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date: 07 April 2020

The Early Fiction of John Sommerfield

Abstract and Keywords

This article, which concentrates on the early work of the left-wing writer John Sommerfield, seeks to establish a firmer basis for his importance not only as a Communist novelist, but as a figure whose career illustrates continuities between strands of modernist and socialist writing, usually understood as separate and incompatible. It first reads Sommerfield’s first novel, They Die Young, as an apprentice piece that tests several distinctly “modern” approaches to literary narrative before signaling his intention to attempt a new hybrid mode of socialist literary experiment. It then reappraises the collective novel May Day in light of the increasing attention of modernist studies to political engagement and emergent mass media. Finally, it insists on the value of Sommerfield’s wartime writing, which offers a startling literary perspective on both Spanish Civil War combat and the experience of logistical operations during the World War II.

Keywords: John Sommerfield, fiction, war, modernism, They Die Young, The Death of Christopher, May Day, George Orwell, Volunteer in Spain

John Sommerfield’s claim to relevance within the history of British modernism is strong, if not immediately apparent.1 Despite a revival of interest in his writing, Sommerfield’s reputation still rests largely on the innovative political novel May Day, a formally experimental narrative first published in 1936 that deals with an imagined general strike “a few years hence.”2 The only one of his works to remain in print, May Day was reissued in 1984 and again (by a different publisher) in 2010; in both cases its reappearance can be interpreted as a response to recurrences of economic crisis. On the basis of May Day alone, Sommerfield has been depicted—with some justification—as a notable writer of the British interwar Left and as a major “London” novelist, yet his other early works have not so far received a comparable degree of critical attention. Nor has his engagement with modernist literary aesthetics been properly assessed. This article aims to show how Sommerfield’s writing was shaped by both Communist politics and modernist aesthetics in the first part of his career. It does not deal with later, more formally conservative novels such as The Adversaries (1952), The Inheritance (1956), or North West Five (1960), since those works belong to a later stage of Sommerfield’s writing, during which the influence of modernist experimentation on his writing had begun to wane.

High modernism, however, had been Sommerfield’s starting point; his first novel, They Die Young, was an attempt at a modernist Bildungsroman. Written before Sommerfield had become a member of the Communist Party, it describes the disillusionment of an aesthetically minded young man who, having been sent down from Oxford for some undisclosed reason, first leaves England to live with his estranged father in New York, then takes ship to pursue his romantic notion of life at sea. The book suffers badly from long passages of overwriting, as well as from a thoughtless attitude to racial difference that cannot be imputed entirely to its impulsive young protagonist. Nevertheless, this early work—renamed The Death of Christopher for the American market—establishes Sommerfield’s engagement with problems of novel form in response to an international corpus of modernist writing from Virginia Woolf to John Dos Passos. If at times that engagement shades into pastiche, They Die Young nonetheless counts as an important apprentice piece, anticipating as it does many of the concerns and methods of May Day. Sommerfield’s interest in the human consequences of technological advancement, the relationship between complex modern societies and individual liberty, and the stifling effects of corporate rationality are all aired for the first time here, in the predicament of Christopher.

The novel begins in parodically impressionist mode. After a house party, Christopher lies amid a tangle of bodies:

He gazed blankly until before his mazed eyed took place—the disc of a plate, its whiteness broken by transient high lights; in the middle, slightly to one side, lay coiled up an anchovy, and near by, its satellite, frozen in mid orbit—half an olive. Chaste olive, aloof as befits all satellites whose goddess is Diana herself; lunary olive with bitten face turned eternally towards its gross earth, world of anchovy. Abandoned and forlorn they lay in the centre of the plate’s whiteness.

Still life, he murmured.

Provoked to the bathos of this reflection by the glimpse of leftover party food, Christopher is the first of several characters in Sommerfield’s fiction who seek transfiguration through aesthetic form for the unpromising matter of everyday experience. Christopher, however, lends this morning-after insight to a narrative still suffering under the previous decade’s influence: They Die Young never quite decides whether its real interest lies in meaningless naturalist leavings (the anchovy, half an olive) or in modernist mythological method (Diana herself). Once aboard ship, the former seems likely to dominate in the form of “spotted foreheads oozing sweat, grimed hands, chewed fingernails … dust-speckled air, a hundred untidy aspects of realism” (158), yet watching a stoker expectorate over the side, Christopher indulges in some Whitmanesque doggerel whereby “the spittle is merged into the Caribbean, / Spreads all through the wide Atlantic / into the far Pacific / and all the Oceans … ” (184). Similar tonal waverings occur throughout They Die Young, suggesting that Christopher’s archness may be the measure of an uncertainty that belongs as much to the author as to the protagonist.

