This page is about the life and work of the novelist John Sommerfield, 1908-1991
John Sommerfield was a writer and political activist, best known for two books written while he was still in his twenties. May Day (1936) was an experimental and very political novel, which remains in print. And the following year, he published Volunteer in Spain, the first account of a member of the International Brigades who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War to resist Franco's forces.
Much of Sommerfield's adult life was defined by his involvement in the Communist Party. He joined, as best we can tell, in the early 1930s and remained a member until the mid-1950s. He was particularly active in the CP Writers' Group, and wrote - both articles and stories - for many party-aligned journals as well as more widely for literary magazines and reviews.
During the Second World War, Sommerfield served in the Royal Air Force - notably in Sindh (in what is now Pakistan) and in Burma. This provided material for several of his short stories and for other writing. After the war, he worked particularly on the scripts for documentary films. He lived in north London until moving, quite late in life, to rural Oxfordshire.
There has been of late a modest revival of interest in Sommerfield and his writing. There's now an entry on him in Wikipedia. This website also aims to promote awareness and appreciation of his life and writing. There are below entries on his main published works, and a separate page - here's the link - contains some photos and other material from his archive. The drawing of Sommerfield above is from the archive and appears to date from the late 1940s. It's not clear who the artist was - it may have been his second wife, Molly Moss, an accomplished illustrator. It's posted here with the permission of Sommerfield's son, Peter (his only child, from his first marriage). Below are two more widely known photos of Sommerfield which can't be dated with certainty but are probably from the 1930s or early '40s.
I hope you find this site of interest - if there's anything that I've got wrong, or you think should be added, or for any comments and feedback, do drop me a line at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
'They Die Young' - 1930
John Sommerfield's first novel is the one for which he is least remembered. Drawing upon the then 21-year-old author's experiences as a theatrical stagehand and a merchant seaman, the book traces the title character's "gay loves, his travels from London to New York and later to South America," and the manner in which "he was gradually shorn of his high spirited youth, until there was no longer any quickening in him, no longer response to beauty or peace or desire."
- published in the US as 'The Death of Christopher'
Not only did John Sommerfield publish his first novel at the age of 21, it was published in the United States too - under the slightly more alluring title of The Death of Christopher.
The striking jacket design is by Jeanette Warmuth, a noted illustrator. It would be difficult to imagine any other of Sommerfield's 1930s titles having such a 'high society'-style cover.
As you can see, the book is a period piece - indeed, I came across the dust jacket design on a website selling this copy for $350, with the fine condition of the jacket clearly being the main factor in the elevated price. Copies without the jacket are much more modestly priced.
'Behind the Scenes' - 1934
Sommerfield's second book was a factual work - Behind the Scenes, published by Thomas Nelson in 1934. The inside flap explains: 'A voyage of discovery behind the scenes in a large theatre. The author, who writes from his own varied professional experience, takes us with him into the wings, up to the grid under the roof, and all over the building, showing us how a play is rehearsed and stage-managed, how scenery is made, set up and changed, how the lighting is done, and many other fascinating things. This is a book for readers of any age who are interested in the theatre.'
The rather incongruous cover design 'represents the Houston-Westland and Westland-Wallace biplanes on their flight over Mount Everest' - if you can't work out what that has to do with a book about stagecraft, neither can I.The book includes several photographs and drawings - and on the book flap another book in the 'Discovery' series is advertised, Underground Railways by Vernon Sommerfield, who was John's father.
'May Day' - 1936
May Day is the novel on which John Sommerfield's reputation rests. You can see from the dust jacket blurb that it was an intensely political book, set in London a few years hence with the Communists on the brink of a breakthrough.
The dust jacket was as innovative as the novel - the work of Misha Black, a Russian-born designer who became better known as an architect.
John King says much more about this remarkable novel in the London Fictions book.
- republished by Lawrence & Wishart
The novel was republished by Lawrence & Wishart in 1984. Andy Croft provides a well informed introduction, talking of how May Day was 'clearly written in the first flush of [Sommerfield's] new political enthusiasm. He first had the idea for the book many years before. Coming down the Thames from New York early one morning, he had seen dawn break over London, This panoramic view of the sleeping city gave him both the book's technical model and its opening sequence.'
