Sunday, 24 January 2010

Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby

Young Jim Bankley gets the sack from his dead-end car factory job in an unidentified Northern town and decides to try his luck in the more vibrant world of the capital. It might sound like the ingredients for a classic Angry Young Man novel, but this is 1937, the social changes of the 60s are a generation away and Jim's journey into the 'wide' world presents, ultimately, nothing more than a series of dead ends. But what a journey it is! This, along with James Curtis's work and Gerald Kersh's Night And The City, is one of the key London low-life novels of the 1930s.
Having made the acquaintance of some members of a London greyhound racing gang in his hometown, the thuggish young Jim is inducted into their world initially through a job in the used-car trade, and we're treated in passing to a priceless – and tellingly familiar – description of his fellow salesmen:
“These young men were not a kind he was used to. Loud-mouthed young rascals with oil-slicked hair, loose-lipped and prone to spots, they were astonishingly of a type until you realised they were trying to be. Check sports coats and grey trousers, or even lounge-suited, they had always two characteristics in common – and Old School Tie and a drawling voice which hardly sounded Cockney at all. Highly polished shoes and vaguely polished manners, a persuasive and inexhaustible flow of technical slang appertaining to 'buses', 'revs', 'con-rods,' 'remote-control boxes'; an astonishingly vacant mind, a small intellect contrasting with a shrewd eye for a customer – these seemed to be their hallmark. Their interests outside their work seemed kin as well. And at Swings the sole topics of idle conversation were vague references to sport (with some sort of unstated notion that 'Rugger' was somehow a more socially desirable game than 'Soccer', and an almost passionate interest in sex. Hour after hour, day after day, they were always ready to stand about in little groups and discuss the 'crumpet' of the night before. It seemed to Jim that the moment they could get away from work they would shoot off in their rickety motors to Hampstead Heath or Wimbledon Common, looking for Girls. Social misfits, for the most part, utterly incapable of managing any job other than the one they were in, they perpetual appetite for 'crumpet' with Girls was the most definite thing about them. 'Crumpet' – and Beer. 'Grend Stahff – Beeah!'”

The rest of the book charts Jim's transformation into a true wide boy, his rise (and inevitable fall) in the ranks of the Franks gang, and adventures in a world of greyhound racing, seedy clubs and dodgy boxing matches. His friend and mentor, Louie Franks, is gay – a fact that's treated in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way; equally surprising is the possibly equivocal nature of Jim's own sexuality: while he professes an interest in girls, there are several suggestions that his true proclivities lie elsewhere. He savagely beats another gay character who makes a pass at him, but only after the latter has been warned by Louie 'Don't rush him', and there's more than a hint of the homoerotic in Jim's relationship in another thuggish gang member, Mick.

While treading similar ground to James Curtis, Wide Boys differs from much of his work by presenting a moral centre in the form of Jim's father, who attempts to make him revert from the wide to the straight and narrow. Westerby himself also interjects remarks at regular intervals reminding us how young Jim is bound to come to no good end - a temptation to which Curtis never falls prey. But it's a minor carp - the novel, in its language and setting, feels authentic, and presents a terrific panorama of underworld London. Long unavailable, it was recently republished by London Books and is a must-read.

In this last choice extract – worth quoting in full – Westerby draws a picture of 'the Club' - and check out his final, revealing remark…
“A narrow door jammed between two shops; a dim passage; worn drown linoleum; two short flights of stairs covered with cheap cord carpet; the wall at the half-way landing badly marked by the passage of innumerable drunks; another door; and then the Club. Three large rooms; in the first, a dozen tables where silent men sat playing cards with their hats on. On the wall beyond them is a green baize noticeboard. In the middle of this is a printed card about betting slips. The card is dirty, and in one corner of it someone has made an obscene drawing in indelible pencil. The rest of the noticeboard holds strips giving the racing results of the afternoon, names and prices, written in board-school copper-plate, and pinned up every hour by a pimply youth in a skin-tight black suit. The youth's name is Perce, and he looks as if it would be. His face is the colour of a dirty plate, and no one has ever seen him without a half-smoked cigarette drooping from his mouth.
The second room is noisy. there are pin-tables, and a few chairs; a table with some newspapers on it – until they are either stolen or so rumpled as to be unreadable. This room is always full, and it is here the trouble occurs, when it occurs. The man in charge is called Ham. He is big and fat, squints and has a cauliflower ear. And he smells like acetylene. No one ever remarks on his peculiarities, unless drunk, in which case the remark is only made once. In 1935 Ham did a stretch for throwing two men out of a window.
The third room is larger still, with bare polished boards and a piano. This piano, and a saxophone, which is played by a talented but consumptive Jewish boy, provides the music for the dancing. Music starts at seven o'clock and goes on, with intervals, until two. There are a few tables and chairs around the walls, and at one end of the room another door leads out to a passage which leads to another door, which opens on to the stairs again. This has great strategic uses. You can follow someone into the Club, and think you have him covered, and then find you haven't. The tarts use this door, too, for their unobtrusive entrances and exits.
A few queer gentlemen come here to dance with one another, or with other young men who are willing to assume the mantle of perversion for the evening and a consideration.
The rest of the mob consists of tarts, touts, ponces, louts, bookies, ex-pugs, petty-gangsters, perhaps a stray newspaper-reporter trying to feel tough and Metropolitan, and a few fools, like me.”


  1. I wonder, are you acquainted with Robinson?

  2. … as in the Chris Petit book? Indeed I am - read it a year or so back and was pretty intrigued. I liked the description of the archway over Manette Street as the gateway into another world (so to speak). I'm not overly familiar with the ins and outs of the 'Robinson mythos', of which this supposedly forms part, although I loved the Robinson/Robinson In Space films and so it's something I should probably investigate. I hope to get around to writing up the book here at some point (I've got a bit of a backlog at the moment, but I'll knuckle down to adding some more content v. soon!).

  3. Check out the poems of Weldon Kees. You'll know which ones in particular by the titles. I particularly like the mirror from Mexico.