:: Article

Going Underground

By Cathi Unsworth.

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Baron’s Court, All Change, Terry Taylor
Adrift in Soho, Colin Wilson
The Furnished Room, Laura Del-Rivo
New London Editions’ ‘Beats, bums and bohemians’ series, 2011

With their neon-lit, smoky blue front covers, this trio of books beckon like a flickering light in a Soho doorway, or the jazz notes drifting up from a basement in Ladbroke Grove. The year is 1961 and the capital is still pitted with bombsites, hungry from years of rationing and anxious. The social mix is shifting in unforeseen ways: from the packs of Teddy boys with their elaborate suits appropriated from upper class fops; to the Rude Boys bringing even sharper styles and sounds from the Caribbean islands; and the grammar school kids drawn from the furthest provinces by the clarion call of London; their bright ideals colouring the monochrome streets with the optimism of the new Space Age.

All three authors were such youthful ‘outsiders’ wanting in. Colin Wilson came from Leicester, the drab industrial midlands; Laura Del-Rivo from Cheam in the stuffy stockbroker belt of Surrey. Only Terry Taylor is an actual Londoner, born in Kilburn – but, in the persona of his novel’s 16-year-old protagonist, he breaks down the sprawling metropolis to its crucial hepcat constituency:

The place where I lived comes under an area they call Greater London, which is such a ridiculous name I shan’t make any comment on it. So to get to the London which isn’t so great but a bloody sight better, you have to board a tube train which goes on a twenty-minute journey above ground till you come to a station called Baron’s Court. Just as you leave Baron’s Court station the train goes underground and this never failed to give me a little thrill…

The spark that crackles through all three books is the yearning for change and difference, of finding a way of living in the centre of all happening without resorting to the drudge of work – by far the biggest fault line in this generation was the one that opened up between the baby-boomers and their parents. The protagonists of each, while hanging in similar locations and social milieaus, find differing solutions to this crucial problem, to varying degrees of success and disaster.

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By 1961, Colin Wilson had already been fêted as the saviour of British letters and then suffered a backlash in popularity comparable to the trajectory of Nick Clegg before and after the last election. The Outsider, his 1956 study of social outcasts in literature which he wrote in the British Library Reading Room while camping out on Hampstead Heath at night, saw him hailed, alongside playwright John Osborne, as the spearheads of a new wave of ‘Angry Young Men’, the English answer to Albert Camus. After a year spent declaring his genius in the exalted company of TS Eliot, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess and Camus himself, he was reviled as a pariah by the same literary establishment, his interest in the Occult, mass murderers and fetishism perceived as leaning towards fascism. Popular opinion of him has never fully recovered since, his greatest crime seeming to be that he has written too many books, stemming from his obsessions with criminal behaviour, psychology, philosophy, sex and magickal practises – not unrelated issues by any means.

All of which makes the hugely autobiographical Adrift in Soho a fascinating read, rewinding as it does back half a decade to Wilson – or Harry Preston, as he calls his protagonist’s arrival in London. It describes the progress of a bookish young man from the Midlands with a vast knowledge of literature and interest in the esoteric, whose chance meeting with a delightfully named young actor, James Compton Street, brings about a virulent case of Sohoitis and teaches him a whole new way of life.

Soon Harry is hobnobbing with con men, counts, artists, rich literary benefactors and strange old men selling arcane magickal tomes from shops by the British museum. He expounds to anyone who will listen about his great idea for writing a book on the literary outsiders in cult literature, finds touching romance with a young New Zealander called Doreen, and between his assignations with her and the worldly James – who suggests he calls his book The Pariahs or The Outcasts – finds a crash pad in Notting Hill Gate inhabited by brilliant unknown artist Ricky Prelati and a host of young bohemians.

