Sunday, 31 January 2010

They Drive By Night by James Curtis

Along with The Gilt Kid, this is probably Curtis's best-known book (which isn't saying much), largely due to the 1938 film version – the same year the novel was published. Newly released from Pentonville prison, petty criminal Shorty Mathews calls on his girlfriend in Drummond Street only to find her strangled. Fearing he'll be no. 1 suspect, he goes on the run, hitching a lift with a lorry driver heading up the great north road. While the real culprit – a serial killer who preys on prostitutes and calls himself the Lone-Wolf – stalks the West End in search of victims, and the police – more mindful of their own career prospects than finding the right man – pursue various false leads, Shorty finds himself in the world of long-distance lorry drivers, transport cafes and 'lorry girls' - one of whom turns out to be an old flame…

Curtis uses this to explore his pet themes: the 'honest' criminal, and the stupidity and brutality of the police (there are some crowd-pleasing scenes where Shorty bashes some coppers while trying to evade capture), with plenty of top-notch slang – references to “galloping your antelope“; “a push in the truck“ (nothing to do with lorries…) and the like abound. In addition, the depiction of the serial killer Hoover is both believable and disturbing. Curtis apparently spent some time with lorry drivers researching his subject, and this further adds to the verisimilitude of the setting, with some revealing snippets of dialogue, such as this, in which an older driver recalls the glory days of the 1920s:
“You know what started it all? You see, when road transport first started there was none of these big firms. Most firms didn't have no more than four or five lorries and the guv'nor or his son was usually a driver and all. Any road, he was a working chap same as the others. Then the railway companies suddenly turned round and said: ' Blimey, why should the transport blokes come cutting into our trade like this?' so they bloody well start having lorries of their own and all. Well, it ain't fair their big organisation against the little blokes, so that's where all our troubles started.”
“Ar,” said Alf, nodding his big head.
“But it's all big firms nowadays,” the Leyland driver continued. “Bouts, Faircloughs, London Scottish, Aberdonian Transit, Glossops, Fisher Renwicks, they're all just the same as the railways.”
“But there's plenty of independents left. Blokes working on their own and all,” said Bill. “Bags of them.”
“Yerce, but every year there's less and bloody less. No, the road isn't what it was. When I first started driving, a bloke never knew how far he's go in a day. He just bloody well drove on till his bloody eyes was falling out of his head and then he had a kip in his wagon. You dursn't do that nowadays. I've heard of drivers getting blistered for that. 'Having a mechanically propelled vehicle not under proper control.’ That's what they get you for.”
He paused to hold a match to his cigarette that was bobbing, unlighted, between his lips.
“Bloody fortunes that've been made out of the road and all. I know blokes that started as drivers and ended up managing directors.”
He blew out a cloud of smoke. “And the tarts, now. Take the road-girls. Prostitutes, that's all they are now, what's left of them. When I first started there was lots of girls went on the road just for the fun of it. Decent brought up girls, servants, factory-tarts and all that. Not the riff-raff you find now. You'd see them at a week-end sitting in bloody droves along the fences and all you had to do was take your choice. They'd take a ride south on a Saturday, and then go north on the Sunday and be back at work on Monday morning just as if nothing had happened.”
He paused, then added as an afterthought:
“Didn't want no money for it neither. Most of them.”
“Caw,” said Bill. “Bin nothing like it in my time.”
“Course there ain't.” He nipped his cigarette and put it behind his ear. “You youngsters don't know what driving is. I've drove practically everything in my time, steamers, fourgons, all that caper. Plenty of work, plenty of money and plenty of fun. That's what it was like in the old days.”
He chuckled.
“Blimey, the things I've seen in some of the caffs, particularly on the Cardiff road. Make your hair curl and I ain't a-kidding to you neither. Fights and girls and Gawd knows what. I've known blokes playing nap with a tart for the kitty and she sitting on the table strip-naked. I was sitting in on that game and all, but I didn't make out. No, it was a bloke driving a furniture van that copped that time. It was the girls spoiled the bloody road in the end. Them and the big companies. When those old cows started to come for rides things got different and with copping a packet, well you got to do something about it. But them days I'm talking about all the girls was out for was just a lark and if you wore a lorry driver's hat you was a little tin God and in some of those caffs on the Great West you used to see blokes and tarts in evening dress and furs and all that madam eating bacon sandwiches along with the boys.”

They Drive By Night was reissued in 2009 by London Books. The film, which was directed by Derek Twist and stars Emlyn Williams as Shorty and the always-fabulous Ernest Thesiger as Hoover, inevitably softens the book, but Curtis himself wrote the screenplay and it's a great piece of early British noir with some especially good scenes in the lorry-drivers' milieu. Sadly it's not currently available on DVD, but it has been shown on Channel 4 in recent years, and I imagine a release isn't out of the question. (Interestingly, the 1939 film of Curtis's There Ain't No Justice is apparently due to be reissued on DVD sometime in 2010 - of which more when I talk about the book here…).

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.”

