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Now You See Her: An Interview with Cathi Unsworth

By Garth Cartwright.

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Cathi Unsworth needs little introduction to 3:AM readers, she often contributes superb features, reviews and interviews to this site. Her two previous novels (The Not Knowing, The Singer) and the London Noir anthology she edited are required reading for anyone who appreciates fiction in the 21st Century and her latest book, Bad Penny Blues (Serpents Tail), finds her upping the ante to deliver a visceral overview of London just before it began to swing.

Bad Penny Blues is fiction yet it is very much rooted in London history. The novel’s plot follows a series of grotesque murders of London prostitutes that occurred between 1959-1965 with the predator (who was never caught) dubbed Jack The Stripper by the tabloids. Against this backdrop of vulnerable women being abused and murdered, Unsworth focuses on Pete Bradley, a rookie cop wants to enforce the rule of law and the Soho-based detectives who are happy to abuse their power whenever it suits them. Alongside the police story there’s Stella, a gifted young fashion designer, and her husband Toby, a rising Pop Art star. As Stella, Toby and Pete find their way through a rapidly changing Ladbroke Grove and Soho, the 1960s gather speed and British society begins to shake off the shackles that have kept it so repressed. Pete tries to solve the murders while Stella keeps getting woken by terrifying nightmares echoing the last hours of the dead women. The careers of all those involved take on speed while the city’s most vulnerable women are subject to unimaginable brutality. Here Unsworth has styled an almost Shakespearean epic involving power, ambition, madness, corruption, murder and lies.

Bad Penny Blues is superbly researched and beautifully written. Unsworth recreates Ladbroke Grove when it was a working class neighbourhood packed with racist Teddy Boys, West Indian migrants, Irish navvies and Romany chancers. This Ladbroke Grove of fifty years ago could, in many ways, be five hundred years old, so evocative is it of a London forever lost. The author’s attention to detail, ability to construct very real characters and convey lived emotion to men and women from all kinds of backgrounds combine to make Bad Penny Blues a masterpiece of London noir.

If you want a good winter read that conveys just how much and how little London has changed in recent decades while being hugely entertaining then Bad Penny Blues is the one.

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3:AM: Bad Penny Blues is your third and most ambitious novel. It features multiple characters, several points-of-view, overlapping plot lines and events that actually happened. What made you decide to write such a challenging novel?

CU: The whole thing was one long, strange trip — I remain unsure as to whether I even chose to do it or it chose me. After I had written The Singer, I had an idea for another novel, and unusually for me, I could see the entire arc of it. But I couldn’t write it. Every time I tried, the words wouldn’t come. While I was struggling with it, a friend recommended that I read Jack of Jumps by David Seabrook, an investigation into the so-called Jack the Stripper murders that happened between 1959-65. I found the book profoundly disturbing. I had vaguely heard of the Stripper murders before, but had no idea that they connected to Ladbroke Grove so closely — nearly all of the murdered women lived and worked here, where I have lived for 22 years now. That the streets which are now inhabited by rich bankers and oligarchs were once a teeming red light district. I couldn’t get it all out of my mind.

Then I read an article by Tom Vague, the arch-psychogeographer of Ladbroke Grove, which mentioned how Joe Meek had once lived in Arundel Gardens, where I used to live myself and where I set my first novel, and that he worked in Lansdowne Studios, across the road from Holland Park tube, in 1959. The first of the Stripper’s victims, Elizabeth Figg, was last seen outside Holland Park tube on the night of 17th June 1959 and for some reason something clicked in my head about that. Joe Meek, working with radios to create weird effects, conducting séances in his flat on Arundel Gardens — had he somehow opened up a channel from whence the evil of Jack the Stripper came through? A mad idea, perhaps, but once I had started off down that road, material seemed to fly towards me. I hadn’t worked out anything in advance, but after I abandoned the novel I had been struggling with and started writing this instead, all the elements that forged the finished book were given to me, one after the other, as I will go on to explain.

3:AM: What was the writing process like for Bad Penny Blues? Considering you are dealing with a series of horrific unsolved murders and a tableau of people who actually lived in London across 1959-1965 I imagine it involved huge amounts of research and then much writing and rewriting?

CU: Yes it did, but I was helped along the way by a lot of people. There is a long list of books and films that helped at the back of the book, but some pivotal ones are these: firstly, Found Naked and Dead by Brian O’Connell, the first book about the Stripper murders to be published. I used this as my guide as the author was a crime journalist who was completely au fait with the milieu of the crimes and deployed all the contemporary slang and societal attitudes that I needed to work my way back in to the era. John Repsch‘s fabulous The Legendary Joe Meek provided all the details about Joe in Ladbroke Grove. Kate Paul‘s Journal was a beautifully evocative portrait of an art student in the Sixties that gave me some of the raw material for Stella and Jenny.

