal, that we recognise. I’ve often said about narrative, whether it’s stories, fiction, short stories, films and so on, that what they are are ideas married to feelings, attached to beings that we recognise. So I could tell you to take over the means of production and it’s not attached to any being but if I tell you the story of Animal Farm, it’s attached to beings we recognise and the animals take over the farm, the pigs take over the farm. When you read that story, we read it allegorically, on the one hand, thinking about the pigs and on the other hand, thinking about human beings. Ideas about socialism or, indeed, the corruption of socialism (which is what Animal Farm is about) they are made more immediate to us and you could argue that Animal Farm is really one of the most, if not the most, successful examples of any of these kinds of stories encapsulating ideas attached to these creatures. Of course, we have feelings: when Boxer the horse is in the van kicking and trying to get out, your heart bleeds. It works because you care, they make you care.
If you think about politics as knowledge, how do you carry that knowledge with you? If we think socialism and socialist ideas are important, how do you carry these? I think this book does ask the question as to how do we carry socialist ideas. How are they made portable? I can only guess but that’s also how these writers thought. ‘How can I make these ideas portable?’
Matt: As Michael explained, one way of making these ideas portable was by drawing on resistant elements that already existed within popular or folk storytelling traditions. The German folklore character that Michael mentioned earlier, Till Eulenspiegel, is one such example; however, as Michael explains, there are also other examples closer to home.
Michael: The most famous of all is Robin Hood. You can look at Robin Hood and think of it as jolly, green men running around in the forest, having nice things to eat and every now and then having an argument with a toff called the Sheriff of Nottingham and, indeed, with King John or if you just place over it, without being too doctrinaire and didactic about it, and say, ‘What are we talking about here?’ Here are outlaws. Who are outlaws? Outlaws are people who’ve run away from serfdom. Serfdom is a form of slavery. It’s not as powerful and awful. Basically, you were tied through the feudal chains to a lord and master, to an aristocrat. Of course, as we might expect, people ran away and when they ran away, they became outlaws and people could come running after them or not. Some people just headed for the city where they became employed but others, clearly if the Robin Hood story is anything to do with reality, became a form of travelling people. They became communalist and then they had another problem: where to get food. Outside of common land, everywhere was owned by big landowners who were often aristocrats or officials. If you start reading Robin Hood with these eyes, these deer that they go off and hunt, as we know, they don’t belong to the guys in the forest. They belong to the ruling order. Now we’ve got outlaws who’ve run away from serfdom and they’re nicking stuff that technically belongs to the ruling order. Now we’ve got these encounters between Robin Hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and King John, these are forms of class struggle. This all sounds terribly doctrinaire and finger-pointy by me but, I mean, how else do we describe it? At the heart of it, if you’re looking at it through class terms, that’s what it is. Remember these stories, the Robin Hood stories were originally songs and maybe some oral tales and then bit by bit they got, if you like, formalised into stories and then into books. There was a lot of other stuff added on like the story of how he died and how he was tricked but the core of them appeared in a collection of tales called A Gest of Robyn Hode (gest meaning a collection of stories). That would be an example but, that said, that’s like a whole story cycle that you would normally call legends. But you also have, within the folk tradition, very, very simple stories that are quite often about the little guy versus the big guy.
If you take, for example, Puss in Boots, it rests on the idea that the third son of the miller is not very provident and he hasn’t got much money but then with the help of a very wiley cat, he comes to overcome a great ogre. It’s quite interesting because the ogre is really a kind of aristocrat. We don’t think of ogres as aristocrats but in the story, it’s made quite clear because the ogre lives in a castle and owns vast stretches of land. Not in a very socialistic way, it ends up that the miller’s son and the cat take over the castle, the chateau, whatever it is, because of their cleverness and wileyness in dealing with it all, particularly the cat; the miller’s son is not all that wiley. Again, it’s the little guy against the big guy. You can look at many of these stories, if you want to, in terms of the social order, which I might describe that as class terms and you might describe that as the social order, and whether it gets disrupted, subverted, by the axis of the story; the moment at which the big guy is overcome. This upsets the social order. As I say, I’m not saying it’s socialism but there’s something subversive about that remaking of the social order that often goes on in traditional folk stories and fairy stories.
