The Bartender and the Lost Literary Masterpiece

The Bartender and the Lost Literary Masterpiece

In 2021, Jack Chadwick, a twenty-seven-year-old barman and part-time go-go dancer, was browsing the shelves of the Working Class Movement Library, outside Manchester, when he spied an arresting book cover. The hand-drawn illustration showed a skeleton kneeling in supplication, its arms outstretched. Chadwick knew of neither the book, “Caliban Shrieks,” nor its writer, Jack Hilton. But he became absorbed in the text. At closing time, after several hours of concentrated reading, he closed the book and asked the librarian what she could tell him about the author. Very little, she said—only that, after a brief literary career, Hilton had disappeared.

A Google search provided Chadwick with fragments of backstory. Hilton was born at the turn of the twentieth century in Oldham, just outside Manchester, into fatal poverty. Seven of his siblings died before the age of two; only three others survived to adulthood. At twelve, he began working in a local cotton mill. Then, having lied about his age, he enlisted and fought in the ravening trenches of northern France. Hilton survived the war, returned to England, and, after a period of homelessness, joined a workers’-rights movement in Rochdale. His rallying speeches soon landed him in prison. When a court order banned him from further agitating, he took to writing.

Hilton, who was then working as a plasterer, had neither literary training nor ambition. “I couldn’t spell three-syllable words,” he later claimed. “Sentences didn’t make sense. Order I did not know.” But his tutor at the Workers’ Educational Association perceived a fierce talent, and sent a sample of his work to a publisher. The editor asked for more. The manuscript that followed was a kind of proto-autofiction. It described a childhood spent working in a factory, the miseries of war and prison, and the rigors of vagrancy, blending memoir, poetry, and polemic into a loose narrative. Hilton’s own assessment was balder: “a vomit of the contents of the guts by a man who had been trod on by society.”

Published in March, 1935, “Caliban Shrieks” soon found acclaim. George Orwell described it as “witty and unusual.” The poet W. H. Auden, a notoriously curmudgeonly critic, praised Hilton’s “magnificent ‘Moby-Dick’ rhetoric.” A singular book in both tone and structure, it was also a work from a marginalized author at a period when English literature was dominated by the beneficiaries of class privilege. “Books like this, which come from genuine workers and present a genuinely working-class outlook, are exceedingly rare and correspondingly important,” Orwell, who was an Old Etonian, wrote. “Caliban Shrieks,” he continued, gave voice to “a normally silent multitude.”

Hilton’s prose carries the twin forces of indignation and adverse experience. Only the well-fed writer, he writes in the novel, has the capacity to summon “nice abstract words” about nature. “You know how,” he imitates, mockingly: “ ‘Sky of silken blue, stuccoed with the golden riplets of sunny tints, above hills of green brown majesty’ . . . Oh, the muck of the metaphor!”

Indulged writers, in Hilton’s view, produce flimsy prose. There is no substitute for the instructive abrasions of experience:

Try it, you stiff collared puritans. Get some idea of what men are,
outside your little mousetrap circle. Be a human among god’s chosen,
get contaminated, try your skilled springy rapiers against their
bludgeons; then you will see it is only the benevolence of a caste
that permits you to remain like a marionette with trimmed nails and
lemon-coloured gloves.

Still, the fickle tide of literary success carried Hilton toward the “mousetrap circle.” He won a scholarship to Oxford. His book, however, received only a single print run, and its publisher, Cobden-Sanderson, did not survive the Second World War. “Caliban Shrieks” was lost amid the mounting catalogue of titles passed between publishers in a sequence of acquisitions. Hilton had always felt like a “slummy” outsider to the cloistered “lit world.” Soon, he was once again enveloped by obscurity.

Eight decades later, when Chadwick, who hails from a working-class family, read “Caliban Shrieks,” its spiky prose felt both resonant and relevant. He decided to investigate the prospect of republication. A writer friend introduced him to John Merrick, an editor for Verso books who was also interested in Hilton. Merrick advised Chadwick to transcribe the text, so Chadwick returned to the library with a laptop. It was slow work and, with an hour-long bus journey back home, inconvenient. “I was supervising a techno club at the time, staying awake pretty much all weekend, sometimes working the doors then performing my go-go act onstage the same night,” he recalled. “Then, during the week I was doing graphic design for a trade union. ​​I was just really knackered.” Chadwick persuaded the librarian to scan the book for him. After a positive test for COVID-19 kept him home from work, he finished the transcription within a fortnight.

A copy of “Caliban Shrieks,” by Jack Hilton.

Next, Chadwick needed to locate the book’s rights holder. Hilton, he knew, had been married twice, but had died childless in 1983. It wasn’t clear to whom, if anyone, Hilton had left his literary estate. Chadwick signed up for a genealogy service and began to search for a will. He was not the only person to have investigated Hilton’s life and legacy. In 2013, while conducting research for a Ph.D. on working-class writing in the twentieth century, a man named Jack Windle visited a woman in Pewsey, Wiltshire, who claimed that she had delivered meals to Hilton when he lived in the village. “Her cottage was full of stuffed animals and her artwork,” Windle recalled. “And she told me that she had found Jack dead.” But the story would turn out to be unreliable (the woman was later diagnosed with dementia).

