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He captured the imagination of Orwell and Auden — then he disappeared from view
The fight to bring one of Manchester’s most innovative writers back into print
By Jack Chadwick
Last year, browsing Salford’s Working Class Movement Library, an enjoyably strange cover stopped me in my tracks. A skeleton was kneeling in ragged trousers, arms outstretched towards the sun. I picked up the book and minutes melted into hours. I got kicked out at closing time but before leaving I had to ask Lynette, the librarian, about its author: who was Jack Hilton?
Hilton had published this book, Caliban Shrieks, in 1935 and as is typical of debut novels, it was autobiographical — it told the story of an unemployed man in his mid-thirties, thinking back over the things he’d seen. Lynette had seen the title before, but not for a long time and eventually, we concluded it must have been out of print since the forties. A ring around of library stalwarts told us that Hilton had been born in Rochdale, in January, 1900 — with the novel beginning and ending in the town, serving in part as a popular history of the place.
Online fragments acknowledge Hilton as a writer of great talent who came from nowhere to blow wide open the parameters of literary modernism — only to disappear within 15 years of Caliban Shrieks hitting the presses. In this period Hilton was an iconoclast, an exemplar of the ‘outsider artist’ — a creator belonging to no movement or school, self-taught and marginalised, whose position allows their work to — as one prominent definition of outsider art puts it — “tap into the mains electricity of the imagination.”
The more I’ve found out about Hilton, the more I see his exile from literature at the end of the forties as Manchester’s loss as much as his own. When it comes to embracing its creatives, this city can be schizophrenic. Some homegrown authors are rightly lionised — see Anthony Burgess, Thomas De Quincey — while others fall by the wayside. But Hilton’s absence from the canon only does Manchester a huge disservice. The city never had the benefit of Hilton’s craft: novels that put the rigours of working-class life on trial, experimental novels which pre-empted what today’s literature calls ‘auto-fiction’ for their unstable compound of first-person factual narrative with critical second-guessing of the self — and importantly, novels that did all of this without sacrificing warmth or readability.
Each striking detail in the account Hilton gives of his early life in Caliban Shrieks had left me keen to know what had happened to its author and where his story had gone. Details like the first chapters’ image of an eleven-year-old Hilton shuffling into the mill on “puny little legs” as part of the half-time system of child labour — equipped for the day’s graft with nothing more than a half-empty stomach and a bleary belief in the “myth of work being a recreation.”
Half-time system, how many bow legs have you made? little puny legs shuffling along up hill at early morn, then bearing a doffing box plus a tired body. No wonder the comedians of the day made the Lancashire lad a skit; still it was a tragic one. What a price to pay for prestige; cotton the world and ruin the child!
I knew other readers had tried to piece together the remainder of Hilton’s story before, and that my own search would be only the most recent attempt over several decades. Registries had been scoured, family trees traced — articles were even run in the Oldham Chronicle and Evening News (most recently in 2014), hoping to “hear from anyone with information about Hilton.”
Before his career as a writer ever really took off, Hilton was shunted from the world of literature by the refusals of publishers to let him tell the kinds of stories of working-class life that he proudly and masterfully centred. It seemed profoundly unfair to me that his novels have, since his death, been unpublishable — no one has known where the copyrights ended up, and publishers won’t touch a manuscript if it’s not clear who has the legal authority to licence its publication. Eventually, I realised: I might be able to do something about this.
There’s a soft drizzle in the air as I bus my way to Chadderton on a Sunday in February, a folder full of home-made posters under my arm. When it comes to a writer from the 1930s who died in 1983, there’s only so much that can be discovered online. It makes sense, I decide, to go to a few Chadderton locals at peak hours. As a last-ditch effort at finding anything, I tape up posters at the bars: “Do you remember Jack Hilton?” they ask, in big black letters.
It seems unlikely that Hilton — a quiet bloke, no kids, dead for 39 years — could have left a substantial enough mark on any of his locals to translate into memories after all this time. In fact, a regular in the Sportsman’s Arms approaches me about one of the posters before I’ve even finished my pint. Not only does she know of Hilton, but she remembers the names of his best mates, Bill and Brian — Brian had gone on drinking at the Sportsman for years, long after Hilton’s last orders in 1983.
