Fowlers End is a novel to describe which the word ‘rumbustious’ was surely invented. The characters are all crazy grotesques but the humour is in the language, Kersh’s narrator, Daniel Laverock, likes to pile it on to greater and greater extremes, like eiderdowns on a bed until it nears collapse. Fowlers End itself is a (made-up) suburb of London, which at the period of the novel (1930s) looks something like this:
Fowlers End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna. Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embittered, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob. Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves. [...] There is a High Street about a hundred yards long, and the most woebegone railway terminal on the face of the earth where, with a dismal and sinister smashing and groaning of shunting locomotives, all that is most unserviceable in the way of rolling stock comes in with coal and sulphur, scrap iron and splintery timber, and goes away with the stuff they make in the Fowlers End Factories. [...] There is a sulphuric-acid factory which looks like a Brobdingnagian assembly of alchemical apparatus out of a pulp writer’s nightmare as it sprawls under a cloud of yellow and black that shudders and stings like a dying wasp between great hills of green-black and grey-mauve slag.
Most of the characters share Laverock’s relish for language but abuse it frightfully. The worst offender is Sam Yudenow, owner of the Pantheon cinema which Laverock has been engaged to manage. Yudenow’s speech is peppered with puns, intended and unintended, manglings and malapropisms, combining Yiddish and Cockney inflections, it’s wonderful. He describes the inhabitants of Fowlers End thus:
‘Thieves and drunkards. They’d steal the rings from under their mothers’ eyes. The milk out of your tea they’d pinch. Last time I had the painters in, my worst enemies shouldn’t go through what I went through with these stinkpots. Day and night I watched this ’ere show, and even so the louse-bound low-lifes knocked off a five-gallon drum walnut varnish stain. Drunk it up, the swine. One old woman died from it. It only goes to show you what they are – a lot of rotters. The salt of the earth, mind you, only bad to the backbone. Turn your back five minutes and they strip the place to the bone. You got to keep on the toes of your feet. Only last week there was trouble in the laventry. A woman stands up on the wet seat to pinch the electric light bulb and electrocutes herself. That’s show biz for you. You got to keep your eye out for things like that. It’s not their fault. It’s the capitalistic system – too soft with the bastards. Unions! The velvet ’and in the iron glove I’d give ’em, miv knobs on. [...]’
Copper Baldwin, a colleague of Laverock’s and indispensible to the Pantheon, is another Cockney, fizzing with Marxism and literary criticism. Over a beer in the dank ‘Load of Mischief’, Baldwin holds forth about the canon:
‘[Dickens] ain’t true, ’e ain’t real. And don’t give me all that stuff about ’aving met Dickensian characters. I know you ’ave, the same way you’ve met Gloria Swanson, or King George, or Jesus Christ in the Old Kent Road. Give the stinking rabble something to copy – that’s all – and there you are: “true to life”, as they say. ’Umbug! People like Dickens aren’t true to life – life is true to Charles Dickens. And that goes for that poor bastard William Shakespeare too – though I admit ’e done ’is best within ’is limitations.’
Tolstoy and his fellow Russians are fools, ‘Zola got it all out of the newspapers’, but Dickens receives Baldwin’s special contempt. As Kersh is well aware, everyone in Fowlers End is vulnerable to the adjective ‘Dickensian’ and he is vulnerable to Baldwin’s dislike of middle-class authors writing about the working class, so it’s hard not to see this pleasurable diatribe as not including himself. Indeed, through Copper Baldwin, he seems intent on reminding us that this is a novel, an extension of Gerald Kersh and not real, but that it is dangerous because people will model themselves on the characters. Thus fiction changes the world. And then he laughs about it.
In amongst Chinese contortionists, punch-ups with local thugs, phantom pregnancies, bomb-making anarchists and vendettas against Godbolt’s Emporium lurks a plot. The Pantheon’s pianist is Miss Noel, ruined by alcoholism but recognised by Laverock as having real talent. After his arrangements for her talents to be recognised are ruthlessly sabotaged by Yudenow, Laverock plots revenge on his boss via an investment scam. The novel teeters on the edge of becoming a criticism of capitalism, under whose influence the poor rot in the cancerous squalor of industrial wasteland and are filled with self-loathing, but I think never quite reaches it. Kersh can’t keep a straight face for long enough, and he is too fond of his characters, even the cruel Yudenow, and too easily diverted by them.
You may not have heard of Fowlers End before, but if you think you might like it – and Anthony Burgess, Simon Raven, Angela Carter and Michael Moorcock are among its fans so it’s not just me with my Grossmith deviancy, there are people with taste who admire it – you can find second-hand copies of it quite cheaply and it has just been reissued. And there’s a longer and better discussion of Fowlers End here.
(Uncredited photograph of Gerald Kersh from here.)