Article published on January 5, 2016.
Howard Spring is not very popular today but in his time was a much admired and widely read writer, so I was glad to be challenged by Maureen Hewlett who suggested I read Fame is the Spur. And what a thoroughly enjoyable book it turned out to be!
Howard Spring came from a humble background. He worked as a journalist, served as a shorthand typist in the Army Service Corps during WWI, then returned to the Guardian where he impressed Lord Beaverbrook with his report of a political meeting in 1931. Beaverbrook offered him a job as book reviewer for the Evening Standard. Spring was already having some success with his writing by this stage and by 1939 he was able to move to Cornwall to become a full-time writer. In 1940 Fame is the Spur was published and is perhaps his best known novel.
It’s the story of Hamer Shawcross (thought to be based to some extent on Ramsay MacDonald) who is born into a poor but aspirational working-class family in Ancoats, Manchester. Studious and hard-working, he becomes a socialist activist, goes into politics and bit by bit rises through society until he becomes part of the privileged upper classes he began by opposing. We follow him and see him increasingly willing to compromise his beliefs for personal advancement, and the idealism of his youth is corrupted by his ambition for personal success. It’s a wonderfully perceptive study of a career politician which has obvious resonances for today. Hamer’s trajectory is mirrored by the rise of the Labour movement in Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1930s, and is almost an elegy for what the Labour Party degenerated into.
Spring is an expert storyteller. He has a large cast of characters, all of whom he expertly controls and who are fully-rounded and interesting. His women characters are particularly deftly drawn. They are all strong-willed, full of initiative and willing to suffer for their beliefs. The rise of the suffrage movement really comes alive in the narrative. As do the friends of Hamer’s youth, Tom Hannaway who rises from his slum beginnings to become a wealthy capitalist, and Arnold Ryerson who becomes a Trades Union organiser and remains faithful to his working class ideals.
Immensely readable, historically accurate and evocative of the times and places described, this is a wonderful book, a book to get lost in, totally compelling, and still with great relevance to today’s society. I write this on the eve of our General Election. I wonder how many of today’s politicians are willing to compromise with their beliefs to gain power. Perhaps they should read this to shine a light on their own behaviour.
ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons