DRIFTING WITH JAMES HANLEY
It is maybe testament to the way that the literary machine works that a novelist as prolific as James Hanley receives scant attention. Outside of mentions in Andy Croft's Red Letter Days and a chapter in Ken Worpole's Dockers and Detectives, James Hanley crops up mainly as a footnote in general histories of British 30s writing. To my knowledge the only published critical study about Hanley's writing was written and published in Australia by Edward Stokes and the only 'accolade' he received from the literary establishment was a preface by Anthony Burgess in the re-printed version of Boy, his second novel. Rather than bemoan a writer's exclusion from such dubious attention it is perhaps more fruitful, and closer to Hanley's sensibilities as a writer, to reject an approach that attempts to elevate a writer into the canon of 'greats'. For this operation is part of the process whereby a writer such as Hanley would be separated from the main driving force of his work - a kind of community of collective enunciation where Hanley, even as the author, drops a narrator's presence and somehow settles in behind his mainly working class characters. To this effect Liam Hanley has described his father's strength as lying "in the fact that he was never cruel with his characters, never distanced, never clever. He gave working men and their wives and children a voice - their voice"(1). This quote is as good a summation as there is and it is from here that we can get a handle on James Hanley's writing.
Born in Dublin in 1901 he was brought up in Liverpool and aside from a mention that he worked on the Lancashire railways and as a butcher he spent nine years working at sea starting out as a deckhand. It is these experiences at sea that provided much of the subject matter of his earlier novels and it is whilst working on ships that Liam Hanley recounts how a boson Hanley worked under "had a library in his cabin and used to lend my father books" (2). Ken Worpole also mentions Hanley finding the time between shifts to read and presumably begin experiments with writing (an experience he shares with two other Liverpool based writers: James Phelan and George Garrett). From this it's possible to assume that Hanley was a self-taught writer who was not overcoded by an educational institution and this interesting intersection comes to light in his earlier novels with their formally naive but intensely driven narratives. In many ways Hanley's first two novels Drift (1930) and Boy (1931) are powerful works where the indecisiveness and social dilemmas of the central characters are reflected in the feeling of uncertainty the reader can pick up on in the actual writing itself. With much of Hanley's early work the excitement comes from just this kind of non-formalist view of the work: it is in process, it has gaps, it can't be assigned a 'place'. These books will never be deemed 'classics', they won't work for the institution but they are classics of their social environment, of an escaped desire - an achievement in terms of other contexts rather than the literary.
Drift, presumably set in the late 1920s, is the story of Joe, the son of two devout Catholics racked by poverty and controlled by religion. In many ways its main theme is the attempt by Joe to become independent from familial and religious ties - to become his own person, to produce himself. Not only is there this dilemma between atheism and religion but a further dilemma that is more class based in that Joe, as a reader of Zola and Joyce, has met friends at the "free library" and is hence on the fringe of intellectual circles (to this day more or less identified as middle-class). Whilst Joe feels that he doesn't belong in the world of his family, he is not an untroubled member of his friends' circle. The third party in this scenario is Joe's girlfriend who is working as a prostitute. The two of them have plans to live together and then later in the novel they plan to escape Liverpool for Scotland. In the end all avenues are thwarted as Joe is unable to resolve any of the dilemmas and, emotionally exhausted, drifts out of Liverpool on the 'tramp'. This story is told against a backdrop of poverty and corruption (the local bobby is a pimp/ the callous landlord a church beneficiary) and whilst we are led to identify with Joe as the central character, we are also led to sympathise with his parents despite the brutality of Joe's father, so in many ways the reader shares Joe's paradoxical situation. What is notable about Drift is the way that it focuses on the effect of psychic-oppression in conjunction with economic-repression at the same time that we feel Joe is searching for something other than the convention and tradition that surrounds him.
Hanley's next published novel, Boy, gave him an unwanted notoriety. Written in ten days, it is the story of Fearon who, under the pressure of his parents poverty, leaves school early to take a job on the docks ("down the bilges"). Rejecting this job, he is beaten by his father and leaves Liverpool by becoming a stowaway. He is discovered half-dead in the coal hold and is put to work. What follows is a series of brutalising jobs and the enactment and constant threat of sexual-assaults by crew members. However, Fearon slowly gains a sense of independence and becoming more accepted by other crew members he goes ashore in Alexandria and visits a young Arab prostitute. Though forbidden to return he swims ashore to visit her once more, but on returning to ship he becomes ill and, writhing with syphilis, the ship's captain commits a mercy killing. Explicit and shocking (even years later), Boy became the subject of a prosecution case where the publishers were charged with publishing an obscene libel. According to his son, this unwanted attention made James Hanley "more private than ever" and could have reinforced his reclusive nature. Despite Hanley describing Boy as "shapeless and crude and overburdened with feeling"(3) you only have to think of current writers who grasp after an asocial sensationalism and contrast such writing to the way Hanley seems to empathise with his characters - they take on a life rather than becoming devices to wield a shock-value.
