Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cathi Unsworth:Bad Penny Blues, Qs and As

Photo by Steve Prince of Cultural Treachery

I went to one of Plectrum's always excellent Live Editions last month and caught Cathi Unsworth reading from her latest book - Bad Penny Blues. Described by David Peace as “the English The Black Dahlia“, it's fictional take on a very real, London based serial killer - Jack the Stripper. Bad Penny Blues brings to life a London of soot-smudged buildings and squalid lodgings, as the gin-tinted winter chill of the late fifties slowly warms into a still-thrifty early sixties. A period of blossoming pop, political shifts, police corruption and a bruised city sharing a national sense of hand-me-down stoicism that feels closer to the Second World War than Swinging London and the Summer of love.

Having been frozen to the bone during Cathi's reading, gripped by the book since and being the cheeky blogger I am, thought I would ask Cathi if she could assist with some Bad Penny enquiries

Bad Penny Blues paints a pin-sharp portrait of the mind-set, vibe and detail of late fifties/early sixties lifestyle, even down to the language: words like ‘wristwatch’ – which you don’t hear anymore. How did you research the period and were there any especially useful films, books or biographies?
It was a two-year immersion into the time tunnel of 1959-65, a period I have always been fascinated by – that black-and-white world of post-War, pre-Swinging London. I put a list of the books and films that really helped in the acknowledgements and what I found was that though the historical record was vital, what really brought the era alive were the films, the music and the pulp paperbacks of the time.

The crime at the centre of the book is the unsolved Jack the Stripper murders that occurred within this period — eight women were found strangled and stripped in and around the Thames, but for one, who was left in the middle of Kensington.

Some of the key books were Brian O’Connell’s Found Naked And Dead, the first true crime account of the case by a crime reporter who was completely au fait with the milieu in which the crimes took place, and used the contemporary slang that was so vital for me to find my way back there. Kate Paul’s Journal, about her teenage years as an art student in the Fifties and Sixties was a beautiful evocation of time, place and attitude. Adam Smith’s Now You See Her: Pauline Boty, First Lady of British Pop, a superbly written and researched book was also essential – amazingly, this is not a published work but a PDF downloaded from the Internet via www.writing-room.com that I would urge anyone interested in the lost goddess of Pop Art to check out. Tom Vague, great psychogeographer of Ladbroke Grove is an eternal inspiration – all his pamphlets and articles always have lengthy bibliographies and filmographies attached, which is why I wanted to add all mine at the end of the book, to acknowledge those people I learned so much from and pass on that information.
But perhaps the most evocative book of all was an old Pan Paperback from 1959 called Trouble In West Two by Kevin Fitzgerald that was given to me as a birthday present by Max Décharné, whose own books Kings Road and Straight From The Fridge, Dad! are also excellent sources on this period. It contained my favourite expression that I had never come across in any other book or article – ‘feather girl’ for a dominatrix!

And as for films – Bryan Forbes was my main man. In Séance on a Wet Afternoon he captured the uneasy atmosphere and in The L-Shaped Room the exact time and place that I was searching for. But the film that most potently took me back ‘there’ was Basil Deardon’s The Blue Lamp, starring Dirk Bogarde as a juvenile delinquent and the debut of Dixon of Dock Green. It was watching the car chase in that, down Harrow Road and into Ladbroke Grove, and seeing the camera swoop up – and there’s no Westway, no reconstruction, all the bombsites still there. This was Ladbroke Grove how my characters would have seen it. This was Colin MacInnes’ ‘our little Napoli’.

The popular idea of fifties London as a coffee bar and palais age followed by the swinging sixties is a romanticized, or at least one dimensional, view isn’t it – do you think it’s important to show the the grit behind the glitter?
Definitely, that is the whole point of ‘noir’ fiction, to show the society that creates the crimes, and in this era, it’s the flux that is so enthralling. The British Empire was crumbling, Profumo and the Philby spy ring would do for the Macmillan government in 1963, the same year that, according to the greatest poet of the age, Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse was invented. Male homosexuality was illegal but male homosexuals were basically in charge of all pop culture. Lord Boothby was mixing it with the Krays; Winston Churchill’s daughter was rubbing up against the Ladbroke Grove rude boys; the Grammar School kid was replacing the Old Etonian as the shaper of our national identity as the Swinging Sixties took hold. Barriers were coming down, people were finding their own ways of making fun and the corporate world had yet to figure out how to co-opt all of that. An exciting time – but also a dangerous time.

