Alan Morrison on

Roland Camberton's


(1951; republished 2010

New London Editions/

Five Leaves Publications, 305pp)

With the original cover artwork by

John Minton

Introduction by Iain Sinclair

Hackney Picaresque

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Scamp, a republished debut comic novel of the only recently rediscovered working-class Jewish Hackney writer, Roland Camberton (real life name Henry Cohen), is clothed in a reproduction of the book’s original strikingly chiaroscuro cover illustration (by John Minton for the 1951 John Lehman hardback) as part of a series of New London Editions by Nottingham-based Five Leaves Publications, alongside Camberton’s second, lengthier novel, Rain on the Pavements, and Alexander Baron’s 1950s social novels, Rosie Hogarth and King Dido. While this writer found Camberton’s second novel, a kind of London-Jewish ‘portrait of the artist’, a little difficult to get into, Scamp proved no effort at all to read and enjoy; a debut, which was mercilessly criticised in the Times Literary Supplement of its day, thus sealing its obviously inherent strengths. Indeed, the backhanded compliment that is the perennial 'TLS stamp of disapproval' betrayed by its own tellingly snobbish hand many details to the book’s scenario which would have immediately recommended it as a must-read to anyone drawn to the canon of socially oriented literature of the likes of W.H. Davies (The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp), Arthur Morrison (Tales of Mean Streets, A Child of the Jago et al), George Gissing (New Grub Street, Workers in the Dawn, The Nether World et al), H.G. Wells (The World of William Clissold, Kipps et al), Robert Tressell (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), Howard Spring (Shabby Tiger, Fame Is The Spur, Samson’s Circus et al),  Walter Greenwood (Love on the Dole), and, indeed, Alexander Baron (By the City, By the Plough et al):

The book is written from the standpoint of the "bum": that bearded and corduroyed figure who may be seen crouching over a half of bitter in the corner of a Bloomsbury "pub"; it is ostensibly concerned with the rise and fall of a short-lived literary review, but Mr. Camberton, who appears to be devoid of any narrative gift, makes this an excuse for dragging in disconnectedly and to little apparent purpose a series of thinly disguised local or literary celebrities.

This crude and patronising summation by the TLS is partly right in only one respect: Scamp’s accomplishment is not a narrative one; indeed, its rather patchy and under-developed plot, and to some extent its shabby bohemian array of quixotic characters on the literary fringes of 50s London, are heavily adumbrated by the situations and protagonists of, particularly, George Gissing’s beguilingly grim New Grub Street (1891) and George Orwell’s bitingly witty Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Indeed, the core character of Scamp, the almost proleptically named Ivan Ginsberg (only five years before Allan Ginsberg broke through into poetic fame with his groundbreaking Howl), is a kind of composite of both of Gissing’s opposite protagonists in New Grub Street, the tortured idealistic writer Edwin Reardon and the opportunistic hack Jasper Milvain, with a thick coat of Orwell’s hapless anticapitalist poet Gordon Comstock from Keep the Aspidistra Flying, as well as a smattering of his long-suffering literary champion and editor of radical journal Anti-Christ, Philip Ravelston – the well-heeled Engels to Comstock’s empirically impecunious ‘Marx’.

Camberton’s Ginsberg is an inveterate literary chancer hampered by a perennial impecuniousness, whose entrepreneurial energies in attempting to build up sufficient funds to produce his own literary journal, the eponymous phantom of the print press, Scamp, through conniving a sort of hubristic ‘Ponzi scheme’ (though more a ‘Bonzi scheme’ in Ginsberg’s case), or ‘pyramid scam’ (the title Scamp perhaps partly punning on ‘scam’) – whereby he convinces various picaresque characters who inhabit his dog-eared haunts in Bloomsbury, Soho and Fitzrovia, who have pocket-funds tucked away, to chip in to an investment in the new magazine alongside a string of ‘phantom’ investors – ultimately comes to nothing.

Scamp, then, is a novel not about the founding of a literary journal, but about the failure to found one, wherein lies its arrested sense of comedy; it is more about the journey towards that artistic failure, the forever protracted birth of a project, finally aborted altogether with an increasing sense of inevitability throughout its peripatetic 305 pages. There’s a Dickensian flavour to some of the characters, though none are caricatures, some are picaresque grotesques, and there’s an onomatopoeiac quality to some of their names, such as Mrs Chabbers, a lonely spinster with whom Ginsberg ruthlessly flirts purely to milk her for financial backing; or the ubiquitous Grub Street hack Bert Flogcrobber. Perhaps the most comical and tangibly drawn character in Scamp, however, is the nocturnal Greek hoarder of ‘odds and sods’ and miserly slum landlord, Kagaranias (or ‘Kaggy’), who perpetually haunts the same all-night greasy spoon café where Ginsberg decides to ingratiate himself with him in order to stump up more funds for Scamp. Kagaranias’s physiognomy is described by Camberton in a truly brilliant moment of descriptive comic genius:

Kagaranias lifted his head wearily and fixed Ginsberg with a gloomy stare. Then, as though he had been fumbling for some dilapidated switch in his ruined circuit, he arranged the folds, bags, hollows, and lines of his face into a sudden smile. The effect was disastrous. So unaccustomed were his features to an expression of cordiality that they now hung shapelessly in uncoordinated groups. Ginsberg, an old acquaintance, understood the significance of their collapse and was encouraged to sit down.

