:: Article

The Poetry of City Life

By Richard Marshall.


Alexander Baron, Rosie Hogarth, Five Leaves, 2010/1951


Roland Camberton, Scamp and Rain on the Pavements, Five Leaves, 2010/1950 & 1951

Iain Sinclair is drawn to the mystery of Camberton’s exit. Rumours of a tape recording of William Burroughs and Camberton still whisper through London’s dusk. Baron is a different puzzle. He wrote the Granada television adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia starring the peerless Jeremy Brett in his first outing as Holmes and added a final detail Conan Doyle omitted. In the final shot the plot’s incriminating photograph is thrown into the sea as if the scandalous Adler hoped to drown all last traces. Yet of course as the credits role and Patrick Gower’s mournful music plays we know that identities don’t erase so simply. Conan Doyle’s Watson’s memoires defeat Adler’s machinations. Other changes Baron made include refusing Watson his wife and family home: unlike in the story he is still living at 221b Baker Street. This famous street address doesn’t exist. Nor does Lamb Street in Islington where Baron’s Rosie Hogarth is set. Baron Street does, however, which the wakeful Andrew Whitehead in his introduction suggests may have been the model for the fictional one.

Both Camberton and Baron are London Jewish writers working in the early years of the 20th century, and their existential relationship with their Jewish identity is complex. All their identities are complex, even those that never existed. In Baron’s screenplay Adler disguises herself once, Holmes disguises himself not once but twice, as a groom and as a clergyman. The scandal is about who was who in the past. It is a story riddled with shape-shifting identities. Nothing is stable. Baron’s screenplay loves the dissolving realities, the breaks and smashed selves, the shadows solidifying and then all melting away.

The Strand Magazine only started in 1891 and in June Conan Doyle’s story was published there, the first Holmes story in it. The illustrator was Sidney Paget who was born at 60 Pentonville Road in 1860. Until married he lived at 19 Lloyd Square in Clerkenwell. A Royal Academician, he died in Margate at the age of 47 in January 1906 and is buried in Finchley cemetery.

A portrait he did of Sir John Aird can be seen in the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Marylebone library, a Tory MP for North Paddington from 1887 to 1905. His company damned the Nile in 1902. A rumour of identity is based on comparing the portrait of Aird with Paget’s picture of the Duke of Holdernesse, the character whose son has been kidnapped in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’, published in the Strand Magazine in 1904 not long after completing the Aird portrait. Aird and Holdernesse bear a striking resemblance. Conan Doyle suggests that Watson disguises the true identity of the character by calling him Holdernesse. The villain is his secret son. Identity is a key mystery, unstable and hooded. Camberton and Baron are both writers whose writing and identies have also been complicated and shifting.

Both went to Hackney Downs School, the same school that Harold Pinter went to as did Baron’s Tottenham-born Labour activist and script writer Ted Willis, who wrote the original treatment of The Blue Lamp in 1950 and then episodes of Dixon Of Dock Green. The weirdness of The Blue Lamp is its after-life. The character Dixon is shot half way through but is resurrected as Dixon of Dixon of Dock Green, the TV series that ran from 1953 for 22 years and 430 episodes.

Willis also wrote the strangely English Gothic TV series Black Beauty from March 1972 to March 1973. In this series he didn’t continue a character and story that had supposedly ended as he had with the Blue Lamp. Instead he did the reverse, ignoring the original stories and characters of Anna Sewell and made up new characters and stories instead.

The first series starred the legendary Judi Bowker who played Princess Andromeda in the 1981 Harryhausen animated monster classic Clash of the Titans. Bowker is married to the brilliant East London actor Harry Meacher from Hainault near Chigwell who was working with the legendary Joan Littlewood in Stratford and also appeared in episodes of Dixon Of Dock Green. The theme tune ‘Galloping Alone’ features in an episode of the comedy show I’m Alan Partridge and includes lyrics by the American Dick Vosburgh who wrote scripts for TV the 1950’s onwards, including shows for Ronnie Corbett, David Frost, Bob Hope, Roy Hudd, Bobby Davro, Frankie Howard, Bob Monkhouse, Lenny Henry, Tommy Cooper, Freddie Starr and The Marx Brothers.

Vosburgh wrote sitting for whole days on the Circle Line on London’s Underground. He helped on scripts for Up Pompeii, Up The Chastity Belt and Carry on Nurse. He appeared in early episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He hated singers who didn’t adhere to lyricists attentions. He picked up on Sarah Vaughan’s version of Gershwin’s ‘Aren’t You Kind of Glad We Did?’ who sings ‘with never a sign of Chapter One’ instead of ‘with never a sign of any chaperone.’