Matt: Another part in the Puss in Boots story that can be read as subverting the social order is when, in order to trick the king into thinking the miller’s son is actually an aristocrat called the “Marquis of Carabas”, the cat tells the miller’s son to take off all his clothes, jump in the river and claim to have been robbed by bandits. The trick works; but its implications also undermine the idea that social hierarchies are based on god-given or inherent differences between people from different classes: just like the day we’re born, without clothes a miller’s son could just as well be an aristocrat, and every bit as worthy of comfort, luxury and even marriage to a princess as an aristocrat as well
Michael: It undermines the dynastic principle that you’re entitled to have all this stuff simply because you came out of the womb of another aristocrat. Yes, indeed, it subverts all that because you just basically took it over by a form of violence and trickery. When the ogre says he could be a lion and then very cunningly, Puss in Boots says, ‘Can you be a mouse?’ The ogre says, ‘Yeah, I can turn myself into anything.’ Of course, then Puss just jumps on him and eats him and that’s the end of it. It’s not only the little guy versus the big guy but that these stories represent a yearning for a better life. Many of those original stories are coming out probably from the 15th century onwards. Many of these things that we call ‘folk stories’ and ‘fairy stories’ probably came out at that time but others say much earlier, so there’s a dispute about that. They come out of a common experience of the vast mass of people of grinding poverty, the most unbelievable amount of labour, very short lives and they could see alongside them the massive luxury of the aristocracy. It wasn’t invisible. They’re living in some hovel, quite literally. It’s a hovel or a barrack with a few sticks with a bit of thatch on it or something and there, within eyesight, is the Lord of the Manor living in this huge castle, mansion, stately home or whatever, and they could see that “you’re just a human being” but they were living there. This power, exactly as you’re suggesting, was maintained through the mystique of the aristocracy, the chivalric code, crowns and armour. The mystique that this was, somehow or other, the order that had to be sustained
, exactly as you say, these stories do undermine that.
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for in part one. Join us for part two where (among other things) Michael will perform a reading of the first story from his anthology, ‘An Old Fable Retold’ by the famous socialist, William Morris. He also talks to us more about children’s stories from a radical perspective, such as the underlying politics of class in stories like Wind in the Willows. We also have a bonus episode where Michael goes into more detail about the historical context for the stories in Workers’ Tales as well as the history and ideas behind syndicalism.
Our patreon supporters can listen to all of that now. For everyone else, part two will be out shortly.
So if you enjoyed the show and want access to the bonus content (as well as early access to episodes, and discounts on books and merch), do consider joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. And if you can’t spare any money right now, that’s no problem; you can still support us by sharing our content and giving us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app.
The music for this episode was the Italian anti-fascist resistance song, ‘Bella Ciao’, courtesy of Dischi del Sole. Links to stream and buy it in the show notes.
I also want to say thanks to all the Working Class History patrons for making this sister-podcast possible and a special thank you to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson and Fernando López-Ojeda. We wouldn’t be able to make these shows without the support that all of you give us.
Anyway, that’s it for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.
Matt: Welcome back to part two of our double podcast episode with Michael Rosen, about his anthology of socialist fairy tales and fables. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, I recommend you go back and listen to that first.
Matt: Before we get into the episode, this is just a quick reminder that we are only able to produce this podcast thanks to support from our listeners on patreon. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merch and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
Children’s stories are frequently shot through with all kinds of social and political assumptions, which are included (intentionally or not) by their adult authors. Everything from who the good guys are, who – or what – threatens them, what constitutes a tragedy or a happy ending are all based on ideas of what’s good and proper in society.
