Friday, November 20, 2020
A labour of love
by Ben Soton
Love and Labour: Red-Button Years: Volume 1 by Ken Fuller. Independently published, 2020. Paperback: 580 pages; £15. ISBN-10: 1699092788, ISBN-13: 978-1699092781.Kindle: 930 pages; £5.99.
When this rather large novel (almost 600 pages in total) arrived on my doorstep I was admittedly not looking forward to reading it. As I read it, however, I was pleasantly surprised. What could be described as Ragged Trousered Philanthropists meets On the Buses, it begins in 1913 and takes us through the First World War, ending in 1917.
Within the first few pages the author brings Late Edwardian England back to life. This was the world of Lyons’ Coffee Houses, stratified dress codes, a time when someone’s social position could be established by what they wore around their neck, and of course growing industrial militancy, which is a major feature of Love and Labour.
The activities of the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, also known as the Red Button Union, is the central to the novel. Although considerable space is taken up by accounts of union meetings, a lot can be learnt from the novel. For instance, bus drivers and conductors were licensed by the police at the time.
A major feature of the book is the romance between Dorothy Bridgeman, a middle-class left-wing activist, and Mickey Rice, a bus driver also involved in socialist politics and trade unionism. Several historical figures appear in the novel, such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Theodore Rothstein. Older readers may remember the late Andrew Rothstein – a prominent Marxist theoretician and Theodore’s son, who briefly appears in the novel.
As World War I approaches, the novel covers the differences within the Labour movement over the conflict. Both Rothstein, a leading member of British Socialist Party, and Sylvia Pankhurst, a leader of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, took an anti-war position. The main characters in the novel adhere to this line. Bridgeman, a supporter of female suffrage, becomes a close collaborator of Sylvia Pankhurst, who was expelled by her mother Emeline from the more reactionary Women’s Social and Political Union for taking a socialist direction.
The author was a London bus driver for 11 years, following which he was a full-time officer in the old TGWU transport union for a further 20 years before retiring in 2003. Although rather long, Love and Labour is an easy read and a pleasant way to learn socialist history through the medium of a novel. It is Ken Fuller’s first historical novel and I hope it is not the last. With the festive season approaching, it could be a good stocking filler.