Ted Lewis was born in Manchester on the 15th January 1940. An only child, Lewis moved with his parents after World War II to Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire in 1947. Lewis had a strict upbringing and his parents did not want their son to go to art school, but Ted's English teacher, recognising his creative talents in writing and art, persuaded them not to stand in his way.
Lewis attended Hull Art School for four years. His first job was in London in advertising, and then as an animation specialist in television and films including the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’. His first novel, ‘All the Way Home and All the Night Through’ was published in 1965. This was followed by ‘Jack's Return Home’ which was subsequently retitled ‘Get Carter’ after the success of the film starring Michael Caine based on his book. This success in turn created the noir school of British crime writing and pushed Lewis into the best-seller list. After the collapse of his marriage Lewis returned to his hometown in the 1970s. Having been a heavy drinker for many years, this caused many complications to his health and was a major cause when Ted Lewis died at the early age of 42 in 1982.
George Fowler is on the lam, holed up in the secure seaside retreat he had built specifically in the event that things suddenly went pear-shaped. In the pornography business there was always going to be that possibility – but careful, meticulous George had no idea how bloody or how shocking. Passing each night in the company of a handgun and a bottle of Scotch, he attempts to blend in with the residents of off-season Mablethorpe as just another loser at the end of ambition’s hard road.
In the bar of The South Hotel, one of the few places to stay open after summer, he is just plain Mr Carson to barman Jackie and local Elvis, Eddie Jacklin, who runs the entertainment with his Country & Western band. Eddie has just made a find – a girl singer named Lesley. By Mablethorpe standards, Lesley is blindingly good. But it’s not her singing that makes George take note of her. It’s the feeling he has met Lesley before, back in his other life, and that she somehow knows exactly what it is he is trying to bury beneath the bleak Lincolnshire shoreline. An impression not helped by her turning up on his doorstep late at night to ask strange questions. Nor by her subsequent ability to seemingly come back from the dead…
‘GBH’ is a story that unfolds during short, sharp chapters that alternate between Fowler’s exile in Mablethorpe (The Sea) and the events in London that have led to his current predicament (The Smoke). The former are haunting, luminous evocations of a dead-end resort out of season and the overpowering feelings of inadequacy and loss engendered by this landscape of sea and sky on a man who has seen everything he loved destroyed. The latter are some of the most realistically brutal depictions of gangsterism, rendered through the eyes of a psychopath, you will ever read. Behind which is a chilling philosophy you could call consumerism. Fowler’s business was in supplying the upper echelons of society – the rich, the famous, the powerful – with the commodities they demanded. He describes the psychology that enabled the building of his empire in this key passage:
It is impossible to satiate the voyeur; he soon becomes bored by the prospects of what two people do in bed together. As experience enlarges his optical appetite, other elements have to be added in order to generate a new excitement: rape, violence, humiliation. So that in the end it is not the sexual act itself that the voyeur is so interested in witnessing; he needs a continuation of innovatory corruptions and humiliations to provide temporary satisfaction. And because the satisfaction is temporary, although the search itself corrupts completely, the search for corruption is never completed. This is where Mary Whitehouse and myself are in complete agreement; the process itself is corruption: that is why she is in her business and I am in mine.
Which illuminates the entire legacy of the dirty Seventies that is only now seeping back at us from under the rocks and gravestones of its juvenile care homes and detention centres, in its red-light glow. Ted Lewis was, as many great writers who owe him the debt of inspiration have said many times before, one of British literature’s most unjustly neglected heroes in his own lifetime. We know him now as the author of Jack’s Return Home, which subsequently became Mike Hodges’ 1971 movie Get Carter, thanks more to its revival in the Lad’s Mag Nineties than to any attention it got back then. GBH, his last novel (originally published in 1982), exceeds even that benchmark. It is nothing short of a masterpiece, the plot unfurling with devastating timing and precision to an ending that will linger for a lifetime.
In his afterword, Derek Raymond remembers encountering Ted Lewis when they were both young authors published by Hutchinson in the early Sixties:
…Lewis invariably sat on his own at the far end of the bar… bent over in an attitude vaguely resembling prayer with his head in his arms; and none of us ever got to know him because he was always totally drunk… You could say something to him, but he never talked back, and when you looked at him all you got in return was the mysterious kind of look you might expect from a stained-glass window.
Ted Lewis, the grievous angel described by Raymond, drank himself to death at the age of 42. This book goes a long way to explaining why. As Raymond, who knew a bit about these things himself infers, Ted knew too much of which he wrote about, had too much compassion for the people who were treated in real life as callously as those who flash so vividly through his writing. This is noir as dark, bitter and scalding as it gets. And in reappearing now – via a US publisher rather than anyone in his homeland – it reads like a warning from history that went unheeded to terrible consequence.
Cathi Unsworth's latest novel is 'Without the Moon' and is published on the 9th July 2015.
Reviewed by: C.U.