GERALD KERSH WAS THE FUCKING MAN

Working in the area, with its plethora of designer coffee spots, high-end fast food and concerned looking meeeedja types pacing the streets talking LOUDLY into BlackBerry Bolds, it’s difficult to concieve that London’s Soho was once so seedy. I used to listen to my dad’s tales of being robbed in clip joints by burly characters after being promised a superior striptease experience than Raymond’s Revue Bar, including the crudest sting i ever heard of, with a friend’s old man conned into entering a satin curtain into a piss-smelling alleyway where he and his boys were promptly knocked to the floor and relieved of their wallets.

There’s still an undeniable edge, but the overt seediness seems to have made like Le Corbusier and gone upwards, marked by crude signs and grimy doorbells, operating above those respectable retailers. The sleaze that gives Soho character seems to be in full effect, just 10 feet above your head.

In his self-published (and highly recommended) autobiographical tale, ‘Dreamy Lips’, skater Matthias Connor describes his tenure as a sex shop worker in the area, discussing the change in fortunes of the area’s purveyors of grot, reluctant to shift like ‘Boogie Nights’s Jack Horner and his forced shift from film to video, as a once-glorious XXX empire is largely condemned to a single alleyway, oft-busted, but generally left as an outlet for tourists to tick a box marked “scary brush with London lawlessness” during their visit.

The area will always maintain a bohemian history too – writers and dandy/raconteurs like Julian Maclaren-Ross define the area as much as any slap-happy titty-bar doormen. In literary terms, while it isn’t the area pivotal to the narrative, the ‘old’ Soho is depicted in Colin Macinnes’s brilliant ‘Absolute Beginners’ set circa 1959, at a key point in modernist style and a time when the teenage identity was still being forged. Macinnes includes the coffee shops and rent boy activity that the area was notorious for, and depicts it as the place to be for a well dressed young person in the city, hetrosexual or otherwise. Macinnes’s attention-to-detail is astounding, capturing every cut, stitch and leather finish on the young narrator and his associates, already bemoaning a clueless new breed. It goes without saying that ‘Absolute Beginners’ is an essential tome on the decades styles and attitude, and most importantly, a brilliant piece of writing. The 1987 musical (gotta love that opening tracking shot though) is pretty dire though. Dissatisfaction with the adaptation is a byproduct of the next piece of Soho fiction too.

We all fancy ourselves as writers. The fact of the matter is, that pampered by the luxury of irony, self-reference and Google research we just can’t measure up to the likes of Gerald Kersh. Colin was a well-to-do relative of Rudyard Kipling, with the means and manners to ascend into a bohemian existance. 20 years before ‘Absolute Beginners’…well, began, Kersh’s 1938 novel ‘Night And The City’ depicted a super-seedy Soho, where complicated deals and double-crosses took place, working class anti-heroes (who pimp their girlfriends) practise their best American accents from hours of aspirational cinemagoing on club hostesses, paying attention to their attire down to the rakish angle of their hat and monogrammed tiepins…clean living in exceptionally difficult wartime circumstances. Gerald himself spent a significant amount of his nights and days in the Soho area.

Born into a poor Jewish family, he grew to be an alarmingly prolific writer of books, short stories and screenplays, yet his narrative skills and turn-of-phrase aren’t celebrated enough, making him a marginal figure who remains stuck in cultdom. ‘Night And The City’ is just the tip of a very smoggy iceberg, but remains as vital and accessible (if you can steer past the un-PC, though accurate to the attitudes of the time, dialogue) as it did all those years ago. A kind of British Fante, Bukowski or Hemingway, who maintained similar skills yet often dealt in pulpy subject matters, blurring into the areas populated by Lovecraft and Bradbury…versatility is the keyword here. And like the all-American trio mentioned previously, Gerald could handle himself. Other than looking exceptionally dapper in later life, sporting some serious beardage, Kersh had been a wrestler, bodyguard, debt collector and cinema manager on the run up to his published debut in 1934, and during his attempts to maje a good living from writing, where the success of ‘Night And The City’ would popularise him somewhat. He signed up to be a guardsman and served during WWII too.

There’s little purpose in simply rehashing this superb biography, part of a Harlan Ellison site (he’s one of Harlan’s favourite authors, and one of Anthony Burgess’s too) but this quote has a certain resonance –

“Kersh was always getting into fights of one sort or another. One time, in 1931, a man tried to liquidate him with a sixpenny hatchet. Kersh sidestepped, escaped with a small gash on his forehead and a bit of concussion, retaliated with a little marbletop table and won on a technical knockout. However, the man succeeded in jolting a nerve which, for more than fifteen years, consistently gave Kersh a sore head and kept him awake nights. He bore other trophies – a knife wound on his left wrist and tooth marks on the knuckles of his right hand.”

Drawing out the noirish aspects of the book, ‘Night And The City’ would become a decent motion picture in 1950. Gerald wasn’t pleased with it though. It’s a great piece of post-war filmmaking but bears little resemblance to the novel. Inexplicably, it became an NYC-based film in 1993, with Robert De Niro as the antihero grifter Harry Fabian. In many ways it’s more accurate to the original narrative than the earlier adaptation, but shorn of Soho, what’s the point?

Kersh passed on in 1968, while living in the US, but it’s that 1993 film that led to one of the last ‘Night And The City’ reprints before deletion beckoned. That’s where John King comes in. A strong writer, but like Macinness and Kersh another (willing?) victim of a dumbed-down movie adaptation, the toxically shit ‘The Football Factory’ – trash like all Nick Love efforts, could have you deeming him a practitioner of div-lit. That would be a misnomer. On the back of his success, King, an unabashed fan of London literature, particularly that depicting the working classes and those of a criminal pursuasion led to London Books a company dedicated to publishing old and new books based in this fair city. ‘Night And The City’ led the reprint charge, but other forgotten authors like Robert Westerby and James Curtis got a spotlight too – respect is very much due to King for this independent endeavour. Extra props for recommending books at the back of each hardbound tome from companies other than their own.

Their site’s message board is an interesting source of follow-up suggestions and discussion of other great ‘lost’ local novels. Also easily available beyond London Books, are Kersh’s ‘Prelude To A Certain Midnight’ and ‘The Secret Master’, plus on a more light-hearted note, a compliation of his ‘Karmesin: The World’s Greatest Criminal’ series based on the tall tales he heard in bars and pubs each and every night.

Soho’s literary legacy is one worth celebrating. Gerald Kersh – legend, rest in peace.

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