A short account of George Garrett, Liverpool Wobbly and working class writer.
Famous first words of any portfolio hugger:‘our country is in a jam: YOU must tighten your belts’”. George Garrett, from Liverpool 1921-1922. “He is a biggish hefty chap of about 36, Liverpool-Irish, brought up a Catholic but now a Communist. He says he has had about nine month's work in (I think) the last 6 years. He went to sea as a lad and was at sea about 10 years, then worked as a docker. During the war he was torpedoed on a ship that sank in 7 minutes, but they had expected to be torpedoed and had got their boats ready, and were all saved except the wireless conductor, who refused to leave his post until he had got an answer. He also worked in an illicit brewery in Chicago during prohibition, saw various hold-ups, saw Battling Siki immediately after he had been shot in a street brawl, etc. etc. All this however interests him much less than Communist politics. I urged him to write his autobiography, but, as usual, living in about two rooms on the dole with a wife (who, I gather, objects to his writing) and a number of kids, he finds it impossible to settle to any long work and can only do short stories. Apart from the enormous unemployment in Liverpool it is almost impossible for him to get work because he is blacklisted everywhere as a Communist.” George Orwell, The Road To Wigan Pier,1936.
George Garrett was born in Seacombe on August 13th 1896 the Merseyside to a father, Sam, who was a member of the Orange Lodge and an Irish Catholic mother, Katherine, nee McAllister, who sympathised with Republicanism. The family moved whilst George was still young to the Park Road area of Liverpool. George’s father had failed as a sweet shop owner in Seacombe and he now had to take the job of a stevedore. George attended St Vincent’s Roman Catholic School. In a short story Apostate, published in the Left Review in 1936, Garrett describes the brutality of the priests. A schoolboy is caned and struck to the ground by the fist of a priest, who then seizes an ebony ruler to administer further violence.
In 1911 he went to work, barrowing coal on the docks. He witnessed the 1911 Transport Strike in Liverpool. The strikers demonstration on 13th August was viciously attacked by the police wielding batons, and as a result the fifteen year old Garrett sustained a broken nose and several missing teeth, as a result of a truncheon delivered straight to his face. This undoubtedly accelerated his move towards radical politics. He ran away to sea in 1913, stowing away on a tramp steamer and jumping ship in Buenos Aires. He got by as a beachcomber and became a hobo travelling through South America. In August 1914 he got work as a fireman on a British merchant ship and visited the USA, Canada, Egypt, India and the Canary Islands in the course of the next year. In 1917 the ship on which he was serving, the SS Oswald, was torpedoed by the Germans, but Garrett and the rest of the crew were rescued. He married in 1918, but returned to sea not long after as a stoker because of lack of employment and then landed up in New York. Here he joined the Industrial Workers of the World. He was forced out of the States in 1920 after another crackdown on the IWW. Garrett’s experience in the IWW, its use of song, literature and theatre as weapons in the struggle, were to strongly inform his later literary and dramatic output.
Returning to Britain he joined the Liverpool branch of the IWW, animated by Jack and Wilf Braddock and the Swedish seaman Gunnar Soderberg ( see the latter’s bio here at libcom). The Braddocks had set up the Liverpool IWW during the War. Garrett may have acted as one of the messengers sent by the Liverpool branch to take money to the States in support of IWW prisoners there.
With the Braddocks Garrett took a leading role in the Liverpool branch of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (see the Soderberg bio for a fuller account of the NUWCM).
The group organised the occupation of Exchange Flags, the area behind the Town Hall where merchants carried out business. The next action was a march through Liverpool, followed by a third action on 12th September 1921 where the area in front of the Walker Art Gallery was occupied and speeches given. Garrett himself spoke, upholding the cherished IWW ideas of internationalism: “Fellow workers, it is all very well criticising the alien as one of your speakers has been doing, and telling you that he is the cause of your unemployment. It is not so. The present rotten system is the cause... All workers are slaves to the capitalists no matter what their race, colour or creed is, and there is more slavery under British Imperialism and the Union Jack than under any other flag. You Britishers, you sometimes give me a pain. I don't tell people I'm a Britisher. I had no choice in being where I was where I was born.”
As Garrett describes it in an article he wrote later one speaker made the remark: “ I think we’ll go for a walk… A short walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and have a look at the pictures in the Art Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the public”. The gallery was then occupied by several hundred workers. The police then stormed in, locking the main doors behind them. They began to systematically beat demonstrators and gallery workers alike with their batons. Some escaped through side doors, but a total of 161 demonstrators, including Garrett, were arrested.
Using the tactic of derision popularised by the IWW the defendants made mockery of the trial. One example was when Garrett was asked if he had received money from a particular government, raising the devil of Moscow gold. Garrett replied in the affirmative, that indeed he had received money from a government, the British government, as he was on the dole. All defendants received the light sentence of one day, which as it had already been served, meant all walked free.
In 1921 Garrett was also active in the Seamen’s Vigilance Committee set up in Liverpool (see Strike Across The empire , here at libcom).The following year he helped organise and participated in the Hunger March from Liverpool to London organised by the unemployed movement. His first published work was a song for the march based on Hold The Fort, a British transport workers ‘ song reproduced in the Wobbly Little Red Song Book. Similarly his song Seamen Awake, written around the same time, is clearly influenced by Joe Hill’s There Is Power In A Union.