Interestingly, it was the writer and broadcaster Daniel Farson who first coined the term Angry Young Man for Wilson and it is with Farson’s own, brilliant memoir, Soho In the Fifties that Adrift in Soho shares both common trajectory and key, real life characters, both men having had the course of their lives altered forever after a chance visit to the French House pub in Dean Street. Wilson’s descriptions of the Soho demi-monde, bickering and bitching their way through boozy afternoons in the French and the Caves du France, chime vividly with Farson’s accounts. The room that Harry takes in the Notting Hill pad has recently been vacated by two fighting Welsh artists, thinly disguised mirrors of the real life fighting Scottish Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBride, who feature heavily both in Farson’s book and Julian Maclaren-Ross’ previous Memoirs of the Forties. One fascinating Soho legend that Wilson doesn’t bother to disguise is Ironfoot Jack – who recently popped up in cameo in Alan Moore’s latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 – described here with arresting verisimilitude:

He was a strange looking man, a cross between a tramp and a character out of The Prisoner of Zenda. A dirty cravat was held by an enormous brass ring. He was a big man, with the shoulders of a wrestler; and his bulk contrasted oddly with his voice, which was that of an old Cockney woman…

Which is worth the price of entry for any student of Sohemia. Pleasingly, Adrift in Soho is currently in production by Burning Films and with such rich source material, perhaps Wilson will now receive some contemporary reassessment for his continuing fascination with the human condition and the wit, warmth and insight that he brings to his accounts of those he has shared his unusual journeys with.

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One of the friends that Wilson made in Notting Hill in the late Fifties was Laura Del-Rivo, with whom he shared an address in Chepstow Villas, W11, in a loose collective of likeminded writers. Laura’s debut novel, The Furnished Room is clearly marked by her association with Wilson and his philosophy of New Existentialism, for her protagonist, Joe Beckett, is a man who has lost his vocation to become a Catholic priest and now drifts through a twilight existence in the bedsitter land of Ladbroke Grove, wondering if there is some way he might shock himself back into feeling again.

Filmed in 1963 by Michael Winner as West 11, with a screenplay adapted by another Angry Young Man, Billy Liar author Keith Waterhouse and his scriptwriting accomplice Willis Hall, The Furnished Room captures the Ladbroke Grove of art students, pill-poppers, prostitutes, Mosleyite fascists and upper class conmen that would stir up and bring forth the Profumo Affair; that haunting black-and-white world that is similarly refracted in Ken Russell’s A House in Bayswater and Pop Goes The Easel, Gerry O’Hara’s The Pleasure Girls and Bryan Forbes’ The L-Shaped Room. Yet, in its depiction of a man losing his mind within a feckless circle of cold-hearted women and dangerous conspirators, it also brings to mind the parallel, pre-War West London of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square.

Like Hamilton, Del-Rivo has a nose for a particular type of villain, the smooth, military-fashioned confidence trickster whose very name conjures images of real-life charmers like John George Haigh and Neville Heath, who both stalked their prey in this part of London. Beckett’s fate is sealed within the second chapter, when he encounters an older man at a party in Fulham who casually waltzes off with the woman Beckett was intending on leaving with. Del-Rivo’s one-sentence description of the cad immediately sends the hair prickling:

Dyce evoked the fake major in the Tudor roadhouse who slaps you on the back and asks you to cash his cheque.

But despite his instinctive misgivings, Dyce still manages to lure Beckett into a web of conspiracy by exploiting the latter’s aimlessness, faithlessness and unwillingness to conform to a menial life. Casually mentioning a rich, elderly Aunt with a supposedly weak heart, he sets in motion the very idea Beckett had been contemplating and explains to Dyce thus:

Nihilism is a claustrophobic state; a prison. I think crime can be an attempt to break out of the prison; a dynamite to blast the walls… The nihilist wants to feel, so he strikes at life in order that life might strike him back… Of course, murder is the only absolute crime…

A convent-educated girl herself before her escape to West 11, Del-Rivo came to the attention of the celebrated pos-War photographer and swinging socialite Ida Kar, who photographed her at around the same time that she was making the intimate acquaintance of the next of our trio, a man who made a profound effect on the world of 1961 before seemingly disappearing in a puff of exotically-scented smoke for the next half century – before a determined London writer of a later generation made it his mission to track Terry Taylor down.

