14 June 2009

A Dolphin in a Sentry-Box; or, on the Trail of Lionel Britton

The extraordinary writer Lionel Britton (1887-1971) published one novel and three plays in the 1930s and then disappeared from the literary map. There were very few obituaries, although it was in one of them – an anonymous article entitled ‘Forgotten Genius Ends his Days at Margate’, in The Isle of Thanet Gazette – that I discovered that a number of his unpublished works remained intact. His friend Professor Herbert Marshall, a great admirer of Britton, had arranged for all his literary effects to be shipped to Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale.

Carbondale has a population of about 22,000, although in term time it almost doubles in size. I very much doubt that the name Lionel Britton is known in any other university in the world with the exception of the Open University, where I gained my PhD in Literature on Britton’s work. Yet at the Special Collections Research Center in Carbondale, which houses ninety archival boxes of Britton manuscripts, his name is familiar: one member of staff – obviously to some extent acquainted with his biography – even told me that all Britton needed was a therapist! (The reason for that remark will probably become clear later in this article.) I have been to Carbondale on two occasions, and recently spent five weeks poring over the contents of a number of those boxes. Below I give a synopsis of my findings.

Britton and the Written Word

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain what Britton’s literary influences were, although superficially it would appear from reading Hunger and Love that James Joyce is one of them. C.E.M. Joad comes to this conclusion in Under the Fifth Rib: A Belligerent Autobiography (1932), where he speaks about the ‘Cult of Unreason’, and claims that Britton writes in the same genre as Joyce, Huxley, Woolf and Lawrence. In his brief essay ‘Unreason in Modern Literature’, however, Britton reacts angrily to this, saying:

‘Who are these people? What’s that to do with me? I don’t know anything about these blokes. I’ve heard about them. I hear people talking 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 jolly soon lay it down again. What’s this stuff to me? I’m not a critic who’s paid for reading. 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. I can no longer think or speak naturally. 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.’

The reason for this outburst is perhaps initially unclear, although Britton was frequently given to such tantrums, and there are numerous examples of them in Hunger and Love. Evidently, Britton has adopted one of the common preconceptions about the modernists: they are elitists, and therefore out of touch with the working class. Britton sees himself as a ‘proletarian’ writer, and thinks it wholly inappropriate to share a modernist aesthetic with such authors.

But Joad quotes a passage from Hunger and Love which he finds incomprehensible, and then a passage from the ‘Ithaca’ section of Ulysses, which he finds is similarly written – ‘in jerks’:

‘Solitary hotel in mountain pass. Autumn. Twilight. Fire lit. In dark corner young man seated. Young woman enters. Restless. Solitary. She sits. She goes to window. She stands. She sits. Twilight. She stands. On solitary hotel paper she writes. She thinks. She writes. She sighs. Wheels and hoofs. She hurries out. He comes from the dark corner. He seizes solitary paper, He holds it towards fire. Twilight. He reads. Solitary.’

Britton appreciates that Joyce is trying to express restlessness here, and says that if Joad doesn’t understand that then he doesn’t know how to write. Britton, however, would not express it in quite the same way:

‘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!’

Throughout Hunger and Love Britton sees his enemies the bourgeoisie as unnatural, and in this article he associates the writing of modernists with an artificial style of writing. If he read them, he could ‘no longer think or speak naturally.’

Fame

The earliest play that Britton wrote was ‘Fame; or, the Reluctant Employee’, which probably dates from the early 1920s if not slightly before. The first words are spoken by Harry Humphries, a starving writer who lives in a garret surrounded by books piled on egg box shelves and sugar box tables and chairs. He is holding a herring in one hand and a frying pan in the other:

‘Life wouldn’t be so bad, only it’s the nuisance of it. First you’ve got to anabolize, and then you’ve got to catabolize; and then it’s time for bed. Now I have here an anabolic herring, denominated red, for no particular reason so far as I can see except that it’s not red in many; the egg that – (feels it in sudden misgiving) – yes, it is hard; many’s the egg that creature laid all unmindful of its destiny down at the bottom of the deep blue sea, because (argumentatively) if they don’t lay them at the bottom where the dickens do they lay them? And to think that to-morrow that fish will be talking philosophy! in me! It’s enough to make a chap look upon himself as an alchemist. It’s a humble sort of instrument when you look at him to make the universe conscious of itself. (Suddenly thinking.) Was Buddha, wasn’t it? – Now what’s the blessed order? (Goes to dictionary, putting herring on table.) Now you lie there, while I look up your references. (Sniffs.) You’ve been out of work a long time. I always classify my food before I eat it. It makes it much more interesting to have a pedigree herring, complete with its genus and differentia, tracing its final journey down your digestive tract.’ (Turning up dictionary.)’