Not just the weight of modernism but the weight of modernity lies heavily on Christopher, who feels the usual mixture of fear and fascination regarding the world of technology, which seems to be on the cusp of replacing his youthful world of tangled undergrowth and parkland with a different set of rhythms and demands. Even before his transatlantic crossing, he finds himself attuned to these new and potent forces by virtue of the steam train in which he heads into the English countryside for a rainy Sunday visit. As his mind wanders, Christopher finds himself absorbed by the “penetrating rhythm” of the railway journey. Telegraph poles and mileposts whizz by—“Time kept pace with its quick beat and thought was fettered to it”—until the dissonance between written language and mechanical temporality exercises a distorting effect on Christopher’s thoughts as they appear on the face of the page itself:

            The window framed a series of horrid, impressionist pictures, Title—to lower window pull strap towards you—to lower window—to LOWER window.

      To LoWeR WInDow pUll sTrAp ToWaRds you

               TOWARDS YOU to

                                    lower window …

              to lower


                            pull strap

              to lower window pull strap towards You

              TO lower WINDOW pull STRAP towards YOU

                      the phrase fled through channels of his mind in agonised obedience to a rhythm: a piercing steady rhythm that was woven from bright lengths of steel and the gaps between them.


Playful mise en page of a similar kind appears throughout They Die Young, typically to signal an abrupt shift from one idea or place to another. Ending a paragraph in mid flow, Sommerfield will take up the thread somewhere in the following line as Christopher’s attention or recollection flickers from one object or scene to another. Here, however, the background beating of technological rhythm does no more than emphasize the daily grind of bourgeois conformity that leads, ultimately, to the death of Christopher’s roving spirit. That is to say, Sommerfield’s modernist gestures confirm the sense of a writer working through inherited modes: the feeling of alienation in people “eating and drinking—pushing carbohydrate solids and liquids into their visceral cavities in a manner too horrible to contemplate rationally” (64) owes something to Leopold Bloom’s nauseated vision of eating as “stuffing food in one hole and out behind.”3 Subway tunnels, “the odoriferous expression of all New York” (125) summon the “fetid roaring subway car” of Dos Passos.4 And the description of a Manhattan office building “as crowded with incident as an interminable hundred yards in St. James Park as featured in the works of Mrs. Virginia Woolf” (69) clarifies the identity of the creditor rather than canceling the debt. As Nick Hubble points out, the section immediately preceding Christopher’s embarkation for New York “describes the ongoing events as though they are in novels by, respectively, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf, and James Branch Cabell.”5 But these three (as the Joycean alimentary riff suggests) are only the names Sommerfield chooses to mention within the text. As well as the “deliberate flouting of cultural distinctions” to which Hubble draws attention, the progression of these pastiches traces a deliberate movement away from the old world and toward the new, from a culture engrossed in apportioning literary value between the modernist experiments of a Woolf and the realism of a Bennett, to one capable of breeding a hybrid, transatlantic form by drawing on the socialist modernism of Dos Passos.

No one could claim any great degree of literary success for They Die Young, but its value for Sommerfield’s development as a writer was clear: the best parts of the novel are those that prefigure most directly the urban wildness of May Day. The energetic proletarian masses of that later novel, whose true life “moves to another pulse, a different rhythm” than that of the factories and powerhouses in which they labor, have their origins in the New York crowds of They Die Young. Yet the author of May Day would surely frown on the younger writer, who describes a “swarm [ … ] not individuals, [but] masses, corpuscles in a blood stream” (106). Later, Sommerfield would discover that the individual and the mass were not distinct entities; the “current” that animates May Day’s crowd is not only the “galvanic [ … ] animating current” of electrical modernity that twitches New Yorkers into “efficient gaiety” (110), but also, and with a different implication, a sweeping force of nature, “a stream that flows a winding route but is always moving forward” (79).

For all its disapproval of the wage slaves who inhabit the gleaming skyscrapers of Manhattan, They Die Young never quite overcomes the fact that Christopher’s class slumming is without conviction, and toward the end of the novel Sommerfield seems to recognize the necessity of distancing himself from his creation. Lounging in a café on the Montevideo waterfront, Christopher falls into conversation with another well-spoken Englishman. “The young man seemed quite friendly, but very casual, and soon they were talking about cats [ … ]. His conversation had a more or less sophisticated, rather ‘literary’ style.” At length this young man turns out to be none other than “John Sommerfield, 19, Bark Place, Kensington Gardens, London, W.2.” Christopher mulls it over: “I seem to have heard that name somewhere” (270). With this metafictional flourish, the narrative seems to exhaust itself. Christopher returns home, slightly older and no more wise. Sommerfield, meanwhile, was ready to try something different.

Communist Modernism

May Day, while not free from the romanticizing streak that runs through They Die Young, marks an advance in terms of scope, ambition, and technical achievement. It counts as a major British response to the new forms of political fiction made popular in the United States by writers such as John Dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer, 1925), Daniel Fuchs (Summer in Williamsburg, 1934), and Josephine Herbst (Pity Is Not Enough, 1933). These “collective” novels, which take class consciousness rather than individual psychology as their organizing principle, can be understood both as a genuinely radical form of proletarian writing and as the culmination of high modernism’s uneasy fascination with the uncontrollable connectivity engendered by the capitalist metropolis.6 May Day follows their example by distributing its narrative among many different individuals representing different class positions; as David Trotter has argued, it “re-embeds the idea of connectivity [ … ] in social, cultural, and political attitude.”7 Although the book’s sympathies lie unmistakably with the working-class citizens whose growing political awareness drives its plot to a suitably rousing revolutionary climax at a protest march, its peripatetic narrative mode allows Sommerfield to describe continuities, as well as divisions, between the wealthiest and the poorest citizens of London.

