James Curtis: The Slang King
Writing under the pseudonym James Curtis, Kent-born Geoffrey Basil Maiden produced six novels, mostly in the 1930s, although his last, Look Long Upon a Monkey, came in 1956 after a creative drought. Despite his success, which included a small number of politically motivated essays and screenplays for two films plus consultancy on an unmade adaptation of his first novel, The Gilt Kid, Curtis died in relative obscurity in 1977. Unknown in his own North London environs, Curtis did not possess a level of material wealth commensurate with his achievements: his funeral was a basic and (apart from his daughter and son-in-law) unattended affair. Whether this was due to poor fortune, his fondness for a drink and a bet, or his socialist principles is open to interpretation.
Curtis was certainly unafraid of biting the hand that fed him --in fact, according to letters published by London Books as a coda to their reprint of They Drive By Night, he was happy to set about that hand with the teeth of a crocodile. In 1974, Raintree, a film production company, had taken an option on The Gilt Kid. In May of that year Curtis Clark, a producer, wrote to Curtis in order to explain delays, casually dropping names like John Boorman and David Puttnam, as well as alluding to "deals in the USA" to garner finance for the movie. Near the end of the letter comes a mild reference to potential further changes to the screenplay. The response from Curtis was caustic, railing at the "infantile" and "badly constructed" screenplay, in which all semblance of authenticity had been "thrown to the winds"—this from a man on his uppers, let us remember, specifically lambasting a twenty-two-page section of "nonsense" that he could only deem "excruciatingly boring." It was hardly the way to get people on side. Curtis knew that if the film were made at all, it would be their way—and much the worse for it.
A slight degree of amusement aside, this exchange tells us a great deal about Curtis: a man with a temper; a man with ideals; a serious artist for whom the integrity of the work was paramount. Despite the "pulp" influences in which his novels were steeped, Curtis believed in them and in the people and environments that they represented. It is doubtful whether many authors of his minor status would have behaved so boisterously towards the movie industry, no matter how warped or misguided its intentions (1). "Don't expect me to waste time and energy over something by which I am thoroughly turned off," blasted Curtis, prompting Penny Clark (a relation of the producer, perhaps?) to issue a conciliatory and doubtless tempting offer of a drink in Soho, with the subtext of discussing his issues with The Gilt Kid. An angry riposte came from Curtis, citing "petit bourgeois fancifulness." The film was never made.
But for the advent of London Books and their ongoing 'Classics' series, there would not be a great deal of accessible information about James Curtis. His disappearance from the literary radar mirrors that of Robert Westerby, Simon Blumenthal, Alexander Baron, Henry Green and a host of other London-centric writers --some of whom are thought to have known each other, frequenting the same drinking establishments. They are the 'proletarian novelists' referred to by Robert Bond in his essay Wide Boys Always Work (the title is a play on Westerby's novel Wide Boys Never Work). Bond attempts to trace a direct lineage from this type of novelist to the modern-day author Iain Sinclair. While Curtis is not directly mentioned, he is undoubtedly in this company, and the label 'proletarian novelist' undoubtedly fits. Fascinated by the spoken word, he was notorious for his copious and sometimes wilfully impenetrable use of working class and criminal vernacular: street slang, in other words, and lots of it. As his London Books (2) biography puts it, Curtis was "a restless spirit who wasn't motivated by money or position. He rejected the easy path and embraced socialism, his beliefs influencing the direction of his novels…" To this end, he rubbed shoulders with those who occupied a social status below his educated upbringing. It is debatable whether his obvious knowledge of the penal system came from these acquaintances or as a result of some personal experience.
Jonathan Meades, who has penned an introductory essay to They Drive By Night, notes the obvious resemblance between Curtis and that erstwhile producer of classic and frequently disturbing crime-noir, Derek Raymond—their constant and joyous use of slang. Raymond also wrote under a pseudonym (his real name was Robin Cook), and experienced an upbringing of similar comfort to that of Curtis, backgrounds which both men ultimately rejected in favour of a Soho-centric, bohemian life. In contrast to Raymond, however, the moral bias in Curtis's novels is always weighted in favour of the underdog, the miscreant, the woman of ill repute, and against the likes of the police, the judiciary and well-to-do society. In The Gilt Kid, no authorial judgement is passed on the golden-haired housebreaker, fresh out of prison, as he wastes little time or contemplation in re-launching his criminal career. They Drive By Night, perhaps Curtis's best-known work (made into a film of the same name) places the reader firmly on the side of runaway murder suspect Shorty Matthews, as he frantically attempts to con, fight and steal his way to freedom. Relating these tales in a detached manner, Curtis make his points about society and the establishment: the titular Gilt Kid views himself as a communist favouring direct action, while the more repentant Shorty Matthews moves in a world of women mired in the slough of prostitution. The unrelenting use of slang provides a constant reminder of where our sympathies should lie (the necessities of dialogue aside, Curtis never wrote a word in the voice of the System). Following The Gilt Kid, 1937's You're In The Racket Too has a blackmailing prostitute preying upon a middle class office worker. In the subsequent There Ain't No Justice (made into a well-regarded film starring Jimmy Hanley), a hopeful boxer is exploited by a devious promoter. (Incidentally, these two novels sell to collectors for many thousands of pounds.) Next came 1939's poorly received What Immortal Hand, described by the writer Paul Willetts in his introduction to The Gilt Kid as a "melodramatic and laboured tale of a poor child's upbringing and gradual descent into criminality"—common Curtis themes, yet perhaps not so brightly executed. This novel and 1956's Look Long Upon a Monkey are nigh-on impossible to locate. If Curtis is to be presented to a new generation, then reissues such as The Gilt Kid and They Drive By Night are essential (3). In an afterword to The Gilt Kid, Curtis's only child, Nicolette Edwards, not only expresses her delight at the reissue of some of her father's lost novels, but also fills in a great deal of interesting background colour to his life. From personal experience she confirms both his destructive streak, and his complete lack of interest in things of a materialistic nature.
James Curtis, or rather Geoffrey Maiden, had been a known patriot, fighting for his country in the Second World War. After this, his marriage fell apart and his writing career dwindled into menial work and a library-haunting quest for inspiration. In his later years, living alone, he was drawn to the London Irish community, converted to Catholicism, and became a supporter of the IRA. It is rather incongruous to imagine him walking the streets of London in the 1970s - an age still tangible in terms of popular culture - when the era of his stories and characters had long vanished into a sepia-tinted ether. --Neil Jackson
Copyright Neil Jackson 2011.
(1) The Comic Strip's 1988 film The Strike satirises just this situation to great (and award-winning) effect.
(2) See the London Books website, www.london-books.co.uk, for their full biography on James Curtis and information on other rediscovered London novelists.
(3) A London Books reissue of There Ain't No Justice is in the pipeline.