Then the weirdness started kicking in. A friend gave me Trevor Grundy‘s Memoirs of a Fascist Childhood that had the material about Oswald Mosley’s rallies in Ladbroke Grove in 1959. Just after I finished writing a sequence based on that, another friend introduced me to a policeman who had worked the Ladbroke Grove beat at the time and witnessed the very rally I put into the book.

Someone else gave me Now You See Her Now You Don’t, Adam Smith‘s account of the life of the pop artist Pauline Boty, which he had downloaded from the web, as — although it is an amazing book — it doesn’t have a publisher. Pauline provided massive inspiration for my female characters, especially her No More Ugly demos against the new civic architecture that were mushrooming up all over London in the late Fifties/early Sixties. She also lived in the next street to where I live now and I had a particularly odd experience just after I had been given this gift. I saw what looked like a demo going up Westbourne Grove, people carrying placards that read NO MORE UGLY. I actually thought I was seeing a timeslip for a minute, but of course, when I got up close it was merely a promo for a new furniture shop, and the word ‘furniture’ was written in much smaller typeface underneath the banner headline. But still, Pauline’s manor and her words, that was a strange enough coincidence for me to think I was doing something right.

Another friend, suggested I read the memoirs of Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor to get a handle on police corruption of the era. Tanky’s beat of Soho Clubs and Vice provided the opportunity to work in one of the many urban myths surrounding the Stripper case, the rumour that the former boxer Freddie Mills, who ran a nightclub in the West End at the time, had been responsible for the murders. Or had covered them up to protect a friend of his, a male singer with whom he was reputed to have had an affair.

Freddie Mills came to a strange and violent end himself, apparently shooting himself in the head twice outside his nightclub in July 1965, five months after the last Stripper victim was found. In the months previous to this, he was apparently being muscled by the Krays. As was Joe Meek, in the months leading up to his suicide, on 3 February 1967.

I also immersed myself in the films of the era, and the contemporary literature. I was particularly affected by two films by Bryan Forbes, The L-Shaped Room and Séance on a Wet Afternoon, which brought the era alive to me. Forbes also has a moral sensibility that very much chimes with what I wanted to convey.

But still, the writing of the book took 18 months and it did not come out straightforwardly or easily. I spent a lot of time in a dark maze of the past, not knowing how to get forward again, and the coherence of the finished manuscript has everything to do with the genius of my editor, John Williams, who led me out of there. I found the whole experience quite terrifying, but as I was writing the final draft and the end suddenly coalesced, that was a magic moment beyond compare.

3:AM: You have previously mentioned James Ellroy‘s The Black Dahlia as a major influence — I sense Ellroy’s later work (L.A. Confidential and the Underworld USA trilogy) as an inspiration here in the way he uses true crime to look at US society at a specific time. Am I guessing correctly? If so could you elaborate a little on what you have learnt from Ellroy and how you employ it in your approach to writing crime fiction?

CU: Yes, Ellroy is the big, bonaroo Daddio Dog to whom myself and many others owe a massive debt for changing the course of crime fiction entirely. He and Derek Raymond are my Beatles/Stones or Pistols/Clash who showed the way, and as I have said many times before I can only hope to hold a candle to them. Ellroy specifically not only showed how crime can be used to investigate the mores of society, but also how the city itself becomes the character, allowing you to move through time without having to employ the annoying device of one central detective — still the depressingly dominant template of all mainstream crime fiction. He also shows how the major criminals in any era are the ruling class, and how their Machiavellian schemes against society ‘trickle down’, ‘contain’ and abuse the general population. In the fantastic documentary James Ellroy’s Feast of Death, the Demon Dog is asked at a book signing what he would like to happen when he goes to heaven. He says that he would hope God would say: “Welcome home, Dog. You worked hard and you tried to tell the truth.” Truly beautiful words. I am very glad that Underworld USA came to such a spectacular conclusion with the awesome Blood’s A Rover.

3:AM: Bad Penny Blues employs a roman à clef with several characters being based on real and somewhat famous (or infamous) people. Was this Ellroy’s influence or did you feel that these people (who are all now dead) were essential parts of the narrative jigsaw that is Bad Penny Blues?

