Words & Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I can still remember the thrill of going down the steps to Gerry’s for the first time and the secret life of this alluringly small and smoky basement club unfolding in front of me…”
On the drabbest of winter nights, the recollections of a forgotten Soho engulf the top floor of the Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place. The Sohemian Society has transported the pub and its guests back to a time and place where characters inhaled louche living and exhaled intrigue. Among tonight’s guests, crime author Cathi Unsworth has already captivated the audience, if only with her remarkable look… a teleported likeness of Ruth Ellis meets Pat Phoenix as painted by Tretchikoff. Reading from her current book, Without the Moon, she drops us into 1940s London: blackouts, the Blitz and grotesque murders. In her work, Derek Raymond’s acid bite and languid swagger collide with Patrick Hamilton’s fluent sense of place and time, and you quickly understand why Unsworth has established herself at the forefront of the new generation of crime fiction writers.
But Cathi’s interest in London, and in particular, the darker pockets of Soho, can be traced back to an adolescent crush. Her initial introduction to the area happened not in person but through an album that brought Soho’s seamier side to enchanting life. “I was 13 years old and lived miles away in Norfolk but I had a record player and a copy of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret by Soft Cell. It filled my head with romance, decadence and sleaze, a land of bedsitters, nightclubs and strip joints, an inter-zone where the great and good went to get down and dirty…”
“When I listen to it now, it seems like a novel, about a youngster from the provinces heading for the Smoke and both losing and finding themselves in Soho. As if Billy Liar – whose author, Keith Waterhouse incidentally started out from the same place as Soft Cell – actually did get on that train from Leeds, and met Crepe Suzette from Colin MacInness’ Absolute Beginners. Now I’ve learned more about Soho’s history, I see myriad resonances. Soft Cell were spiritually akin to writers like Waterhouse and MacInnes who also made Soho their home. I was lucky enough to interview both Marc Almond and Keith Waterhouse, which were two of the greatest thrills in my life as a journalist.”
From the age of 19 to 26 Cathi Unsworth worked as a music journalist on Sounds and then Melody Maker. “I spent those years on Charing Cross Road running between The Astoria, The LA II, The Borderline and The Marquee.” Sadly, only one of those venues remains today, and the NME is the only print survivor. This speaks volumes of the changes happening in the area. “All that dumbing down of pop culture and the way it’s sold has not been good for anyone. And Soho’s reputation as the refuge of the outsider is genuinely under threat, I think.”
One outsider whose work marked Cathi was the noir novelist Derek Raymond. “He was like the Johnny Rotten of literature – angry, outspoken and on the side of the mistreated. His book I Was Dora Suarez was about a tragic girl who worked in Soho and could easily have featured in Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.”
Cathi met Raymond when he made an album based on that book with the band Gallon Drunk. “He lured me into a life of crime fiction. He also lured me into what he referred to as ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ – The Coach and Horses pub, The French House and, most importantly, Gerry’s Club. I can still remember the thrill of going down the steps to Gerry’s for the first time and the secret life of this alluringly small and smoky basement club unfolding in front of me…”
Cathi recreates this subterranean enclave in her first novel, The Not Knowing, with good reason. The landlord, Michael Dillon, hired her and she worked there for two years, soaking up the surroundings. In the book, a young journalist is shown into the thinly disguised ‘Deansgate Club’, complete with a landlord who is obviously Dillon. Her Soho education was continuing apace. “The members in those days included so many from the Soho in the Fifties world, including Dan Farson himself, Waterhouse, Bruce Bernard and many other stars of the page, stage, screen and sports… I got to hear a lot of folklore.”
The weirdest stories were the ones that inspired her writing. It was the beginning of a fascination for documenting strange but true crimes, largely set in London’s underbelly. In Cathi’s books, the unloved and the unsolved have a friend and the unknown an enemy: a bleary eye of providence peering through the fog. “One of these was the unsolved case of the so-called ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders, which happened between 1959-63 and which I turned into a book called Bad Penny Blues. Which was brought on by a non-fiction account of the murders, Jack of Jumps by David Seabrook. A shocking book in many ways, which opened my eyes to the fact that where I live in Ladbroke Grove was once the biggest red light district in London and all these women either lived or worked there. I tried to do something for their memories that was better than the treatment they had received in life, death and the literary afterlife.”
Despite what was then the biggest manhunt in Metropolitan Police history, the killer vanished into thin air and one of the many urban myths was the actual identity of Jack… “I’d heard it might be the former heavyweight boxer Freddie Mills, who himself died in very mysterious circumstances, outside the restaurant he owned in Soho in 1965.” Cathi doesn’t think he was culprit, but such folktales spurred her to inventing her own solution.
Without The Moon is also based on two true crime stories, one of which also remains unsolved, and quite bizarrely so. “I wanted to investigate the case of Gordon Cummins, the ‘Blackout Ripper’, a trainee RAF pilot who murdered four women and attempted to kill another two in one frenzied week in February 1942.” No sooner had she started when a historian called Nick Pelling offered Cathi his own research into a crime that took place just days after Cummins was caught – the murder of a woman called Maragret McArthur on Waterloo Bridge, which was, unbelievably, still under construction in 1942, despite the Blitz. “A Canadian soldier had been arrested with the woman’s handbag on him, was tried but acquitted – despite solid evidence he was the murderer. Nick had no luck discovering what happened to him next, so he very kindly let me have a go at finding a plausible solution in the parallel world of my fiction.”
Soho looms large in Without the Moon “The detective who investigated the Cummins case used to like to hang out in a jazz club on Archer Street, which was also popular with journalists and villains – a perfect place to start casting around for the supporting actors who bring the whole period back to life.” Cathi used the same methods she’d employed on Bad Penny Blues to write Without The Moon: she relived that time period through its art. “My soundtrack was the sublime big band swing of 1942. I watched as many films and read as much popular literature of the day as I could, until I felt I had stepped into that world. Which is why this sort of writing is so addictive and, with so many centuries of stories woven into its bricks and mortar, Soho is the perfect setting…” Cathi Unsworth’s Without the Moon is published by Serpent’s Tail.