Amongst Hanley's more notable novels of life at sea are Captain Bottell (1933) and The Hollow Sea (1938) (4). The former was republished in paperback in 1965 with a cover that played on the romantic content. At face value the story hinges on a 'love triangle' between the captain of a ship on its last journey, the only passenger -the middle class wife of a British diplomat - and a mysterious 'outsider' hired as a stoker at the last minute. Between these three characters a relationship of desire, authority and power is enacted against a backdrop of hard labour, servility and almost apartheid-like class divisions (below and above!). Within the story the Captain becomes obsessively entranced with the Diplomat's wife in contrast to the stoker's growing nonchalance and bitterness towards her. She refuses the captain's increasingly deranged advances but, as with Drift, a resolved outcome is withheld as the ship enters a vicious storm and the captain in the grip of insanity goes down with the ship. Throughout the novel as with the Hollow Sea, Hanley's sympathies lie with those who work aboard the ship: "they have been cheated up to the hilt; and what have they left? They have something in themselves which they guard zealously and jealously. It is a nobility that nothing can steal from them"(5). Whilst the Hollow Sea lacks something of the extra dimension provided by the Diplomat's wife in Captain Bottell, it is still a powerful novel of class antagonism during wartime. This novel tells the story of the characters aboard a merchant sea-ship that is commandeered by the military, renamed the A10 and ordered to deliver a human cargo to the warzone. However, almost all the young soldiers are instantly massacred in the attempted landing and return to the A10, which then becomes a floating hospital/morgue. Rather than focus on the war itself and inject his novel with 'excitement', Hanley manages to approach the subject through the eyes of home-sick sailors consigned to the even more distant command of the military, and not knowing when they will return home. The brutality of war is encapsulated by Hanley in that one of the sailors, Marvel, already unbalanced, is driven to suicide by having to tend to the wounded and dying soldiers. As with all his work heroism and myth-making don't get a look-in.
Whereas the writing in Drift and Boy entice you in through their cracks, flaws, and expressionistic force, Hanley's most successful work draws you in to inhabit intense micro-worlds which he creates with such detail it is as if the novelist has become an intimate chronicler of real lives. The Furys (1935) is something of a re-working and expansion of Drift which Hanley made into the first part of a trilogy with Peter Fury - The Maelstrom preceding An End and a Beginning (1958). Again, the novel is set amidst a working class family-life of struggle and aspiration into which the youngest son, Peter Fury, has returned following his expulsion from a seminary. Much to the distaste of his family, who have made sacrifices to fund his education, he begins to 'drift', exploring the town he has been away from for 7 years and witnessing the street fighting and demonstrations of a strike wave in which his brother is involved as a unionist. In place of the prostitute girlfriend of Drift, Peter Fury is drawn into a love affair with his sister-in-law and, shaming his family, is eventually 'dragged' on board a ship and banished from Liverpool. That this is the plot to a novel where the action occurs over three days and in 395 pages goes some way towards indicating the level of detail Hanley puts into his portrayal of the psychological states of all the Furys and how these are intimately tied up with the details of their everyday experience. These interior monologues not only have the effect of making the seemingly banal pregnant with tension, they also supplant the narrative voice (usually present to direct and guide the reader) thus leaving the reader only able to surmise events tenuously and thus be stimulated by a variety of possible interpretations. This decentering of any one focal point was overlooked by Ken Worpole who has, perhaps inaccurately, suggested that this novel centres on the whims and wishes of the father. Such archetypes, along with the idea that conflict within a working class family implies a desire to escape into the middle-class, are operations that don't really occur in Hanley's writing. Instead there is a sense of an active re-working of class identity, a mutation rather than a clean break and in this way Hanley avoids falling into a dependence on stereotypes.