The themes of this passage and the writing style will be familiar to anyone who has ever read any of Hunger and Love, with its emphasis on science (‘anabolize’, ‘catabolize’), its clipped, digressive language (‘Was Buddha, wasn’t it?’), the vital importance of the learning process, and the humour. ‘Fame’ was evidently a precursor of Hunger and Love, and there is even a repetition in the play of the scene in the novel where a bookseller pronounces Pierre de Coulevain’s L’Isle inconnue as ‘Leelin Connu’. The Miss Whyman and the Doreen of Hunger and Love are conflated in ‘Fame’ to Dora, who first sees socialism from a negative perspective. In a heartfelt remark to her, Henry says: ‘I’m looking forward to seeing the employer’s head stuck on a pole.’ The use of the definite article instead of the possessive adjective is interesting here: Britton has shifted the dispossessed working class into a transcendent position and hoisted the bosses into history. (This is probably an allusion to Zola’s Germinal, where towards the end of the book a similar event takes place with the former boss’s genitals.)

The analogies between Hunger and Love and ‘Fame’ pile up, but it’s clear that – although many of the prototypical ideas in this play were forwarded to the novel, there was nevertheless a small amount of self-censorship in the published book; for instance, Britton saw H. G. Wells as a potential supporter of the novel, so he had to delete the following comment about Wells’s support for World War I: ‘I’m wonderfully fond of Wells. He’s a very great man; but he turned out a rotter during the war.’

Towards the end of the play, Henry looks forward to a successful life writing books instead of dusting them: clearly, ‘Fame’ looks to the future with hope as opposed to the bleak vision of Hunger and Love.

A Whisper to the Voice of Man

One of the aims of my second visit to SIU was to bring back a copy of ‘Murder’s Last Word’, Britton’s second and final novel and the follow-up to his huge Hunger and Love (1931). Hunger and Love boasted a five-page Introduction by Bertrand Russell and received very mixed reviews, although many of them – by Upton Sinclair and Richard Aldington, for example – were full of praise. It was well known at the time that Britton had had problems with publishers because he refused to allow them to make cuts to his repetitive and digressive novel; but in the end, Britton found a very sympathetic publisher in Putnam, and this first novel is highly unusual in that the publisher didn’t ask the author to make any emendations. In 1940, Britton was ready to show the world his second novel. Again, Putnam were enthusiastic, and their reader Constant Huntington told Britton that he had waited for years for the occasion. Why, then, was it never published?

The first obvious thing to note about Britton’s manuscript is that, at approximately 67,000 words, it is just over one fifth the size of Hunger and Love. But the second thing is far more important: Britton had made it clear that he intended to write a more popular novel, and this is what ‘Murder’s Last Word’ appears to be. Anyone familiar with Hunger and Love, though, especially with its treatment of some characters as an excuse for the narrator to launch into a long philosophical or scientific digression, would be very sceptical about Britton’s temperamental ability to write a ‘popular’ novel. And indeed, this scepticism would appear to be vindicated by two of the chapter titles: ‘Science and Morality’ and ‘Hegel Keeps His Secret’. And the beginning of the Preface strongly suggests that this ‘murder mystery’, as he calls it, will not be too far removed from what Britton’s readers expected: ‘[A]s any scientist will tell you in these days of Relativity, and as Copernicus found out before Einstein, the cart may push the horse as well as the horse pull the cart, and it all depends on whether you are going up hill or down, or, as in the solar system, on the point of view’, and ‘To a soldier, killing is everything; but as Hegel would have told you before you were born (though without a place in ‘Who’s Who’, and even then perhaps only if you could understand the Otherness in Being), killing implies being killed, and is impossible without it’. Everything seems to be in the place we would expect: Britton continues the long, circuitous sentences, and we appear to be set for the kind of digressions we are used to.

But this Preface is also a kind of excuse, and Britton is evidently apologising to his readers for having been forced to write within a more popular genre. Is there a great difference between this novel and Hunger and Love? Certainly the sub-title sounds a little like the Britton of the beginning of the previous decade: ‘A Sensational Thriller; or, “Blood” for Scientists, Philosophers, Statesmen, and Common Men of Today and Tomorrow – if There is a Tomorrow…’. Nevertheless, ‘Murder’s Last Word’ bears many similarities to conventional thriller fiction of the time. The language is (almost too) simple, the plot (and there is one this time) concerns a series of brutal murders which are embarrassing the police, and as the story unravels it transpires that this is the work of a ruthless (and German run) group of people who want to dominate the world by destroying everyone apart from the inhabitants of their own country; the novel also contains a few gory details, mystery, suspense, and a great deal of action. In a sense, it is everything that Hunger and Love is not, and there is a virtual absence of digression. Even the two nominally suspicious chapters mentioned above are conventional, and there is no scientific debate or philosophical discussion in them.

