Saturday, 24 October 2009

Book Review: Life on the Track

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

Frank Henderson,
Life on the Track: Memoirs of a Socialist Worker
Bookmarks, London, 2009
ISBN 978-1905192465, £7.99

Frank Henderson has been a socialist activist for almost seventy years. This short autobiography is
based on interviews with Matt Perry, who has also contributed footnotes and a useful afterword giving
a historical overview of the period. It is a valuable historical document because it brings out just how
extraordinary and just how ordinary Frank was. Extraordinary because there can have been few who
shared Frank’s commitment and sheer persistence for such a long time. But ordinary because this is not the story of a political or trade-union leader. Frank spent most of his working life at the Longbridge car
factory in Birmingham, and apart from a brief period as full-time steward he shared the conditions and the exploitation of his fellow-workers.
Frank’s political activity began in World War II, when he joined, first the ILP, then the Trotskyist
Workers’ International League. He has some interesting comments on working-class attitudes
during the war. On the “Dunkirk spirit" he recalls that “we never noticed it much”. Workers remained
strongly anti-Tory but had a “genuine hatred” for fascism. Churchill was not liked, but many felt that
in time of war a warmonger might be the best leader. They dropped him promptly in 1945.
He also tells of the scandalous conduct of the Communist Party, who physically attacked WIL
paper sales. They put a leaflet round the factory where Frank worked, denouncing the Trotskyists as
“Hitler’s agents”, stamping Frank’s name on it as “Hitler’s local agent”. He was just sixteen at the time.
Military service took him to Italy, Greece and Palestine. While he was in Gaza a boatload of holocaust survivors approached the coast; Frank and his fellow soldiers were instructed to shoot anyone trying to swim ashore. They responded “Bugger Off”, and were pulled out of the area.
In the fifties Frank spent nine years as a Labour councillor. He regards this largely as wasted time,
observing how the old right-wing who had real working-class roots were replaced by a new  generation of Labour Party careerists. On one occasion, however, when, as acting chair of the council transport committee, he was representing the employers’ side in a meeting with the unions, he found himself urging busworkers to take strike action.
In 1970 Frank joined the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party. He describes the ups and downs of the industrial struggle over the next twenty years. He was at Saltley, when twenty thousand engineers helped the miners close the coke depot.

But he also had to face the aftermath of the IRA bombings in Birmingham in 1974 when workers
were making banners saying “Sack all the Irish bastards”. Frank and a couple of his mates resisted the pressure, argued for the withdrawal of British troops, and succeeded in calming the worst anti-Irish racism.
Frank also has some revealing comments on the Communist Party convenor at Longbridge, Derek
Robinson (“Red Robbo”) who was victimised in 1979. Contrary to the press myths, Frank argues that Robinson had “blunted the edge of militancy”, paving the way for his own dismissal.
I hate uncritical reviews and have been trying hard to find something negative to say about this book. But apart from some nit-picking about the footnotes (James Burnham did not have a “theory of state capitalism” and it was John Saville, not Christopher Hill, who founded the New Reasoner with Edward Thompson) I couldn’t think of anything.
There are many, many books that one could wish a lot shorter; this is one of the few that could have been expanded to twice the length without losing its appeal to the reader. Anyone interested in the history of the British working class (and that should be everyone) ought to read this book.
Ian Birchall

1 comment:

  1. Sadly Frank Henderson died on New Years Eve - condolences to friends and family from the LSHG - for more on Frank see here.