The battle of Cable Street, which took placed this day in 1936, has been commemorated in songs, plays, murals and children’s fiction. Not as well known, but no less compelling, is the modernist novel written around the events of Cable Street – Frank Griffin’s October Day, originally published in 1939 and republished three years ago by Five Leaves Books.
The protagonist Joe Slesser begins the book as an unemployed worker who is in constant tension with his wife. Going to Cable Street more for excitement than out of any political understanding at all, he meets Communist protesters and returns home having been won to voting Labour, which enables him by the novel’s end to find work (previously his anti-union views caused him to refused to work for the council) and rebuild his marriage. In between, the novel contains a range of characters including a woman ground down by poverty and contemplating suicide and a bus conductor who takes pity on her.
The book is written in short vivid scenes reminiscent of the cinema of its time, when single reels of film could last only around ten minutes. It is a mark of the different literary culture of those times that it was published and proactively marketed by the relatively mainstream house of Secker and Warburg (previously the publishers of Kafka and Lawrence).
One point Griffin well understood was that socialist fiction is at its most interesting when it is at its most grotesque and unreal, and its dullest when it is merely a narrative of demonstrations. In art as in life, socialism is capable of degeneration into a kind of identity politics where the form (conferences, marches, pre-printed placards) overwhelms the content. The majority of readers of fiction, encountering a story of a protest do not intuitively respond by thinking to themselves “how exciting”; if they did, they would go on more marches themselves. And therefore a realism which revolves around repeated descriptions of uplifting demonstrations will not be read by its audience in the way that an activist author intends: a story of personal and public liberation.
Griffin solves this by making his marchers accidental demonstrators, and giving them an antagonist worthy of great art. Helen Stroud is a friend of politicians and financiers and moves in a charmed circle where Mosley’s name is seen as wholly legitimate.
She is desperately aware of the passing of her youth, which she attempts to preserve by a relationship with a young and ambitious police officer from a thwarted middle-class background. Contemptuous of the demonstrators and despised by her own lover, she is maintained only by her general malevolence to the world.
Eighty years later, of course, the Strouds are still in charge and the left still in need of further Cable Streets.