By Philip Callow

Shoestring Press. 240 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-907356-87-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is a story behind this book. It was originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1956, when Philip Callow was thirty-two, and was his first novel. It received several positive reviews, but was withdrawn and pulped when someone claimed that he could be recognised as one of the characters in the book and that he’d been libelled. John Lucas in his useful introduction to this new edition states that the person concerned was a Nottingham newsagent. The problem seemed to revolve around a second-hand bookseller in The Hosanna Man who, it is suggested, has a sideline in under-the-counter pornography. It’s perhaps worth noting that, in the 1950s, censorship was much tighter than it is now and if anyone had a taste for pornography, then it could only be satisfied by finding a bookseller of one kind or another who would supply it secretly and for a price. Either that or by perhaps taking a trip to Paris, where it was easier to pick up such material. And when it came to a case involving libel, publishers were nearly always likely to take the easy way out and withdraw a book rather than risk going to court and facing heavy legal costs and possible damages. This would certainly have been the attitude they adopted when the author was unknown and unlikely to be of any great financial value to the publisher.

One can imagine what the effect must have been on Callow. Cape not only withdrew his book, they also cancelled the contract for a second one that had been accepted. On top of that he was advised to settle out-of-court and paid £300 to the complainant. That may seem a paltry sum by today’s standards, but in 1956 it was fairly substantial and was certainly a blow for Callow who was then earning a living as a clerk. Luckily, the second novel that Cape now wouldn’t handle was accepted by Bodley Head, and he went on to publish more novels, together with biographies of Whitman, Van Gogh, Chekhov, and others. But he would never allow The Hosanna Man to be reprinted, even when it would have been safe to do so. John Lucas says that Callow was always reluctant to talk about the book and its background.

Like many first novels The Hosanna Man is clearly autobiographical. The central character, Louis, is at a loose end in Coventry and decides to move to Nottingham in pursuit of Stella, a married woman with whom he has had an affair. He’s young and shy, and she has obviously had other relationships and appears to thrive on the kind of edginess they bring. As she says at one point, “I love an intrigue,” and blowing hot and then cold is a part of the game for her. Louis is confused and his situation isn’t helped by the fact that he hasn’t a job, and the accommodation he has found in Nottingham isn’t likely to offer an opportunity for him to develop his talents for watercolours and writing poetry. He has taken lodgings with an elderly couple who are almost-Dickensian in their behaviour and odd relationship. Some of Callow’s skills as a writer can be seen at work in his descriptions of these people.

Unable to establish any sort of satisfactory re-union with Stella, Louis is intrigued by an advertisement he comes across in a local paper. A small group is looking for financial backing for its members’ artistic endeavours, and though Louis doesn’t have any money he decides to contact them. I have to admit that it was at this point that I began to acknowledge a kind of affinity with Louis as he gingerly approaches Kelvin, who seems to be the leader of sorts of a band of provincial bohemians. My feeling of recognition stemmed from a somewhat similar experience in the 1950s when I returned to my home town from army service and began to associate with local jazz musicians, art students, and would-be writers. They often seemed to cluster around someone who appeared to have more energy and drive than most of the others, and who they looked up to and admired. Charismatic might be a useful term to use, though it didn’t take much to appear colourful or seem charismatic in the drab world of 1950s Britain. Kelvin is a painter and occasionally writes poetry, though when he shows some of his poems to Louis they’re virtually unreadable, having been scribbled down at great speed. When Louis asks why he doesn’t copy them out clearly, Kelvin replies, “Who wants to copy things when you can be creating them?” There’s a foretaste here of the loose ideas of spontaneity that were thrown around so much during the heyday of the Beats. And, in fact, the Beat movement, certainly in its early days in Britain, really just seemed to be an extension of a bohemian life-style that had been there for some years. It’s perhaps significant that there are no references to politics in The Hosanna Man, and someone speaking to a crowd is only observed in passing and without any indication of what the speaker is talking about. When the group that Louis get involved with have a film show in someone’s house they watch The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and not Battleship Potemkin, as might have been the case in the 1930s or 1940s. 

Through Kelvin, Louis encounters other members of what is a floating fraternity of painters, booksellers, drunks, and the general oddballs that could be found in any provincial town or city in the 1950s, and who perhaps attached themselves to its bohemian clique because it was, in some ways, more tolerant of eccentricities and misbehaviour. Callow’s perceptions of this sort of society are quite acute and he’s particularly good on the role that women played in it, ranging from the amateur painter Stella, to the bookseller’s wife, and Catherine, a young widow who Louis, having given up any hopes of seeing Stella again, soon establishes a close relationship with. She, like Louis, is on the fringes of the group and conscious of the fact that at some point it will be necessary to move away from it. It’s too incestuous and someone like Kelvin inclines towards wanting everyone to be like him, bitter and frustrated.

It may seem that I’ve focused too much on the sociological aspects of The Hosanna Man, but I’m not about to apologise for that. Some novels lend themselves to being studied in this way and provide fascinating pictures of life at certain time and in certain places. At their best, as with The Hosanna Man, they’re often more accurate and informative than pure sociological studies. And they’re easier to read if they’re as well-written as Callow’s book. His prose style is very direct and he can evoke a character or a scene in a few well-chosen words. It seems simple, but it isn’t and a lesser writer would soon lose the reader’s interest by either paring things down to a point where the narrative lacks drive and colour, or by trying to say too much and so overwhelming the story with unnecessary detail. Callow strikes a balance by just providing enough information, while at the same time letting his characters describe themselves by the way they speak and act in certain circumstances. There isn’t a plot as such and the story simply follows a day-to-day outline. Some characters come and go with hardly any impact on Louis, just as people do in real life. It’s the quality of the writing that keeps the reader interested and involved.

Some of the reviews of The Hosanna Man tried to locate it in a tradition of proletarian writing, perhaps because metropolitan critics needed to label a book they otherwise found difficult to categorise. But is has little or no relationship to the kind of novels of working-class life that came out of the 1930s and 1940s, and were still sometimes published in the 1950s. Does anyone now read Len Doherty? Louis may come from a working-class background, and he’s worked at jobs that would be seen as working-class occupations, but his interests and ambitions are not those of most of the people he’s worked with. And the people he takes up with when he arrives in Nottingham couldn’t be described as working-class. Even George Meluish, a rough-spoken artist who probably does have good proletarian roots, seems set apart from the wider society and is contemptuous of the mass of people. Maybe Marxists would have described him as a rootless individual? The term bohemian might be better, though those with romantic notions of what bohemianism implies won’t understand that.

It’s good to see The Hosanna Man back in print. Had the critics who read it in the 1950s been really perceptive they would have seen that it was exploring something different, and doing it in a well-written way.