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Seaman, Syndicalists & Scribes

Garrett’s experience of America in New York in 1918 at the end of the war, revealed the flip side of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Jazz Age’. Not for him the endless parties and pointless conversations, but rather the daily struggle to work and keep on working.  In post-war New York, with mass immigration, especially with Irish, Jewish and Italian communities, and a boom-time economy, people from all strata of society shared a feeling of hope; they were poor, but they were rich with ideas. Garrett finds himself here, earning good money, but also starting to write.Jose Luis Borges says ‘if you want to talk about a place, imagine yourself in another’. New York has this effect upon Garrett throughout his life.

He searched for work on American ships and classed himself as a wobbly in the ‘five and ten’ seaman’s branch in New York. The Wobblies though were coming under huge government attacks after the First World War, with The Palmer anti-alien raids and the criminal Anti Syndicalist acts being designed to destroy them. On the docks the International Longshoremen Organisation gained control after a long strike supported by 40,000 port workers in 1919. There was extensive solidarity between blacks Irish and Italians, but also extensive strike breaking.

Legendary Labour leader James Larkin was in the City, and was later jailed in the raids on radicals in 1920. Garrett may or may not have known Larkin, but what is beyond doubt is that he thrived in this melting pot. He was around New York during the strike for the Irish Republic that is fought on the docks in 1920 with the Liverpool White Star ship, the Baltic. But in 1921, recognising the danger of being arrested himself, Garrett abandoned his attempt to bring his wife Grace over to join him, and jumped ship back to Liverpool.

His two years back in the city from 1921 to late 1922 could fill a book. He played a leading role in the formation of the Communist Party, the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the Seaman’s Vigilance Committee and the Walker Art gallery ‘riots’. He was the leader of the Liverpool contingent on the first Hunger March to London in 1922.  When the Hunger March was over, with his radical activities guaranteeing his name first on the blacklist, George realised his prospects in Liverpool were worse than ever. And so, in 1923, with a growing young family to provide for, he hitched to Southampton, boarded the Homeric, and sailed again for the USA.

This was a different George Garrett than the one who first passed Ellis Island. He boarded the ship as George Garrett, but jumped in New York as George Oswald James, one of the many pseudonyms he used throughout his life. He wasn’t just going for money, he was leaving Liverpool to find space and time to write. He lived on East 42nd Street, sharing rooms with young Irish actors Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaglen, later Jackie Gleason, all of whom went on to achieve success in Hollywood. According to George’s son John, these actors cemented within him his love of theatre. His first play, Two Tides, may well have been completed in New York, coming as it does after the first performance of The Far Horizon by Eugene O’Neill in 1920, a writer that was to profoundly influence Garrett, and after whom he would name one of his sons.

In many ways this is his first period of sustained work, his ‘siege in the room’. His decision to leave Liverpool after the end of the Hunger March relieved him of the duty he felt towards his fellow unemployed, a responsibility he took seriously. Often working at night, coupled with a great literary energy, lodging with struggling actors, suggests he was in America for one specific reason – to hone his craft.

The excellent work of the late Michael Murphy, who, in The Collected George Garrett (1999), brought George’s short stories together for the first time in print since the 1930’s, situated him primarily as an artist of the short form. Yet when you consider the three plays he wrote in the early 1920’s, Two Tides, Flowers and Candles and Tombstones and Grass, and when he set up the Unity Theatre in 1938, in support of the Republic at the time of the Spanish Civil War, it could be argued that his role was primarily as a dramatist.

Taking into account that the only evidence we have of his plays in New York are two rejection letters from theatre groups there, one of whose directors was Eugene O’Neill himself, it seems surprising that upon returning to Liverpool in 1926 he seems to have left this form of expression behind. Sustained writing time was no doubt one factor; it’s difficult to write a 120 page, three Act play, in the way you can jot a note for a short story at the kitchen table. But also, in the early 1920’s, there was very little opportunity for a young working class writer, straight from the sea, to get his work into theatres still filled with melodramatic productions.

George’s intensely creative period in in New York in the mid-twenties drew to a close when the work dried up, workers were being divided over immigration, and America began to withdraw into ‘isolationism’ in advance of the Great Crash of 1929. With no success in seeking ‘naturalisation’ for his family, and with his efforts as a playwright making little headway, he took the only decision open to him, to again jump ship back to Liverpool.