December 2008


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.

dan-billany

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.

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I watched Jindabyne recently, an Australian film with Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne; the main plot revolves around issues of guilt (both social and individual) and remorse, and how they can impact upon networks of relationships, but there was a complex spider-web of allusion and metaphor spun up around this, centring in the main on water and drowning. This is exemplified by the town of the film’s title, situated in the Snowy Mountains, NSW, which was established initially when European settlers displaced the Indigenous populations from the 1820s onwards. In the 1960s, the Snowy River was dammed and the valley in which Jindabyne sat was flooded, and so the inhabitants were moved up to higher ground, and the new town sits at the southern lip of the lake. In the film, two children tell stories and scare each other at the lakeside, with tales of the drowned settlement, imagining the houses and inhabitants suspended in watery gloom, neither dead nor alive, existing beneath the lake’s mirrored surface.

Not too far beyond the city’s edge near to where I grew up, there is a huge expanse of water, alongside and over which the main road west snakes across the Pennines. The valley here too was flooded, seen here in maps before and after. The reservoir was planned and initiated in 1935; it took eight years to build, and two more to fill. Before the waters came two villages sat in the valley floor, Ashopton and Derwent. The former witnessed the future viaduct being built over its head as life continued during the reservoir’s construction; the village’s chapel was demolished prior to the flooding, but not before its community was able to reflect, in the final hymn of the final service, on the inconstancy of the earthly. In contrast, at Derwent, the church was initially left standing, its spire piercing the waterline providing an astonishing image for those who passed by in times of low water¹.

ladybower_reservoir_derwent_church_spire

When I was young, every time we drove past the reservoir my parents would point out to the expanse of water and tell myself and my sister of the long-drowned villages and how the remains of the houses and the streets lay silent and submerged. As a child I was absolutely entranced by the stories, and the images that they created in my mind. In that sense, I was just like the two fascinated Australian children staring into the gloom of Lake Jindabyne telling each other frightening tales of the lost and the drowned, the empty houses and the sunken lives. I am not alone in having been enraptured by this image: many of the numerous contributors to this message board about Ladybower show the same childhood obsession with stories of the submerged villages, and people still now hope to see fragments of the once-drowned at times of low tide.

For years I forgot about the stories of the lost villages at Ladybower, and the pleasing sense of nameless fear and wonder that they had conjured in the imagination. Then, trying to write something through a voice situated inside academic archaeology, I was attempting to find some kind of overarching metaphor for the position of those who study the past using whatever fragmentary material remains time and chance have allowed them, and my mind toyed with a picture of drowned cities, their towers and steeples forlornly trying to reach out from the black waters that otherwise had overwhelmed them. Some images seem better suited to metaphor than to reality, perhaps. I thought also of the story found in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, relating that in the time of Seth two huge pillars, one of brick and one of stone, were built and inscribed with all knowledge, so that if the earth suffered disaster of fire or flood, the world’s repository of learning would survive even if there was no-one left to read it². The water rises up as time flows on, and we float on the rafts of the present as pondskaters do, held fast into the moment’s meniscus. Whatever is left to make sense of the past’s drowned lives, its cities, villages, and people, is whatever has chanced to survive the constant deluge and pierced the water’s surface for us to survey. When I was writing the article in question, I initially thought I had found a rather apt metaphor, and (as usual) flattered myself at its efficacy; only later did I, vain idiot, realise this was an image from my own past, one that had its root in my father’s stories. In my mind, it had become detached from the specifics of place, and become loosed into the everyspace of metaphor. Sometimes it’s good to have a metaphor come home.

Yet that still leaves a questions: why was this image of the drowned villages, buildings partially sunk beneath the waterline, so very compelling? The final line of a short essay by Borges entitled ‘The Fearful Sphere of Pascal‘ reads:

“It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors”

In the essay, Borges traces one particular metaphor concerning endlessness and divinity: the image of deity as an infinite sphere. He follows this from the Presocratics, through to its appearance in those writings ascribed to Trismegistus, on to its most familiar and well-rounded formulation in Alain of Lille (Deus est spera infinitia, cuius centrum est ubique, circumferencia nusquam), and beyond to the work of Bruno, and finally Pascal³. The nature of metaphors — their imaginative fecundity and propensity to overlap and perforate — means that they are creative and generative in memory and image. There’s something in Benjamin to effect that allegories are in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things. The drowned villages of Ladybower aren’t ruins in the Romantic sense, but the profound (and probably also deeply Freudian) image of the lost and sunken lives still protruding into the present in a ruinated state carries tremendous metaphorical power. One day, those houses and churches will be ours.

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¹ This situation did not last long. Apparently there were fears for public safety: individuals were minded to attempt to swim out into the deep water in order to touch the spire, and so, only two years after the flooding of the valley, the steeple was dynamited.

² Jewish Antiquities 1.69-71. There is something comparable in the SHA, Thirty Tyrants 22, where a golden column was reported to stand in Memphis and etched upon it were prophecies of the future rather than the memories of the past.

³ Borges also relates that, with the image of the infinite sphere weighing down on Pascal, he “compared our life with that of castaways on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world, he experienced vertigo, fright and solitude…”