15 April 2008

Mary Thomas and Irza Britton

The photo above shows Mary Ann Elizabeth Thomas, née Quartly (1866–1943) on the left, and Irza Vivian Geraldine Britton, née Thomas (1866–1959) on the right. It was taken in about 1890, and the photo below obviously dates from the same period. The daughter of Samuel Thomas junior of Redditch (son of Samuel Thomas the needle and fish-hook manufacturer), Irza was born in Paris, France, and in her later life lived at 38 Saville Street (later to become 11 Hanson Street), Marylebone, and 66 Tufnell Park Road in the Borough of Islington. She was the mother of the working-class writer Lionel Britton (1887–1971).

(Many thanks to Janet Adcock for providing these images via Robert Hughes, who doesn't provide a photo of himself, perhaps because he says that he was once described as a cross between David Essex and an armadillo.)

14 April 2008

In Defence of Working-Class Literature

James Kelman is one of the most important living British novelists. If not the most important. Theo Tait interviewed him for the Guardian Review last Saturday (12 April 2008), and appears to have had a difficult time, I’m pleased to say (1). After cruising through an introductory paragraph in which Tait name checks Kelman’s ‘Glasgow-set’ (The Busconductor Hines (1984), A Disaffection (1989) and of course the booker-winning How Late It Was, How Late (1994)), then tossing off the names of three writers influenced by Kelman – all Scottish, because you have to keep difficult writers within the parochial boundaries of their perceived influence, of course – the problems start: ‘At the rendezvous under the clock at Glasgow Station, fresh off the train from Euston, Kelman is punctual and polite’. As I understand it from what Tait has written here, Kelman has just arrived off the Euston train: yes? No, I don’t think we’re supposed to understand it like this: James Kelman is the Glaswegian, not Theo Tait; but then Tait seems to have a problem with understanding as well as writing, as his article reveals.

To skip a little of Tait’s argument for the moment, Tait seems to think that Kelman should in some way have something in common with Alan Sillitoe or Barry Hines, both of whom are also working-class writers. Tait ignores the fact that both Sillitoe and Hines would otherwise have little in common with Kelman, perhaps because he is unaware of it, and moves on to appear to be claiming to score points over Kelman because Kelman hasn’t read Sillitoe.

The really odd thing about Tait’s article is that he seems to believe that society has progressed from the days of Conservative Party rule, that it has moved towards a society that has more understanding of class problems and social issues in general, towards a more enlightened society. Kelman puts the record straight on this: ‘I would hope […] that people around the world don’t think of people in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales as being represented by the fucking Queen or something, or Gordon Brown or any of these fucking people – or as being supportive of a right-wing state like the Labour Party’s.’

Kelman’s argument is perfectly intelligible: since 1979 (OK, since the world began, but let's start with recent history) there have been increasing, and increasingly brutal, systematic attacks on the working class: Gordon Brown represents a relentless right-wing attack on the working class which began with Margaret Thatcher, continued with Tony Blair, and appears to be without end. The main difference between then and now is that Thatcher's government had an opposition: the Labour Party; the present New Labour government is not only imitative of the previous Conservative regime, but more ruthless because it can carry out right-wing atrocities that the previous Conservative government could only dream of. There is no opposition, there is only pretence. Even The Guardian, which during Thatcher's era supported the (admittedly increasingly right-wing) Labour Party, is now in general support of the full-blown right-wing New Labour Party. Is Kelman's anger at all surprising?

But Tait goes on to say that ‘all sense vanishes in [Kelman’s] exaggerations’, without clearly stating what these ‘exaggerations’ are. Previously, Tait stated, somewhat bemusedly, that Kelman regards himself as a post-colonial writer, as one writing within a field occupied by others: the bourgeoisie, of course. Tait attempts to refute this by illustrating – rather pathetically – ways in which he believes that Kelman had been assimilated into the world of bourgeois writing. In the end, Tait simply gives up trying to understand Kelman. If he had in fact read A Disaffection, he might have pointed to a weird and wonderful instance in which straightforward working-class speech meets bizarre middle-class speech. In disillusionment, the working-class protagonist of the novel, Patrick Doyle, abandons his job as a schoolteacher; in many ways he is tired of his current life, but above all he is tired of leading it according to the rules of the Establishment. As he parks his car on his way to visit his brother, something happens to the narrative voice:

‘He patted the car bonnet en route to the pavement where he proceeded to traverse the flagstones up the stairs and into the closemouth. Traversed the flagstones up the stairs and into the bloody closemouth. Is this fucking Mars! Traversed the fucking bastarn [sic] flagstones onto the planet fucking Vulcan for christ sake’ (2).

