© Peter Sommerfield
John Sommerfield (1908-1991) was born and raised off the Portobello Road in Notting Hill, West London, leaving school at the age of fifteen to work as a newspaper-runner, carpenter and merchant seaman. His experiences and a willingness to challenge authority would go on to power his later writing.
His first novel, They Die Young, was published in 1930, and drew on his time at sea, and this was followed by a non-fiction work, Behind The Scenes, dealing with stage carpentry. Being hard-up at the time, he took a fee rather than a royalty for this second book, something he later regretted, as it went on to sell in numbers.
Moving to the World’s End area of Chelsea, he had spells of unemployment and joined the Communist Party, his writing appearing in Left Review, New Writing and The Daily Worker, where he had a column. He was active within the party, talking at meetings and taking part in marches, some of which turned violent as communists, fascists and the police confronted each other. In one such disturbance he had his front teeth knocked out.
He was by nature sociable, an optimist with a sense of humour, someone who liked a drink and engaging with people, his interests ranging from politics and literature to butterflies and birds. He was a familiar face in the Fitzroy Tavern during the 1930s, a contemporary of Gerald Kersh and James Curtis, and said to be on speaking terms with George Orwell. who also used the pub. Well-known around the drinking dens of Soho, The French House and Pillars Of Hercules were two other pubs Sommerfield used on a regular basis.
His second novel, May Day, was published in 1936, and it is this book for which he is best remembered. It is experimental and ambitious, and while openly political more concerned with human beings than party dogma. He may have believed in communism, but it was as a collection of individuals rather than an obedient mass, and he would leave the party in the 1950s. His stated aim as an author was to write straightforward, understandable prose that could be read and appreciated by ordinary people, and despite the large number of characters he employs in May Day and the unusual structure of the book, he achieved his ambition.
Shortly after May Day appeared, he went off to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, serving in a machine-gun unit and losing his friend and fellow writer John Cornford to the conflict. On his return, Sommerfield found that he had been reported dead, his obituary appearing in two newspapers. Volunteer In Spain was published in 1937 and dedicated to Cornford, but he felt he had been rushed when writing it, despite mainly positive coverage. He followed this with the more localised Trouble In Porter Street in 1938.
During the Second World War he served as an armour-fitter for a Spitfire squadron, based first in Burma and then India, and while stationed near Karachi taught himself Urdu. An incident at this time shows the impact books such as May Day were having. As a corporal and communist, he was chosen by the other men to complain about the food they were receiving. The officer he went to see listened and then walked over to a filing cabinet, pulling out a file and dropping it on the desk in front of him. Sommerfield was ‘known to the authorities’.
He kept writing for John Lehmann’s New Writing during the war, and a new book, The Survivors, appeared in 1947. A collection of short stories that drew on his time in the RAF, it was followed by more novels in the post-war years – The Adversaries, The Inheritance, North West Five and The Imprinted, while May Day was republished in 1984 and more recently by London Books. He also wrote for the Mass Observation movement, the Ministry of Information’s film unit, and for various advertising companies.
John Sommerfield was married twice – first to Stella, with who he had a son, Peter, and later to Molly Moss, an illustrator who designed several of his book covers. He lived in Kentish Town and Hampstead until his death in 1991, and with Molly was a regular visitor to the West End and the Soho pubs he had first used in the 1930s. He remained an optimist, and this is one of the many qualities than shine through in the literature he left behind.