An Interview with Cathi Unsworth
Unsworth's first novel, The Not Knowing, was published in 2006, followed by the anthology London Noir and the novel The Singer. She lives in London, where she works as a journalist.
Bad Penny Blues is a gallimaufry of Pop Art, spiritualism, swinging detectives, perverse lords and doomed women, which takes place in the dark, seedy heart of postwar London. You’ve given a voice to these women, the murdered prostitutes, who’ve been left in the dark for too long. How long did it take you to get back there (to the late '50s, early '60s)?
The whole process took about 18 months, and the way it came together was very odd. What started me off was reading David Seabrook’s Jack of Jumps, a true crime account of an unsolved murder case from 1959-65, in which eight working girls were murdered and left in or around the Thames, in a state of undress that led the press to dub the killer "Jack the Stripper." All of them either lived, worked, or both in Ladbroke Grove, which was, in this time, the biggest red light district in London. I have seen the area change dramatically since I began living here in 1987, and can remember the last vestiges of the trade and the flophouse hotels that went with it, particularly in the area that is now in the middle of the richest part of Westbourne Grove -- but there obviously was a lot, lot more to learn.
Another article, by the area’s great psychogeographer Tom Vague, revealed that Joe Meek lived in Arundel Gardens -- where I once had a bedsit, and where I set my first book, The Not Knowing -- and worked at Lansdowne Studios for the jazz producer Denis Preston. During his downtime from producing such singles as Humphrey Lyttleton’s "Bad Penny Blues," Joe was secretly working on his space pop album, I Hear a New World which he described himself as "tracks for astral travel."
I have long been fascinated by what my friend Ken Hollings calls "the maps beneath the maps" and what connected the Stripper to Meek seemed like such clandestine cartography. The first of the Stripper victims, Elizabeth Figg, was last seen standing on the corner by Holland Park tube on the night of 17 June 1959, directly opposite where the foreboding, castle-like tower of Lansdowne sits on the top of Lansdowne Crescent. Joe was still in Ladbroke Grove then, so it seemed possible that he would be up there making his music, while she was unwittingly walking towards her death.
Describing Joe’s studio techniques, engineer Adrian Kerridge recalls him working with "shorted radios, milk bottles banged with spoons, echoed keyboards, sped up and slowed down tracks from the studio and layering them with echo and delay, SFX scraped combs, smashed glass, bubbles blown in water, clockwork tapes, radio interference, backwards tapes and toilets being flushed." Session drummer Dave Golding said that "He was going on about lighthouses and lights across the sea."
Joe had spent the previous summer doing a series of séances at Arundel Gardens, where he was given the date of Buddy Holly’s death, 3 February, which would later become the date of his own suicide. So I had this vision of Joe unwittingly opening a channel through which Jack came and Elizabeth Figg disappeared, and put all of this into the Prologue.
Then, bit-by-bit, the rest of the research came to me. Although of course I sought out a great deal of things myself, helped by Tom Vague’s detailed bibliographies in his own writings, I was given a lot of material by friends that I might not have unearthed, and which proved vital to the finished book.
What I wanted to do was create was a parallel universe of London 1959-65. For this is not an attempt at a definitive solving of the case -- I fear that would be impossible. While all the details of each woman’s murder are accurate, and all the oddities pertaining to the case -- the man who confessed, the paint samples, the illicit S&M/smut scene, the mysterious missing teeth and the story of the man in the gorilla suit -- are all taken from true life accounts, the rest of the fictional landscape is a Pop Art collage of what really happened, blending in contemporary fiction, films, art and urban myth -- all of which I immersed myself in during the course of writing.
Firstly, I looked up which songs had been number one at the time each of the bodies had been found, and used those as chapter headings -- and they were spookily suggestive enough -- "Roulette," "You’ll Never Walk Alone," "Needles & Pins," "Can’t Buy Me Love," "A World Without Love," "The House of the Rising Sun," "Baby Love" and "You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling." Then I added into these songs from the charts of the years 1959, 1963, 1964 and 1965 that also were cast in a sinister new light by applying them to the story -- "She’s Not There," "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Midnight Shift," etc., etc. I was hoping that these familiar songs, which may at first appear to be rather innocuous, would provide the "third dimension" of the book the way an actual soundtrack does in a film.
The eureka moment of actually feeling I was "back there" came while watching The Blue Lamp, Basil Deardon’s 1950 film that introduced Dixon of Dock Green to the world, and showed a black-and-white Ladbroke Grove still full of bombsites and without any of the reconstruction architecture that now dominates the skyline and is in the process of going up in the latter stages of the book. The most amazing scene was an aerial shot that panned over a car chase going from Royal Oak onto Westbourne Park Road, in which I saw the area for the first time without the Westway flyover, and as it would have looked to my characters back then.
During your research for the book you’ve said there were a number of “intriguing coincidences” uncovered that tied your story together. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
There are lots. I had been given the book Memoir of a Fascist Childhood by Trevor Grundy, which described Oswald Mosley’s campaign to get re-elected in Ladbroke Grove in 1959. I took from it a scene in which he holds a rally on a flatback truck in Lancaster Road. Shortly after writing this, I was introduced to a retired policeman who worked this beat in the Fifties, who had observed this very occasion.
