Friday 11 December 2009

Stripping the Establishment

Bad Penny Blues, by Cathi Unsworth (Serpent's Tail)

The 1950s are back in fashion. We’ve just had An Education, the film based on journalist Lynn Barber’s schoolgirl affair with a conman. Now we have this novel, based on some true unsolved murders which took place in West London during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the film we saw the young future journalist learning about the sordid realities that can lurk under smooth, plausible human behaviour, discovering that things are not as they seem to be on the surface. Do we have any similar revelations from the novel?

Cathi Unsworth is a writer and former music journalist with two noir novels under her belt. For her, the darkness underlying human behaviour is a key to the hidden files of the mind, a form of enlightenment about what makes human beings tick. Here she follows the same dark pattern of her earlier works. She takes the unsolved true-crime case of a killer, dubbed ‘Jack the Stripper’ who, between 1959 and 1965, took the lives of eight prostitutes and left their bodies in or along the Thames. These crimes have never been solved, but Unsworth offers tentative solutions for them by intertwining the activities of two characters: there’s Pete Bradley, a young policeman who is working on the case, and Stella, a fashion designer with a promising career ahead of her and who has terrifying nightmares which give premonitions of the impending deaths. Giving an extra dimension to her role in the novel, Stella is involved with Christian Spiritualism. Bringing theology or spirituality into a work of fiction is always fraught with difficulty: the dangers of mawkishness or the desire to preach are never far away. Chesterton managed to pull-off the trick reasonably well in his Father Brown stories: arguably, Greene did so less successfully in Brighton Rock.

Here, Unsworth makes the world of the supernatural, in its proper sense (ie, that which is above nature, not the studio make-up department undead of the horror movie or pop video) an almost natural – if disturbing – habitat for Stella, a world that is frightening yet ultimately not to be feared. (In doing so, the novelist shows a familiarity with St Paul’s epistles that few writers might be expected to have today.) Unsworth also avoids prurience or sentimentality in her approach to prostitution. The Stripper’s victims are shown neither as tarts with hearts of gold nor as somehow meriting their deaths but as people who deserve to have in death the voice that was denied to them in life. What are Unsworth’s ultimate conclusions about the Stripper killings? Read the book and find out!

Unsworth evokes the feel of the capital when it was on the cusp of social change between the end of post-war austerity and the advent of Swinging London, the era of King’s Road bistros, cheap bedsitters, the beginnings of the modern street-fashion industry, Angry Young Men like John Osborne and Colin Wilson, bomb-site jazz clubs and gangland Soho before it was changed into the rainbow-flagged, prettied-up (on the surface) part of the London tourist industry that it’s become today. But she also takes us into a city of slums racked with racial tensions, hidden sex scandals where the underworld and the elite intermingled, firmly closeted homosexuality where every public lavatory was a place of potential entrapment, and police corruption. (The book contains a useful combined bibliography and filmography which can be followed up by readers who want to immerse themselves further in that supposedly never-had-it-so-good era.)

But, despite the society’s deferential attitude to established authority, neither Pete nor Stella are deterred by fears of non-conformity. At one point, Stella recalls her dying father’s advice: ‘“The most important thing in life,” he told me, “is never to grow up”.’ By which Unsworth does not mean that we should remain childishly immature, never learning from qur experiences, but that we should always have a childlike dedication to doing what we believe is the right thing, unclouded by superficial concerns about propriety or conformity to conventional social norms and expectations.

It would be easy to regard this novel as simply a walk down memory lane - albeit a scary one – with no contemporary relevance. This would be wrong. Unsworth has given us a template for writing about today’s political underbelly. In the period covered by this book the Establishment - a term describing Britain’s ruling elite which had been coined during the 1950s by the political journalist Henry Fairlie - pretended that it was virtuous. The Profumo scandal would change this perception for ever, but ruling elites would still try and cover-up their failings.Today, the terms of morality may have changed - few would worry much now about, say, politicians taking part in outre sex parties - but the desire for Establishment respectability is still there: every authority figure still likes to present himself as a pretty straight sort of guy. But there is no reason to suppose that today’s Establishment is any less corrupt than in the era portrayed by Unsworth. Boxes can be falsely ticked, targets tweaked, statistics spun, the bloody-minded briefed against. Transparency can be easily clouded by smoke and mirrors. This book reminds us that, where there is plenty of pretension, there is much to be unmasked, and those without a voice should have a chance to be heard. Dig it, hepcats.


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