“One never… asks is it a novel,” wrote John Cheever in 1977. “One asks is it interesting.” Definitely not a novel – whatever its publishers say – but definitely very interesting is Jack Hilton’s 1935 book Caliban Shrieks, equal parts autobiography, political screed and artful rant, now reissued in hardback by Vintage Classics and lauded last week as a lost literary masterpiece in the New Yorker.

Channelling Shakespeare’s monstrous Caliban (“the red plague rid you for learning me your language”), Hilton’s narrator uses literary expression to fume at the conditions of the working man – and non-working man – in early 20th-century England. “Oh, the blinking, farcical tragedy of it!”

The first half of the book, in short chapters, gives a lurid account of growing up, from schooldays to part-time work to soldiering, where “you can live to be 90 if not shot”. Hilton is good at encapsulating the wreckage that the first world war made of British society. His faith in politics to fix things was already exhausted: “I had that magnetic thing the vote,” he writes with bitter irony, “that wonderful all-powerful thing by which working men rule the land.” Then he has time as a tramp, “no more ambition, no set purposes, just drift, drift, drift”, and experiences life in the “vagrancy ward”, where poverty-stricken citizens break stones for their keep.

There’s an Orwell-like quality to the subject, but what’s entirely absent is Orwell’s “windowpane” of clear prose. Hilton’s style is characterised by a refusal to say anything straightforwardly, and for every spark of Nabokovian flair, there’s a passage or two of thesaurus-y locutions (“This was the first knock on my cranium of war’s ignobility”, “Honour the shibboleth of rhetorical fiddlesticks”) that are hard not to read in the voice of Will Self.

But the style at its best also contains an energy that drives the reader on through the book’s loose structure – “Try it, you stiff-collared puritans. Get some idea of what men are, outside your little mousetrap circle” – or provides glints of comedy. On employers demanding ever faster work from staff, Hilton wonders “which firm will introduce rollerskates first, Henry Ford’s, I suppose”. There are surprises, too: we forget how widespread support for eugenics was in the early 20th century, until Hilton recalls his own enthusiasm, and his determination to have a vasectomy to further the cause. (Happily, he was turned down 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”.

Credit for rediscovery of Caliban Shrieks goes to Jack Chadwick, who discovered the book at Salford’s Working Class Movement Library. In his introduction, Chadwick suggests its disappearance is because Hilton “didn’t have connections” while “many lesser voices, mediocrities with means, boomed”. But given that much working-class literature, from Walter Greenwood to Alan Sillitoe, has remained in print, it seems more likely that it’s this book’s eccentric form and chaotic style that doomed it. And even though it seems to me as much a curio as an authentic classic, it’s good to have it back.


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