Britton sent out copies to a number of people to gauge the wisdom of his strategies, and there was some favourable response: V. Selson, ‘a business woman’ and the director of the Selson Machine Tools Co., said ‘Now that you have begun to write for people like me, you should be very successful.’ Fredda Brilliant, Herbert Marshall’s sculptor wife, said ‘I couldn’t at first believe that one and the same author could write such highly contrasting novels with equal brilliancy, but it seems that it is so! Such a book makes blitz reading for blitz hours!’ Bertrand Russell also congratulated him on his ability to adapt, although he thought that Britton should have made it clearer for duller readers who the main characters were meant to represent. Britton had said that this was a thriller with a difference, and it was intended as an allegory, an attack on Nazism. As he said (by way of another apology in an author’s note), ‘I have done the best I can with second best to add a whisper to the voice of man.’ Vernon Porter did not miss the point, but added: ‘I hope those who find the thrills absorbing will not miss the big idea and the clever criticism of dictatorship.’ P. Dienes of Birkbeck College added: ‘The idea behind the story is so good and so important that it seems to me to be wasted on a mere murder story, however cleverly done. And yours is damned well done.’

Dienes, though, along with a number of other readers, felt obliged to comment (very politely) on one small issue: ‘The scientific detail at the end is rather lengthy. I wonder if anybody wants to learn physics while waiting for the wholesale destruction of life on our planet?’ Britton had inserted six pages on the nature of the carbon atom into the novel: it was as if he could not be entirely forget the content of Hunger and Love. But it was sufficient to annoy a number of people. Amy Priestley, the head teacher of Monega Road Infant School in East Ham, loved it, but was forced to complain: ‘[D]o you really expect us lesser mortals to read a scientific lecture on the nature of carbon, when we are bursting for the denouement?’ And Marion Seeley, M.A., a senior English teacher at the Bromley High School for Girls, obviously agreed with her: ‘This I think won't be forgiven you by your average reader of thrillers. It holds up the action intolerably just when the excitement is at its highest pitch.’

Putnam, which had previously turned down later plays that Britton wrote, and had advised him to write another novel, were disappointed with the result, and had to make it clear that they did not publish thrillers. Many years later, Putnam bought the Dennis Dobson imprint and wanted to publish ‘Murder’s Last Word’ in the Blue Lamp Mysteries series. Britton refused because ‘it is obviously something more than just a thriller’.

Mr Pickwick

Britton may not have appreciated the work of the modernists but he enjoyed Charles Dickens a great deal. The half-title of the present article is a quotation from Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836-37): Chapter VI of the novel takes place in the Wardle home at Dingley Dell, where Mr Pickwick plays whist, and where one of his opponents is ‘the unlucky Miller [who] felt as much out of his element as a dolphin in a sentry-box’. The phrase conjures up a surrealistic image that juxtaposes the artificial and regimented to the natural and the free, the violent to the peaceful, the grotesque to the graceful; it is an image of the outsider, and eerily sums up the world of Arthur Phelps of Hunger and Love. Equally, it sums up the world of Lionel Britton.

‘Mr Pickwick’ is the only play Britton wrote that was performed but not published. Its full title is ‘Mr Pickwick: In Search of Human Nature and the Strange Adventures that Befell Him Therein: An Original Play from the Pen of Charles Dickens through the Eyes of Lionel Britton’. It was performed at Rugby in 1945, although due to what appears to have been a cost-cutting exercise it was not, as originally scheduled, also performed at Huddersfield and Bristol.

In one of the archive boxes at SIU, a textually identical play is bound in a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box, although there is a different subtitle: ‘[A]ttempts to capture Dickens’s original idea, which he lost as he went along’. It’s obvious that a dramatisation of The Pickwick Papers would vary in many ways from even the film version, but Britton’s treatment of the characters is nonetheless faithful to the characters, and to many events, in the novel. But the whole play takes place in the lounge of the Bull Inn.

The Pickwick Papers was in part a satire on the pretentious activities of historical societies, although this is lost in Britton’s version. What is important, from the beginning, is the working-class element, and Britton emphasises the role of Sam Weller in particular:

‘I feel that we have much to learn here, and perhaps more than we shall find in a further journey, and therefore I deemed it possible that the remarkable personality of the man in question and his services at this spot, would release my energies and afford me at the same time the stimulus of his curious reflections, in the pursuit of my investigations into the peculiarities of our fellow creatures.’

