“The act of becoming a gentleman,” wrote Robin Cook in 1966, “is one of murder.”
The author, who began his career describing the criminal milieu of the 1960s and ended it redefining British crime writing with an avenging detective sergeant, spent a lifetime doing everything in his power to deny himself this fate. Born in 1931, Robert William Arthur Cook was the son of a textile magnate, destined for Eton at the age of 16. “Terrible bloody place. They were trying to make you into a good all-rounder, a cabinet minister, a bastard.” Although Cook did eventually find a use for his Eton tie — fronting long firms for Soho gangster Charles da Silva. That was after he had completed his National Service as a corporal of latrines, been a war correspondent and an international art smuggler.
In the London of early 1960s he found, “An Eton background is a terrific help if you are into vice of any kind.” Between inveigling funds, running gambling parties and working in a sex shop, Cook penned his debut, The Crust on its Uppers (1962). Its glossary of criminal argot was considered by Dictionary of Slang compiler Eric Partridge to be his best source in 25 years.
For reasons never specified but not hard to imagine, Cook moved to Italy shortly after, where he continued to write vicious satires like Private Parts, Public Places and Bombe Surprise, ran a vineyard and was made foreign minister for his local Anarchist collective. In 1970’s A State of Denmark he had a nightmare vision of a future England under the dictatorship of a Labour party re-branded The New Pace.
Cook returned to London, but after trying to make ends meet mini-cabbing, he lost his third wife and a house in Holland Park. He retreated to France, where he worked for years as a labourer, until a neighbour goaded him that he’d never write a book again.
Cook returned to London, reinvented himself as Derek Raymond (the names of two of his favourite drinking partners) and lit a fuse under the corpse of Agatha Christe with 1984’s He Died With His Eyes Open. This, and the following Factory series of novels, described a nameless detective sergeant working unsolved murder cases in a bleak, hostile London. Revered and reviled in equal measure, they were an angry conscience in a time of decadence that would influence a future generation of crime writers who saw, as Cook always did, the Establishment as the greatest villains in society.
Out of print since his death in 1994, Serpent’s Tail began re-releasing the Factory novels last September with He Died With His Eyes Open, and the previously untranslated French thriller Nightmare In The Street. They have recently added second Factory novel, The Devil’s Home On Leave along with The Crust On Its Uppers and A State Of Denmark, Dora Suarez, the record he made with James Johnston and Terry Edwards of Gallon Drunk, will be re-released by Sartorial Records later this year.
“Nothing else much matters once you have achieved the hardest thing, which is to act out of conviction,” Cook surmised in 1992. “Even if you have been beaten by evil, in the bitterness of defeat the battle has left a trace for the others, and you can go feeling clean. I recognise that I am a minor writer; but this does not affect the depth of my convictions.”
Au contraire. He was the master.
Thanks to Cathi Unsworth for supplying this biography.
Review: A State of Denmark
Richard Watt is a former political journalist, living in exile with his common law wife Magda Carson, working a vineyard in Tuscany. The pair have fled London to escape the increasingly authoritarian regime of the New Pace government and Prime Minister-cum-dictator Jobling, a man who Watt dared to criticise both in the press and on live television.
As the story begins, Wales has followed the example of Scotland and seceded from England, a situation that nowadays, with the seeming enthusiasm of the majority of residents in the United Kingdom, looks non-too distant a reality. Jobling, who began his career as a Labour MP with a constituency in the North East of England, has remodeled his party as an unstoppable political force, supported by all levels of society, re-branded as the New Pace. Once entrenched in Downing Street he has slowly but surely removed all traces of democracy.
Watt describes Jobling’s oily persona thus: “this man with his falsely reassuring platitudinous voice… the smileful of bad teeth he revealed that tried to distract attention from the mean eyes shifting in their surrounding fat as he uttered some glutinous and irrelevant sophistry… his natural facility for putting over a stunning lie with a gravity that was not assumed and possible only for one who more than half believes it himself.”
Watt receives news of England from copies of The Times, which is now the only newspaper allowed to be printed (from its new offices in Whitehall) and from former acquaintances who visit for a holiday. Janet and Malcolm represent the twittering middle class who think that Jobling has done a marvelous job for the country by jailing all the trades union leaders and putting down miners’ strikes in the North with the use of a newly formed Royal Militia. They are blind to the fact that England is now virtually without industry, the BBC has turned itself over to the government and dissenters and protesters are made to disappear. But as Watts says: “People who don’t think for themselves, who imagine they are paying other people to do their thinking for them, are really quite mad and like all persons not quite right in the head are a potential menace.”
Being entirely sane, Watts knows what is headed his way the moment an emissary from London arrives in his village asking for him. From then on, the reader can only look on with growing horror as Watts’ world is completely destroyed by the satanic bureaucracy of the vengeful Jobling; driven from Italy and his beloved Magda and interned indefinitely, without trial, in an England where, as one of its drones informs him: “The key to happiness with the New Pace is a spontaneous eagerness in the fresh programmes and a willingness to say yes.”
Re-reading this novel 37 years after it was written, as Tony Blair and John Prescott swan around the world on farewell tours and Gordon Brown broods ominously in his Whitehall lair, is as shocking a wake-up call as being plunged into an ice-bath. Derek Raymond always had the most sensitive antennae for evil and the many guises of respectability it cloaks itself in to seduce unwitting victims; it would appear that in 1970, while acting as Foreign Minister for his local anarchist collective in Italy, he looked into his crystal ball and foresaw the New Labour Project and how it would set about turning this country into its battered wife.
You cannot help but, at this point, see the spontaneous eagerness reflected in the faces of Ruth Kelly, Hazel Blears, John Reid, Margaret Beckett, Patricia Hewitt and the legion of New Labour acolytes beaming up at the grinning rictus mask of Tony Blair himself. The trace that Derek Raymond has left for us in this, his most prophetic and devastating novel, is to wake up to ourselves before it is too late. Which it probably already is. “The tragedy of help,” the author once noted, “is that it never arrives.” As a man who lived through, and was deeply affected by the Second World War and who was once jailed for expressing loudly and publicly his opinion of Franco, this reformed villain really did know where to look for the genuine menace to society — to the very top of the greasy pole.
Thanks to Cathi Unsworth for supplying this review.
Reviewed by: Cathi Unsworth