24 January 2008

John A. Lee's Children of the Poor and Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love

John A. Lee (1891-1981) was a thief and a tramp in his youth, but went on to become a writer, a politician, and one of the most well-known men in New Zealand. His autobiographical Children of the Poor (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1934) was first published anonymously, although Bernard Shaw persuaded Lee to reveal his name in subsequent editions. The above image shows the 1949 edition (London and Auckland, N. Z.: Bernard Henry and N. V. Douglas, 1949), with Shaw's comment on the dust jacket: 'The book is a whopper. Its only rival in intensity is Lionel Britton's "Hunger and Love". Your book has a peculiar poignancy as a record of a life of poverty in the world of the poor, where normal poverty is not disgraceful.'

16 January 2008

James Prior, Forest Folk and Blidworth

The Forest Folk, Blidworth

Lushai cottage in Bingham, Nottinghamshire, was for a time the home of the novelist James Prior Kirk, who just wrote under the name of James Prior. Prior was born in 1851, and has with some hyperbole been called the Thomas Hardy of the Midlands. But like Hardy, Prior set some of his novels in the area where he was born.

Prior was the son of a hat manufacturer, and like many sons in his position at the time, his father wanted him to join the legal profession. After a few years, though, he abandoned this in favour of teaching, farming, and then working for his father.

With the cousin he married in 1886, he moved to Radcliffe on Trent for a short time before settling down in the nearby town of Bingham, where he died. Whereas he had previously written plays and short stories, he now began to write novels. By 1910 he had written all six: Renie (1895), Ripple and Flood (1897), Forest Folk (1901), Hyssop (1904), A Walking Gentleman (1907), and Fortuna Chance (1910). Prior earned a minor reputation as a novelist, and the young teacher D. H. Lawrence read his works with some interest in Croydon. Prior, though, said that the two authors lived in different worlds.

James Prior is remembered for Forest Folk more than any other work, and although now long out of print, it went through several editions. It is set in the Luddite era, and is a working-class take on the late Victorian New Woman. Prior died in 1922, and in 1926 the Forest Folk pub was built in Blidworth to commemorate his achievement; it had a stained glass window and a small lobby area dedicated to the novelist. More significantly, it is a very rare example of a pub named after a book rather than a writer, although it was demolished a few years ago to make way for a shopping complex.


Almost twenty years ago, my (ex-)wife and I began capturing many photos of the county's pubs in an attempt to record a heritage that we realized would soon fall to the bulldozer. When I sold my Carlton Road house a few months ago, I had little time to move things before I went on a research trip in southern Illinois for several weeks. Therefore I gave away many of the possessions of mine that had long been gathering dust, and I had intended to do this with the several hundred pub photos I had taken. Thinking that the Nottingham branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (Nottingham CAMRA) would appreciate these, I offered to donate them to them, writing an email to the secretary to their most recent address as given in the then latest version of their newsletter. I received no acknowledgement whatsoever of my email from Nottingham CAMRA: the degree of this rudeness is scarcely credible. However, I still have the photos, and in future I shall be posting some of them to this blog, beginning with more Nottingham and Nottinghamshire's literary pubs.

My James Prior posts:
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Introduction
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter One
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Two
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Three
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Conclusion
James Prior (1851–1922) in Bingham
James Prior's Parents' Grave, Nottingham
James Prior: Three Shots from a Popgun (1880)
The Forest Folk memorial window
James Prior plaque, Blidworth

11 January 2008

Bob, or Reginald Percy Leopold Britton

20 High View Road, home of Bob (or Percy) and Maisie Britton

Robert Hughes remembers his maternal grandfather, Bob Britton:

Bob was kind.

He didn't do War.

That's why when the bomb fell in 1941 he was caught in his bed.

He had already invented a coating for submarines, which helped win the war for his country and gained him a patent, but he was a scientist and he knew about poison gas, and all the ways that bombers from the air could devastate innocent people.

He built an air-raid shelter at the bottom of his garden in Norwood, and he built it strong; but on the fateful night, he was too traumatised by worry to be in it.

'Come along into the shelter' said my Grandmother Maisie.

