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All the Way Up and All the Way Down

By Nicky Charlish.

Nick Triplow, Getting Carter – Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir (No Exit Press, 2017)

It’s tempting to think of the noir movie as an exclusively American product. The hard-bitten shamus, the cast-iron frail, the leather-jacketed punk, all have a spirit which seems impossible of crossing-over into a British setting. Occasionally though, a British film noir punctures this lazy assumption, rising head and shoulders above the offerings of Hollywood. Such an offering is Get Carter. It’s the story of Jack Carter, a London gangster, returning to his hometown of Newcastle to avenge the death of his brother. Now, from this biography, we get the chance to learn about its literary progenitor, a writer who has largely remained in the shadows of British crime writing.

Born in 1942, in Manchester, Ted Lewis was brought-up in an exclusively female household – an experience common for many children raised during the Second World War – whilst his father served in the Royal Air Force. Four years later, after demobilisation, Lewis senior moved his family to Barton-upon-Humber, in the East Midlands, to work as a quarry manager. Biographer Nick Triplow, himself a crime novelist now based in the same town, takes us through Lewis’s early and teenage years, vividly evoking a world of post-war austerity, along with a school ethos and discipline almost unimaginable to today’s therapy culture-cosseted, web-nurtured Generation Xers and Millenials (Norman Goddard, Lewis Grammar School headmaster, when told that he, Goddard, had terrified a former pupil, replied ‘Ah, but it worked, didn’t it?’, a pedagogic pathway unlikely to commend itself to todays educational establishment, or parents. In fairness, though, schools of that era, whilst tough, arguably also had standards of education that, unencumbered by targets and the ‘all must have prizes ethos of modern schooling, challenged pupils from modest backgrounds and enabled them to thrive). The literate Lewis, imbibing a mixture of American literature, film, and music, did not fit into the school’s aspirational middle-class ethos even though his short stories shone in its magazine. In 1956 he was asked to leave, but landed on his feet by getting into the Hull School of Arts and Crafts. From here – aided and abetted by being in a band and hedonistic trips to London gigs – it was a journey (via, improbably, Westland Aircraft in Somerset) to working as a commercial artist in London. Or, more precisely, the just-about-bohemian Soho of the early 1960s, the Soho of the Coach, the French, the Mandrake, the Colony Room and Gerry’s – and the also the Soho of Maltese gangs, of the Krays and Richardsons, in which latter criminal ethos he hovered with cautious interest. In 1965, whilst still working as an illustrator, Lewis published All the Way Home and All the Night Through, a story of art school life, drink, music and young love based on his student years. Lewis combined an uncertain literary life, including short-story writing for the teen magazine Petticoat, with continuing to work as an illustrator on, among other assignments, the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine. But in 1970 he published the crime novel Jack’s Return Home. Snapped-up by film producer Michael Klinger, on the look-out for a tough British thriller as a subject for a film and via amendment by film director Mike Hodges – it became the film Get Carter, released in 1971. This was a stellar success – it not only starred Michael Caine as its anti-hero, but also featured other noteworthy actors: the excellent Bernard Hepton as small-time crook Thorpe, Brian Mosley and playwright John Osborne playing, respectively, the gangsters Cliff Brumby and Cyril Kinnear, Ian Hendry depicting Kinnear’s henchman Eric Paice, and John Bindon performing as Sid, one of the Fletcher brothers for whom Carter works (a role into which, given Bindon’s gangland connections, he would doubtless have immersed himself with ease). Lewis’s boat had come in, big time.

Except it hadn’t. Lewis would follow through with more noir novels Plender, Prisoner, Boldt, GBH (noteworthy, among other things, for the way it depicts violence, not directly, but by showing its onlookers reactions to it). He also wrote for the television cop show Z Cars, notable for its pioneering, warts-and-all depiction of the police and their work. For Lewis, all this should have resulted in an arc of achievement, building on the success of Get Carter. Instead, it was a one-way trip down, due to his contest with that familiar artistic bête noir, the bottle – something which was not helped by his personality being, as Triplow tells us, ‘charming’ one moment and ‘obnoxious’ the next. His affair with drink started early – a photograph in the book shows a teenage Lewis in a seriously inebriated state, and fame would do nothing to slow down his love of alcohol – a love that would lead to his death, in 1982, at the age of 42.

Triplow manages to extract several noteworthy points from what might seem to be the unprofitable wreckage of a wasted life – a major achievement as he has had few primary sources to work with.

First, the writer of noir must know him or her self – however unpleasant that self might be – and bring the experience of gaining that knowledge into the work: in All the Way Home, Lewis presents his alter ego, Victor, as violent, jealous, self-absorbed. And if the writer can’t always present everything about himself openly, he can hint at it: in notes he kept in 1964 (three years before the decriminalisation of male homosexual sex over the age of 21), Lewis gives the suggestion that he may have had gay relationships. Indeed, he may have used noir writing as a way of exploring his own dark side.

