27 September 2007

11 Hanson Street — Lionel Britton's Home before Tufnell Park Road

For some decades, Britton lived here with his mother in a flat originally on Saville Street until it was incorporated into Hanson Street. When he went to live in Russia for three months, though, his elderly but active mother had got used to having more space and began moving his belongings into his friend Sinead Acheson's house.

25 September 2007

British Needle Mills — Redditch, Worcestershire

'Correct representation of the British Needle & Fish Hook Mills'. The diagram is dated 1840, and shows the factory owned by Samuel Thomas, Lionel Britton's maternal great-grandfather, which stood on Prospect Hill in Redditch, Worcestershire. Thomas was one of the town's biggest employers, with a workforce of over one hundred. Virtually all that remains of the building is the facade, part of which Thomas lived in
from the late 1830s until his death in 1878, and is shown here.

Hunger and Love (1931) — Lionel Britton's Only Published Novel

Hunger and Love is a semi-autobiographical account of the intellectual development of the working-class orphan Arthur Phelps, who is about sixteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the reader learns almost nothing of his past life. Set entirely in London from 1904 or 1905 to some time during World War I, it records in some detail the extreme poverty of the uneducated Arthur, who starts his working life at a greengrocer’s and then continues by working for several booksellers. Throughout most of the book he has very few friends, and almost all of his contact with others is through his work or by chance encounters in the street. Some of his limited spare time is spent trying to make his meagre earnings last until the end of the week — by, for example, mending his shabby clothes — but most of his time is spent in the manic pursuit of the education he never received as a child. Arthur devours any scraps of knowledge that he can, reading works of science or arts indiscriminately. He buys books from the penny ‘dumps’ on the book barrows that line Farringdon Road, and works his way through the Penny Cyclopaedia and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The novel details how Arthur takes advantage of any opportunity to increase his learning by reading at work, when sent out on errands, and during his lunch breaks. Periods of unemployment are described, a few political activities, and Arthur’s developing intellectual education arguing with the crowd gathered around Speakers’ Corner. There are also many descriptions of the book trade from a shop assistant’s point of view.

The ‘Hunger’ in the title clearly refers to Arthur’s lack of food, but it also alludes to both sexual and intellectual frustration; the ‘Love’ too refers to sex, as well as to the love of knowledge, and to a much broader love of humanity. The narrator has complete access to Arthur’s thoughts and no one else’s, and frequently addresses him directly in the second person, often to mock him. The world is thus largely seen through Arthur’s (or the narrator’s) consciousness, and the novel contains many unspoken insults directed at the bourgeoisie, the church, the government, or the police. Any figures of authority are the targets, and they are seen not only as impediments to his freedom, but throwbacks to an earlier period of evolution.

The novel is a long inter-war howl of contempt for the rule-makers and the people whom the narrator considers to be the war-mongers, the perpetrators of a vast conspiracy. For these reasons alone, it was inevitable that there would be some hostile reactions to the novel. Britton foresaw this, and joked about it before the novel was published: ‘I don’t think six months in gaol would stop me. Most of my friends say I shall get twenty years. The unkind ones say I shall deserve it’. 

Hunger and Love is far from being a straightforward narrative, and a laudatory review by Geoffrey West in the TLS recognizes that Britton is ‘frankly contemptuous of the novel as story’. The novel is didactic, and filled with philosophical and scientific thoughts, becoming more complex as the book develops. Thoughts hold up the story, or rather, thoughts are a large part of the story: sickened by a world where business rules and the rich perpetuate their life-styles through repressing the poor both physically and psychologically, the narrator gradually develops a blueprint for a future ruled by the human mind. His future will be one in which people co-operate with each other instead of competing, and all energies will be devoted to the benefit of the world as a whole. There is no romantic nostalgia for a lost world, and Britton embraces technological progress as a means to a vaguely communistic society — or perhaps anarchistic to be more precise, as there is no support for any political party: Arthur Phelps’s voice is a lonely one.

Mollie Morris (aka Katharine Morris) and Lionel Britton

This copy of Hunger and Love was signed by Britton to Mollie Morris (aka Katharine Morris), at the time (1931) an unpublished novelist born in Nottingham and from the small village of Bleasby near Nottingham. Britton had met Morris before the book was published, in a Bloomsbury café where he had gone with a friend (most probably the budding writer Erik — later anglicised to Eric — Warman). Britton was carrying his manuscript under his arm, as was the fashion with writers, and the much younger Morris was thrilled when Britton let her hold the unpublished book. She had been discouraged by David Garnett's disparaging reaction to her own manuscript, and allowed Britton to take away her work to see what he thought could be done with it.