Bob couldn't; his depressive condition didn't allow him out of bed. He will have told her 'Go, Lass, get down there.'

A German bomb destroyed three houses on Highview Road that night, and buried Bob in the rubble of his home.

The bomb blast caused some strange effects: some crockery was lifted out of the cupboard and chucked down onto the floor without being broken. A big wardrobe was wafted across Bob's bed before the rubble fell in on it, and it seems to have saved his life.

My Grandfather had seconds to decide whether to live or to die: he chose to live.

Without air he knew he would die quickly; but he was a scientist: he considered how soldiers crossing a bridge were required to break step: they might otherwise break the bridge by setting up a rhythm.

Bob thought 'Why don't I set up a rhythm?', and he did. He worked his elbows in such a way as to set up a force which pushed up that wardrobe and gave him air until the rescuers dug him out.

My grandfather lived to teach me chess, and retired from his career in paint manufacturing with honours from his profession, but he always wanted to enquire and explore, like his uncles in the Thomas family: Uncle Ernest Augustus, for example, wrote two books on cosmology.

You or I might think that the bomb-site at Norwood would be too much to bear. However, it isn't that surprising that Bob's enquiring mind took him back to have a look, some years after the War. Someone was beavering away at the bottom of the garden, and my grandfather asked him what he was up to.

'Getting all this concrete out...could have been an air raid shelter or something. I'd like to meet the bugger that put this thing in!'

'You're looking at him', said Bob.

'Bob' was Reginald Percy Leopold Britton, born in 1889 in Levallois–Perret, a suburb of Paris in the Hauts-de-Seine département. His parents were Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton and Irza Vivian Geraldine Britton (née Thomas), also the parents of Lionel Britton. Many thanks to Robert Hughes for the above article, and for providing the photo.

Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton

Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton was the son of John James Britton and the father of Lionel Britton. He was born at Gravelly Hill in 1859, married Irza Vivian Geraldine Thomas in 1885, and died the father of four children in 1894, in Bournemouth, at the age of 35.

Many thanks to Robert Hughes for providing the photo.

10 January 2008

Is This Sinead Acheson (1891–1973)?

For someone who was evidently renowned as a socialite and an extroverted supporter of left-wing causes, Sinead Acheson – usually known as Ach to her friends – has left a very thin trace of her existence. She was writer Lionel Britton's companion for several decades, and worked to keep his name in the public eye when he began to fall out of favour. What she did for a living, though, is something of a mystery. There is some evidence that she was involved in the legal profession, although she also advertised her services as a Swedish remedial face masseuse: she was trained by Constance Walton and worked at Bertha Hammond, 16 Old Bond Street, London W. 1.

Around the late 1920s, when she met Lionel Britton, she lived at 20 Ducane Close, London W. 12, when she was involved in administrative work on a voluntary basis for Left Theatre. She later lived at an appartment at 4 Essex Court, Middle Temple, E. C. 4. More bizarrely, she is said to have been the keeper of the keys to Churchill's most secret files during World War II , and to have been given the appartment in recognition of her services. This, however, contradicts statements in Dr Josephine Butler's autobiographical Churchill's Secret Agent (Ashbury: Blaketon–Hall, 1983; repr. as Cyanide in My Shoe (Cheltenham: This England, 1991)), which claims that Butler was the only female member of Churchill's 'Secret Circle'. But, as Robert Hughes notes in a post here, her death certificate reveals that for some reason she went under another name: Violet Victoria Jeanette Acheson.

Lionel Britton and Surrealism

Below is a photo from Roger Horrocks's Len Lye: A Biography (Auckland: University of Auckland, 2001). The occasion was the private showing of Eisenstein's banned film Battleship Potemkin at the Film Guild of London (where Britton was Chair). Eisenstein himself was present, wearing a policeman's helmet in the photo, which Lionel Britton rests a hand on, his other holding a phone. Also of interest is the presence of the former Dadaist Hans Richter, and Mark Segal pretending to play warming pan. But the importance of the shot to this blog is the younger woman in the photo, because it is more than probable that it is rare sighting of Ach:

(Many thanks to Roger Horrocks for permisssion to use the photo, and to Rone Waugh for providing me with some of the information here.)