Tag Archives: 30s Britain

Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)

“How does that Fabian fellow live, then?”

“On show. He’d go without food to buy you a cigar for three shillings. Actually, he lives on a woman. He thinks nobody knows. Everybody knows. And he’s always running, and hurrying….He works harder doing nothing than I do, getting my living.”

The film Night and the City is one of my  favourite noirs. Max reviewed the book Night and the City just over a year ago, and I knew I had to read it. As soon as I finished it, I picked it back up & reread it. That should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed it, but it goes beyond enjoyment into the realm of fascination. I’m going to add that the film (actually I can think of two versions) bears only a marginal resemblance to the book. Director Jules Dassin, a former member of the communist party, was sent to Britain to make the film in a vain attempt to avoid Hollywood blacklisting, and he was advised at the time by studio executive Zanuck that this would probably be the last film he would be able to make for Hollywood. Dassin never had time to read the book before making the film. Author Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was, apparently angry about the Jules Dassin film adaptation, but he did quip that he was the highest paid writer as he was paid 40,000 pounds for the rights to the book, and that translated, he argued, to 10,000 per word for the title.

It’s London, Coronation year, 1937. Harry Fabian, a London pimp  with a shady connection to the white slave trade, lives off prostitute Zoë. Fabian is a real piece of work. While the film shows Harry Fabian as a not-entirely-unsympathetic American (played with extraordinary skill by Richard Widmark), Kersh’s Fabian is a cheap, nasty cockney who is so imbued with American gangster lore, that he sports a fake American accent, dresses like an American and pretends he’s an affluent songwriter who has spent most of his life “in the states.” He fools no one except himself and a couple of women who seem to fall for his dubious charms. Fabian is flashy rather than good-looking: 

He was a little man, no more than thirty years old, excessively small-boned and narrow between the shoulders. He had a large head, perched on a neck no thicker than a big man’s forearm, and a great deal of fine hair dressed in the style affected by Johnny Weissmuller. His face was pale; too wide between the ears and too narrow at the chin–a face like a wedge. He looked a man with a good capacity for hatred. His eyes did not match. The left was large and watery, and it continually wavered and blinked with a flickering of whitish lashes; but the right was smaller, harder, steadier, and more of a concentrated blue. Out of this eye he watched you. When he wanted to look dangerous, he simply closed his left eye, slamming the eyelid down like a shutter with an effort that twisted up the whole left-had side of his face. He had a nose like the beak of a sparrow: that, together with his upper lip, which was pressed out of sight, and his lower jaw, which protruded like the head of a chopper, gave him an air of insolence, spite and malevolent calculation. He dressed far too well. There was a quality of savagery about his clothes–hatred in the relentless grip of his collar, malice in the vicious little knot of his tie, defiant acquisitiveness in the skin-tight fit of his coat–his whole body snarled with vindictive triumph over the memory of many dead years of shabbiness.

So we learn about Fabian’s character through his clothes. Is Fabian a dangerous character? No, not really, unless you are weaker, gullible, or happen to believe in him on one level or another. The first part of the book concentrates on establishing Fabian’s character as he gets a haircut and wanders into the London netherworld–wasting time with a penny slot peep show and a rifle range before he goes looking for Figler. Figler is one of the book’s many great characters–a wheeler-dealer who survives by constant business deals that net relatively little but still manage to keep him afloat on a life raft of constant, but meagre, cash flow. Figler will never be a rich man, while Fabian, who has visions of Monte Carlo dancing in his head, longs for the sort of riches that he will never get and the sort of glamorous high-society world that would reject him even if he got his foot in the door.

Fabian has a plan to promote all-in wrestling and wants to open a gym. Lacking the necessary money, he goes to Figler for the bankroll, but Figler, a savvy businessman tells Fabian that he’ll go 50-50 which translates to a 100 pounds a piece. One incredible section of the book details Figler’s frantic, yet determined efforts to stockpile his share of the money by juggling various business transactions. Fabian, however, the man with the big plans, and an active imagination in all the wrong ways, returns home to his goose that lays the golden egg–prostitute Zoë.

It’s a bold move on Kersh’s part to make such a repulsive creature as Harry Fabian, “born in a slum, bred in the gutters, versed in the tortuous geography of the night world and familiar with every rathole in West one and West Central,” his protagonist, and as the book continues Fabian, who is vile from the beginning of the book, sinks to even lower depths by the time the last page is turned. Everything about Fabian is twisted: he has great ideas but lacks the ambition to carry them through. Any effort he puts forth into achieving his plans is executed in the most corrupted fashion, so when he wants 100 pounds to start his gym, he looks no further than Zoë, and it’s through his relationship with Zoë that Fabian is his most repulsive.

While Night and the City explores Fabian’s ambition to become a wrestling promoter, the novel also follows the moral trajectory of two other characters, Helen and Adam. Helen is  an unemployed typist who is unable to pay the rent when she’s persuaded by Vi to begin some dubious employment at The Silver Fox, a sleazy nightclub in a Soho cellar. The Silver Fox is run by 60-year-old Phil Nosseross “hard as nails, slippery as a wagonload of eels; an extraordinarily tough and wily little man who looked as if he had got away with things for which other men would have gone to prison for life.” His Achilles’ heel is his twenty-year-old wife, Mary, a former prostitute “with stupid blue eyes as large as walnuts.” The girls at The Silver Fox are paid on commission with the goal of fleecing the male customers through the purchase of overpriced booze, cigarettes and flowers. If they want to make more money, they can privately prostitute themselves and collect even more. One of the incredible aspects of this incredible book is the dizzying flow of money: some people can hang on to it, and for some people, it’s like holding mercury in their hands. Both Fabian and Vi cannot possess money without spending it. Vi’s money supply swells from a night at The Silver Fox, but disappears by day as her vanity drives her to buy shoes that don’t fit and with any money left over she raids the local Woolworths for useless trinkets. Fabian also has this affliction to blow any money in his pocket. Several marvellous passages follow the frenetic flow of money from those who cannot hold it to those who hoard it. But just as Vi and Fabian cannot allow a pound to rest quietly in their pockets, both Helen and Adam can save. The Silver Fox becomes a crucible for morality–you either leave throughly corrupted or run screaming for fresh air.

Night and the City is an incredibly atmospheric novel replete with unforgettable descriptions of the dives & characters of 30s Soho. There’s Bagrag’s Cellar “a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night life continually filters” and whose customers are “addicts to all known crimes and vices … enslaved by appetites so vile that even textbooks never mention them” and here’s minor character, Anna Siberia:

Imagine the death mask of Julius Caesar, plastered with rouge, and stuck with a pair of eyes as small, as flat, and as bright as newly cut cross sections of .38 caliber bullets; marked with eyebrows that ran together in a straight black bar: and surmounted by a million diabolical black hairs that sprang in a nightmarish cascade up out of her skull, like a dark fountain of accumulated wickedness squeezed out by the pressure of her corsets.

In this brilliantly dark noir, Kersh takes the reader on a sordid journey through the grubby underbelly of 1930s Soho. Fabian, one of the rats who pours out from the sewers, is poised on the brink of self-destruction, but believes he’s about to hit the big time…finally. Are there good people here? Yes, and we get a glimpse of a few as they wallow in the mire–some, like Adam, try to escape, and some, like Helen are just sucked down even further….

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