May 2015

Ted Lewis - GBH

"‘GBH’ is nothing short of a masterpiece..."

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.

'GBH' 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, exceeds even that benchmark. 'GBH' is nothing short of a masterpiece, the plot unfurling with devastating timing and precision to an ending that will linger for a lifetime.

Ted Lewis drank himself to death at the all-too-early age of 42. In his afterword, Derek Raymond, who knew a bit about these things himself, describes encountering him when they were both young authors in the early Sixties and witnessing Ted's dedication to this task. This book goes a long way to explaining why. As Raymond 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.

Reviewed by: C.U.

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