A TLS reviewer was sceptical of the claim in the new biography of Ted Lewis that he was the British Albert Camus. But Jack Carter continues to haunt me nearly half a century since we first heard Michael Caine deliver the best line in his career: “A pint of bitter [pause] in a thin glass,” in a low-life Newcastle pub popularly referred to as “The Star and Vomit” with genuine locals providing the extras, including a man with six fingers holding a pint of Newcastle Brown. (Carter wanted a thin glass in case of a fight.) The screenplay for Get Carter was adapted from Lewis’s novel Jack’s Return Home. Its original location was Scunthorpe and much as I loved the scenes of the slum housing of Newcastle just before the clearers could remove it, I was glad to return to Linconshire in GBH. (Grievous Bodily Harm: I reckon the American equivalent might be Aggravated Assault.) Half the story is set in the decrepit beach holiday area of Mablethorpe (“The Sea”)
and the other half a bit earlier in London (“The Smoke”). The novel first appeared in 1980—ten years after Get Carter. The narrator is George Fowler, a kingpin distributor of pornographic films (“Blues”), who for reasons we only gradually find out has gone to ground in a bungalow near this seedy seaside resort – compared to which Skegness or Great Yarmouth is the Albert Hall. (Indeed, my first choice for contemporary successor to Lewis as author of noir crime fiction is Cathi Unworth, whose book Weirdo is set in a town that is obviously Great Yarmouth and featuring the same sort of bent coppers and kinky sex.) In the portions set in London, George, assisted by his wife Jean and Mickey his principal enforcer and a supporting cast of rival gangsters (“minions”) and bent coppers (“the filth”) has discovered that someone in his organization is defalcating.
Mickey thought about it.
“Do you really think they’d try it on? I mean Hales, Wilson, Chapman, Warren. They make a lot of bread. Would they risk what they already get? And risked what they’d get if they were sussed out?”
“Money has a funny effect on people, Mickey,” I said to him. “Corrupting. Sometimes it makes them act very peculiar.”
Mickey thought some more. . . .
“And supposing all four are at it?”
“Then we’ll find out all four of them are at it, won’t we?”
Mickey lit a cigarette. “So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to talk to them.”. . .
“So you’d like me to bring them along to Sammy’s?” [The safe house where they interrogate (i.e. torture) the suspects.]
Most of the dialogue is delivered in the same clipped understated tone, often as statements cast into the grammatical form of questions. As I read it, I could almost hear the voice of Michael Caine, which was both all wrong and perfect for Get Carter, who didn’t sound at all like a Geordie but absolutely like a gangster. He would have been perfect for George. (Unlike the reader in the audio of GBH, who from the sample sounded like an upscale version of estuary – like someone from the London suburbs who’d gone to uni.)
My recollection of reading Jack’s Return Home so long ago in an el-cheepo paperback knockoff for the movie (if I’d bought another one and sealed it in cling film, it would probably be worth a pile today) is that it was a big disappointment. Get Carter ranks at the top of my list of movies that are better than the original book. But with GBH I could almost imagine seeing the same bleak but totally arresting atmospheric shots we had in Get Carter. George is watching a young woman in an amusement arcade in Grimsby.
‘While I’m getting more change from the kiosk, I clock that this particular machine is already in use, being operated by a dark-haired girl in dark glasses. She’s wearing one of those Afghan coats and a deliberately patchy jeans and white plimsolls. A newspaper is sticking out of one of the pockets of her Afghan. I pick up my change and walk over and lean against the machine next to hers and watch her manipulating the flippers. She’s wearing a T-shirt which reads, I’D RATHER BE HANG-GLIDING. She’s clocking up quite a good score and she’s got a couple of ball-bearings to come. She takes no notice of my interest. When I notice that the paper sticking out of her pocket is a copy of The Stage, and also she’s beautiful in a way that goes with the clothes she’s wearing.’
You can almost see her. If there’s ever a movie I hope they offer the part of Emily Blunt! As the story unfolds, the girl whose name seems to be Lesley keeps morphing into different possible identities. At various points George (and we) suspect she may be a prostitute, a singer in the Carly Simon class, a car crash victim, a porn-film performer, a ghost, a spy from a rival gang, and an alcoholic delusion. (Both George and his creator were suffering from a stage-four case of the dingbats.) And George’s wife Jean in the Smoke sections is almost as enigmatic: porn-film performer, sadist, number-one henchwoman, sex partner, target for rival gangs. As with Glenda in Get Carter (who delivers that marvellous line “to the Demon King’s castle”), the women characters in GBH aren’t realistic, but they are fascinating, literally.
Even though the author and his protagonist were dissolving into an alcoholic abyss (Lewis would be dead two years later), I believe definitely that GBH is a lost classic due for revival that should re-read beautifully. Is Ted Lewis the Albert Camus of northern England? Not sure, but that picture of Michael Caine with that shotgun as Jack Carter has all the charisma of the famous picture of Bogie on the wall of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s bedroom in Breathless.
And if that’s not an icon of an Existentialist saint, what is?