Chadwick continued his search, eventually widening his criteria. “Because I’ve been a Jack myself, I know that Jack is often a shorthand version of another name,” he told me. Finally, a search for “George” yielded a death certificate for a man with the same birth year as Hilton. It also listed an address not in Wiltshire but in Oldham, Hilton’s home town.

On a gray Sunday morning, Chadwick took the train to Oldham and began a pub crawl. In each bar near Hilton’s home, he hung posters with his phone number and the headline “Do you remember Jack Hilton?” The posters featured the only photograph Chadwick could find of Hilton, an image published in a Middlesex University journal, from 1985, to mark the writer’s death.

In the Sportsman’s Arms, the pub closest to Hilton’s home, Chadwick was explaining his quest to the landlord when an elderly lady approached from behind. “I think she had been eavesdropping,” Chadwick said. The woman said that she remembered Hilton, and that he often drank at the pub with a friend. “She looked around as if she was searching for them,” Chadwick said. “Then, from memory, she recalled the friend’s name: Brian Hassall.”

Chadwick is rangy and soft-spoken, a gently anarchic young man. (He told me that he was “handy with a lock.”) Before graduating from Cambridge with a master’s in Economic and Political Sociology, he worked on the thirty-third floor of the British Chambers of Commerce in Chengdu, China, at a desk beneath long portraits of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. This trajectory might have carried him, like many élite graduates before him, into a life of international diplomacy. But Chadwick was eager to travel on his own terms, and returned to Manchester, where he began working in bars and clubs. His go-go name is Miss Chadwick (so named by friends, who rejected his first alter ego, “Ann Wat”).

On a wet October day, we met at the Sportsman’s Arms. The space was roomy and almost empty, a thick carpet absorbing some of the music from a jukebox. As he rolled a cigarette, Chadwick told me that he had found Hassall’s address in the Whitepages, then knocked on his door, posting a note through the letterbox when no one answered. After a month of waiting, he had “given up on the thought of hearing anything.” Then, in the late summer, he received a reply from Hassall’s wife, Mary. She explained that her husband had recently died, and that she had been in the process of moving when Chadwick’s letter arrived. Mary agreed to meet and, over custard pies, Chadwick explained his mission.

“He was very interested, very genuine, a sincere gentleman,” Mary told me. She remembered Hilton both well and fondly. “My husband was very close to Jack, and Jack used to treat him like a son,” she said. Hilton had spent much of his time at the Hassalls’ home, meeting with Hassall twice a week to go drinking, either at the Sportsman’s Arms or another pub named Help the Poor Struggler. That bar was owned by Albert Pierrepoint, one of Britain’s last hangmen, who served pints there when he wasn’t executing convicts in the prison where Hilton had once been held.

Mary said that Hilton had left much of his estate to her husband, including his parakeet. (She replaced the bird’s cage, which was sooty from Hilton’s cigarette habit, but after a month it died. “I don’t think it went with the cage I bought,” she said.) She did not, however, know anything about the book. “I thought he wrote for magazines,” she told me. It turned out that, as Hassall’s widow, she now owned the rights. Several weeks later, after visiting the library to see the book herself, she signed them over to Chadwick, on the condition he do everything he could to have “Caliban Shrieks” republished.

Not long after, Chadwick wrote a piece for a local newspaper about his discoveries. The story earned him an invitation to speak on BBC Radio 4, a slot usually reserved for famous authors with imminent books. Nick Skidmore, the publishing director of Vintage Classics, the prestigious imprint whose roster has included Alice Munro, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, and Toni Morrison, was at home in Bristol when he heard the broadcast on his kitchen radio.

Skidmore had taken six months’ paternity leave to look after his son. “I had said to myself that I’m not going to engage with the world of publishing in any kind of way,” he told me. But he found Chadwick’s energy and enthusiasm irresistible. He waited for the inevitable revelation that Hilton’s lost classic was due to be republished. None came.

That day, Skidmore sent Chadwick a direct message on Twitter. The pair talked over the phone and, after Skidmore returned to work, he pitched the book to his colleagues. “It’s totally alive and incredibly honest—an untamed voice,” he told me. He was especially entranced by the book’s subversion of the “romantic” and “Wordsworthian” portrayal of England. “I fell in love when I reached the section on vagrancy,” he said. “There’s this sense that England has gone awry and its industrial complex is taking something away from our humanity. I thought that was incredibly beautiful, and unique.” A deal swiftly followed, for which Chadwick received a modest advance as remuneration for his work. After almost ninety years, “Caliban Shrieks” will be republished in early March.

It is a meaningful rediscovery. Hilton’s disappearance, Skidmore told me, has caused “a massive void in our understanding of British literature.” He believes that “Caliban Shrieks” was a clear influence on much of the political travel-writing that followed. (When Orwell was later commissioned to write “The Road to Wigan Pier,” a travelogue of the industrial north, he asked Hilton whether he might visit him in Rochdale.) Vintage is open to publishing other works by Hilton; for Skidmore, their loss reveals the social forces that have shaped the canon. “It throws a spotlight on the way in which we only are familiar with a certain type of canon, and beyond that there’s a whole world—many worlds, in fact—of alternative canons.”

Chadwick, for his part, is currently living in Colombia, and hopes to return to England for the book’s launch party. “I’ve been speaking to former paramilitary in Medellín,” he told me recently. “One of them has written a book. It’s unpublished. But it’s fucking fantastic.” ♦

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