Kagaranias is a similarly drawn ‘rags and riches’ character to both Orwell’s philistine and illiterate dwarf-like bookshop owner, Mr Cheeseman, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying – indeed, Kagaranias is cut uncannily from the same uncultured cloth of non-participatory custodians of vast book piles:

In the evening he found solace among his books, which were stored in a warehouse off Covent Garden. He bought them by the barrowload; they were mostly junk, but included one or two rare volumes. He did not read them, but liked handling them.

Kagaranias is a less pernicious literary descendant of Dickens’ similarly diminutive, shrunken crookback property capitalist Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. Similarly to Quilp and Cheeseman, Kagaranias inexplicably provokes both disgust and pity in the reader, and ultimately comes across as a true lost soul whose stashed-away wealth seems unable to in any way transform his mind and life, which, also like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, heaps up into more of a psychical burden than means of liberation and fulfilment for him; an entire life pointlessly accruing possessions and capital, saving up for a day that never comes, and in the meantime, living a life which might as well be impoverished for all its humourless austerity and penny-pinching. Kagaranias is the ultimate ‘tramp’: a man who, in spite of the option to live a comfortable, even salubrious lifestyle, chooses instead to live shabbily and meagrely, as if in a constant mood of self-abnegation.

Kagaranias is not alone in adding some pathos to the novel. There is also the well-spoken Orwellian tramp, Carruthers Anstruther, formerly a doctor struck off for performing an abortion. Anstruther is however still given the inimitable Camberton comic treatment, albeit blackly, as when Ginsberg bumps into him in a night-café only to be instantly harangued by the articulate tramp:

“I must read you my appendix on “The victimization of Carruthers Anstruther, M.B., B.S.” in my book on abortion”.

“What, now?” said Ginsberg.

Another quixotic lost soul is Julius Kripkin, a pretentious would-be philosopher – or “flosopher” as he calls it in his intellectually impatient hyper-speech – whose “life was to follow the precedent set by Shaw”. When the narrative intercepts him, he’s “engaged on a work of research – The Origins of Shavian Philosophy and Ethics”. There’s also the very publicly posturing metaphysician Philip Lank, hilariously described by Camberton:

Night after night he leaned up against the public bar in the Duchess of Margaret and drew pensively at his cigarette-holder. Behind spectacle lens of impenetrable thickness, his eyes vanished into nothingness. His immensely long, immensely thin body tied itself into shapes of increasing discomfort as he concentrated on some inner problem – the problem, the problem of problems, the square root of cube of the integral of the logarithm of the differential.

In fact, Scamp is bursting with quixotic characters and grotesques; there is no shortage on characterisation in Camberton, this is his undeniable gift as a writer, as well as in realistically and witty parenthetic dialogue. Other unforgettable personalities include the misanthropic journalist Buchsfindleman, Scamp contributors such as the narcissistic satirical poet Douglas Varner and the writer Angus Sternforth Simms, who comes across as an inebriate hybrid of Dylan Thomas and George Barker, with smatterings of Wystan Auden thrown in, and whose highfalutin name bears a rhythmic similarity to poet and critic Martin Seymour-Smith’s, but who is apparently based on the real-life writer Julian MacLaren Ross. If there is one possible criticism of this rich tapestry of characters, it is that many of them only appear as colourful cameos, often painstakingly described and given fairly detailed back stories, just to appear and disappear in a relative flash of narrative. But I would argue this is one of the indulgent delights of Scamp: that it gives us tantalising glimpses of very tangible lives, presumably all based on personalities Camberton had himself encountered in real life, and possibly embellished with extra helpings of quirk and eccentricity here and there.

But Camberton’s comic genius is also situational: worthy of particular note in terms of pure unadulterated picaresque comedy is the pit of domestic despotism that is Ginsberg’s shared lodgings with his friend Bellenger, an hilariously chaotic twilight home life milked for all its comic potential in the literally side-splitting opening to the novel:

THE BELL RANG with shattering stridency. It carried to a remote top-floor in Guilford Street an early morning briskness which set Bellenger and Ginsberg cursing in their respective rooms. What right, they thought, what right had he to make that infernal row? Had he not been told often enough that the bill would be paid at the shop? Merely by putting his thumb on the bell-push he was able to thrust his own way of life, his own hours, his own convenience upon them. And he did it, no doubt, with a sense of virtue, as though it were a crime to be still sleeping at nine o'clock in the morning.

But the tyrant, unaware of the horrors that were being wished upon him, set their nerves on edge again with a few short, sharp rings; and not on their bell alone, but all the way down the house, while with the same daemonic energy he rang half a dozen bells next door, and two doors along, and banged door-knockers on the other side of the road, all to the accompaniment of the clashing of milk bottles.

