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

John Gibson (1887-1980): Reading & Writing

‘I was stood beside these papers to sell them’ (4).

John Gibson’s private reading habits are not revealed to us in this transcript. However, that does not mean literature had no significant impact on his life. John is described as a ‘keen literature-seller’ in the notes on the cover of the transcript, a reference to his involvement in the selling of left-wing newspapers such as ‘“The Worker”’ (4) and ‘“The Socialist”’ (6). John suggests he even played a part in the publishing process of the latter, highlighting his enthusiasm for and belief in the use of literature as a tool for spreading a political message.

Sylvia Pankhurst, a prominent suffragette and socialist whose publication ‘Workers’ Dreadnought’ was distributed by John.

John’s role as a vendor for socialist newspapers meant he was present for the Bloody Friday violence of George Square in 1919. From his vantage point, ‘stood on this other side with different socialist papers’ (4), John was able to see the chaos unfold, offering an insight into the brutality of the police that day. Prior to the violence commencing, John was also selling ‘“Dreadnought”, Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper’ (4), along with his other publications. This of course refers to the Workers’ Dreadnought (previously Women’s Dreadnought) publication of Sylvia Pankhurst, ‘one of the major figures of British Socialism’ at that time who even ‘had a robust dialogue with [Vladimir] Lenin’ (WCML). Women are prominent in John’s recollections of the workers’ movement, highlighting the significance of the contributions of people like his mother and Pankhurst in defending working-class rights.

John’s distributing of literature was not limited to newspapers however. He recalls a time when ‘I was selling “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” [sic] at 1/- [shilling] a time…’ (5), a classic work of fiction written by Robert Tressell in 1914 in order to highlight the appalling treatment of the working-class in the 20th century. This novel will have served as an inspiration to many of John’s fellow activists, encouraging them to fight for better working and living conditions for the poorest in society.

This is merely an assumption of course, due to the popularity of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists among the working class. Although it is likely that Tressell’s novel inspired many of its readers, it is also true that ‘even when literature was deliberately written as propaganda, it often had no appreciable impact on the politics of the reader’ (Rose, 1992, 48). Nevertheless, John clearly believed this ‘propaganda’ had value and could inspire people to join the workers’ movement, along with the other publications he sold. In volunteering as a vendor at rallies and other gatherings, John clearly felt he was contributing to the furthering of his and his fellow activists’ cause.

Painting of a working-class newspaper vendor.

It was whilst selling Tressell’s novel that John reveals an internal conflict. He admits that, although copies were intended to be sold for a shilling, ‘sometimes I was tempted to charge 2/- and profiteer’ (5). This light-hearted comment nevertheless shows the difficulty of sticking to one’s principles, even for hardcore activists like John who were ‘on every mortal thing’ (6).

When analysing the reading habits of the working class, historians ‘usually commit…the following common fallac[y] of reader response: [that] all literature is political’ (Rose, 1992, 48). However, in the case of John Gibson, ‘the relationship between literature and politics is a multilane freeway with traffic flowing freely in both directions’ (Lindberg, 1968, 163). In other words, for John, literature and politics are inextricably linked. Whilst he talks little of his personal reading habits, his relationship with literature is motivated mainly by his passion for politics, and his position as a ‘keen literature seller’ emphasises this. Clearly, both complement each other, and John’s willingness to volunteer to sell certain publications demonstrates his belief that literature has a part to play in achieving success politically.



3:O232  GIBSON, (John?). Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Lindberg, John D. ‘Literature and Politics’. The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Vol. 22, No. 4. 1968.
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No. 1. 1992.

‘Newspaper Vendor’ painting –
Sylvia Pankhurst –

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