The crimes in my book are meshed in to all of that. None of the girls were from London, they all came down here looking for the bright lights and quickly discovered the dark places between them. Which leads to the larger point of my book, which I think is the dilemma that’s at the root of all noir – the lack of empathy between a man and and woman. Jack the Stripper is the darkest manifestation of male hatred, a man whose contempt and revulsion of women was so profound that it wasn’t enough just to kill them, but he had to leave them naked, violated and degraded for the world to see... And this misogyny ripples out through the book into all the layers of society contained within it.

Were any of the book’s characters based (physical appearance or personality) on celebrities, icons or ‘scene’ people of the time?
Yes, there were certain very interesting characters in this period that are mirrored in the parallel universe of Bad Penny Blues. James Myers, you can probably guess, is modelled on Joe Meek and the idea for that came directly from the geography – in June 1959, Joe was living on Arundel Gardens W11 and working in Lansdowne Studios for Denis Preston – this was where he produced Humphrey Lyttleton’s ‘Bad Penny Blues’ single and also where he secretly recorded I Hear a New World, the album he described as: “songs for astral travel”.

The first victim of the Stripper was last seen on the pavement outside Lansdowne Studios, which at the time was a well-known pick-up spot – if you can imagine, before the Street Offences Act came in about a month later, the whole of Holland Park Avenue was full of streetwalkers and kerb crawlers. Joe had recently conducted the séance, in Arundel Gardens, where he was told the date of Buddy Holly’s death, 7 February, which would also become that of his own homicidal demise eight years later. And across the road from Landsdowne, there really was a Spiritualist’s assembly…

So what I imagined was Joe opening up a channel with his weird music, through which the evil of the Stripper came, and Stella, dreaming in her bed next door, tuning into his music and the doomed girl’s frequency, picking up on what was going on…

James or Joe doesn’t actually physically appear ever in the book, but he scores the whole thing. The overlooked character of his long-suffering boyfriend Lionel Howard, with whom he lived in Arundel Gardens, really did appeal to me, so I turned him into my handsome East End boy, Lenny Jacobson.

The bent DS Harold Wesker was suggested by the real life disgraced copper Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor, who has already been immortalised by another great, doomed Sixities Joe, as Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton’s Loot. Tanky was an WWII SAS veteran who claimed to be ‘cleaning up Soho’ and all the details of the brick-planting stitch-up at the Queen Frederika Riot of 1963 are based on what actually occured. Tanky is an intriguing bad apple – he really did manage to escape from an Italian POW camp by dragging up as an old washerwoman and later, when he joined the force, he dragged up again as a prostitute to get the measure of his local villains’ pub. And despite bearing a startling physical resemblance to Tommy Cooper, by the account of his memoir, he managed to get two propositions! He was the originator of the phrase: “You’re nicked me old beauty!” and always referred to other men as ‘darling’, a habit that seemed to mystify even himself.

Freddie Mills

Teddy Hills is based on the boxer Freddie Mills, who is surrounded by urban myth and intrigue, and was fingered as the Stripper in one true crime account. I don’t believe he was, but the strange manner of Freddie’s death – he managed to shoot himself twice in the head and then put the gun neatly down beside him before he ‘committed suicide’ as the official verdict has it – will always invite speculation.

Stella, Jenny and Jackie are inspired by women I love – the artists Pauline Boty and Kate Paul, the fashion designers Sally Tuffin and Marion Foale — and also the character of Jenny Linden in the film Beat Girl, which gave me the idea for my Jenny to have an architect dad who was busy dreaming up the Brutalist housing estates of the future from his swish pad in Kensington. Jackie has a more personal element, as a girl very like her was my best friend while I was studying at London College of Fashion. I haven’t seen the real Jackie in 20 years and was hoping to somehow magic her back… it hasn’t worked yet, but maybe she is reading this!

