Sunday, 14 October 2012

Carnival - Compton Mackenzie

… or, as the 1961 Panther edition pictured here has it, “Compton Mackenzie's world-famous Carnival". I can't comment on the degree of global renown that the book enjoyed 49 years after its original publication in 1912 but, another half-century on, I wonder how many people have even heard of it, let alone read it. (The one 'review' that appears on – a one-star review at that – is from a reader who confesses to not having finished the book, doesn't appear from their account actually to have read any of it and misspells Mackenzie's name (twice). It was unknown to me before coming across this copy, despite having read some of Mackenzie's other early works. But, like J B Priestley, he seems to be one of those hugely prolific men of letters who are now only remembered for one or two works - in his case, two slices of Scottishry in the form of Whisky Galore and Monarch Of The Glen. But much as he is now associated with that part of the UK (he was also a founder of the SNP), Mackenzie wrote some excellent works of London fiction early in his career, the most notable of which is his 1914 magnum opus Sinister Street. Carnival was published two years earlier and there's as much here to enjoy for the dedicated London novel enthusiast. Interestingly, there appears to be a new edition on the way, and it's a novel that certainly merits rediscovery.

Anyone expecting the melodramatic potboiler suggested by this Panther edition, however, would probably be disappointed. The story of dancer Jenny Pearl, which starts with her birth in the fictitious respectable-working-class Hagworth Street, Islington, proceeds at a measured pace, especially the account of her early years; several chapters elapse before the action even ventures beyond Hagworth Street. But hard-going it isn't. Mackenzie is a meticulous and careful writer, and especially successful at conveying how childhood experiences, often involving adult behaviour that seems mysterious and incomprehensible at the time – inform his key characters. (He would take this idea much further with the story of Michael Fane in Sinister Street). Jenny, daughter of a feckless father but a strong, strict and loving mother develops a vehement desire to train as a ballet dancer but, due in part to her reluctance, once she's been set on her chosen path, to apply herself to her art, ends up in the career graveyard that is Piccadilly's Orient Palace of Varieties. It's there she encounters the upper-middle-class would-be artist Maurice Avery, and their passionate but unconsummated affair – and Maurice's importuning of Jenny to take their relationship to another level – form the key part of the story.

This all takes place amid a large cast of characters and a vividly evoked turn-of-the-century London with all its pleasures. And there's a noticeably more frank – and grown-up – treatment of sex than one would find in English novels of the Victorian era that had only ended just over a decade previously (indeed, Mackenzie also drops surprising hints here and there about darker sexual practices and proclivities).To modern readers, the character of Jenny is refreshingly independent, strong and
self-assured, and determined throughout not to be subjugated by any man – even one with whom she's in love. Nor is this is remarked on as in itself especially unusual or noteworthy – although when she has a brief flirtation with the suffragist movement the result is in no way a meeting of minds. In fact, she is (as is made clear on several occasions) neither an intellectual, nor possessed of much imagination; she's not even especially sympathetic – at least not at first, and this gradual change on one's perception is, I think, part of Mackenzie's skill. That said, towards the end of the novel ones sympathies become polarised by the introduction of one of the grimmest characters I've encountered in fiction in a long time: the Cornish farmer Zachary Trewellha. Arguably this threatens to overbalance the whole work but, without wishing to drop a spoiler, it's worth mentioning here that Mackenzie's inspiration for the novel (as he himself notes in his somewhat pompous introduction) was a visit to a farmer he knew in Cornwall whose wife turned out to be a peroxided former barmaid he'd met in a Leicester Square dive and persuaded to marry him.
As a London novel, there is much to relish here: the depiction of Maurice’s dishevelled bachelor pad-cum-studio, the backstage world of the dancing girls at the Orient (based on a real place?), and conversational quirks of the period:
"Is that right?" murmured Irene. "Is what right?" "About getting off with a fellow in the stalls?" "You're not nosy, are you? Oh, no, it's only a rumour. But if you want to know, it's nothing to do with you."
And despite the final section, it's as a predominantly London-set tale of great subtlety and superbly realised characterisation that this is likely to linger in ones mind.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

