There is a popular and persistent image of the ‘tough guy’ crime writer. A ‘loner’ sitting at a battered typewriter, a fedora tilted back on his head, a smouldering cigarette hanging from his lips, a half drunk bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer. They are usually called Mickey or Chester or Ross and they practise their dark arts in shabby offices in Los Angeles or New York. Whatever they are – they are not called Gerald and they don’t come from Teddington High Street… well not often.
Gerald Kersh was born at 18 High Street, Teddington on August 26th 1911 into a large Jewish family and began writing when he was only 8 years old. His first book, “Tom and Tilly Tadpole”, was published in a limited edition of one copy bound in his uncle’s brocade waistcoat. At 13 he won a scholarship to Regent Street Polytechnic and it was there that he decided that he wanted to become a full-time writer. As a first step he sent one of his short stories to Edgar Wallace, Britain’s most popular crime writer, boasting that it was better than anything that Wallace had written… and, er… “could you give me any advice on how to become successful?” To his credit Edgar Wallace did bother to reply.
Leaving school Gerald Kersh took on a variety of jobs – cinema manager, bodyguard, debt collector, fish & chip cook, travelling salesman (“selling everything from sausages to electric lights”), French teacher, bouncer and all-in-wrestler (3 bouts – 1 win, 1 loss, 1 draw). But it wasn’t all plain sailing. According to Harlan Ellison, the American writer and an admirer of Kersh’s work…“there were often nights where Kersh would sneak into Regent’s Park to sleep on their lovely benches.”
For all his suburban upbringing Kersh had a fiery temper and was often in fights. In 1931, when a man attacked him with a hatchet Kersh knocked him down with a small marble table and walked away with a headache that was to last for more than 15 years. Kersh carried other scars too – a knife wound on his left wrist and tooth marks on his right hand.
His first novel, “Jews without Jehovah”, was published in 1934, an almost autobiographical story of a Jewish family in London. Although it was well received by the critics his family took against the book and filed criminal libel suits against it. It was withdrawn from sale after half a day.
His next book was far more successful. “Night and the City”, published in 1938, was set in London’s Soho. It followed the fortunes of Harry Fabian, a young ‘ponce’, who lived off women and various scams and swindles fuelled by his self deluding ego. He pretended to be an American songwriter but the fake accent and name-dropping of the ‘stars’ that he claimed to associate with failed to convince most people. Harry Fabian was a loser unable to hang onto money. At the end of the book he sells off his girlfriend and main source of income to a white slave trader.
The thing that distinguishes “Night and the City” is its description of pre-war Soho and the people who lived and worked there – costermongers, artists, tarts, petty criminals, wrestling promoters and cafe owners. Unlike American crime novels of the time “Night and the City” is not about flashy gangsters, fast cars, gun fights and molls. It is about people trying to make a living in squalid dives like Bagrag’s Cellar…
“Bagrag’s Cellar is a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night-life continually filters. It is choked with low organisms, pallid and distorted, unknown to the light of day, and not to be tolerated in healthy society. It is on the bottom of life; it is the penultimate resting place of the inevitably damned. Its members comprehend addicts to all known crimes and vices…”
NIGHT AND THE CITY by Gerald Kersh
In the late 1940’s Kersh sold the film rights to “Night and the City” for $40,000. In 1950 the American director Jules Dassin made the film in London with Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. Although the film is now considered to be the first and probably the best British “film noir” ever made Kersh didn’t like it. When he first saw the script, he suggested that they hang it on a nail in the toilet. Jules Dassin didn’t have an easy time either. Because of his membership of the Communist Party during the 1930’s he was blacklisted and not allowed to edit or oversee the musical score for the film. A second film version was made 1992 starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange. In this adaptation Harry Fabian is presented not as a ‘ponce’ but as a failed lawyer. The action now takes place in New York. I don’t think that Gerald would have liked that much either.
In 1940 Gerald Kersh became Guardsman 2663141 and a crack shot. Injured during the London blitz he was reassigned to writing duties. In 1941 he wrote “They Die with their Boots Clean” – a tough, no nonsense novel about how recruits in the Coldstream Guards were trained. Although the War Office didn’t think much of it the book became a wartime best seller.
Towards the end of the war he deserted from the army and managed to get into Paris for the liberation of the city. Here he discovered several members of his family living there – although others had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to death camps. Back in England and apparently forgiven for his desertion, Kersh co-wrote the screenplay to “The True Glory”, a documentary film by Garson Kanin and Carol Reed about the victory in Europe. It won an Oscar in 1945.
Gerald Kersh spent most of his later years in America writing for high-paying magazines of the day like The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Playboy and Collier’s. His invention and variety was staggering as Harlan Ellison noted…
“Such is the conviction of his storytelling, that it blurs the line between fact and fiction. One story in ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, about a pilot who flies so fast he goes back in time, regresses to a baby, then crashes, was actually broadcast as news by a radio station. Another, where it is explained that the Mona Lisa kept her mouth shut because she had bad teeth, is often quoted as fact.”
For all his success Gerald Kersh was always in financial difficulties, with unpaid taxes and an acrimonious divorce draining him of what money he had. Worst of all his style of writing was falling out of favour.
His last book "The Angel And The Cuckoo ", published in 1966, is thought by many to be the best of his “Soho” novels. One critic described it as …“a culmination of ideas and characters, of situations and plots, that have a richness of texture and resonance rarely found in any fiction of any age. It is a pure joy to lie back and immerse yourself in the mind of a master storyteller.”
Unfortunately for Kersh, who was seriously ill at the time, his publishers released the book without any backing or promotion and it sank without a trace.
Gerald Kersh died in New York on 5th November 1968, aged 57 and largely forgotten. At the end he was a long way from the polite streets of Teddington and the teeming back alleys of Soho that he once knew so well…
“Harry Fabian, born in a slum, bred in the gutters, versed in the tortuous geography of the night-world and familiar with every rat-hole in West One and West Central…was not quite an ordinary person; he had highly developed intuitions, proceeding from long and cumulative experience of the customs of the City..He saw London as a kind of Inferno – a series of concentric areas with Piccadilly Circus as the ultimate centre.”
NIGHT AND THE CITY by Gerald Kersh.
THE FILM TRAILER FOR “NIGHT AND THE CITY” 1950
— from Martyn Day
- Photograph of Gerald Kersh’s Birthplace by Jim Linwood on Flickr