Key to this effect throughout the text is a device of narrative parallax, so that particular objects or events—a passing ship on the Thames, a particularly bright evening star, or a drop in atmospheric pressure—are perceived simultaneously in different places by different people. In the following example, the connection is supplied by a set of news stories displayed on vendors’ placards in separate districts of the city, first to an industrialist’s son and his girlfriend returning from an afternoon ride, then to a working-class housewife as she shops in the marketplace:

From Lancaster Gate tube station floated the warm, dusky smell of underground air. The newsbills lolling on the pavement proclaimed THOMPSON HAS FORCED LANDING. CAPTAIN COE’S FINALS. BAYSWATER MAN FALLS TO DEATH.

“Thompson down,” said Peter.

“What a shame,” said Pamela.

“He’s got such a clear lead,” said Peter; “he may pick up yet.”

• • • • •

KENSINGTON MAN FALLS TO DEATH, read Martine. THOMPSON FORCED LANDING IN SIBERIA. Thompson down, she said to herself. What a shame. He’s a nice man, she thought, remembering a picture of him that she had seen in the Sunday paper. (41)

Here, Sommerfield once again draws his techniques from the toolkit of high modernism, in this case the parallax device deployed to great effect by Woolf (notably in Mrs. Dalloway’s sky-writing aeroplane) and Joyce (in the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses). Crossing class lines, such moments, which are common in May Day, offer an ambiguous vision of interconnection. The dots that divide the novel’s sections from one another frequently suggest a barricade of privilege and indifference, as between the wealthy jeunesse dorée and the poor housewife. Yet on occasion they also admit of a more hopeful interpretation; here, for example, they mark a merely conventional separation between people whose objects of interest and attention, increasingly mediated through daily news, popular music, and cinematic spectacle, are more alike than at any previous moment in history. (Like the typographical line breaks of They Die Young, they invite a reading in terms of continuity as well as of division.) Peter and Pamela, after all, have the same predictable, programmed reaction to the headlines as Martine, in that their first thought, like hers, is for the setback suffered by the hotshot pilot rather than for the dead Londoner. Later the same popular song to which Peter’s friends dance the night away crackles from the radio in a left-wing journalist’s shabby bedsit as he sits drinking with an old friend, a sailor (95, 102). Such media moments, in May Day, offer a mirage of the classless society, a society equal only in its choice of entertainment.

There is further passing mention of these stories—the West London suicide, the round-the-world air race—throughout May Day, in newspapers and in casual conversations, extending the initial moment of connection temporally into what the novel elsewhere calls a set of “invisible spiderweb lines in time and space that mesh lives with material objects” (155). The spiderweb is a governing metaphor for Sommerfield, representing industrial organization in both its benign and its malign inflections. As Laura Otis has usefully pointed out, such structural webs in fiction can just as easily connote “the terrible efficiency of a power structure that commands its domain from a central point” as the “liberating device through which scattered individuals can form associations and organize themselves as they see fit.”8 Accordingly, Sommerfield’s “invisible spiderwebs” (79) carry a double metaphoric load, suggesting not just capitalism’s tendency to concentrate economic and social control in the hands of the few, but also how that accelerating concentration of power and wealth might equally render it vulnerable to the organized resistance of the many.

These connecting spiderwebs allow Sommerfield to show not the circulation and blockage of capital and commodities, but rather, through an electrical metaphor, the circulation of energy. Bodies, in May Day, constitute a conductive material; brought together, they potentiate flows of “current.” And Sommerfield makes it clear that this revolutionary current is generated not from industrial labor, but from the motion and connection of human bodies in public spaces. Sitting side by side in the movie theater, the housewife Martine and her husband John feel this potential in the form of sexual yearning, “an awareness of a current flowing between his flesh and hers,” and then again later as “a current of the thoughts of their flesh.” Scaled up, this current begins to conduct something other than Martine and John’s “obscure bodily awareness,” taking on a political force. At the novel’s climactic May Day demonstration, marching bodies transmit news of striking workers around the city “like wire conducting an electric message.” The novel grounds revolutionary potential not, after all, in “the mathematics of class struggle” (171), but in embodied experiences, sensations, and emotions. At the level of the human body, range of movement becomes a reliable key to social position. Machine-shop workers execute the repetitive, mechanistic movements of tamping raw materials into hydraulic presses; factory girls wear themselves out working lathes and polishing machines; secretaries and subeditors hammer away at typewriters. Meanwhile, the children of the well-to-do exercise bodily as well as economic freedom by riding horses in the park and dancing late into the night.

