London Lit: Night and the City

Forgive me, chums, if I’m lacking in energy. It has been a busy weekend with quite a lot of alcohol consumption. How much alcohol consumption? Enough for me to sing ‘Barbie Girl’ in karaoke form, that’s how much alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, this happened in St Albans and is therefore outside the scope of this blog.

Saturday brought a party in Slough and then an evening trip to Soho with a friend. I know a bar there that always has a free table, even on a Saturday night. It makes me feel special to know this.

Soho brings me to the subject of today’s blog entry. I’ve been reading quite a bit of the London noir subgenre that flourished between the wars, and one book I came across that I would thoroughly recommend to all is Night and the City by Gerald Kersh.

You may be familiar with the title. It’s been filmed twice. Yet the original book is so obscure these days that (at the time of writing) Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for it. It’s been, in my opinion, unjustifiably forgotten.

The central character is Harry Fabian, a man who has dreams of the big time but is in reality a small-time pimp with no self-control and a fund of get-rich-quick schemes. He is a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants, but when he does he throws it all away in an instant. Lying, blackmail, trafficking and worse are all in his repertoire as he works towards his current goal of being a great wrestling promoter.

Meanwhile, Helen gets a job, just as a temporary thing to pay the rent, at Phil Nosseross’ nightclub. She finds she has an unexpected knack for bringing in tips, and soon her temporary job becomes a little more to her.

Neither Helen nor Harry are alone in their corruption. Indeed, there are few characters in the book who aren’t flawed in some way. Not just in terms of morality. We see characters brought down low by greed, pride, naivety, lust, overconfidence – all human life is here. About the only character who doesn’t become either an exploiter or a victim is Bert, the somewhat mysterious barrow-boy seen at intervals throughout the novel and who takes a particular interest in Harry’s moral wellbeing.

Aside from the failing and yet strangely compelling characters, we’re presented with a vivid depiction of the West End in all its sordid between-the-wars glory. For instance, check this out:

Ping! went the clock, on the first stroke of eight. Up and down the streets the shops began to close. West Central started to flare and squirm in a blazing vein-work of neon-tubes. Bursting like inexhaustible fireworks, the million coloured bulbs of the electric signs blazed in a perpetual recurrence over the face of the West End. Underground trains from the suburbs squirting out of their tunnels like red toothpaste out of tubes disgorged theatre crowds. Loaded buses rumbled towards the dog-tracks. Cinema vestibules became black with people. Vaudeville theatres, like gigantic vaccuum-cleaners, suddenly sucked in waiting queues. Behind upper windows, lights clicked on and blinds snapped down. Gas, wire, wax, oil – everything burned that would give out light. The darkness of the April night got thicker. It seeped down between the street lamps, poured into basements and lay deep and stagnant under the porches and the arches of the back streets. The last of the shop doors slammed. The places where one could eat, drink and amuse oneself remained open, and burned with a lurid and smoky brightness. Night closed down upon the city.

We’re reminded that there are two West Ends in coexistence – the joyous leisure district and the sleazy haunt of razor gangs and mobsters. Indeed, the two are mutually co-existent. The fun night out is provided through exploitation. We’re all participants and we’re all victims.

Such is the strength of the book, in fact, that I can say “we.” While there is a definite sense of the late 1930s in the novel (it couldn’t be otherwise), the portrayal of humanity is uncomfortably relevant to today. Take a stroll around modern Soho by night and you’ll see for yourself. In the present day, as in the 1930s, money is all that matters.

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Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Clubbing, Crime, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Psychogeography, Soho, West End

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