Jack the Stripper was active for longer and more prolific than Jack the Ripper – why isn't he as notorious?
This is the most intriguing question of all and I have thought about it a lot, but still have no answer. Considering this happened within the living memory of a lot of people, and that it was the biggest manhunt in Metropolitan Police history it seems baffling that it has slipped from consciousness. Was it because the killer disappeared – or committed suicide and then had a convenient veil placed over him as some accounts claim? Was it because the victims were lowly working girls – let’s face it, ten years on, when the Yorkshire Ripper began his reign of terror, the police only got serious when a 16-year-old schoolgirl was murdered and I can remember news reports at the time suggesting that this was now a real cause for concern as the previous victims had ‘only’ been prostitutes. But I also think that it could have been completely overshadowed by a much more emotive crime that began at the end of 1963 – the Moors Murders.

Did putting yourself so deeply inside the mind of the victims: their thoughts and the tragedies and bleakness of their situations ever become difficult to recover from, or was there a technique for switching off.
No, there isn’t a technique of switching off, as you saw when I did the reading – the horrors that they went through go through my mind continually and when I read it aloud I see it all. But the passages in which they recall their last moments were the easiest thing to write in the entire book. That probably sounds perverse, but my aim was to attempt to give the women back their voices that had been denied in life and ridiculed in death by many journalistic accounts, to make the reader really think what it is like to be murdered, the sheer horror of having your life brutally taken from you. To put them back in the light when they had been buried so long in the dirt.

There are some spiritualist/psychic moments in the book – is this something you’ve had experience of?
Only inasfar as being plagued by horrendous nightmares my entire life, some of which have involved me ‘becoming’ someone else, like Stella does in the book. But the use of Spiritualism came from Joe Meek, and as I wrote the first chapter it seemed to me to be the only way I could convey what the girls went through, so I had to find a way of sustaining that throughout the entire narrative.

When I discovered that there had been a Spiritualists’ place over the road from Lansdowne, then I put my fictional Mya into it… and the idea of Stanley Coulter, the detective who visits her and is haunted by the Reginald Christie case that many of the older coppers would have had to deal with, came from the superb Patrick McGee in Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Although his name and his physical appearance came from Dudley Sutton’s character in The Boys. I was so appalled by what happens to my beloved Dudley in this film that I took his character’s name and very much imagine Coulter as looking like the older Dudley.

I think it is also may be hard for people to imagine now, but Spiritualism wasn’t a minor cult but a widespread religion in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and the reason for its popularity was quite clearly the two World Wars and the toll that all that death took on the civilian population. Another thing that I discovered through my research was that the wireless itself was invented by an eminent Victorian scientist, Sir Oliver Lodge. The Spiritualists believed in the Theory of the ‘Aether’ or ‘Ether’: that we all exist on our own personal frequencies that hold our form together and switch over when we die onto a different wavelength, just like a radio dial turning. Sir Oliver, who had lost a son in the Boer War, created a portable radio in order to find the wavelength that would allow him to speak to his lost boy. I really do love this theory, and it also connects back to Joe Meek, who played around with radios so much as a child and in the making of his music. And also the way schizophrenics – which I believe Joe was at the end of his life – think they are being controlled or having their minds read by radio waves.

Of course, Sherlock Holmes, the father of all detectives, was invented by the most famous Spiritualist of all – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

You worked at a Soho drinking club. That must be good for a book of it’s own, were there any favourite regulars, characters or tales?I worked in Gerry’s Club on Dean Street for two years in the mid-Nineties and so much of my writing has come from that experience. I was first shown through the door of the place by the late, great author Derek Raymond, and in the early Nineties, many of his acquaintances and friends from the early Sixties (when he had been fronting long firms for Charles da Silva and running illegal gaming parties in The King’s Road) were still around.
Sandy Fawkes

One of my favourites was Sandy Fawkes, who looked and sounded like Derek Raymond in an orange wig. She gave him the necessary background that went into his most famous novel, I Was Dora Suarez, about the sexual inadequacies of a serial killer, as she had inadvertently had an affair with one, while covering a quite different story for the Daily Mail in America in the Seventies. She spent several days with a man called Paul John Knowles, unaware that he had raped and strangled 18 people – the reason he didn’t kill her, she reckoned, was that she was a writer so could tell his story. Like all killers, he was immensely vain. She did write it up, the book was called Killing Time, reissued as Natural Born Killer in 2004, shortly before Sandy herself sadly passed on.

