benjamin brill

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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.

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