CU: As I said previously, the characters that formed the book kind of presented themselves to me rather than me seeking them out. Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet and David Peace‘s Red Riding are the essential spirit guides for this territory, however, I have never tried to write a book based on a true story before and maybe never will again. If I hadn’t had read Jack of Jumps I would probably never have done any of this.

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3:AM: I note that although you provide plenty of detail about these characters who once roamed London you change their names. As you can’t libel the dead I’m wondering why you did this — perhaps to allow the general reader to enjoy the book without having to check out the life/death of the real individual?

CU: That is a good question, and I am glad to be able to answer with what is my main intention for this book. The names are changed because what I have tried to conjure up in Bad Penny Blues is a parallel universe to the real London 1959-65. All the details of the murders are accurate, but the other characters in the book, while some of them are based on real people and happenings, are not solely derived from any one person and some of them are made up completely. This isn’t a true crime book and I would never want to claim to have attempted to definitely solve the mystery of Jack the Stripper, as I fear that would be impossible. What I have done instead is tried to evoke a world within which a more satisfying explanation to the killer’s identity is offered than the ones in the various true crime accounts, which, apart from the Freddie Mills theory, usually finger low-ranking policemen as the fiend.

But the reason I wanted to write the book in the first place is because I think these women were treated so horribly, both in the manner of their murders and the way that their deaths have been written up since, that I just wanted to try and do something better for them.

3:AM: Joe Meek’s presence haunts the book — I always thought he lived and died on Holloway Road but you have him in Ladbroke Grove?

CU: Yes, Joe lived at 20 Arundel Gardens with his boyfriend Lionel Howard for several years in the late Fifties. It was in that flat that he did the séance where the date for Buddy Holly’s death (and eventually Joe’s own demise) was given to him, something that I put into the book. And you are right, Joe (or James Myers as he is in my parallel universe) does haunt the book literally — he is never there, only his music is constantly being heard as the soundtrack for the crimes. I actually became obsessed with Lionel and what he must have had to put up with, from which came the character of Lenny, who is one of my favourites. But what Lenny ends up doing in Bad Penny Blues is in no way related to the real Lionel’s life, at least I don’t think it is.

3:AM: The film Telstar and the reissue of his recorded works and young bands citing him as an influence means he is now more celebrated than perhaps any time beyond when he was making hits. Does it surprise you the resurrection of Meek in recent years?

CU: See, Telstar — which I absolutely love — has got a good example of how poor old Lionel gets treated in it. It is Lionel that bails Joe out after he is set up in the cottage in Holloway Road, but you never get to know in the film what a major part of Joe’s life he had actually been up until then! I think that Joe is such a poignant figure because he is so much a victim of his times, of being gay when it was illegal, of being a genius that nobody could follow, of being ripped off by a business he couldn’t comprehend and of doing far too much physical and psychic damage to himself with all the drugs, the séances and the amazing things he could hear in his head and raged to reproduce. I guess because Phil Spector — who Joe was convinced was stealing his ideas — has recently had such a mighty fall, that also shines the spotlight on the ‘mad genius’ producer who is a bit too handy with a shotgun. But Joe’s body of work is truly amazing and I think he will always be the Patron Saint of the Bedroom Producer.

3:AM: Spiritualism features in the novel — now this is something I know nothing about. What made you decide to make something that, in retrospect, appears to have been a rather odd English cult play a central part in Bad Penny Blues?

CU: Again, Joe was the key. Joe was seriously into Spiritualism and doing séances. And there really was a Spiritualist Assembly across the road from Lansdowne Studios too. Spiritualism had been around since the turn of the century, when people like Madame Blavatsky came over to London and took the aesthetes by storm, but it really took off as a result of World Wars I and II, when there were so many dead that people were desperate to try and speak to their lost on the other side. The bit about the wireless being invented by Sir Oliver Lodge to try and reach his dead soldier son through the ‘aether’ is also perfectly true.

By using Spiritualism, in the form of the last transmissions from the dead girls, I was able to give them a voice and to try and convey to the reader the horrors they went through. I actually couldn’t think of a better way of doing it, even though again it is a potentially dodgy device that kind of straddles the ghost story with the crime novel, but because there were so many connections, the radio itself being the major point of intrigue, I went with it. And I think those sequences are the most powerful bits of the book. They are also the ones that came the most easily.

3:AM: Gypsy George was another great character. Is he based on a legendary London thief or is he an Unsworth original?

CU: He is entirely an Unsworth original who just popped into my head. His way with a talking canary is based on something my Grandad used to do to entertain my brother and me.

3:AM: You live in Ladbroke Grove and Bad Penny Blues is largely set around your neighbourhood: what did you find out about the Grove whilst researching it for your novel?

