Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Fame Is the Spur (originally published in 1940) is the second out-of-print Howard Spring novel reissued by Head of Zeus’s Apollo imprint, following last year’s release of My Son, My Son. Spring is best known for his family sagas: My Son, My Son had autobiographical inspiration and concerned a writer and his best friend, an Irish Republican, and the sons they raised during World War I. Fame Is the Spur, however, has a broader scope: it traces the rise and fall of the Labour Party through the imagined course of a representative (fictional) politician, John Hamer Shawcross. Like William Essex of My Son, My Son, Shawcross rises above his working-class Manchester upbringing to make something of himself. He is self-taught and sees the world as a ship’s crew member for several years; on his return he launches a campaign against an entrenched Conservative MP and wins a place in Parliament.

The novel, reminiscent in style of the work of Arnold Bennett, moves back and forth between the protagonist’s childhood and his older age – at which point, in the 1930s, he’s the Right Honourable Hamer Shawcross (having dropped his generic first name long ago) and is receiving the freedom of the city of Manchester. All these decades later, is he still the same person as that boy who thrilled to stories of heroes and grand achievements, who so proudly inherited a Peterloo sabre from “the Old Warrior,” his family’s lodger, and kept it with him as an emblem of revolutionary sentiment? Or have all his titles and successes brought him over to the side of the establishment? He’s affronted when his son Charles wants to write an essay about his father’s humble beginnings, after all.

We learn more about Shawcross’ career from his diary entries and his public addresses. His trajectory contrasts with two other politically minded locals’ lives. Tom Hannaway embraces capitalism and becomes a Conservative MP, while Arnold Ryerson, inspired by an encounter with Friedrich Engels, becomes a socialist and a trade union organiser on behalf of the Welsh miners. Although it would have been easy for such characters to fall into typecasting due to the ideologies they represent, Spring is too good a novelist to rely on received opinions.

The most captivating of the novel’s subplots concerns Shawcross’ wife Ann’s involvement with the suffrage movement. She’s arrested along with other suffragettes (including Ryerson’s wife, Pen Muff) and goes on a hunger strike. The scene in which she is force-fed by her captors is the most memorable of the book, and shocks with its frank physical descriptions:

Slowly the screw forced the jaw open. The voice said: ‘That’ll do. Quick! The tube.’

            Now Ann was more dead than alive. She felt the tube in her throat which convulsively contracted with nausea. … Her whole being heaved suddenly as though she were disrupted. She leaned sideways and vomited. Then she fell back on the bed and lay there staring at the wall, listening to her heart trying to tear itself out of her side. Her legs and shoulders burned with the bruising, but worse than that was the wounding of her mind. She felt obscene, disgusting, like a woman brutally raped.

Shawcross is believed to have been loosely based on Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister. When adapted for the cinema in 1947, Fame Is the Spur starred Michael Redgrave (that’s a film still on the cover of the Apollo Classics edition); a 1982 television series based on the novel featured Tim Pigott-Smith. It’s clear that the portrait of an idealistic politician who loses his way still resonates with readers today, though personally I found Fame a significantly less compelling read than My Son. It may well mean more to someone who is invested in UK politics, and especially the fortunes of the Labour party.

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An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Howard Spring, Fame Is the Spur (Apollo Library: London, 2017). 978-1784976347, 649 pp., paperback.

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