Michael: Some stories that were given to children were what we call very ‘reactionary in ideas’. That’s to say that the status quo is perfect and that all sorts of people outside of your circle are threatening and dangerous. You’re entitled to the privilege that you have and a lot of stories of this period suggest that. Famously, think of Wind in the Willows. Again, Wind in the Willows is a jolly, little animal story and we don’t need to think about class… or do we? Where does Toad live? He lives in Toad Hall. What is Toad Hall? It’s a sort of aristocratic sort of place. He’s a bit of a wayward son of the aristocracy, isn’t he? Badger is more sort of middle class and he’s very stolid. He doesn’t live in a castle or a mansion but he’s very stolid and very supportive of Toad. He’s trying to get Toad to be less wayward. Meanwhile, we have the oiks. We have the ferrets and the stoats out there and then we have Mole who is a slightly timid Bohemian. Here we’ve got a little sort of map or a few layers in English society, we could say. They’re very English figures in the way they speak. And then horror of horrors, of course, keeping with my model, the ferrets and the stoats are the working-class people who are wild and dangerous and little Mole is so scared of them. This little timid Bohemian allies himself not with the ferrets and stoats, who he lives with, but more with Badger and Toad, even though Toad is a bit of a scary, dead loss as an aristocrat. Luckily, there’s Badger who can, as it were, pull Toad into line to get on with ruling over the world in a better way. Here you’ve got a classic case of a status quo story. The status quo is disrupted by the ferrets and stoats who are kind of en masse, unnamed and do horrible things like mocking the ruling class, calling out from the depths of the wood. The status quo is resumed when they’re driven out. There’s a frightful, terrible, disgusting image of the ferrets and stoats living it up, an absolute life of Riley, in Toad’s house when they’ve effectively conducted a revolution. All this is a very alien way of talking about children’s books but actually, bear in mind that it’s an adult who’s written this and must have been aware of all this stuff when writing it.
There you’ve got an example of a status quo type story but then if you take the Alice books, it’s quite odd. They’re written by somebody who’s sitting in the most classic ivory tower of all: Christchurch College in Oxford. In fact, it’s so ivory tower, you’re not even supposed to call it a college. You’re supposed to call it: “Christchurch”. Really, you’re not even supposed to say it’s part of the university; you just say: “Christchurch”. That’s how posh it is. There he is, sitting there in some kind of odd, religious role that he had in the college and he produces the Alice books. When you read the Alice books, what they are is quite extraordinary because here you’ve got this young girl and it’s not quite clear who she belongs to or where she’s from, so she’s a bit disembodied. Once she’s in Wonderland, she challenges every form that she meets. Whether it’s something that’s non-identifiable in class terms, like the Cheshire cat, or it’s much more identifiable, sort of, pompous old farts and people trying to push her about a bit, she challenges them all. In terms of a sort of… I suppose you could say feminist but certainly, in terms of upsetting the social order, she defies it all. The status quo is not accepted. When she’s in Wonderland, she won’t accept what she’s told. Quite a lot of it is about word games and language games but that doesn’t matter. Remember how, in life, we’re very much contained, particularly at that time, in the language that is given to children in schools. Caroll was forever parodying this and instead of writing and reading, he calls it ‘reeling and writhing’. You may think that’s very mild but it develops through the stories of constant subverting of the status quo, whether in terms of language or logic. There’s Humpty Dumpty making up what he calls ‘portmanteau’ words.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
You might think there’s nothing revolutionary or subversive about that. Well, isn’t there? Maybe there is because, after all, people were always telling Victorian kids to learn these famous, classical poems, whether in Latin, or Greek, or English, about somebody going out and defeating a dragon or something. Lewis Carroll or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (as he’s known), has turned that into a sort of mocking thing and he does that again with a very boring little poem that was given to kids at Sunday schools – ‘How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour?’ It was a way to teach children they must get on and work and that they mustn’t indulge in fripperies or too much playtime. He mocked that with ‘How doth the busy crocodile improve his shining tail.’ There’s a lot of mockery of the established order in Lewis Carroll. If you put the Alice book alongside Wind in the Willows, you can see that the traditions going on, largely middle-class consumption, are actually very varied. They’re not simply one uniform pattern.
