Severely Dealt With–Growing Up in Belfast and Glasgow by John Taylor Caldwell

“Dissidents would be severely dealt with.” 

 Severely Dealt With is the first volume in Glasgow anarchist John Taylor Caldwell’s two-part memoir. Perhaps best known for his biography of Guy Aldred, Come Dungeons Dark Caldwell was, at first, reluctant to write his memoirs as he claimed,  “he had no story to tell.” Far from it. Caldwell’s death on January 12, 2007 signifies the passing of an age, and as such his memoirs are an integral part and vital episode of anarchist history.  

Severely Dealt With covers Caldwell’s birth in 1911 until his sixteenth year in 1927. Born in Glasgow, the third of six children, his childhood was plagued with crushing poverty. Caldwell’s father, a tailor, moved to Belfast in 1914, and the rest of the family joined him there in 1915. The family remained in Belfast until 1925, when the explosive political situation between catholics and protestants led to a severe decline in fortunes and eventually forced the family’s relocation back to Scotland.  

The growing Caldwell family had a rocky start when they first arrived in Belfast. Then followed a ten-year period of relative prosperity, continued employment, and a house with an inside toilet. The children were ritually dragged off to church on Sundays, and Caldwell tries to make sense of his changing world, exhibiting curiosity and a sunny disposition. Caldwell relates many instances of children beaten by sadistic schoolmasters who abused their ‘authority.’ These descriptions of undeserved beatings remind us that not everything in this world has changed for the worse. And it’s in this environment that Caldwell’s loathing of violence gels. To him, school is a training ground for the acceptance of authority: 

“These social outcasts were herded into classroom, not just to be educated, but to be disciplined; to be tamed. Hence order, silence, unquestioned obedience, were powerful ingredients in their instruction. They should be made to fear authority. To “know your place”, and not to “talk back to your betters” were common expressions on the lips of adults when I was young. All respectable people approved on this prescription, and the dictum went forth that dissidents would be “severely dealt with.”

Caldwell describes his family’s tenuous, yet desperate hold on middle-class status (his mother reluctantly admits “lower middle class”). This is a highly stratified society, so much so, that Caldwell was quite aware of even the subtlest of class distinctions at an incredibly early age.  At one point he describes Belfast: 

“Immediately outside the city were the mansions of the gentry, at the end of long drives guarded by iron gates, beside which stood the lodge-keeper’s cottage. Nearer the town were fine villas and semi-detached houses. Down the social scale, but still with the middle-class, were spacious Victorian terraces. Then we come to the lesser terraces in the city itself, cheek by jowl with the cobbled side streets of the labouring classes. We lived in a lesser terrace because our father was a master tailor, with his own little factory of six treadle machines and a fitting room, high above Royal Avenue…. We were especially careful of our respectability in the lower terraces because only the tramlines and a sliver of good fortune separated us from the cobbled domains of the lower orders.”

Caldwell lived through some remarkable times. He recalls WWI, the Armistice, men who refused to fight, and soldiers who never returned. There’s also a good summary of the unrest in Ireland included here. Caldwell notes that there was no conscription in Ireland during WWI, and that the Irish had been promised Home Rule “before the war, but suspended till six months after the war.” He notes that the call for Home Rule became “obsolete” and instead it became a cry for “Independence and Republicanism.” And he describes the division of Ireland as a situation that pleased neither side. The Troubles altered the Caldwell family’s life, and certainly hampered Caldwell’s father’s ability to earn a living. Then began the family’s rapid slide into extreme poverty and squalor.  

As the family’s fortunes declined, Caldwell’s childhood disappeared.  He describes his bleak home life with the occasional bright, joyful moment of play. They lived in a series of crude structures, and at age 11, Caldwell began working 36 hours a week. But the little money the children were able to scrape together through their various jobs was not enough to pull the family from its dire straits. Caldwell’s father, always a problematic figure at the best of times, sinks to some of his worst behaviour during this period, and when forced to endure the harshness of unrelenting poverty, his brutal, selfish nature explodes, beating his children, and abusing his wife to the point of contributing to her death.

After the death of his beloved mother, Caldwell’s home life worsened considerably, and it becomes glaringly obvious that his mother both shielded the children from their father and absorbed a great deal of his nastiness. The family’s return to Scotland allows optimism to reign briefly, but it soon becomes obvious that Caldwell has few prospects in his impending adulthood. Yet the book manages to end on an optimistic note. Severely Dealt With really is a remarkable account, and a solid, good read. I was a little perturbed at first by the references to god, and then I realised that Caldwell’s wry humour is at play here. His character shines through the pages, and in spite of the tremendous hardships Caldwell suffered, in true anarchist fashion, he never whines or complains; he deals with it.

One of the things I find fascinating is what causes people to become anarchists. Is it a single event? Is a slow dawning process? Or to quote from Stuart Christie’s book Granny Made Me an Anarchist: “the only way you can become an anarchist is to wake up one morning and find you are one.” Although this first volume concludes before Caldwell ‘finds’ anarchism, these pages leave clues to Caldwell’s decision; his feet are solidly on the path to discovery. In the last few pages of the book, Caldwell exhibits a growing curiosity about the corrupt state of political affairs, and, in spite of a childhood seeped in conditioning to accept authority administered (of course) by his “betters,” he’s set to question his fate in life. The second volume reveals Caldwell’s introduction to anarchism and his lifelong involvement in the Glasgow scene (amongst other things). 

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