As may be expected, Britton – who used the expression ‘errand boy’ as a metaphor for a member of the working class – dwells on the seedier aspects of Weller’s history; Pickwick, who calls Weller a philosopher, is astonished by his accounts of his vagabond life, by his taking various precarious jobs and having to sleep in the filthy boarding houses of the ‘tuppenny rope’, or under Waterloo Bridge. Britton no doubt identified with Weller’s aphorism: ‘It’s bein’ poor where you sees life.’

To a lesser degree, Weller’s father is also a representative of working-class views:

‘[V]ot’s eddication for but to make the most o’ life, and not to be done no’ow by no sorts o’ blackguards, no matter how smart they thinks theirselves . Vy, ven you got that, you got eddication, and no puttin’ nothin’ arter your name nor no puttin’ nothin’ afore it, von’t take the place o’ that, sir.’

Pickwick replies: ‘I do really believe you are right.’

The blackguards Britton is thinking of, of course, are the bourgeoisie, and ‘Mr Pickwick’ makes considerable criticism of them. As in The Pickwick Papers, there are a number of occasions when the characters are allowed to voice their contempt for the legal profession: Sam is not allowed to kick anyone in the novel, although in the play he kicks the solicitor Dodson, who ‘scuttles out through the door like a scared cat’; in a general remark about lawyers, Old Weller remarks that ‘It’s a pint of honour vit ’em never to leave you nothing’. But it is perhaps Jingle who provides the best opportunity for Britton to extend his attacks to other institutions and also to indulge in the ‘headline abbreviation’ patterns of Hunger and Love; Jingle declares of Dr Slammer: ‘Poor fellow—disgraceful exhibition—mad doctors—regiments—shoot—mad—all mad!’

Several years after writing the play, Britton sent Robert Morley a copy of the script, and Morley claimed to have enjoyed the play immensely, but then realised that he couldn’t play Pickwick because he was a little fat man, whereas he was a big fat man. John Burrell of the Old Vic also rejected the play, claiming that Britton had taken ‘too many liberties’ with the novel.

O. H. M. S.

‘O. H. M. S.: or, How to Make God’ is an original play and marks a return to Britton’s experimental work. It was probably written in the 1940s or the 1950s and begins with a note which serves as a warning to any reader seeking the comfort of a traditional play: ‘If you are looking for the story it is very difficult, because it aint there’. The time is ‘Then, Now and Forever’, and the place ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. Britton continues:

‘The whole play is intended not so much to be immediately and clearly understood the first time it is seen, but as a kind of speaking music which will adjust man’s feelings towards himself and the universe, and which can be more and more understood the more deeply it is studied.’

The first scene is conventional enough, with a family scene set in the evening, and concerns a conflict between a conservative working-class father and his radical son who is studying at the local polytechnic. The son is a great believer in co-operation and believes that one day everyone will be working together for a just society, which he compares unfavourably to the past and the present, as represented by his father, whom he compares to an ape. At the end of the scene the mother partly reconciles the father to the fact that some social progress is being made in that their son, unlike his father, will never have to touch his cap to his bosses at work.

But this is the last we see of the family, and the characters in other sections also only make one appearance: the parts are only thematically related to one another. In the second section a British worker, and then a policeman, try to find some sense in a caveman; soon, they are replaced by a ‘Lit’ry Gent’ and a businessman with a fat cigar, the former arguing the merits of education for the masses, the latter saying that educating them too much will mean that they can ‘See through advertisements’.

In another section a sergeant is training his men when a child enters. The sergeant asks him what he wants, the child replies that he wants to grow up, and the sergeant explodes, ‘Well, you can’t grow up ’e r e ! Besides, you’ll ’ave your blasted career cut short, my bonny boy, with a bullet in the neck, if you come round ’ere tryin’ to bolshevise the soldiers, Now, just you tell me – oo the ’ell sent you?’ The brief speech is of course an attack on the armed forces cutting young men’s lives short, but it also shows the fear in the Establishment that left-wing views are infiltrating those forces.

Britton’s targets are virtually all institutions, and in the fifth section he finds a generic name for anyone he believes is standing in the way of progress – meaning in the way of the march towards anarchism and its twin goal of global co-operation as opposed to competition: they are Way-Closers, or W Cs for short. Britton couldn’t have predicted that wall-to-wall sport would replace the wall-to-wall religion of the 19th and early 20th centuries, although one W C’s remark suggests that Britton was aware of this opium of the people: ‘Sport is good. It uses up energy and nothing is achieved.’

