In these days where it is almost impossible not to have intimate knowledge of the live (albeit created) of an eye wateringly large range of ‘celebrities’, how refreshing to find a biography of an ordinary, unknown man.
Herbert Allingham is a ‘forgotten’ man today, yet his 50 year working career spanned the time when publishing was undergoing a massive overhaul, reflecting the massive changes in society between the 19thto 20th centuries. Like many others he was a participant, perhaps a victim, of changes in the publishing industry and his relationship with the emergent Amalgamated Press provides an interesting hook to hang an exploration of the rise of the ‘popular’ press and the political motivations behind it.
This biography is beautifully written and cleverly illustrated using illustrations from the original magazines and it consequently achieves scholarly depth while retaining the humour of ‘the common touch’ and thus affords consistency with the subject matter and the man under scrutiny. It provides an insight, through meticulous research and documentation, into a period which has interesting parallels with our own. Print journalism was (and still is) an ephemeral world and the ‘popular’ magazines for which Allingham wrote might be seen as an earlier incarnation of the present day blog or the soap opera.
Through the life of Allingham we get a great insight into ‘the struggle of fiction’ and quite how much work a writer has to do to get a ‘return’. This biography is especially good at revealing the ‘real’ life of a ‘jobbing’ writer. It reminds fellow writers that we are mostly in the same boat, that a lot of hard work, a lot of frustration and some luck all for meagre reward are the recipe of the ‘jobbing’ or as we might say ‘professional’ writer. Far from the aspirational career most people assume it to be, writing for a living is a hardnosed and precarious endeavour and this is as true today as it was in Allingham’s time.
Allingham notes that there are plenty of writers who do not hit celebrity status and yet who work hard their whole lives, for whom success is a more immediate affair and secondary to keeping food on the table. Who are, in many respects just like other workers. ‘Oh believe me, there are those who have worked as hard, striven as bravely, and who have fallen by the way.’ As such this biography is not just a tribute to Allingham but a reflection on the majority of writers (and others) who work hard, contribute much and are swiftly forgotten as the dominant media forms press onwards with ever ‘new’ and ‘improved’ fictional and literary ‘product’ to sell us. It’s a view of the writer as ‘everyman’ rather than as ‘celebrity.’
Today’s media gives us a pre-packaged ‘who do you think you are?’ version of the family history of celebrities. This biography is something much more for a reader to get their teeth (and their brain) into. It shows the complexity inherent in all family histories and encourages one to think differently and more deeply about the prospect and value of doing such research for ‘ordinary’ or ‘forgotten’ people. It demonstrates that people who never made the A list lead lives every bit as valuable, as real and as interesting as those we have pumped to us by the media. It stands as a type of social and economic historical research of which I wish we had much more.
The serial fiction in the magazines that Allingham wrote for might be seen as the soap operas of their day – they certainly seem to obey all the same dramatic and narrative rules and they are well explored and critiqued by Jones throughout. Often such work is simply dismissed as melodramatic but Jones notes that ‘the plot happenings are melodramatic yet the social understanding is thoroughly realistic’ and this is the core of a major argument in the biography – that it’s important to read and to view from the right context. Jones reminds us that we are looking at a time when people read out loud to each other, when reading was a more communal activity and the people who could only afford halfpenny or penny magazines were quite different in many respects from the media savvy, highly educated people who normally read literary fiction today and critique such work as Allingham’s by looking down their nose at its purported lack of ‘quality’.
Which brings us to questions of quality and of politics. Jones doesn’t shy away from either. The heady questions of ‘is it literature?’ and ‘what is the political angle?’ are explored with insight and rigour throughout the biography.
It’s impossible not to enter the debate on class when discussing ‘quality’ of literature/fiction both historically and in the contemporary world. One should remember that Allingham was neither writing for a cultural elite in his own time or today. He wrote for the masses. The ordinary working class people in his own time.
There is an important political argument to be had about how far the mediation of the emergent capitalist ‘popular’ publishing empire represented by the likes of Amalgamated Press actually controlled the reading habits and tastes of ‘the masses.’ It’s a theme Jones returns to several times, teasing it out. She doesn’t resort to dogma. She questions whether Allingham was ‘part of a capitalist conspiracy to keep the common people quiet whilst the elite manipulated the situation to their own advantage.’ She makes you think.
She cites Orwell who claimed that ‘all fiction is censored in the interests of the ruling classes.’ And without resorting to a Marxist ‘interpretation’, Jones alludes to Marx in a different light and context from that which we have perhaps become used (and inured) to – as a social, political and economic commentator of his time. (She practises what she preaches and puts Marx in his context!)
It is interesting to view Allingham’s life in context of ‘the ‘fetishising of the commodity’ and Marx’s suggestion that the sort of writing Allingham did will inevitably become a commodity to be sold by the capitalist has proven correct. But this does not necessarily mean that the ‘masses’ were being fed stories they didn’t want to read. Or held down educationally or restricted in their reading matter because of their class. That’s an issue still up for debate. This biography shows that writers like Allingham were most assiduous in writing what people wanted to read, as a lifelong battle with editors attests. He wrote what he believed in and he believed in entertaining the ordinary person. It is for this reason, not just for financial ones, that he held onto his copyright as much as possible- though in a long life with financial instability there were times when he had to give away rights in order to feed his family. Jones concludes that Allingham ‘offers no political solution, but a framework for emotion, a structure on which readers can hang personal hopes and fears.’
All of which leads us to Jones’s most important point within this biography – the centrality of context. Orwell and Marx may be right or wrong but there is one certainty which is that everything we come across is mediated by context. Jones points out, ‘Not only are we reading at the wrong speed and in the wrong place to re-capture the original reader’s enjoyment, but we are also living the wrong lives.’
Any form of literary criticism or political and social commentary must bear this in mind. Looking back, particularly on literary forms, it is incumbent on us to reflect rather than to rebuke and to try to understand rather than denigrate. Jones has done an admirable job in both setting that agenda and demonstrating how it can be undertaken.
I certainly came out of this biography with a great respect for Herbert Allingham, a great curiosity to read more of his work and of the fiction of his other family members. And with a greater knowledge and more sophisticated understanding of the context for publishing and of the changes for writers and readers brought about by the rise of the ‘popular’ press in the form of Amalgamated Press and the battle between capitalism and socialism in social and economic terms at the collision of the 19th and 20th centuries. It gave me much to reflect on regarding our own publishing revolution – epublishing – here in the early 21stcentury. It reminded me that context is vitally important. And that being a writer is about much more than fame and fortune.
I believe the ‘lesson’ Allingham teaches (and Jones admirably reveals) is that the job of a writer is to live and write as honestly as possible. What happens to your work before (and certainly after) your death is of less concern and is mainly out of your control. Fashions change. But for writers the more important change than fashion is the role of editors and/or ‘gatekeepers’ who do the ‘choosing’ and dictate what gets published. Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is a biography every writer (or aspiring writer) should read and I suggest that it is also of great interest to the general reader who wonders about whether the distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ is something they should worry about, and wants to ‘throw off the chains’ of politically led and financially motivated dictums on ‘quality’ and make their own choices about what they like to read.