Yet participation in organized movement proves, in May Day, to be the basis of resistance as well as the basis of oppression. In May Day, such participation begins neither at home nor in the factory, but in the intermediary social space of the public house. For Sommerfield, the pub represented an ideal environment for the cultivation of revolutionary feeling: at once public and private, open to all comers yet governed by codes of equality and free speech rather than the codes of hierarchy, reticence, and formality that hold sway over the spaces of economic productivity. In May Day, pubs (and cafés) offer shelter, sustenance, conversation. Such spaces feature prominently in the novel as a place for working-class sociability to take its own self-organized, self-directed forms. As Sommerfield writes in The Pub and the People, his survey for Mass-Observation of British pubs and drinking habits:

The pub, reduced to its lowest terms, is a house where during certain hours everyone is free to buy and drink a glass of beer. It is the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them. [ … ] [O]nce a man has bought or been bought his glass of beer, he has entered an environment in which he is participator rather than spectator. (17)

Accordingly, pubs in May Day are places to pass the time, but also places where political awareness and social life come together. Playing a sociable game of darts, the Scottish sailor Jock overhears, from outside, the sound of Communist oratory from the street, so that he finds “his mind divided [ … ] between two atmospheres, between the smokedim warmth and the cheerful hum of talk within, and that other and known atmosphere, of the silent crowd and the speaker”s voice [ … ] and somehow he [feels] ashamed for taking his ease and being so pleased with himself, when he should be out there” (90).

Pubs are similarly important in Sommerfield’s novella Trouble in Porter Street (1939), which begins with the sound of breaking glass and the scrabble of a bar-room fight. Yet once the reliable landlord has ejected the offending parties, the saloon bar becomes a site for reminiscence about old-time solidarity and resistance: “Remember the time all the market boys set about the others? [ … ] The lads stopped fighting each other and set about the cops” (3). Trouble in Porter Street follows on from May Day, in that it focuses on the daily lives of working-class Londoners, but its purpose is even more insistently didactic: it describes, in fictional form, how to go about organizing a rent strike, enumerating the causes of discontent (damp, insanitary conditions of houses, high rents charged by landlords, and so on), printing examples of the publicity materials disseminated by the organizers (“WHAT’S NEEDED IN PORTER STREET / Lower Rents / Repairs to the Houses”9), and recounting the strike’s successful resistance to intimidation on the part of the rent collectors. Here, as in May Day, social struggles are played out on the bodies of the poor, particularly the bodies of women:

They were aged by child-bearing, by worries about money and unemployment, how to pay the rent and buy new boots for the kids; the damp houses gave them rheumatic illnesses, they developed womb troubles from working too soon after having babies. [ … ] All the time there were buckets to be filled, meals to be cooked in uncomfortable and inadequate kitchens, floors to be scrubbed and swept, dust to be hunted, money to be laid out and calculated—so much for food, for gas, for clubs, so much to be put by for extras. (6)

No wonder that when the rent officers arrive to evict one of the residents of Porter Street, the women stand together, “quiet and still an silent, in a compact mass” (42). Like May Day, Trouble in Porter Street is a story of how working people, whose actions are continually “arranged for them,” can find a way to reclaim their bodies. Only by way of political organization, Sommerfield suggests, can coordinated movement become the basis for a political movement, and simple bodily presence be transformed into collective power.

A War Picture

In 1936, shortly after the publication of May Day, Sommerfield left for Spain, traveling via Paris and Marseilles. He was among the first British volunteers to make the journey, arriving in the autumn; by the time his countryman George Orwell arrived in Barcelona, Sommerfield had already been reported dead. The report, however, was mistaken. Having contracted pneumonia, Sommerfield had instead been invalided back to England, where he began to transform rough pencil notes from his red reporter’s notebook into a book about his experiences.

Reviewing Volunteer in Spain, Orwell—now back in England himself recovering from a sniper’s bullet—acknowledged Sommerfield’s antifascist credentials, but nonetheless dismissed the book with surprising hostility: “Seeing that the International Brigade is in some sense fighting for all of us [ … ] it may seem ungracious to say that this book is a piece of sentimental tripe; but so it is.”10 The charge could hardly have been better calculated to antagonize Sommerfield, who only a few months earlier had himself inveighed against the dangers of “revolutionary sentimentality” in a letter to the Daily Worker. (Castigating the reviewer of Ludwig Renn’s Death Without Battle, he insisted that it was “the most absolute sentimental cant” to allow Renn’s “political life” to weigh in the judgment of the book’s literary value.11) It would be easy enough to speculate about the underlying reasons for Orwell’s surprisingly intense reaction—published in July 1937, Volunteer in Spain antedated Homage to Catalonia by nine months—but the more important point is that Orwell, on this occasion, got it exactly wrong. Far from being sentimental in itself, Volunteer in Spain charts the demise of “revolutionary sentimentality” under the reality of fascist artillery shells. Written quickly, the book is not without its flaws (some of them acknowledged and regretted by Sommerfield in his “Final Note” to the book), but sentimentality is not among them.

