authors index

books index



career opportunities (the ones that never knock)

click to enlarge

Sheila Cousins
To Beg I Am Ashamed
Corgi, London, 1960
(first published Richards Press, 1953)
price: 3/6
224 pages

click to enlarge

George Burchett
edited by Peter Leighton
Memoirs of a Tattooist
Pan, London, 1960
(first published Olbourne Book Co, 1958)
price: 2/6
192 pages + 4 pages of b/w photos

click to enlarge

Ex-Det. Sgt. William Prendergast
Z-Car Detective
Arrow, London, 1966
(first published John Long, 1964)
price: 3/6
192 pages

The point of reading the autobiographies of people who've done things you've never done is supposed to be to broaden your knowledge of the world. Actually, it's normally the case that the sole point is to gawp and gape. Which, of course, is absolutely fine - after all, someone's got to do the world's gawping and gaping.

And these books very definitely fall into that category. Sheila Cousins' work is subtitled 'The autobiography of a prostitute', which kind of hints at the subject matter, but doesn't tell the whole story. For a start, note the date. As far as I know, this is the only serious account of prostitution in London in the early-1950s, just before the Wolfenden reforms changed the profession. Then again, consider the mythology of Soho at that time: a left-leaning literary London that was burning with impetuous impatience to change the whole of society. Ms Cousins was there and her accounts are amongst the most valuable - if the most neglected - that exist of the world from which the British artistic renaissance sprang.

The memoirs of prostitutes have become more common since Ms Cousins, and often lack any wider interest, but this one really is a cracker. Quite apart from the stylistic beauty of the jacket design, the account of her career is gripping, illuminating and vital.

Of course, this is not unrelated to the fact that ‘Sheila Cousins’ is generally accepted to have been a pseudonym, though who it was concealing is more disputed. Cecil Barr is one suggestion; Graham Greene and/or Ronald Matthews is another. You might also like to note that, despite the bibliographical information shown above (which comes from the edition I have), the first edition was actually published by Obelisk in Paris in 1938.

Now I come to think of it, then, it's not really a book for gaping and gawping at all. However, the Memoirs of a Tattooist is beyond doubt good for a quick gape and gawp. George Burchett died in 1953 at the age of 80, having spent his whole life dedicated to the art of tattooing. In the last months of his life, he was compiling notes for an autobiography, and after his death Peter Leighton completed the process, producing this memoir - written in the first-person but necessarily episodic.

little pricks
George Burchett at work

It's a hugely entertaining book, but it doesn't get much further than - as it were - scratching the surface. Now that every Tom's dick and Harriet seems to have a tattoo, things are different, but back in the old days the idea of being permanently marked was a major statement. Mr Burchett can tell us about the statement, but now what it means. Here's a customer, for example, with an unusual desire to be made to look mechanical:

He came to my surgery with a few roughly drawn sketches and we spent an hour discussing the position and perspective of the hinges which were to adorn his toes, ankles, knee joints and patellas, his hip joints, elbow joints, wrist joints and each of his eighteen knuckles. Mr Hillson was particularly concerned that the tattooed hinges, plates and screwheads should look 'as natural as possible' when he bent his arms and legs or moved his body. (p.134)

Curious stuff, but entirely unexplained, so you'll have to work out the motivation for yourself.

The anecdotal nature of the book is supposed to interest us in the history of tattooing rather than sate our appetite. Didn't work like that for me, but I did like many of the stories, and I did enjoy the occasional glimpses of Mr Burchett's character and opinions. He tells us, for example, how senior members of the SS used to have the double lightning flash tattooed in their left armpit, and pauses only to remark: 'Very German, very silly.' Which puts them in their place.

A more mainstream career, of course, was always available in the police force. William Prendergast spent ‘32 action-packed years in Liverpool’s CID’ and his experiences inspired a four-part TV series titled Jacks and Knaves, broadcast on BBC in 1961. Now almost entirely forgotten, that series nonetheless inspired in turn the hugely influential Z-Cars, which ran from 1962 to 1978 and dominated the TV portrayal of the police force until it was eclipsed by The Sweeney.

This is the first of two books of memoirs that Mr Prendergast wrote on the back of the success of Z-Cars, and it’s really very charming indeed. At the time, the series was considered to be hard-hitting stuff, but in retrospect, it sounds like a voice from a long-gone era in British culture:

The British are by nature a law-abiding nation, jealous of their standards and democratic freedom — hard won and hard fought for. We of the police are also members of the public as citizens and taxpayers and ratepayers. But we are also doing a job for all the men, women and children of these islands, so that they may go about their daily lives without fear and without molestation. That is what we are here for. To the dedicated policeman — and, believe me, that means the vast majority— it is not only a job but a crusade. (p.191)

The shift from this to Villain, just four years later, is instructive for students of recent British history. As indeed is the whole of the book and its depiction of life in Liverpool in the post-War period. Recommended.

William Prendergast

non fiction