John Gibson (1887-1980): Purpose & Audience – Writing Lives

John Gibson (1887-1980): Purpose & Audience

Unlike many of the texts in the collection and on our website, John Gibson’s autobiography is in fact a tape recording that has been transcribed by an unknown source. For this reason, it is difficult to know for sure whether John was even aware of the recording whilst he was speaking, or indeed the audience he was addressing and his intentions. However, this work can still be classified as an autobiography, just like any of the other texts in the Brunel archive, ‘despite [its] differences from traditional autobiography…because these are the responses that workers produced when asked or compelled, for whatever reasons, to record their lives’ (Gagnier, 1987, 335).

‘Willie Gallagher’ (sic). William Gallacher, a fellow shop steward with whom John worked in Glasgow. He went on to be a Member of Parliament for the Communist Party.

John certainly records his life in great detail within these pages. Although the transcript features much of John’s private life, such as his wife’s death and his love of horse racing, it is clear the audience he was addressing particularly wanted to know about his working life and political activism during the Red Clydeside period in Scotland, a time of left-wing radicalism. From his search for work up and down the country before the First World War, to his trade union involvement in Glasgow and Letchworth, John reveals all. His politically conscious audience will have no doubt been impressed by the number of leading figures of the labour movement John managed to meet and work alongside during his political career; William Gallacher, John Maclean, Manny Shinwell and George Hardy to name but a few.

Although John is mostly forthcoming with his audience, there is one instance in which he hesitates to disclose certain information, perhaps showing he was conscious of being recorded. When discussing David Kirkwood, another leading socialist from this period and a man of whom he had less than fond memories, John admits ‘I can’t say too much, because he’s gone now’ (5). This could merely be a case of not wanting to speak ill of the dead, however it does suggest John was conscious that his words could be more wide-reaching than the group of people he was talking to.

When analysing working-class memoirs, it is said that ‘the moment [the authors’] focus shifts from [personal experiences] to a general history of the period, their autobiography suffers’ (Vincent, 1977, 23). However, John’s riveting storytelling manages to move between the personal and the historical without losing any quality. Personal revelations and opinions of certain characters are coupled with events of general historical interest, including the George Square violence of 1919. ‘The working-class autobiography was primarily “testimonial”; its purpose was to document a way of life, promote a set of convictions and show an awareness of audience’ (Hackett, 1989, 209). John’s narrative certainly achieves all of this, whilst also remaining informative.

David Kirkwood, another of John’s trade union colleagues in Glasgow that went on to be an MP.

It can be argued that whenever an autobiographer moves away from the personal and into the historical, the text is no longer a ‘revelation of self but of class’ (Gagnier, 1987, 336). This comment does have some merit, and certainly John’s transcript is as much a reflection of working-class conditions in the early 20th century as it is a reflection of his own personality. However, I would argue that these are not mutually exclusive, and that a memoir can definitely contribute in a meaningful way to both aspects. This transcript is a reflection of John Gibson, the man, as well as a reflection of the working class, and there is certainly a case to be made for the ‘autobiography as the revelation of a centred, unified subject or self’ (Ibid, 337). In other words, a text that moves at times into a more historical and general voice does not necessarily mean it is worthless as a reflection of its author.

In this sense, John is not simply representing himself in these pages, but speaking on behalf of the entire labour movement in Britain at this time. His narrative serves as an historical document that is both revealing and fascinating, from his highlighting of the difficulties of unemployment and the scarcity of work, to the police brutality witnessed in George Square. Whilst we cannot be certain of his intentions or knowledge of the recording, it is safe to assume his main aims were to inform his audience on issues affecting the working-class and the labour movement as a whole.





Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’.
Victorian Studies, Vol. 30 No. 3. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
3:O232  GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography’. Biography, Vol. 12 No. 3. Honolulu: Hawai’i UP, 1989.
Vincent, David. Testaments of Radicalism. London: Europa, 1977.

William Gallacher portrait –
David Kirkwood portrait –

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