Sandy’s experience also gave me the core idea for my first novel, The Not Knowing, which contains several passages in which ‘The Deansgate Club’ stands in for Gerry’s – I really wanted to nail down what it was like in that time before everything disappeared into the ether, which before very long, it surely did.

But yes, stories are legion – Dan Farson spat the gin and tonic I had poured for him all over me and then showed me how you actually make one – by just ‘showing’ the merest drop of tonic to the gin. I was lucky with him actually, he had a habit of throwing glass ashtrays at barmaids’ heads, so I got off lightly. He must have sensed what a fag hag I am. Burt Kwok told me how he used to be in an all-girl (except for him obviously) Hawaiian band. And I got to see the mighty Keith Waterhouse in action on many an occasion. God rest his soul, Soho will not be the same with out his twinkling smile and deadliest put down: “Are you going to say something interesting? Or are you going to FUCK OFF?”

Have you met anyone involved with Jack the Stripper – police, prostitutes or perhaps someone who claimed to know ‘Jack’ or have crossed paths with him?
No. Thanks to some friends of mine, Dave and Bianca Price, whose families have worked on Portobello Road market for generations, I got to meet a lovely Irish policeman who had worked the beat at the time – and had actually witnessed the Mosley rally I describe in the opening chapters. He told me a lot of information that was crucial, things that you would never have thought of – like the fact that all the beat bobbies in those days didn’t have handcuffs, there were only a few pairs to each station, so if you collared a villain you had to bring him in with own skill and judgement – although he did say that the public were a lot more helpful towards the police then than they are today… He also mentioned Freddie Mills in connection with the Stripper rumours. But I haven’t met anyone who was involved in the case, and I wouldn’t want to. This is an imaginary universe and my culprit is completely fictitious, just the kind of person who I feel could have been responsible. I don’t think any of us will ever know who he really was. I just wanted to try and do something for the dead girls – they were the most important people for me, not that bastard.

If you could beam back to the BPB era for one day, what would be on your sight-seeing-list?
I would love to wake up in Ladbroke Grove as it was then, walk around all the places that are now under concrete, go into Henekeys for a lunchtime jar with Pauline Boty and her pals. Then I would take a bus down to Soho and buy loads of records that all cost a fortune now, see the beginnings of Carnaby Street and Marlborough Court, have a cappuccino in a proper coffee shop and catch some bands at The Flamingo or The Hundred Club. If time allowed, I would then get a cab up The King’s Road and have a vada at the Gateways Club. It was a mixed club in the era when BPB takes place, so I would love to see Dylan Thomas getting thrown out on his ear for being a lush and Di Dors turning up with her dodgy gangster entourage!

What sparked your interest in crime writing – was there a book or author that made you switch from reader to writer?
Yes, I have mentioned him already, Derek Raymond got me hooked. I met him in 1993 when he made a record with my pals in Gallon Drunk and he changed my life completely. I would advise anyone who hasn’t read him to seek him out – he was out of print for years after his death in 1994, but Serpent’s Tail are in the process of reissuing just about the whole lot of his back catalogue. As well as the Dora Suarez book I previously mentioned (which is the one the record was adapted from), and the other great book in that series, He Died With His Eyes Open, the book for anyone who is interested in the Bad Penny Blues era to get is his 1962 classic The Crust on its Uppers. Not only will this highly autobiographical account tell you precisely what life was like for the young, thrusting villain about The King’s Road in 1962, it also comes complete with a glossary of slang, so you can talk like a morrie and avoid the enemy slag.