Patrick is depressed and angry, and becomes even angrier when he finds himself adopting the middle-class discourse, using expressions such as ‘en route to’ and ‘proceeded to traverse’. The comments that follow disrupt this artificiality or pretentiousness and introduce a working-class discourse into the narrative: in so doing, the movement is away from a world which to the narrator appears be on another (even non-existent) planet.

Kelman’s problems are not far removed from those of the forgotten working-class writer Lionel Britton, who fought for years to prevent any publisher from making any changes to what he had written. In the end, with Hunger and Love (1931), he succeeded in having a 700-page book published without the alteration of a single comma: perhaps unique for a first novel. But unlike Sillitoe, both Kelman and Britton write in a modernist style, and both are anarchists (although, like most anarchists, neither would agree with this generalisation).

Theo Tait finds James Kelman’s anger difficult to comprehend, as critics did Lionel Britton’s anger. Whose fault is this? In a review of Kelman's latest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, Simon Kövesi – who has written a book on Kelman – remarks that 'Censorship of the tongue leads to a sense of a whole culture being suppressed' (3).

(1) Theo Tait, ‘In His Own Words’, Guardian Review, 12 April 2008, p. 11.

(2) James Kelman, A Disaffection (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989), p. 252.

(3) Simon Kövesi, 'Say Aye to Kelman's Best Yet', The Independent Arts & Books Review, 25 April 2008, p. 25; James Kelman, Kieron Smith, Boy (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008); Simon Kövesi, James Kelman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, c. 2007).

11 April 2008

Ivy Britton of Islington, London

Kathleen Ethel Ivy Britton was born at Astwood Bank, on the border of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, in 1886. She was the daughter of Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton and Irza Vivian Geraldine Britton (née Thomas), and died at 18 Corbyn Street, Islington, London, in 1958. She was the sister of Lionel, Percy (a.k.a. Bob) and Cyril Britton.

Many thanks to Dorothy and Ken Goodbun, and to Robert Hughes, for making possible the publication of this image.

9 April 2008

Richard Britton and The Astwood Bank Mutual Improvement Society, Worcestershire and Warwickshire

When Britton & Son, a legal company in Alcester (John James Britton) and Astwood Bank (Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton), went bankrupt in 1888, Richard and his family were forced to leave their home in Astwood Bank, then a hamlet with a tiny population. Richard transcribed several references, of which this, written by the Astwood Bank Mutual Improvement Society, is a fine example. It was written on 24 April 1888, and signed by members of the committee: W. Wright Robinson (President), William Henry Yeomans (Vice-President), Harry Woodward (Secretary), and W. R. John (committee member):

'We, the undersigned members if the Astwood Bank Mutual Improvement Society, desire to express to you, in view of your approaching removal from this neighbourhood, our sincere regret at the prospect of losing so valuable a member. In our debates we have been much advantaged by your conspicuous ability as a dialectitian [sic]; and we acknowledge your courtesy, suavity and good humour in controversy. We wish you success in your own learned profession, and a prolonged life of usefulness and happiness'.

Less than seven years later, Richard died of tuberculosis in Bournemouth.

8 April 2008

Hewell Road, Redditch – Home of the Family of Samuel Thomas Junior

These two images are from old postcards of Hewell Road, Redditch, although today most if not all of the houses no longer exist. They're a little indistinct, but that isn't too important; the date is unknown, and that isn't particularly important either. What is important (or at least, what is of interest) is if 6 Hewell Road is shown here: this is where Samuel Thomas junior – son of Samuel Thomas the needle and fishing tackle manufacturer – lived with his family. At the time of the 1901 census, there were eleven people in the house: Samuel Thomas himself (aged 66); his wife Marie Antoinette Thomas (56); their son Newton Thomas (18); their daughter Florry Thomas (21); Samuel's friend Henri Charles Guillaume (35); Henri's wife (also Samuel and Marie's daughter) Rose Guillaume (23); Rose and Henri's daughter Daisy Guillaume (3) and their son Lionel Guillaume (1); and Samuel and Marie's grandchildren: Ivy Britton (14), Percy Britton – later to be known as Bob (11), and Cyril Britton (9); the eldest son, the later writer Lionel Britton (13) had by this time escaped to London to live in poverty.

A middle-class family of this size must have lived in a large house; the only house of any size in the two postcards appears to be the detached one with the portico to the right of the upper postcard and behind the lamp-post, and on the left in the lower postcard. It may well be that this is 6 Hewell Road.

