Sunday, 8 May 2016

Book Review: Yealm: A Sorterbiography by Sheila Lahr

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 58 (Summer 2016)].

Yealm: A Sorterbiography
Sheila Lahr
Unkant Publishers, London 2015
524pp paperback £11.99
ISBN 978 - 0992650940

From time to time well-heeled journalists who grew up in a Communist Party home get a certain amount of publicity by lamenting their parents’ naivety in aspiring to change the world. There will be less publicity for Sheila Lahr’s “sorterbiography”, but it is a much more rewarding read, and should fascinate any socialist historian.

Sheila, born in 1927, came from a milieu well to the left of the Communist Party; as she notes “my father would never have turned me out of the house for bearing an illegitimate child, but he would have slung me out if I’d joined the Stalinists!”

Sheila is one of the few surviving members of the (Trotskyist) Revolutionary Communist Party of the 1940s, and has never lost her socialist commitment to equality and justice. Yealm (a yealm is a bundle of straw used in thatching) tells the story of her life up to the end of the Second World War.

Sheila’s mother was Jewish, the child of refugees from Eastern Europe; her father, Charlie Lahr, was German. Her parents had been founder members of the Communist Party, but her father was expelled for “levity” (making an irreverent joke about the Party). Her mother was proud of her Jewish heritage and persuaded Sheila’s father to be circumcised.

But in the 1930s, with the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain and Nazism in Europe, her mother decided that Sheila and her sister should become Catholics to make them feel that they belonged and to escape persecution. In fact both parents were atheists. This must have caused considerable confusion, and perhaps explains why Sheila became an internationalist, with no loyalty to any nation or faith.

In class terms the picture was equally confusing. Her mother had become a factoryworker at the age of thirteen, and much of Sheila’s childhood was spent on the brink of poverty. But for a time a small windfall meant the family could employ a “succession of live-in maids” and the children were sent to feepaying schools. Her father owned a bookshop, and had a circle of literary friends – but he was scarcely a successful businessman, for he seems not to have understood the basic principles of the market: “he is apt to refuse to sell a book of which he is particularly fond.” Later her father was imprisoned for receiving stolen goods – books stolen from Foyles. The British state revealed its humanity by threatening to deport him to Nazi Germany unless he pleaded guilty.

Sheila’s early teenage years coincided with the Second World War. She saw the Blitz at first hand, observing a nearby house “sliced in two” by a bomb, but also spent some time as an evacuee. Both parents were interned on the Isle of Man as “aliens”, as the government was pressured by the Daily Mail to recognise that “every German is an Agent. All of them have both the duty and the means to communicate information to Berlin.” Not surprisingly, the young Sheila was not seduced by patriotism – but nor was she embittered; she drew the conclusion that “there must be no more wars, the world must become socialist, co-operative, an international society where everyone lives in peace.”

Some of those she encountered had more ambitious aims. Sammy Marks, a socialist agitator who spoke in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, promised: “After the war we won’t need bunting. No, there’ll be no need for bunting. We’ll hang a landlord on every lamp-post.” Sheila herself made a more moderate estimate of 1945: “Not that I ever deceive myself that this is socialism, but it is a beginning – better than what went before."

Sheila was a constant rebel; her earliest direct action was as a ten-year-old at convent school, when the girls challenged discipline by wearing socks instead of heavy woollen stockings in hot weather. A little later she took pride in her mother who unionised the munitions factory where she worked. And she was deeply sceptical about educational institutions. Many years later Sheila trained as a teacher, but came to the conclusion that “children are sent to school to be made stupid”.

By the end of the war Sheila is attracted to Common Wealth, the organisation led by Richard Acland and JB Priestley which had refused to accept the wartime electoral truce. For a time she was a full-time worker for it.

Yealm is the story of one young woman’s personal and political evolution. But it is also full of detail which reminds us how the world has changed within the limits of a single – long – lifetime. Today’s politicians seem to believe that the way to win elections is by adapting to the existing state of consciousness. But Sheila reminds us just how much and how rapidly consciousness changes.

Thus Sheila gives a striking portrayal of the Shillans, a couple in Gloucestershire with whom she lodged for a time during the war. The restrictive, snobbish attitudes of this couple belong to an archaic middle-class world, one that was effectively swept aside after the Second World War. “Mrs Shillan, intent upon maintaining the social divide, makes it clear that she is opposed to us becoming acquainted with village people.” The Shillans attempt to ration reading, telling Sheila and her sister that they must not read for more than fifteen minutes a day. Mr Shillan teaches them to say:

A socialist is a man who’s willing,
To share with you his ha’penny
And collar your shilling.

Sheila causes great offence by insisting that “it was the British soldiers and not the German internees, who had smashed up the pipe organ in Alexandra Palace during WWI”.

In few areas has change over a single lifespan been more remarkable than in the position of women in society, and Sheila reminds us of this with some striking examples. She evokes the terror and distress produced by an unwanted pregnancy outside marriage – “a time when many an unmarried mother was certified as ‘morally defective’ and confined to a lunatic asylum for life, or sent to a colony for the feeble minded. Her child taken at away birth to be lost in the labyrinth of institutions.”

Likewise, before the war in the Civil Service, local authorities and industry, there was a “marriage bar” – women who got married were obliged to give up their jobs. This even applied in laundries: “those needing to work to support their families, or add to family income, on applying to wash the neighbourhood’s bedding, smalls, shirts and so on, must take off their gold bands and swear to be single.”

Sheila’s book is funny, sad, moving and full of revealing detail and anecdote, all recounted with the passion for social transformation which has animated her life.

Ian Birchall

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