benjamin brill

books and films and music

Simon Blumenfeld, Jew Boy

Alec is an earnest kid, a helpless non-conformist living in digs somewhere in Whitechapel sometime just before Cable Street, and the protagonist (because these sort of books aren’t supposed to have heroes) of Simon Blumenfeld’s first novel, Jew Boy.

His story is that of the second generation immigrant. A tent dweller displaced, he searches the streets of East London for something that better explains his sense of identity than either his parents’ stories of the old country he’ll never see, or his contemporaries’ sentimental tales of  ‘pet jews… with snotty beards and greasy kaftans… the vichs and vots and schadchans laid on with trowels.’

Blumenfeld, a market trader and amateur boxer, was at the vanguard of a movement of young working class writers, painters and social activists that grew out of East London during the 1930s. Informed by the Young Communist League, the anarchist clubs, and the workers’ circle classical concerts, as well as the Yiddish theatres that had helped preserve the culture of the shtetl around Stepney and Whitechapel, they mixed politics and religion like their ancestors had mixed beetroot and sour cream.  But politics and religion pair are never such comfortable bedfellows, and it’s Alec’s attempts to strike a balance between the two that form the crux of Jew Boy.

Blumenfeld said his inspiration for his male lead was Sam Berks, an East London Communist who claimed to hanker after ‘Communism without the Communists,’ but it’s hard to imagine Alec ever being quite so waggish. While his friend Dave, a mummy’s boy with a wandering eye, seems to skate through life with a nod, a wink, and the happy-go-lucky thoughtlessness of the wealthy and spoilt, Alec is thoughtful, serious and honest. 

His underlying decency does mean that Jew Boy lacks some of the snap and crackle that brings contemporaries and kindred spirits like Kersh or Baron’s writing to life, but you can’t help but warm to Alec’s lack of guile, and his habit of saying exactly what he feels, with little regard for the trouble it might land him in. Rather than schmoozing the celebrated writer, Leopold, he writes him off as a charlatan in front of his fawning admirers, pointedly noting that his flat poetry is only ‘making Palestine safe for the Anglo-Dutch oil kings.’ And when he joins his girlfriend, Sarah, on a visit to meet her sister in bourgeois Barnet, he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the way she has totally rejected her past to assimilate to the middle classes.

Like Sarah’s sister, Alec has turned his back on his family, and the claustrophobic confines of the Jewish community, eventually taking up with a ‘shiksa’, Olive. But whereas Sarah’s sister has bought contentment and respectability with a subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Alec’s journey is destined to be slower and more painful, as he struggles to reconcile all the contradictions he sees about him. Jew Boy charts his uncertain steps into the world that exists beyond Whitechapel, and his realisation that, although he defies any narrow definition or labelling, he is not alone.

Gerald Kersh, The Angel and the Cuckoo

Gerald Kersh was born in 1911, the son of a Teddington tailor, a prolific hack who turned out hundreds of hard-boiled short stories and magazine articles under a panoply of pen names during a thirty year career, and a novelist whose sharp eye was invariably trained on the seamier side of life.

He was the leading light of a movement that never quite was, a transatlantic counterpart to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, peddling – along with guys like James Curtis and Robert Westerby - a peculiarly British form of noirish fiction that turned him into a bestselling author and household name during the thirties, feted by the press, and courted by Hollywood.

His debut, Jews Without Jehovah, invited controversy (he was sued by members of his family for thinly veiled, unflattering portraits of them), but by the time of his third novel, fame had come knocking. Night and the City, which sold over a million, and has twice been filmed, opens the door on a squalid London, where secretaries and hostess girls take rooms together in bedsits near Russell Square, rubbing shoulders with ratty little men sporting fake American accents, who scuttle from dodgy business deal to dodgy business deal, rushing as fast as they can, just to stay half a step ahead. The writing is fast, fluid and sharp as a tack; daylight is a distant memory; and the Britain of sober-suited commuters coming up for air a foreign country.

But Kersh was no tourist. He’d served his time, working as a door-to-door salesman, a fish frier, a debt collector, a bouncer and an all-in wrestler, before making his mark as a writer. By his own admission, he mixed with some pretty unpleasant characters, bore the scars of a hundred fights, and fed all this experience into his writing. If characters like the zoot-suited ponce Harry Fabian are painted with broad brushstrokes, they remain totally compelling because Kersh seems to know every one of them so intimately.

After the war, Kersh moved to New York, making a name for himself as a versatile magazine writer, who, in his own words, always managed to get ‘a certain zing,’ into what he wrote. But by the time he died in 1968, he’d been forced into exile in upstate New York, where languishing deep in debt, he was eking out a living writing lowlife hackery for second rate magazines. He still wrote fiction – he could hardly help himself - but despite positive reviews for his last major work, The Angel and the Cuckoo, a mix of under-promotion and public indifference on both sides of the Atlantic had left him frustrated, and suspicious that his second wife, Lee, had used her influence in the London media to smear his name. 

Like almost all of his later work, The Angel and the Cuckoo drifted out of print almost as soon it rolled off the presses, and Kersh’s name was forgotten for best part of 40 years. But contemporary champions like Iain Sinclair and John King have brought about a revival in interest, and to mark the centenary of his birth, London Books have just released a new edition of the book, with a foreword by Paul Duncan, who’s currently working on a biography of Kersh.