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A Child Of The Jago by Arthur Morrison

This is a recent read and I'm still reeling somewhat from this uncompromising, grim and (presumably) realistic 1896 novel, set in one of London's worst slum districts (the Jago of the title, based on the notorious 'Old Nichol' between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green). Maybe I was expecting something a bit closer to Dickens – albeit he died more than a quarter of a century before this was published. Still, while it's a tired old cliché to accuse Dickens of sentimentality, there's certainly little enough of that here. This short, bitter book is unsparing in its portrayal of the Jago's brutalised – and mostly brutal – inhabitants, and while a few of the characters, such as the repellent Aaron Weech – corrupter of youth and fence for stolen goods behind a bible-quoting veneer of would-be respectability – have a touch of the Dickensian about them, they are too realistically drawn to serve as period grotesques or stereotypes.
As the central character, young Dicky Perrott, grows up in this world of crime and violence, the only beacon of hope is the local clergyman, Father Sturt. But despite winning the respect of the locals through a mixture of charity, practicality and tough love, Sturt hasn't the power – as Morrison is realistic enough to admit – to change even Dicky's fate, let alone the Jago itself. Sturt is supposedly based on one Reverend Osborne Jay; it was he who persuaded Morrison to write about the Old Nichol (Morrison subsequently spent 18 months closely researching the area and speaking to its inhabitants). Jay himself had a radical – and somewhat alarming – solution as to how to rid the world of slums and slum-dwellers, as expounded in this interview, from the same year Jago was published. There's no suggestion, in this novel at least, that Morrison favoured such measures, although he's not reticent in portraying the Jago as, in effect, a cesspit crawling with human vermin. But this is tempered with sympathy and an understanding of the causes of such a situation, and the real tragedy of the novel is that Dicky is essentially good-hearted, but his cards were marked before he was born. “The Jago's got you,” one character tells him. And the only way out “except gaol and the gallows“ is to become a 'high mobsman' – ie, the upper echelon of villains.
A Child Of The Jago is also noteworthy for its use of slang ('click' for a piece of thievery; 'toy' for a watch, 'screw' for burgle - a term that also appears in James Curtis's novels of 40 years later), the closely observed codes of behaviour that prevail in such areas, and insight into various arcane criminal activities. And for a flavour of the action, here's Morrison's description of a street fight between two women from rival factions of the Jago:

“Sprawled on her face in the vile roadway lay a writhing woman and screamed, while squeezed under her arm was a baby
with mud in its eyes and a cut cheek, crying weakly; and spread over all, clutching her prey by hair and wrist, Sally Green
hung on the nape like a terrier, jaws clenched, head shaking.

Norah Walsh, vanquished champion, now somewhat recovered, looked from a window, saw her enemy vulnerable, and ran out, armed with a bottle. She stopped at the kerb to knock the bottom off the bottle, and then with an exultant shout seized Sally Green by the hair and stabbed her about the face with the jagged points. Blinded with blood, Sally released her hold on Mrs. Perrott and rolled on her back, struggling fiercely; but to no end, for Norah Walsh, kneeling on her breast, stabbed and stabbed again, till pieces of the bottle broke away. Sally's yells and plunges ceased, and a man pulled Norah off. On him she turned, and he was fain to run, while certain Learys found a truck which might carry Sally to the hospital.”

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Angel Pavement by JB Priestley

Priestley, of course, isn't a forgotten figure like James Curtis – his play An Inspector Calls is currently enjoying another West End revival – but he's one of those figures who, like W Somerset Maugham, was hugely well-known and popular in his day but whose stock seems to have fallen in recent years (a phenomenon perhaps not unrelated to that very popularity). Now chiefly remembered for his theatre works, of his novels perhaps only The Good Companions is still widely known.
But his great London novel Angel Pavement, published just a year after The Good Companions in 1930, and nearly as long at 500 pages (in the above Penguin edition), deserves to be far better known than it is, for it's a fantastically readable piece, as well a being a marvellous evocation of London at that time.
For an account of the plot (but beware spoilers!) this should suffice. I guess you're either the sort of person who's attracted by the notion of a novel centring on a small company in the City that sells inlays and veneers for furniture… or you're not. But, of course, there's so much more to it than that. Exactly what Priestley's intention was here isn't always clear – while parts of the book play out like comedy, the overall tone is far from optimistic and, in common with most of the writers I'll be dealing with here, Priestley's view of human nature – his socialism notwithstanding – appears less than sanguine. The catalyst for the action, Mr Golspie, looks upon those with whom he throws in his lot - the characters whose separate stories make up the narrative - for the most part with barely disguised contempt. Yet Priestley makes us care deeply about every one of these people, even in the very depths of their inadequacy and failure. (The story of Miss Matfield - in her late twenties, intelligent, slightly haughty and yearning for a more fulfilling life but dangerously close to giving up hope, and who is both repelled by and attracted to the middle-aged, vulgar but larger-than-life Golspie - is especially affecting.) But memorable, intricately drawn scenes and characters abound: the pathetic clerk Turgis's disastrous entanglement with Golspie's spoilt, coquettish daughter Lena; the story of middle-aged accountant Mr Smeeth, forever haunted by the spectre of unemployment (all too real a fear then, on the brink of the Depression); Miss Matfield's New Year adventures in London with Mr Golspie…
On reading Angel Pavement, one also can't help but be struck at various points by a sense of plus ça change…. The loyal, steady employee Mr Smeeth despairs at the fecklessness of his own children as they flit uncaring from one job to another with no thought for the future. And as Christmas approaches for Miss Matfield and the others, Priestley writes:
“The shops she passed every day in the bus along Regent Street and Oxford Street had been celebrating Christmas for some time; and it was weeks since they had broken out into their annual crimson rash of holly berries, robins and Father Christmases. The shops, followed by the illustrated papers, began it so early, with their full chorus of advertising managers and window dressers, shouting 'Christmas Is Here,' at a time when it obviously wasn't, that when it did actually come creeping up, you had forgotten about it.”

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.