:: Article

Wide Boys Never Work

By Richard Marshall.


Robert Westerby, Wide Boys Never Work, London Books, 2008

The seventeenth century Puritan Perkins wrote that washing up and preaching were both equal in the eye of God. If you have a Gift, get a calling. ‘I am my work’ was the Puritan’s calling card. Modern rebellious sensibilities have tended to therefore loath this tendency and clutch all types of decadence in subterranean defiance. The city, where the puritan work ethic is most evident is also the place where its bohemian opposite is also ubiquitous. And in Gotham, to each boho Batman there is always spawned his half-formed necoromantic insane twin, the Joker, as Miller’s Dark Night story makes explicit. Thus the creative and the criminal lives cheek by jowl in joint opposition to bourgeoise diligence and thrift. This is the formula that Westerby’s reissued first novel takes out as a pensum once learned by heart, then forgotten and now, in these weird, crunched up times, getting to be reborn. It’s taken seventy odd years to get it out again – seventy odd years! And it took God only six days to make the whole world! But hey — Iain Sinclair, the great vernier of appraisement and appreciation, whose continuing calculus of the gravitational & binary effects, special margins and astral straws of forgotten writers, cranks, artists and genius’ beyond gulfs of bloated memory is what propels this novel back into its bleak perambulation, would no doubt ask us to regard the state of our freaked out world and then regard the book.

City poet Valery dissects the boho’s instinctive, scandalous grace with his observation that ‘modern man wants the sensation without the boredom of conveyance.’ It’s a phrase that catches up with the mean ethic of short-cuts that slice to the chase of frenzied violence and selfish greed that controls the desperate wide boy hoodlum’s world, a chancer’s world that exists only for each last instinctive bet that delivers a stop-gap future redeemed only by luck or dying. Pure sensation diminishes with overload, which curiously, in recall, seems often times more like a sullen underload. Unreflected, unreflective sensation becomes itself interminably boring. And ‘Too much of nothing,’ as Dylan puts it, ‘can make a man mean.’ Living life high for a top exchange rate of intensity is to seemingly live for high stakes. But the ‘carcass-in-waiting’ is what lies for all of us at the end of the road, to pick up Alan Jenkins memorable phrase from his TLS review of the recent Francis Bacon exhibition in London, and it isn’t clear exactly when a person starts to really understand that democratic starkness. Win or lose, we all die.

Bacon’s opulent and squalor-filled exile in South Kensington has become an archetype for bohemian high stakes rough-trade existentialism, the defining image of the artist of that pure sensation where his imagination of Yeats’ ‘Violence upon the roads; violence of horses’, of involuntary memories of Baudelaire’s and Proust’s involuntary memories propel him in a frenzy of rude-boy associations to make the uninhibited discoveries in oil that locate him amongst the gods. For this image to work there must be nothing intruding between the articulation and the execution, the realisation of the principle that wide boys don’t work. And Bacon is presented, and presented himself, as a wide-boy artist, a gay gambler gangster painter spawned in the den of dangerous low life. Booze, beatings, sex, suicide, gambling, glamour, slapping on the paint in a miracle of sensational talent within an enclosed room of mess and postcards, that’s the stuff of his legend. But the raw material is a lie not merely a mistake. It’s an image carefully constructed by Bacon but we know that he did work hard at his paintings. Prep sketches and studies were made, despite his protesting that they weren’t, they were found in his room after he had died.

So he wasn’t a wide boy after all: he worked. So the wide boy is only the loser, stubbornly refusing to work save only on his own representation, captivated by the lie that it’s possible to achieve glory by just Being, taken in by winners who prefer to hide their graft. Bacon is a quick proof that existentialism fails to deliver the beef and a morality tale that warns us against the bluff hand of the philosophic con at the core of this tribe.

So then what? Beckett. Joyce. David Hume. Joyce: ‘ How can Hume the Idealist write a history of the world?’ Beckett: ‘A history of representations?’ Cut to a screaming Pope Innocent X. Fade to endless black wintereisse, just off Grays Inn Road. (We’ll come to that later.)

In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, the aging gambler gangster preens himself in a doorway before continuing his perambulations from Sacre Coeur to Montmatre and Pigalle. He checks himself out in the mirror glass of a dark doorway to confirm his existence as a legendry underworld man, an image delineated as a narrative in the mouths of others and reflected in the eye as someone sharply dressed in the tumultuous aesthesis of the generate degenerate astride the glowing moodiness of dawn and dusk equally. And so he has become this portion of locale and this slice of time and is no other.

