Wednesday, 19 October 2011

John Petty: The Face

You are afraid.

Do you know of what you are afraid? Afraid of the face of a dream? Of the face of reality?

John Clare wrote: 'I long for scenes where man has never trod.' This was has testament, his expressed longing for release. But release from what?

In this intensely human, haunting and often humorous autobiography, John Petty contends that most men want nothing very much from life—beyond the obvious material things; that to know and have these things; they will shutter their eyes against ... The Face.

This is a cry for the weak, the afflicted, the over-perceptive, for the sane who are not insane, for the forgotten children, for the lost. For, in the last analysis, the brave ...

A year ago I looked at John Petty's 1966 The Last Refuge, an SF novel strongly reminiscent of Orwell's 1984, but inspired by post-war Walsall rather than 1948 London. It reflected more than a hint of the author's harrowing life, so I was interested to find Petty's The Face: an autobiography (Gentry Books, 1972). The Face tells of Petty's years working as a scrap picker in the Black Country, tormented by panic attacks accompanied by visions of a man whose appearance had frightened him in the street (a "man with a grotesquely-distorted face who kept throwing his head around and upwards, as though he were fighting for air").

The book begins in 1946 with Petty, aged 27 and certified unfit for work following a bout of tuberculosis, living with his parents in Walsall. After his mental problems (and encounters with "The Face") begin, he seeks psychiatric help without success. Despite the intermittent attacks, he is driven by poverty to cycle out to the railway tips (where ash from steam trains is dumped) to dig for coal. There, he's introduced by an elderly one-armed man and another, Rennie, to the trade of scrap-picking - collecting metal scrap from the tips to sell to a nearby scrap dealer. When this source is exhausted, he shifts to progressively less legal activities. First, during the fierce winter of 1946 he trespasses on canal towpaths to break the ice and dredge the canals for coal that has fallen from canalboats. Then, along with Rennie, he graduates to lurking by the railway and stealing scrap from a goods train nicknamed "the ghost train" when it stops at a siding. After a narrow escape from the police, he moves to richer pickings: stealing scrap wiring that's regularly dumped beside an airfield. Eventually this too attracts police attention, and results in another narrow escape - and his worst yet vision of The Face.  Finally he returns to the meagre but legal income of picking metal from furnace slag heaps; and he finds the intensity of The Face has diminished.  He encounters the man who had sparked off the visions, and finds he can cope. There the story ends, leaving it rather open whether The Face is someone external, or the author's projection of himself.

I found this compulsive reading, despite it having a number of loose ends as an autobiography. Petty fast-forwards over his early life in a couple of pages. He makes multiple asides about having been in a police cell for five days for some crime involving an accomplice called "Fat Benny", but never explains what exactly this was about. A deal of the anecdotal material smells of exaggeration or fantasy, such as the invariable incompetence of every doctor/psychiatrist Petty sees; his invariable success in standing up to bullies; the story of his setting a stray Alsatian at the throat of a bargeman who is mistreating a horse; and his repeated clever escapes from police pursuit (he tricks one policeman into falling into a pit, and another into a slimy pond). Nevertheless, it's a highly accurate account of the experience of phobic attacks, and in its general setting it's a remarkable evocation of an industrial region that saw some of the worst of the post-WW2 depression.

The Face was Petty's last work; he died in 1973 aged 54. The dust-wrapper says, wrongly, that he was born in the Potteries, but this is not merely an editorial mistake. As a London Magazine article explained:
No-one can dispute that Walsall's most famous literary son was Jerome K. Jerome. His father sunk coal pits in the area with the hope (if without the actual realization) of much profit. A small museum at Jerome's birthplace celebrates that author's brief early presence in the town. For another more recent literary son, John Petty, the author of Five Fags A Day, who quite literally scraped a living from industrial tips around Walsall, the possibility of receiving similar celebrity status from his home town was always going to be more remote. Indeed when near the end of his life the man whom obituaries were to describe as 'Britain's most neglected author', bitter at the scant recognition his place of birth had accorded him, insisted to the publishers of his final book, an autobiography entitled The Face, that the dustwrapper carry the lie 'born in the Potteries'.
- The Author As Scrap Picker: The Writings of John Petty, London Magazine, 1991
I'm afraid that Petty, despite his genuine hardship and talent as a writer, comes across as a complete self-obsessed git. I'd suspected it, on reading The Last Refuge (a highly autobiographical picture of a stereotypical artist aggrieved that a decaying and unfeeling post-apocalyptic regime - in a place not unlike post-war Walsall - doesn't value him) but the autobiography confirmed it.

- Ray


  1. Amused by the description of Petty as a "self-obsessed git." But that's exactly how I felt about him after reading The Face. Also, my mother-in-law knew him when he lived in Kent Street, and was of the opinion that he was a most unpleasant individual.
    I was most interested in this book because I lived on Beechdale Estate in Walsall, the site of the tip, railway and canal he describes in such detail. At one time you could actually retrace his steps to these places, and my Dad is still able to fill in some of the details. So far as his personal situation was concerned, I mentioned elsewhere that I worked at Walsall Housing Dept in the sixties. His correspondence with that department was voluminous, and I spent one afternoon reading his uncensored account of his awful existence. A pity that could never be published.
    Walsall's claim to fame is minimal, and I don't think John Petty would help very much. Having said that, I recently checked to see if the library service had a copy of The Last Refuge. They didn't

    1. It's a bit of a syndrome. There are some people who are undoubtedly hard-done-by, yet who, you feel, would be in less hardship if they didn't fritter away so much of their resources protesting about how hard-done-by they are. There are some very inexpensive paperback copies of The Last Refuge on Amazon.

  2. You might be interested in this map link. Despite the transformation, there are still features that persist.