A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes

2006 Us and Them: Richard Armstrong, a working class writer for boys

Us and Them: Richard Armstrong, a working class writer for boys, 2006

Richard Armstrong’s work is a rare example of stories that were clearly marketed as boys’ adventures but were also given favourable critical attention. He made his name with novels like Sabotage at the Forge and Sea Change set in all-male working situations, either in heavy industry or at sea. Their heroes were typically headstrong young men at the beginning of their working lives who learn to respect the knowledge and experience of their elders. The emphasis of his novels on working men, craft, and the technical detail of machines and working practices, and their use of apprenticeship as a model for developing manhood, illustrates aspects of change and continuity in boys’ adventure.

The change in the milieu of adventure in Armstrong’s work marks a degree of social democratisation following the Second World War: the public school boy hero replaced by the working class youth; and the heat and danger of battle and exploration replaced by the peril and excitement of steelworks and merchant ships. This change reflected Armstrong’s own background as a self-educated man who had worked in the situations that he described. It also shows the emerging social democratic consensus in Britain following the Second World War that acknowledged and celebrated aspects of working class life.

While Armstrong’s early work showed strains of social radicalism, it was based on conservative notions of masculinity and youth and adult relationships that were compatible with traditional adventure narrative. These notions were embedded in patterns of working class life and work that, during Armstrong’s career, were themselves transformed, both by industrial decline and by the impact of an international youth culture that questioned adult values and mores. Armstrong’s later work addresses these changes in two novels – The Mutineers and The Albatross – in which young men, in rebellion against authority, unsuccessfully attempt to achieve a sense of self and community without the benefit of adult guidance.

This article was published in Pat Pinsent (ed.) Out of the Attic, Some Neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century, Pied Piper Publishing, 2006, pp. 127-159.

For more information about Armstrong visit http://ralphrichardarmstrong.blogspot.co.uk/