On the fourth floor it was now a battle of patience, endurance, and calculation between Bellenger and Ginsberg.

"Bellie!" shouted Ginsberg. "It's your turn! Go down and give him hell!" There was no reply.

"Pretending to be asleep, I suppose!" Ginsberg shouted in mock anger. Still there was no reply. The bell rang again, this time a long, continuous discord. Bellenger had his fingers in his ears. Ginsberg squirmed in ineffectual protest, finally jumped out of bed, put his slippers on, and rushed downstairs.

His long, black hair in disorder about his face, the sleeves and legs of his pyjama jacket and trousers ludicrously short, one big toe poking through a hole in his slippers, he was in no state to argue at the street door in full view of passers-by. So, without exposing himself, he thrust his arm round the door and meekly handed the milkman his money, leaving his hand outside for the change. The transaction completed and the door mercifully shut, he climbed slowly up the silent gloom of the staircase to their eyrie on the top-floor.

He examined the four letters he had picked up: three for Bellenger, normal letters, the sort that anybody might care to receive, and one for himself, a large, fat envelope, creased in three places where it had been previously folded, and addressed to Ivan Ginsberg in his own handwriting. He had no need to open it; it was clearly a rejected manuscript. Out of breath, he reached the top-floor, drew the blinds in his own room and in the joint kitchen, and sat down to recover from the first assaults of the day. The sun streamed through the window, the birds twittered among the chimney-pots, the hen in the backyard squawked continuously, and very soon a fresh, morning buoyancy asserted itself over the blank despondency which he had felt at the sight of his rejected manuscript. 

When I read this beginning of the book to my brother to encourage him to borrow it, my eyes were literally watering with laughter as I attempted, at intervals, to read it out to him. To my mind, this has to be the most laughter-choking opening to any novel I’ve ever read; and the humour is almost purely in the highly kinetic description, in the setting of the scene – one of dilapidation and ‘shabby bohemian’ shambles. In some ways one might suspect that Bruce Robinson had been privy to this forgotten comic-novel when setting the scene for the similarly shabby bohemian shared lodgings of his iconic out-of-work thespians in Withnail & I. It is in the unalloyed hilarity of such exposition that Ginsberg’s genius for situational comedy of the distinctly tattered literary-fringe kind stamped its undeniable mark, even if in terms of narrative purpose and originality Scamp lacks somewhat.

In spite of its patchy narrative and sometimes flimsily thin plot, Scamp is, in terms of unforgettably picaresque characterisations and descriptions, a little gem of a ‘literary comic’ novel, in the tradition of Gissing, Wells and early Orwell, but also a foreshadower of the suburban poeticism and social polemic of David Nobbs’ Reginald Perrin books of two decades later (one wonders if Nobbs read Scamp and unconsciously borrowed the name for his shifty ex-military cad Clive ‘Lofty’ Anstruther from it?). Scamp is a hugely enjoyable and witty read and The Recusant recommends it as a more ingratiating and entertaining read than the comparatively lower-key and more parochially anchored Rain on the Pavements, the merits of which are of an entirely different timbre.

It just remains to once again mention Five Leaves’ exceptional production and design of this book, beautifully typeset throughout, and of course, replete with the authentic 1950 cover illustration by John Minton (courtesy of the Royal College of Art), as well as a strikingly painted, Modigliani-esque portrait of Camberton (Cohen) by Julia Rushbury, reproduced in vibrant colour on the very first page of the book. There is also an interesting and, as-always, brilliantly written Introduction by Iain Sinclair, which contextualises the novel by focusing on Camberton’s obscure life, a writer who, after his third novel – the yet to be exhumed Tango – is rejected by his publishers, ‘vanishes’ from the literary eye. Sinclair’s Introduction is like a valuable piece of literature as social document, and is part-excerpted from his almost stream-of-consciousness psychogeographical ‘biography’ Hackney – That Rose Red Empire (2009); Sinclair evokes the micro-culture surrounding John Lehmann’s late Forties/early Fifties range of fiction, the publisher’s attempt to promote a species of ‘proletarian literature’ (the prose progenitors of the Fifties Angry Young Men and early Sixties’ ‘kitchen sink’ working-class literary genres): ‘You could smell fierce French tobacco lingering on tanned pages and sample exotic locations filtered through fugues of premature sex tourism’, writes Sinclair, painting a picture reminiscent of the schema of Colin Wilson’s early Soho-located writings; his Adrift In Soho, indeed, has also recently been republished by Five Leaves). Sinclair encapsulates the underground genre of the likes of Camberton (and Alexander Baron) as ‘Hackney picaresque’. Overall, this is a beautiful production, nostalgically and authentically designed; and Camberton’s muscular prose makes for a genuinely colourful read strongly reminiscent by turns of Dickens, Gissing and early Orwell. Highly recommended.

Alan Morrison © 2012