Jake Arnott: Music hall menace

Crime writer Jake Arnott struck gold with his geezers - but is his tough pose all an act? His old friend Mark Simpson asks: are you just a male impersonator?
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The Independent Culture

Jake Arnott's smash-hit 1999 debut novel The Long Firm, now being made, as they say, into a major BBC TV series, began with a quotation from that German anatomist of low life, Bertolt Brecht: "What is robbing a bank compared to founding one?"

In truecrime, the last in his triptych of novels dealing with post-war Brit sleaze, a performance of a Brecht play from the 1940s, The Good Person of Sichuan (also known as The Good Woman of Sichuan), takes on a great and disturbing significance. The parable tells of a prostitute called Shen Te, the last good person in a world of viciousness and villainy, who assumes the personality of a ruthless male cousin, Shui Ta, to save meek Shen Te from a pitiless world. Everything has to become its opposite in order to survive and flourish.

Without giving too much away, in truecrime, set in the 1980s and 1990s, we encounter a Britain where old lags get into bed with new lads, celebrity villains and air-kiss media types, and nothing and no one is quite what it seems.

David Bowie, another big Brecht fan (in the 1970s he was Shui Ta pretending to be Shen Te with a feathercut), has provided a blurb job for the jacket of truecrime which would make Mick Ronson's guitar jealous: "Funny, fast, witty and brutal... Whenever he's got a new book out I drop everything, knowing that the next couple of hours are going to be pure gangland bliss."

Before international singing sensations dropped everything for him, Arnott, now 42, spent many years pursuing a variety of low status, very unglamorous if indispensable jobs, including working in a mortuary, as an artist's life model, and as a care worker in Leeds. In the shape of the gangster novelist, however, the "brute boy" of English fiction, as one breathless interviewer described him, he was finally able to prosper and become that exceedingly rare commodity: a glamorous author. Is he perhaps the Good Woman of Clerkenwell (where he now resides)?

Jake Arnott: I'm assuming that you're not accusing me of prostitution but rather of going away and coming back as something more butch?

Mark Simpson: Yes. And that you might actually be somewhat, dare I say it, nicer than your books, looks and reviews suggest.

JA: Possibly, possibly. Though I wouldn't want that to get around.

MS: Your secret is safe with me. Shen Te, the Good Woman of Sichuan, is a male impersonator, isn't she?

JA: Something you practise yourself, Mr Simpson. I believe you even wrote a book about it.

MS: True, but my male impersonation has been less successful than yours.

JA: Well, I think that paradoxically, in order to be a successful male impersonator, feminine cunning and intuition is needed. Brute force isn't very useful, Mark, unless it can be channelled. Shen Te needs Shui Ta to survive, but Shui Ta needs Shen Te to flourish.

MS: I see. You're quite interested in martial arts as well, aren't you?

JA: [laughs] No! I will never admit to that!

MS: Oh, come on.

JA: Well, I wouldn't call it martial arts...

MS: Martial swerving?

JA: There are certain exercise principles that certain martial arts use that interest me. People often study martial arts in completely the wrong way, they get very fixated with the word "martial". And forget about the art involved, which is much more important.

MS: They want to be Rambo, when really they need to be J-Lo.

JA: Exactly. Even Bruce Lee ended up being ridiculous. He became a gym queen. The muscles became an end in themselves. Something you know all about, Mark.

MS: Hmm. Maybe I was mistaken about you being nicer than you appear... I've not been exactly religious in my visits to the iron temple of narcissus lately. Maybe because everyone these days is accessorising muscles and masculinity. By the way, haven't you been blamed for something called "Geezer Chic"? How does it feel to be responsible for those bad gangster movies, and Mr and Mrs Madonna's comedy cockernee accents?

JA: Well, steady on. Some journalist came up with the phrase "Geezer Chic", but interestingly no one will claim it. Many people have used it in reviews, but they all disown it. Like many of these things, it appeared out of thin air and is used to describe all manner of atrocities, none of which I'm responsible for or have anything in common with. This "metrosexual" business, on the other hand - well, you can't evade that, Mr Simpson. You are entirely to blame. It's in black and white. All the horrible Cassandra predictions you made in your books 10 years ago have come true. Though of course, precisely because you were responsible, no one will attribute it to you; while precisely because I'm not responsible for Geezer Chic, everyone attributes it to me.