I had begun working on the characters of Jenny and Stella, making Stella an RCA student because most of the pop artists who lived in Ladbroke Grove at the time, like Peter Blake and David Hockney, had studied there; and Jenny from St Martin’s. Jenny was initially inspired by Edmond T. Gréville’s 1959 juvenile delinquent movie Beat Girl. Although a light-hearted and none-too-realistic look at the beatnik milieu, the dichotomy of the film’s Jenny Linden and her architect father Paul, busy constructing a concrete city of the future while living in luxury in Kensington, provided poignant inspiration for Jenny Minton’s father Alex, who aims to remake that Ladbroke Grove skyline into his own Brutalist design.
I was explaining these embryonic characters to another friend, the musician Dave Knight, who has a strong interest in West London history, being a King’s Road boy by birth. He gave me a CD-ROM of Now You See Her Now You Don’t, Adam Smith’s account of the life of the pop artist Pauline Boty, which was currently obsessing him. Pauline, it turned out, lived in the next street to where I do now at the time Bad Penny Blues was set. She was a student at the RCA, a contemporary of Blake, Derek Boshier and Hockney, and during the late Fifties was the glamorous face of a campaign against the new Brutalist architecture, that she called No More Ugly. So she perfectly converged with the character I had been writing, not to mention looking exactly how I had imagined Jenny would.
I had a weird experience just after I had been given this gift. I saw what looked like a demo going up Westbourne Grove, people carrying placards that read NO MORE UGLY. I actually thought I was seeing a timeslip for a minute and got quite excited, but of course, when I got up close it was merely a promo for a new furniture shop, and the word "furniture" was written in much smaller typeface underneath the banner headline. But still, it was Pauline’s manor and her words, so that was a strange enough coincidence for me to think I was doing something right.
There is a terrifying authenticity to your heroine Stella’s nightmares, where she experiences the final minutes of the dead women’s hideous lives. Have you a background in spiritualism?
Not personally, but I have been plagued by terrifying nightmares and gratuitous migraines all my life. Another one of the coincidences of my research was that across the road from Lansdowne Studios was the headquarters of the Christian-Spiritualist Greater World Association, run by the trance medium Winnifred Moyes. I gladly made use of this fact to place my fictional Mya there, connecting with Joe, or James Myers as he is in my parallel universe, and his passion for séances and radios -- the wireless was indeed invented by a Spiritualist, Sir Oliver Lodge, in an attempt to tune into his dead solider son on the "other side."
I am intrigued by the Spiritualist theory of the "aether," that we are all on our own wavelengths which switch, like a dial on a radio turning, at the moment of death. There also plays into this the fact that people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, often feel they are receiving messages via radio waves, or, like Joe Meek, that their thoughts are being intercepted and monitored this way. The radio really is the central object of intrigue here.
I wanted to use the device of the "transmissions" that Stella receives from the Stripper victims in their last minutes to be able to give these women a voice, and to convey the horror of their situations directly to the reader. This seemed to me the most powerful way to render the darkest parts of the book, and each woman’s individual story came to me more easily than any other part of the writing. The fact that they had been treated so horribly -- both by their murders and in the way they have been written about since -- was what really compelled me to write the book. I wanted to try and do something better for them. I also really wanted to make people think what it is actually like to be murdered.
And while he was abroad, this Jack, like his Whitechapel forefather and so many comparable "ripper" cases, did appear to be an elusive phantom, a dark embodiment of our worst fears and impulses. We like to turn these things into monsters, werewolves and vampires, but perhaps the most terrifying thing is that they are not -- they are human beings. The tabloid press is always great at generating "monsters" and they have their part to play in this story. But I wish they wouldn’t. By separating "monsters" from the rest of society and keeping them apart from "us," they deny rational thought and serious consideration into the issues that forge murderers and the chance to try and understand and change things. They like to keep us in the dark, like medieval peasants with their torches, controlled by a constant atmosphere of fear.
Leading up to the book’s publication, you collaborated on a series of recordings with Pete Woodhead, which is available on your website. When did you decide to add an audio dimension to the book?
It was actually Pete’s idea. He has been one of my best friends for over ten years now, he also lives in Ladbroke Grove, and he not only helped me with this but with my website too -- an all round renaissance man! Pete was in the experimental-electronic bands O Yuki Conjugate and The Sons of Silence and collaborated with his friend Dan Mudford to write the soundtrack to the hit British zombie movie Shaun of the Dead.
We made the special effects for the "Transmissions" in the way that Joe Meek would have, recording me walking down the street in different types of shoes, the noise of plastic combs being flicked, cigarettes being lit, various objects being flung around and hit. And then Pete took it all back to his own radiophonic workshop and came out with all this brilliant music.
Ever since I heard the Derek Raymond-Gallon Drunk Dora Suarez album I have wanted to do something similar with my own writing. I am just very lucky to have the perfect collaborator in Pete, as everything he came out with mirrored what I had been imagining in my own head.