The Angel and the Cuckoo is a brilliant read, the product of a fertile imagination left to ferment too long in obscurity on the wrong side of the pond. Kersh is drawn back to the inter-war Soho of his early London novels, and there are echoes of Night and the City’s Harry Fabian in the criminal mastermind, Perp, and of the sculptor Adam in the artist, Tom Henceforth.

But this time round, the writing is more dextrous, the schemes more intricate, and the cast of characters even richer, taking in Austro-Hungarian émigrés, hunchbacked African revolutionaries, and predatory film moguls with Napoleon fixations, alongside Kersh’s usual suspects. 

The habitués of the Angel and the Cuckoo, a café hidden down a blind alley at the end of Carnaby Street, are fascinating grotesques, finely drawn. There’s the genial and philosophical café owner, Steve Zobrany, who waxes his moustache methodically and dotes on his beautiful but disinterested wife, Alma; Zobrany’s former partner in crime, the phoney Baron Cseh, whose lies take him all the way to Hollywood; and the artist Henceforth, who limps with great purpose around the city like Titus Groan’s Steerpike, full of a thousand brilliant stories and a million brilliant schemes, none of which he has any interest in seeing through. Almost to a man, they are corrupt, and Kersh relishes their dissolution.

Reading The Angel and the Cuckoo is like coming across some great lost Kinks album - like Davies, Kersh continued to hone his unique vision, even when the world had stopped listening. The Angel and the Cuckoo reads like the culmination of a life’s work – there should always be an audience for writing this good.

The Angel and the Cuckoo, Night and the City, and a bunch of other brilliant books are published by London Books.

Anthony Clavane: The Promised Land

For a book about football, Anthony Clavane’s Promised Land is rather ambitious – a complex, and tangled work, charting the history of Leeds United, and channelling the spirit of David Peace.

It isn’t really about football, though. Or, at least, it’s about something more complicated than football alone. Like The Damned United author, Clavane draws together a host of narratives to explore the way sporting teams can both mirror and empower their communities, weaving a social and cultural history of the club, the city, and the Leeds Jewish community into which he was born.

Clavane’s Leeds is a conflicted, schizophrenic city. On the one hand, inward-looking, fiercely independent, and, to the outside world, ‘brash and overconfident,’ it is also a city that’s unsure of itself, and ashamed of its ‘grimy, provincial roots.

This explains the periodic attempts at reinvention, from Cuthbert Brodrick’s grand architectural works of the 19th century, to the concrete follies of the 1960s, and the creation of a consumer paradise in the 1990s. The shedding of skin has become part of the city’s fabric: Leeds is presented not so much as a city lacking an identity, as one whose identity has come to be defined by the search.

Association football came to Leeds as part of one such attempt to scrub away at the city’s grimy past. In 1903, at the unveiling of the Black Prince statue that still stands in City Square, Colonel Harding beseeched the people of Leeds to ‘rise above the sordid…rejoice in the beautiful,’ and embrace football over its provincial, parochial cousin, rugby league.

Like the city itself, the history of Leeds United has been filled with false dawns, unfulfilled potential and well-intentioned but ill-fated reinvention. Clavane contends that a flawed city begat a flawed football team, dismissing fans’ conspiracy theories and tales of bent referees, along with Don Revie’s mutterings of gypsy curses. There are no excuses for under-achievement, he suggests - we get the football teams we deserve.

But that doesn’t stop us from loving them. Football is about more than success: it’s about potential – the bright new tomorrow that Harding imagined in his speech to City Square, and the Promised Land of the book’s title. Like Billy Liar standing on a platform fretting about whether to climb aboard the London train, it’s about what might be, rather than what will.

It’s also about a sense of belonging. For Clavane’s grandfather’s generation, sport – first rugby, then football – was a way of stepping out of the ghetto and becoming part of the city. The same applies to Clavane’s generation, although as an exiled Loiner (he left Leeds to go to university and never returned), his dislocation is twofold. At one point he tells a story of his fellow fans turning against him on the terraces, refusing to believe that he was ‘Leeds’.

Perhaps this is why we end up seeing little of Clavane in his book – though it defines him, he is not really a part of the story.  He is a curator – an outsider – who, by drawing together the different strands, has written a fascinating book about the identity of a city, its people and its football team. 

Stan Barstow

I grew up in Leeds, and spent my time there convinced - in my ignorance - that the city had failed to produce anything of any worth since Don Revie’s Leeds United, and a supply of wily left arm spinners and cussed opening bats that had dried up shortly before I was born.

 And yet Leeds in the nineties always seemed consumed by what I saw as an ill-founded collective self-regard, with its slick bars, its Harvey Nicks, and its ugly, energetic football team, still supported by a legion of bullet-headed fans. Local radio presenters would blather on about ‘the fastest growing city in the UK,’ as scores of jerrybuilt flatblocks sprung up like weeds by the riverside, mingling with the concrete high rises and shopping centres that had been apparently heralded a brave new world a generation before.

It jarred a little. The old Leeds, ugly and grimy, was still there, but it had been shoved to one side and we were being encouraged not to look.  A new Camelot was being built, but the foundations were built on uneven ground.

I left Leeds when I was 18, but when in my mid-twenties, I started to discover the work of Yorkshire authors like David Storey and Stan Barstow - and revisited the Alan Bennett stories I’d nicked from school years before - they seemed to fill in some of the gaps, unearthing a neglected history and helping me to understand and appreciate the city - and the county - of my birth.