When they met later in the week, Britton gave her some advice: he told her that each character should speak with his or her own individual voice, and that she should write about the village where she lived. Morris absorbed everything Britton said, and a few years later she published New Harrowing (London: Methuen, 1933), and dedicated it to him in recognition of his help.* She always remembered him with fond regards, wrote several letters to him, and wrote about the above meeting in her as yet unpublished autobiography, 'When All the Trees Are Green'. She died in 1999 at the age of 89.

*Later novels were published as 'Katharine Morris': Country Dance ([London]: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), The Vixen's Club (London: Macdonald, 1955), The House by the Water (London: Macdonald, 1957), and The Long Meadow (London: Macdonald, 1958).

My other Mollie Morris post:

The Grave of Mollie Morris, aka Katharine Morris

Lionel Britton's Home in Tufnell Park

This house, 66 Tufnell Park Road, was home to Lionel Britton for more than twenty years. A leasehold property originally belonging to his mother Irza, and where Britton lived with her, it became his on her death in the late 1950s. This was Park House, where Irza supplemented her pension and Britton eked out a meagre existence by letting out some of its rooms to lodgers. Britton lived here until his move to Margate in 1969, two years before his death.

24 September 2007

The Granta — Lionel Britton

This drawing was published in The Granta in 1931. At the top is the title 'NOT the editor of the review', and at the bottom 'Comrade Lionel Britton'. This latter caption is rather ironic: although Britton applied (unsuccessfully) for Russian citizenship in 1917, his three-month stay in Russia in 1935 — at the invitation of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers — was a great disappointment to him. Britton hated the queues, the lack of everyday commodities, the air of secrecy everywhere, and the fact that he was not allowed to move about freely.

Drawing of Lionel Britton from The Clarion

This drawing is quite a faithful representation of Britton, showing his hallmark shock of hair which he used to cut himself, the essential book in hand, and the absence of a tie: Britton was rather unusual for the time in that he never wore a tie.

In a letter written by his partner Sinead Acheson to Britton in the late 1920s, she invites him to a 'shirt party'. I was initially mystified as to the meaning of this, until I realised that, as Britton frequently boasted that he never wore pyjamas (again, unusual for the time), she could hardly invite him to a pyjama party.

Lionel Britton — A Brief Biography

(The information below was a small part of my thesis, but new details of Lionel Britton's life continue to be revealed to me, correcting, enhancing, and in other ways transforming my knowledge of the man.)

Scarcely any biographical information about Lionel Britton is readily available, and since the mid-1930s his name has been almost forgotten. Information about Britton’s family background, though, is helpful to gain an impression of the formation of his ideas, particularly the importance of literature and foreign languages to him, and the reasons for his hatred of capitalism, religion, the law and institutions in general. The details of Britton’s life after the publication of his last imaginative work in 1935 are also an indication of why he disappeared from the public eye.

Lionel Erskine Nimmo Britton had far from humble beginnings. At his birth on 4 November 1887 his paternal grandfather, John James Britton, was a solicitor practising in the small Warwickshire market town of Alcester and his father, Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton, had very recently passed his intermediate examinations to be a solicitor and was now practising in the family business — Britton & Son — in the nearby village of Astwood Bank, where he lived with his family. Lionel’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Thomas, was for some time the representative in France of Samuel Thomas & Sons, manufacturers of needles and fish-hooks in Redditch; this business was founded by Samuel’s father — also named Samuel — who lived in a large house in front of his extensive British Needle Mills until his death in 1878. It was one of the largest businesses in the town, with one hundred and twenty-two employees at the time of the 1871 census. By the 1881 census, Henry Thomas, a younger son of Samuel Thomas senior, appears to have taken over the greater part, if not all, of the family business. By this time Samuel Thomas junior had returned to England on a permanent basis, and he too was a needle manufacturer, employing just twelve people.

