London’s Forgotten Fiction
John King‘s introduction to the reissue of Gerald Kersh‘s vintage Soho, low-life masterpiece Night And The City.
For generations raised in the fading post-First World War suburbs of London, the older circles of red-brick terraces and tenements had – and to an extent still have – a near-mythical status. Greater London is built along futuristic Fritz Lang highways, smooth arterial roads heading out to the satellite towns, straight tarmac cutting through huge estates of semi-detached youth, a brave new world that helped create the mods and skinheads in the 1960s, the boot boys and punks in the Seventies, at the same time preserving the Teds and rockers well past their Fifties heyday. These interzones were where the worker’s dream came true, but the glamour remained further back inside London, in the streets our parents and grandparents left behind.
Growing up in the Seventies, it was football and music and sometimes markets that pulled us towards this older London, a chance to mingle with the ghosts of ancestors we hardly knew existed. Cut-glass boozers tugged us inside, into fading gin palaces where men and women drank and enjoyed their music – through the fingers of a piano player hammering out ‘Knee’s Up Mother Brown’ or ‘Shout For Joy’, to the vinyl of a jukebox filled with Eddie Cochran, The Who, Sham 69. It was very different to today’s sterile gastro-pubs and characterless theme bars, where a hundred years of tradition can be erased with the swipe of a yuppie’s credit card.
England was still littered with bombed-out buildings, doodlebugs and V2 rockets something we heard about first-hand, daily war films and documentaries reinforcing our imagery. The Blitz seemed very real to us, the dirty walls of Old London reflecting the bravery of tougher times, as if the bricks were scorched by terror and relief. Television added a parade of post-war geezers to my impression of London – the Steptoe totters of Shepherd’s Bush and the cockney rebel Alf Garnett in the Sixties and Seventies; Jack Regan cleaning up the streets as Harold Steptoe and Alf began to fade; Arthur Daley and Terry McCann dodging their way through Fulham in the Eighties, Del Boy doing it for South London well into the Nineties. These boys were loveable rogues, but they also reflected the pride of a fading London in their humour, slang and outspoken views. They had codes of behaviour, a firm morality limiting their law-breaking.
Experience and storytelling merged, so for me West London was represented by the Uxbridge Road and The Shed at Chelsea, The Clash and The Sex Pistols, the Westway and the Chiswick Flyover, The Ruts and The Lurkers, Southall curries and the pubs of Fulham, Hammersmith and Brentford. North London was Camden Town and The Electric Ballroom, Irish fiddles and the nutty sound of Madness, Finsbury Park muggers and running battles on the Seven Sisters Road. The East End, meanwhile, was the daddy of London legend, the oldest corner of Old London. It was the Blitz Spirit and Jack The Ripper, West Ham dockers meets Fagin’s under-fives, cockles and mussels on Petticoat Lane, Jewish tailors and The Last Resort skinhead shop. I didn’t know South London at all, vague impressions of Brixton reggae, Millwall aggro and the fumes from Frankie Frazer’s car battery drifting across the river.
Then there was Soho, where all these Londons merged.
I first saw Soho in the late Seventies. In my teenage mind it was famous for punk, peepshows and Kray Twins fruit machines, but once there it was obviously worth much more. The buildings were stacked close and shut out the sun, dim alleyways connecting the narrow streets, a Dickensian flavour dominating the bright lights and gangster trim. Time warped, the Artful Dodger mutating into Johnny Rotten in a mash-up of drunk film men and walk-up brothels, the strip clubs fronted by speed-skinny women in PVC mini-skirts, sex shops staffed by scruffy herberts in NHS specs, middle-aged hard men showing off velvet-collared Crombies and some serious mutton chops as they guarded blank doors.
Soho had pubs and eccentrics galore, a sleazy postcard sauce and an air of villainy, and yet it felt safe somehow, with none of the casual violence of the suburbs or inner cities. It was said to be past its best, trading on a reputation that was never made clear, but which seemed to revolve around a cosmopolitan mix of vice and creativity. Journalists and artists had their special hang-outs, presented the bohemian case, but Soho’s image had to go back further than the Swinging Sixties. It was a mystery. Twenty years later, in the mid-Nineties, I came across a book that brought this lost world to life.
I was walking down from The Blue Posts on Berwick Street, heading for Chinatown, the fruit-and-veg market dismantled for the night, the record shops shuttered, continued along Strippers Row, coming out the other side and ducking into a discount bookshop, the upstairs dealing in cult fiction and glossy art books, the downstairs peddling porn. Scanning the shelves through an eight-pint haze, a title clicked. Wasn’t Night And The City the name of that old black-and-white film starring Richard Widmark, the one set in the clubs and wreckage of post-war London, a charged merging of wide boys, crooks and a great old wrestler who wants to keep fighting? But if so, what was Robert De Niro doing on the cover? And who was the author? Gerald Kersh? Never heard of him.
Luckily I dipped into the text. The effect was instant. The writing was strong and stylish, the locations familiar yet exotic, the prose pounding in from the pavements outside, slang easily shifting into sharp observation. I bought the book, enjoyed my chow mien and, within days, was a Kersh fan, his writing showing that maybe there was a world of London fiction I’d missed. Robert De Niro was explained – the book had been turned into a film twice.
Night And The City was a revelation. Later I would discover the likes of Fowlers End, The Angel And The Cuckoo and Prelude To A Certain Midnight. And other forgotten London authors. Men such as James Curtis, Alexander Baron, Frank Norman. Cult books by Robert Westerby, Mark Benney, John Sommerfield. Others had been on their trail for years – Nick Robinson, Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit – but I didn’t care. Better late than never.