When he was asked to give up names by his agent to the House of Un-American Activities he replied, ‘I walk on two feet not four’ and gave up that agent instead. A good man. Identity again importantly snaking around. He liked correct biographical detail. But generosity can mess with identities. The TV show Frost on Sunday was credited as being written by the young writer, as he was then, Garry Chambers because Vanburgh, the actual writer, wanted to give him a boost.

Meanness can mess with identities too. Hackney Downs’ identity was changed and it became called The Mossbourne Academy after the Tories wrongly called it ‘the worst school in England’ and closed it in 1995. The Tories didn’t like its radical past and misrepresented its challenges.

Baron was a socialist and an early supporter of communism against the fascists, only turning away from it when Hitler and Stalin signed their pact. At this point the Left found itself having its own identity messed with. This is an edge of the Rosie Hogarth novel, something that Whitehead in his introduction finds only partially absorbed into the book’s texture. The discussion of politics, and in particular the rejection of Communism, is an uncomfortable, unresolved presence. The reality of Stalin’s perversion of Communist ideals raises further issues of the instability of identity, and messes the private self with the social and political.

Camberton’s own biography is of course a straightforward example of this instability. Iain Sinclair’s superb essay ‘Man in a MacIntosh’ is the introduction to Five Leaves’s new imprint of Scamp and will do for Rain On The Pavements too. He begins: ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s not a bad place to start. The design of the fiction put out by John Lehmann in the late 1940s and early 50s had the louche swagger to complement an edgily cosmopolitan list: Jean-Paul Sartre, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, John Dos Passos, Paul Bowles. You could smell fierce French tobacco lingering on tanned pages and sample exotic locations filtered through fugues of premature sex tourism’ and I have to agree.


The ‘New London Editions’ reproduce the Minton covers. Minton taught illustration at Camberwell School of Art and between 1946 and 1952 and shared a studio in 77 Bedford Gardens, a building which also housed at the time Ronald Searle and John Wyndham. Minton is a tragic figure himself. He was painted by Lucien Freud at a time when figurative and illustrative painting was unfashionable, done in by abstract art. He killed himself in 1957, the year he painted a small oil composition ‘The Death of James Dean’ currently in the Tate collection. Identity, and its collapse, seems to be an uneasy drift in this sad tale.

Camberton writes about this uneasy drift between hope and despair which so often creeps in to define his own characters identities. London is the site for so much of this. Camberton gives the geography of his north London a hard-nosed spectral and mystical significance. He links it with Baudelaire’s sexy vision of urban stew where characters;
“… found themselves drifting with uneasy excitement up the Strand and into Leicester Square… ambling up and down back-streets till they reached the wholly fascinating land of Soho. Moisture covered the windows of the cafes into which they scarcely dared look… they entered an Italian cafe, and in the furthest corner table ordered small white coffees. They sat saying nothing, scarcely looking or listening, nourishing themselves on the purest air of romance… there were other cafes which beckoned sinisterly and irresistibly and which they had not the nerve to enter. What went on behind the impenetrable curtain of moisture which covered their glass fronts?… Their next step to the heart of the mystery was to enter a cafe in Frith street… a row of empty tables, a small old man reading a newspaper at one end, and a fat woman brooding over a cup of tea at the other… What a mysterious cosmopolitan aura pervaded their corner of the little Soho cafe! Stanley took from his pocket a copy of Baudelaire’s poems and began calmly to read… ‘Teeming city! City crowded with dreams!'”

Camberton’s books capture the bright darkness of cities and the punk versatility of intellectualism, cleverness and wit working in their moneyless creative passion of dreams, nerve and mysteriousness. He mixes the elegant and the damned, the slow burn of ideas consuming the harder reality of achievements that cripples and destroys the aspirant writers, lovers and livers of his books. The existential angst runs like subterranean rivers through his characters. Mordent cleverness and cool cranky asides and commentaries pepper his work and they achieve the cocky glam of someone without a bankbook to make them brave.

The books capture the world where there is little that can be made to happen and where the great challenge is to defeat the creeping self disgust, boredom and despair that is always a threat to these melancholic entrepreneur’s of the mind. These are novels about the fury of creativity working in the abstract, where the creativity is all about creating ones own identity. What is a writer who isn’t writing, or who can’t write, or one who even if they have written is not read? None can character him to the life , save himself, and this is true of these characters.

