Howard Spring’s novel of political protest, Fame is the Spur, with its dense canvas of evocative scenes – snow on the Yorkshire moors – and memorable characters who punctuate Hamer Shawcross’s rise from the grinding poverty of a Manchester childhood to the rank of Cabinet Minister, was one of the defining books of my childhood. In 1982, the BBC serialised the novel as a TV mini-series (with Tim Piggot-Smith and Julia Sawalha leading the cast). I was so engrossed in the story that I couldn’t wait for the next episode to find out what happened so grabbed my father’s copy to read. My father, fearful that the language was too difficult for my gentle years and that struggling through would both put me off Howard Spring forever (as trying to read David Copperfield when I was six put me off Dickens for nearly 30 years) and mean that I missed much of the political and social significance of the novel, barred me from reading it. Instead, he announced, he would read it to me. And he did, every word. Every evening for some weeks, he read to me, with frequent pauses to discuss the issues raised or points of the novel. My father suggested that the novel was loosely based on the life of the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, but I’ve checked whether that is right. It was a very precious time – not just because I loved the novel, but because I got to spend evening after evening with my father, sharing his passion for literature, quite literally learning at his knee. So when my father passed away and I was invited to take whichever of his books I wished, I was determined to take this one. It’s so full of memories of my father, and those very special evenings we spent together.
I am slowly adding those books I acquired from my father’s library to my own very disorganised accumulation, cleaning and inspecting each as I go along before cataloguing (more notes on this process).
When I reached for this volume, out slipped this vintage bookmark, issued by Leeds Public Libraries. The bookmark is very 1950s in style and carries an advertisement from the Yorkshire Electricity Board, with the tagline “Electricity Makes Things Easy”. It shows a fashionable young woman, in classic 50s clothes, kicking back in an easy chair to read a novel, surrounded by electrical gadgets which make her life easy and pleasant- a television, an electric coffee pot and a standard lamp. The Yorkshire Electricity Board was created in 1948, when various electricity companies in the UK were nationalised, and ceased to exist in 1990 when electricity supply was privatised (again). But the style of bookmark, together with old-fashioned telephone numbers (STD area codes, which allowed national direct dialling without having to go through an exchange were introduced in the UK in 1958) suggest that the bookmark dates from between 1948 and 1958. This would tally with when my father was in Leeds, as he studied at the university there between 1955 and 1958, before emigrating to Sierra Leone in about 1959. The book itself was issued in 1964, a few years before my father returned to the UK. When I chose some of Dad’s books to keep, I hadn’t appreciated how illuminating they would be about his personal history and our family history. Now it’s one of the things I value most about them.
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