Q&A with David Corbett
Q: Every time I hear you discuss your books, I'm impressed by the personal connection you have with the material, especially the setting: Post WW2 London. Victory seldom looked so harsh and hollow. And yet you bring the time and place to life in a way that testifies to an incredible vigor of spirit—and earthy wit. Could you speak for just a moment on why you chose this particular time in English history, why it affects you so deeply, and why it's so important to you to convey it to readers with the richness of atmosphere and detail that you do?
A: Firstly—thanks very much—David—for the opportunity to hang out—as they say—with the Murderati.
The Jesuit credo: 'Give me a boy till he's seven and I'll make you the man' holds true for the country and times we're born into. And if I can misquote Graham Greene—'England very much made me.' I was born mid-century—not long after the end of World War Two—an event that radically changed the political map of the world and its peoples and led to the Cold War. Those events of sixty plus years ago still directly influence events today.
The Second World War—and its aftermath—was very much a time of heroes; ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It's been hailed as "the Greatest Generation"—and quite rightly so in my opinion—and we continue to owe them a huge debt. They'd won the War, but then had to survive the peace.
In England, the government was forced to introduce severe austerity measures that went on well into the Fifties. Bread was rationed—and it hadn't once been on ration during the war—as too were almost all consumables—foodstuffs, beer, clothing, furniture, motorcars, and petrol (gas). Meat was on ration until 1956. Sweets (chocolate and candy) came off ration in 1953 as 'gift' to the nation's children to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II—after which they put it back on ration for another three years. (Probably the reason why so many of my generation still have sweet-tooth cravings.) All of which led to a British mind-set that harked back more to the 'Thirties' than the future. And which—in many ways—gave rise to the 'angry young men' movement of late-Fifties British theatre and literature and film and—in all probability—the teenage yearning for and addiction to rock 'n' roll and ultimately the explosion of the 'Swinging Sixties'. And as with everyone else in postwar Britain, I was steeped from birth in the mythology of the times. So writing The Smoke novels not only gave me the opportunity to go back and explore the country—and the city—that made and formed me—it's allowed me to appreciate it all the more.
As for that 'postwar' London of bombed-out broken buildings and bombsites—it was all still there—well into the Sixties. And when I was nipper—a very young kid—my father would take me up to London—for the fun of it. (He loved the city.) So I actually visited many of the areas I write about—Church Street and Petticoat Lane (street markets) in particular—and actually saw Jack Spot—'Spottsy'—one of the Lords of The Underworld—on Church Street. And I suppose our 'body memories'—the sights, sounds, and smells of time and place—never really leave us—not if we've truly loved them in the first place.
Q: Each of the books explores a distinct aspect of post-war austerity, adversity, and survival. You've tackled the threat of Communism, the surprising rise of post-war fascism (and the ties between British Royals and the Nazis), the rise of organized crime amid the bombsites and ashes. Is there a historical arc intended in the books? Or are there at least certain historical or societal events or changes you find particularly compelling, and use for your stories?
A: The arc of The Smoke novels—publishers willing—stretches from the late Forties through to end of the Fifties. Postwar Britain seemed immeasurably grey and forever frozen in black and white—and not only because of newsreels and newspaper photographs of the period. The actor Terence Stamp—who grew up in postwar London's East End—once said that it was only when The Beatles burst onto the scene in 1962 that the whole of England—London particularly—seemed to erupt into Technicolor.
So the stories—all of them based in 'The Smoke' (Cockney slang for London Town)—and most all of them steeped in London's criminal underworld—take the reader from the wartime government directive of 'make do and mend' all the way to the emergence of the consumer society. And along the way—as background—I touch upon various key UK events; everything from the surprising and very alarming resurgence of Fascism (in response to Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour Government), the 1948 London Olympics, and the 1951 Festival of Britain, to Cold War espionage, the Deadly Fog of 1952, the Queen's Coronation in 1953, and the Suez crisis of 1956.
Q: You're not just a master of setting and milieu. The other brilliant creation in the series is its hero, the cockney cat-burglar (or "creeper") commandeered by MI-5, Jethro—his last name unknown. In him, you've given us a completely British creation who nonetheless adheres to the Chandlerian diktat: He walks the mean streets, but is not himself mean. Where in the smithy of your soul did you find him?
A: There's that old saw, to 'always write what you know about.' So I peopled The Smoke with people, places, and events I knew of or had heard of or read about. Jethro—the Cockney cat burglar and jewel thief—is based on the father of an old friend of mine—who I never ever met—but who was an honest to goodness London cat burglar. And as my 'old china' (Cockney rhyming slang: old china = old china plate = mate) had a career in the London theatre, I put the two together; mixed in a couple of people I'd met in London in my own time there; added a dash of one or two of my favorite British actors (James Mason, Michael Caine) and—'voila'—I came up with our Jethro.