Before making a few concluding remarks on the political relevance of Hanley's writing it would be useful to stress that he was not just a writer who belongs to the 30s. He wrote consistently through the 40s (No Directions charts life in a tenement during the blitz) and also through the 50s (Closed Harbour). In the 60s he "grew discouraged by the slim rewards of novel writing" (6) and produced Say Nothing, a play, for Joan Littlewood's Stratford East operation. His return to writing novels in the 70s was marked by one of his most powerful works: A Woman In The Sky (1973). This is the story of two elderly friends: Mrs Kavanagh, who commits suicide by jumping from the window of the high rise flat she was re-located to and Ms Biddolph, an alcoholic loner (another 'drifter') who ends the book being arrested for shop lifting. These two 'events' mark the beginning and end of the novel and between them Hanley builds up a sensitive portrayal of their relationship and their aspirations as he charts the progress of the investigation into the suicide. It is in this novel that Hanley's concern to tell the story of those who are supposed to have no story reaches a new honesty of intention. For if the working class male subject is to some degree invested in the proletarian writing of the 30s and the new wave writing of the 50/60s, then the story of two elderly women alcoholics is surely a terrain that very few people, at the time, would have dreamt of writing about - this was a terrain where unarticulated stories and voicelessness could be found and Hanley moved there rather than remain static (7). Furthermore, what Hanley succeeds in doing with A Woman In The Sky is demonstrating how power, in its many guises, comes to mould the life of ordinary people - the urban planners, the architects, probation officers, priests and police etc. It's as dystopian a 'vision' of a powerless present as any work of science-fiction but rather than the story being told with the sole aim of making a political point, which for Hanley would be an abuse of his characters, Hanley seems to capture the invisible quality he described some thirty years previously: "believe me there is something in common men (sic) unfathomable and untouched. It is neither faith nor belief, content or calm. It is nameless. It's invisible"
The pursuit of this invisible quality, his desire to express the formerly silent is one of the factors that makes James Hanley a more political writer than is commonly assumed. At a tune when social-realism was the mark of a political commitment - Harold Heslop, John Sommerfield, Lewis Jones - Hanley's pessimistic endings could be read as political immaturity: where was the party that would show the way? But as time passes, such mono-dimensional portrayals of class, whilst of interest in a historical and rhetorical way, act to deny the characters a psychological dimension, replacing it with the dogmas of an ever shifting party policy. Hanley, on the other hand, articulates the 'realism' of working class people as conscious agents. His tight focus on the mundane and everyday concerns of his characters comes to resonate with developments in political theory that have occurred since the 30s: the psychological dimension of social-repression; investigations into subjugated speech; the criticisms of viewing power-relations in dualistic terms rather than as diffused throughout society etc. Indeed, Hanley's 'socialist' characters are often ambitious aesthetes who are quick to sell out their colleagues while his lead characters (prototypes of the anti-hero) are so racked by their connections to other characters, their will not to betray, that they can't act at all! But this works to Hanley's favour in that what we can encounter in his novels is not the cardboard cut-out situations of social-realism but "an individual concern that becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating within it" (9). Stories of the drudgery and brutality of work, the crushing effects of hierarchy and deference, the controlling effect of ideologies like religion. Stories where characters are suicided by society are all aspects that Hanley manages to convey with more intensity than his 30s peers. For within social-realism there are so many boundaries. The most glaring of these is the imposition of what constitutes effective political action, but if what is seen as 'political' doesn't always occupy the same terrain then the mode of action changes too. To take this in a direction familiar to many we could comment on Hanley's use of family conflict: a son constantly struggling against the codes of his family is a struggle along the dividing lines of continuation and change with its possibilities for making a break with conformity. In this way we can see how James Hanley's writing shares common ground with that of Alex Trocchi and Jim Kelman. Like Joe Necchi in Cain's Book, Hanley's most successful characters are drifters who roam through urban and conceptual space, misfits who pull at the bounds of a normality and question inherited belief. Like Jim Kelman, Hanley writes from a working class experience, giving voice to that experience in ways that positively problematise, but in no way deny, the experience. However, whereas Kelman and Trocchi are today more visible, James Hanley, who died in November 1985, remains cast adrift. The categories into which critics tried to squeeze him never stuck - he was never of the anglo-irish school, never a 'proletarian writer' - instead he remains the chronicler of nomads and potential escapees, a writer who travelled the unstriated spaces of the sea and consciousness ....using language like a good clean cyclone (10).
1. Liam Hanley: Foreword to Boy - pxvi, Andre Deutsch, 1990
2. Liam Hanley: Interview in "Still Shocking After All These Years",
Independent, August 1990?
3. Cited In Liam Hanley: Foreword to Boy - pxvi, Andre Deutsch, 1990
4. Others include Men in Darkness (1931), The Ocean (1941), Closed Harbour (1952), Half An Eye.
7. On recently published research into working class women writers see Writing the Line by Sarah Richardson, Merylyn Cherry, Sammy Palfrey and Gail Chester - Working Press (1995). Available for £8.95 from 54 Sharsted Street, London SE17 3TN.
Andre Deutsch 1990 Andre Deutsch 1990 Andre Deutsch 1990 King Penguin 1983
James Hanley: Books recently reprinted
list entitled Working Class Novelists 1930-1950 is available from