As a student Harry Taylor was in search of a volume on Hugh Gaitskell, Labour’s lost leader. It wasn’t in the Liverpool Library. Instead he found the first biography of Victor Grayson by Reg Groves, a surprising best seller. He read it and continued reading and researching about Victor Grayson in his professional life as a historian.
Taylor gives us a superb life, following on and adding to the research of former Labour MP, David Clark. At times the narrative has the flavour of a Boy’s Own Adventure. Grayson stowing away for Chile could be from Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns. This is Grayson describing the stowaways with the eye of the novelist:
“There was lame Mike, who wore two distinct (socks), one of which grew upwards and the other had a sorrowful downward drop. There was lanky Foden – six feet two high and as thin as a lath. There was little Davie Hughes of the plumed purples, Jack Sparrows…(in) whose face I had never seen anything as wickedly criminal… and the writer with long, white hair and a dirty Eton collar to which I clung with tenacity… The adult inhabitants eyed us with fearful curiosity, while the children took one look at us and ran for their lives towards their homes.”
Taylor corrects the received views that gathered around Grayson, that he was the illegitimate son of the Marlborough family, that he was murdered as a result of the cash for honours scandal, and that he was drunk in action during a major Parliamentary debate.
We have the politician in all his enthusiasms and limitations; a stump orator as good as Aneurin Bevan combined with a lack of alliance making skills. He was in at the enthusiastic start of the Labour Party and didn’t have the hindsight to know how leaving it would weaken his position. His enthusiasms could not be channelled by the increasingly fragmentary groups on the left.
The book’s introduction by Jeremy Corbyn is apt. In 2017 he held the same open air meetings of enthusiasts as Grayson had done generations earlier in Colne Valley.
Although Grayson advocated action on poverty and unemployment, it wasn’t until the Attlee government when the protests of the thirties were channelled into the great post-war reforms of government.
Any Cop?: Pluto have now published two biographies of Victor Grayson. This is without doubt the best. Grayson is no longer the vanishing man of the McCormick myth but a life and blood figure from the early part of the last century.