You're In The Racket, Too by James Curtis

Curtis's third novel (1937) is probably one of his least-known; certainly one of the hardest to track down as there appears not to have been a reprinting after the original Jonathan Cape edition
(although there was also a 1938 US edition). But it's very much in line with his other work of the period – the central character Snowey Henderson is a small-time crook cut from essentially the same cloth as Shorty Matthews from They Drive By Night and Kennedy from The Gilt Kid, albeit less sympathetic, less bright and more brutish. But in this novel Curtis splits the narrative between Snowey and other key players from further up the social scale, including Dickie Lambert, an ambitious young clerk; his boss, industrialist Ulrich Krebs, head of Krebs products (to whose daughter Dickie is also engaged), and Krebs' family. A web of coincidences connects all these characters and others, virtually all of whom (the possible exception being Krebs' luckless daughter Kathi) are used by Curtis to depict a society where everyone is on the make and dishonestly so. Dickie's engagement to Kathi is solely to better his position. Krebs is engaged in dodgy business dealings (and involving Dickie in his plans). Krebs' wife is having an affair with an ageing gigolo who fears his gravy train is about to hit the buffers, while Snowey attempts to blackmail Dickie, who happens to be seeing his girl Pidgy on the side… It's a world entirely informed by cynicism – and the title itself suggests we are all implicated. But despite the seemingly bleak subtext, YITRT comes at times as close as Curtis ever did to out-and-out comedy, as in this scene where Snowey, as pre-arranged with Pidgy, walks in on her and Dickie.
A man came in. He had not taken off his hat. His shirt and collar were soiled. He was wearing no overcoat. An unlighted cigar was stuck aggressively in the corner of his mouth. He looked so much like Balham's idea of Hollywood's idea of a Chicago gangster that Dickie, if he had not been scared out of his life, would have roared with laughter… “Whisky and all, blimey.” Snowey had caught sight of the bottle on the mantelpiece. “Carousing in luxury on the wages of shame.” He felt that was a good phrase. “Might as well have a drop meself.” He took the bottle off the mantelpiece. Dickie laughed. He could not help it.
And bearing in mind that even contemporaneous reviewers took Curtis to task for the degree of arcane argot he used, the following exchange between Snowey and his mate Len is priceless:
“If I hole up for a bit I won't stand a chance of earning myself no more. You'll have to sausage me a goose's.” “Sausage you a goose's? What the hell are you talking about?” Len had turned round from the window and was staring at Snowey. “Cash me a cheque, dopey.”
From the opening scene of the book in Bruce House - then, as now, a homeless hostel in Drury Lane - Curtis, as the flyleaf blurb phrases it, has got his eye in. His sympathy for those on the bottom rung of society is evident here, albeit more equivocally. Snowey might be a charmless lunk, but he's no worse than the cheap, dishonest Dickie or the corrupt Krebs – and, in one key scene he angrily berates a stranger in a pub for telling a joke he feels is mocking honest working men. Played out across London locations from seedy Paddington bedsits to Soho dive bars, this is a hugely entertaining and visceral novel, and it's a shame it's so hard to find - but in this field it has to be classed as essential reading if you can unearth a copy.

I'm back…

After a two-year+ hiatus – for no good reason other than that a lot of spare time has been taken up with musical pursuits – I'm getting this blog up and running again. There's no shortage of potential content, so my aim is to post about at least one book per month. Hopefully there'll be at least a few people out there still interested…

Sunday, 25 April 2010

There Ain't No Justice - James Curtis

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…

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

500 Essential Cult Books

This very promising-looking tome is being published in June, and includes entries on James Curtis, Patrick Hamilton and doubtless other writers relevant to this blog (along with plenty more good stuff). In the meantime, there's a related Facebook page. Go see.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Passing Of Evil - Mark McShane/The Finsbury Lot - George Burnett

OK, after an unexpectedly protracted period waiting to move house and then waiting to get back online, I'm back with these two recently acquired early-60s tales of unswinging London. The McShane book (he was best-known for Seance On A Wet Afternoon) in particular has to rank as one of the dingiest novels I've ever read; that's by no means to its detriment, although I'd say neither effort is deserving of a dedicated post. Those Pan covers are irresistible, though – and both novels seem (to my mind) to evoke a very specific postwar period: post-Austerity but predating the social upheavals of the 60s; a time when many people, despite being told they'd 'never had it so good' were, on the evidence of such works as these, becoming all-too aware of just what it was they didn't have. It feels like the fag end of an era.
The Passing Of Evil (1961) is set in an unspecified area south of the river and introduces us to Gelina, an amoral female who gets her kicks from manipulating men (even with no tangible benefit to herself) and who turns up here – for no apparent reason – and turns her attentions to, variously, a shy, gauche appliance salesman (who lives with his mother), a small-time boxer, a pathetic would-be gangster and an even more pathetic businessman-cum-boxing promoter who dreams of living out his days on a Greek island.
The action (such as it is), is played out in joyless dancehalls, fly-blown cafés and depressing little shops. This is not a novel to evoke nostalgia (which could in retrospect be its main strength). Certainly the central character of Gelina is scarcely believable on any level and is bordering on misogynist; her motivation is never explained - any more than why she chooses this particular collection of losers to prey on. It all happens over a period of scarcely more than 24 hours; indeed, the heroically slow progress of the narrative and the generally run-down ambience makes this a veritable study in moribundia.

The Finsbury Lot (1963), is verging about as near to the straight crime thriller as I like to venture, and includes the stock bland police types, etc, although Burnett seems to be more interested in the world of the criminals and 'ordinary' types whose desperation is such that they find themselves on its fringes. The latter type is exemplified here by Frank Dolby, who, after a win on the pools, has moved from Dagenham to pursue his dream (and who wouldn't?) of opening a run-down sweet shop/tobacconist's on a back street in EC2. Needless to say, the business is soon struggling, and he finds himself unable to buy into to the brave new world of consumer durables to which his wife aspires. The chance of an easy few quid brings him into the orbit of the titular Finsbury Lot, whose racket is hijacking lorries carrying cigarettes (the gang members use words like 'perishing'). Things are further complicated after one of the 'Lot' deliberately and fatally drives a lorry over the policeman boyfriend of Dolby's sister-in-law (after whom Dolby himself secretly and fruitlessly lusts)… It all ends up more or less miserably.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A brief hiatus

I'll be taking a break from posting for a couple of weeks while I move house, but I'll be back with much, much more. In the meantime, be sure to listen to Lost Steps on Resonance. And by way of a change, here's a film recommendation: Anold Miller's fantastic 1965 Mondo doc Primitive London (reissued last year by the BFI's increasingly promising-looking Flipside series in a great-looking print). Truly a memento of Lost London - and with its weird mix of staged scenes, apparently 'real' interviews with 'beatniks', oddly disconcerting diversions (including a very short piece on bowling followed by a vet giving an injection to a goldfish), and, of course, plenty of necessary-to-the-plot footage of strippers, exotic dancers etc - a disarmingly surreal one. Oh, and a wonderful soundtrack - including much of the (presumably non-diegetic) strip club music - by Basil Kirchin, reminiscent of his Abstractions Of The Industrial North.