Matt: With all that in mind, the various entries in Workers’ Tales are very much part of a tradition that uses seemingly simple stories to put forward ideas about society and how it should be; in this case, more the tradition that subverts the social order than the one that supports it. Here, Michael reads the first story from his anthology, ‘An Old Fable Retold’ by William Morris:
Michael: In the days before man had completely established his domination over the animal world, the poultry of a certain country, unnamed in my record, met in solemn conference in the largest hall they could hire for their money: the period was serious, for it was draw ing near Christmas, and the question in the debate partook of the gravity of the times; for, in short, various resolutions, the wording of which has not come down to us were to be moved on the all important subject, ‘with what sauce shall we be eaten?’
Needless to say that the hall was crowded to suffocation, or that an overflow meeting (presided over by working-class leaders) was held on the neighbouring dung-hill.
All went smoothly; the meeting was apparently unanimous and certainly enthusiastic, abundant wisdom was poured out on the all-important question, and the hearts of all glowed with satisfaction at the progress of the race of—poultry. The very bantam-hens were made happy by the assurance that their claims to cackling were seriously considered.
But when the hands of the clock were pointing to ten minutes to ten the excited audience, as they recovered from the enthusiasm produced by one of the great speeches of the evening, saw on the platform beside the chairman a battered looking and middle-aged barn-door cock, who they perceived was holding forth in a lugubrious voice, praising the career and motives of every advanced politician of the poultry yard. This bored the audience a great deal, but being used to it they stood it with patience for some time, till at last the orator’s voice got rather clearer and louder, and he spoke somewhat as follows:—“Sir, I know I have little right to air my own theories (cheers) after the remarkably and clear exposition of the rights of poultry, which has been delivered in various ways on this platform to-night (loud cheers), but I am free to confess that one idea has occurred to me which seems to have escaped the more educated minds of our leaders to-night; (cries of Oh, Oh)—the idea is this!” Here he stopped dead, and amid ironical cheers tried nervously to help himself to water from the long-ago emptied decanter, then at last blurted out in a trembling, shrieking voice not without a suspicion of tears in it; “In short I don’t want to be eaten at all: is it poss—”
But here a storm of disapproving cries broke out, amongst which could be heard loudest the words ‘practical politics!’ ‘county franchise,’ ‘great liberal party,’ ‘municipal government for—Coxstead!’ which at last all calmed themselves down into a steady howl of ‘question, question!’ in the midst of which the ragged, middle-aged cock withdrew, apparently not much more depressed than when he first stood up.
After his departure the meeting ended in all harmony, and a resolution was passed with great enthusiasm that the conclusions come to as embodied in the foregoing resolutions should be engrossed and forwarded to the farmer’s wife (or widow was it?) and the head poulterer.
A rumour has reached us that while there were doubts as to the sauce to be used in the serving up, slow stewing was settled on as the least revolutionary form of cookery.
Moral: Citizens, pray draw it for yourselves.
Matt: This story actually reminds me of a novel that was published sometime afterwards: Robert Tressell’s socialist classic, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. I’m thinking specifically of that chapter when working-class Liberal and Tory supporters are arguing at an election meeting; socialists try to participate, but are told not to disturb the meeting and are threatened with violence. The difficulty of cutting through conventional wisdom was (and, if we’re honest, continues to be) a common experience and we can read Morris, like Tressell after him, as holding that up for satire.