The shape of narratives about hoodlums, pimps, hard-boys, wide boys, gangsters, ponces and so on are not the shapes that are seen from the inside but are more the whorescopic corrective of ‘I err therefore I am.’ From the inside of the Cartesian spirit there’s always the bravado fear of the emptying streets, of faces, minds, lives reversing the initial trauma of birthing identified as nothing less than intrauterine primal recall. In all this cock-a-hoopla, there’s the stirring of a lost, underdeveloped twin, embryonic, not entirely born, wrapped inside whatever has been left to crawl out. Narcissism is fear controlled by reflections that don’t deepen but rather harden the surface, driven by the too late realisation that, as with Dostoevsky, all plausible concatenation is merely vulgar. In the morning you get braced up, by evening they’ll try and calm you down but it won’t be done. The dead twin is always half who you thought you were going to be and half who you already are and wished gone.

Jim Bankley, Westerby’s man, is a character forever out in the dark, staring into the wish-fulfilling future that is a naked street. He sees nothing but what could better what’s there, what’s coming, what’s promised. His look is a look that is always reaching for more. ‘He turned away and wandered slowly down the street. There was hardly anyone about, and the streets were shining wet, reflecting the neon signs outside the cinema, distorted and trembling lights across the puddles as he walked along towards them.’ Here he is, alone and lonely, ‘wandering’ without a direction because there are no real directions, no destinations, and everything is either distorted or mirror-like, and it recalls an anti-pastoral anti-clockwise movement that lacks a ghost, friendly or contrary, or the promise of companionship to find a friendly end that might redeem him from this blank, bad space. This is an identity awake to its fading into stubborn atomism, someone robbed of being part of any crowd, by the meanness and self-absorption of his skrimshanker angst.

From this descriptive passage the character can only stare hard at the glass case advertising the film on at the local cinema and grow envious about the kind of girl he’d like to have if he could become someone else. It’s like Pacino in Scarface but with that film there’s a sort of glamour that rubs up the narrative into something different, something more than despair, because we get to see how De Palma’s character gets close up to his roaring pappy dream. Westerby’s character, however, always remains in this dim-witted, mean and strange state. ‘They had pretty girls in those film towns, in Hollywood and that. Look at that one. She was a hot looking girl all right. Take a lot of money to get a girl like that. Wouldn’t it? But that’s what he’d do if he had a lot of money. And he stood there thinking about it, turning vicious thoughts over and over in his mind.’

The viciousness is that low level of elevation he gives to his thinking horizon, where this threshold state of reason and consciousness crawls around like a hen-and-a-half worm, the larval form of a future self that remains throughout the novel in a state of primeval mud, impenetrably dark, merely a coarse promise of apparent transcendence, a kind of Leibniz with knuckle dusters. Leibniz had a theory of monodal development implying the clarification of perceptions where even the unconscious is potentially capable of being perceived just as a wave can be heard even if a single drop of water can’t.

Leibniz corrected the Cartesian mistake which was to treat as non-existent perceptions that we aren’t conscious of. What the novel does is shove in our faces everything that Jim isn’t conscious of so we get to delineate possibilities that he himself freezes out and refuses to acknowledge as real. For example, there’s a woman he might have loved, who might have loved him, but this is thrown away by both of them. Ditto with some of the men. Mick, ‘the first person he had ever feared’ and especially his father, who works to bring him back from the brink.

Westerby himself doesn’t always get this. He mistakes Jim’s final act in the book as an emblem of what he has to be, a defeated man who will return again and again to his vomit. He suggests that Jim will never be able to develop, that his story cannot be one of transcendence. But there are characters and other voices that suggest that this is merely a slick pessimism imposed onto his story, and by slick I mean merely slick. Westerby writes about the character without really finding within himself sympathy with other potentialities. The author betrays a somewhat regressive politics himself in this. He both pretends to know no more than Jim and finds nothing in his own story to suggest that Jim can change. This is both a false note and a bullying trap that is belied by the narrative energies of the novel overall. As in the Melville film, the author’s voice occasionally breaks in to pass comment on the action, and Melville’s remains admiring of his protagonist, charmed by his vivacity and liveliness. But Westerby’s voice fixes Jim as being locked into a dismal cycle of criminality, poverty and sleaze thus imposing the didactic stridulence of insects upon his character which is not justified at all by the actual fluid meat of the story.

