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Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring

January 2, 2017

fits-2The central character, Hamer Shawcross, starts as a studious boy in an aspirational working-class family in Manchester; he becomes a socialist activist and soon a career politician, who eventually is absorbed by the upper classes he had begun by combating.

John Hamer Shawcross is born illegitimate. It is the mid-nineteenth century in Manchester, and his mother is dismissed from her post as servant when her employers discover she is unmarried; mother and child are taken in by  Gordon Stansfield, a Methodist preacher, whose lodger is a veteran survivor of the Peterloo massacre, the Old Warrior.

Young John is brought up and educated by Gordon in the hope that he too will become a Methodist preacher, but his imagination is more inflamed by the Old Warrior, who possesses a sabre captured from one of the soldiers at Peterloo. This talisman of historical revolt becomes an inspiration to the boy, and is a (rather heavily insisted on) key symbol throughout the novel. Eventually it is embalmed in a glass case, merely a historic curio.

There are two other local boys whose stories we follow. Tom Hannaway has a knack for making money (sometimes on the borderline of honesty); he rises from his slum origins to become a highly prosperous capitalist and Conservative M. P.  Arnold Ryerson, on the other hand, introduced to Friedrich Engels as a boy, and inspired by Robert Owen’s New View of Society, becomes a Trades Union organiser, doing dogged unspectacular work for the miners of Wales, and never coming close to any material success.

John Hamer Shawcross is different from either. After a long period of self-education (which has much in  common with Howard Spring’s own, as revealed in his autobiography) he decides to see life, so travels the world as deckhand on various ships. When he returns he is transformed into a man of ambition. Now dropping the commonplace John, he has decided to be Hamer Shawcross, and  he takes over Arnold Ryerson’s lacklustre election campaign against the aristocratic Conservative candidate. He makes a name for himself and eventually  is himself elected to Parliament.

The book gives a fair impression of the growth particularly of the Labour Party in Britain; historical characters, such as Keir Hardie, occasionally appear, and part of the book is taken up with the hardships of life for coal mining communities in South Wales at the turn of the 20th century. The treatment of the militant women’s suffrage movement is especially detailed—there are graphic descriptions of imprisonment and forcible feeding of hunger strikers.

Hamer Shawcross is often taken to be based on Ramsay MacDonald; though there are similarities in their careers, there are as many differences in their personalities.

The sabre becomes a metaphor for the loss of political cutting edge. Brandished at socialist meetings, it represented the fight against capitalism. As the protagonist becomes a pillar of the establishment, it ia put in as gilded case above the mantelpiece where it can’t do any harm.

The title came originally from Milton’s ‘Lycidas’. The key is in what comes after: ‘Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/(That last infirmity of noble mind)/To scorn delights, and live laborious days.’

Howard Spring came from a humble background. He worked as a journalist, served as a shorthand typist in the Army Service Corps during WWI, then returned to the Guardian where he impressed Lord Beaverbrook with his report of a political meeting in 1931. Beaverbrook offered him a job as book reviewer for the Evening Standard. Spring was already having some success with his writing by this stage and by 1939 he was able to move to Cornwall to become a full-time writer. In 1940 Fame is the Spur was published and is perhaps his best known novel.


Did God ordain it, this contrast between sweat and ease, between want and luxury, or is it the product of man’s will, of greed of selfishness?

Well just imagine this room on a winters night, my boy, with that dull-looking grate full of a cheerful fire, and the curtains drawn, and me in that chair with that lamp on a table at my elbow.

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