A scan of government death registries tells me that both of Hilton’s pals had sadly also passed away, but that Brian’s loss was recent. An obituary names his widow, Mary, and with a bit of digging I find an address. Back to Chadderton a week later, I barrel up to the door, give it a knock. No one is home so I put a note through the letterbox, a bit deflated. On the way home on the bus, watching the silhouette of the city-centre skyscrapers loom through misted-up windows, I wonder where all of this is leading.
Memories of Jack
“The proletarian novel is dead,” one countess at a leading publishing house had remarked, around the time of Hilton’s application for a book deal. The remark had been one of the final nails in the coffin of his career in writing. Serial rejection meant that in order to avoid more time on the dole, he disappeared from literature.
It turns out Mary was chuffed to receive a strange note through her letterbox about her old friend Jack Hilton. We meet up over a custard, the first of many chats, most recently at the Working Class Movement Library where I was able to show her the first-edition of Caliban Shrieks. I find out from Mary that he had returned to plastering at the end of the forties, full time, and stayed working as a plasterer for the rest of his years.
Before his death, Hilton used to come round to Mary and Brian’s for tea several times a week, eating with them and their two boys. None of the family had known that he’d ever been a writer, nor did they ever hear much about his tumultuous early life.
Mary is an Irish Mancunian who originally hails from Ancoats, now in her early seventies. Her “fond memories of dear old Jack” recall a peaceful, grandfatherly presence in the life of her boys. He’d sit and listen to them chattering about their days at school, and when entertainment was required at the dinner table, he’d whip out his pipe and blow smoke. On occasions when the lads needed even more distraction, Mary tells me he could blow the smoke through his ears…
I’d never heard of this ability before and it turns out that this party trick is a symptom of intense hardship. Only someone with very badly damaged eardrums could physically blow smoke through them. Maybe the damage to his ears came from the pounding machinery of those mills he’d started in at 11; maybe it was the shells dropping on the trenches he’d been sent to at 17; or the years of his life condemned to the loud drudgery of rock-breaking in “the spike” (workhouses) after the war.
Over three hundred years of civilised evolution, and still the workhouse for the native, and the spike for the rover, the propertyless are still with us, they are multiplied over a hundred times…You get there about 5.30 and find others there like yourself, waiting aimlessly and fatigued, spread along the road, making a picture of untidiness to the eye of the aesthetic. Slowly a distant thin chained army is streaming in dribbles to the bottom of this road, the prelude, the wait, for the opening of the spike.
Of all the trials in his early life, Mary had only vaguely heard of his war service. What she did know all about was his plastering. He’d taken great pride in what he did after abandoning publishing. His hands had gone to work across Manchester for decades, beautifying houses. Much of his labour probably remains — he usually worked on big houses, that is, for people of the same class whose limited tastes had blocked him from pursuing writing.
Their rejection of his perspective was nothing personal — it had come from a common belief, held even by many working-class people in the thirties and after, that good art had to be detached, and artists detached, from ‘common life.’
Hilton was proud to be a plasterer. Part of the magic of Caliban Shrieks is the novel’s interrogation of the status games compelling so many into decades of drudgery, in the mills, trenches, factories. He never wanted to rise above his class, “the lower working-class type,” into mortgaged respectability: "Whenever I’m with the intellectuals I always feel they do not belong to my world,” he wrote, continuing, “...with all their theories and mentalised life they have had very little experience of living…they’ve been too sheltered, and too looked up to." If the price for becoming a professional writer was his position within the working-class — the aspect of his life he believed enabled him to write with such critical directness about what he saw — then he would choose plastering, and proudly so.
One of the main arguments for the value of Hilton’s writing today is the way it probes the development of his own ideas, his own relationship to the myths that hold up the class system. His writing models this process of critical self-examination to the reader, as if in invitation for us to join in. Benjamin Clarke is a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina. He tells me how this depth in Hilton went unseen — “[Hilton’s] writing is so distinctive, it’s so unusual, I would like to think people would see it today and understand that there are so many dimensions to working-class writing; it goes far beyond just simplistic realist accounts of what happens in factories or mines.”
