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Looking Back

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Looking Back: A Man’s Life: The Story of a Miner M.P.

A book review from October 1932

A Man’s Life: The Story of a Miner M.P.

We need no Samuel Smiles in these days to relate the trials and triumphs of the manual worker: those who have ‘arrived’ are telling the story for themselves: and the story is all the more realistic and impressive. A typical instance is the autobiography of Mr Jack Lawson, M.P. for Chester-le-Street, and a member of the last Labour Government (A Man’s Life, Hodder & Stoughton, 5s).

There are few life stories which are told with such force and sincerity, and possess such inspirational power for the young and in poor and unpromising circumstances. He describes his self-education, his reading, his study at Ruskin College, his return to the pits, and his rise, in spite of himself and his principles, to public work.

It is a strangely fascinating picture which Mr Lawson gives of his early days and his home – of his sailor-miner father, and of his formidable, granite-like mother – an extraordinarily arresting figure: of the pitiful conditions of the work in the pits, and the effort to live decently and bravely. With a lifetime’s experience he writes:

“Miners are clean, intelligent, orderly, home-loving men. Their depth of thought, expressed in simple language, sometimes backed by amazing reading, will challenge comparison with any class in Great Britain. Knowing as I do the life and conduct below, and the character that goes with conduct on the surface, even the crudest among them humble me. To think of them as a whole is to have a tightness at the throat, while the heroism of them, and their womenfolk in home matters, as well as the action below, increases admiration until it pains. Better and better have they grown in my lifetime in all things that matter to men and nations.”

To understand the psychology of strikes, or the inner working of the Trade Unions, or the spiritual impulses of the Labour movement one ought to read this moving tale. In northern mining circles, Mr Lawson says, the Gospel expressed in social forms has been more of a driving power than all economic teaching put together. “The most powerful forces for the mental and moral elevation of the workers during the industrial era, has been the contemptuously called ‘Little Bethel’”.

Mr Lawson tells how he was addicted to gambling – “a fever that burns one up” – in his early years, and how he gradually built up a barrier between himself and his bad habit – an intellectual and moral barrier – until his books and the discipline of the mine completely ousted the old misery-making craving.

The book is the record of dogged effort, fine living, and clear thinking, and despite its low lights, is full of optimism and cheer.

Jack Lawson would later serve for a year as Secretary of State for War in the Attlee administration. In 1949 he was made Lord Lieutenant of Durham, and the following year became Baron Lawson of Beamish. He died in 1965.

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