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Stewart Home has been banging a drum for Taylor for the past decade and finally has the satisfaction of not only getting to write the introduction to the first edition of Baron’s Court, All Change for over 40 years, but of bringing a lost legend out of obscurity and back to the attention his work has long deserved. While Wilson and Del-Rivo’s work lingers on the cusp of two decades, Taylor’s debut novel points the way into the Swinging Sixties through the portal of a Soho jazz club called The Katz Kradle. Here, our unnamed narrator learns how to smoke ‘Charge’ with a girl called Miss Roach and takes up with a wideboy named Dusty Miller, who will deliver him from his frustrated existence selling hats for Down and Company and searching for kicks via Spiritualism in the Middlesex hinterland, to a bold new enterprise – supplying art students, spades and Modernists with the stuff to blow their tiny minds.

It was at such a club in Berwick Street that Taylor first met Colin MacInnes, who would go on to model his own anonymous hero of Absolute Beginners on his captivating new friend. To find out that MacInnes’ most famous work, the novel that for so many was the ultimate encapsulation of London’s nascent beat generation, was inspired by this precociously talented Kilburn kid puts a whole new spin on the enjoyment of reading both books. Because the world that MacInnes evokes is the one that Taylor was instinctually wired to – for those seeking the Rosetta Stone of Mod fiction, look no further. Buzzing to a soundtrack of Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, The Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davies, our narrator spells out the hip from the squares at the Katz Kradle in a vernacular that resounds with the shock of the new:

There’s a war on between our battalion of music lovers and the great army of jazz fiends at this club of ours. There’s never any trouble but it’s what those politician cats call a cold war. I wouldn’t mind if these morons admitted to the world that they don’t understand or appreciate our sounds but they don’t… All right, so we don’t dress as sharp as they do, but instead of squandering our bread on drag, we invest it in LPs.

Soon, our narrator has moved beyond Soho and into boho Bayswater, where he describes a different kind of social assembly at African dope peddler Ayo’s pad – beautiful ‘half-caste girls’ from Tiger Bay, Harry the Hare ‘the Patron Saint of Charge’, the fascinating junkie Popper – and a rather familiar sounding, Benzedrine-fuelled existentialist writer named Algernon Fliewright.

However, there is very much more to Baron’s Court, All Change than the inside line on cool. Taylor shows a touching empathy for all concerned in the changing world around him, not least those that are going to be left behind in the suburbs. Liz, his hipster’s older sister, lives out a Hollywood vision of Fifties perfection, with red roses and a picture of Frankie Laine on her wall. But her dreams of becoming the perfect Kay Starr housewife are shattered when she falls pregnant to her Jewish boyfriend.

The scenes that play out between the siblings are the most moving and evocative in the book, particularly the chapter in which both play hooky from the annual family holiday in Canvey Island and spend an afternoon forgetting themselves at Battersea Funfair. Though the narrator feels perfectly at home amongst the easy racial mix of his in-crowd, his sister is only too aware that the taboo she has broken will never be tolerated by her beau’s parents. She ends up taking the most deathly course open to a girl, in the days before the Pill and legalised abortion:

…an ugly black rubber syringe with bulb-like thing at the end of a tube… a bowl of soapy water tinged with the slightest shade of pink, a wad of cotton wool, a bottle of Dettol and a pair of rubber gloves.

It is an abrupt reminder of how much progress was still to be made for the young at the threshold of that extraordinary decade, especially – as ever – for women. But, for those of us stranded now in the interwebbed 21st century, the physical leylines connecting everyone within the small, enchanted circle of these three books crackle and pulse with an intimacy and vitality, the thrill of going underground in search of something a bloody sight better.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer and Bad Penny Blues, and the editor of the compendium London Noir (all Serpent’s Tail).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 30th, 2011.