Billy Hayes

picks the eight books he'd take to the ends of the earth with him

August 23, 2009
5 min read

Soledad Brother

The Prison Letters of George Jackson

Chicago Review Press, new edition 1994

This is a book about courage. The writer showed tremendous guts by writing it. There is a black man in the White House, yet mostly black men in prisons in the USA. George Jackson was sentenced from one year to life for stealing $72 from a gas station. He spent ten years inside (seven years in solitary confinement), and was eventually killed in a prison riot. His writings are an articulation of isolation and determination not to be chained to his past, teaching himself the language of his ancestors and expressing his love for his family and friends.

The Essential Lenny Bruce

edited by John Cohen, Ballantine 1967

This made me laugh out loud. It’s a book that uses humour like no other; before reading it I never knew laughter could be so serious. Lenny Bruce is dead. Long before ‘alternative comedy’, he broke taboos. Charged with obscenity, he wouldn’t give in. Here was proof that we could sit with those we loved and lie to them. Another death in the custody of convention.

Sirius

Olaf Stapleden, Secker & Warburg 1944

This is science fiction as it’s supposed to be. I loved sci-fi books in my teens and Olaf Stapleden uses this genre like no other. A British scientist bioengineers a dog of human intelligence and raises it as one of the children. Sirius’ relationship with his human sister, Plaxy, has all the elements of family life, yet he is isolated from his kind. Loneliness, pathos and instinct over thought, a very human story.

Coming Up For Air

George Orwell, Penguin Classics, new edition 2001

This is Orwell’s forgotten classic. Despite some of his funny ways, Orwell is one of the best and clearest writers I’ve ever come across. In this book, George ‘fatty’ Bowling decides, because of a bit of luck, winning on a horse, to visit Lower Binfield. He tries to recapture the days of his youth. Set in 1938, war was approaching. Orwell foresaw that war was inevitable with Hitler in power. He captures the childhood feeling of not being in a hurry, the warmth, happiness and security, but he finds that there is no going back physically or emotionally; we are prisoners of the present, hemmed in by our memories.

The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin, Harper & Row 1974

Trying swearing without using profanities or sex being dirty – one of the thoughts that have stuck with me since reading the book. Le Guin was attempting to work out how an anarchist society would function, inspired by the work of the anarchist and pacifist, Paul Goodman. I’ve read this book at least four times and I learn more every time.

The Invention of the Human

Harold Bloom, Fourth Estate 1998

Croxteth was a great place to be in the 1960s; St Swithen’s didn’t do culture for us ‘Bash Street Kids’. Alf Riley led me to Shakespeare’s plays. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare invented the human character. Alf would have loved it. A raw egg, a banana, a cup of tea ‘says he was ambitious, if it were so, it was a grievous fault …’ Alf’s quotes from Shakespeare led me to this. Shakespeare wrote for everyone, he was a man for every person.

The Art of Loving

Erich Fromm, Harper & Row 1956

Despite the title this is a book not about sex but about the human condition. Coping with disappointment, the biggest of which is that we die before or after those we love. Every impulse and action trying to escape the prison that is self. We search for oceanic feelings. Love is the active – we find our being through what we do, not how we feel.

Revolution in the Head

Ian McDonald, Fourth Estate 1994

A book that will tell you about an aborted revolution. It made me love the Beatles more than I already did. Two sisters going to the Cavern meant nothing. The Beatles at Shea stadium switched me on to the soundtrack of the 1960s. McDonald’s book analyses every Beatle song in detail. Music matters, and is more precise than words. He gives an overview of the 1960s, how the right triumphed and what the music meant. All art is discovery.

Billy Hayes is general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, and his selections can be purchased here.

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