Romance and Revolution: Red-Button Years, Volume 2: by Ken Fuller, 410pp, Independently published 2020 Paperback £12.99; 410pages, Kindle £5.99
The second volume of Ken Fuller’s trilogy continues the story of the London and Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU), also known as the ‘Red Button’ union. The story begins in 1917 where the effects of rationing start to take their toll, whilst growing industrial militancy and opposition to the war result in the draconian Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Many working-class men, including transport workers, find themselves called up to fight in the imperialist war. Meanwhile, rays of hope appear across Europe with the Russian revolution which gave birth to the Soviet Union.
Possibly the success of Fuller as an author is his ability to include just about the right amount of detail regarding the machinations of union politics; enough detail to inform but not enough to bore the reader. Meanwhile he is able to interweave key historical events into his story whilst spicing it up with romance.
Fuller keeps the reader abreast of the historical reality by including imagined meetings between government officials while using interventions from Theodore Rothstein to outline events in Russia and Germany. Events covered in the novel include the 1918 London Women Transport Workers’ Strike, the Metropolitan Police strikes of 1918 and 1919, and the army mutinies of 1919.
Mickey Rice, a rising star in the LPU, remains the central character. With the death of his girlfriend Dorothy Bridgeman in an air-raid at the end of the first novel, Mickey finds himself single again. He soon finds himself romantically entwined with his late girlfriend’s mother, Ines Bridgeman.
Perhaps a touch of Mrs Robinson from The Graduate in reverse this relationship, which has little future, is an exploration of Edwardian morality. Dorothy’s parents had been in an essentially sexless marriage since the birth of their children; after her daughter’s death Ines finds sexual liberation with her dead daughter’s boyfriend.
Meanwhile Mickey’s love life is further complicated when he becomes involved with Annette Fré, the daughter of a Belgian socialist living in exile. Surprisingly, Ms Fré is not at all happy with Mickey and Ines’ relationship. As the novel draws to a close there is talk about the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain; with this in mind we start to see more of a certain Harry Pollitt.
The closing chapters of the book set the scene for the final novel in the trilogy. There is the prospect of amalgamation between the Red Button and more moderate Blue Button unions, although within two years the amalgamated unions would become part of the Transport & General Workers’ Union under the leadership of the notorious Ernest Bevin, who also appears in the novel.