As a result of his activity Garrett was blacklisted. As a result he returned to the USA to toil as an itinerant worker, renewing his contact there with the IWW. He wrote two plays there under the alias of George Oswald James, including Flowers and Candles,written in 1925 described as remarkable by Joseph Pridmore, and still unpublished and unperformed to this day.
Returning to Liverpool in May 1926, he remained stigmatised by his radical activity, from then until 1932 only obtaining nine months work. In the five years after that, he only worked for two weeks.
Garrett began writing short stories and reportage some of which appeared in the his short stories in the magazines Left Review and New Writing between 1935-1937. He wrote intensely about working class experience and pieces like The Redcap stand the test of time. His reportage on Liverpool 1921-1922 and the Hunger March are infused with humour and satire and he employs the use of archetypes already utilised in Wobbly literature, with “the young man in dungarees”, “the politician-hating Syndicalist” representing facets of himself whilst other personalities on the Liverpool radical scene are represented by, for example, “the man in the black Stetson” (Jack Braddock). He wrote realistically about the grimness of life for many, and the resilience and resistance of working class people in the face of it. He also wrote critical essays in Adelphi magazine under the name of Matt Low, a pun on the French word matelot meaning sailor.
In the late thirties he had a key role in establishing Merseyside Left theatre (later renamed Unity Theatre). Earlier he had taken the leading part in the Merseyside production of The Hairy Ape of Eugene O’Neill, and he continued to act in plays put on by the group. As Jerry Dawson, a friend of his, wrote: “He played Agate Keller in Waiting for Lefty and Driscoll in Burying The Dead- and it is unlikely that they were ever played better anywhere, for all Georg’s experience, not only in this country but even more so in the Wobbly movement into the USA went into them”.
In 1936 he met Orwell when he was conducting research for The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell had first become aware of Garrett through. in Adelphi magazine, where he wrote about Joseph Conrad and Shakespeare . He was “greatly impressed” by Garrett, a sentiment that was not reciprocated. Garrett suspected Orwell’s sincerity and questioned his voyeuristic approach to the working class. Wrwell, in the passage quoted above, falsely labels Garrett as a Communist. Garrett appears to have left the CP around the same time as Jack Braddock in the early 1920s. Braddock had not been impressed by his visit to the Soviet Union, saying that “the poor working class stiffs are getting it in the neck” and Garrett appears to have shared those sentiments. He seems to have retained his industrial unionist/syndicalist responses from his days as a Wobbly. He was to go on record to say: “Another Pope was in the offing. I had already dumped one off my back; there was no point in humping a second”.
As Orwell says the pressures of life and of a large family inhibited his production as a writer. Only ten of his short stories appeared in his lifetime, as well as a few articles and reportage. Since his death more unpublished pieces have come to light including his unfinished autobiography Ten Years On The Parish.
During World War Two he gained employment at last. Jerry Dawson wrote that : “He who had been blacklisted on so many ships found that he was welcome to risk his life again in the wartime merchant navy”. Later on, whilst working on the Bootle docks, he experienced the most intensive of the bombings of Merseyside. In this period was apparently put under surveillance by Special Branch. In the post-war period he was fairly regularly employed, usually working nights as a watchman or in similar jobs. However his age now counted against him in this new age when birth certicates were demanded and as Dawson was to drily remark: “..blacklisted in the twenties for his militancy, inevitably on the scrapheap during the hungry thirties, ironically in the fifties the advantages of a welfare state are more a liability than an asset for him”.
In the last year of his life he spoke at several meetings on support of the seamen’s strike of that year. At the last rally he attended, he organised a collection for the speaker and then walked home after having given his own bus fare. He died of throat cancer not long after on May 28th 1966.
John Lehmann, who had encouraged Garrett through his magazine New Writing was to ask in his autobiography The Whispering Gallery : “If George Garrett, Liverpool seaman and heroic battler against impossible odds, should by any chance read these works, I should like him to know how much I have always regretted that he found it impossible to go on with what he had so vigorously begun…”. In 1983 Ken Worpole in his marvellous book Dockers and Detectives was to salute the work of Garrett and those other working class writers from Liverpool , James Hanley and Jim Phelan: “ Garrett, Hanley and Phelan really accomplished quite a lot in a matter of years with little support or recognition. It is an appropriate time to rediscover them.” In a time when our class needs to produce its own writers, poets and dramatists, in the face of the philistinism imposed upon us by this putrid society, and that with the complicity of some elements within our own movement who want to vaunt ignorance, I can but feebly echo those sentiments and emphasise that the working class striving for culture and education are traditions that need to be re-asserted and indeed re-invented.
George Garrett and the U.S.A. http://www.pennilesspress.co.uk/prose/garrett.htm
A good appreciation of Garrett’s work and life by Joseph Pridmore, although there is an introduction of spurious ideas of non-violence into the essay and he is too keen to impute an anachronistic “non-violent” ethos which Garrett , as a hard-bitten Wobbly, would have found laughable.
Garrett, George. The Collected George Garrett, (1999). This gathers Garrett’s short stories, reportage, critical essays and a fragment of his autobiography. Collated by the late Michael Murphy, it contains an informative introduction by him to the life and work of Garrett.
Worpole, Ken. Dockers and Detectives (1983).