Throughout Caliban Shrieks he subjects the unearned privileges of the wealthy to prosecutorial diatribes, knowingly delivered in the metre of a Shakespearean Sonnet. These polemics gradually build in strength and sophistication through the novel, with the final chapter as just one long toast-like oration against the class system — modelled on the kinds of speeches he would give as an organiser of the unemployed, the speeches that would eventually put him in chains.
This final chapter is the favourite of the poet Dr. Ian Patterson, a Life Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and one-time bookseller who first came across Hilton in the eighties. I sent Patterson a copy of Caliban Shrieks — he hadn’t seen one since he’d shut his shop. “I like the novel’s vividness, its directness and its rantiness,” he told me. “The concluding rundown of politics is different from pretty much everyone else's and refreshingly so.”
Patterson’s right: Caliban Shrieks is an acid bath for the kind of ideas and assumptions that, prior to its publication, had gone almost entirely unquestioned in literature, even within the progressive flanks of the modernist movement. After Hilton’s exit from writing it would still be years before any movements in the arts launched similar challenges.
Here’s to you, Mr Parasite. You may be all right as a daddy or a philanthropist, still you’re a flea, perhaps a bug. You get your living in a filthy way, you are a source of nuisance and danger to the many clean healthy industrious organisms in society…Still, unfortunately, only the highest of men have such a compassion and others there are who like not the bite of fleas. They being of blister and itch and irritation would like to catch and scold (some of the less sophisticated might even kill) this capitalist vermin. Never mind, old parasite, keep sucking at the good pure blood of man, there’s only the match box to fear at the worst.
Unfortunately, Patterson’s attempts to get to know Hilton better were cut short by the unavailability of his work. Clarke and another academic, Dr. Jack Windle, had been behind the piece in the M.E.N., as part of a big 2014 attempt with another American academic, Emily Rich, to trace Hilton — it was thought that maybe the copyrights had migrated to Australia, where Rich had tried to trace the only living branch of the Hilton family tree.
Part of the difficulty with tracing the copyright is that few of Hilton’s family made it past 18, let alone 40; as Rich found, the one surviving sister had emigrated and was herself long gone. Hilton never had children, even though he was happily married twice, first to Beatrice, then to Mary. I found this out from our Mary, Brian’s Mary, who showed me the house in Chadderton where Hilton and his Mary had lived — just around the corner from the Sportsman's Arms.
Words, words, words
Born in a Rochdale slum in the first month of the 20th century, Hilton was one of “eleven children (maybe there were thirteen)”. Only four of his siblings “became adults…[My] mind doesn’t recall how many brothers and sisters I had because they died too soon for me to have memories of association.” Death was a constant in his life until he left the trenches; after the war, he was deeply unsettled, horrified by the poverty that had taken so many of his siblings and childhood friends — only for the survivors to be culled in the trenches. The trauma drove him from Rochdale, and his twenties were spent wandering England, from workhouse to workhouse, where he would spend days breaking rocks in exchange for bread and shelter.
Hilton did eventually come home to Rochdale, and was able to find steady but varied work — until the Great Depression hit. One of millions forced onto the dole, he used the time to read and some of his mates did the same. This small band of semi-illiterate twenty-somethings came together to read about the world, about the crisis, about the official reasons for their hunger, about the cobbled-together solutions of the day’s top politician. Hilton read Marx, he read Shakespeare. They all did. It’s hard to imagine a private school which could have imparted a better knowledge of the classics than that which this bunch of working men in Rochdale gave themselves, while on the dole, in these bleak years.
The small band continued to ricochet between odd jobs and unemployment, chasing bread. Less work, more unemployment — gradually, the band grew and others took notice. Audiences came to hear Hilton and his pals talk about the lack of work.
From bell ringing and howling to beautifying public buildings with words, made with what the press called white pigment, we pressed on with our publicity. Interest increased in us. We got our audiences, they listened; and so, now, did the detectives. Bill was ever trying to improve, he started to swallow the dictionary page by page, somehow or other he could not stop, it was words, words, words.
They took the attention seriously and got better at running meetings — more came, and eventually he was at the forefront of the National Unemployed Workers’ Union. The Union’s aim? To let the workers run the machines their class had built, machines that were standing idle because the owners could not find profitable markets — because the workers on the machines were paid too little…
The larger and better organised the NUWM group became, the more the Lancashire Constabulary homed in on them. They all paid dearly — a march of hundreds on Rochdale’s last poor house led to a charge of disrupting public order for Hilton. He was banished to Strangeways for nine months. He was just one of several of his comrades who was locked away.
