Today is publication day for James Leatham’s autobiography. He started writing ‘60 Years of World-Mending’ as a serial in his own magazine Gateway. Gateway is a journal quite unlike any other (that I know of). Issue 1 began in 1912 and it ran, more or less monthly, until Leatham’s death in December 1945. It was largely his own creative endeavour, and he wrote under a range of pseudonyms including ‘Francis Grose’ (that’s one for Burns aficionados) and Log-Roller, with a certain Con Innu writing a range of short fiction. But plenty of other weel kent names contributed to Gateway over its 33 year and 361 edition span. The autobiographical ‘60 Years of World-Mending’ started in 1940 and ran, until Leatham’s death. By this time he’d only got up to 1916 in his life – the point at which he moved to Turriff – but because it was written in the 1940’s it contains a fair amount of retrospective commentary on British life (he was a Scot but spent a significant amount of his life in Manchester and its surrounding areas) between the 1880’s and the 1940’s. That’s a pretty huge time-frame and when I first encountered his writing the mere fact that one man had documented his opinion from the Victorian age, through two world wars, seemed enough to make it what I’d call ‘newsworthy.’ At least I found it significant enough to put my head down and start working on reviving his reputation in time for the 150th anniversary of his birth, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of his death – and thus the moment his work shifted from obscure copyright (lounging on shelves of a couple of libraries special collections) to public domain. And I kind of hoped it might become less obscure.
After all, here was a man in and around the birth-pangs of socialism. A man who had a view, and views of the ‘greats’ of his time. Leatham was provocative, certainly and he was nobody’s fool. Nobody’s lackey. He ploughed his own furrow, which I suspect was pretty lonely at times. And his work rate was phenomenal. I am currently indexing all his Gateway articles and just getting the titles together runs to well over 100 pages of text. Reading them all… and learning enough to make critical comment… that’s the work of years. I’ve given myself 5 years to get ‘a’ job done, if not ‘the’ job. That, I suspect would take a lot longer.
I sent out emails to all the national papers (well, not the obvious Tory ones) offering review copies. No response. Except from The Press and Journal. They, to their credit, made it ‘Book of the Week’ on their Bookshelf feature. I know it will be next week’s chip paper, but it’s better than being completely ignored.
Leatham was born in Aberdeen. He is buried there, at St Machar Cathedral. And less than a mile away the full set of Gateways is resplendent in the University Special Collections along with quite a few of his penny pamphlets. So of course it is right that the paper should remember him. The Press and Journal is the paper of the North of Scotland. I wonder how many people outside of that area read it? And my question is, is Leatham really of such little significance to anyone outside the North of Scotland? Who decides he is parochial in interest? He's certainly not parochial in outlooks. He made a significant contribution in improving workers rights in Manchester – clearly that’s not enough to get him noticed by the (Manchester) Guardian. And not one of the Scottish National papers – including ‘The National’ – were interested. Going online, even ‘Bella Caledonia’ passed on the offer to review this autobiography. In a world obsessed with the minutiae of the lives of our current politicians and celebrities, there seems to be no place for non professional, non-establishment political commentators from the past.
Scotland and Scottish writers are often accused of being parochial, at least in times gone by. I have argued against that claim in the past, yet the only explanation I have to offer for the wholesale lack of interest in Leatham's autobiography is either that the whole newspaper fraternity is so in thrall to the ‘pay to play’ commercial advertising model of publishing, or worse, working to some insidious version of parochialism, which states that one royal baby is worth more attention than ongoing humanitarian issues around the world – you have to put a picture of an actual dead Syrian refugee child being picked up on a beach to top trump a royal baby picture – but only for one day and then we move on to the next ‘news’ item. Culturally, we seem obsessed with present celebrity. For my money (and it won’t surprise you that I don’t spend a lot of money reading newspapers) there is no sense of proportion – and no sense of what might be of significance, never mind interest, to a broad readership with minds of their own, wanting to be informed about the world about them. I don’t think Leatham would be surprised by this at all. After all, he wrote ‘All the organs of public opinion – press, Parliament, radio, pulpit, are in the hands of careerists who support the established order.’
