James Hanley and 'Boy'
Hanley was only a name to me before. His book is a fine one. It was banned in its time, the publishers successfully prosecuted following a complaint by a Lancashire couple after the wife objected to the blurb. Boy is not a salacious read - some queer advances on the kid by fumbling seamen are duly repelled, and the thirteen year-old experiences two prostitutes in Alexandria, vivid but not lurid. It's a tale of a brutal life but not exploitative - the kid, largely known by his last name of Fearon, is brilliant at school and longs to become a chemist but poverty see him hauled away for a horrific job at the docks, from which he runs away to sea. A sensitive loner among men whom he largely despises, he's clearly doomed yet always striving.
The energy of doomed survival is what really powers the book, and the detail. Hanley was born into an Irish immigrant family in Liverpool in 1897, and this spin of a young reclusive life out of poverty and onto the sea was part of his own life story. It's a strata of life that seldom appears so convincingly in novels.
I'm happy not only to come to know the book, but also Hanley's life - in his own seagoing terms, here was a writer strapped to the decks through storms, writing to the end. I particularly liked this passage from Burgess's introduction - useful for me as I transition into my role as a creative writing lecturer within an English department.
'A practising novelist has, regretfully, to disown scholarship,' Burgess wrote. 'He can bring to a great dead practitioner of his own trade only the tribute of profound homage and the fellow feeling of the fellow sufferer. For writing fiction is mostly suffering, though, with luck and obduracy the suffering can be transmuted into a kind of muted joy. The novelist does not expect financial reward as a right, though he can be forgiven for resentment at seeing them go to the tawdry and meretricious. Hanley earned little from the art he doggedly practised, but he survived into old age with the satisfaction of knowing that what he had done he had done well. Unlike some of us, desperate at the piled-up bills and the prospect of the knock of eviction, he never compromised. He tried to deliver aesthetic joys but never set out to give easy pleasure.'