Unlike Orwell, Sommerfield had no journalistic ambitions. He had not gone to Spain to write, but to fight. “We wanted to get to Spain, in a hurry,” he explains in the book’s opening chapter. “There was a war on, and we wanted to be in it, but soon” (5). But Volunteer in Spain was not likely to rally British middle-class opinion to the support of the Republican cause, far less to inspire other excitable young men to join up. It is by no means propaganda. Read against the book as a whole, the title seems not stirringly imperative but ironically declarative, and the body of the book dwells less on the justice of the cause than on boredom and confusion: the tedium of waiting for orders, the discomfort of troop trains, the absurdity of getting lost between staging posts, and the necessity of making do with bad food. (“Maybe it seems that I go on too much about food in this book,” Sommerfield admits. “Only I’ve been a long time without enough to eat and I’ve been in a war, and I know that food’s only unimportant when you’ve got plenty of it” [66].) These basic facts of a soldier’s life make up most of the first two-thirds of Volunteer in Spain, which describes the experience of industrialized warfare as seen from what the title of one of Sommerfield’s World War II stories would later call the “worm’s-eye view”:

We marched for about half a mile to a field. There we piled arms and waited. Nothing happened for an hour. “I told you so,” everyone said. “We aren’t going to no war.” Then we turned round and marched back again. But we went past the barracks and on to the station and halted in the road outside. Little Jock said we had gone to the field “to deceive the enemy.” It was a fine idea. Everyone loved it. Anyway, it had certainly deceived us. (43)

Nobody sees any combat in Volunteer in Spain until the midpoint of the book, when Sommerfield’s battalion first observes a dogfight in the clouds above Vallecas and shortly afterward finds itself under attack by a flight of Italian Caproni bombers. Even then the bombs do no significant damage, and the soldiers carry on with their training in machine gun maneuvers. In such passages, Sommerfield chronicles the swift transformation of excited and idealistic volunteers into weary fighters, along with the erosion of the instinct for self-preservation that accompanies the change. While there is celebration of the men alongside whom he fought—“factory workers, miners from Poland, men who had escaped from the concentration camp, exiles, and political refugees” (14)—Sommerfield also cautions against the sentimental view that would both traduce these individuals and jeopardize the task they had come to Spain to see through:

Men are shaped by their environment and mostly dominated by it. The armies of the revolution, the soldiers who march against reaction are still the human material created by that against which they are fighting. Fully to understand this is difficult for the idealist, who wishes everyone to be altogether worthy of the cause for which he is fighting, to be altogether free of the vices, the ways of thinking and acting that are the stamp of the other side. (29)

Volunteer in Spain succeeds in showing the progression from the idealism of political sentiment to the practical exigencies of the battlefield to the mourning that ensues, without losing sight of the justice of the Republican cause. The fleeting moments of romantic or sentimental indulgence that appear in early chapters are replaced, as the narrative unfolds, by the sheer boredom of military routine. A soulful flamenco singer is heard aboard a transport ship from Marseilles, then heard no more. The welcoming crowds filling the streets and waving flags in provincial towns give way to war-weary Madrileños playacting normality: “And when they saw us and cheered it was part of the pretence; we were the main actors in the play now, but the illusion didn’t work” (85).

The change of atmosphere works its way from one sentence to another, as a repeated definite article lends dull familiarity to the thrills of combat. Bombers appear, no longer individuated by country and model, but simply as “the aeroplanes.” Landscapes lose their geographical specificity, becoming merely “the side of a stream” or “the woods” (95–96). With the battalion’s arrival at Madrid, Sommerfield leaves behind the linear narrative of a shared journey and offers instead a series of memories in vignette. At the moment of this transition, the book becomes a catalog of objects and phenomena (“The Bullets,” “The Shells”) under the general title “Natural History of the War”:


NOW WE LEARNED to know the fighting in the night, the sudden startled awakening to a gale of bullets and the spiteful flat crash of hand-grenades, machine-guns going off up and down the line with a sound like huge sheets of calico being torn, and the flickering summer-lightning of rifle-flashes, and the rockets going up and bursting into coloured stars, and us cloaked with frozen blankets leaning our gaze forward into the blackness and firing….

We learned the marching in the night, the blind, steady plodding from one unknown place to another; we learned the tense heart-shaking advance across rough country, going up to attack in the night, the sudden silences, the stray shots, the black jogging silhouette of a neighbour losing itself amongst bushes for a moment, snapping the single slender thread that linked one with one’s fellow-men in the perilous and unknown darkness. (103)

As so often in the writing of the 1930s, the movement between definite and indefinite article serves to indicate the boundary of a shared body of knowledge, distinguishing between the reader who understands and the reader who merely imagines. Sommerfield’s indefinite articles lead on to metaphors and similes that seek to fill the lacuna of the noncombatant’s experience (“a gale of bullets,” “a sound like huge sheets of calico being torn”), but his prose is drawn ineluctably back to definite-article constructions, which offer no such familiarity. “The fighting in the night”; “the spiteful flat crash of hand-grenades”; “the heart-shaking advance”: these are experiences in which one either has or has not shared, moments in the soldier’s life that are paradoxically both specific (because so unlike anything outside the zone of combat) and generic (because so commonplace within it). What they produce is a lingering anxiety that war writing might in the end be limited by such communities of experience, and that to transcend such limits requires something more, or other, than careful description.