I was wondering whether I would like to bump into him on my day back in time, he would probably have been down the Gates… But I don’t know if I would blow a hole in the space-time-continuum by doing that. Maybe I would just observe him in action from afar… He would undoubtably have been the sharpest dressed man in the room. The sharpest-tongued too!

So many legendary London locations have become ‘Starbucked’: Chelsea Drugstore is a McDonalds, Mary Quant's first boutique is part of pasty-shop chain – do you think Soho will have the corporates moving in eventually?

Soho is about to be flattened by Crossrail – and how the hell did that happen? The Astoria is already gone and the empty space of its passing is a heartbreaking sight to see. The top half of Dean Street will be demolished next; 200-year-old buildings that you would think would be protected will not stand in Crossrail’s way. This is the humourless bastards who have run this country into the ground for the past 30 years having their final act of revenge on us who still pride ourselves that we can at least think for ourselves: No fun, my babe, NO FUN. Soho must die so that exhausted drones can get from Stratford to Acton more quickly and efficiently, saving their employers money and keeping business safe for the money men that own our country.

Soho has always been a state of mind as much as a place, and that state of mind is rebellion, creativity, sanctuary, adventure, freedom. Now we are going to have a bloody great rail track going through the middle of our sacred streets.

Property developers – the biggest bastards of them all.

John Osborne, Mary Quant, Joe Meek, Richard Hamilton were breaking boundaries and new ground during the BPB era, do you think being book-ended by Elvis and The Beatles has overshadowed recognition for creativity of the BPB era?
Definitely – but in a way, that is good. It keeps the enigma of the era alive; it sustains its mystery by not being overdone. I mean – the reason that the film Telstar was so brilliant was not just because it was such an obvious labour of love and that the casting, costumes, script and everything else were so perfectly crafted. It’s because we don’t know all the mysteries of Joe Meek and the time when he lived has not been burned into a thousand bright contemporary images on our retinas; we haven’t been bludgeoned to death with it. Unlike Nowhere Boy, which I have no desire to see whatsoever – we already know everything it is possible to know about John Lennon, there is no mystery to him left at all, nothing that hasn’t been picked over a thousand times by a thousand bores before. Poor John.

Of course, the downside of that is that Telstar was only a blip of a cinema release (although I’m sure the DVD sales will make up for that) and Nick Moran and his cast did not get the recognition they deserved for making it; whereas the heavily Establishment-connected Sam Taylor Wood was feted from the rooftops… But then, would you want something that you loved dearly to be picked up on by every Richard Curtis or Sam Taylor Wood?

Music is a constant in the in the book. Are you musical – do you play an instrument or ever been in a band?
No, but I was a music journalist – if you can’t do it, write about it, as they say! Music has always been really important to me, and I got my first break on the weekly paper Sounds, which although it has been lost to history and the malodorous shade of Garry Bushell, was actually the punk paper. Which is something I tried to bring back to attention in my second book, The Singer, which was partly set in that era. History is always written by the victors, so all punk retrospectives are usually seen from the point of view of NME journalists. But my first editor at Sounds, Tony Stewart, was at the NME at the time when Sounds kept getting there first, putting The Damned on the front cover the moment they heard ‘New Rose’, no interview or anything, just the love for that single – and he said NME were shitting themselves as Sounds circulation overtook theirs while they were still putting ELP on the front cover.

You’ve used song titles for each chapter – was it difficult to pin down the final selection and which titles were left off of the list?
The very first thing that I did when I started BPB was to look up which singles were Number One in the charts on the days that the bodies of the victims were found. That formed a very suggestive and spooky soundtrack, which I added to by putting the name of a chart single from the relevant year as the title for each chapter. The one that got away was ‘Nowhere To Run’ by Martha & The Vandellas, which was perfect but one year too late!

This is a very fertile period for music, and shows the endearingly odd tastes of the British audience, embracing everything from do-wop to music hall, Joe Meek’s space pop, classic Baccarach & David torch songs, Motown and the birth of the British beat explosion. I wanted to add a dimension to the narrative that was like listening to a jukebox, the words taking on sinister new meanings in view of the crimes – ‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’ by Bobby Vee, ‘She’s Not There’ by The Zombies and ‘Midnight Shift’ by Buddy Holly, to name but a few, will never sound the same again. Even Tommy Steele’s ‘Flash! Bang! Wallop!’ manages to take on a corrupt and sordid new meaning!

