I’d look at my gargoyle parents, at the nappies spilled over the hearth, at the broken furniture and the cardboard stuck in broken window panes to keep the draught out, the dirty floor-quarries, and think to myself quite simply and cleanly ‘Fuck everything and everybody’.
Archie Hill’s memoir was originally published in 1973. It received incredible reviews from The Times, The New Statesman and the TLS amongst others. But, due to a libel case brought against the author (and publishers Hutchinson) by his own mother, remaining copies were pulped and an expurgated edition was released, with an apology, in 1977. Rumour has is that Archie mother’s copy of the original text had whole sections furiously scribbled out…
The book is a raw and compelling memoir of Archie Hill’s family life and childhood in the Black County, his early dreams of art school, following him through first jobs – in the local foundry, later working on the barges – from military service into the police force, struggles with alcoholism, a mental institution and prison, to living down and out in the bomb sites of London.
Each chapter of his life is narrated without sentimentality but with poise, in magnetic prose and with incredible (black, obviously) humour. His childhood is especially bleak – constant warring between his inept parents, too many siblings with not enough to eat (or even wear) and, particularly his abusive alcoholic father’s tough attitude to an unfair life. But these are cut through by the exceptional quality of Hill’s writing, his no-nonsense attitude and a real sparkle in the telling of significant memories and mischiefs with Archie’s friends: Old Billy, who makes glass figurines and ornaments; Pope Tolley, his father’s friend and long-time champion of Archie, and the local poacher, Konk. Even his father occasionally redeems himself!
There are similarities between later sections of Cage of Shadows and George Orwell’s classic Down and Out in Paris and London and the lesser-known but equally astonishing People of the Abyss by Jack London (also previously published by Tangerine Press). With the latter it also shares the inclusion of rare photographs taken by the author of life on the streets.
However Hill’s account is far more personal, much grittier and actually has more in common with John Healy’s amazing The Grass Arena, which was written fifteen years after Cage of Shadows.
Though stark, the book is in no way unrelenting, and throughout the narrative Archie’s coming-into-himself through art, literature and music is a truly magical strand, the effect of which is evident in his writing.
I knew, dimly, that my character wasn’t fixed; that it fluctuated according to my moods, and my mood were circumstance’s playthings. I knew that my personality ebbed and flowed, tide in, tide out. I knew that I caused more suffering than I experienced… I lived inside myself and could not get away, except when I had a bottle.
His bravely honest account of his own alcoholism, internment in first a mental institution then prison is heart-breaking yet heart-warming, especially in his friendship with the German atomic scientist and spy ‘Doc’ Fuchs, who introduces him to Beethoven, which ‘opened a floodgate into a life that I never knew existed.’
Cage of Shadows is an utterly brilliant book – whether considered a memoir, or an autobiographical novel – whose power lies in Archie Hill’s ability to tell his devastating story so beautifully and with so much humility.