Michael: The idea of chickens arguing with themselves as to which sauce would be the best means of delivering them up dead is a wonderful parody. You could argue it’s almost like saying First World War soldiers are arguing over whether they should have a rifle or a carbine and marching off to war to be shot. We could count it millions of times over that we conspire in the means of our own downfall by being distracted by worrying about whether I’m going to be wearing boots or shoes. It’s a very cunning little story and I quite like the way he set it in the middle of a meeting in which people are solemn when they’re discussing these things and passing resolutions.
Matt: In his introduction, Michael writes that the stories in his anthology represent socialism “at its most hopeful, perhaps at its most innocent”, something which might not be immediately obvious to readers today.
Michael: Yes, I guess what I meant by that is that amongst this group of stories – as it happens, it’s almost contradicted by what I’ve just read to you because they are without cynicism. That William Morris one is the most cynical of the stories because it’s saying the working-class movement is constantly getting diverted into arguing about which is the best way to serve them up. That’s, if you like, the most cynical. Most of the stories are full of a form either of optimism that if only you could just see how exploitation works, then with that realisation, the thing would crumble and so there’s a sort of innocence there or some of the stories are quite good at expressing… I wouldn’t say terror exactly but certainly awful stuff. I’m thinking of one story, ‘The Nightmare Bridge’ by Glanville Maidstone from 1920. It’s quite interesting because a story like that doesn’t have an end. It’s just telling you there’s this awful, frightening and terrible place and the question is asked by one of the people in the story, ‘Do we have to live with this? Do we have to endure it?’ Where are we? ‘But the crowd,’ I said, ‘Will the crowd endure this? There’s so many. They could pull the railings down,’ and so on.
Think of the period 1880-1920 and it does cover the First World War, although there’s not much about militarism in these stories. It’s prior to the disaster of Nazism and Stalinism. Both these two terrible mid-20th century historical tragedies have cast different kinds of shadows but both shadows over the left-wing movement: Nazism because it was a disaster for the whole of Europe and indeed, of course, more particularly for the German working class and people of my background, Jews. It was an unbelievable disaster and so that casts one light but also, more than that; that Nazism revealed a form of bestiality and savagery that people thought that science and the Enlightenment would avoid but in actual fact, science and the Enlightenment was employed in order to bring about the bestiality. This was beastly stuff done by very, very well-educated, intelligent scientists, philosophers and historians working out the rights of the ‘Superman’, the super race and the opposite for ‘Ubermensch’, everybody else. That has kind of chilled the hearts of the left in a variety of ways. And then, of course, the disaster of Stalinism is that for many on the left, certainly the period of 1917 maybe up until the Second World War, or maybe not as long as that, there seemed to have been some wonderful thing that had happened. Wasn’t this a socialist revolution? Wasn’t this huge place moving towards socialism? Even as the stories were coming out that there were terrible camps and torturings and whatever going on, in a sense, it was held in abeyance by the Second World War. Obviously, the Soviet Union was crucial to the defeating of Nazism at an immense sacrifice to the ordinary people of Russia and the Soviet Republics. Terrible, terrible toll that it took and maybe as many as 20 million. There’s no innocence after these two events. You can’t come out of these two moments of Nazism and Stalinism and somehow say, ‘Oh well, things will work out alright in the end. It will be okay,’ and even a sort of leftist form of optimism and saying, ‘If we could just be a bit more enlightened…’ You can’t get by without factoring in the way in which leftist, progressive, socialist ideas can be assaulted from all directions face-to-face with forms of militarism, tyranny, dictatorship and so on. But these stories, I find a sort of innocence about them because they don’t know about Nazism and Stalinism. If they had maybe lifted their eyes a bit more, they could have seen what was going on in the British Empire. But these stories seem, as I say, largely innocent of these things. Of course, they would be because they haven’t happened yet but they’re also actually innocent of the terrors of what went on in the First World War and also the terrors of the British Empire.
