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Review of Jack Hilton's "Caliban Shrieks" - Uncovering the Neglected Northern Voice.

Review of Jack Hilton’s “Caliban Shrieks” – Uncovering the Neglected Northern Voice.


In 1977, John Cheever expressed that the question one should ask about a book is not whether it is a novel, but whether it is interesting. While Caliban Shrieks, originally published in 1935 and recently reissued by Vintage Classics, may not fit the traditional definition of a novel, it is certainly a captivating read. Mixing elements of autobiography, political commentary, and passionate complaints, Jack Hilton’s work has been praised as a forgotten gem by the New Yorker.

Channelling Shakespeare’s character Caliban from “The Tempest,” Hilton’s narrator expresses frustration with the working and non-working conditions in England during the early 20th century. The narrator uses literary language to convey their anger and refers to the situation as a tragic farce.

The initial section of the book, composed of brief chapters, provides a vivid portrayal of adolescence, from days in school to part-time employment to serving in the military, where one’s life expectancy is dependent on avoiding getting shot. Hilton aptly captures the devastation inflicted on British society by World War I. His belief in the ability of politics to solve issues was already depleted: “I had that powerful thing, the vote,” he sarcastically writes, “that amazing, all-powerful force through which the working class governs the country.” He then delves into his time as a vagabond, having no aspirations or goals, simply drifting aimlessly. He also recounts his experiences in the “vagrancy ward”, where destitute people are forced to break rocks in exchange for shelter.

The subject has a similar feel to Orwell’s writing, but it lacks Orwell’s straightforward and clear language. Hilton’s writing style is known for its avoidance of direct statements, and although there are moments of Nabokov-like brilliance, there are also passages filled with overly elaborate and unnecessary language (such as “This was my first encounter with the disgrace of war on my mind” and “Honor the meaningless phrase of rhetorical nonsense”) that are difficult not to read in the tone of Will Self.

The best style also has a drive and energy that propels the reader through the loosely-structured book. It challenges puritans with stiff collars to broaden their understanding of men beyond their narrow circle. It also includes moments of humor, such as Hilton questioning which company will be the first to introduce rollerskates for employees (speculating it will be Henry Ford’s). The text also reveals surprising details, such as the widespread support for eugenics in the early 20th century. Hilton even shares his own enthusiasm for the cause and his desire to undergo a vasectomy, but fortunately, he was rejected for having a dirty mind.

The second part of the book is more essayistic, and the language a bit plainer. But the passion is undimmed, with strong words for everyone from “book socialists” (“they are hatless and suffer from cerebral fever; they look highbrow and sordidly live on economic rigidity”) to “the rentier class”, that is, “those who are accredited with more houses than they can conveniently live in”.

Jack Chadwick is credited with the rediscovery of Caliban Shrieks. He found the book at Salford’s Working Class Movement Library. In his introduction, he suggests that the reason for its disappearance could be due to the fact that the author, Hilton, did not have connections, while other mediocre authors with resources were able to gain fame. However, it is more probable that the book’s unusual form and disorderly style are what caused its downfall, as many working-class literary works, such as those by Walter Greenwood and Alan Sillitoe, have remained in print. Though I see it more as an intriguing oddity rather than an authentic masterpiece, it is still a welcome return.

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    The book “Caliban Shrieks” by Jack Hilton is available through Vintage for £16.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may be required.

Source: theguardian.com