Book Review: ‘Hyde Park Orator’

‘Hyde Park Orator’, by Bonar Thompson (Jarrolds, 287 pages, 10s. 6d.)

In his ‘Hyde Park Orator’ Mr. Bonar Thompson has written a somewhat irritating but entertaining book. He tells us about his early life in Northern Ireland, his introduction to working-class life in English industrial areas, his contacts with trade unions and labour organisations, and his strenuous and not always very successful efforts to earn his living as cheap-jack in the market-place, and as platform speaker and entertainer.

He has done and seen many things, and has learned how to describe them vividly enough—this, in spite of Sean O’Casey’s criticism in the Preface —and many of the things he says are worth saying. He cuts through a great deal of humbug and pretentiousness, and shows up many of the weaknesses of working-class organisations. While his criticisms of men and movements are often one-sided and malicious (he has a savage paragraph on the S.P.G.B.), it does no organisation any harm to hear what it looks like to a keen, even if prejudiced, onlooker.

Nevertheless, the whole book is made needlessly irritating by Mr. Thompson’s efforts to pose as the hard-bitten, work-shy cynic, who was never himself a believer in the principles to which he professed adherence. In adopting this pose he has been preceded by Mr. Walton Newbold, and in neither case is the claim true. Mr. Thompson’s pose ought to deceive nobody. He himself remarks on a sensitiveness to ridicule which he says he finds highly developed in the working-class movement. It is no doubt partly this sensitiveness in him which makes him so anxious to disclaim ever having shared the illusions of those around him. At an early age he acquired a dislike for the kind of work and working conditions which alone were open to him. This was only natural, but his pretence that he has spent a lifetime dodging work is ludicrous. In spite of his claim he has had to work very hard indeed to maintain a precarious existence. Workers cannot escape the evils of working-class life by adopting poses or practising self-deception.

Needless to say, Mr. Thompson often forgets his pose. He boasts of having lived by deception of the workers, but gets very indignant regarding Labour Leaders who, according to his account, are working a “racket” no worse than his. He sneers at the workers for being so credulous and sheep-like, but turns and calls them ungrateful when they do not give him generous collections. After all, according to Mr. Thompson’s philosophy, why should the workers pay him for his strenuous orations if they can hear them for nothing? If for reasons of inexperience, necessity, or sentiment, Mr. Thompson offers the wrong wares for sale, or offers them in the wrong place, he should be the last to complain. And although he chides the workers for their credulousness, he is furiously angry with the S.P.G.B., which at least never shared his and the Labour Party’s illusions about leadership, the value of emotional appeals, the impending collapse of capitalism, etc.

It is a pity that a man with Mr. Thompson’s experience, who has unlearned many false lessons, should have allowed bitterness to stand in the way of recognising that the failure of so many reformist activities does not in the least touch the solid basis on which the case for Socialism really rests.

Edgar Hardcastle

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