7 April 2008

From Nottingham, England, to the Co-Principality of Andorra in a Morris Minor Traveller

Well, OK, this was in the 1970s and I was teaching in France at the time (Lycée Technique d'Etat Louis Rascol, Albi, in the Tarn), but I just couldn't let this shot go away. This was taken as the Moggie touched Andorran snow, and (just about) shows the French Pyrenees in the background with my ex-wife Sylvia in the passenger seat and a Welsh teacher called Steve in the back. I took it after we'd crossed the Pyrenees the most difficult way – although the details are a haze – after hours of negotiating treacherous steep hairpin bends without snow chains. I remember that not too long afterwards we bought three two-litre plastic bottles (two of coconut liqueur and one of strawberry) from a huge off-licence for a ridiculously low price in the capital, Andorra la Vella. We were shattered after the terrifying journey, and the samples tasted wonderful. Too tired to go down to the hotel bar that night, we just drank some of the liqueur in Steve's room. The next day we noticed with horror that the (unwashed) plastic camping mugs were burned by the alcohol. Was this just regular firewater? My gut did somersaults as I drove through the rest of Andorra late the following afternoon.

Back at the lycée, we tried a sip of the liqueur but it tasted vile: we were still living, so we figured it was not a great crime to take the rest of it to the next party we were invited to. Unsurprisingly, after a few drinks no one noticed that they were drinking what probably amounted to flavoured paraffin.

3 April 2008

Harry Slochower on Lionel Britton

The literary critic Dr Harry Slochower (1900–91) is perhaps better known for his book No Voice Is Wholly Lost (1946) rather than his Three Ways of Modern Man (1937) (1). However, the earlier book contains an interesting paragraph on Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love:

'An unusual prose-work shaped by the war-era is Hunger and Love by the English writer Lionel Britton. The novel is a passionate social and spiritual autobiography of a young worker and intellectual of pre-war England. Britton uses an unsophisticated Joycean technique, producing a sharp, direct and naked naturalism (2). The novel sketches the questionings of young Arthur Phelps, his awakening from a nebulous "cosmic citizenship" to his cognizence of class-restrictions. The worker Phelps is hungry for knowledge as such. He soon learns that most of it has been "interpreted" and disseminated by "Pastors and Masters" for their own group-benefits. This realistic Englishman is not moved from his critical dissidence by vodka, metaphysics or music (3). His "hunger" for bread, he realizes in the end, is a hunger for beauty, love and knowledge. We lose sight of him at the outbreak of the War. But the "whys" he has asked at evey point will prevent him from fighting in the unquestioning way of a Hans Castrop [from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain]. Phelps' struggle against hunger is part of the battle for the emergence of the human. Britton's hope lies in the fact that "all over the world", the Phelpses are finding this out. The prose of Ralph Bates (Lean Men, The Olive Tree) is the most heartening confirmation of this hope' (4).

Slochower is one of the few critics to realise that Arthur Phelps did not necessarily die at the end of the novel. Slochower's copy of Hunger and Love is held at Brooklyn College.

(1) Harry Slochower, Three Ways of Modern Man (International Publishers, 1937; repr. Kraus Reprint, 1969); Harry Slochower, No Voice Is Wholly Lost: Writers and Thinkers in War and Peace (London: Dobson, 1946; repr. as Literature and Philosophy between Two World Wars: The Problem of Alienation in a War Culture (New York: Citadel Press, 1964).

(2) But if Britton was influenced by James Joyce – as C. E. M. Joad also claims in Under the Fifth Rib: A Belligerent Autobiography (1932) – it was by cultural osmosis: Britton had never read any of the modernists, and hated what he perceived as their elitism. In an unpublished essay, Britton responds to Joad's claims in a typical exuberant manner: '[Joad] specifies writers like James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Who are these people? What's that to do with me? I don't know anything about these blokes. [...]. I've heard about them, and every now and again I think to myself I ought to know something about this, and I pick up one of their books. And that's as far as it gets. [...] I'm a writer and I don't intend to take poison. If I read this stuff I find I can't think afterwards. It muddles up the speech centre in the brain. [...]. If I force myself a few sentences too far into one of their books, then until I take a mental purgative or emetic I'm done. I might as well be dead. I won't do it.' When Joad quotes a paragraph from Joyce's 'Ithaca' section in Ulysses to illustrate the similarities to Britton's writing style, Britton denies it: 'If I had written that passage it would not be the same. I could never say "On solitary hotel paper she writes". I should say: "She writes. Hotel paper. Solitary hotel." I should not say "In dark corner young man seated." I should say: "Young man sitting in dark corner." I'd run a mile rather than use a word like "seated". Be seated, madam! Not me!' (The above exerpts are from the essay 'Unreason in Modern Literature', a typescript of which is held at the Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (Lionel Britton Collection, Box 75, Folder 1, pp. 4–5)).

(3) Slochower was almost certainly unaware that Lionel Britton was teetotal, or that he was contemptuous of music, although he appears to have guessed as much.

(4) Ralph Bates, Lean Men: An Episode in a Life (London: Davies, 1934); Ralph Bates, The Olive Tree (London: Cape, 1936). Relevant here is the juxtaposition of Britton's work to a noted working-class writer.