Matt: One entry from the anthology which sums up this kind of pre-fascism, pre-Stalin innocence is the 1887 story, ‘Aristos and Demos’ by DF Hannigan. In the story, the tyrannical king Aristos is overthrown by his subjects, led by Demos, who calls for the organisation of labour as the best way to topple the regime. The struggle is quick and largely bloodless and, after storming the palace, the people find Aristos dead amid his luxury. Though the people want to take out their anger on Aristos’ dead body, Demos calls on them not to, despite the wrongs he had made them suffer.
Michael: ‘True,’ said Demos, ‘but we have destroyed the system. Is not that enough? If they submit to human laws we will pardon them; and they like us shall honourably toil. The goods of the earth are for all. Those only shall suffer who refuse to work for the good of all. The happiness of the whole community must be our only aim and object. The tyrant has passed away and it now becomes our duty to erect upon the ruins of tyranny the Republic of Man.’
It is a reminder, if you like, of a vein of optimism and hope but you could call it naivety or innocence. It’s optimism which we also need [laughter]. We actually need optimism in order to get through.
Matt: Ultimately, what Workers’ Tales does is provide a snapshot of one aspect of working-class culture and politics in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It gives us an idea of the far-reach networks of publications and educational institutions set up largely by and for working-class people.
The stories in Michael’s anthology take many of the frameworks in fairy and folk tales and turn them into poweful modes for putting forward radical ideas about how the world works and how it could be different. In doing so, they show that even the seemingly innocent field of children’s writing is – like every area of life and culture – shot through with struggle.
Michael: Look, every area of culture contains within it contest, whether it’s film, jazz, rock music. Just name any form of culture. Dance, any of it. There’s contest. What are the contests about? Some of it is about my rights as who I am and my identity. A lot of art is about identity. It’s saying do I have equal rights to express myself? Some things are about directly contesting the status quo in some form or another. It might be the status quo in whatever social world is created in this work of art, whether it’s a palace or if you think of Shakespeare and of the society of Macbeth or whatever. There’s a society that’s presented to us and does the play, or whatever it is, affirm that? You used the word ‘signifier’ earlier and so we could say that all art is using forms of signification; that’s to say words, or the human body in dance, or notes for music and so on. Sometimes, art gets preoccupied with whether it can assault the signifier and whether it can subvert it and in other words say should that form of signification, the word or the music, stay the way it is? Let’s take music. People created what we call ‘modernist music’ or ‘experimental music’. That subverts the old things of the major/minor scales, the octave and all the rest of it. They’re subversive and there’s contest there. We can argue about which is more or less significant and you can never tell. When Bob Dylan came along, some of his songs seemed to very, very subversive and then other songs seemed to be less so and then some people said, ‘Well, if he’s got an electric guitar, it’s less subversive.’ Other people said, ‘Rubbish! It’s more subversive.’ We can always argue about that, but I would say that all art, no matter what kind, positions itself in relation to contest. Some art affirms everything that is good and fine about society. It affirms the ruling order. It might paint aristocrats or big bourgeois characters as if, somehow or other, they’re right in everything. It could represent them that way or it could cunningly present them with certain sort of aspects that undermine them. There’s a famous tradition in Renaissance art of sticking skulls around in the pictures of royalty. It’s quite cunning. It’s a little reminder that this very powerful monarch will die one day. It’s just a little mild reminder with this skull sitting in the corner of a picture of some great ruler or monarch.