I also cast my own dad as a character—cast a wonderful old teacher of mine as another—and based another key recurring character on a great friend from my days at Art College. Later, when I found out the father of a writer friend of mine had served in the OSS, and then CIA during and after the War—I had him as one of the main characters in Spectres in the Smoke. The reason? They're all heroes in my book—which is why I also have Ian Fleming and David Niven—two other particular heroes of mine—in major walk-on parts. Then I have them all meet up—back in London—back when they were all in their prime.
So all the characters—Jethro especially—are amalgams of characters witnessed—real or imagined. I'm a child of my times and thus I'm very much a child of mass media—books, comic-books, pop-songs, radio, television, films. And so Jethro is a reflection of those times—and if not exactly a working class kitchen-sink hero—even though one reviewer likened him to a proto-Bond—he's not a 'clubland' hero, either. I hope he's someone you'd like to have a drink with—spend some time with —in a pub or on a long walk.
Q: You're justly praised for your command of Cockney slang—and feel free to riff on that if you'd like—but I think your style in general is simply marvelous. I always sink in to your books because you draw me in so completely with the world you create through language. Your voice is unique and yet natural. You trained in the visual arts and in music—Little Known Fact: You design your own covers—where did you develop such an engaging prose style?
A: Thanks David—that's very kind of you to say so. Language—voice—is very much a part of time and place and so as much as I can I try to follow the rhythms and patterns of London itself—very much a character in the stories—but I also then try to make it all very accessible—rather than merely a dry historical tract—by adding copious dashes of humor and—dare I say it—humanity.
I write in first person—and refer to the stories as it were told by Jethro as 'Creeping Narratives—(in this case 'creeping' referring to the Cockney slang for burglary)—even so, the pacing is measured in that I only ever reveal what Jethro would actually know at any one time. So fast food it isn't.
When I write—I always hear Jethro in the voice of Michael Caine—born and bred in London—and one of Britain's finest film actors—and very much a man who oozes humanity and humor. Though the younger Murderati out there will perhaps know him best as Alfred the butler in the 'Dark Knight Rises' film trilogy starring Christian Bale as the caped crusader (Again—our heroes are ever important—regardless of how they might kit themselves out)—Caine has made some truly wonderful films over the years. All I have to do is read some lines of narrative in Caine's (younger, Cockney) voice and I'm away and running, so to speak.
Cockney or Rhyming Slang evolved in the East End of London over hundreds of years—its natural habitat, the docks, the markets, the streets, the theatres, the taverns and pubs. It's thought to have originated from the soldiers and seamen—and thieves—who frequented London's vast docklands and the waves of immigrants—Russian, Jewish, French-Huguenots, Irish and Chinese amongst others—all of whom at one time or another have called the East End of the city, home.
Slang—usually defined as colloquial alternatives to standard language—is probably as old as human speech—and on the surface it might appear as being little more than linguistic playfulness—but Cockney Rhyming Slang and its sub-set, 'back-slang'— "rouf"; "neves"; "yob"—was originally a 'secret' language that intentionally excluded the uninitiated and was as exclusive a London club as any to be found in Pall Mall or St James's. Much the same could also be said for polari—the secret language of London's gay community when homosexuality was strictly forbidden by law and subject to swingeing prison sentences.
Q: What comes next for Jethro—and you?
A: The next book in the series is called Skylon In The Smoke—and follows hard on from events in Shadows In The Smoke. It sees the start of a major power shift in London's Underworld—witnesses the Festival of Britain—and touches upon MI5 and the emerging dark and murky world of the postwar atomic spies. And all before Jethro even has a chance to put on his turtles (a little more Cockney rhyming slang: turtles = turtledoves = gloves) to go do a bit of burglary.
Q: One last question. I mentioned music in a preceding question. You had something of a career in music as a youth in London, and you've written a book with a unique look into the Beatles. Could you share a little about either of these endeavors—or, happily, both?
A: Again it was more a function of the times—than true musical ambition or design. The Beatles opened up the door for many a lad in Britain in the Sixties. I just jumped through the opening with a guitar in my hand, along with almost everyone else I knew. And was lucky enough to witness—up close—the early days of some now legendary bands. Also, being in a rock'n'roll band and playing rhythm and blues was a great way to meet girls or 'birds' as they were called back then. All wonderfully captured in the words of the great Bob Dylan—"The times they are a'changing."
We had no idea—of course—of the true extent of any changes and absolutely no way of knowing the long term effects we might have on society or even on ourselves—but to be a teenager—back then—and share in the music—somehow made you feel you were connected to every other teenager in the world—language or culture didn't seem to matter at all. It was the attitude—the hope—that 'a way' was opening for something really new—something that would be better for everyone. It truly seemed to be a magical time.
As I mentioned before—it's all to do with the teenage yearning for meaning that for me—in my youth—was all part of the 'pop' culture explosion—in popular music, the arts, fashion—even sexuality—of the 'Swinging Sixties'. A little of which I've tried to explore in the mystery novel I've just completed that revolves (at thirty-three-and-a-third) around the early days of The Beatles—and others—in the Liverpool, Hamburg and London of yesterday.
Murderati18 December 2012Q&A with David Corbett