Pulp Fiction

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I’ve been thinking quite a bit about pulp fiction lately; not the Tarantino movie, but the kind of racy if flimsy paperback stuff I began by writing and, long before that, enjoyed the frisson of reading.

I suppose what got me started thinking back along these lines was the recent interview by Michael Carlson and Mark Billingham on Crime Vault Live, in the course of which Mike referred to me as one of the last surviving exponents of British pulp, which, if you discount whatever’s being written today and concentrate on the heady pulp years of the 70s and early 80s, might, sadly, be true. Those were the years of Richard Allen’s incredibly successful Skinhead (NEL, 19070) and Suedehead (NEL, 1971), Guy Smith’s Night of the Crabs ( NEL, 1976) and George G. Gillman’s incredibly successful western series, Edge, the first four of which (yes, four)were all published, again by New English Library, in 1972.

Little of this is quite what it seems. Richard Allen was one of many pen names for James Moffat, who wrote some 18 Skinhead novels in all, plus many, many others, including the wonderfully improbable Diary of a Female Wrestler, written as Trudi Maxwell (NEL, 1976). George G. Gillman is actually Terry Harknett, who wrote close on 200 books, using around a dozen other pen names, and, thankfully is still very much alive somewhere in Dorset.

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It was into this world that, guided by my friend and fellow author, the late Laurence James – an editor at New English Library before ‘retiring’ to write himself –  I took my initial, less than certain, steps with the publication, by NEL, of course, of Avenging Angel in 1975, the first of two biker books under the name of Thom Ryder.

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It was to be a year before I turned to crime with Amphetamines and Pearls (Sphere, 1976), the first of four Scott Mitchell private eye novels published under the watchful editorial eye of the late Angus Wells, with whom I later went on to co-write several series of westerns. The Scott Mitchell books were an attempt to marry a hard-boiled American style with a recognisable British setting, the success or otherwise of which can be judged when they are republished in paperback and ebook formats by Mysterious Press later this year.

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As I pointed out in the books’ introduction, the genesis of the Mitchell series lay, not just in the Chandler and Hammett titles I’d read and re-read in my late teens and early twenties (and many times since), but also in the hard-boiled – and mostly fake – American crime fiction I’d lapped up earlier. English author, Peter Cheyney’s novels with titles like Dames Don’t Care, featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or private eye Slim Callaghan, or the Hank Janson series written by another Englishman, Stephen Daniel Frances, which fell open at the ‘dirty bits’ when they were handed round the school playground.

For years, I resisted the temptation to let the Scott Mitchell books back out into the world , but finally I’m happy to welcome their coming reappearance in shiny new covers. We all had to start somewhere.

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(Return of) The Random Playlist

Here it is again, after absolutely no requests from anyone … [though I’m told, once in a while, the odd individual has been inspired to delve down into his or her collection or go looking for stuff on the internet] … the first dozen tracks to spring out of my iPod set to random shuffle while wandering on the Heath, slightly heat-bedazzled, today Friday 3rd July …

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  • Durango : John Stewart,  from Cannons in the Rain
  • Blues for Alice : Roland Kirk, from We Free Kings
  • I Loves You Porgy : Miles Davis, from Porgy & Bess
  • She : Gram Parsons, from GP
  • Is This What You Wanted : Leonard Cohen, from New Skin for Old Ceremony
  • Central Reservation : Beth Orton, from Central Reservation
  • All of Me : Lester Young, from Lester and Teddy
  • That’s My Home : Humphrey Lyttelton, from Humph Swings Out
  • Cocaine Blues : Rambling Jack Elliott, from South Coast
  • Love Vibration : Josh Rouse, from 1972
  • That Old Feeling : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
  • It’s Getting Better : Mama Cass, from The Best of the Mamas & the Papas

One thing about shuffling music around this way, the sometimes neat, more usually incongruous connections it makes between one piece and another, is the memories it can throw up about where you first heard a certain song or album. [A thought that comes all the more readily to me now, I’m sure, because of the exhibition of George Shaw’s paintings I saw yesterday – more of which, I’m sure, in a day or two.]

