Monday, February 10, 2014

Lost hero (2000)

Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dan Billany - Hull's Lost Hero by Valerie A Reeves & Valerie Showan. Kingston Press.

I have a confession to make before I start: this review is one of those tedious ". . . and the Socialist Party is briefly mentioned in line x of page x-ty x". Yes Billany was an ex-member - joining in 1931 and being expelled under foggy circumstances just two years later. But besides this, Reeves and Showan's biography is a fascinating study of the author of The Trap, which Ken Worpole, in his study of working class writing Dockers and Detectives, called the "finest novel to come out of the war".

Billany was born in 1913 in the terraces off Hull's famous Hessle Road, close by the western docks. Leaving school at 14 he was briefly an errand boy before starting an apprenticeship as an electrician with a local firm. As part of the training he had to attend evening classes and like many other working men found a new interest in learning. Before long he left the electrical works to become a full-time student first at the local Technical College and then at Hull University. By the outbreak of the Second World War he was an English teacher at Chiltern Street school in Hull and in the spring of 1940 he joined the army. It was at this point his writing career took off with the publication of The Opera House Murders, a rather run-of-the-mill thriller, and the acceptance of The Magic Door, based on his advanced teaching methods. In 1942 Second Lieutenant Billany was posted to North Africa, and not long after his arrival was captured at the fall of Tobruk. After months of appalling deprivation he was shipped to a POW camp in Italy. After the Armistice in September 1943 he was released by the Italian authorities but because Italy was occupied by the Germans was forced into hiding. In all probability he died of exposure in the Apennines near Rome a few months later. The Trap and The Cage, two novels relating to his wartime experiences, written while in captivity, were published posthumously.

Just for once the socialist ideas held by Billany are represented very accurately. That nationalisation is merely state capitalism (and this well before the late Tony Cliff appropriated the notion for his own sloganising purposes) and that "colonial freedom" really meant the substitution of a local boss for a white boss are both mentioned. The problems with this book lie elsewhere.

Firstly, the purpose of Reeves and Showan is to portray Billany as a repressed homosexual. This is tendentious. Billany was definitely interested in the idea of male homosexuality, as for instance in The Cage which is a rather tedious account of the obsession of one man for another in a POW camp. However the authors go too far in presenting fiction as dramatised fact. In relation to his early unpublished novel Paul they talk about Billany "fantasising" about being in love with a boy. This is practically accusing the fellow of being a child molester; an image of homosexuals not only old-fashioned but totally unjustified by facts.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, Reeves and Showan do not really address the crucial question of why Billany volunteered for service in 1940. Vaguely saying he wanted to prove himself really doesn't wash, because Billany was not politically ignorant. In The Trap he clearly refers to the cause of the war as diplomatic scrambles over "international credits, trade routes, and a steady five percent" and goes on to state that "I do not 'believe' in the war—in this or any other." Yet he was there, as an officer fighting for the cause of British capitalism. He was not forced to enlist, indeed with bright prospects as an author he had no personal reason to. The reason lies doubtless with Billany's attitude to fighting. This first crops up when, as a teacher, he inspires his class with the story of an old pupil who was a hero in the First World War, single-handedly taking a section of the enemy front line. Billany was a romantic with a romantic's desire for adventure. For heroism. And for this he went against what his logic and political background told him. This was to cost him dearly. He paid for it with his life.

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