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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 31 May 2007

James Hanley gave son Liam ambivalent directions about republishing his masterpiece, Boy, which he regarded as ‘shapeless and crude’
Loyal son brings Boy back to life

James Hanley’s novel was heralded as a classic, banned as obscene and finally republished after his death, writes Dan Carrier

LIAM Hanley had a dilemma for a legacy when his writer father James died in 1985 – he was left with a novel that had been banned as obscene and an instruction that it must never be published again.
The fact that Boy is now on bookshop shelves tells us how Liam, of Parliament Hill, handled that dilemma. He posthumously defied his father’s wish in order to safeguard for posterity a book that was championed by such literary greats as EM Forster and William Faulkner.
Boy is now not just a novel about the terrible effects of the industrial age on child labour. It carries with it the story of how a novel was dragged through the courts for offending the sensibility of the establishment in the 1930s, and how that ordeal affected its author.
Author James Hanley, who lived in Lissenden Gardens in Parliament Hill up to his death in 1985, wrote the harrowing account of the life and death of Arthur Fearon, a 13-year-old growing up in Liverpool in the first decade of the 20th century.
Taken out of school and sent to the docks to earn a living, his grim working life and constant bullying from his father at home prompt him to stow away on a ship bound for Alexandria. He narrowly survives being crushed by a pile of coal, but when he is discovered he has to face, on more than one occasion, serious sexual assaults from sailors. In Alexandria, he loses his virginity to a prostitute, catches syphilis and is finally the victim of a mercy killing by the ship’s captain as he writhes in agony.
Hanley lived in Liverpool for much of his formative years, and also worked on ships, but although he drew heavily on his own experiences, friends and family say it is not autobiographical and the terrible fate that awaits the main character was inspired by a story he heard.
Hanley’s parents were both from Dublin, while Hanley grew up in Liverpool. His father, Edward, worked as a ships fireman. But, unlike the father in Boy, Edward did not want his sons to automatically earn a wage in a job connected to the sea.
Hanley worked for four years in an accountant’s office, before heading to sea. Only after being demobbed at the end of the First World War did he decide to chase his long-held dream of becoming a writer.
He had little luck through the 1920s until his first book, Drift, was published: he was paid a flat fee of £5 for it. He sold his book collection and bought a ticket to London in time for the book’s release date in March 1930.
Then Hanley met Charles Lahr, the proprietor of the Progressive Bookshop in Holborn, which acted as a club for writers. Hanley and Lahr became friends, with Lahr taking him to his Muswell Hill home, where he wrote a first draft of Boy.
But London was expensive and noisy, so Hanley found a cheap cottage in Wales where he settled down to. write. There he met C J Greenwood, who had recently established a small publishing company, Boriswood, and who agreed to print a run of Boy.
The first edition offered a glimpse of the problems to come. Boriswood published it in its complete form but with a cheaper version whose supposedly salacious passages were covered with asterisks. But the books didn’t sell well and Hanley fell out with Boriswood and moved to Chatto and Windus – a move that inadvertently led to the libel trial.
Boriswood reprinted Boy to help recover some of their losses and he used a ‘lurid’ cover. It worked, and the started to sell.
An outraged reader reported it to the police in November 1934 and Boriswood directors were charged with aiding and abetting an obscene publication. By the time it came to court, the charges had been upgraded to obscene libel, for which the publishers directors faced jail. They pleaded guilty and paid a fine, but it hit Hanley hard, because his masterpiece would now be suppressed for a further 50 years.
Novelist Sir Hugh Walpole condemned the work and ripped up a copy in a bookshop in protest.
Others went further – 100 copies were burnt publicly. But the book became a cause célèbre for other writers who recognised his talent. E M Forster, William Faulkner and, more recently, Anthony Burgess rallied to support it.
James Hanley’s son Liam, now in his 70s and living near his father’s home in Parliament Hill, said the history of the book had been painful. His father became a recluse after the case, refusing requests for interviews, saying that it was because he wanted his books to make their own way in the world, but Liam believes he wanted to avoid the inevitable questions about Boy. He also felt he had done himself a disservice.
“It took me 10 days,” James would later write. “Now I realise it should have taken me much longer that that. So shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings.”
James asked his son to make sure Boy was never reprinted, but this instruction was occasionally contradicted. Liam said: “It was a difficult situation after his death. I was going against his wishes but he was ambivalent. He said I could do what I liked.
“The reasons for republishing it were if anything happened to me and it was left to my family, it would be hard for them to reprint it as they were not privy to my conversations with my father, and it would be lost for ever.
“I had lots of approaches after his death, even after a couple of weeks. There was pressure from the publishers. I thought: let’s end the mystery and then people may read it, and then go onto his other works.”
And Liam’s assessment of his father as an author?
“For me, his strength lay in the fact that he was never cruel with his characters, never distanced, never clever. He gave working men and their wives and children a voice – their voice.”

* Boy, by James Hanley is published as a One World Classics paperback, £7.99

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Your Comments:
It is very good news that Liam Hanley has arranged the publication
of a new edition of his father James Hanley's "Boy". Your review does raise
the question, however, of who approved the 1990 re-publication by Andre
Deutsch with Anthony Burgess's now very well known introduction and its
subsequent reprinting by Penguin in paperback in 1992. It is important for
people interested in such things to know that Boriswood Ltd, a very small
and adventurous press, first published a fine limited edition of "Boy" and a
second edition in 1931 (reprinted in 1932), before the infamous "First cheap
edition" in 1934 with its wonderful exotic cover illustration by Boswell
featuring a bare-breasted belly dancer which even then must have been
considered pretty mild.
Christopher Johnstone
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