Much later, surveying the fiction of World War II, Sommerfield would again insist on the importance of distinguishing between reportage and literary craftsmanship. War books had generally failed, he believed, because their authors relied on accurate description without worrying about technique. “Everything gets put down except the essentials,” he wrote:

The essentials are qualities rather than facts [ … ]; the qualities of fortitude, endurance, heroism; the depths of vileness and the heights of sacrifice that conditions of battle and soldiering in alien places can bring forth…. The words that name these things are useless to describe them, which is one of the many reasons why one who has experienced them but has not the gifts and training of a conscious artist, cannot make credible what he knows to be true.12

This was Sommerfield’s opinion with the benefit of hindsight, yet Volunteer in Spain already displays the struggle to match up experiences with words, and the abiding worry that words might not be enough for the job. This is the anxiety expressed in one of the exchanges Sommerfield records between himself and his friend John Cornford, who died in Spain, and to whom the book as a whole is dedicated:

“D’you think we’re really going to the wars?” I asked John. “The Front, I mean.”

“Dunno,” said John.

“We’ve got no machine-guns.”

“True. It’s not like the books, is it?”

“I’ll say it isn’t.” (63)

Volunteer in Spain acknowledges the poverty of war books not simply by gesturing toward war’s unspeakability, but in its patient demonstration of how speech begins to fail fighting men as war makes excitable recruits into seasoned soldiers. The boisterous loquacity of early chapters subsides after Madrid. Singing, chanting, and aimless barrack-room banter are eventually drowned out by the sound of shells that arrive with “strange singings overhead, strange rushings and commotions, ghostly aerial concerts, shrieks and howls sounding from clear skies” (101). In the end, what is left as Sommerfield brings the book to a close is not sound, but a moment of arrested vision:

By the open space lay two dead Fascists, one in the gutter, his head smashed open against the kerbstone, the brains slopping out. A big, lean dog with a famished look came up to the corpse, sniffed, and began to lap at the mess of brains. One of the guards drew his automatic and put three bullets into the dog. It lay coughing over the corpse, not yet dead. The guard ran forward, his head held down, and finished the dog off with his rifle-butt. [ … ]

And we stood there waiting, steel-helmeted, hung about with arms and ammunition, gas-masks dangling on our chests, a hundred and forty soldiers, the machine-gun company of the Marty Battalion of the International Brigade; and the rain came down, the broken water-main gushed continuously, the tall buildings gaped their wounds, and from the corpse in the gutter the blood and brains washed slowly away, mingling with those of the dead dog.

It was as good a war picture as I could think of. (151–152)

Involuntary Tourist

In an essay in 1990, “Unwritten Novels,” Doris Lessing describes the RAF camps set up across British-occupied territory for the duration of World War II. These camps were designed to provide the requisite infrastructure for air operations, from bomb fitting and aircraft repair to accommodation, food, and other logistical necessities:

This meant moving—how many men? Millions?—on ships pursued, and sometimes sunk, by submarines, meant building camps like towns—but all-male—in countries that often struck these involuntary tourists as unlikeable or—sometimes—as politically oppressive as the countries we were fighting. [ … ] Has anything like it ever happened before? Yet people have forgotten all about these camps, these men. [ … ] The fate of the ground crew—the men who serviced the aircraft and ran the camps, and stayed put, sometimes for years—was to be bored. Boredom is conducive to the production of literature. But no, nothing, not a word.13

Happily, this was not quite true, and it was John Sommerfield—an acquaintance of Lessing’s—who wrote the exceptional work that proves the rule.14 The Survivors consists of one cycle of seven stories (“The Long Journey”) set in just such a milieu, followed by nine further stories divided among four sections: “The Phoney War,” “The Desert,” “The Sea,” and “The Earlier Stages.” The greater part of the book, comprising the main cycle and the two subsequent sections, deals directly with the war service of RAF ground crew. “Soldiers as individuals are lost,” wrote Sommerfield later on, “they do not understand the part they are playing, or what is going on round them. [ … ] The individual is part of something more than he can ever know. The province of fiction is implicitly to show this.”15 By that measure, the stories collected in The Survivors constitute a valuable body of work, a fictional record of an all-but-forgotten aspect of World War II operations told from the point of view of ordinary RAF airmen and technicians. These stories confirm Lessing’s intuition that boredom, in such circumstances, should breed narrative; the book has much to say about boredom and the various ways soldiers find of allaying it: about the familiar military boredom felt once again in troop trains and troop ships, the boredom of army camps and long nights spent in hostile landscapes, the stiffness of limbs and weariness of mind induced by the experience of protracted transit. “The theme of the last war,” Sommerfield wrote in his notebook, “was death and horror. Of this war, for the British, it is frustration.”16

Where May Day had evoked the constant frenzy of movement that characterizes the industrial metropolis, these stories describe what happens when capitalism’s overproduction turns back upon itself in aimless destruction. Accordingly, they occupy the empty, motionless zones requisite to the waging of modern war:

