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May Day by John Sommerfield

The country is in turmoil – the people are angry at the corruption of the ruling class; workers are told to increase production for less pay; bosses meet to discuss ways of increasing their profit margins; unions mobilise the masses; a march takes place; the police clash with demonstrators and a man is killed on the streets of London. This could be a snapshot of life in the 21st Century, but it is an outline of the events driving May Day, a novel first published in 1936.

Taking place over a three-day period leading up to and including the worker’s holiday of May 1st, sometime during the 1930s, on one level May Day is a political novel, but more than that it is a book about London and its people. The political is made personal as an unusually large number of characters fill the pages, some returning again and again, others glimpsed only once, but each appearance moves the book forward as individual stories link and build layers, creating a unique sort of narrative. There is no main character in May Day, no single voice dominating, and this experimental approach could easily have failed, and yet John Sommerfield pulls it off.


May Day is a fluent, exciting read, and while he would later describe it as more like ‘Communist romanticism’ than ‘social realism’, he was being modest. London is always present in her factories and terraces, docks and river, grand parks and mansions, street markets and salons. As one reviewer put in back in 1936, Sommerfield ‘gives us the true London – smelt, seen, understood.’

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