When I was in my early teens, I collected Soccer Stars. Every boy at school seemed to be collecting Soccer Stars. It worked like this: you persuaded your parents to buy you a sticker album, each week you invested 6d of your pocket money in a little packet of pictures of footballers (available at all good newsagents!) and you stuck them in your album club-by-club, carefully keeping the ones you already had to swap with your chums at school. This way you slowly filled the album. But it soon became clear that the picture of one footballer was very difficult to get – Jeff Astle, the WBA striker. Weeks passed, months passed and still the space for Jeff remained unfilled in my sticker book. And then one day I learned another boy had the Jeff sticker and, more importantly, he was willing to swap. I can’t remember now how many of my spares I had to swap to get Jeff, but the other lad drove a hard bargain.
I recount this story because, when I began writing about the Chartists, I encountered a situation similar to my search for that Jeff sticker. I first perused ‘An Anthology of Chartist Literature’, compiled by Yuri Kovalev, in Birmingham Reference Library. The introduction was in Russian. I couldn’t read Russian … but I still wanted to own that book badly! I had become very interested in the Chartist poets soon after I had become interested in Chartism. I don’t mean Ernest Jones, still the best-known of the Chartist poets. I mean the young men toiling away as shoemakers and framework knitters and then finding the time to make up a few stanzas about spring or the injustices of the class system. Chaps like Benjamin Stott of Manchester, Edwin Gill of Sheffield and James Vernon of South Molton. Already I’d begun scouring the reprints of Chartist periodicals in Birmingham Reference Library in search of the work of these men. And there was much to feast my eyes on! As I copied down poem after poem two things happened: (1) my handwriting, often commended at school, deteriorated from really being rather neat to a near-unreadable scrawl and (2) I longed to buy a book that contained the poems written by the Chartists. And then I came across ‘An Anthology of Chartism’ …
Now getting a second hand book you wanted in those pre-internet days wasn’t easy. Often it was a matter of luck. For example, I got my copy of Thomas Cooper’s ‘Purgatory of Suicides’ after a tip-off from a fellow research student that he’d seen a copy in a second hand book shop in Nottingham. My search for Kovalev became rather like my search for that Jeff picture … ear to the ground, hoping for that lucky break. As with Jeff, my persistence was rewarded. There the book was one day in the catalogue of a second hand book dealer. I snapped it up.
By now I was writing my first book about the Chartists – Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain (1993). Without much hope of success, I decided to write to Yuri Kovalev at St. Petersburg University. It was a long shot. I didn’t hold out much hope of a reply. He’d probably retired or moved, I thought. I’d more or less forgotten about that letter when the parcel arrived. Unwrapping it, I discovered a copy of ‘An Anthology of Chartist Literature’ and inside was an inscription: ‘To Mr Stephen Roberts, with best wishes of success in his Chartist studies from the compiler, Y. Kovalev, April, 1992’. That parcel made my day, probably made my year. I decided to replicate Yuri Kovalev’s example, and gave my own copy of the book away to another scholar of Chartist poetry.
‘An Anthology of Chartist Literature’ was published in Moscow in 1956. Amazingly 12,000 copies were printed – those were the days! The importance of two books about Chartism released in that decade – A.R. Schoyen’s biography of julian Harney and the Asa Briggs-edited collection of local studies – is recognised, but I would suggest that this book should join that trilogy. Very early on Kovalev – an historian not an Eng. Lit. specialist – recognised the important place played by verses and songs in the Chartist struggle. He saw the need to make available that material to scholars and students and place it at the centre of any evaluation of the movement. He was a pioneer in this respect. And, as his gift to me showed, he was also a generous and encouraging man.
I no longer have that sticker book with that much-sought after picture of Jeff. I do, however, have that volume Yuri Kovalev sent me. It sits besides me now on my desk as I type.