Invisible Ink: No 97 - Roland Camberton

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 09 October 2011 00:00 BST

In the 1950s there was a minor fashion for proletarian literature, the dissection of the gutter-life of Londoners, cataloguing the conversations of scroungers, drunks, and mugs as they burrowed between tobacco-tinged pubs and shabby rented rooms. Their typical chronicler would be a condescending dilettante hankering for a bit of rough.

Not so Roland Camberton, whose nom de plume was a combination of Camberwell and Brixton, and whose real name was Henry Cohen. He rose from an orthodox East-End Jewish background to become a teacher, copywriter, translator, and novelist, and wrote three picaresque novels, although one of those, Tango, about a hitch-hiking trip around Britain, was rejected by his publisher. He died at the age of 44, but the two books he managed to publish, Scamp and Rain On The Pavements, have rightly inspired admiration.

Scamp was published in 1950 and won the Somerset Maugham Award, but it had been the subject of critical opprobrium, perhaps because it didn't have much of a plot beyond outlining the rise and fall of the titular Bloomsbury literary review created by a scruffy pseudo-intellectual.

The Times suggested that he was devoid of any literary gift, but Camberton's style had come too early, before the fashion for realism that was branded "kitchen sink". He was an outsider even among other Jewish outsider writers, so secretive that he was rumoured to be gay, but this proved not to be the case. His second book was primarily a stitched-together collection of anecdotes about his Jewish childhood in Hackney, but after he failed to sell the third he simply vanished. Had he persevered instead, he might have caught the right time for his writing and become a public success.

But others were gathering together scraps of his past, including the writer Iain Sinclair and the author's own daughter, who shared details of Camberton's affair with her mother. Slowly the picture emerged of a man who may have changed his identity because of anti-Semitic fears and the desire to assimilate and adopt a better life. Sinclair's most dramatic find was discovering the existence of a tape which William Burroughs and a mutual friend had drunkenly recorded with Camberton, and although many details were now filled in, much still remains missing. One of his fictional characters was a failed writer who shunned the world of literature – a role Camberton himself chose. His books have been republished by New London Editions.

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