Retro Heaven

Ethel Mannin ‘An American Journey’

Remembering Ethel Mannin…

Ethel Mannin (1900-1984) was a remarkable woman, at any one time she was a novelist, traveller and diarist, dedicated socialist and activist. Ahead of her times, she championed human rights, campaigned against capital punishment and blood sports and the effects of industrialisation on the planet. She was an impatient socialist, fell in and out of Communism following her travels through Stalin’s  Soviet Union, joined the Independent Labour Party and by the 1930s was expressing quite revolutionary thoughts on sexuality, parenting, marriage, race and women’s rights.

She was a prolific author, some one hundred books to her name including a seven-volume autobiography and fourteen travel books including An American Journey  published in 1967 in which she epitomised the fiery and independent British pensioner unafraid to speak out wherever and whenever she saw fit.

In An American Journey we follow Mannin across the country but in typical Mannin style she did it ‘the hard way’. She travelled from England ‘tourist class’ on the slow boat to New York then across the States to Los Angeles by bus which lasted three days before repeating the journey from San Francisco back to New York crossing twenty States.

Her views on equality were not lost on her journey, two stand-out chapters of the book concern the plight of the American Indian and the African American. Mannin proves she was anything but an eccentric old Englishwoman  as she detailed the horrors of the displaced Navajo Indians: ‘The Indian tragedy of displacement and dispossession of the nineteenth century-and earlier-is continued in the twentieth century in the tragedy of a people who without ever losing their national identity are nevertheless a lost people. The advent of the white man in the sixteenth century was the end of the Indian world, the end of an epoch’

In New York  she tells of a man she knew who insisted on washing his hands ‘when he has shaken hands with Negroes’…’I told him in astonishment, “The colour doesn’t come off, you know!” He replied, quite seriously, “I know, but all the same I prefer to”  There is also the account of a taxi driver asking her why ‘she is going to see a n****r school?”  Mannin tells him that it is at the invitation of a white female teacher and she has heard it is a very good, modern and progressive school to which the driver tells her he would rather see his daughter “dead in a ditch than at  a n****r school”  It is difficult to imagine two more polar opposites in one car.

Like the author, the book pulls no punches, it is an account very much in keeping with the rise of the civil rights movement in America but written by a sixty seven year old Englishwoman who should have been listened to far earlier and more often. It’s a book in which she marvels at the size of double beds, of helicopters landing on the roofs of skyscrapers, large lounge bars on trains and the vastness of the American landscape, yet isn’t so overwhelmed as to cut to the very heart of what was dividing the nation.  It’s worth reading for her account of a woman, alone at a bar in San Francisco, sobbing into her drink, too drunk to count out the dollar bills for the barman’s bill:

I  wondered  about the woman who had had one too many: whether she had gone home to weep again in solitude, bottle in hand, or perhaps to another bar to weep again in public, I hoped she had gone home. It seemed too much to hope she had anyone to go home to’



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