Lionel’s mother, Irza Vivian Geraldine, was born in 1866 and had met Richard at Kings Coughton, in a former farmhouse near Alcester where Richard lived with his father and the rest of the family; Irza was a fifteen-year-old poetry enthusiast who had initially gone to the house to visit John James Britton, a ‘real live poet’ who had earned a minor reputation locally, and who later published a novel. Irza and Richard married in 1885 and moved to Astwood Bank, where Ivy was born the following year and Lionel the year after. There are very few listings of Britton & Son at Astwood Bank in Kelly’s Directories for that period: early in 1888, the company went into bankruptcy.

Never fully qualified as a solicitor, Richard — who had previously worked as a teaching assistant and was given to writing philosophical musings by no means entirely different from those of his mature son Lionel — probably did not enjoy the legal profession. On his bankruptcy, he initially tried to find work again as a teaching assistant in England, although the family very soon moved to Paris, where Richard had found work as a managing clerk in a legal firm, and where Lionel’s brother Percy was born. France and the French language run throughout the Britton and the Thomas families: Samuel Thomas junior had spent a number of years in France, where at least six of his children, including Lionel’s mother, were born; Samuel’s wife Marie Antoinette was French, and both of Lionel’s parents spoke the language fluently. This strong French connection must to some extent explain Lionel’s fluency in the language, and is no doubt also indicative of the facility with which he later learned so many others: his friend Herbert Marshall claimed that Britton was fluent in over twenty different languages.

However, Richard’s employment in France lasted only a short time, and the Brittons then moved to the Bournemouth area, where Richard again worked unsuccessfully as a solicitor, and where the family income was supplemented by Irza working as a boarding house keeper. A fourth child, Cyril, was born in 1891, and by the end of the following year the couple had significant debts. In 1894, when Lionel was seven, Richard died of tuberculosis. Irza, who already had at least one suitor, remained in the area and married a gunner in the Royal Navy in 1897, although no other details of this marriage appear to have survived, and she was later to change her name back to Britton.

Lionel, Ivy, Percy and Cyril all moved to Redditch to live with their maternal grandparents, where their grandfather was then a traveller in a fishing tackle business. According to Lionel’s own account, he excelled at school and soon learned all that they could teach him. It seems evident that he showed some of the rebelliousness that would later be a notable feature of his character: he already hated religious instruction, and was excused music lessons because he thought them ‘silly’. By 1901 Ivy was still at school at the age of nearly fifteen, but her younger brother Lionel was almost certainly in London by this time. His grandparents had presumably not wanted, or perhaps had not had the means for, him to continue his education. For a brief period he lodged elsewhere in Redditch, later informing the Daily News and Westminster Gazette that his first job was ‘sandpapering fishing rods’. After running away and spending a few days as an office boy in Birmingham, Britton moved to London, and from this point his work life and intellectual life become very similar to that of Arthur Phelps in Hunger and Love.

In London, Britton found work as an errand boy at a grocer’s in Theobald’s Road, although he was dismissed from there for reasons unknown. He next found more errand work with an educational bookseller, the University Book Co. on Southampton Row, which according to Britton was the main catalyst to his intellectual curiosity, where he secretly read all he could in the firm’s time, which was also when he discovered ‘the penny-dump on the book-barrows on Farringdon Road’, ‘a mine of mind for empty pockets’. Britton worked at the shop for about six years, when he voluntarily left to work as a shop assistant for bookseller A. H. Mayhew (on whom Sarner in Hunger and Love is probably based) in Charing Cross Road for nearly two years; Mayhew found him ‘honest and industrious’ and ‘parted with him with regret’.

Britton appears not to have mentioned World War I in newspaper or magazine articles or surviving letters, although the vicious propaganda machine in the novel, where the narrator tells of Phelps being urged by almost everyone around him into joining the war, seems to be comment enough on Britton’s experience of it: in an obituary, Raymond Douglas reveals that Britton was attacked by a patriotic mob for not enlisting, and was imprisoned as a conscientious objector for about eighteen months.

As early as 1917, Britton started to learn Russian and applied for Russian citizenship, although his application was disallowed by the Soviet ambassador. Then in the early 1920s he found a more remunerative post with the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, where he worked for about six years, latterly as Assistant General Secretary. In his letter of reference in 1929, the General Secretary describes Britton as ‘an independent thinker, cautious and meditative, yet courageous in the expression of his opinions’, and who was also ‘a gifted linguist [whose] translation of the lesser European languages has frequently been of value to us’.