Why She Would Not

Bernard Shaw’s last play, Why She Would Not, was written in the year that he died and was probably unfinished. Britton added a detailed ending to it, and for the rest of his life was obsessed with the refusal of the Society of Authors to allow the simultaneous publication of both Shaw’s piece and his own ending. He kept scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings about the Society, its financial details, and biographical details of the committee members.

Britton wrote to many literary figures protesting against the Society’s rejection of his work, and his grievances met with some sympathy, including that of Bertrand Russell, who remarked: ‘If the principle became established that nothing should be published unless it aroused admiration in a number of elderly big-wigs, the result would be a disastrous censorship’; Graham Greene told Britton that he had recently left the Society, but said that he could use his name as much as he liked in support of his campaign against it. Others, though, were less understanding. Britton was claiming that his aim was to restore Shaw’s good name because he had suffered negative criticism since his death: he believed that the ending would show the public what was in Shaw’s mind; unsurprisingly, T. S. Eliot failed to understand how another writer could show what was in Shaw’s mind.

In 1964, Britton sent a two-hundred-and-eighty-five-paragraph dossier to the Director of Public Prosecutions alleging fraudulent activities on the part of the Society of Authors. Nothing was ever proved. Also in 1964, Britton formed a company – The Park Group Limited – with two Canadians using a bank in the Bahamas with the intention of publishing and producing his plays for stage and screen, of which the first was to be ‘the Shaw play’. However, nothing appears to have come to fruition from the Park Group, probably because Britton was insisting that ‘the Shaw play’ be published first, whereas the other directors (who were responsible for all of the company’s not inconsiderable expenses pending a refund from the ‘profits’) were worried about a possible court injunction. Three years later Britton established his own company – Promethean Publishers Ltd – which appears never to have published anything either.

The play concerns a young man who begins working for a company and swiftly works his way up to the top to become the chair, although he is going to spread the profits evenly between all employees: essentially, his vision is to create a co-operative utopia. But did Britton write a masterpiece as he perhaps thought, or was he was his labour simply a point of principle?

The bound typescript begins with a fifty-page ‘Testament’ in which Britton records his struggle with the Society of Authors; it continues with a forty-eight-page Preface in which he gets a little carried away:

‘There are forms of life which live in the boiling springs of New Zealand, while others, like the anaerobic bacteria, can do without air and indeed choke in it, and the lichen makes a living on bare rock; and the variety and beauty of colour and form is only equalled by the multiplicity and hideousness of shapes so horrible that if only they were big enough to see without aids to vision they would fill the world with gibbering idiots within a week.’

Britton’s play then follows, then Shaw’s few pages, concluding with a ninety-page epilogue entitled ‘Inside Shaw’s Head’.

The play itself only takes up about a quarter of the total manuscript. It transpires that what Britton thought Shaw was thinking was in fact what Britton was thinking, and ‘Why She Would Not’ is a kind of fusion of Hunger and Love and Brain. It is a perfectly respectable play, but no masterpiece: the preliminary pages are of much more interest than the play itself. But then perhaps the same can be said of Shaw’s Prefaces.

We Are the Animals: A Song and Thought Musical

This play is written in the very rough spidery scrawl which characterised Britton’s writing in the few years leading up to his death, so it is highly probable that this was written towards the end of the 1960s, if not slightly later.

Act I is set sometime in the future at Hyde Park Corner, where various animals are preparing for a rally. The new lower classes are invertebrates, who are frowned on by the enfranchised vertebrates: lions don’t want the education of performing fleas, and declare that democracy ‘allows everybody the right to rob everybody else, and share in the robbery, by giving them the vote to elect those who control the robbery’.

Act II is set in the House of Uncommons, where the Home Secretary (the President of the Vertebrates’ Association) states that he will not support the demands of the invertebrates. There is much singing before Worm enters and has an altercation with Lion.

Act IV is the last, when the Russian Bear, the American Eagle and the British Lion enter and express national clichés. On the entrance of Lion, Worm and Lobster, Eagle says that atom bombs are getting smaller and cheaper, that they will be smuggled into big nations in diplomatic bags, timed to go off at the same time, and that this will lead to small nations being allowed to do as they please. This prompts Worm, a representative of the lowest group of workers, to sing in triumph:

‘When the nations have their fun
And they’re done in one by one
We’ll be there.

When the whole wide world is empty,
And the whole wide world is bare
We’ll be there.

When you’ve blown yourselves to bits
We’ll be there.

We’ll be there,
We’ll be there.

When you’ve blown yourselves to bits,
We’ll be there.’

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