Tuesday, March 11, 2014

(No.259) London when it was 'the smoke'


"The Smoke: three novels set in unromantic post-war London"

by Alastair Rickard

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CORRECTION
In the previous RickardsRead column (No.258) "Insurance company demutualization in Canada" posted Feb. 19, 2014 I referred -- in my introduction to an email from Claude Gingras -- to the publication in Column No.209 of a submission he had made to the Dept. of Finance in Ottawa, a submission Finance refused to post to its website. Mr. Gingras' submission was subsequently posted in its entirety to RickardsRead.com  on Jul 31, 2012, NOT 2011.

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People who think of London on VE Day 1945 have seen the newsreel pictures of the celebrating crowds on the Mall all the way up to Buckingham Palace to cheer the Royal Family and Winston Churchill waving from the Palace balcony.

Few today will know, much less be old enough to remember, how grey and miserable day to day life was for many Londoners for years after war's end. Rationing of food, petrol and consumer goods continued into the mid-1950s.

The city was scarred by bombed out buildings, post-war crime and police corruption, darkened streets and much misery.  London also had frequent smog thick enough to harm health and to kill as the result of the burning of coal and the lack of effective environmental controls.

Indeed the 'great smog' which lasted for 5 days in 1952 was so severe and prolonged that it killed 12,000 London residents and made 100,000 more ill with respiratory problems and became, finally, the catalyst for effective government action. There was ample reason for many Londoners (3.3 million in inner London in 1951) to call their city 'The Smoke'.

London pre- and post-1950 is the setting for three gritty novels by Tony Broadbent, an Englishman now living in North Carolina: "The Smoke"(2002), "Spectres in the Smoke (2005) and "Shadows in the Smoke"(2012). The novels progress chronologically and are best enjoyed by reading them in the order of their publication.

The central character in all three novels is a professional East End criminal named Jethro, a cat burglar who specializes in jewellery. But he is no David Niven/'Pink Panther' upper class jewel thief; in fact he is closer to the lower class criminal played by Michael Caine in Mike Hodges' now classic English crime movie "Get Carter"(1971). Stay away from the 2000 American remake of the same title starring Sylvester Stallone; it's crap.

Jethro is coerced on occasion by MI5, Britain's counter-intelligence service, into practising his trade in defence of the realm because of the intensifying cold war. He also gets squeezed by and between particularly nasty elements of London's organized crime world.

Broadbent makes liberal and effective use of cockney and underworld slang, to an extent that prompts him to include a lexicon at the end of each novel to which readers can refer.

This trio of Broadbent novels tell of a London world very different from that portrayed in the Ealing Studios' contemporary but gentle films like "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951) and "The Ladykillers"(1955).

Nor in tone and spirit is there anything reminiscent of 'the mods and the rockers' of late 1950s London or of the image of swinging London, Carnaby Street et al of the 1960s or even Clive Donner's wonderfully directed black comedy "Nothing But the Best (1964) featuring a marvellous performance by Alan Bates.

For the mood and colour  of these Broadbent novels as reflected in English films, think of Karel Reisz's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning"(1960) based on Alan Sillitoe's first novel with Albert Finney in his breakthrough lead performance or even "The Long Good Friday" (1980) with Bob Hoskins or best of all the aforementioned "Get Carter".

Broadbent's writing is not on a par with that of British 'crime' novelists like John Harvey or Ian Rankin but he provides interesting characters acting in a London very different from any that many readers will ever have encountered in fiction.

I enjoyed reading this trilogy.

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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