After the second night on the river time loses itself. The place from which we came belongs to a past in which all happenings are equally remote, and it is impossible to think of any ending to our journey’s lazy, eventless transience. The waters slide by and it is always the same, the huge muddy river, the flat green land always stretching to an ever-receding horizon, a land without roads or towns, planted with unnumbered little villages that drowse in rural squalor amidst trees that know no winter. (64)

To stave off boredom, not to mention the anxiety of deployment, Sommerfield’s characters invent stories as well as situations. Marooned at provincial railway stations, they pass the time “swapping tall stories about chaps who had been recalled from overseas drafts at the last moment” (20); in the lull before an attack they argue over Cup Final results, “each knowing what the other had to say, having heard it before” (130); in the Burmese jungles, one serviceman adopts a stray dog against the orders of his superior officers, inadvertently laying bare the latent class resentment within the British Army. “We inhaled boredom from the steamy air” (49), writes Sommerfield in “The Night of the Fire,” and the tedium is replaced only briefly by schoolboy excitement when a blaze rips through one of the accommodation tents. Once the blaze dies down the familiar monotony returns, although the men have at least acquired a new story:

“Anti-climax is setting in,” I said.

But as we walked away we were still weakly laughing and reminding each other of the choicest items of the fire. Already (while its ruin still smoked) it was becoming invested with a tender halo of recollection, beginning to acquire the flavour of those stories, many times repeated, that always began with “Do you remember the time …” and made up a sort of squadron folklore. (55)

This folkloric impulse, to which peacetime experience and wartime experience turn out to be equally susceptible, is the other major theme of the seven stories in “The Long Journey.” To cope with protracted periods of deployment—Sommerfield’s army documents record that he served in the RAF reserve for eight years and one week—the RAF crews invent mythologies of their own. Though they end in self-sustaining group folklore, these mythologies begin in the desire for a return to normal life; even so, “The Long Journey” is remarkably candid about how wartime memories of antebellum life could themselves be distorted by the vagaries of memory and wishful thinking. Early in the sequence, the narrator discards a poem (the original appears in Sommerfield’s own wartime notebook) because he is nauseated by its inadequacy. His prose commentary emphasizes the incongruous sentimentality of the well-turned verses, suggesting that the conventions of verse (or perhaps just amateur verse) are in part responsible for the distortions of wartime memory:

Home and before-the-war … the theme that never palled. [ … ] My mind went back to the poem, to the place where I’d written of … the sweet minutes thoughtlessly spent, and of how from war’s winter images we continually turned to look back at memories of Endless blazing summer afternoons Washed winter-cool by time’s clear water.

An insidious falsification of the past was our drug, and under its influence we gave ourselves up to dreams of “after the war,” a certain date when suddenly all the lights would blaze out again, the doors of our prisons spring open, and we’d be able to go to bed with our wives whenever we wanted—and each time it would be quite special, like the romantic dream of a honeymoon night. (12–13)

Cliché-ridden as these fragments are, there is more to the renunciation than distaste for sentimentality. There is, equally clearly, a sense that the work of logistics immerses the writer in experiences that render those prewar sentiments more than ordinarily risible. Unlike Christopher in They Die Young, who wants his verse to give lasting form to the ephemeral glob of a stoker’s spittle, the narrator of “The Longest Journey” does not have the luxury of aesthetic distance. Cold rain, humid jungles, and swarming mosquitoes are bodily hardships provoking reaction rather than observed phenomena provoking reflection.

This is not to say that Sommerfield’s wartime prose is indifferent to scenes of unlikely beauty, but rather that those scenes, when they do appear, are panoramic and austere, rather than intimate and comfortable, sublimities of landscape and machine rather than beauties of human scale: the “wide plain of mud, streaked with concrete roads, dotted with camouflaged huts and workshops,” the “huge sky, pink as tinned salmon, arch[ing] over the wind-blown waste of the flying field” (118), the sight of aircraft arriving home from their distant targets:

The bombers are returning. First each is visible as a little moving constellation of coloured lights (red, green and yellow, with the tiny pulsing glow of the exhaust flares showing faintly pink). The remote engine roar grows louder and more distinct. Then the stars wheel, begin to dip, and suddenly, dramatically, the landing lights flash out, twin rods of icy brilliance stabbing down from the sky to earth. (122)

This prose has its own rhythms, and its own palette, moving deftly between the plainly declarative and the wilfully impressionistic, ending with a hint of the violence done elsewhere as the planes’ “icy” landing lights, “stabbing” the earth, ghost the fiery ordnance that the planes have now unloaded over enemy positions. Those hints, however, bring to the scene of technological sublimity a reminder of the destructive purpose of the mechanism itself. In all his war writing, Sommerfield was consistently less appalled by the experience of battle than by the moments of calm that surround it: the long wait for orders to advance, the dramatic sweep of landing bombers, the slowly dying airman crashed in an empty desert. Moments when the waste—of time, of bodies, of productive energy—can at last be reckoned up by the survivors.


