Friday, 23 January 2015

Stiffening fingers (more on John Petty)

If you want to read the literary profile equivalent of listening to Leonard Cohen songs, I just found another article on the depressing life of the Black Country writer John Petty (1919-1973). This one comes from a 1967 Books & Bookmen, written after the publication of his 1966 dystopian SF novel The Last Refuge, and before his 1972 autobiography The Face.

from rear cover of Five Fags a Day
Stiffening fingers
The predicament of Black Country writer John Petty, author of Five Fags a Day
- by Dennis Barker

A writer finishing his novel in longhand on odd scraps of paper, by candlelight, might be supposed to exist only in pre-Victorian romantic myth. John Petty is not pre-Victorian, and not a myth. His latest novel has just been completed in these conditions, a situation to which the welfare state can apparently find no answer.

John Petty lives and works in the Black Country, that warren of foundries, pylons and canals to the north of Birmingham. After illness and mental turmoil, he used to make his living there as a scrap picker, reclaiming metal from the tips. For some time now, he has been too ill to work at all, but he goes on living in Walsall, a highly self-conscious, articulate, ironically sharp-eyed semi-recluse in his own birthplace. 'If you aren't anything to do with industry, they don't want to know you,’ he says.

The Black Country has produced only one successful writer, Francis Brett Young. He was the son of a professional man, was a professional man himself, and had the entrĂ©e to middle class compensations. Petty has had no such vistas and comforts. He was a worker among workers, burdened with the knowledge that he would never be able to communicate on his own terms in his surroundings, or climb out of them. This is the tension which is absorbed into his writing to some extent but which, otherwise, marks him down as a human being who can never quite get above the water-line. Petty rarely, if ever, wears a tie. His moderate height is lessened by a premature stoop that can make him look older than 47. His eyes are poor and his fingers so stiff with arthritis that he finds it difficult to hold the pen. He shambles about his council flat in a ruined suit and a sweater with a cigarette burn in it, complaining matter-of-factly about his health, and talking about his work with the indefinable relaxation of a man who is unconsciously certain that he matters. He has never had a commercial success. When his account of his scrap-picking life, Five Fags A Day, appeared in 1956, it won him instant critical acclaim. Angus Wilson wrote the preface: He writes as an angry, defeated individual — a man who demands the right to his own poetry in life, who believes himself unique, superior to his environment, who finds it possible to love only those who are throw-outs and rejects, and even them he regards with suspicion. The book made Petty only about £100. A Flame in my Heart, a novel about a near-incestuous brother-sister relationship, served him no better financially.

Little was heard of him after this, though Five Fags continued to be regarded as a little classic of its type. Then a play he had written, The Outcast, won an award in a play contest sponsored by the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. Petty, living at that time eight miles away, in a decaying house in a forsaken Walsall back street, did not turn up to collect the award. He hadn't enough money for the fare.

This incident brought his plight out into the open. Later he moved into an even worse home, a terraced house in a back street under notice of demolition. Walsall housing department, who had bought the block of houses, gave him notice of eviction for non-payment of rent. This gave his plight more publicity. He said he had TB as well as arthritis. He was struggling to complete his latest novel The Last Refuge, by propping himself up in an arm chair in his bedroom and escaping family quarrels — the tiny house was full of relatives — as best he could. At other times he was sitting alone with his dog in a corner of a nearby pub, spinning out a half pint of beer as long as he could.

Petty escaped eviction. The housing department — possibly with more awareness than Petty himself would grant them of the special character of the man they were dealing with— held off as long as they could. In the meantime, help arrived. A lawyer offered to pay his debts in return for a share in the copyright of The Last Refuge. Other people who read about his difficulties offered to help — no one from the Black Country itself, a fact that even now will trigger off Petty's bitterness.

Seeker and Warburg, his original publishers, were displaying no great interest in The Last Refuge:  Petty, never reticent about matters concerning the presentation of his work, had in any case quarrelled with Warburg. A new publishing firm, Whiting and Wheaton, were offered Petty’s story of a man the future welfare state could not contain but only destroy. They took the book, which got favourable reviews last year. At about the same time as the book was taken. Petty married for the first time — a widow with a family of her own, He was rehoused in a council flat in one of the new tall blocks that are rapidly soaring above the stunted Black Country skyline. With family photographs on the sideboard, but with royalties still to come, he began his next novel, a sort of psychological thriller, The Dog From Camelot. A man sees a woman with a dog, follows her, and finds himself involved in the macabre . ‘I found the novel the devil of a job,’ he says. ‘There are more characters in it than in any of my other work, the fingers are getting stiffer, and I couldn’t see properly.’

The reason he couldn’t see was symptomatic of his life. National Assistance was giving him an income of just over £8 a week, and he was slipping back into the role of underdog When the unpaid electricity bill reached £82 last August, the supply was cut off. Petty carried on with his novel by candlelight in the kitchen, while his wife cooked his meals off a Primus stove, which also became their sole means of heating water The living room was virtually sealed off, the TV set was silent, and life alternated between the bedroom and the kitchen, both of them used for writing. The Dog from Camelot is now being considered by Whiting and Wheaton. He is planning his next work, but his personal plight is still the same—candlelight and the Primus. An Arts Council bursary was refused him last year, though John Wain sponsored him and Angus Wilson supported him. Petty's next work will be a more serious, heavyweight slice of autobiography. It is bound to be sombre, haunted by his sharp, febrile inability to cope with the world on its own thick-skinned terms. But the book will be written through all the difficulties. Petty is hag-ridden by circumstance and his own temperament, but is not defenceless. 'I could do something like a De Profundus, though with different subject matter, quite well,' he says with an arrogance the more impregnable because it is it is quite unconscious. He needs his arrogance. He has, too, an unexpected, if often dark-tinged, turn of humour. He says he finds it difficult to get meths for the Primus stove from chemists' shops, and often has to visit two or three before he is successful. ‘They must think I want to drink the stuff, I suppose.’

Editor’s note: the old Whiting & Wheaton imprint having been take over, the manuscript of Dog is with literary agent Higham Associates.
- Dennis Barker, Books & Bookmen, Volume 13, 1967
There's no sign of The Dog from Camelot ever having made it into print. I wonder if it's still extant? At least one of his unpublished works is: the Walsall Local History Centre has a copy of his short story Spouty and Ann.

I found an example of Petty's robust and angry style, a 1959 book review, but as there was a deal to write about it, I've split off part of this to the next post, Petty and Barker on stately homes.

He is, by the way, no longer entirely un-honoured in his native Walsall. There's now a blue plaque at his old home in Kent Street, Birchills. See The Bloxwich Telegraph: Forgotten Birchills author remembered.

- Ray

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