CU: All the aforementioned stuff that has gone into the book, things I never realised. I have always been very interested in history and it was a brilliant way of discovering more about the place. It is funny that the house that was a slum in The L-Shaped Room is now the poshest house on the road there. Happily, The Globe nightclub still exists, but has to endure the wankiest trustafarian café in the world being right next door to it. But Ladbroke Grove is an intriguing neighbourhood that constantly reinvents itself, which is what drew me to it in the first place and why I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It has been badly served by Richard Curtis’ blue door, after which the entire neighbourhood was suddenly called Notting Hill, a district that now seems to extend from Shepherd’s Bush roundabout up to Queensway and north into Queen’s Park. What I hope to present in Bad Penny Blues is a green door to the actual Grove instead.

3:AM: Your first novel The Not Knowing captures London in the 90s when the likes of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie were widely celebrated for their laddish crime films. Your second novel The Singer is set in London in the early-80s, very much post-punk/pre-goth, a time when being a rock star on the indie charts still carried some cachet. Bad Penny Blues is set in the first half of the 1960s and sees British pop culture beginning to take definite shape. I’d like to know if this trilogy of sorts was a planned excavation of London creativity and corruption over the past forty years? Even if not, what drives you to write about a London of the past?

CU: It wasn’t intentional, but those books have indeed ended up forming a trilogy, covering specific areas of London between the late Fifties up to 2003 and with many themes in common. It’s because I love Ladbroke Grove, Camden and Soho. The Not Knowing was an attempt to nail a time and a place before it slipped away. The Singer then compares the places of that era to a time a decade before and a decade after. And Bad Penny exists in a world that has many parallels to the late Seventies/early Eighties in terms of a youth culture explosion, that for a brief period of time, offered young people a very different future from what they might have expected, a chance to transcend class barriers, although perhaps not so successfully the boundaries of sex and race, unfortunately.

3:AM: The other night I saw you interview Susan Compo, author of Warren Oates: A Wild Life, before a screening of Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. I’m interested in why you, as a female journalist and novelist, remain so interested in books and films about extremely brutal men?

CU: I don’t think of Warren Oates as a brutal man at all, I think of him as a romantic maverick. But I am compelled by the films of Sam Peckinpah because they, like the fiction of Ellroy, present the world as it really is, in all its ugly brutality, as seen from the perspective of characters who are outsiders, who never truly belong in any time or place. Having always felt like an outsider myself, I like it that they don’t shy away from it. Women are the main recipients of all this male rage, but I actually don’t think Peckinpah or Ellroy do present them as victims. More like the truth, women know the way things are from what they have to continually put up with and deal with it in a way that gives them hope for survival. I find the films of Tarantino way, way more repugnant — a silly little teenage mentality that makes out violence is some kind of a comic book, and that you can walk away scot-free from heinous slaughter with a wisecrack still on your lips. In the films and literature that I love, there is always a price to be paid for such deeds and that is part of the message.

3:AM: You write with great empathy of the poor women who worked as prostitutes and ended up murdered by Jack The Stripper. This week the London news is all about Belle de Jour being a scientist who is unrepentant about her past as a high class call girl. What are your thoughts on the selling of sex? How different are things in the 21st Century compared to the era of Bad Penny Blues?

CU: Not very different at all, unfortunately, and I doubt they ever have been or will be. None of the girls murdered by Jack the Stripper went to their careers officers at school wanting to be prostitutes. All of them were forced and coerced into it by the weak, vain, lazy and bullying men in their lives — and in one case, a spectacularly nasty female pimp. If Belle du Jour got an actual kick out of it, then good luck to her, she was, after all, providing a valuable social service. But I think she is in a minority.

The British are, and have always been, crap when it comes to sex. We are streaked through with Puritan values that twist it into vile perversion and shame, all of which bears down on the female population who take the brunt of a seemingly inbuilt misogyny that then gets passed on to the children, of which ours are the most unhappy and mentally ill in the developed Western World. What is truly unnerving are the parallels between this case, the original Whitechapel Jack, the Yorkshire Ripper and the recent spate of murders of working girls in Ipswich, the latter of which had a very similar modus operandi to the crimes of Jack the Stripper. The police just can’t seem to catch the perpetrator, even when he is operating, in the Ipswich case, along one tiny stretch of road, night after night after night. But should we even be surprised? After all, it is virtually impossible to get a rapist convicted these days, let alone a serial murderer.

