5 February 2008

So What Did Lionel Britton Write About?

There are a number of posts about Lionel Britton here – although this blog is by no means exclusively about him and his family: its chief interest is in obscurity – but there's almost nothing on what Britton wrote about. In the near future I shall be posting some of my favourite quotations, but in the meantime I give a brief idea below of what to expect from a Britton book.

Bertrand Russell certainly wrote one or two Introductions to books in his time, but I'm sure Hunger and Love was the only working-class novel which he praised so highly. Russell begins this five-page Introduction to the novel with:

'Mr. Britton's 'Hunger and Love' is a very remarkable piece of work. His hero, Arthur Phelps, who is first a boy and then a young man, possesses a first-rate mind, but nothing else. Every conceivable obstacle is put in the way of his acquiring knowledge; as a bookseller's assistant, he is tempted to read the books in his employer's stock, but when caught doing so, is dismissed with ignominy. He has that difficulty about acquiescing in preventable evil that characterises the best minds, and therefore does not achieve quick success, as a person of a slightly lower order of ability would do. The book relates not only his personal adventures, but the growth of his philosophy and his social outlook. It is filled with a splendid rage against the humbug, the cruelty, and the moral degradation of the possessing classes.'

The final sentence of Russell's Introduction reads: 'Mr. Britton has portrayed his world with passion, with vividness, with a wealth of illustrative detail, and with a considerable power of generalising thought. For these reasons, I am convinced that his book deserves to be widely read.' There could have been far worse recommendations for a first novel.

Britton's two science fiction plays, Brain (1930) and Spacetime Inn (1932), also had their supporters.

Bernard Shaw, among others, commended Britton's first play Brain, which is mainly set in the far future. An artificial brain has been constructed in the Sahara Desert, and it rapidly increases in size as it absorbs all the knowledge on earth. Brain’s main goal is to sever the link with the human in order to dictate things for the good of all humankind without the intervention of human faults. In the end the world is destroyed because human conflict could not be eradicated.

Britton's second play, Spacetime Inn, is also worthy of note. Here, two working-class lottery winners – brutalised by ignorance and a complacent middle class – are stranded in a pub with the Queen of Sheba, Bernard Shaw, Queen Victoria, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Karl Marx, and Eve without Adam. The warmongers want them to join in their war games, and the intellectuals want to play mind games with them. After a misunderstanding, the two working-class characters blow everyone up: Britton's central thesis was that a better world can only be achieved with co-operation rather than competition. J. S. Clarke, MP for Maryhill, Glasgow, had the play put on before his fellow MPs in a committee room in the House of Commons 'on the ground that discussion of the play was important for M.P.'s in their conduct of the nation's business'.

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