All art enters contest, whether it likes it or not or even whether it intends it or not. When it comes to children’s literature,there’s no exception. Why should it be? Some of it is very, very affirmatory of the social order. In the 19th century, you get Edwardian stories with silent servants who just appear with meals and disappear again and there are no questions asked and even less answered. And others that ask questions. They may ask questions about identity, or they may ask questions about school being an important institution or, indeed, family. And I would say that in the present context, there are a lot of writers who are interested in a range of ideas that do not accept the status quo. Famously, Malorie Blackman has written the Noughts & Crosses books which took a very simple idea. Take the Romeo & Juliet idea and take the social order where, largely, white people are running things and where Black people and people of colour are. They’re not in ruling places and she switched it. She switched it so the ruling order are people of colour. She’s got a Romeo & Juliet story going of people across the colour bar, if you like, that’s created in the books in that world and they fall in love. This is all very interesting and immediately engages the attention of the reader who’s thinking, ‘Is that a mirror image of what’s in society? Oh wow!’ It invites all sorts of questions. I just take that as one example. We’ve been talking about socialist books. It’s not a socialist book and, of course, Malorie wasn’t trying to write that. She was trying to alert the attention of readers to how power and race intersect. That, in its own way, seems to me a very powerful thing to try to do with a book and with young readers.
There’s a hell of a lot of stuff out there. I’ve had a go at writing a few myself. I wrote two – what can I call them? – they’re really meant to be stories or novels that deconstruct. We’d now call it ‘decolonise’. They’re two decolonising novels. One is called You’re Thinking About Doughnuts and the other one is called You’re Thinking About Tomatoes. In Doughnuts, a little boy is awake in a museum. It’s a kind of nightmare in a museum sort of thing. In fact, I wrote it before the film Night in a Museum came out. The boy comes awake and he then meets all the things in the museum and discovers where they all come from, basically. He’s threatened and then manages to get away. He then goes to a stately home and does the same thing. They’re meant to be, if you like, that form of literature that deconstructs reality through the means of fantasy. Many of us are trying all sorts of different ways to do it. You could take a completely comic, silly set of books called Captain Underpants and they subvert, if you like, school culture. There are a couple of boys who are put upon and they have a way of turning the headteacher into a baby in underpants. The whole of the status quo of a school is undermined. It’s based on the writer Dav Pilkey’s own experience of being just written off as just this little kid who scribbled cartoons. In a way, he’s got his revenge through the book because the book is all about the power of cartooning.
People are trying all sorts of different ways and, of course, there are some books that are more status quo’ish. You could argue that at the heart of children’s books, there are two contesting ideas; one of which says that children can be agents. In a situation in which we look at society in terms of the distribution of power, then obviously children have virtually none. In the modern era in schools with what’s called ‘the knowledge-rich curriculum’, there’s a huge emphasis on children not having agency but just being passive receptors of knowledge. Anything that insists that children can be agents and are agents is, in its own way, subversive. Against that, you have at the heart of an enormous amount of children’s literature of what’s called ‘prelapsarianism’. That’s to say the idea that the world is ‘fallen’ since the time of Adam and Eve, that the world and adults are ‘fallen’, but contrasted with that, children are innocents. There’s a sort of idea that frolicking around in children’s books are children who are innocents: they’re unaware of money, debt, capitalism, murder, war, sex. They’re unaware of all these things and instead, they’re just playing. If you like, they’re two poles that tug at children’s literature. On the one hand, ‘Ain’t it fun to be a child and playing?’ and on the other, ‘Hey, if children are agents, then they can see what’s going on and respond to it.’ I think children’s literature is very interesting in that these two kind of poles contest. You can find other poles as well but I’m quite interested in the contest between those two.
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for today. We also have a bonus episode where Michael goes into more detail about the historical context for the stories included in Workers’ Tales as well as the history and ideas behind syndicalism, available now for patrons. So if you enjoyed the show and want access to the bonus content (as well as early access to episodes, and discounts on books and merch), do consider joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. And if you can’t spare any money right now, that’s no problem; you can still support us by sharing our content and giving us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app.
The music for this episode was the Italian anti-fascist resistance song, ‘Bella Ciao’, courtesy of Dischi del Sole. Links to stream and buy it in the show notes.
I also want to say thanks to all the Working Class History patrons for making this sister-podcast possible and a special thank you to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson and Fernando López-Ojeda. We wouldn’t be able to make these shows without the support that all of you give us.
Anyway, that’s it for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.
Transcribed by PODTRANSCRIBE