Bennett needs no introductions, of course, and while Storey might not be quite as well known as Armley’s favourite son, his plays are still well-regarded, and his CV includes a Booker-winning novel (the stately Saville), as well as This Sporting Life, the novel which made his name.

Barstow has always been my favourite, though. Although (or perhaps because) his books were out of print and relatively hard to come by, I took him to my heart, treasuring my hardback copy of his debut novel, A Kind of Loving, and working my way steadily through his other novels and short stories.

He didn’t have Bennett’s gift for pathos, or the power and the fury of Storey, but, in a way, this is what I love about him. His prose can sometimes seem untutored - immature, even, but without any stylistic tricks to hide behind, he still managed to imbue his books with an affecting honesty and directness.

As a working class realist writer, from the same neck of the woods as John Braine, Keith Waterhouse and Storey, it’s no surprise that Barstow was dubbed an Angry Young Man, but the title doesn’t really do him justice. A Kind of Loving’s Vic Brown is no Arthur Seaton, Billy Fisher, or Frank Machin, lashing out against anything and everything. His predicament is subtler – more realistic - and Barstow’s gift was that he was able to play out a story of unwanted pregnancy with a delicate and sympathetic touch, never compromising his characters, or patronising his readers.

Many of his books were set in Cressley,  an imagined town which bears more than a passing resemblance to his hometown of Ossett, one of a knot of small towns to the south of Leeds. They unwittingly chart the beginning of the end of the industrial north, as grammar school boys like Vic escape the pits and factories that had held their families for generations, leaving behind communities that, within 30 years, would be unrecognisable.

Unlike many of his contemporaries (and some of his characters), Barstow never left his hometown. His novels and short stories show a side to the West Riding that the city living entrepreneurs and shopping centre developers who tried to rebuild my hometown sought to build over.

He died on Monday, on Yorkshire Day.

London, Forgotten City

A version of this article was published on www.substance.tv 

Sometime in the seventies, a speedfreak runner in a herringbone overcoat comes up to Iain Sinclair’s bookstall in Camden Passage, and tells him he has to read this ‘amazing book.’

The book was Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife, and when, best part of forty years later, Sinclair winds up writing the introduction to a new edition of that same book, he reminisces briefly about the runner.

‘He puffed,’ Sinclair writes,  Colin MacInnes… Gerald Kersh and James Curtis,’  - a trinity of writers spread over three decades, writing about a mythical London where street-kids huddled in Italian caffs, rubbing shoulders with lobbuses and layabouts, hostess girls and small-time hustlers.

But it was Baron, he decides, who had managed to write the, ‘autobiography [the runner] never got round to.’ A sharp little comic novel set between the quiet streets of Hackney and the long shadows of Walthamstow dog track, The Lowlife is a book about life on the fringes of a great city - another side of London as it prepared to swing.

Harryboy Boas is a gambler and, when money’s tight, a Hoffmann presser. He spends his days holed up in a Hackney bedsitting room, losing himself in the books of Emile Zola, hiding from the world as it changes all around him.

He’s a relic from another time – the only living Jew on Shacklewell Lane – left behind by his generation’s march to the suburbs, feigning disinterest as a new batch of immigrants moves in on the territory, encountering the same prejudices his forebears faced.

Boas’s Hackney, with its Kosher restaurants and slum landlords willing to gamble a house on a game of dice might not be as visible these days, but Baron’s writing doesn’t get old. His ear for the chat of the dog track, and eye for a droll setpiece has been a touchstone for a new generation of writers, with Sinclair, John Williams and Anthony Cartwright all citing his influence.

Even as Harryboy lay on his bed, pondering life’s imponderables, a new generation was itching to escape the suburbs. With a few quid in their pocket, and sick to the back teeth of a semi-detached existence, they headed for the city, all dressed up and ready to go.

The star of Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners is a nameless sixteen year old, a proto-mod vision of youthful perfection with a Roman suit, Spartan haircut and Rolliflex camera - charming, cocky and pretty bloody funny, a blueprint for a new generation.

He dashes from Soho to Notting Hill and back again, bumping along the way into lesbian nonces, perverted ambassadors and glassy-eyed jazzers, head nodding to a soundtrack of Dizzy, Charlie Parker and Lord Kitch.

MacInnes was getting on by the time he wrote Beginners, but he knew the scene (he’d been showing up at the Windrush kids’ parties for years, and was an established face round Soho). And when it comes to the battle of the generations, there’s no doubt as to where his loyalties lie. His dear old p and m are, respectively, broken and immoral, while his Bevin Boy brother, who loafs around his parents’ house in a demob suit full of dated ideas, is treated like a savage. He can’t be much more than 20, but his time has already passed.

The poet Mannie Katz is just about the only adult in Beginners who manages to escape the teenager’s withering tongue. MacInnes based him on Bernard Kops, a playwright and poet from the same neck of the woods as Baron, whose memoir, The World is a Wedding, is a hilarious, harrowing read, veering from East End sentimentalism to full-blow psychosis within the space of a hundred and fifty pages.

