Boy by James Hanley

Boy(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This book charts the short and brutish life of a boy forced out of school and into the unforgiving world of work. Escape—in the form of stowing away on a ship—only deepens his exposure to the squalor and brutality that men are capable of, and when he arrives in Alexandria he learns there are some things that one can’t run away from.

In Boy (1931) young Fearon’s isolation and suffering arise because no one cares for him. The story of Boy is “sordid and horrible”. The young protagonist’s parents are only interested in the wages he can earn, and encourage him to leave school as soon as possible. It starts off with him getting the cane and the teacher telling him that he’s worthless, not worth bothering with. And that’s the message he gets throughout his short, tragic life. His parents claim that ‘We know what’s best for our children.’ But they don’t. And his first job involves, literally, shovelling shit.

Likewise society is unconcerned about the harsh, unhealthy conditions he endures cleaning ships’ boilers. Then, when he goes to sea, he is sexually abused by his fellow seamen. Finally, when young Fearon is dying in agony from a venereal disease caught in a Cairo brothel, his Captain smothers him.

When I was a choirboy in a seaside town, we often heard about the Missions to seamen (whose title always got us smirking – they have changed their name of ‘Mission to Seafarers’ now.)  I now realise why their work is needed – providing somewhere to relax, writing letters for the illiterate and being a home from home miles away.

Narrated in unflinching language that is both visceral and acute in its observational power, Boy is a shocking book that stays in the mind long after it is read. Unfairly neglected during his lifetime, only recently has this original, uncompromising novelist started to be reappraised as among the finest novelists writing in English in the 20th century

The author (1897 –1985) was a British novelist, short story writer, and playwright of Irish descent. He wrote a number of novels and short stories about seamen and their families. This included Boy (1931), which was the subject of a notorious obscenity trail. Novelist Sir Hugh Walpole condemned the work and ripped up a copy in a bookshop in protest. 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. He explained: One of the causes of neglect in his lifetime was a kind of double solitariness: he belonged to no literary school, and he cherished the self-elected condition of a recluse. He also tells how: The main voice of middle-class condemnation was that of Sir Hugh Walpole, a once respected popular novelist, knighted for services to what the middle class thought of as literature but now nearly forgotten: “It is so unpleasant and ugly, both in narration and incident, that I wonder the printers did not go on strike while printing it.” Walpole was said to have torn up a copy publicly in a London bookshop. Boy became a cause celebre in the fight against Britain’s Sedition Act, with E.M. Forster addressing the International Congress of Writers in Paris in 1935 in eloquent endorsement of the book and fierce denunciation of official squeamishness.

Boy 5Boy was reprinted in 1931, and 1932, when an American first edition was also published. Then, when it was reprinted in 1934, in a cheap (second) edition with a “scantily dressed” belly dancer on its cover, Boy was prosecuted for obscenity. The court case followed a complaint to the police in Bury, near Manchester. The prosecution suggested that the cover of the book and extracts from reviews just inside were most suggestive, and that the purpose was to pollute young people’s minds”. Boriswood “were advised that, owing to the book’s reference to ‘intimacy between members of the male sex’, any defence against prosecution was futile'”. In March 1935 Boriswood pleaded guilty of “uttering and publishing an obscene libel” and paid a substantial fine. But it’s fairly tame, merely using phrases like ‘interfering with…’

It is not surprising that Hanley should show an interest in extreme situations, given his early awareness of the precariousness of life in the working class world that he came from. Hanley would also have sensed, very early in his life, that individual lives of the working poor and their children was of little value in a modern industrial city like Liverpool. All this encouraged his exploration not only of working class life but also the emotional life of characters on the periphery of society.

