I wanted, very briefly, to write something about Dan Billany. My dashboard tells me that someone arrived at this blog via a Google search for his name; currently, he (and The Trap) are sitting in the sidebar, at the foot of my ‘Currently Reading and Recently Read’ widget. He has a good website dedicated to him, with detailed information about his life and work, and there is sufficient extra material available on the internet mentioning him more obliquely, so I hope that the Google searcher found what they were looking for.
On any level, Billany’s was a remarkable life. A working class boy from the north of England at a time when that had serious social implications beyond the realms of cliché, he spent time during the 1930s unemployed and during this period a serious commitment to socialism began to manifest itself. Eventually, he trained to be a teacher and began to write fiction, but these embryonic careers were postponed by the outbreak of war. He fought in Africa and was captured by the Germans, eventually ending up interred in a prison camp in Italy. During his captivity he wrote two novels, The Trap and The Cage (the latter in collaboration with a fellow prisoner), and tried (apparently) to come to terms with his homosexuality. On the Italian withdrawal from the war the camp gates were opened, and Billany left and attempted to strike out for unoccupied territory. He handed the manuscripts of his two novels to an Italian farmer with instructions to mail them back to his family, and then he walked on, and out of history. His is a story without an ending, and his fate and his grave are both unknown.
I read The Trap recently, and it is an unusually good novel; judged as it stands, isolated from its backstory and context, it’s an astonishingly rich and detailed social document and a furiously angry novel about war. If one then considers the circumstances of its production, and the life its author had led up to that point (not to mention the poignancy of what was yet to happen), then it has to be one of the most remarkable narratives the war produced.
Because of the nature of the story, which follows a young lieutenant named Michael Carr from his life training in the infantry to the African theatre of war to eventual capture and incarceration (and thus we must assume a strong element of autobiography in the narrative), The Trap is partially a love-story, partially a political novel, and partially a book about war. What interested me most, though, was a pervasive sense that this was a book about working class identity, created in a most dire situation, that is being driven by the need to understand what that identity might mean when the existence of a working class literature was inchoate to say the least. I think what I find compelling, even more than this, is the image of narratives that explore the meaning of a working class and marginalised identity being produced in circumstances that either do not usually encourage such speculations, or elsewise actively inhibit them: there is a sense in The Trap that whilst war and captivity might be viewed as corrosively dehumanising, to think that the entirety of working class experience is any different risks self-delusion. Billany’s novel put me in mind of two other writers who both tried to do something similar in their own way: Patrick MacGill and Patrick McGeown.
MacGill was known as ‘the navvy poet’, born in rural Ireland 118 years ago tomorrow, who tramped around the Scottish countryside doing temporary manual labour here and there, was an autodidact, wrote and self-published poetry, and embarked upon a fairly astonishing career in fiction and journalism. I came to MacGill and his autobiographical first novel Children of the Dead End through McGeown, and I came to McGeown through a wonderful first-person piece that The New Statesman republished from its archive a couple of years ago. The book McGeown writes about having just finished did indeed get published, finding its way into print as Heat the Furnace Seven Times More, a fantastically apposite quotation from Daniel 3: 19, as the furious Nebuchadnezzar demands the stokers turn up the heat on Shadrach and pals. McGeown’s book is as remarkable as he makes it sound in his Statesman article; it stands not just as a reflection on the craft of making metal on an industrial scale in mid-twentieth century Britain, but it also speaks of how work shapes and creates a sense of working class identity, written in retirement by a man who had spent an entire life at the furnace edge.
The circumstances in which all three of these men produced their literature are wildly different, as are the books that they wrote, but to my eyes (northern eyes, eyes that saw a father and grandfather who made metal) they are held together by their narrative’s desire to try to articulate what it means to need to write, and to write about one’s own identity, when that very identity seems to discourage such speculative self-reflection. The very act of writing itself is a commentary on the nature of working class culture and identity, even before a single word has been written.