Second, unlike some crime genres, noir is not designed to make us comfortable. Order is not necessarily going to be restored with a drawing-room denouement. Good and evil both have their areas of grey. The writing deals with those who are society’s losers (whatever their socio-economic status – think of the businessman in Get Carter who loses at cards: one suspects that it’s only a matter of time before the tax man catches up with him). It contains people who we may find ourselves identifying with, however much that may go against our instincts: Carter is vicious and amoral, but we can understand the family ties and feelings which motivate him.

Third, the writer must be ready to show the underbelly of his or her society, not only to attack that society’s smugness and pretence, but also possibly because the writer has hopes – against all the odds – for something better to emerge in it. Triplow gives an example from Jack’s Return Home in which Carter bluffs his way into the casino owned by Kinnear. This scene – via Carter’s reflections on the punters he finds himself amongst – gives Lewis a chance to appraise the results of post-war aspirational change and the vulgarity that went with it. Triplow quotes novelist David Peace referring to ‘a sustained war’ on working-class culture, leading to writers such as Lewis, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe being sidelined. Maybe – no mainstream British political party finds that culture attractive today although all, in the past, have sought to woo it. But the aspirationalism which Lewis criticises could also have played its part in that culture’s decline: people want to forget where they’ve striven to escape from. And Britainbeing the land of the diamond geezer, decent bloke and jolly good chap is perhaps particularly full of those unwilling to even admit that life has a dark side, let alone examine it. Those two naughty public schoolboy writers, Derek Raymond and Simon Raven, also pulled no punches when it came to showing the seamy side of British life at either end of the class spectrum. By way of contrast, the works of both Lewis and Raymond are revered in France.

Finally, long before hashtag campaigns and the calling-out of everyday sexism, Lewis had a clear idea that the sexual revolution which had arisen in the mid-Sixties with high hopes of erecting some form of sexual nirvana (at least, for men) had a deeply unattractive side. (It would, arguably, be some time for feminists to pick-up on this, possibly through fear of being seen as anti-progressive – and some of them were enjoying its delights, too). In Jack’s Return Home, Carter uses sex as a way of keeping his landlady sweet. And Peter the Dutchman, one of the two Fletcher brothers henchmen sent to bring Carter back to London, is a sadistic homosexual a denizen of a tough, pre-Pride Soho gay world yet to be embellished with rainbow flags who relates with relish a story of two butch lesbians beating-up a young girl. Plender, published in 1971, shows a world where sex is used for blackmail, or as a commodity. (The treatment meted out to women in Lewis’ novels may reflect misogyny on his part, but it should be remembered that implementing the second-wave feminism which was just starting to develop in the late 1960s was not a concern for the men in the criminal circles he depicted.)

The final chapter of this biography looks at modern-day British crime writing and Lewis’ place within it, with writers such as Peace acknowledging their debt to him. However it can be argued that – due to the changed nature of modern-day crime, along with the rise of political correctness – the full implementation of the Lewis spirit raises problems. Working-class white criminal geezers of the sort he wrote about are no more. Or rather, they are, but have a different modus operandi: present-day hard men from the badlands of Essex and Kent have seen where high-profile, publicity-relishing crims like the Krays have ended-up, so keep their activities strictly sub rosa, and thus more difficult to portray. In addition, working-class white geezers are arguably the only social group that can be portrayed in a critical light without risking the PC police descending with virtue-signalling sirens blaring and lights flashing. Today’s diverse society offers a rich mix of criminals, from all sorts and conditions of cultures, races and religions, ripe for literary exploration.

But tackling issues like people-smuggling and/or trafficking, or urban gangs (which usually provide the only male role-models their members have encountered – for most, dad is a long-gone figure) dealing drugs and pursuing beefs – usually at knife-point – is taking a major risk. In her debut novel White Teeth, Zadie Smith could portray Islamic Asian boy gangs in her home turf of Willesden without criticism: it’s questionable whether she could do so now, especially post the Rushdie fatwa. But cultural conflict, sexual politics and urban issues can only be addressed by being met headon, not by being swept under a PC carpet. One of the functions of noir is to excavate and examine society’s underside, however unattractive or disturbing that might be. And, in a societymirroring much of the Western world which has witnessed in recent years a popular revolt resulting in the gradual unraveling of an enforced PC social consensus, along with the emergence of Red Tories and Blue Labour, people may be up for the unrestricted discussion of societal change. Indeed, there is an urgent necessity for this: social pressure cookers – like their culinary counterparts – have a nasty habit of exploding if their lids are kept on too long. But it can – and has to – be done. Noir writers should learn from Jack Carter: for him, dishing out violence is a full-time job, and for them writing about society’s underside should be their constant quest.


Nicky Charlish is a freelance writer and proofreader who has contributed to, among other publications, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Midweek and, currently, to London Calling, Spindle, and London in Stereo online magazines. His debut novel, Gender Justice, is due for publication in the New Year.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 17th, 2017.