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London in Fiction: May Day by John Sommerfield

by Bishopsgate Institute on 12 / 03 / 2015
London Books recently republished John Sommerfield’s 1936 politically-charged novel ‘May Day’ as part of its London Classics series. This new edition was made possible by the generosity of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union and three of its officials – Bob Crow, Alex Gordon and Brian Denny. John King, co-owner of London Books, explains why the book is still as relevant today as when it was written.
 John Sommerfield's May Day
This March sees the first anniversary of the death of trade-unionist Bob Crow at the age of 52. He may have divided opinion as leader of the RMT, but even his worst enemies knew that he was an honest man. An idealist who believed in people over profit, he was also a pragmatist whose success often seemed to be resented by those in power. With Tony Benn, who passed away three days later, he represented true Labour values during an era when the party has moved further away from its roots.
 
Bob was greatly influenced by a previous generation that saw class and the workplace as the battleground for a fairer society, forming mass working-class movements and helping to create the welfare state. This generation included John Sommerfield, author of May Day.
 
First published in 1936, this unique novel is set over a three-day period that ends on May 1st. The workers in an east London factory are being bullied by new owners. Speed-ups, accidents and lost earnings have to be confronted. With today’s zero-hours contracts, wage freezes and falls, May Day could easily have been written now. But in 2015, it would struggle to find a publisher. It is just too original.
 
Sommerfield creates a vision of London that mirrors Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 film Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis, Ashley Smith’s non-fiction A City Stirs, the cut-ups of a David Bowie or DJ Shadow. There is no main character, instead a big cast of diverse individuals whose experiences weave together to create the larger tale. These threads tell us as much about the present as the 1930s. Human nature doesn’t change, so life repeats.
 
Bob Crow and John Sommerfield were optimists who felt capitalism was as bad for the bosses as the workers. They never met each other, but when the RMT funded the London Books republication of May Day in 2010 the link was cemented. A launch was held in The Brown Bear pub in the East End, once run by Bob’s aunt. He said some words and we drank to John. The circle was complete. Now it’s time to remember Bob through May Day.
 

You can hear Alex Gordon and Brian Denny discuss the impact of the book when it was first published and its relevance for today’s readers in our event May Day on Tuesday 24 March.

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