For several years before this Britton had been working on his huge novel Hunger and Love, although he had disagreed with publishers because he refused to allow any cuts to be made to the content. It is a measure of his self-confidence and his powers of persuasion that he secured Bertrand Russell’s five-page Introduction to the novel, and that Constant Huntington of Putnam not only did not insist that he make cuts, but also allowed him to write the final amendments to it more or less as he wished.

The influence of the cinema on Britton’s writing is briefly mentioned in a chapter below, as film was of great interest to him: he was chairman of the experimental London Film Guild in the late 1920s, which had its studio in the same building as Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This voluntary organization was largely unsuccessful, only producing a small number of mainly critically unsuccessful shorts; Britton never directed a film, although he was responsible for some montage work. The secretary of the Guild was Herbert Marshall, who later moved to Russia for a number of years as a student of Eisenstein’s.

By the time Britton left his advertising job in favour of writing, his mother Irza was living with him in a flat in Marylebone, in Saville Street, which was later incorporated into Hanson Street. And by the late 1920s Britton had also met Sinead Acheson, a woman in the legal profession who was to be his devoted friend for the rest of his life, and with whom he appears to have lived intermittently during the 1930s and 1940s.

Britton also had a strong interest in the theatre over many years and frequently attended performances; when he was a teenager, he had been a supernumerary at Her Majesty’s Theatre under Sir Herbert Tree, and wrote his first play — ‘Fang; or, the Reluctant Employee’ — during this period. Before Hunger and Love was finally published, Britton had also written at least a first draft of his three published plays, and it is an indication of his strong powers of persuasion that the play would possibly not have been published without the assistance of Bernard Shaw, into whose hands he contrived to thrust a copy; Shaw passed it on to Sir Barry Jackson, which the press reported with great enthusiasm. Brain was published in May 1930, very shortly after its first and only performance, which was by the Masses Stage and Film Guild at the Savoy Theatre. Brain ensured that Britton was already relatively well known when Hunger and Love was published the following February, and after this his short-lived fame began in earnest and he was in great demand for a few brief years. He was asked to give a number of talks, to open theatres, he became the drama critic for The New Clarion, and established Left Theatre with André van Gyseghem (the first director of Nottingham Playhouse) and several others. There were many articles about him in newspapers and magazines, and a great deal of attention was also given to his second play, Spacetime Inn, for example: the blurb on the dust jacket speaks of ‘the play which was read at the House of Commons — the only occasion in the history of any Parliament that such a thing has ever happened’. Britton’s M. P. friend John Smith Clarke had made the occasion possible, but both the blurb and the headlines are slightly misleading: although Britton himself certainly read his play before a group of M. P.s, the session was only held in a House of Commons committee room. Critically, the play was better received than Brain, although it was performed for four nights only at the Arts Theatre in London, and once by the Hostel Players in Hoddesdon the following year. (For this second performance, the play also attracted a great deal of publicity — much of it pictorial — because Bernard Shaw gave one of his old Norfolk jackets to his namesake in the play.)

There were many caricatures of Britton in the newspapers and magazines of the day because he was quite an unusual figure for the time. Shaw had called him a ‘wild young man’ and Arnold Bennett had thought that he looked as though he had just come from the French Riviera: he had a shock of wiry hair which stood up almost perpendicular to his head and which he rather amateurishly cut himself, and he always wore an open-neck shirt, usually with light trousers or shorts and plimsolls; he was teetotal and did not smoke.

Britton had been anticipating a visit to Russia for some years, and as the initial excitement of his success eased off considerably, he went there in July 1935 at the expense of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. Five years previously, the working-class writer Harold Heslop had stayed there for the same amount of time as Britton: three months. The two writers’ impressions of the country have many similarities — Heslop was shocked by the poverty he saw, by his guide’s ignorance of Russian culture, and bewildered by the consternation which his desire to see Zamyatin caused; after attending a show trial, he called himself ‘a stranger in a world beyond my own belief’. Britton’s frequent letters to Acheson express his disgust with the country. He was also alarmed by the poverty, exasperated by the queues and what he saw as the ignorance of the Russian people, as well as the fact that they would not answer his probing questions or allow him to explore his surroundings unescorted; above all, perhaps, he thought that his belief in co-operation as opposed to competition was not being practised in Russia: he believed that food and other shortages were caused by the government channelling money into the defence budget. What he saw forced him to see the United Kingdom as more socialist than Russia; he still thought that Russian communism would eventually succeed in its goals, but thought that the gradualism of the British Labour Party was better suited to the country’s progress than the Communist Party of Great Britain. He returned by boat in October; Irza had become used to having more space, and most of Britton’s belongings had been moved to Acheson’s house.

