Sunday, April 29, 2012

Working-Class Pre-War London Noir



As well as an excellent novel, Scamp is a valuable piece of London literary and social history that, in an age of multi-culturalism, instant publishing and networking, has probably been lost forever. Camberton, real name Henry Cohen, was born in Manchester and raised  in pre-war, working class Hackney. What first hits you about this book is the cover  by the renowned artist John Minton, reproduced from the original Lehmann edition in 1950. But it's not only the packaging but the contents of the novel that is going to impress any interested reader. Standing the test of time, Scamp  focuses on Ivan Ginsberg, a young would-be author and editor who flits between  Bloomsbury and the back streets of Soho and Fitzrovia, trying to put together a literary magazine that bears the same title as the novel itself.  To get the magazine off the ground, he has to find the money to finance it, a printer to publish it, and contributors to write for it. To do this, he plays off one against the other two, telling each that the other two exist. It's a typical literary hustle in a world where the printed word meant something. Living in a filthy rented room in Bloomsbury notable for its  congealed fat in the frying pan and dirty dishes in the bath-tub, Ivan  perambulates the streets of London, from a Charlotte Street pub where he mixes with the local bohemians to cafes in Fleet Street where he breakfasts with a variety of newspaper hacks and printers. A flanuer novel about literary hustling, Camberton writes evocatively about the night life and those inhabiting it-  crooks, homosexuals, prostitutes, bookies, sex seekers and hardboiled tough-guys- as well as the likes of the well-endowed Mrs Chabbers who would like to take Ivan- her bit of rough trade- to the Riviera, or the millionaire book collector and slum landlord who dresses like a tramp. This edition published by Five Leaves in their New London series comes with an informative introduction by Iain Sinclair- probably the only place you are going to be able to read about what little is known of Camberton's life. On its own, Scamp  ranks up there with Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy, John Summerfield's May Day, and Alexander Baron's Lowlife. It should also be noted that New London Editions publish two excellent Baron novels: Rosie Hogarth and King Dido, as well as Camberton's Rain on the Pavements.
The latter  comes with another evocative John Minton cover. Set in Hackney, and originally published in 1951, Rain On the Pavements is clearly more autobiographical than Scamp. Consisting of interconnected short stories about growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, it begins with the protagonist, David, as a six year old travelling on a London tram with his cousin,  and ends with David and his friends watching some older boys fight Mosley's fascists in the battle of Cable Street. Both Camberton novels are excellent depicitons of working class Jewish life in pre-war London and shouldn't be missed.

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7 comments :

p0ps said...

You make me want to read Scamp. The literary magazine hustle, sounds like a delicious atmosphere.

Paul D Brazill said...

Never heard of that. Sounds beaut!

gateman said...

By coincidence, I am just reading 'Scamp' now. The Fleet Street cafe is definitely modelled on 'Mick's Caff', where even in the 60s you could see the same types described by Camberton, particularly after midnight on saturday/sunday mornings. It was a favourite resdting place of pilled-up 'mods' as they ambled from the West End to Petticoat Lane.

Steve Barrow said...

The cafe that Ginsburg meets Bert -'Tim's Cafe' - is actually modelled on 'Mick's Caff' which was still a haunt of late-night types in the 1960s. Printers and other night-workers, posh party-goers and pilled-up 'modernists' all hung out at Micks, particularly at weekends.

Woody Haut said...

Hey Steve, nice to hear from you. Interesting about Mick's Caff. A bit before my time. But someone should put together an annotated article or book that picks up on the various sites mentioned in London novels by the likes Camberton, Baron, Kersh, Blumenfeld, etc..

Steve Barrow said...

Yes Woody, longtime etc. I guess Mr Iain Sinclair has done some of the perambulation already...and he did do the intro to 'Scamp'. But anyway, everytime I go to IKEA in Edmonton to buy some more CD units, I am reminded of 'Fowlers End', which is also situated somewhere in that region - Ponders End.

Woody Haut said...

I agree, Iain has done quite a bit of leg work on these sorts of writers, as has Ken Worpole (Dockers & Detectives, for me, started it all off). A friend of mine seems to have pinned down the cinema in Fowler's End, which might be my favorite Kersh novel. I like most of those London writers published by the likes of London Books- Wide Boys Never Work, They Drive By Night, The Gilt Kid and Sommerfield's May Day- and now New London Editions. Some of which I had already. Anyway, what are you doing these days? Still in East Ham? Working in the record industry? You can email me at woodyhaut@aol.com.