John Sommerfield provided an author's note to the new edition: 'When I wrote it I would have probably said that May Day was socialist realism. Now I'd call it early 30s communist romanticism. I'm not in any way apologising for the book's enthusiastic, simple-minded political idealism. Because it was a genuine idealism. There was a lot of it about then. And there still is now, not in the same forms as before, but still alive and hopeful.'
The cover shows a detail from 'Demonstration' by Pat Carpenter.
- and again by London Books
The excellent London Books put out a new edition of May Day in 2010, with an introduction by the novelist John King in which he places Sommerfield alongside other writers of the 1930s, including James Curtis and Gerald Kersh.
He also quotes from the review of the novel in Left Review: 'the best collective novel we have yet produced in England' in which 'Sommerfield gives us the true London - smelled, seen, understood'.
The wonderful cover designs for London Books Classics are the work of Benedict Richards.
Stories and Articles
For much of his writing career, John Sommerfield wrote stories - some reportage such as this 'Spanish Diary', and more often short stories - for literary journals. Many of these publications - Left Review, Our Time and others - were political, and often associated with the Communist Party. Sommerfield was active in the CP's Writers' Group, and indeed Doris Lessing writes that it was Sommerfield who encouraged her to get involved with this group.
Sommerfield was a contributor in particular to John Lehmann's New Writing, one of the most influential literary publications of the late 1930s and '40s. The third issue of New Writing - published in 1937 at much the same time as this edition of Edgell Rickword's Left Review - contained another piece by Sommerfield about his time fighting in Spain, with the title: 'To Madrid'.
No full bibliography has been assembled of Sommerfield's published writings, and it would be quite a task to get a close-to-comprehensive list - but I hope someone will take on that responsibility.
'Volunteer in Spain' - 1937
'There have been many books about the Spanish Civil War', says the book's blurb, 'but this one is unique. It is the first account to be published of the experience of a fighter in the famous Inetrnational Brigade which saved Madrid from the rebels. ... The gay courage of the people behind the lines, the grim realities of modern war, these have never been better expressed than in this crisp, personal narrative.'
Volunteer in Spain was published by the CP's Lawrence & Wishart, the title echoing Claude Cockburn's Volunteer in Spain, which had also been published by Lawrence & Wishart (under the pseudonym Frank Pitcairn), appearing in October 1936. Sommerfield's book caught some of the tedium and confusion of the conflict, though it had plenty of the heroic as well. He later was reportrd to have said that he could have written a much better account if he had been given more time.
Volunteer in Spain was dedicated to Sommerfield's friend and comrade John Cornford, who was killed fighting in Spain on December 28th, 1936, his twenty-first birthday'.
- translated into Spanish
Volunteer in Spain was published in the US as well as Britain, but has never since been republished in English - and while you can get it as a 'print to order' volume, copies of the original editions are quite hard to come by.
But it has now been translated into a number of European languages, and it is particularly good to see a Spanish edition, Voluntario en Espana.
'Trouble in Porter Street' - 1939
In 1939, the CP asked John Sommerfield to write a manual about how best to organise a rent strike - the party was keenly involved in housing disputes at that time. Sommerfield eventually wrote the manual in the form of a short story, published cheaply as a pamphlet. It's one of his most engaging pieces of writing - an account of a working class cul-de-sac based on Slaidburn Street in Chelsea, an area Sommerfield knew well.
There's a more detailed look at Trouble in Porter Street on the London Fictions site, including some of the illustrations from the story (the work of Sommerfield's wife, Molly Moss) and - thanks to the historian and Sommerfield enthusiast, Andy Croft - you can also hear Sommerfield talking about the background to the writing of Porter Street.
The pamphlet was published by Key Books, which produced a series of strong selling 'agitprop-style' titles at a time when the party was at its most outgoing.