So what’s next after BPB – would you be tempted with non-fiction, perhaps true crime or a biography?
I’m not at all interested in non-fiction, there is no room for the imagination to take flight there. Also, who is to say what the truth actually is? Nothing can ever be definitive, everything is open to interpretation, which is why in my books I like to try and show you events from as many different perspectives as possible. So my next book will be fiction too, set in the Norfolk of my youth in the ominous year of 1984.

I have become obsessed with this character called Captain Swing, who was the figurehead of a workers uprising in the Eastern Counties in the 1820s, another phantom but on the opposite side of righteousness to Jack the Stripper. Many of the miners compared what happened to them in 1984 to the Swing Riots, so I am going with that as an underlying idea. But the main themes of the new book will be teen-on-teen violence and the concept of identity – cults and clans, the family, community and the state, the things that unite us and the things that divide us. When you can move back and forth through time, somehow these things come more clearly into focus.

Any plans for a film or TV adaptation?
I would love it. ‘My people’ as they say, have been working on pimping it around, but nothing’s happened yet… These things take so long if they ever do happen that it’s not worth getting excited about. Although of course I do think it would make a brilliant TV min-series, something like the adaptations of Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm or David Peace’s Red Riding. Or, in my dreams, if Bryan Forbes could be tempted out of retirement, bringing John Barry with him… I do have fun imagining the dream cast but you would really need a time tunnel for that, as I can’t see anyone else but Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for Pete…

Are there a couple of tunes that snapshot the mood of Bad Penny period for you?
I Hear a New World’ by Joe Meek is what I envision Stella is listening to as she has her first dream/transmission. ‘She’s Not There’ by The Zombies as this chills me to the marrow in the Stripper context and is the perfect soundtrack for the chapter I have lent its name to.

Joe Meek - I Hear A New World

The Zombies - She's Not There

And thirdly – I know you did say a couple, but thirdly anyway – ‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison. I realise that David Lynch appropriated this for Blue Velvet with such stunning originality that it is a bloody cheek to try and swipe it back. But I wanted the whole book to feel like a Roy Orbison song, and this was a hit in 1963, Roy did actually hear the song in his dreams, and the connection to Stella’s situation is too great to ignore. I would say ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ to try and save it back from that dreadful film, but ‘In Dreams’ is just too powerful.

A capital sized thank you is due to Cathi (described by Ray Banks as The Queen of UK Noir) for her generous help with this interview..


lil said...

Gripping interview Mondo!
(I’m eager to read the book)
Shocking to hear that Soho will soon be demolished in favour of train tracks, it’s scandalous!

Mondo said...

It's a mighty read that works on so many level Lil - I love the line..
'they all came down here looking for the bright lights and quickly discovered the dark places between them' - magic stuff.

And I must see the Telstar film too.

Paul D Brazill said...

Exciting interview. I look forward to the boo. I remember going to Gerry's once and seeing bert Kwouk hammered beyond hammered. Then I got kicked out.

mrs mondo said...

great interview..i have recently finished Cathy's excellent 'The Singer'. I can highly recommend..

Piley said...

what a truely fab interview, and covering so much ground too - top marks to you (for dreaming up the Q's) and Cathi (for such interesting answers!).

Just about my all time favourite books are the Long Firm trilogy. Just love Arnott's ability to conjour up the 60's so completely (no mean task for someone who didn't really 'live' it!). So I'm very keen to try this book.

Loved the TV adaptation of Long Firm (not so much ITV's attempt to do the second book - He Kills Coppers... ugh), lets hope a similar BBC production can be made of this!

Great post!


Mondo said...

You've had a trip to Gerry's Paul - now that's something that needs blogging.

And I'll be starting it shortly Mrs M - once I've finished this..

Don't know The Long Firm at all P, I'll have to check out - have you peeped at Huzzah Noir? Could be up your crime alley