These days, London's Soho streets aren't so mean. The undercurrent of corruption is still there, but now it involves property speculators, not spivs and bookies. Once, though, London low-life writing involved getting in with the wrong people, rather than just hanging out in media clubs. Gerald Kersh, born in 1911, was the real deal – a bodyguard, all-in wrestler and cinema manager for whom fighting and sleeping rough was a way of life, and writing was as necessary as breathing.
His first novel, the thinly veiled autobiography Jews Without Jehovah, upset several members of his family so much that they filed libel suits against him.
The hero of Night and the City is a tough-talking Soho loser who fancies himself an American gangster. Unlikeable and self-deceiving, he fails to improve himself, although the book has a strong moral viewpoint. There were two film versions, one with Richard Widmark, the other with Robert De Niro. Both fall far short of the original.
Kersh was buried by a bomb during the Second World War but bounced back as a quicksilver talent, writing short stories for the Evening News one day, producing character sketches, columns, articles and radio scripts the next. His wonderful short stories – which included a tale about a pilot who ages backwards and the Mona Lisa smiling to hide her bad teeth – were sometimes accepted as factually accurate. In these tales, which embraced every possible genre, resided his fame. But he should really have been lauded for Fowler's End, about a venal, hilariously Falstaffian cinema owner. Most critics ignored this masterpiece, although the ever-perceptive Anthony Burgess called it one of the century's finest comic novels.
Kersh's other great novel is The Thousand Deaths of Mr Small, about a man held back by all that he learned as a child. One by one, Mr Small's hopes are removed until he is left immobile. Kersh himself achieved a lot, but his rambunctious life, punishing working hours, and natural nostalgie de la boue usually left him on the run from creditors or in hospital.
At his death in 1968, Kersh had left us with a dazzling gallery of criminals and artists, characters filled with love and loathing, and carrying the seeds of their own destruction. It's a mystery that he is not regarded as a great British writer of the 20th century. The good news is that London Books is republishing his best works.