Today we announce an incredible achievement for the George Garrett Archive Project: Ten Years On The Parish, by George Garrett will be published on the 1st May 2017 by Liverpool University Press, following Writing on the Wall’s four year George Garrett Archive project, which has collected, collated and preserved Garrett’s work for future readers, which began after two suitcases of his memorabilia, including original writing, was presented to us by his family.
Garrett was an extraordinary figure, one of the giants of Liverpool’s literary, cultural and radical history. Yet his legacy up until a few years ago was almost forgotten. Given his radical outlook and activities, as well as the high quality of his literary output, it’s prescient at this time of political and social turmoil that we will be bringing out his autobiography, and coordinating a series of events to continue to revive and celebrate his legacy.
Garrett was born in Seacombe in 1896, but grew up among the slum, dockland areas of Park Road, just a stone’s throw away from where Writing on the Wall’s office is based in Toxteth. At the age of seventeen he stowed away on a tramp ship and ran away to sea. What followed was an adventure worthy of any ‘boy’s own story’; a year tramping round Argentina; signing up as a stoker in the engine rooms of ships at the beginning of WW1; torpedoed twice, captured by the Germans, held prisoner of war and interned in Argentina, from where escaped to return to sea to serve throughout the war. He married Grace in 1918 (their marriage lasted until his death 1966 and they had seven sons), then spent a year unemployed before going to America because there was work and better pay on their ships. Whilst in America he took part in the big strikes around the White Star liner The Baltic, but returned to Liverpool because he couldn’t get Grace through customs. Between 1921 and 1922 he led the unemployed struggle of ex-servicemen who couldn’t find work, which included massive demonstrations that brought Liverpool city centre to a standstill, and resulted in his arrest after the Walker Art Gallery riots, which were precipitated by an attack on horseback by the local police. In 1922 he led the Liverpool contingent of the First Hunger March to London. Garrett was one of the speakers at the mass demonstration in Trafalgar Square. ‘We don’t want to come here and…’ he said. And although the Tory Party leader Bonar Law refused to meet them, the march and the movement extracted reforms and led to the creation of a universal benefits system, which meant parity across the country rather than the locally decided payouts of the ‘Parish Councils’.
In 1923 Garrett returned to America and stayed there until he left under threat of deportation in 1926. During his second spell in New York, working part-time to fund himself as a writer, he wrote two plays to add to the one he had completed in Liverpool, and was in contact with Eugene O’Neill’s Province Town Playhouse. While there is now evidence of his plays being performed, he roomed with jobbing actors and devoted his time to writing. His plays are well-worked, completed manuscripts; working manuscripts he used to send his plays to theatres to read.
But in 1926 the cry, as the country headed towards the great crash of 1929, was ‘jobs for Americans’ (sound familiar?), and he returned home again, his dream of emigrating to America shattered. Upon his return to Liverpool he found there weren’t enough jobs to go around, and so here begins his ‘Ten Years On The Parish’; ten years in which he had little more than five months work, when he and Grace sold even the children’s bedding to survive, and there were often ‘crazy thoughts of murder and suicide’.
But Garrett, although often starving, and fretting for his wife and children, kept himself active and optimistic. He documented the period in sharp reportage and short stories, which were published alongside WH Auden and Stephen Spender, and in 1936 was a founder member of Merseyside Left Theatre, which still exists today as Unity Theatre. He wrote and co-wrote plays and scenes, acted as part of the troupe or in one-man shows across the region.
The Second World War brought relief – an irony as others have pointed out, with Garrett recalled to serve the country that wouldn’t feed him. He signed on the ships again, and then served out the rest of the war as a watchman on the Bootle Docks, one of the major targets at the height of the blitz.
Still busy, though less publicly active following the war, he maintained his involvement with Unity Theatre until the late 1950s, and continued his fight as part of the Seaman’s Vigilance Committee to reform his beloved National Union of Seamen.
He died at the age of seventy, not long after speaking at the first official national seamen’s strike in 1966.
Ten Years On The Parish, and the accompanying letters between Garrett and his editor John Lehmann should be taught on Liverpool school curriculums. There is little better that gives a clear history of working class people in the early parts of the twentieth century. Garrett doesn’t deal with misty eyed ‘poor but happy’ tales of poverty; his is an honest, often humorous eye-level account of what it’s actually like for those living on the bottom line. The difference here is Garrett’s persistent attempts to combat, undermine, and particularly through his advocacy on behalf of others in the same boat, or often worse of than him, push back against a system he understood to be cruel and unfair.
Like any writer, Garrett mined some of his own ‘real-life’ material in Ten Years On The Parish and used it creatively. The Hunger March and Liverpool 1921-22 were both published separately as reportage, and his short story The Pianist is based on events recounted in his autobiography. But it is as a complete work that Ten years On The Parish comes alive.
Encouraged by George Orwell and his editor John Lehmann to write his autobiography, the ‘fashion’ of the day was the lives of the unemployed, and Garrett wanted to write something that really showed the reality of what it was like living ‘on the parish’. Therefore he either skims over or leaves out entirely some of the areas unique to him alone, particularly the time he spent in America. As frustrating as this is for our research, it doesn’t take away from On The Parish itself; it leave us hungry for more, and myself and the other editors Tony Wailey and Andrew Davies have taken the time in the introductions to On The Parish and the letters between Garrett and Lehmann to fill in as much as we could about Garrett’s time in America and how that influenced his outlook on life generally.
Garrett Garrett lived a life like few others; although Liverpool was home to thousands of seamen, and some too who wrote about their lives and about the experiences of being unemployed, Garrett’s uniqueness lies in the combination of his talents, experiences, interests and activities; a syndicalist and lifelong member of the American Industrial Workers of the World, which preached unity rather than the sectarianism of the popular Communist Party, a writer, dramatist, actor, stoker, activist, advocate, and almost universally respected within the trades union and political movement, and much loved husband, father and grandfather.
There is much in Garrett’s life and work that tells us about the stifling, demoralising effect upon the individual of unemployment, and subsequently the effect upon society; while writing Ten Years On The Parish Garrett was also touring the region with Merseyside Left Theatre with their plays about the Spanish Civil War and the dangers of fascism spreading across Europe. They chalked walls with the warning, ‘Madrid Today – Merseyside Tomorrow’. How right they were. Garrett could teach us a lot; the lessons are all ours to learn.
Mike Morris, Co-Director Writing on the Wall.
Ten Years On The Parish, the Life and Letters of George Garrett, will be published by Liverpool University press on Monday 1st May. The book will be launched as part of a Mayday Parade in Liverpool, and available form all bookshops and online outlets.