Kops was part of the first wave of teenagers to head for Soho after the end of World War Two. He spent a decade sitting in beatnik cafes with a carrier bag full of poems, smoking too much hash, and getting into bed with a succession of unsuitable girls. He reels around barefoot, his mind unravelling across Soho, the East End, and – for a time – north Africa, with his parents fretting all the while about when he’ll meet a nice Jewish girl and settle down.

Terry Taylor grew up at the opposite end of London to Kops but the pair ended up moving in similar circles. Baron’s Court, All Change was his only book, and, in Stewart Home’s words, it joined the  ‘legion of the reforgotten faster than the publisher could put it on the shelves,’ but after 45 years out of print, and with original copies going for upwards of 200 quid, it’s about to be republished.

Like BeginnersBaron’s Court concerns a refugee from Metroland. His hero – again teenage, again nameless – spends his days working in a hat shop, and his evenings in the Katz Kradle jazz club, selling dope to the musicians with his business partner, Dusty Miller, a would-be hustler in Dave Brubeck specs.

Taylor’s narrator is greener than MacInnes’ teen, but his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the scene, the characters he runs into, the music and the drugs is addictive. Hip phrases rattle around his mouth like gobstoppers, but he says them with such conviction that you never question their authenticity. Baron’s Court is a drugs novel, but more important than that, it’s about the excitement of coming into a new world, where anything seems possible.

Taylor dropped out of view shortly after Baron’s Court was published. He headed to Tangiers, where he hung out with William Burroughs, and talked about bringing out another novel, but nothing came of it. His immortality is assured, though – along with Baron, MacInnes, Kops and others like them, he helped to paint a vivid picture of a city - and a country – on the cusp of seismic change. Things were starting to get interesting.


Interview with John King, London Books

John King is the author of seven novels, including Human Punk and The Football Factory, and runs London Books with fellow writer, Martin Knight. London Books have republished work by writers including Gerald Kersh and James Curtis, and will be releasing Kersh’s Angel and the Cuckoo and Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld later this year.

When did you first discover writers like Kersh, Curtis, Westerby and Sillitoe? And then how did you come to be putting out their books?

I first picked up Gerald Kersh’s Night And The City ten or so years back, when I was walking through Soho after a session in The Blue Posts and went into a bookshop that had a range of cheap, quirky fiction stacked in its windows. Among the books was a copy of Night And The City. I vaguely recognised the title – maybe from seeing the first film adaptation years ealier – but more importantly I thought it was a great title and had to look inside. The style, locations, subject matter connected with the beer in my brain and I bought the book and started reading it on the night bus. I started again when I was sober and thought it was brilliant. Around this time I was loaned a copy of Wide Boys Never Work by Nick Robinson, from my publisher Random House, which I also loved and this connected to Night And The City.

I then became interested in other old London novels, finding and reading more books, and I tried to see if a publisher would reprint some of them, but nobody I spoke to was interested. It was clear to me that there was a marginalised tradition there, a body of writing that had been dismissed as unfit for the official canon. Along with author and friend Martin Knight we decided to do it ourselves. We see these books as part of our own history I suppose, writing that connects with our books, interests, families.

As for Alan Sillitoe – I first picked up one of his novels in WH Smiths in Uxbridge when I was in my late teens. I wasn’t much of a reader then, preferring music and football and pubs to a quiet night in, but I liked the title of one of his novels – I forget which one – and so I started reading it in the shop and was hooked. Even though he was from Nottingham and writing about fictional events nearly two decades earlier, I recognised characters and situations and was soon a big fan of his work. I met Alan in 1999 and over the years we got to know each other very well. That’s a strange thing to write down, but it’s true. We ended up as friends.

Would the label ‘literary archaeologist’ be one you’d wear gladly? And is the buzz in rediscovering these forgotten novelists a nostalgic thing for you, or do you see them as writers who warrant contemporary interest on their own terms?

I think they warrant contemporary interest – definitely. I’m not sure about the term you mention, as it’s not so much nostalgia that attracts me but more the vibrant styles of the writers we publish, the honesty of their observations, but of course there are the glimpses of a largely unrecorded past that seems very similar to the present. I don’t see these things as part of a time-line, more like a circle, great loops that interconnect and repeat. Look at May Day by John Sommerfield – if a book like that could find a publisher today it would be a revelation. It could have been written yesterday. Of course, I’m interested in the eras these books capture, but there are plenty of novels in print which do so in a manner that has dated. We don’t publish that sort of prose. The authors we love are free from self-censorship and different to many of the more famous names that have remained in print. It is exciting to find a ‘old’ author such as Sommerfield or Curtis, as to me they feel like new authors.

I’ve read a couple of your books (Human Punk, The Football Factory), and one of the striking things about them is that the protagonists, in one way or another, look to step outside the constraints of society. This is something that’s also a feature of books like Night And The City, or The Gilt Kid. Is this idea of the outsider protagonist something that you find particularly appealing?

That’s very true, but there are also differences between Tommy Johnson of The Football Factory and Joe Martin in Human Punk. Tommy is a product of mainstream society and, despite seeing its unfairness and hypocrisies, he is acting out its patterns - even though both he and society would deny it. Joe is more of a loner, who has broken out and does his own thing, his education coming out of punk. He doesn’t compromise as much as Tommy. Then there’s Jimmy Ramone in The Prison House, who is out on the margins, stuck in a foreign prison - totally alone. So there’s a vague line really – everyone an individual and on the outside, everyone part of the whole.

