James Curtis turns his attentions to the world of boxing in this suitably hard-hitting 1937 novel, which tells the story of Tommy Mutch, a 'preliminary boy' from the slums of Notting Dale attempting to make a living in the fight game. It's pretty much the classic tale of the honest-but-none-too-bright boxer who finally discovers he's been sold out by his managers/promoters etc – but, as with all Curtis's work, the appeal lies less in the plot than in the telling. This typical passage shows his mastery of London vernacular:
“Blimey, Tom,” Fred was saying. “We di'nt half have a laugh tonight, Me and Reg takes a ball of chalk up to Notting Hill Gate and we picks up a couple of janes outside Woolworth's. Neither Reg nor me's got no lob to spare so we lumbers 'em into the Park. Laugh? You should have seen us. Reg says to his tart, right pusher she was and all, 'Do you take it?’ he says. Gawd, she di'nt half carry on. Thought she was going to jump straight down his throat.
“‘That's all right,’ says Reg, straightening his tie, you know the way he does, 'I meant sugar in your tea.’ Caw, laugh?”
Notting Dale is vividly depicted, and it's reasonable to assume Curtis knew the area well (as usual, he's gratifyingly specific about his locations and, even though almost all the slum areas were cleared after the last war, one can still trace many of the journeys taken on foot by the characters*). And while it was notoriously rough, he shows it as a functioning community with family life, by and large, at the heart of it. Indeed, Mutch's own family aspire to a degree of respectability. But Curtis avoids sentimentalising or idealising working class life; the spectre of poverty is never far away, likewise some of the harsher realities of life on the bottom rung of society. Especially memorable in its grimness is a scene where Tommy has had to take his sister to a back-street abortionist's – although it ends with one of Curtis's most heartfelt passages:
He pressed her arm against his body. A current of sympathy passed from the one to the other. They were just a couple of kids from the slums. A few years back they ha d been playing hopscotch on the chalked pavements, and collecting pennies for the Guy, starting half way in October. It was a hell of a life, whichever way you looked at it.
As for Tommy Mutch, like all Curtis's main protagonists, he's essentially powerless. Kennedy in the Gilt Kid and Shorty Matthews in They Drive By Night seek to combat this by turning to crime, but their eventual defeat is inevitable. Mutch's skill with his fists in the short term might earn him a few extra quid (and a temporary place in the bed of flash promoter Arthur's 'piece', Dot), but he's not quick-witted enough to work out early on that he's been taken for a fool. And when he does finally realise, it's only through an orgy of violence against those who perpetrated it that he can gain a (temporary) sense of relief:
He drove him back with a series of pile-driving lefts and rights to the face. Arthur's guard was like paper. Every time Tommy struck, his fist connected with soft flesh which squelched and spurted blood beneath his hammer blows. Arthur fell to the floor. Tommy jumped on his face and ground an iron-shod heel on his nose. He could feel the bone crack. It was a happy feeling.
Now he was ready for the other two ponces. He'd give them a lesson. The bastards thought they could fight. They'd got another think coming. He sprang forward between them; the blood and mucus on his shoe heel made him slip; he fell to the ground; falling, his hands clutched one of his adversaries, his fingers fastening and twisting round his vitals.
The two lay locked on the floor. Tommy bit the other guy savagely in the throat. It tasted kind of salt. Dot was sobbing. This was a lovely fight, she'd never seen a better.
It's hard reading the above to imagine smiley Jimmy Hanley doing the stomping and biting; nonetheless it was he who starred in the 1939 film version, directed by Pen Tennyson and co-scripted by Curtis himself. Inevitably, the story and dialogue is considerably softened, but in some ways the film feels closer to Curtis's world than the more celebrated film of They Drive By Night (although the latter is probably the better movie). To see for yourself, a DVD release is apparently imminent, and there is also a showing at the NFT on May 20th. It's definitely worth a look.
As for getting hold of the book itself, there doesn't seem to be a reissue planned in the foreseeable future, but there were a couple of paperback editions in the 50s and these might yet be tracked down for not too extortionate a sum.
* Interestingly, some of the old houses on Wilsham Street, where Tommy and his family live, still survive – looking decidedly un-slumlike these days…