But the John Stewart, released in 1973, I would have first heard at the house of my late friend and co-author, Laurence James whom I mentioned recently, an album – aside from The Phoenix Concerts Live, arguably Stewart’s best – which was rarely off the stereo in the ensuing years. As my older daughter, Leanne, once said of Stewart’s voice, and I paraphrase, it was there as a comforting presence throughout my childhood.

Kirk’s We Free Kings was first released in 1961 and it would have been later that I bought a copy, towards the end of the sixties, and ordered, I’m sure, from the lamented Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth. We were living in Andover at the time, in one of a newly-built row of council houses (you remember those?) on the edge of the town and ours to rent thanks to my new job as Head of English at Harrow Way Secondary Modern. [Kirk I’d been thrilled to see in London, I think at the old Marquee club, an experience that I’ve written about in the poem, “You Did It! You Did It!”, which might well find its way into a blog post soon.]

The Gram Parsons, GP,  was one of the two great albums he made with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, Return of the Grievous Angel being the other, and I came to it in a slightly bizarre fashion. One of the girls in the school where I was teaching in Stevenage had been to see Gary Glitter at the Locarno the previous evening and in the interval a number of disparate LPs had been given away for free, one of them Return of the Grievous Angel. No fan of country music, she sold it to me for £1.00 next day. I took it home, played it, went up to London that weekend and bought its companion.

Quite a few evenings in the mid-sixties – far too many if my sad A level results are to be believed – were spent at the 100 Cub in Oxford Street, the Humphrey Lyttelton Club as it was in those days. Humph Swings Out was a 10″ LP, one of the first albums I owned, and features the seven piece band I would have listened to – danced to – at the club on many occasions: Bruce Turner on alto, John Picard on trombone, Humph on trumpet, Johnny Parker, piano, Freddy Legon, guitar, Jim Bray, bass and either Eddie Taylor or Stan Greig behind the drums. Little sign here of the more traditional style or repertoire that would have predominated a year or so earlier; this was well into, as we called it back then, the mainstream – based around the ensembles and riffs of the 40s and early 50s, more Kansas City than New Orleans.  “That’s My Home”, the track here, with Humph in clear Armstrong mode, harks back, in fact, more than most.

The most recent track comes from Josh Rouse’s album 1972, which stems, paradoxically, from 2003.
Molly Ernestine and I went to see Rouse earlier this year at Kings Place. He took time to warm up, the sound wasn’t always as clear as it could have been, but the audience were firmly on his side – many of them singing along from the get-go – and by the end Rouse was enjoying himself and we were on our feet with the rest, surrendering, as Brinsley Schwarz would have sung, to the rhythm in earnest. Or in my case,  swayed my arthritic hips as  best I could.

 

My Life as a Jobbing Writer: Beginnings

Somewhere back in 1974, when I was still teaching English & Drama at a secondary school in Stevenage, my friend, the late Laurence James, who, since our days at Goldsmiths College, had forged for himself a successful career as a writer of what we both were happy to call pulp fiction, suggested I might help him out of a bind, and do myself a favour at the same time, by stepping temporarily into his shoes and writing the 50,000 word novel about Hells Angels his publishers were expecting.

Strange, but true.

Laurence had been writing a series of biker books for New English Library under the name of Mick Norman but at that moment in time was too busy with other projects to give NEL another – and, even though I’d never actually written any fiction, he thought I might just be up to the task. I taught English and I read a lot. Surely I could write?

He gave me his Mick Normans to read, explaining they were close to westerns but with bikes instead of horses.[We were to write a good number of westerns together later.] I went out to W H Smith (this is true) and bought a little handbook on Hell’s Angels and their ways. (Oh, and I forgot to mention this, at the time I was the proud owner of a Honda 50.) Laurence helped me put together an outline; read my first few chapters with an editor’s pen in hand, and I was on my way …

The result was a 128 page paperback, Avenging Angel, by one Thom Ryder, published by New English Library in March, 1975.

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So how did I get from there to where I am 40 years later, a hundred plus titles under my belt and a proud recipient of a couple of honorary doctorates of my writing. One way to find out, should you be in the vicinity, would be to pop along to Westminster Library on Wednesday next, July 8th, when all – or some – will be revealed.

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