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James Hanley: Boy

Amazing as it now seems, this novel was banned four years after publication, when it was republished in a more commercial edition. The reason, presumably, was because of the homosexual pedophilia (and I hope that doesn’t put you off.) Arthur Fearon is an intelligent nearly-thirteen-year old in Liverpool. His father is an aggressive bully, his mother fairly weak in the face of her husband’s bullying. The father had been out on strike for seven months so the family is in dire financial straits. As the school-leaving age is thirteen, they plan for Arthur to leave school at age thirteen and go and work in the docks, like his father. Arthur is rather delicate and wants nothing more than to stay at school and, eventually, become a chemist. However, he has no choice.

His first day in the docks is his last. The conditions are appalling – he has to crawl through dirty bilge water and then work in a filthy, very hot furnace, where he faints. Determined never to return but fearing his father’s wrath, he runs away to sea, by stowing away on a ship bound for Alexandria. His time on the ship is little better. Two of the crew try to sexually assault him. The captain is kindly as are a couple of the other crew members but most are, at best, indifferent, and, in some cases, cruel. As a stowaway, he can expect no better. On arrival in Alexandria, one of the crew takes him to a brothel. His first sexual encounter is a failure but he is determined to return again on his own, which he does. Sadly, he contracts syphilis. The final chapter of the book is a laconic report, indicating that he is gone missing.

Hanley’s tale, which is part autobiographical, is a sad one of a poor sensitive boy who gets only glimmerings of support – from a kindly teacher, from the captain of the ship, from his mother – but is all too often ignored or brutalised. There is no easy way out, no saving grace in Hanley’s book. The only exit is death or perpetual misery. For Arthur, a decent, sensitive boy, the first option is the only one open.

Publishing history

First published 1931 by Boriswood