I agree there could be similarities between Tommy and Joe and the main characters in Night And The City and The Gilt Kid. Harry Fabian and The Gilt Kid are small-time crooks, but they are very different people - Fabian believes in worst parts of the system and wants to be rich and parade his wealth, whereas The Gilt Kid is more politically aware, with morals and a stubborn streak. Move on to May Day and we have characters that are opposed to both capitalism and criminality, and prepared to take on the bosses telling them they should work harder for less pay. All these characters are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s. Probably more so in fact.

Your own writing’s always been very class-conscious. What are your thoughts on how these novelists approach the issue of class?  And, with that in mind, how important is Soho as a backdrop for Kersh and Curtis?

The term ‘working class’ can be defined in a lot of different ways of course – largely depending on a person’s politics – so I would say that my writing revolves around ordinary, everyday people – the common people as individuals with intelligence and culture and values rather than the cheap media/political vision of a lazy, immoral, stupid minority. The stories I write deal largely with unfairness, the need humans have to create enemies, the exploitation and division that is denied by those in control. I also write about certain areas of my culture, try and shows the links.

I think James Curtis was more interested in class divisions than Kersh, but both wrote about the common people, although they often appear in dramatic situations. Soho must have been a very good backdrop for Kersh and Curtis and other authors such as Robert Westerby, as it was a lively area where different strands of life came together. It was also very cosmopolitan, a place where writers could rub shoulders with villains and what was annoyingly referred to as ‘lowlife’. The narrowness of the streets and the number of pubs, the music venues and sleaze made it exciting I imagine.

I’ve read quite a bit of early Alan Sillitoe – particularly the short stories, but haven’t yet read much of his later stuff. Where would you recommend I start? While he’s most famous for his Nottingham books, do you think it’s only seeing half of the picture to tag him a ‘Nottingham writer?’ 

A Man Of His Time was published in 2004 and is one of his very best novels in my opinion. It is well worth reading and as good a place as any to begin. Alan was a prolific writer who was dedicated to his craft, and was much more than a Nottingham writer, as you rightly suggest. He lived much of his life in West London and had lots of different interests, even though he was still firmly connected with his roots. He was well-travellled and incredibly well-read, strong yet also humble. He wrote poetry and travel books, as well as novels and short stories. He deserves a lot more respect than he is given. Labelling him as a ‘Nottingham writer’ or a ‘working-class writer’ is a way of sticking him in a corner, shunting a great author off towards the margins.

Would you consider putting out provincial fictions? 

At the moment we’re concentrating on the London Classics, which are London based, but we may well attempt a New Fiction list one day, which would deal in British novels. We’ve published a couple of new titles, but we don’t have the resources to take it further, and both Martin and I are authors with books to write so that limits our time as well. If we had the money we could delegate much of the work, but we just aren’t in that position. But we’ll see what happens. We haven’t been going long.

We’re publishing Simon Blumenfeld’s novel Jew Boy in November, with an introduction by Ken Worpole. Jew Boy is set in and around Whitechapel and the main character is a Jewish tailor called Alec, who works in a sweatshop and is exploited by a Jewish boss. Despite the title, the book is closer to May Day in its aims and shows a change in the ambitions of many young Jews in the East End of the 1930s. There are non-Jewish characters as well, the book dealing in the poverty and politics of working people generally. 

Blumenfeld was born in Whitechapel and worked on the markets as a young man. His father is said to have been descended from pirates. It’s a fine novel, our eighth Classic after Kersh’s The Angel And The Cuckoo, which will be released to celebrate his centenary at the end of August.

Alexander Baron: From The City, From The Plough

 Like so many of the soldiers he fought alongside, my grandfather refused to talk about his experiences at D-Day. It’s impossible to say in what way those weeks in Normandy shaped him, and a part of him was always unknowable – even for those to whom he was close. As his generation fades away, it becomes ever more difficult to conceive what it must have felt like to be on a landing craft in the June of 1944, approaching the French coast.

Alexander Baron was a similar age to my grandfather, and from a similar background. His debut novel, From The City, From The Plough is a fictionalised, first hand account of D-Day, following the soldiers of an unremarkable infantry regiment as they prepare for battle. It was published in 1948, at a time when the wounds inflicted by the war were still open. Baron was apparently reluctant to speak again of what he went through during the invasion; in that light, From The City reads like an attempt to make sense of what he’d been though, and to purge the demons of Dunkirk. It is recognised as one of the finest novels of World War Two, and is an extraordinary work.

Baron admitted that the war had a huge impact on him, both as a man, and as a writer. It certainly cast a long shadow over all his work, but what’s particularly interesting about From the City, when compared with later novels, is the subtle shift in outlook as he moved from war to peace. 

Later novels like Rosie Hogarth or The Lowlife look at the ways individuals attempt to find their place within a community (or not, in the case of The Lowlife’s Harryboy Boas), and the uncomfortable compromises that are often thrown up by people’s desire for a sense of place. His books often feel claustrophobic, and there’s a sense that characters like Jackie Agass (in Rosie Hogarth) or Harry’s neighbour, Vic, in The Lowlife have stifled their ambitions in their attempts to fit in. They’re wonderful books, but always undercut by a note of quiet despair.