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3:AM: Your description of the Cassius Clay-Henry Cooper fight is brilliant. It reads like you were there taking notes! How did you manage to catch it so vividly and are you a boxing fan?

CU: Thank you, that was my favourite part of the entire book to write! I wanted to take an event that showed how the world had changed, as in that sequence, the timeframe has shifted from 1959 to 1963, but not one that had been written about endlessly like the assassination of JFK. The Clay-Cooper fight seemed to be perfect to me. Here was our Henry, representing the end of the British Empire and the type of upright, working-class man that would have been routing for him in the audience, who didn’t show fear or boast and brag, leaving his legendary left hook, the Hammer, to do the talking. And opposite was Cassius Clay, representing the rising Superpower of America, the brash new half of the century, with his fast mouth and even flashier moves, dazzling in his physical perfection. In the days after the Profumo scandal and the defection of the Philby spy ring, old Blighty was not looking too clean nor too chipper. But with the handsome JFK in the White House and the dazzling Kentucky upstart dancing in the Wembley ring, America was an unstoppable force — just as Clay would prove to be that night.

But glorious Henry did do the ultimate British thing of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory that night, when the Hammer hit Clay so hard that he literally was saved by the bell — and then there is the controversy of what followed that rages on to this day, the length of time that it took to get Clay some new gloves, which Henry says went on for about ten minutes, but which actually didn’t take that long at all, when you watch the fight. But I had fun with that as I imagined, to have been there at the time, it would have seemed like a million years. Of course, when he had the new gloves, Clay found Cooper’s weak spot and annihilated him.

When I was writing it, I wanted to try and see it through my Grandad’s eyes, as I knew he would have been watching it at the time. My Grandad had been a handy boxer when he was in the army, and my childhood memories of him involve boxing matches being constantly on his TV. So I found the fight and watched it over and over again, to the point when if I shut my eyes, Cooper and Clay would be dancing in front of each pupil, while listening to the sort of jazz that he loved — the best track to watch it to is ‘Sing Sing Sing’ by Luis Prima.

And another weird coincidence: after I had written that chapter I was out with some friends and was introduced to Henry’s opera-singing nephew Neil, who does a fantastic impersonation of his uncle as well as making grown men weep when he starts to sing.

3:AM: With Bad Penny Blues you explore the rise of Pop Art as a British art phenomenon. This was, in a way, the blueprint for the BritArt explosion of the 90s. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how well the work created by those involved in Pop Art stands up almost fifty years later. And how does it reflect on BritArt and the incredible fame and fortune that generated?

CU: I absolutely love the Pop Artists, and the way they were taking from around them elements of popular culture, the space race, the silver screen and the jukebox to create their work. This is also how I try and write my books. There is an amazing film that anyone interested should see, that Ken Russell made for the BBC’s Monitor arts programme, called Pop Goes The Easel, in which Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty can be seen wandering the Portobello Road, going to wrestling matches and funfairs to pick up inspiration. The art they made then still looks vibrant and full of possibility to me. And it is beautifully rendered. It is filled with a joy that I find distinctly lacking from the BritArt of the Nineties, that perfectly reflects its own era of cynical opportunism. Maybe the crucial difference is that Blake, Boshier and Boty could actually do all the work themselves, they didn’t have to employ artists and sculptors to do it for them. But I think it is more about the feeling in the air of the times. The whole Britpop edifice did indeed look back to the Pop Art movement, but I think in a very reactionary way. The original pop artists were looking outwards and upwards and not just towards the nearest cash register.

3:AM: London remains your constant subject matter as a novelist: what are your thoughts on this city of ours? To someone who does not live here you make it appear exciting yet filled with unsavoury characters!

CU: Despite the fact that the government and the mayor make it continually harder for anyone who isn’t a fellow millionaire, expenses fiddler, Premier League footballer or oligarch to live here, I still love it. London is the one place where everyone who doesn’t belong can find solace in like-minded company, where you can choose who you want to be and whom you want to hang out with, have the freedom to get lost. Of course there will always be unsavoury characters but I have found it much easier to avoid them here than I did when I lived in smalltown England, which I find a much more violent and threatening place. However beautiful the wild parts of the country look, there is always an army of locals building a wicker man as soon as they spot an ‘outsider’. You can never get to the end of London, which is why you can never fall out of love with it.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Garth Cartwright was born in New Zealand and lives in London. He was winner of the Guardian Music Writing Award 1995 and has written for the Telegraph, Independent On Sunday, The Times, Time Out, Uncut, Folk Roots. He is the author of Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians and More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music. You can read Cathi Unsworth‘s interview with him here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 23rd, 2009.