Billy Holt was born in 1897 in Joshua Street Todmorden, a small mill town straddling the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. He was a working class auto-didactic; of the type nostalgia had living on the corner of every terraced street.
‘My reading of books from the free library began to influence my thoughts more and more: and vague dreams began to take shape in my mind (30)… we began to meet on Sunday night and walk along Burnley Road – the local promenade of young men and women – discussing books, history and current affairs. (42)
His parents were weavers and Wesleyan’s and he had a disciplined upbringing, working ‘half-time’ in a shirt factory when he was twelve years old. It was in the weaving sheds that his passion for learning took hold, starting night school and teaching himself German while standing at the loom.
At the outbreak of the First World War he gave a false age and joined up, determined to use ‘the war for my own personal ends…It was the greatest, most magnificent event that had come into my life.’ (52) He survived the war, and as often happens among the terror and senseless death it was war that offered a working class boy the ‘keys at it were, to my own personal dreams.’ (55). Savings accrued from his army pay and a war gratuity bought him old farm buildings at Hardcastle Crags near Hebden Bridge for £80, and he turned the place into a novel venture for the time, a holiday camp, which he sold a year later for £300, allowing him to begin a new life, as a world traveler, political activist, author, publisher, and humanist.
He never entirely ‘escaped’ life as a weaver. He would return intermittently when funds demanded it, slipping once more into his clogs, making his way down to the weaving sheds. This casual return to Todmorden, only to float off on another adventure did not endure him to locals of a certain mind, who felt his frequent ‘escapes’ were a ‘slap in the face’ (Hughes 137-8) for their way of life. “There is some Schadenfreud in the town…”Who do you think I saw going into a weaving shed today…and wearing clogs too? Billy Holt. I always said that Billy Holt would come down in the world…”’(237)
He strove to be a prophet in his own town, a small town at that, and the message of this prophet? Be true to others as you would be true to yourself. A message that does not guarantee advancement or happiness. A message that often fell on deaf ears, but not always. After placing a single advert in the local paper 60 people trekked up the old packhorse trail one Sunday morning to the Basin Stone, an old Chartist meeting place on the moors above the town, to make a vague commitment Billy Holt’s vision of his new political party.
Later he stood as a Communist candidate in a Tory council ward and won, and won easily, at this, his second attempt. The first attempt was a narrow failure when he fought the election from a cell in Armley Prison, while serving 9 months for unlawful assembly and incitement during a National Unemployed Workers Movement demonstration against the Means Test.
War had left him with the means and taste for life beyond the Calder Valley. He’d caught the traveling bug. His first sojourn was to Oporto in Portugal, and then on to Seville: ‘When on awakening I made my fateful decision to stay in Seville, to spend up, burn my boats…I freed myself for ever from the limitations of my former life… “All or nothing,’’ I said to myself.”‘ (82)
From Seville he travelled on to Cadiz, Madrid, Paris, Gibralter and Tangier, before crossing the Atlantic and North America to join his parents, who had emigrated to Victoria in British Columbia. He financed himself by teaching English, painting, and working his passage. Arriving on Vancouver Island he found work as a lumberjack on the banks of the Jordan River. From the shore of Vancouver Island he saw ships in the distance heading for Seattle. He dreamt of further adventures, and worked his passage from Seattle to Yokohama as an able seaman on ‘The Eastern Planet’. But the lure of Todmorden was never far from his mind and he returned to purchase ‘Kilnhurst, house of my dreams.’ (205)
He soon headed back to the continent, picking up his pen for the Daily Dispatch to report on the Spanish Civil War. ‘Madrid… I looked at her ghostly outlines. Fires lit up the sky. Along the valley of the Manzanares the machine-guns echoed hollowly-short, sharp, staccato bursts and long, diminishing empty echoes…Between my periods in the trenches I trod her barricaded streets elated at the courage…These were common people, who at first with little else but their bare hands held back the besieging troops and gave their lives in hundreds in defence of their city and their ideals.’ (224)
The travel bug wouldn’t leave him alone, ‘My royalties are dwindling, my sales of Under a Japanese Parasol have stopped completely.
The world is closing in on me again.
Trapped. Trapped by the world…’ (237)
‘I Haven’t Unpacked’ takes the story of William Holt to 1939 and it describes a man not bound by the expectations of others. He carried on publishing, painting, writing, travelling and his unconventional life until his death in 1977.
‘…I draw the empty shuttles of the looms and press my full ones home.
I hear a clatter of footsteps outside and pleasant hum of conversation…a man I have not seen saying pleasantly, “We have come for you. You don’t need any of these things…”
I feel I am on the eve of another strange journey.’ (240)
Forty years on, ‘the wall in the head’ is how Lynsey Hanley describes working class self-censorship. Billy Holt burst through that wall in search of answers to life’s big questions. The book begins with an admission of his loneliness, and his failure to find those answers. But no one can dispute he gave it a go. Perhaps those who knew him better understand the price to be paid by those with such ambition and by those who surround them.
William Holt (1939: this edition 1966) I Haven’t Unpacked. Michael Joseph
Glyn Hughes (1975) Millstone Grit: a journey through the West Riding of Yorkshire and East Lancashire. Futura Publications.
Lynsey Hanley (2007) Estates: an intimate history. Granta
Other work by William Holt:
Under a Japanese Parasol (1933)
I was a Prisoner (1934)
I Still Haven’t Unpacked (1953)
Trigger in Europe (1966)
William Holt also published four novels