Such conflict isn’t really apparent in From The City. That’s not to say Baron serves up some idealised vision of the honest Tommy, but the motley crew of cockney wide boys, country lads and career soldiers who make up the Fifth Wessex Battalion do live together in relative harmony. The soldiers might have no say in their destiny, but perhaps it’s this absence of control that provides the glue that allows their miniature society to thrive. All the members of the battalion recognise that they must work together in order to survive and they do so without complaint. It’s telling that when the outside world intrudes – in the case of the spurned husband Shuttleworth, for example - things become more complicated. The battalion is a utopia of sorts, and utopias can only work in a state of isolation.

 The opening chapters document the calm before the storm, introducing us to the soldiers as they prepare for the invasion, billeted in an anonymous south coast town over a hot English summer. There’s a large cast of characters, but every one is beautifully and realistically drawn, from Colonel Pothecary, a respected officer anxiously awaiting news of his missing-at-sea son, to the wisecracking Charlie Venable and his gang of ‘doggy boys’ (gamblers).

The battalion’s togetherness transcends rank and class. Colonel Pothecary is a career soldier, who wins the respect of his troops through empathy rather than the medals on his chest, and whose speech ahead of the invasion culminates in a stumbling ‘Well I’m damned if I know what to say to you… eat when you can, and keep your bowels open.’

Pothecary shares a strong bond with Captain Norman, a gentleman, and a reluctant soldier. Norman features in one of the most important scenes of the early chapters, when he haggles good-naturedly with one of the doggy boys, Dickie Sandford over a spurious application for leave. The brief scene epitomises what Baron described in a 1994 interview with John Williams: ‘the fragile notional unity that did exist; [whereby[ decent people of all sorts got together.’

Throughout these chapters, though, the battle looms. When the boats do eventually descend on Dunkirk, the narrative takes on an eerie quality. Characters we’ve grown to care for are killed and maimed before our eyes, along with scores to whom we’ve never been introduced, but while the horror is finely detailed it seems almost dreamlike, impossible to take in fully. Baron swoops in and out of the battle, showing us in one moment the lone sniper trembling in a slit trench, and in another the weary soldiers steeling themselves for the last big push. It’s a masterful piece of writing; so much is happening that it’s only afterwards you start to realise the true horror of what was has happened: the battalion has been all but wiped out. By the closing scene, where Norman is asked to rally his troops for one last mission, you can almost hear the dragging of the soldiers’ feet.

Baron went on to write a host of fantastic books, but From The City is recognised as his masterpiece. It is a detailed and warm insight into the lives of the ‘poor bloody infantrymen,’ and provides us with some appreciation of how war shaped Baron’s outlook. It is difficult for us to imagine the horrors his generation went through between 1939 and 1945, but From The City goes some way to helping us understand.

Gerald Kersh, Night and the City

Harry Fabian thinks he’s got ‘em fooled, but anyone with any sense seems to know that he’s a ponce. A vain little wide boy with a hooky American accent that suits him about as well as the oversized overcoat he wears, he spends his days bouncing from minor catastrophe to moral depravity, and from dodgy business deal to dodgy business deal, running all the time, but never looking like he’ll get ahead.

Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel, Night and the City, follows Harry on his quest to make a quick buck by capitalising on the all-in wrestling craze that’s sweeping London. Set almost exclusively in the basement clubs of Soho and the bedsits to which their habitués retire at the end of a long night, it’s a lowlife caper that manages to meditate on questions of identity and purpose, without ever so much as pausing to catch its breath.

Having convinced a businessman acquaintance, Figler, to stump up half of the £200 he needs to start up his promotions racket, Fabian has less than a week to scrape together the remaining balance. Things are looking desperate until he listens in on a conversation between his girl, Zoe, and a client. The man has lost his job, and to keep the news from his terminally ill wife, he has taken to wandering the streets of Soho when he should be at work. He is bereft and lonely, and Zoe (the clichéd tart with a heart) offers a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. Fabian spots an opportunity for blackmail, and sets off into the night after him.

He finally catches up with his quarry in the Turkish baths in a scene that’s heavy with symbolism. Harry, stripped of his disguise, is seen to be - in a very literal sense -uncomfortable in his own skin, a fact which makes his continued attempts to hide behind an American accent appear even more pathetic. His willingness to submit himself to the terrors of the tepidarium in a vain attempt to enter the confidence of his intended victim is a source of some rich comic material, but it also serves to highlight the indignities he’s willing to suffer in order to get what he wants. It’s a lousy way to make a hundred quid.

Harry’s dirty dealings contrast starkly with the character of Adam, a would-be sculptor who has taken a job at a club that Harry frequents in order, he keeps telling himself, to make enough money to be able to afford to pursue his true calling. Adam is brutally honest; his strict moral code, and the way it shapes his relationships are, in a way, the core of the book. It’s through his dealings with his lover, Helen, his boss, Noseross, and his friend, Ali that we learn the most about the conflicts that presumably preoccupied Kersh, an artist torn between living for the moment, and pursuing his own projects of immortality.

It’s played out best in an exchange between Adam and Ali, the ageing wrestler who is cruelly exploited by Fabian. Ali questions his friend’s ambitions, and dismisses a sculpture of Hercules in the British Museum as, ‘Only a copy of a man,’ going on to exhort Adam to ‘be the real thing.’ Adam disagrees, saying ‘And after ten years, or twenty years, what then? All the muscles are full of fat. But if I ever make a Farnese Hercules… well I make it to stand forever.’