Maybe this is just the way Westerby is working on us, to shove his characters and his world up against the damnation of the moralising, fatalistic judgements that mirror the character’s own fleeting reflections upon himself. If so, we should take with a pinch of salt Westerby’s interruptions, treat his chorus as tear-jerk romantic agony played out to the existenchal jazz noise of Thomas’s ‘post tempestatum, magna serenitas’, serenity beyond the mind’s tempestuousness etc. Recall in its stead Swift on St Patrick’s Cathedral: ‘where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.’ In short, perhaps there is here a somewhat dry case of contention that ‘happiness is the condition of the deceived, and that a dry eye doesn’t bring about the contrary, au contraire…’ which Westerby is inflicting upon his less than fair readers (this is very masculine territory) in order to engender a required last hours of the doomed atmosphere to his volume.

Westerby’s book gets this just about right. It crawls about with failure, and though the authorial voice tempts us with a ready steer, there’s a strong reading that resists any such conclusion. Any conclusion at all in fact. Really, nothing happens (like the Melville film too, though not as extreme as Godot where nothing happens twice….) except in the head of the protagonist, where his own consciousness of his helpless, hopeless and bereft condition is clarified. Westerby has passages of great descriptive strength but he uses these to contrast the external world with the tormented consciousness of Jim’s inner life. He’s a man who is always looking out to others to find out who he wants to be, never mind who he is. His self is a self-loathing appetite, greedy for what he has been told is what he ought to want. A rough trade Hamlet, Stendhal as Vinnie Jones wannabe, he is a mirror walking down from the North to London, a Dickhead Whittington barely able to make the respite between the crucifixion of narrative and the resurrection of the mind’s stasis, where he reflects on his own processes.

London too works as his mirror, (so he is a mirror walking in a mirror, which explains the curious iteration of feelings and events, the peculiar atmosphere of turmoil and stillness that pervades the book) and the underground figures he moves with become a way of his fixing his own image, deciding his traits, his opportunities, his fears. It is in Mick that he is finally confronted with terror as he recognises something in this hoodlum that frightens him beyond anything he has confronted before. In Mick there seems a brief moment when perhaps he might enter a different realm, that of Beckett’s dwarf longing for a full-size coffin. But that would be a different novel, one where the enlarged shadow is also one that thins out. A vampiric longevity. Jim is a character that hasn’t a sense of death’s meaning. His desire is a lust for completion as narrative, not resolved stillness. Yet he remains encountering only mirrors, seeing only what is reflected in his other people’s eyes.

Westerby takes time to describe what surrounds this man because it’s in these descriptions of things that he captures what Jim Bankley both is and is not. The book’s a brilliant depiction of the despair and loneliness of a Narcissus trumped by the dead living inside. It is a book about someone who wishes for the freedom to admire himself that he cannot find in family, work, locality, friendship or love. It’s a typical yoof thing in this respect. He has to walk out on his father and brother, on his work and his work mates, the place he was born and bred because all they show him is a futility and limitation that offends his imagination. It is his imagination that feeds this sense of masculine alienation from his surroundings and from the promised future. Jim Bankley is capable of imagining himself as not being himself. He finds out the hard way that the tough thing is to go further than that and imagine what the new self is like.

Like a decadent artist he refuses toil, refuses community, refuses home comforts and love and oh what’s left if he has no gift or inclination for artistic squalor? He plumps for Elsewhere, the fairy story ‘streets are paved with gold’ type of thing, the sweet promise of mythic London, a place that becomes the empty source of his reflected identity. Westerby captures well the onanistic reflex of this type of rebellion. Inarticulate beyond the musculature of his youthful priapic urge, we are presented with a Daliesque character of supreme social and sexual retreat. The sole pleasures are not soulful but self-regarding. The only beauty he registers in the whole of the book is his own body, and even that is caught at a strange angle, in a strange time when he is falling out from the initial superficial success of his migration to the dream-life and falling into its abjection and emptiness. Women, interestingly, never measure up. There are strong metrosexual homoerotic stirrings still in this.

In the end he can’t submit to any object of desire outside of himself and remains throughout incapable of encounters with others that are not strategies of hostility and greed. His brutishness is depicted in terms of his devouring of all others; he feels nothing for the women he professes to fancy, they are merely part of his agony, to be used as mere extensions of his own feelings and circumstance; so too the men. And so for both these women and men he visits upon them his vicious thoughts, sometimes vicious actions. We imagine, where he can’t, (he being never engaged with any dimension of the arts) the drumming sound of his fists to the rhythm of the last seven bars of Schubert’s lied ‘Nacht und Traume’ and mouth the accompanying words of Matthaus Casimir von Collin ‘Holde Traume, kehret wieder’ – ‘Sweet dreams, come back.’