Throughout his books Camberton traces spare black outlines, directs attention towards other things not directly seen. There is something unearthly about what he sets in motion, as if a beast is growling through the scenes from somewhere just away from the gaze. Perhaps the beast has no eyes. Perhaps the eyes have been put out like howling Gloucester in Lear, so the beast is a kind of scream, a physical agony of monstrousness. As with humour, there is ambiguity about all this: a cry can signify agony but it can also be a threat.

There’s a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion in the books too, allied to a sense of powerlessness. The books were written in the aftermath of the Second World war and writers suffered not only from their own weaknesses but also from a position where bearing witness seemed too much, impossibly unbearable.

William Golding later would write of this time as one where; ‘The experiences of Hamburg and Belsen, Hiroshima and Dachau cannot be imagined. We have gone to war and beggared description all over again. These experiences are like the black holes in space. Nothing can get out to let us know what it was like inside. It was like what it was like and on the other hand it was nothing else whatsoever. We stand before the gap of history. We have discovered a limit to literature.’ It would perhaps be Beckett who succeeded in finding a way through these limits.

But Camberton’s London at times also twitches with the active intense and anxious consciousness of these things. There are times when he writes to grab the intense violence and distortion of realist London that finds bodies ‘furiously buttering’, where verbs seem to intimate the ugly pitch swell of death and the images of human bestiality he’d have seen in blurred photographs and movies from the War. Reading this passage from Scamp and there’s the feel of the insane activity framed in a café cage. Sometimes you read and then reread these passages and are put in mind of the memorializing terrors of Bacon’s trapped Popes screaming in a confined brutality of fact.

“Kagaramias led the way into an all-night cafe. They threaded their way among the tables… crooks and ponces, prostitutes during an off-hour, one or two bookies, a bunch of toughs, a few of the homeless bohemians form Charlotte Street … beneath the electric lights time was excluded over-tailored, brilliantined men lolled about quizzing the pale. nervous waiters … a fight … a cut throat razor, thrown loose in the struggle, came flying over…” The vividness is that of informality caught as determined, a background carcass cropped out of a memory of something seen, heard, wondered at, coaxed out of the endless ramblings around London. Its violence is not exhausted by the physical act but is also the brutal imaginative act that forces Camberton to create. Writing becomes a dangerous verb of masochism.

In these dark, brooding books there’s the idea that nothing is better than taking risks beyond your powers and that being cleaned out is a high. This is the grubby secret of those brilliantined men and the ‘utter lonelieness Bernard Kops writes of later in his 1963 book The World Is A Wedding:

‘I drifted back to Soho… I wandered around the streets as best I could. There was no end of loneliness real, utter loneliness. It dragged in the pit of my stomach. I had been battered against myself until everything inside me had been shattered… In the night-town of Soho I was accepted… In 1954… I visited my family… A great change suddenly came over London at that time. The American civilisation had caught up with us. Everything was speeded up and slicked up. A wave of bitterness and cynicism. The whole surface seemed to be cracking… Cafes that we knew started closing, the leisurely one where artists and anarchists argued all day. Coffee bars were opening in their place. The object was to get you in, make you feel uncomfortable under the harsh lighting, and then get you out. Skiffle swept through the streets… the new crop of restless kids who had been spawned in the war … We never went anywhere except The Coffee House at Trafalgar Square where they had bad paintings on the walls and good girls trying to look bad … the would -be writers and the painters had gone the way of all flesh, into the ground. The toll was endless… They were the unable, the unadjustable, the nothings, the unmighty fallen, the unsung, and I was waiting to take my turn. Most of them died alone somewhere, at night in a lonely room, and they were forgotten within days.”

And all of this picks up the comment made by the painter Bacon to Francis Wishart: ‘Losing is better than winning.’

Camberton’s novels are interested in behaviour, something which explains their dreadful materiality and illusions of movement. Things happen in confined spaces as if there is something moving through space and through time, but further reflection seems to leave one in a kind of suspended animation, where it creeps in to your head that there is nothing but a trap here, that everything is fixing itself, is irredeemable and immovable. This is the fear of ambition failing, of writing failing, of the writer failing. Camberton doesn’t dislike his characters, nor does Baron. They both translate the fears of their characters into Eliot’s handfuls of dust. And so with this is a sense of a kind of linguistic mysticism where a Gershom Scholem is worked as a Miltonic figure and Blake’s ‘Ghost of a Flea’ stands behind the counter of Tim’s café.

