Friday, 8 January 2010

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

“James Curtis is the pseudonym of a writer who is quite ashamed of his own patronymic. After a conventional upbringing, he has led a very unconventional life, much of which has been incorporated into his novels.
“For most people the war was a disaster. Not for Curtis. He was forced back into the milieu into which he was born, and now finds great difficulty in re-assimilating with that which he had chosen for himself.
“He is the author of five works, three of which have been filmed, one pseudo-autobiography, and a book on law. At present he finds history more interesting than contemporary life that has ceased to pulsate.
“He is married and has a daughter aged seven, of whose matrimonial prospects he has the highest hopes.”

So runs the cryptic blurb on the back of the 1947 Penguin edition of this 1936 novel, and it was intriguing enough for me to part with 50p in the charity shop where I found it some years ago – thus sparking the beginning of an obsession, which is why I've chosen this book to kick things off.
The inside cover was a further inticement:
The Gilt Kid is the story of a fully-fledged spiv who, at twenty-five, has reached the conclusion that “only saps work”. He is one of the tougher specimens of that deplorable tribe, and by the time we meet him he has already served a sentence for housebreaking. The world in which he belongs is that segment of Soho where in their dirty little cafes parasites of all the human species abound…”

Who could resist? And reading the book felt like opening the door on a secret past - one simultaneously alien and familiar. Here were described places with which I was familiar, but cast in a new light. And while I was already a fan of Americam hard-boiled writers such as Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Thompson et al, I had no idea there was anything like an English equivalent (using English settings and idioms, as opposed to the faux-American stylings of, say, Peter Cheyney.)
The Gilt Kid details the exploits of the titular (anti)hero, newly released from prison as he variously meets with fellow criminals, gets drunk, consorts with prostitutes and, in the dramatic centrepiece of the novel, takes part in a daring robbery. But, as with all Curtis's work, the appeal lies less in the plot than in his crystal-clear evocation of a lost London underworld. With settings that encompass Soho cafes, pubs, nightclubs, late-night coffee stalls and, inevitably, police cells, his eye for detail and ear for arcane slang are remarkable, as is his refusal to judge his characters (rather in defiance of that Penguin summing-up of the novel's theme). Curtis (born Geoffrey Basil Maiden in 1907) was a complex and mysterious character - about which this blog will expand in time - a lifelong anti-authoritarian, and clearly no fan of the police. But equally notable is the vibrant, visceral nature of his writing, and his ability to breath life even into an essentially mundane scene such as the following, in which the Gilt Kid catches a late bus after a night's drinking:

“The bus was crowded. Every seat was occupied, every window shut. A thick fog of cigarette smoke and the acrid tang of shag made him cough. A party of drunks up in front were passing round quarts of beer and singing. 'Play to me Gypsy', they sang.
As the bus started again they changed to 'Knees up Mother Brown', that invariable concomitant of Cockney merrymaking.
They'll being singing 'Daisy Bell' next, thought the Gilt Kid, leaning up against the front wall waiting for somebody to get off. Idiots to be drinking all their beer before they got home instead of waiting and having a party.
The bus lurched down Trafalgar Square. A man handed him a bottle.
'Want a wet, chum?'
'Thanks, mate.'
The Gilt Kid took the bottle and drank, first wiping the inside of the neck with his own grimy forefinger. The beer tasted like cheese or diluted blood.”

My purpose here is not to give away too much of the plot - happily, The Gilt Kid is now back in print, thanks to the pioneering London Books, who have embarked on a noble quest to republish the work of Curtis and his contemporaries, and The Gilt Kid is available in a handsomely produced edition.

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