I think, to their combined shame, that this quotation has just been proven true in the near universal lack of interest in his autobiography. [please correct me if I’m wrong and I’ve missed someone writing – either positively or negatively- about his life/work/autobiography! Thus far I'm only aware of The Press and Journal and The Turriff Advertiser taking the time to comment]
Leatham justified his own position as a publisher for 60 Years as follows:
‘It is because the newspapers do not give the material facts of social progress, and still less emphasise their significance, that I have for years maintained a propagandist press, with no advertisers, directors or shareholders to please. It is correct to say that I maintain the press; it does not maintain me. Unless a propagandist enterprise had a party organisation behind it, it never pays. Sometimes not even then.’
Leatham lived and died a ‘wee’ voice. He mixed with ‘big’ voices though, but not enough for their patronage to pay off. His ‘propaganda’ was simply his own view of the world. The word, post 2nd World War, has significantly changed its meaning. One might describe his work more accurately in current parlance as that of an ‘auteur.’ He came from a time when cultural and political commentary were not so cynical. Committed, provocative and readable but not profit driven. His contribution to our culture was hugely significant. His commentary on the politics of his time is of value to both historians and the modern person texting on the replacement for the Clapham omnibus - except I suppose that has now been privatised! If it ain't on twitter it's off the cultural and political radar. And that's progress?
Leatham is not alone in being overlooked of course. As Scots we pay scant attention to anyone from the past, however great their achievements – unless they have establishment (or more recently) celebrity endorsement or status. And this, if you ask me, is one of the things that’s wrong with our Scotland. That we have no respect for those who ask the uncomfortable questions, for those who innovate, agitate and seek to show a ‘different’ view of our world. Whether you agree with his political and cultural views or not, Leatham is a force to be reckoned with. He is worthy of much greater study than I can give him. His work offers the possibilities for a wide range of academic studies, as well as to be read by the general public. In a world of buy and sell, I suggest that the true relationship should instead be: read and share.
The revived Deveron Press (the final imprint under which Leatham published, from 1916-1945) is doing what it can. Bringing out, in this centenary year a range of Leatham’s writings in reasonably priced editions.
But the reality of today is, if you want to make the news, you have to write it yourself. Getting anyone to listen – now that’s the problem of our age, isn’t it? I know all I’m doing is throwing a wee dod of mud at a very large wall. But just consider, for a moment, will you, that the wall you look at every day to ‘find’ your news and to inform your life, is not as free, fair and democratic – or even as open – as you might think it is. Capitalism is alive and well my friends. You may not have a problem with that. But if you just read a bit of Leatham, you’ll see that you buy into it at your peril. Perhaps that’s why they don’t want him remembered? Are his arguments and views still so powerful as to be dangerous? Is this the real reason he is swept under the carpet? You will only ever find out if you read his work.
How can you do that?
Buy ‘60 Years of World-Mending’ from unco books (or Amazon if you must.) If you buy from Amazon you’ll pay more money, the publisher will get less money and Amazon will clear a cool 40% of your money minimum. But you’ll get your book nice and easily with the click of a button. If you can afford to wait a week or so, I’d recommend going direct to Unco. Sometimes small is, if not beautiful, at least ethical! (As I write, the unco price is £9.99+p&p whereas Amazon is £14.99 (free or with p&p charges depending how you buy) So if you want to give Amazon a fiver then feel free to do so. Unco and The Deveron Press would rather you kept that fiver in your own pocket to pay your own taxes with.
If you can’t afford to buy a book for £9.99 then you can still read some Leatham. The Gateway Journal is now available free online. This is the start of a process of digitising Leatham’s work (and other interesting ‘invisible’ public domain writing) and will at least give you a taste of the man and his views. It comes out monthly, edited by yours truly. It’s a piecemeal approach but no one is funding this operation. In the revived Deveron Press, in the spirit of the original: ‘It is correct to say that I maintain the press; it does not maintain me.’
But don’t expect to hear about Leatham from the hip, cool places any time soon. He won’t trend on Twitter. There won’t be a programme about his incredible life on TV any time soon. Is it a comforting thought that this is the fate we are all to come to (even the ‘famous’ amongst us) to be forgotten and overlooked for any of the significant things we did? Our lives are over when they are over folks. Unless WE learn how to remember. And remember how to learn rather than be spoon fed. Stop chewing the gild on your cage and try pecking at the lock. The message is: If you care, share. And share. And share. And don’t stop sharing. Don’t imagine someone else is going to ‘do the work’ to restore a reputation or bring you the news. As I said before: if you want to make the news you have to write it yourself. Gonnae help us dae that? Read and share is a revolutionary McRenegade strategy! And remember - not only the papers can write reviews!