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James Barke: Major Operation

This novel has long since been out of print and, while copies are available, they are not cheap. Barke takes a decidedly left-wing outlook in this book, which may have put some people off and the book is quite long, with a significant amount of it set in a hospital. However, it is still a very fine book and well worth reading.

There are three heroes – a working-class socialist, a middle-class man and the city of Glasgow. Glasgow is never mentioned by name but only referred to as The Second City, though its districts and other place names are clearly recognisable. Indeed, we start off with a somewhat poetic image of the city, with a beautiful sunset, with people in different parts of Glasgow admiring its effect. Though there will be other such poetical images throughout the book, it soon becomes apparent that Barke is not just extolling his city. It is the middle-class people who can take the time to enjoy the sunset. The working class people are either too busy or, living in the slums, they barely see it.

The story starts with George Anderson. George is a coal broker, from a well-to-do middle class family. However, he is not very hard-working. Indeed, a good part of his day is to spend time with his cronies in a bar, discussing the world. He also leaves early whenever possible. However, he is essentially a good man. He is devoted to his wife, Mabel, and devoted to his daughter, Beatrice. Sadly, Mabel is not devoted to him. Indeed, she has never really loved him, never wanted children and just wants to have a good time. She had married him, at her mother’s suggestion, just because he was a nice boy. She is now tired of nice boys and wants interesting men – The Modern Man of Fiction, of Hollywood. Barke says of her she had trained to be a lady: a social parasite. As a lady her position was maintained by the wage-slavery of some forty human beings. George, Mabel and Beatrice are to spend the weekend on the yacht of Fred Rowatt. George and Fred were at school together and have remained the best of friends. Fred has since gone on to be a successful playwright and has made a lot of money but he is more a lady’s man than a serious playwright.

On the weekend, it soon becomes apparent to us (though not to George) that Fred and Mabel are in love with one another. Mabel is eager to leave George. The more tender-hearted Fred is reluctant to hurt his best friend. However, it is clear that the marriage is over as, after the yachting weekend, Mabel announces that there will be no more children (which George wants) and that she will be sleeping in the spare room.

We have also been following the stories of the dock workers. At the beginning of the book, we see them at the docking of a ship. Willie Donald, the dockmaster, docks the ship. He does this much better when he is drunk but, as he is sober, the docking is not perfect. The others get to work. Jock MacKelvie is the foreman of the redleaders. This is not Red Leaders but those who paint red lead onto the ship, an unpleasant job. Jock is well liked but firm and keeps the men in line. We follow their activities after work, which generally involve a lot of drinking, but they also argue politics and Jock shows that he is very much opposed to the Independent Labour Party.

We then jump in time and the Depression has hit. Indeed, there are three million people unemployed in Britain. George’s firm is doing very badly, as the bottom seems to have dropped out of the coal market, and he is close to bankruptcy. Jock and his fellow dockers are all out of work. Jock is now organising the unemployed, with demonstrations and marches. Indeed, George and Jock first meet, when George is hurrying to get a coal contract signed and an unemployment march is in progress. He bumps into Jock and the two nearly fall. However, soon after, George falls ill while, at another demonstration, Jock is badly hurt, when he falls. Both men are taken to the charity hospital, as George cannot afford a better one. George, we learn, has a duodenal ulcer and an inflamed appendix. The two men spend a huge amount of time in the hospital, undergoing an operation and recovering from it. George nearly dies. The core of the book is how George, who had always looked down on working men, finds a close camaraderie with the other men in the ward, particularly but certainly not only Jock. He learns about their suffering and, from Jock, he learns a lot about socialist politics. Indeed, when he is finally released, he decides to become a socialist. However, when he does come out, times are hard, his wife has left him, he has no money and no friends (though two women are in love with him) and finding a job is next to impossible.

Barke does not hold back on his socialist sympathies. George is shown the error of his ways by Jock. We follow political developments in Glasgow, but also abroad, with the rise of Mussolini and Hitler (often with the tacit support of the British bourgeoisie). We learn of the suffering of the working class and the mean and selfish ways of the bourgeoisie, who favour concentration camps and compulsory labour. We even hear the different approaches of Labour and the Scottish Nationalists. Barke’s prescription is summed up in the paragraph which gives the book its title. If Dodds [the surgeon] had performed a major operation on his stomach, MacKelvie and circumstance had performed a major operation on his mental make-up. Now society was in need of a major operation. Despite or, maybe, because of his strong left-wing sympathies, Barke writes a very fine novel about Glasgow during the Depression and the suffering it brought. There is a rich cast of characters, both working men and bourgeoisie, all of whom play their role on one side or other of the fence. It is pity that this book is long since out of print.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Collins