John Sommerfield was healthily skeptical about the value of academic biography. Reviewing Douglas Day’s book on Malcolm Lowry, he surveyed “the various literary and biographical post-mortems of Dylan Thomas” with evident dismay: “More has been written about him than he ever wrote himself—and a lot of it by people who would have crossed the road to avoid him while he was alive.”17 Both Thomas and Lowry, in Sommerfield’s opinion, were at risk of being traduced by biographers whose interest lay in cold facts rather than warm feelings, and whose analytical prose would inevitably fail to make sense of the men whom he had known as friends, drinking companions, comrades. This perhaps explains why, in his fiction, Sommerfield would return time and again to the relationship between intimate feeling and the objective facts of social life—what Nick Hubble succinctly defines as “the problem of the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘We’”—and it is an intense interest in the interactions between these mutually shaping domains of experience that separates the best of his work from much of the socialist literature published throughout the 1930s.18 For Sommerfield the relationship between the individual and the mass was not simply quantitative, but qualitative, and the job of the writer, as he wrote in a World War II era notebook, was to body forth those qualities that made society as a whole comprehensible as more than a mere aggregate of individuals:

The individual in the mass. The theme of contemporary writing. But not consciously realised. The theme is the mass, in motion. But the mass is individuals, minus certain qualities and plus others. The minus and the plus are the significant factors, have to be discovered and shown.19

At a moment when “fact” and “documentary” had become the watchwords of the British Left, Sommerfield was never entirely persuaded by the cult of objectivity, perhaps because—in early works like May Day and Volunteer in Spain—he had already begun to work through the difficulties inherent in giving literary voice to the everyday world of working-class experience. In 1937 Storm Jameson wrote in the revolutionary magazine Fact of the necessity for a radical “documentary” literature that would confront “the frightful difficulty of expressing, in such a way that they are at once seen to be intimately connected, the relations between things (men, acts) widely separated in space or in the social complex.”20 By that time Sommerfield had already confronted such difficulty head on in May Day, had observed in Catalonia how European fascism and the British policy of nonintervention had affected the lives of ordinary Spaniards, and had returned to England to write about what he had seen and done there. And though he would spend much of his time in the latter part of the 1930s collecting and analyzing the material of everyday life for the social research organization Mass-Observation, this anthropological work represented for him something quite different from literary endeavor.21

In the works of his later years—such as the historical novel The Adversaries (1952)—Sommerfield would repudiate the documentary idea in plain terms. “The clothes of the dead,” he wrote, “are always contemporary, and the detailed background of a certain time and place form no part of what has to be considered. We will not be led astray by the fashions of interior decorating, the sounds and smells of horses in the streets, the tunes whistled by errand boys, and the contents of shop windows” (n.p.). These phenomena, so assiduously recorded by 1930s Mass-Observers, seemed trivial to the later Sommerfield. What fiction needed to address was how it felt to be part of a society in which revolutionary forces seemed to be bubbling to the surface; what needed explaining was not historical detail, but history itself: how, at a particular moment in time, it seemed possible that individuals could come together as comrades to bring about an end to the exploitation of one class of human beings by another.


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(1) The author would like to record his gratitude to Peter Sommerfield for permitting, and Andrew Whitehead for arranging, the use of John Sommerfield’s papers in the composition of this article.

(2) John Sommerfield, May Day (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1936; repr. 1984), ix.

(3) James Joyce, Ulysses (Paris: Shakespeare & Co., 1922; repr. London: Penguin, 2000), 225.

(4) John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1925; repr. London: Penguin, 2000), 232. Andy Croft confirms from personal correspondence with Sommerfield that the author “was consciously influenced by both Dos Passos and Virginia Woolf.” See his Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 267n.

(5) Nick Hubble, “John Sommerfield and Mass-Observation,” The Space Between 8, no. 1 (2012): 137.

(6) For an account of the popularization of the collective novel in the United States, see Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 398–441.

(7) David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 210.

(8) Laura Otis, Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 49.

(9) John Sommerfield, Trouble in Porter Street (London: Key Books, 1939), 24.

(10) George Orwell, review of The Spanish Cockpit, by Franz Borkenau, and Volunteer in Spain, by John Sommerfield, from Time and Tide (31 July 1937), in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol. 1, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 276–278.

(11) Daily Worker, March 17, 1937, quoted in Andy Croft, Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 130.

(12) John Sommerfield, “Waiting for Tolstoy? War Reportage Is Not Enough,” Our Time (February 1947): 148–149.

(13) Doris Lessing, “Unwritten Novels,” London Review of Books 12, no. 1 (January 11, 1990): 16.

(14) Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1942–1962 (Hammersmith: Harper Collins, 1997), 81.

(16) John Sommerfield Archive, World War II notebook.

(17) “Not a Suitable Case for Treatment,” The London Magazine (June/July 1974): 139–144.

(18) Nick Hubble, “John Sommerfield and Mass-Observation,” The Space Between 8, no. 1 (2012): 143.

(19) John Sommerfield Archive, World War II notebook.

(20) Storm Jameson, “Documents,” Fact 4 (July 1937): 13–18.

(21) See Hubble, “John Sommerfield and Mass-Observation,” for a full and fascinating account of Sommerfield’s extensive contribution to the early work of Mass-Observation.