‘Fame Is The Spur’ by Howard Spring

★★★★

In the mid-1800s, a young working class boy is growing up in Manchester. Sixty years later, that same person is a statesman, a legendary politician and he is rewriting his own history in his diary – putting forwards a more forgiving version of his amazing rise in life. Fame Is The Spur is a fascinating and oddly riveting story for a book about an essentially dislikable main character. Although it was rather painful at the end, I could not get the story out of my head.

Ellen Shawcross, unemployed maid and unmarried mother, and her baby son John Hamer, was saved from starvation on the streets by kindly methodist preacher and leather worker Gordon. Gordon marries Ellen and raises John Hamer, hoping that the boy will one day become a preacher like himself, and does everything he can to keep the boy from the terrible life of a working child in the factories. Instead John Hamer is encouraged to spend all his time reading, studying and generally dedicate himself to the improvement of his mind. And Hamer Shawcross does indeed not become a factory worker or a wage slave. However, he does not become a preacher dedicated to the care of soul’s of the poor, but a politician and one of the founders of the Labour Party. He becomes a famous orator with an elasterious career, but also a man that began fighting the privilege of the upper classes and finishes his life as a Viscount. How did that happen?

From the very beginning of the book, it is clear that Spring wants us to sympathize with Hamer’s friends and finally rather than the main character himself. Hamer’s father Gordon is as close as a living saint as a man can get. All Gordon wants is to bring some light into the lives of the struggling poor and to bring joy into the life of his beloved wife. Ellen is absolutely devoted to the man that saved her life. Her attachment to her husband may come at a cost to her closeness to her son, but really, Ellen is a humble woman who only wants a warm home and the sense of contributing to the wellness of her loved ones. Hamer becomes an essentially selfish and self-centered person despite the humble circumstances of his family and perhaps due to his sheltered childhood in which he never had to worry about anyone but himself. Unlike his friends in living on the same Manchester slum street as him, John Hamer does not have to worry about contributing financially to his family. He just needs to focus on himself.

And Hamer does indeed work hard. He turns himself from a small peculiar child, into a charismatic, handsome and muscled man. The type of person who draws the attention of everyone in a room by the force of his energy, impressive physique and loud voice. Hamer’s best friend Arnold truly and deeply cares about the plight of the poor. Although unimaginative and not particularly inspiring, Arnold devotes his life to the burgeoning Labour movement and political work. Hamer is simply looking for a career in which he can shine, and command the attention and adoration of an audience. Spring makes it totally apparent that Hamer’s main objective is to improve his own lot in life, and that he has a tendency of using people around him for their connections and knowledge, and then dropping them without looking back.

‘You’re not one of us. There is something about you – I don’t know what it is – but it is not the stuff we’re made of. (…) You will use us and them. They’ll vote for you. That’s all that matters. That’s it. That’s all that matters – to you.You’re honest, insofar as you believe what you’re saying when you say it, and when you deceive us you will be able to explain it to yourself, satisfactorily.’

Hamer is not completely heartless. He is not machiavellian in his methods. No, he cares for the poor and his political causes in his own way, and he does not want to hurt anyone or start friendships only for the sake of his career. But he does have a remarkable talent for deceiving himself and others as to the nature of his intentions and his personality. The person dearest to Hamer’s heart is Ann. She is the daughter of a prosperous Mancunian merchant, and grows up in a gentile environment. But thanks to a friendship with Arnold and a radical, socially aware aunt, Ann becomes a political radical – a supporter of worker’s rights and women’s suffrage. She does encounter Hamer as an unimpressive teenager, but is completely dazzled by the grown up Hamer Shawcross. Convinced of Hamer’s excellence, she leaves behind her own political activities in order to support him. But will Hamer’s changes in circumstances and priorities destroy their relationship and love?

Very little time is actually spent on political decisions or machinations. What is portrayed is the drama around election as well as strikes and demonstrations. This is not a political drama, it is an investigation into the psyche of a career politician. I liked it a lot and was completely invested in the characters’ lives. It could be a bit slow at times, but it was certainly a intelligent story with a great relevance today.

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