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TED LEWIS
Carter


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Pan, London, 1971
(first published as Jack's Return Home by Michael Joseph 1970)
price: 25p (5/-); 208 pages


The blurb on the back:

Jack Carter, strong-arm man for a London gang, returns to his Northern home for a funeral.
Brother Frank was honest, meek and sober. So why was he found dead after a car crash, stinking of whisky?
Jack wants to know – old friends are shifty – old enemies edgy – and the girls aren’t talking…
Fast of mind, fist and boot, Jack decides to stay around.


opening lines:
The rain stopped.
It hadn’t stopped since King’s Cross. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you’re doing is sitting there looking out of the blurred windows.


Ted Lewis’s first novel was, apparently, All the Way Home and All the Night Through in 1965, though I’ve never seen a copy, and know nothing about it. \Which meant that his real arrival as a novelist came with this book. It was originally published as Jack’s Return Home, but then they made the movie Get Carter based on it, and so it was re-issued with the new name Carter (presumably the working title of the film).

You’ll know the movie, of course – one of the classics of British cinema, with Michael Caine, Ian Hendry and John Osborne acting up a storm, direction by Mike Hodges and music by Roy Budd – but you may not have read the novel. In which case, I suggest you remedy the omission as soon as possible. Cos it’s brilliant. It’s taut, it’s harsh, it’s hard as hell and it grips you round the throat like a gangland Ancient Mariner.

Jack Carter himself is entirely amoral in a way that was to become cliché (may the good lord protect us from any more bloody British gangster films), but was still at this stage genuinely shocking. And even more so because the first-person narrative doesn’t try to shock. The casual violence, the bent coppers, the brutality towards women, the cynical exploitation of just about everyone – it’s all delivered in a matter-of-fact tone that made Caine the obvious choice for the role. Again, I know that this is par for the course nowadays, but even if you detest what the genre has become, it’s worth checking out the template to see what it was like in its infancy.

And, for those who study British culture of the 1960s and ‘70s (as I like to do), there’s so much more, such a richness of record that this is an invaluable document, crammed full of the most detailed observations. Even when this is simply lists (Carter’s dead brother had a record collection comprising ‘Band of the Coldstream Guards, Eric Coates, Stan Kenton, Ray Anthony, Mel Torme, Frankie Laine, Ted Heath, This Is Hancock, Vaughan Williams’), it’s damn revealing, but it’s even better when Lewis riffs away on his theme. This, for example, is what his anti-hero sees in a Northern casino:

The clientele thought they were select. There were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafés, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners; the new Gentry. And occasionally, though never with them, their terrible offspring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents, with their suede boots and their houndstooth jackets and their ex-grammar school girlfriends from the semi-detached trying for the accent, indulging in a bit of finger pie on Saturday after the halves of pressure beer at the Old Black Swan, in the hope that finger pie will accelerate the dreams of the Rover for him and the mini for her and the modern bungalow, a farmhouse-style place, not too far from the Leeds Motorway for the Friday shopping.
I looked around the room and saw the wives of the Gentry, Not one of them was not overdressed. Not one of them didn’t look as though they were not sick to their stomachs with jealousy of someone or something. They’d had nothing when they were younger, since the war they’d gradually got the lot, and the change had been so surprising that they could never stop wanting, never be satisfied. (p.64)

And there’s so much more, but even I occasionally pay attention to copyright laws. And I don’t want to spoil all your fun. Published, and set, in 1970, this feels like an elegy for a world that has since passed away with the steelworks that dominate the anonymous town’s landscape (‘like a Disney version of the Dawn of Creation’ – p.7).

Do yourself a favour and get a copy. It really is a tremendous piece of work.

Note: My thanks to Craig Austin for telling me that the novel - unlike the movie - is actually set in Scunthorpe.


ARTISTIC MERIT: 4/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
4/5


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