by Ian Bullock
1. Me and the Clarion
Not long before I began my (part-time) research at Sussex University in 1975 I’d hardly heard of The Clarion– nor, although I’d been quite a keen (touring) cyclist since childhood – and CTC member since 1954 – had I heard of the Clarion Cycling Club. I was inspired, when I began my research, by Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921, published in 1969. By this time I knew Walter very well. In particular I was profoundly struck by the following statement in the concluding chapter of the book where he summed up the character of the British Left – or at least part of it – before the advent of Communism.
The revolutionary movement, before the transformation took place had been ultra democratic, opposed to leadership on principle, opposed to the professionalization of the Labour movement almost as an article of faith.
So, I began to explore the relationship between socialism and democracy in the British context before the First World War. Was Walter’s characterisation correct? After much reading of the sources – especially of newspapers, including of course The Clarion, and a great number of pamphlets and other writings – I came to the conclusion that, broadly, he was. The scope of my exploration was wider. Walter’s ‘revolutionary movement’ was basically the SDF/BSP, the SLP and what he called the ‘Radical Upsurge’ before and during the war which was much influenced by syndicalism and associated ideas. I was just as interested in the ILP- only the attempt of its ‘Left Wing’ to get the party to affiliate to the Comintern figures in Walter’s book – the movement centred on The Clarion and the decidedly and self-consciously not ‘ultra-democratic’ members of the Fabian Society.
There is not that much – apart from one or two biographies of Blatchford, his autobiography, My Eighty Years and that of his friend and virtual editorial partner A M Thompson – Here I Lie. The Memorial of an Old Journalist – and of course the late Denis Pye’s little book on the first 100 years of the cycling club – Fellowship is Life – that one can read on the Clarion. As I started my research there were two academic theses that I needed to study on the Clarion movement. There was Judith Fincher’s 1971 Manchester University MA thesis, ‘The Clarion Movement. A Study of a Socialist Attempt to Implement the Co-operative Commonwealth in England, 1891-1914’ and – just in time as I began my own research – Logie (or L.B J. as it says on the cover) Barrow’s 1975 London University PhD thesis ‘The socialism of Robert Blatchford and the “Clarion” movement, 1889-1918.’
My own D Phil thesis was completed in 1981 and later formed much of the book I did with Logie, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880- 1914 (Macmillan, 1996) Not the snappiest of titles, I admit – I have improved a bit since, I think, with Romancing the Revolution and Under Siege not the mention the book I’m working on at the moment ‘The Drums of Armageddon’ of which a bit more in a moment or two. The Clarion and the Clarion movement feature a great deal in both my thesis and Democratic Ideas. ‘Drums’ – I pinched the title from Blatchford himself – looks at the reactions to the outbreak of the First World War in the three longest established Left-wing papers – one of them being The Clarion. I begin with the last month of peace – July 1914 – with the reactions to the Sarajevo assassination of 28th June and follow the diverging responses of the three papers until the end of the year.
By the time I’d finished being a part-time research student I knew a fair bit about the Clarion movement including something about the cycling club. But this aspect was not my main focus and I just assumed that like the paper itself – which closed in 1931 – the club had died sometime before World War II. The next bit I have told about before but not for a longish while so it will bear repeating. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s it was our practice to spend Easter with Sue’s parents in Nottingham. I would devise interesting – if usually very indirect such as up the centre of Wales or via Hadrian’s Wall – ways of spending a few days cycling to my parents-in-law staying in youth hostels on the way.
I can’t remember which year it was but it was the one where I cycled via East Anglia. I remember staying at the YHA at Martham on the Broads and then at Kings Lynn. The following day was the penultimate one of my trip and I stopped at the YH at Bourne, in Hereford the Wake territory in the Fens.
I was cooking something – well, probably just warming something up – in the Members’ Kitchen of the hostel. There were a couple of what seemed to me very ancient blokes there doing likewise. (They were probably about 20 years younger than I am now – but they seemed of a venerable age at the time) I noticed that one of them was wearing a large ’trumpet’ badge saying ‘Clarion.’ Now at this point I must explain that though the cycling activities associated with The Clarion had not been anywhere near the centre of my concern when reading – or at least skimming through – every edition of The Clarion up to 1914 I had become familiar with how the ‘Boots and Spurs’ business originated. I knew that it all came from one of Blatchford’s tales about his life in the army in the 1870s. He had told how in his barrack room it had become customary to take turns telling a story after ‘lights out’. The problem was that people tended to go off to sleep before the tale was ended. So the practice grew of the storyteller, if he suspected that the rest of the room had dropped off, saying ‘Boots!’ Anyone still awake than had to respond ‘Spurs’ This was very well known to all readers of The Clarion, so at the first Easter Meet, when nobody knew what people from other areas looked like, it was used to identify cyclists coming into town for the Clarion meeting. It subsequently became the standard greeting and response for everyone associated with the paper and its organisations.
Anyway, amazed at spotting the Clarion badge but somehow recalling the greeting which I then thought was a thing of the distant past I said ‘Boots!’ ‘Spurs!’ he replied in great surprise and asked me how I knew about all this. It turned out that he and his friend were on their way to the Easter Meet at Skegness – at least I think it was Skegness, certainly somewhere on the East Coast. I was delighted to learn that far from disappearing the Clarion Cycling Club was still flourishing. As soon as I got back to Brighton I managed to find out how to join – a lot harder in those pre-internet days – and did so as a ‘private’ member. I’d no idea then that there had been a Brighton Clarion that seems to have fizzled out in the early 1950s. I renewed my membership every year for a while but then, preoccupied with other things – work, books – I let it lapse. But after I retired in September 2003 I made new enquires and discovered that you could start a new section with as few as 3 members. At the beginning of 2004 I recruited Joyce and the late Ted (or Ed as he later preferred) Fury which made up the necessary 3. Sheila Schaffer joined up almost immediately and took part – along with Joyce and me – in our first ride. It rained a lot – not an auspicious beginning – but, as they say, the rest is history.
Well, that’s (probably more than) enough about me. So …
Boots! Next time: The Clarion is born in 1891.