Neither is right and neither is wrong, but amongst the bloodsuckers of Soho, Ali and Adam stand out as the only characters in Night and the City who look to create rather than exploit. That doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed a happy ending, but at least they’re giving themselves a fighting chance.

Interview with Ross Bradshaw, Five Leaves Publishing

This article was published in Tribune Magazine, June 10 issue.

‘We live at a time when the pre-forgotten seek out the reforgotten,’ wrote Iain Sinclair in his introduction to The Lowlife, Alexander Baron’s great comic character study of Harryboy Boas, inveterate gambler, street-corner philosopher, and avid reader of Emile Zola.

Sinclair, a tireless archivist of lost London, is a long-standing champion of mid-century novelists such as Baron, but until recently, the books he heralded had fallen out of fashion and out of print, their authors condemned to obscurity.

Over the past couple of years, though, Baron, and contemporaries such as Bernard Kops and Roland Camberton, have experienced something of a revival. Their books are back in print, with a new generation of readers discovering their picaresque, politically aware novels of East End living and Soho life.

Ross Bradshaw, the one-man band behind Five Leaves Publishing, has been one of the figures behind the revival. His eclectic Nottingham-based operation has published work by a host of ‘reforgotten’ London authors, and in 2009 he set up a dedicated imprint, New London Editions, which has since republished classic novels by Baron and Camberton.

Bradshaw’s background was in radical bookselling. He bemoans the demise of radical bookshops – of which there are currently less than 10 in the UK – but sees cause for optimism in the growing numbers of independent outlets springing up around the country, and readers who share his passion for ‘exploring important work that has fallen down the back of the sofa.’

He says he came across Baron, whose last published novel had come out in 1977, after reading Ken Worpole’s 1983 study of 20th century working class literature, Dockers and Detectives, a ‘forgotten book about other forgotten books,’ republished by Five Leaves in 2008.

‘Baron is a terrific writer,’ Bradshaw says, ‘on his way to much wider attention at the heart of modern audiences.’ He cites in particular the novels and short stories he wrote in the aftermath of World War II, especially his 1948 debut, From the City, From the Plough (now published by Black Spring), which became a major bestseller, and is widely recognised as his masterpiece.

A disturbing and beautiful book, From The City… saw Baron acclaimed as the greatest British novelist of the war, and held up by his supporters, Bradshaw tells me, as ‘about the only writer who got it right about the life of the poor bloody infantrymen, of whom he was one.’

Baron, a one-time assistant editor at Tribune, is undoubtedly the jewel in New London Editions’ crown. Books like Rosie Hogarth, his first London novel, which tells of a former soldier’s attempts to find his place within the Islington community he returns to after the War, and King Dido, a terse novel set in the early 1900s charting the rise and fall of an accidental East End gangster, are compelling, thought-provoking reads. 

He writes with warmth and wisdom about individuals’ roles within communities in flux, teasing out the secrets and sacrifices people must make to survive, and the different ways in which they look to detach themselves from the claustrophobia of the status quo.

Bradshaw is particularly interested in the writers’ relationship with their class. Baron and Camberton were, he says, ‘two of a swathe of working class writers writing about their period… growing out of the Jewish East End communist milieu that [Arnold] Wesker wrote about in Chicken Soup With Barley, and which Raphael Samuel wrote about in The Lost World of British Communism.’

Like many Jewish writers of the period, they were informed by the push and pull between tradition and modernity, but also, Bradshaw suggests, the, ‘conflict between being working class and coming to a new and wider world of culture.’

Invariably, this, ‘new and wider world of culture,’ was epitomised by Soho, and its allure is captured brilliantly by Camberton in both of his slight, but charming novels, and by Bernard Kops, a playwright and contemporary of Colin MacInnes (he appeared, thinly disguised, as the poet Mannie Katz in Absolute Beginners) whose riotous memoir, The World is a Wedding is essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in bohemian London during the 1950s.

New London Editions will be returning to Soho in the coming months. Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho is due to be republished, along with a book by Laura Del Rivo, one of Wilson’s circle. 

The most anticipated upcoming release, Bradshaw says, is the November publication of Terry Taylor’s 1961 novel Baron’s Court, All Change. Taylor was the much younger lover of photographer Ida Kar, who currently has an exhibition at the NPG. The first novel to mention LSD, Baron’s Court, All Change is now considered a proto-mod classic, with original copies exchanging hands for over £200. 

And after that? ‘We have a wish list as long as your arm,’ says Bradshaw. ‘I’ve just finished Robert Poole’s London E1, published by Secker in 1961, but set in London during the Blitz.’ The book, which tells the story of mixed race Indian girl and her mother’s attempts to ‘take care of,’ Indian sailors who had jumped ship, was Poole’s only novel, and he appears to have disappeared without trace. Bradshaw is trying to track down Poole’s family, but with no success – if anyone knows anything about him, he’d love to hear from you.

There’s something quite wonderful about Five Leaves and New London Editions’ quest to revive these forgotten writers. Along with fellow literary archaeologists like Black Spring, and London Books, who have dug up some cracking Soho gangster novels by Gerald Kersh, James Curtis and Robert Westerby, Bradshaw has rediscovered lost worlds, still vivid and pulsing with life. They deserve your attention.