- republished in 1954
After the war, Trouble in Porter Street was republished - with a few changes to the text (the villainous landlord was no longer given a Jewish name) and a postscript about what had happened in the street in the intervening fifteen years - apparently not much.
This new edition didn't make anything like the same impact, though to judge by the number of copies which can be found for sale, it clearly sold tolerably well.
I am not quite sure why a new cover was designed - or why the cover price was nine times that of the original.
'The Pub and the People' - 1943
In the late 1930s, John Sommerfield was a key figure in Mass Observation, an ambitious initiative led by Tom Harrisson to discover more about the lives and culture of ordinary people in Britain. Sommerfield led the fieldwork for The Pub and the People, undertaken in 'Worktown' - which was in fact Bolton in Lancashire.
Sommerfield wasn't credited as the author when the book finally appeared in 1943, but in his own later work, he consistently listed The Pub and the People as among his publications.
Nick Hubble has written about John Sommerfield's involvement with Mass Observation - here's the link.
- republished in 1987
The Pub and the People was initially published by Victor Gollancz, and was republished in the late 1980s by the Cresset Library. In all there were twenty-three books and pamphlets published by Mass Observation between 1937 and 1950.
The cover photograph is by Humphrey Spender - I'm not absolutely sure whether it depicts a Bolton street scene.
'The Survivors' - 1947
Sommerfield wrote many short stories - The Survivors, published by John Lehmann, is his only published collection of short stories. Many draw on his war experience with the RAF in India and Burma - and are judged to be among his best writing.
'This is a collection of stories by an author whose work has attracted wide attention in recent years', the dust jacket records. 'The majority were written while Mr. Sommerfield was in uniform, serving with the R.A.F. in various parts of the world, but he has succeeded in giving them a great deal more than a purely topical significance. He has a shrewdly observant eye, an ear for dialogue, and a strong vein of humour; above all, he is a stylist who can convey mood and atmosphere with remarkable power, and move us to sympathy with difficult suffering as often as delight us with his salty characters and their capacity for remaining their cool and typically British selves in circumstances of extreme discomfort or danger.'
The cover was designed by Sommerfield's wife, Molly Moss.
'The Adversaries' - 1952
The Adversaries is a venture into historical fiction. It's based on the life of the French mathematician Evariste Galois, who helped to develop group theory. The aspect of his life which the novel dwells on, as the cover suggests, is his death - Galois died in Paris in 1832 as the consequence of a duel.
Galois was a radical republican, but the duel was more probably about love than politics.
'The Inheritance' - 1956
'John Sommerfield has written a very wise and human story on what might be called the theme of men and money', reads the dust jacket. And the book offers a summary of the story:
'Sarah Lidstone dies, leaving a quarter of a million and a peculiar will. This draws together members of the Lidstone family, most of whom have never met before, and who come from all walks of life ... Each is affected in a different way by their great expectations and in the end each adjusts or fails to adjust himself to the outcome.'
Molly Moss, Sommerfield's wife, designed the cover.
'North West Five' - 1960
This is a tender story of a young working class couple living in NW5 - the Kentish Town/Gospel Oak area which Sommerfield knew well. North West Five is about a young carpenter, Dan (said to be loosely based on the son of Sommerfield's charlady), his courtship with Liz, and the couple's struggle to find their own place to live.
The novel returns to some of the themes of the housing problem in London - for decades the most pressing political issue in the capital - which had been explored in Trouble in Porter Street. The difference is that Sommerfield had by know ledt the party, and these is in this novel no sense of a political movement seeking redress.
The cover, which adds so greatly to the charm of the novel, was the work of Stephen Russ.
'The Imprinted' - 1978
John Sommerfield described The Imprinted as 'semi-fictional' or imaginary memoirs. It draws loosely on his own life - the dissolute, disputatious political and literary circles in which he mixed; political activism in London; fighting in Spain; serving with the armed forces outside Karachi and getting to know Indian nationalists; relationships fading and beginning.
Much of the action concerns a commission to make a radio documentary about, as best as one can judge, John Cornford, then being pressured to amend the script and take out some of the politics, and battling against these injunctions.