Jim is one of the sad men where the twin in him continues to grow and stunt his growth, right through to where the novel ends. Yet there is an ambiguous validation of his being at the end, and that is portrayed in the character of his old father. ‘The two Bankley’s pushed out through the crowd and walked to the main door. Together, they went down the steps into the street. It had stopped raining, and there were stars in the sky.’ It is both a trivial and intimate ending, one which, perhaps, intimidated Westerby into trying, in a final extra page, to gloss what the whole sorry story could mean. It’s a superficial reading he offers, hardly making any sense of the old man sinking back into the life of his son, restraining the havoc of his own memory. Together, man and boy – for Jim remains just a boy despite his years – we are presented with a counter-image to that of Jim’s, and its a fitting end.

The novel has shown us Jim at first desiring the material world but finding himself incapable of finding himself there. He then loathes himself and that world, setting both as nought, self-inspection leading to the discovery of his own worthlessness, and so it ends with a humility worthy of Geulincx: ‘where you are worth nothing, there you should want nothing.’ (Yet recall Dylan’s retort to Geulinex in ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose,’ which reminds us that in these circumstances you could find yourself pushing off in quite the opposite direction if you so chose and at the behest of just the slightest shift of nuance.) His father traipses diligently, unreasonably, to collect his son, to save him, to resurrect him, to bring him home.

It’s a consummate dime novel, and doesn’t try to bitch continuity to hell. That fact alone can hide the catastrophe of incoherence that is Jim’s story, and it can also suggest a kind of fashionable nihilism that would be a complete travesty. But there are other possibilities – I’ve outlined one such – and nothing should be settled too soon. Iain Sinclair has written a superb introduction that gives the context and the sources, as well as a brilliant endpiece on Losey’s prison film The Criminal which fixes pothooks and clears the ground. There is also a short piece by Westerby excusing himself, a drab little expose of its social setting and relevance that is neither dog nor hinny.

‘Suffering humanity perishes and falls blindly from one hour to another, like water dashed from crag to crag year after year, down into the unknown’ as the poet of Tubingden wrote, and Jim would get that. It’s at least partially a London novel, but as Chris Petit noted in conversation, London is probably everywhere by now. Here’s a personal note. Beckett visited the tower where Holderlin wrote the fragment quoted above and the other day I walked with a friendly companion through the freezing dark of Gray’s Inn Road to the little street near the arse of King’s Cross Station, Ampton Street, where at number four Beckett rented a room for seventeen shillings and six pence per week from Mrs Southern for six weeks. I was keen to just make its acquaintance.

Thomas Carlisle has a green plaque on one of the houses on the street, now occupied by a family whose little children were playing in the hoary dark at the half open door. But the half of the street where Beckett would have lived has been flattened and replaced by a block of flats. Jim would have got this provocation, desire rebuffed by ruins and indifference, an indigent imagination in the great mess of London dismissed anonymously as being all balls, yes, all balls. Proust’s ‘irremediablement seul’. I Was Dora Suaraz boiling the same wellspring, Pascals’ distractions, the city devouring its own hard boys like time, and all those boys screaming in turn, like a lurid preposterous Bacon triptych, screaming like the Beckett dwarf, screaming not longing now mind you, for a bigger grave. Wide Boys Never Work noirs-up this sense, gives pulp resonance to this irruption, and Westerby is rightly honoured by Sinclair and Martin Knight’s London Books for writing this first stab, like Antonella da Messina bringing the secrets of oil painting to Italy. ‘He types on your eyeballs with a hot needle’ comments Sinclair.

The novel charts a trauma at the root of an attachment. It’s about an artist without art. About the physical impossibility of apnoea. About the soft dream of every hard man’s reputation. About (obscurely) the yellow of Vermeer’s View of Delft – a reference to a character in Proust dragging himself off his deathbed to look on the beauty of that colour for one last time, but in the manner of Heraclitus – the weeping philosopher – attached to the cudgel. It’s about all our wide boys out there still, truculent, nasty and confused, breeding their hopeless desires in violent, cheating and inexcusable penumbra and never getting themselves properly born until someone other gives a damn and seeks them out and proffers them love.

Richard Marshall (centre) is former editor of 3:AM and his essay on Stewart Home appeared in its fifth anniversary anthology The Edgier Waters (2006). He lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 13th, 2008.