Ted Lewis: Plender and GBH
Ted Lewis is an enigma. His brutally poetic prose casts a long, dark shadow over the history of British crime fiction. He was a contemporary of Derek Raymond’s, who described his work as: “An example of how dangerous writing can really be when it is done properly.” His latter day fan club includes David Peace, Jake Arnott, James Sallis, John L Williams and Martyn Waites, writers who have all had the nerve to follow his “road through the black jungle” as Raymond put it. Yet, barring this hardcore of aficionados, since his death in 1982, Lewis has been all but forgotten.
Except for one thing. The film that Mike Hodges made out of Ted’s second novel, Jack’s Return Home: the epoch-defining apogee of British noir cinema, Get Carter.
This was the starting point for writer Nick Triplow, who spent nine long years piecing together the fragments of a man whose life that was as short and extreme as his work, in the landmark biography Getting Carter (2017). His creeping obsession began when London-born Nick came to live and work in Barton-upon-Humber, the place where Lewis had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s, escaped from in the 1960s and then returned to when he had blown everything the short-lived exposure from Hodges’ 1971 film had brought him. With painstaking detective work and reams of patience, Triplow gathered stories from Lewis’ friends, lovers, contemporaries and rivals, following the course of a life along this bleak, wind-blasted estuary. From Barton and neighbouring Scunthorpe – where Jack Carter originally returned home to – across to Hull, where Ted enjoyed his first taste of freedom at art college and in jazz bands who dreamed that the Humber might be the Mississippi. Then finally, after a brief and dazzling interlude in the bright lights and low dives of Swinging London, back to Mablethorpe, where the land gives way into the North Sea that is gradually consuming it. Just as, in his final years, Lewis roused himself from alcoholic suicide to write his great masterpiece and valediction in blood, ‘GBH’.
Triplow and his publisher, No Exit Press, have now followed this superb biography with the re-release of two titles that shine as much biographical light on Ted’s wild years as Nick was able to glean from his childhood friends from the remote Lincolnshire coast. Both Plender and GBH are as wedded to this landscape as their author’s psyche. Both use the form of stark, alternate viewpoint chapters to look backwards and forwards at the cycles of cruelty and deprivation – and the social mores that conspire to create them – that corrupt and degrade the human soul into acts of abject evil. Revolving around blackmail and pornography, both seem to show the author scouring deep into his past for answers that might unlock his own misery. Both still resonate powerfully with issues buried deeply from sight at the time of their publication that have only just been dragged kicking and screaming into the light. It is no coincidence that Benjamin Myers’ disturbing 2016 noir ‘Turning Blue’ was haunted in equal measure by the ghost of Jimmy Savile and the plot of ‘GBH’.
‘Plender’, from 1971, was Lewis’ third book (preceded by ‘All The Way Home And All The Night Through’ in 1965 and ‘Jack’s Return Home’ in 1970) and tells the same story from two conflicting viewpoints. Its twin narrators are difficult to describe as protagonist and antagonist as they are both so deeply guilty – it’s just that only one of them is capable of feeling that emotion. That is Peter Knott, who lives in Ingham, an affluent enclave on the Lincolnshire side of the river populated by the yachting set, with his wife Kate and daughter Nicola. His seemingly enviable existence is funded entirely by Kate’s father, and the job he has provided for photographer Peter, producing his company’s mail-order catalogue from his studio in an old dockside warehouse studio in Hull. The titular Brian Plender earns his living from a modern office block a few streets away where, posing as a private investigator, he directs an insidious blackmail ring. Plender is not the head of his organisation – which is a front for an extreme, Right wing political movement – but he is so exceptionally good at what he does that he is only one man away from knowing the identity of its shadowy leader.
The two men’s paths diverge at a dockside gay bar, run by a fearless butch called Peggy, where both have come to first seduce and then betray. Plender is setting up a sting on a ‘respectable’ businessman with his transvestite accomplice, whereas Knott is grooming a young girl called Eileen, whom he wants to photograph – ostensibly for the catalogue, but actually to fuel his own kinky excesses. Knott is unaware he has been recognised and followed when he takes his inebriated ingénue around the corner to his studio and has his wicked way with her; nor when she misses her step on the stairway on the way back out again. It is not until he has utterly compromised his future and crossed back over the river on the ferry – the only link between Hull and Barton before the completion of the Humber Bridge a decade later – with a corpse in the back of his car, that he realises he is being followed.
When Plender and Knott come face to face as opportunist blackmailer and hopeless prey, the past they shared as schoolboys in Barton is gradually revealed. Back then, their roles were completely reversed – handsome, popular and comfortably middle class, Peter was the golden boy, while runty, impoverished Brian was the school friend he most enjoyed toying with. As Plender gradually tightens the screw on Knott in the present, reveling in the sadistic power he wields, so we see how Peter earned this hatred. Lewis pinpoints how defining a premature and humiliating introduction to sex was to the warped characters both became as men. Towards the end of the novel when, forced to do Plender’s bidding, Knott is photographing a blackmail scenario, the self-knowledge it triggers sets off the climactic showdown:
I turned away and leant against the wall, my head tilted back, my eyes closed. I felt sick again. Sick because what I had been watching was like looking into a mirror and seeing myself in the execution of my own fantasies, seeing them for what they were, sordid, self-defeating, addictive to the point where satisfaction could not be reached in the fantasy itself but only by replacing the fantasy with another; a vicious circle of fantasy followed by fantasy, frustration by frustration. Because there was no end result.
After reading ‘Getting Carter’, the most unnerving aspect of ‘Plender’ is how closely it backstory echoes Lewis’ teenage years – Peter’s good looks and love of cinema, the devastating effect he has on women and his artistic eye are all top Ted traits. But so, too, is Brian’s alienation: the psychological effects of bullying he suffered both at school and at home, and the ambiguity of his sexuality that made him so convincingly au fait with what would have been a deeply clandestine gay culture in the Hull of 1970. It is as if he is using both characters are to dissect himself.
It’s an existential investigation that Lewis returned to at the end of his life. I have written about ‘GBH’ at length in these pages before. (Click on the link to read Cathi’s Crimesquad review for GBH by Ted Lewis) The story of George Fowler’s return from London to the oblivion of end-of-the-pier Mablethorpe is structured in a very similar way to ‘Plender’ and is a still more compulsive, still more devastating read. It’s effects as a progenitor to Derek Raymond’s Factory novels and David Peace’s ‘Red Riding Quartet’ – the most important British noir novels of the late 20th century – are plainly evident. This is as black as noir gets, a head-on collision between a sensitive, ambitious and talented young man and the dirty, brutal, grasping world he lived through and failed to survive. Like ‘Plender’, like Fowler and like Michael Caine at the end of ‘Get Carter’, Lewis was dead on the beach before he found any answers.
Cathi Unsworth has been described as the Empress of Noir and her books include: Bad Penny Blues, Without the Moon and That Old Black Magic.
Note from Cathi: many thanks to Nick Triplow – Author of the Ted Lewis biography, Getting Carter for his help and knowledge on all things Lewis! Ted Lewis – Plender, GBH (all No Exit Press)