MS: It's not like I even fancy bleedin' metrosexuals.

JA: Yes, I know what you like. You know that moment in truecrime where Geezer Gaz [an Essex skinhead character who's just got out of a long stretch inside and who is anything but "chic"] thinks another skinhead on the tube is trying to pick a fight with him, but it turns out that it's a gay skin cruising him? Mark, that could have been you!

MS: Possibly, except I'm not really a skinhead at all, not even a gay one. I'm just greying and vain.

JA: That's the thing, though, isn't it: everyone has become a skinhead.

MS: Especially if they work in the City. Things are very confused these days: what's Artha and what's Martha, tasty and toff can be very difficult to work out. That Mr Ritchie, for instance, is a heterosexual male impersonator who accessorises working-class or lumpen masculinity, not so much to make him more substantial or serious as to make himself more attractive. More desirable. Tasty.

JA: Exactly. As you wrote in Male Impersonators, the masculine can sometimes turn out to be surprisingly feminine; an excess of steroids causes the male body to produce female hormones: "bitch tits". The more you pretend to be something the more you undermine that attempt.

MS: And before you know it you're married to that human impersonator Madonna.

JA: Of course, Mark, we may both be guilty of harking back to a time which never existed for an authenticity that never was. You even more than me. Something you probably have in common with that chap who is, I believe, the subject of your next book.

MS: Ah, Mr Morrissey. There's someone all too well aware that he's in pursuit of something that he'll never find and which never existed. But that's the nature of desire. If you arrange things properly.

JA: How does that line go? "A double bed and stalwart lover for sure" - a wonderful image of working-class Utopia!

MS: And possibly pornography. Of course, that male and female impersonator Mr Morrissey anticipated everything: the whole of the 1990s, in fact. His glam-rock single "The Last of the Famous International Playboys", a love-letter from a young wannabe hood to the Krays, was released in 1989. What's that corny line from The Krays? "Glamour is fear."

JA: And enchantment.

MS: The grandfather of the anti-hero of your first novel, Harry Stark, was in the circus wasn't he?

JA: That part was closely based on the Krays. The only man who was significant in their lives, the only one that ever managed to get between them and their mad mother, was their maternal grandfather who was known as The Southpaw Cannonball. He was a very tough little fighter, but also had a music hall act consisting of feats of strength, including jumping into a barrel, but the climax of his act was licking a white-hot poker. Which of course I had Harry use to terrify his victims.

MS: And enchant the readers. Susan Sontag, that scary female impersonator, once proclaimed that all truly beautiful things are a mixture of masculine and feminine. But perhaps it's also the case that all truly terrifying things...

JA: Well, beauty is a frightening prospect!

MS: Your grandmother was in showbusiness, wasn't she?

JA: Yes, she was a showgirl, and something of a drag queen. Red hair, very stern face, flat chest, great legs.

MS: You inherited the showbiz genes, and the legs, from her then?

JA: Yes, though my grandfather was a dancer as well. A very attractive, very charming man, though slightly psychopathic. You could say he was a husband impersonator: the only reason he married my grandmother was because he couldn't have her otherwise, and once he had, he began working through the rest of the dance company. They separated and he ended up doing an acrobatic burlesque act.

MS: Isn't that always the way. Did it involve jumping into barrels and licking white-hot pokers?

JA: No, just a lot of philandering.

MS: What about the charges of "ventriloquism" that have been levelled at you?

JA: I'm always heartened to hear them. It's that showbiz gene again. It's music hall I'm interested in, obviously, including the way I've performed the work. Although I'm thinking about possibly writing in the third person again, until now it has largely been a case of making these little dummies talk - and I'm very much in favour of the ventriloquist, largely because we live in a world where the dummies have taken over.

'Saint Morrissey' by Mark Simpson is published in October. 'truecrime' by Jake Arnott is published on 18 August by Sceptre, priced £10.99. To order a copy, ring Independent Books Direct on 0870 800 1122