Professor Clarke tells me that not only was Hilton locked up, but upon release he was no longer allowed to speak in public. His return to odd jobs and the dole meant things were on the downswing again, but at least he could begin evening classes at the Workers’ Educational Association, to keep on learning. One evening he forgot his journals at one of these classes. The tutor took the pads home, pockmarked with plaster dust.
Three months later, a letter arrived at Hilton’s slum terrace from one John Middleton Murry — the editor of The Adelphi. Lacking the freedom to speak politically, Hilton had transferred his speechmaking skills to paper. The tutor read the pads and had been blown away. He sent them on to Murry at The Adelphi, one of a few more progressive, modernist literary journals of the thirties. It had been a home for D.H. Lawrence, for Rhys Davies, for the young Dylan Thomas; a refuge for writers reviled by the literary mainstream — Lawrence, for his “smut,” his “low-life narratives” of working-class life; Davies for his Welshness and homosexuality, and Thomas for his Welshness and communism.
Now celebrated as one of the best writers of the twentieth-century, Lawrence died in 1930, reviled. Murry was hated too — described in one 1934 biography as “the best-hated man of letters in the country.” He saw himself as a “moral prophet” engaged in a war of position against bourgeois stodge of the type that had driven Lawrence into exile abroad, since 1920.
Murry’s invite to Hilton to publish an extract from his exercise books led directly to a book deal for Caliban Shrieks, which was pieced together from Hilton’s Adelphi works. The reception was overwhelmingly positive. A young Auden was struck by its “Moby-Dick rhetoric.” Orwell was another early admirer, and one of a few who not only appreciated Hilton’s works as good writing, but who saw political value in the new way they put assumptions about class through the wringer. What’s more, in Hilton there was none of the ill-disguised inauthenticity of Orwell’s own attempts to do the same.
For a few years after the publication of Caliban Shrieks, Orwell struck up an often terse but comradely correspondence with Hilton — the first stages of which had revolved around Orwell’s requests for advice on where and how to write what eventually became The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell had requested to stay with Hilton in Rochdale, and write his account of working-class life based on mill workers. Hilton had refused — there was barely enough space in his slum terrace for him and Beatrice, his first missus.
Instead, he sent Orwell to Wigan. When The Road to Wigan Pier was published, Hilton was abrasive. The off remarks Orwell had made about the “smells” of the workers he’d lived parasitically alongside in Wigan upset Hilton, affirming to him that upper-class writers were unable to do descriptive justice to working-class life: they wrote about workers as specimens, like Goodall’s apes.
A conclusion, of sorts
At my first meeting with Mary, I hand her a brand-new edition of Caliban Shrieks, dedicated to Brian. I had transcribed the novel from the crumbling copy in the Working Class Movement Library and had it printed. This was exactly the thing I hoped to do on a larger scale, bring Hilton’s powerful words back into print — so he could reach new readers, in a time when so much of what he writes about (class struggle; economic deprivation) feels more relevant than ever. But without the copyrights? It seemed impossible — up until something very dramatic happened very undramatically.
In trying to find Mary’s address back in February, I came across a document addressing the copyrights. The rights to Hilton’s entire works had unknowingly passed to Brian in 1983, along with the rest of Hilton’s worldly belongings from his little flat. Upon Brian’s own death last year, the rights had again unknowingly passed to Mary, who offered them to me. The proviso was, I do my utmost to breathe new life into Hilton’s accomplishments, all to the benefit of the Working Class Movement Library — a place where the legacies of unsung working-class talents are kept safe, safe from the narrow tastes that have so cleanly cut off generations of working-class people from literature and the arts.
The end of Hilton’s life speaks to the extraordinary and rare capacity he had to dictate the terms by which he lived. He took the decision to duck out — at the grand old age of 83, he chose to join his siblings in death, the brothers and sisters who’d perished so prematurely, some before they had even learnt their first words. Words that Hilton, in his long life, mastered so thoroughly. He took an overdose and passed away peacefully, loved by Brian, Mary, and his other surviving friends. Dying as he chose to live: his own way.
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