Boy 4Some readers have assumed that the horrors Boy depicts were experienced first-hand by the author, although there is no evidence for this; indeed, Hanley’s son Liam remembers his father laughing at such suggestions and dismissing them as “silly.” But the book is not without autobiographical elements: Hanley did embark on his first sea voyage when he was the same age as Fearon, although that ship was bound for the United States rather than the Middle East, and unlike the principal character of Boy Hanley actively wanted to leave school early and looked forward to taking up shipboard work. Some of the events of Fearon’s journey, such as the details of his day-to-day duties and the death of a sailor after a few days, resonate closely with the account Hanley gives of his own maiden trip in his autobiography, Broken Water (1937). Furthermore, in the essay ‘Oddfish’ (published in Don Quixote Drowned, 1953), Hanley recalls that the novel’s ending was inspired by a conversation between a group of sailors that he overheard and was horrified by, some years later in his shipboard career:

“Captain L. Surely you have heard of Captain L?”
“Even if I didn’t, what about him?”
“Say he did away with one of his crew.”


“Smothered him, they say. Mercy killing, like cancer, you know.”
“Boy with cancer?”
“Not exactly, but something he didn’t like.”
“What then?”
“Logged as drowned. However, sailors sometimes talk.”
“They often do.”
“Quite seriously, though, this kid ran amok in the wrong places.”
“Was L. drunk?”
“They say he dropped off in Karachi, not been seen since.”

Boy 3Quotations:

“The Government’s going to pass a bill regarding schools. Well I never. Interfering gang they are, as if a parent doesn’t know what’s best for her own child. I don’t know, I don’t know! We won’t be able to call our children our own just now.”

The mortality amongst these scavengers of civilization was never inquired in any of the companies concerned, though sometimes a boy was to death or suffocated in a boiler, or drowned in the foul water bottom of the ship. In such cases a collection was made for the parents.

But the ship was merely a hulk and nothing more, a kind of weapon with which an order can squeeze the guts out of labour and extract from it just sufficient to keep the average shareholder from getting really low-spirited …The crew had worked like Trojans. And below the engineer had goaded on his men, driven them, jeered at them. Something had to be done. The sea could not act thus without serious reactions. And as one could not chastise her, then the men must be chastised. The men must be made to work harder. The firemen must extract every ounce of energy from her coal, that was not much better than dirt itself. Not a man must wear a look of contentment. Everybody must suffer for the caprices of the sea.

I say now, and for the last time, I can’t see the significance in a man shooting another man in cold blood and then calmly going to mass immediately afterwards. And all their cock shots at England leave me cold. I’m not a bit interested. Of course you’ll up and say, ‘Ah! But when you’ve learned your history properly you’ll realise they were in the right.’ It’s quite illogical. I call that stuff third-rate gangsterdom, and you can go on deifying it until you’re blue in the face. In Ireland the grass grows greener than in any other country in the wide world. That’s a lovely thing to think about, isn’t it? Well, then, isn’t it a big step down from that to putting a bullet in a man’s lug and shouting, ‘Ireland’s saved!’? I don’t agree with you there, and never will. Mother doesn’t either, and she knows the colours of all the stones in Cobh, and even the size of the mackerel they catch there, but she loves the stones and the fish and the green grass and the great quiet you get there, and that’s Irish too. No. I wouldn’t speak to my cousin because we never get anywhere at all. And he can shout and rave till he’s sick, but it won’t shift those two destroyers out of Bere Island, and that is that …

“like a dark tapestry it covered his wounded thought, the spoliation, the degradation, the loneliness, the misery of his existence.”

Boy 2 Suddenly an idea occurred to Fearon. He had one day heard the bosun say that when in Salonica, he had attended a cancan dance, where the girl for a wager had placed a lit cigarette in her philosophic centre. Fearon smiled. He pushed himself away and said to the girl: “You put cigarette there, eh?”

Immediately the girl understood. She watched him light a cigarette. When he handed it to her she placed it where he most desired to see it and again began to dance in the centre of the room. The boy became full and choking with a desire to bury himself in that flesh, to hide away from all that had angered and worried him, all that had humiliated him. There he could hide away from the world of men for ever. He felt in his pockets. Pulled out some coins, almost ran to the girl, grabbed her shoulders, said: “How much? How much? You… me?”

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