“Tim’s Cafe, whose entrance was squeezed back about two yards from Fleet Street proper into a passage way no wider than a child’s armspan. Tim’s gave a twenty four hour service… Two men behind the counter were furiously buttering slices of bread, cutting off thin flakes of cheese, frying sausages, feeding the tea-urn …. a waitress hurried swiftly from counter to tables, transferring cups of tea and plates of food in arc-like, unerring sweeps … you could sit in Tim’s twenty-four hours out of twenty four, eating, smoking, reading the papers as they came off the press… It was frequented entirely by men in overalls, their hands covered with grease, by lorry drivers, machine operators, mechanics.’

Baron links this explicitly with memories of the Blitz and the war in The Lowlife when he writes : “The cafe was one of those old gaffs with a sunken doorstep, a passage at the side leading to a wooden staircase at the back and a yard with an outside lav and dustbin both of which you could smell from the street… the window hadn’t been washed since, I should judge, the last English tenant died at the time of the Blitz. There were three pairs of marble tables, a dirty floor, posters on the wall advertising Pakistani films, a counter at the back covered with slopped oilcloth and a door leading to a kitchen from which came a smell of spicy cooking. This was overlaid by a smell in the cafe which was like asthma cigarettes. Reefers, maybe.”

These writers were finding it hard to know what a writer does with the recollections they had of the war. Pitched battles with Mosley’s black-shirt’s in the East End and the traumas of the left during the whole recent past made identity complex and scaffolds their deep incomprehension. Out of this struggle comes the books. Out of it perhaps comes the difficulty faced by Camberton to even continue to exist as Camberton.

Baron’s novel Rosie Hogarth is set in Islington near where the ‘Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’ girls school is. It looks down from the hilltop to Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. The school is built on the spot from where the great London painter Turner painted his spooking Kings Cross canvass. The school is being currently demolished and rebuilt as a physical instantiation of the debate between John Houghton and Owen Hatherley about the meaning of rebuilding projects. It was recently visited by President Obama’s wife who spoke of wimmin and aspiration and hope. Islington is the third most deprived London borough. Yet it is full of millionaire’s mansions. Orwell wrote his novel 1984 there in a house across the way from where a young John Betjeman was brought up for a time and just round the corner from a tower where the sixteenth century Francis Bacon lived.


Arsenal is the massive football club just off the Holloway Road which extends to the Whittingham Hospital at Archway where Dick Whittingham heard the Bells calling him back to be Mayor. Baron’s Jack Agass’s Arsenal play in Highbury ground. This ground has been converted into expensive residential flats. Arsenal now play in a stadium, not a ground, a stadium with perfect sight lines and no standing. The space converts watching football into a kind of snob theatre. In Baron’s book little lads kick footballs about on street corners. These days Arsenal are buying out the houses near the ground and clearing away working class people. Ticket prices are aimed at the well paid. Kids are not going to the games any more. Tickets are too hard to find and they’re too expensive. So even football’s identity has changed.

And all this reminds us that the working class are huge presences in these books. Recent history has made it difficult to even mention working class without being told that either they don’t exist or that underclass is a better way of talking about them. The assumption is always that whoever is talking is not working class. Well here are books of reach and depth that are working-class novels which understand the uncalculated status and strains of physical bodies, of work, of thought, of garrulous aloneness and struggle in a world where money is hard to come by. This is a world where camouflage and strength are required, where being able to shape-shift and be equal to the bar, the street, the night and the grind of hours is stark and obvious. Genuine psychogeographic wandering is undertaken everyday out of necessity as people grub around looking for the work, the day, the energy to make something happen.

The books lay groundwork for bikers, ton-up boys on the North Circular Road, the Rockers in their leather jackets and the bookies and burglers, actresses and artisan, poets and prostitutes that this entirely new cast brought into being by the war, joining up the working class at their hips. Without the sensibilities of Baron and Camberton there would be none of John Waters’”… Mod “firms” or street gangs… congregated in two or three local cafés and pubs… My own particular memories of that era are mainly concerning music… Friday and Saturday nights up West… off to the Coffee Ann in a cellar down the bottom of Wardour St… Early next morning meeting up at the all night café “El Passant” on the Strand (what a great juke box). The thing about the sixties was that everything was so new. The clothes, music, clubs and for the first time we had some money in our pockets to indulge.”

