James Hanley

I’d like to know more about James Hanley, but there doesn’t seem to be a biography.

What I’d really like to know about is his war service. He was born in 1901 (according to most accounts) and then, according to the ODNB:

At the age of twelve he left school and joined the merchant navy, serving in a submarine during the First World War; the reason for his enlisting while under age has never been made clear, except that the family was poor and needed him to start bringing in a wage. Three years later he jumped ship at New Brunswick to enlist in the Canadian Black Watch and eventually saw action in France. Invalided out of the army suffering from the effects of gas, he returned to the sea, working as a stoker on troop carriers, which he featured in some of his novels.

So when did he enlist? How long was he at the front? What kind of action did he see?

I ask because the gratuitous brutality of his 1930 story  The German Prisoner seems to me so much more like the fantasies of those who did not fight than the memoirs of those who did. I’m thinking of writing like the brutally gratuitous  attack in D.H.Lawrence’s England My England:

The German cut and mutilated the face of the dead man as if he must obliterate it. He slashed it across, as if it must not be a face any more; it must be removed. For he could not bear the clear abstract look of the other’s face, its almost ghoulish, slight smile, faint but so terrible in its suggestion, that the German was mad, and ran up the road when he found himself alone.

(That’s the 1915 version, by the way. Lawrence toned it down for the post-war reprint.)

This sort of face-to-face excessive violence generally says more about the writer’s fears and fantasies than about the actual conditions of warfare. Of course, gratuitous personal violence sometimes happened under war conditions, but few who actually fought seemed to consider this the defining characteristic of the war – that was more likely to be impersonal artillery fire, inflicted by someone you could not see, and who probably could not see you.

Did seventeen-year-old Hanley really see anything like this during his military service? Or did he hear people talking about things like this? Or was his war service as banal as that of many soldiers, but when the “war books boom” of 1929-30 came along, did he feel the need to create a fiction as extreme as possible, to convey his disgust for war, and wrote in excess of his own limited experience?

I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who has detailed biographical information on Hanley.




  1. Jane Stemp
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Excuse my coming in on this a bit late, but I’d be most surprised if he could be both in the Merchant Navy *and* serve on a submarine (RN) – I checked the Register of Seamen’s Services 1853-1923 (Navy section of http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/default.asp) and can’t find him, unless he lied about both his age and his place of birth….

    • Posted November 25, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Hanley lied about an awful lot of things. I forget what his unreliable autobiography ‘Broken Water’ says about the submarine. I’ll take a look.

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