Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Down to earth idealist

I recently mentioned that for a while in 1950-51 I lodged in the same Hampstead house with Rowland Kenney, without realising that he came from my grandmother's native Saddleworth, or that he had led a distinguished and varied career including intensive involvement in the early Socialist movement and, during and after the First World War, as a British diplomat.

A leading trade unionist (John Hodge, who was Minister of Labour during the 1914-18 war) grandly entitled his autobiography Workman's Cottage to Windsor Castle. Rowland Kenney might well have called his Underground Navvy to High-Flying Diplomat - instead, he called it Westering (1939). Kenney, who was born in 1882, was one of a large family of mill workers in a small Pennine village on the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire. In those days, poor children were sent to school when they were three, before being put to work part-time in the cotton mills aged ten or eleven. Any other path was unusual, and most of the Kenney children went "through 't mill". Rowland loathed the harsh working conditions and insanitary atmosphere, and determined to escape into the fresh air at the earliest opportunity.

Always a sensitive, introspective and thoughtful boy, he was physically tough as well – given his vivid descriptions of continual beatings by teachers and fights with other boys at school, he had to be. So when he was 15 he seized the opportunity of a job as a chain-horse lad in the London and North-Western Railway's Lees station, near Oldham, and during his eighteen months there he says his life broadened out in many ways. By now he was steeped in the idealistic socialist writings of Robert Blatchford's Clarion ; intellectually agnostic, he warmed to the aesthetic beauty of the King James Bible and, though an unbeliever, attended church services so as to enjoy the stately language and the music. At the same time, he yearned for the open road: the first part of his memoir is aptly titled "Vagabondage".

So, chucking up his steady job, he did casual work of many kinds – including a brief spell underground as a tunnelling navvy, the most arduous occupation of all his many temporary adventures. Farming in Lincolnshire and work as a carter was followed by 18 months in Mumps goods yard, Oldham – then a most dangerous place which would make the hair of today's effete 'elf 'n safety' obsessed generation stand on end. Rowland's job was as a capstanman – working with boy assistants ("nippers") to slew round the turntables transferring fully loaded wagons from one set of railway lines to another. A false move or miscalculation of a fraction of a second's timing could result in severe injury or even death for the operatives. But for that very reason – the skill involved, and the exhilarating sense of power which resulted - he delighted in the task.

All this time he was reading and reflecting, becoming more aware of his intellectual aspirations and his emotional needs. His experience of heavy labouring had not coarsened him, but made him more intense. He was seized of an overwhelming desire for knowledge – a need to know. He went to spiritualist meetings, where he was told by a young medium that he would always be possessed by the urge to keep moving on – as his future life proved. He found the burgeoning urges of sex a puzzle – the Lancashire folk of the late nineteenth century, he says, had a stark horror of expressing emotions of any kind, and to speak of love would embarrass both speaker and hearer alike. It was taken for granted but not mentioned. It was not until he was living a bohemian life in London that Kenney met and later married a Norwegian girl.

The hazardous perils of Mumps were followed by a spell as a casual builder and then – thanks to one of his older brothers – more regular employment, first as that doyen of working-class respectability a commercial traveller, and later as manager of a Manchester booksellers' and stationers' branch shop in Preston. But despite having achieved a modicum of security, Rowland Kenney was still restless and absorbed in his idealistic socialist politics. The second part of his memoir is called "Crusade". He attended many meetings in Manchester, and got to know the leading members of the infant Independent Labour Party. Soon he was offered a job managing the publications section of the Party's National Administrative Council, and in 1910 he began a new life in London on the modest salary of £3 a week. It was less secure than his previous employment, but he never hesitated.

This new work brought Kenney into close contact with the founders and leading members of the ILP and – as always happens when one encounters one's idols at close quarters - he soon became somewhat disillusioned and sharply critical of them all. Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden all possessed a copious dose of vanity, he says, and the first two disliked and distrusted each other to a degree which sometimes made their working together extremely difficult. The puritanical Snowden, though he could be bitingly sarcastic, was the one who Kenney admired most for his uncompromising socialism – although he ended up in the House of Lords after a lifetime of calling for its abolition!

Before and during the 1914-18 war, when he was first editor of the Daily Herald and then involved in other journalism, Rowland Kenney was at the centre of London left-wing bohemian life, and tells many interesting stories of the people he knew in those days – not least the egregious Frank Harris. Another once hugely influential, though now largely forgotten, socialist writer was A.R. Orage, editor of the New Age. It was through him that Rowland Kenney later became deeply involved in the esoteric philosophical movement centred around G. I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. And Kenney was also friendly with the gentle anarchist, Prince Kropotkin.

Partly because his wife was Norwegian, and he had spent some time in that country, Kenney was asked by the Foreign Office to undertake a wartime mission to help familiarise the Norwegians with the Allied case and to counter German influence in Scandinavia. Subsequently he was sent to Poland to gather information on political and social conditions there for the British delegates at the Paris Peace Conference. He got to know the Polish leaders, Pilsudski, Paderewski and Dmowski, and was horrified by the extent and intensity of Polish anti-semitism. He reported to the British delegation in Paris, but did not stay for the signing of the Versailles Treaty and was seriously injured in a plane crash while returning to England. This badly affected the rest of his life, but nonetheless between the wars he pursued a successful career as a Foreign Office diplomat.

A strange turn of events for a one-time underground navvy and goods yard worker! It's a shame that Rowland Kenney and his fascinating life story are now largely forgotten. He was that rare being, a hard-headed idealist. But then, Pennine grit will out.


zola a social thing said...

Thanks Anticant.
Wonderful story well told.

Such stories and story-tellers are not forgotten so long as folk like you keep on writing.

anticant said...

In those days, although there were huge inequalities between rich and poor and a lack of social provision which would be thought quite intolerable today, people from every walk of life felt free to hold and express unorthodox views without fearing the agents of the State would finger their collars.

My grandfather - a good middle class Conservative - used to refer to Keir Hardie as "that scamp", but he would have been appalled if the ILP - however wacky he thought their ideas were - had been infiltrated and monitored by the security services.

I sometimes wonder whether the ILP would have been able to establish itself and publish its opinions freely in today's repressively 'PC' culture.

zola a social thing said...

Oh dear me.
"Infiltrated by security services"?
Um :::

Maybe I know or have read different history books.

Maybe "the freedom to walk the hills" for everyday folk never happened and maybe government did not use their secret services for the last few hundred years to infiltrate groups of protesting folk.

Bugger me I may as well read Polly Tollpuddle in the Guardian of Truth.

anticant said...

Well, Samuel Bamford - another Saddleworth radical - tells a tale or two in his memoirs.

Oliver the Spy and all that.

And "freedom to walk the hills" didn't do Robin Cook much good....

Jose said...

Gentlemen that time were real gentlemen. Thanks, Anticant, for your continued historical posts. I have always like history, pity it has been so dealt with by historians with biased objectives.

anticant said...

I'm glad you said that, Jose. Rowland Kenney and his like belong to the true aristocracy of intellect and integrity - not the sham ones of blood and wealth.