Britton had awoken from his utopian dream to find a nightmare both in Russia and, more personally, at home. Putnam, having made only a modest profit from Hunger and Love, (less than £100 after 10,000 sales and an expensive promotion campaign) and losses with Brain and Spacetime Inn, had already refused to give more than a perfunctory promotion to Animal Ideas. Britton had delayed his visit to Russia because the play was due to be published in the United Kingdom, but it proved to be a disaster: it was never performed (except by Britton himself at various readings), sales were very low, and it was largely ignored critically. In a revealing fourteen-page letter to Herbert Marshall, he called his experience ‘the snuff-out’: he was facing ruin as a writer and had little money left.

Britton escaped from London to take part in a socialist project at ‘Netherwood’ in Hastings, which was perhaps chosen because of its connection with the working-class writer Robert Tressell. In the second half of the 1930s, Netherwood was a large run-down property which had been bought by the actor and playwright E. C. Vernon Symonds to convert into a left-wing guest house that was intended as a haven for socialist meetings and trade union conferences among other things. Britton received free board and lodging there in return for manual work — mainly gardening and reconstructing the swimming pool — and was eking out the remainder of his advance for the Russian edition of Hunger and Love, although he hated almost everything about Netherwood.

During his stay in Hastings Britton was writing the play ‘Du Barry’, although it was never published and never performed. He later wrote several more plays and a novel, philosophical works, and dramatized several novels, such as The Pickwick Papers, Barchester Towers, Gwyn Jones’s Times Like These and three works by J. Jefferson Farjeon. But apart from a performance of ‘Mr Pickwick’ at Rugby and two translations of rather obscure Russian writers in the 1940s, Britton’s career in the theatre and in print was at an end.

Consequently, although he remained a committed writer, Britton was by economic necessity forced to find other means of survival, which led to an itinerant lifestyle. He taught from time to time, gave play readings throughout the country, and synchronized English dialogue to Russian films. And there was also another source of income: Acheson had bought a second-hand boat — known as ‘Spacetime Inn’, or simply ‘Spacetime’ — which she kept on the Thames and followed Irza’s suggestion to rent it out, with Britton collecting the proceeds from customers. He lived on the boat, in boathouses, or simply by the riverside, from about 1937 to 1944, although not continuously. And towards the end of the 1940s he was living with his mother again, now at Park House, a leasehold property at 66 Tufnell Park Road. In a draft application for a grant from the Civil List fund in 1951, he gave his income as ‘Between £70 and £80 per annum’.

In 1954 Britton suffered multiple injuries in a car accident from which he was very fortunate to survive; however, he received an undisclosed sum in compensation, with which he hoped to publish his work and ‘be independent of publishers’ readers’. Britton was developing an obsession: he had amplified Bernard Shaw’s (possibly unfinished) play Why She Would Not, and for the rest of his life was concerned with the Society of Authors’s refusal to allow the simultaneous publication of both Shaw’s fragment and Britton’s ending. He kept scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings about the society along with its financial details, and biographical details of the committee members. And he was directly or indirectly supported by several prominent writers in opposition to the society’s exclusivity, including Bertrand Russell, who remarked of the society’s attitude to Britton’s writing: ‘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.’ These were encouraging words, although they can only have fed the obsession: 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.

Britton spent his last years as a virtual recluse in Margate. In 1969 he wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell from his new home, in which he states that he has had a nervous breakdown, and has lost his house in Tufnell Park along with all of his money; the reasons for this are not mentioned. But Britton was still trying to sue the Society of Authors as late as June 1970, six months before his death at the local hospital following a heart attack. There were few obituaries, and even those commented on his obscurity.

Herbert Marshall, who was by that time Professor and Director of Soviet and East European Studies (Performing Arts) at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, had all of Britton’s literary effects transported to the university, where they remain today.