Caliban Shrieks by Jack Hilton (pictured on left) was a testimony of working class life

At last Caliban Shriek, by working class author Jack Hilton, has been reprinted thanks to the efforts of Jack Chadwick. 

Chadwick became absorbed by the book while browsing the Working Class Movement Library in Manchester in 2021 and worked to get it reprinted.  The powerful semi-autobiographical surrealist account of working class life was first published in 1935.

It was reviewed by George Orwell, who praised Hilton’s considerable literary gifts and championed him for giving voice to “the normally silent multitude”. 

What Caliban Shrieks did was portray working class life from the inside. It did not provide facts and figures about poverty and hardship. Instead the book conveyed “what it feels like to be poor”.

The book, as far as Orwell was concerned, was important for the way it presented “a genuinely working class outlook”. 

Who was Jack Hilton? He was born into a working class family in Oldham in 1900, most of his siblings died in infancy, and he went to work part-time in a cotton mill when he was eleven.

He served in the British army during the First World War and afterwards travelled around, working as a casual labourer and experiencing the delights of the British poor law system. 

Eventually, he settled in Rochdale, working as a plasterer in the building trade.

In the 1930s, he joined the ranks of the unemployed and was active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement. 

He went to prison for his part in a march on the Rochdale poor house. Banned from protest on his release, he turned his hand to writing, and Caliban Shrieks was the result. 

The book is a powerful, uncompromising account of working class life—of his life, written from the inside. 

His account of the demonstration that led to his imprisonment provides something of the book’s flavour. 

“Of course we were guilty: vile language was used, windows were broken, stones thrown, assaults committed. A mob was unleashed. It was angry, it was hungry, it had been underfed. This is what happens when people are unemployed and starving.”

His account does not spare the feelings of middle-class socialists, trade union bureaucrats or Labour politicians. 

As far as Hilton was concerned Labour Party MPs for some reason always become less militant “the longer they hold office”. To Hilton militancy was rooted in “the soil of poverty and hopelessness”.  

Once elected to the Commons, they experienced “privilege” and inevitably embraced “satisfaction”. 

Their politics were, and indeed still are, what he superbly characterises as a combination of” ‘evolution and constipation”.’

He is particularly scathing about how while apparently “fighting for redress for the poor, fighting for humanity and decency”, they still had always to remember that their opponents were “like themselves, honourable members, honourable gentlemen, aye, even right honourable gentlemen”. 

And, of course, there was always “the stimulating effects of the alcoholic parliamentary bar”. Nothing changes. 

There is so much more in this classic of working class literature that deserves reading and rereading. 

As for Orwell, he asked for Hilton’s advice when he was getting ready to travel up north to work on his The Road to Wigan Pier. 

Indeed, it was Hilton who actually suggested that he visit Wigan. But what did Hilton think of Orwell’s book? He was not in the least bit impressed. Indeed, he thought Orwell had completely wasted his time writing it. 

Hilton was to publish his own account of a journey surveying working class life, English Ways, in 1939. 

Orwell reviewed that as well, praising it for its “glimpses of working class life” and for giving “a hint of what a proletarian revolution might be like”. We can only hope that English Ways is republished as well.

Caliban Shriek is available from all major booksellers from 7 March 

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