Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The London Fiction Series

Ten years ago, publisher Harvill launched the London Fiction Series of 'lost' classic novels set in the city. The first four books included Henry Green's Caught and Capital by Maureen Duffy but sales were disappointing and I don't think any other titles were added.

Each of the books featured a wonderful new introduction - I particularly recommend writer Iain Sinclair's excellent opener to The Lowlife (1963) by Alexander Baron, even if you are weary of Sinclair's Hackney shtick. (Baron's elderly widow was at the series launch, held in Brick Lane's then derelict Old Truman Brewery.) The book is great on the East End: 'Hackney isn't the East End - that's the mark of the outsider, when you hear someone call Hackney the East End. The East End starts two miles down the road, across the border of Bethnal Green.'

The lowlife is Baron's narrator, gambler Harryboy Boas, whose apparently guilt-free lifestyle hides a central secret. Harry is also notable for his literary tastes: early on, he treats himself to a set of the translated works of Emile Zola in Charing Cross Road ('This Zola is a terrific writer. He can be tougher than Mickey Spillane, and when he gets on to sex he's red hot').

At the library one afternoon, Harry goes 'in to look for some thrillers. I like these books, the way they scratch on the nerves as I lie in bed. Chandler and Hammett are my favourites. You don't get writing like theirs nowadays.' In the end: 'I picked up a couple of Simenons.' Good man.

The other Jewish writer in the series was Gerald Kersh, whose large family lived on Teddington High Street. The writer's profile states: 'At seven he wrote his first novel and published it privately bound in his father's brocade waistcoat.' His first novel proper, Jews without Jehovah (1934), was inspired by his family and had to be withdrawn on the day of publication when he was sued by four uncles and a cousin.

In the introduction to the London Fiction Series' 2001 reprint of Fowlers End (originally 1957), Michael Moorcock writes: 'Twickenham was never the hottest crucible of the city. But Kersh did what all suburban young men of spirit and lust did. He got the bus into Soho.' Moorcock continues: 'As a later Fleet Street prodigy drinking in Soho, I staggered in and out of the same pubs and clubs and... discovered the pleasures of Old Compton Street, Dean Street and Meard Street.' He concludes: 'Nobody has told more or better Soho tales or described the place and its people so well.'

Kersh was hugely prolific as a journalist and novelist - he's best known for Night and the City (1938), which was filmed with Richard Widmark (pictured). Lately there has been something of a market for London-based novels, old and new. (Peter Watts writes about Baron's reissued 1969 novel King Dido here and here.) Some 30 years after the deaths of Kersh and Green, the writers in the London Fiction Series managed to be ahead of the times.

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