An interview with The Crookes

It’s a balmy evening on Rathbone Street. Workers spill out of the pubs and onto the pavements, toasting the short week, the unseasonal weather, and the Easter weekend, which now stretches out in front of them invitingly. Inside the Gibson Guitar Studio, the stuffy village-hall-come-guitar-shrine where they’re to play later, The Crookes have just finished a lengthy sound check, and been ferried upstairs to do a piece to camera for a magazine, during which they sweat and fidget under studio lights, batting back the interviewer’s questions politely, with just a touch of gaucheness that belies their inexperience.

As soon as that interview’s done, guitarist and lyricist Dan Hopewell makes a bolt for the door, while the remaining members of the band are shepherded by their tour manager into another, yet stuffier room to do our interview. They’re restless, and could be forgiven for wishing they were elsewhere, but as they settle down to chat, a picture of a thoughtful, intelligent and ambitious group of twenty-somethings emerges.

In many ways, they’re an old-fashioned bunch. Four well-spoken, smartly turned out boys in smart trousers and short back and sides, they mention their parents in interviews, and on-stage display the sort of knockabout wit that owes more than a little to the music hall. In time-honoured fashion, they formed the band ‘to get girls, basically,’ (guitarist Alex Saunders confides that he and Dan used to make up gigs as a wooing technique, with limited success), and in less than three years they’ve gone from playing to empty rooms, to the verge of genuine success. They wear their influences on their well-pressed sleeves, and their debut album Chasing After Ghosts is filled with kitchen sink and Angry Young Man references, backed by guitars which chime and jangle in a manner redolent of early Orange Juice, or late Smiths.

They seem to me to be the sort of tweedy, bookish band that comes along every few years, and ends up meaning a heck of a lot to a new generation of troubled teenagers and bedroom poets. George Waite, who sings Hopewell’s sepia-tinted lyrics with a sweet and tender voice pitched somewhere between Morrissey and Colin Blunstone, and whose unfailing politeness hides a bone dry wit, bristles slightly at the suggestion that they should be considered the great white hopes of the young and the serious, first knitting his brow and then deciding, ‘I’ve never really considered myself all that sensitive.’ Saunders adds, ‘We keep on getting tagged as “Sensitive Sheffield Souls.” You’ve got to admire the sibilants, but it seems a little lazy to me,’ and Waite carries on: ‘Dan’s pretty in touch with his emotions, I suppose, and people can read the lyrics and see that, but I wouldn’t say that, as people, we’re all that serious. If we’re anything, we’re jokers, and that’s something we look to put across when we’re playing live. I don’t like it when a band feels they have to put on some sort of aloof, intense persona when they play.’

The tactic seems to be going down well. They’ve just completed their biggest tour to date, culminating in a jam-packed homecoming gig in Sheffield last week. Waite speaks warmly of touring life - ‘I like the routine – it’s like the Army, but with better hours,’ but admits that they felt under pressure before the Sheffield gig, ‘Right up to when we went on stage, we worried we’d be playing to an empty room. To end up with people singing our words back at us was a really humbling experience.’

They met while studying at Sheffield University (Hopewell, Waite and Saunders studied English; drummer Russell Bates has a degree in Geography), and, while they may not be natives, it’s fair to say the Steel City and the Peak District that surrounds it both play a big part in their collective identity. When they formed, the city’s music scene was in the shadow of its most famous recent exports, The Arctic Monkeys, and bloated with the mediocrities who lumbered in their wake. Waite acknowledges some shared influences (including that of Alan Sillitoe) but says that, while he admires Alex Turner’s work, ‘in a way, we were subconsciously reacting to them, or to the bands who followed in their wake. At the time we were listening to a lot of folky stuff – the Decemberists, and Neutral Milk Hotel, who Dan really loves. We were looking at Sheffield bands like Slow Club and Monkey Swallows the Universe as well - we felt that was a scene we fitted into.’

The band has since betrayed its folksy roots, going electric (although Waite notes laconically that ‘no-one’s called us Judas yet’) and displaying greater sonic and melodic ambitions that reflect an ever-expanding array of influences (recent listening includes the Stooges’ Raw Power and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s latest album, along with old standbys Tom Waits and Ron Sexsmith), but their live performance retains some of the intimacy that was on display at their early gigs. This is in part down to Waite, who had never sung before joining the band, but has a voice that could break your heart, and a natural charisma that isn’t sullied by the occasional bout of staginess. For a band who have only just released their debut album, their assurance on stage is admirable, and the audience’s response is impressive.

So when fame does come knocking, will they take a page out of Alex Turner’s book, pack up their bags, and head for the States? It seems not. Bates jokes that ‘having the means to fly over from LA for practice would be nice,’ but adds that ‘from the start, that kind of thing has never been a priority - we just want to be the best band we can be.’ They seem more concerned with retaining the connection they feel with their audience ‘when you can still see the whites of their eyes,’ and their quarterly fanzine, Bright Young Things, is one way of doing that. ‘To begin with, it was quite self-indulgent,’ Saunders says, ‘just a collection of what we’d be up to and what’s on our minds. We’ve broadened our horizons as we’ve gone on, though, and it’s getting better all the time.’ The same could be said of the band themselves – these bright young things have definitely got a bit about them.

The Crookes debut album, Chasing After Ghosts, is out now on Fierce Panda. They were playing at an event, sponsored by Merc, Gibson and Clash Magazine.