Most of the major characters in Ken Fuller’s Love and Labour are workers; that alone makes this a remarkable novel.
The author has taken the events of 1913-17 described in his earlier Radical Aristocrats: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s (Lawrence and Wishart, 1985) and woven into them the fictional love story of Mickey Rice, a former Reading tram driver, and Dorothy Bridgeman, a committed socialist from a wealthy background.
Mickey joins the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers (the “red-button union”), playing an active role in the organisation of the capital’s bus workers and their struggle for recognition by the mighty London General Omnibus Company, and, after the onset of the First World War, the internal battle against a leadership which sometimes ignores the wishes and interests of the membership.
There are lifelike (and remarkably human) renditions of several historical figures: not just “red-button” unionists like left leader George Sanders, but suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, London General boss Albert Stanley, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Board of Trade president Walter Runciman and, fleetingly, Ernie Bevin (the union, via the United Vehicle Workers, would become part of the TGWU in 1922).
For this reader, however, one character towers over all of these: the fictional Dorothy Bridgeman. She is bold, beautiful, exasperating, outrageous and completely captivating. If the screen rights to Love and Labour are ever sold, women actors will be lining up to demand the part.
Although 570 pages long, this novel tells an engrossing tale. There is humour, the dialogue is brilliant, and for the careful reader there are deep insights. The period detail is convincingly rendered – particularly the way in which the war affected the bus worker’s job: overloading, grindingly long hours (15-hour spreadovers!), etc.
Love and Labour will be consumed with pleasure and profit by the general reader and modern-day trade unionists – particularly bus workers. The novel is subtitled Red-Button Years: Volume 1.
There’s more to come!
Love and Labour is available from amazon.co.uk in paperback (£15.00) and e-book (£5.99) formats.
- Ken Fuller worked as a London bus driver for 11 years, following which he was a full-time officer in the TGWU for a further 20 years. Since taking early retirement in 2003, he has resided in the Philippines, publishing a further five non-fiction books and an earlier novel.
By Jim Mowatt, Unite director of education