The point is that the 60’s was worked into being by the fifties workers, the beatniks and existentialists and their sense that new action was required. These were the writers clearing the space for the coming explosion of the record industry and all those familiar betrayals and glories.

Harold Pinter was the English Jewish writer from Hackney Downs School who made it, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and marrying posh before he died. Pinter mastered the strangeness and transformational weirdness of existence by grouping battalions of working-class demotic into some of the greatest post war drama written anywhere. His characters are faced with a universe that remains forever hidden, strange and unknowable. His greatest works – ‘The Birthday Party’ and ‘The Caretaker’ – recall Kafka in disclosing the terrible unknowability of the human condition.

Did Baron and Camberton make it as well? These new editions and the recent interest that is broadening out, thanks to the activities of readers in the know like Sinclair and Whitehead and the crew at ‘New London Editions,’ suggests that there’s a new reckoning coming. Identities are shifting as politics and culture starts to set off on a new track.

Whereas in Camberton the existentialist leap towards a writing identity is a clear groove, in the Baron novel there is a quest to discover the mystery of the existential choices of another. It is the identity of the woman behind the name Rosie Hogarth that is the enigma of the story. It is her unknowability and distance that sets the narrative’s direction. It points up the way that choices of identity are not necessarily individualistic but can be born in the meeting between people, at the vanishing point framing both the continuity and mutability of identity. Baron’s novel is about how disturbing change can be, how in recognising identity there is a need for a fixed point, something stable enough to be recognized and yet also a break, a nova burst to the fresh and newly minted. Flux threatens to make everything invisible, unknown, possibly unknowable and there’s a thrill in that as well as a mournfulness. Baron’s novel captures the tension between the desire for continuity and simultaneously the need for change, for that pulse towards the rebirth.

These are groovy reads, totally modern in their placing of the modern writer as a social misfit, fitting with Verlaine’s description of Baudelaire as someone who ‘… made what he is by the refinements of excessive civilization, … sharpened and vibrant senses, his painful subtle mind, his brain saturated with tobacco, and his blood poisoned by alcohol.’ They are responsive to the poetry of city life, and it is the rhetorical resources of this imagination that is the source of a kind of self-torture as well as perverse satisfaction.

Writers such as Gerald Kersh, Neil Dunn, Gillian Freeman, Colin MacInnes, John Bratby, Frank Norman, B.S. Johnson, James Curtis and the supreme Michael Moorcock become writers requiring new readers. Baron and Camberton are beginning to seem to be essential reads. Alongside the gigantic Moorcock, the luminescent Iain Sinclair rises out of this London matter with a new intensity. Nobel laureate Elias Canetti also gets dragged back into this flux. Canetti was a left leaning Bulgarian Jewish writer who like Pinter married into posh and whose novel Auto-Da-Fe was a Picador paperback I remember reading in the early eighties. His wife was Veza Taubner-Calderon, a disciple of Max Beckman and a great artist in her own right. Canetti lived in Hampstead for a long time and took British citizenship in 1957 after leaving Austria in 1938 because of the Nazi Anschluss.

There’s another link between Canetti and Baron and Camberton and it’s a winding one spinning out from another alumnus of their Secondary school. John Bloom went to Hackney Downs and he made his millions selling washing machines and in 1963 marketing cheap Bulgarian holidays. Bloom’s company Rolls Razor went bust just as the business was on the brink of success. The Bulgarians were distraught but luckily the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society stepped in and with Balkantourist, formed Balkan Holidays to satisfy the demand for Bulgarian holidays. Bloom became a millionaire, bought a Park Lane apartment in the early sixties and helped create David Bowie out of David Jones. David Bowie credits Bloom as being central to his first record deal, having been asked to perform at one of Bloom’s Park Lane parties where he met his first agent.

All this builds a context. And fiercely, out of this, the best of our modern Baudelaireans, articulating the uncanny powers structuring our lives using a range of heightened rhetorical forces that at times swell out beyond mere writing, Stewart Home gets to be re-read as something else yet again.

Baudelaire tells us something of this in his ‘Epigraph for a Condemned Book’ where he writes: ‘unless you’ve learned/your theories in Satan’s school/You will not understand a word,/ You’ll think I am hysterical.’ This is modernity which gives the working classes a central position, alongside left wing political sensibilities and London Jewishness too.

Baron and Camberton add up. Count on it.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 10th, 2010.