One reviewer wrote that like many of the murdered women, Stella Reade escaped life in a provincial town and her life could have gone either way -- the death of Mathilde Bressent affects her more than the other women’s deaths because of the woman’s proximity to her -- not only because she lives quite close to the character at the time of her death, but because they are quite similar. Reading this, I was incredibly disturbed, almost like she realised she could very easily be that victim. While writing Bad Penny Blues, did you consciously make a decision to keep Stella out of harm's way?
Well, Stella was not likely to be in danger from the Stripper in my book, as he specifically targets women because of their line of work, and she is socially far removed from that world, even though she lives in close proximity to it. But she doesn’t exactly remain out of harm’s way; she goes through a lot.
But it is true that she does always keep in mind that she had a lucky escape from where she could have ended up, which I think is another key point about that era, the Grammar school kids who made good and transcended their "station" in life. Although society appears far more rigidly class structured then, the people of my parents’ generation did get a much better education than my generation and were far more socially mobile than the current generation of school-leavers can hope for. So in a sense, Harold Macmillan was right when he said society had "never had it so good."
But that "there but for the grace of God" thing is really how I feel about my own life. I was lucky enough to escape from small-town England and begin writing for Sounds when I was only 19 -- yes, I did have talent and I did work hard, but ability does not always equate with opportunity, someone has to give you the chance to prove yourself in the first place. I have been given a few good chances in life and I have always tried to make the best of them.
Pete the cop investigating the murders is essentially a kind and decent man who is always meeting either a dead end in his investigations or is kept in the dark. The rich girl Jenny seems like a spoilt princess initially, though is quite a tragic character, and even Stella’s husband Toby is hiding something. London is a shifting, changing place, and your characters mirror that shady, insidious world. Was this intentional or did it just seep in?
It all just seeped in. Ladbroke Grove to begin with was this shapeshifting world, this island apart from London, where rich girls could go bump and grind with the rude boys, rich boys could make vast property empires from the exploitation of immigrants, gangsters could run all manner of rackets, youth was proud and stylish and the cheap rents allowed people like the Pop Artists and writers like Colin Wilson and Colin MacInnes to live in the centre of this humming world. When Pete first starts working there, he thinks it is like the Wild West, but he enjoys it far more than when he was in suburban Chiswick. He comes to understand the people there, which he doesn’t when he is transferred to Soho. He feels a darker weight of historical venality there and has to deal with the fact that most of the biggest villains on his patch are the ones policing it!
What are you planning on writing next?
I am fascinated and horrified by the phenomena of kids killing other kids, so I want to explore this, and have started writing a book set during my own teenage years, back in the Norfolk town where I grew up. I have no idea what it feels like to be 16 in 2009, but remember vividly what it was like in 1984, which was such a monumentally awful year anyway that it provides a fertile setting for revolt and revulsion. I want to explore the notion of identity and belonging, of clans and cults, the things that unite people and the things that divide us. Using Norfolk as the backdrop also allows plenty of superstition to intercede. I have become obsessed with this character called Captain Swing, who led an agricultural insurrection in the 1830s that spread throughout East Anglia, and was also a phantom no one could catch. But on the opposite side of righteousness to Jack the Stripper. I would like to work in something about the Swing Riots with the miner’s strike of 1984, as many of the striking miners themselves have compared them.
This was actually the book I was planning on writing after I did The Singer, until Jack the Stripper so rudely interrupted…
Quite a few characters are involved in the Jack the Stripper murders. Do you believe there may have been more than one Jack?
Most of the theories about his identity focus on low-ranking or already disgraced policemen. But the most outlandish one is that the former champion boxer Freddie Mills was either the fiend himself or covering up for a nightclub singer friend, Michael Holliday, with whom he was supposedly having an illicit affair. When I worked in a Soho club myself, these stories were still doing the rounds 30 years later. It is probably so much Soho hot air and I don’t make Freddie for the killer at all, but I wove as many as these strands into the book, as I could. However, the more I read and wrote and thought about it, the solution that I ended up going with just seemed a lot more plausible to me.
Both Freddie Mills and Michael Holliday did come to tragic, premature ends. Michael Holliday committed suicide with sleeping pills in October 1963 and Freddie apparently shot himself twice in the head outside his West End club in July 1965, five months after the last Stripper victim was found. It is rumoured that Freddie was being muscled by The Krays in the last months of his life. The same is said about Joe Meek, prior to his homicidal suicide in February 1967.
The story is so complex with many interweaving threads which tie the narrative together. Did you find the process of writing it frustrating or hard-going? How long did it take you to find your sea legs?
Derek Raymond said of the writing of his book I Was Dora Suarez that it was: "an 18-month journey during which the world of light was no stronger than my belief in it… I left the world for the page, and the page of hell, and the hope for the return journey… I crept terrified into a dark place and struck a light in another’s darkness…"
The writing of Bad Penny Blues was like an 18-month journey into a labyrinth of the past, from which I was never sure I would ever fully emerge. But I now understand what Derek Raymond meant by this, and why he was compelled to do it.