It was clear that Night And The City ranked near the fiction of Alan Sillitoe, the only English author I knew who wrote about everyday people in a familiar language. Sillitoe’s novels had themselves been a discovery years earlier, and while he came from a different background to my favourite English author, George Orwell, the two men obviously shared the same humanity. Sillitoe’s novels added a first-hand knowledge of the working world, the fact he often wrote about his native Nottingham unimportant as the language and warmth and defiance connected. From my first brush with Sillitoe I was hooked. The same happened with Gerald Kersh.
Night And The City is set in the Soho of legend, itself a focus for the glitz of the West End. The book recreates a trail of pubs and clubs and Italian-run cafes from back in the days when a bowl of spaghetti was still exotic. Kersh knew this world and his sentences shine bright, his locations peopled by a nutty bunch of fluorescent characters with nuttier more fluorescent names – Anna Siberia, Figler, Phil Nosseross, the Black Strangler. They drink and plot in Bagrag’s Cellar, Saxophone Joe’s, The International Political Club.
Kersh’s creations are flamboyant and believable, the novel’s central character going by the name of Harry Fabian, a cockney wide boy who puts on a fake American accent and talks big, forever trying to impress but too often failing to convince. He is a small-time crook who throws away the money he has, desperate for some sort of recognition. He is also physically frail and from a poor background, the Dodger or Rotten in a flash suit. He is a vulnerable, Dickensian-like character. He is also a ponce.
The term ‘ponce’ was taken seriously when the novel was written. It was a term of abuse, even for the likes of Harry. Language changes, but it’s interesting reading a book such as Night And The City to see how much slang is still in use. Kids learn from their parents and grandparents as much as their peers, maybe more so, though the teenage-rebellion industry would never admit this truth. Slang dips and rises, changes emphasis, word-play something that Kersh and a small number of his contemporaries relished.
Today, the pimp has replaced the ponce, the term introduced via rappers and their corporate managers. Living off women has been glorified, yet a ponce or pimp remains among the lowest forms of lowlife. This term ‘lowlife’, meanwhile, is another interesting one, and was applied to a genre of fiction that seems to centre around Soho. The description does the writing itself and the social observations it makes a disservice, while there is probably a hidden edge to the term. Is the Marquis De Sade considered ‘lowlife’ fiction, or is this a double-edged insult for working-class fiction? Especially when it is written by someone from outside the establishment? And when the style used breaks their rules?
Applying the first meaning, Night And The City, and other so-called lowlife novels, offer an uncensored glimpse of a vanished London. The descriptions and observations are probably impossible to find elsewhere, the same role covered in later decades by criminal and hooligan memoirs, and, to an extent, by modern films and television series.
For much of the novel there’s something likeable about Harry Fabian, his vulnerability possibly the result of his poor upbringing, but his dealings with Mr Clark challenge any sympathy the reader feels, show the depths to which he will sink in his pursuit of a pound note. He crosses a couple of lines, and in the end it’s personality not background that make Fabian what he is, the regular appearances of Bert the costermonger emphasising the fact. The final twist in the tale drills the message further home. This is an important element of the book. Bert is a decent, hard-working man with a lot more courage than Harry. He is the book’s working-class champion.
Harry Fabian has no morals and no backbone, but Gerald Kersh clearly has both. He doesn’t lay down the law like so many authors of the past but coaxes the reader along, plays his cards carefully, ultimately delivering a condemnation of greed and materialism.
Learning about Kersh’s life is a bonus and adds to the novel. The researcher and editor Paul Duncan has been piecing together his story over the years, and much of the available information is due to his hard work. Gerald Kersh was one of the chaps, knew the pubs and characters of the West End, the lay of the land further into the suburbs. His movements make me feel closer to his work, as if I was destined to find that copy of Night And The City. He drank in the Fitzroy Tavern, a pub used by Fabian Of The Yard and the likes of George Orwell and Julian Maclaren-Ross, somewhere I’ve known for a quarter of a century; he has connections with the Uxbridge Road which I know well; his roaming knowledge of Soho and its pubs means he probably used some of my favourites – The Ship, The Blue Posts, The Lamb And Flag. His younger years further out in Metroland offer a tentative link with the mental high roads of J.G. Ballard, the suburbs and M25 badlands another personal interest.
Kersh led a full life away from London and the West End of course. He was respected for his short stories and articles as well as his novels, wrote about events in the Second World War where he was a soldier, was a survivor of bombing and wasn’t scared of a fight, a man who travelled and experienced the world and lived in the United States, home of so many free-thinking writers over the years, men he had something in common with – Jack London, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Hubert Selby Jr. Kersh was an original talent, and seems to have died dodging creditors, largely forgotten, his books drifting out of print. He was never going to fit into the official canon, was too imaginative for the literary elitists.
We all build our own legends and myths, create histories, hear old stories and build new ones, tales that mutate and spiral out of control, real and imagined events stretching and bending and finally merging as they’re pulled together in more sober moments. Gerald Kersh and Night And The City represent a starting point for my interest in London’s forgotten fiction, the vibrancy of his writing and storytelling proving once again that good literature is timeless, even when it is recording the past.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John King is the author of the Football Factory trilogy, Human Punk, White Trash, The Prison House and the forthcoming Skinheads. He also runs London Books, which is reissuing Gerald Kersh’s The Night and the City.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 12th, 2007.