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Jack’s Return Home

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 3: Scunthorpe and Leeds

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Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.48.53A trip to Scunthorpe might not be too high on many people’s list of literary pilgrimages, but we are calling in for a very good reason, and that is because it was the probable setting for one of the great crime novels, which was turned into a film which regularly appears in the charts of “Best Film Ever”. I am talking about Jack’s Return Home, better known as Get Carter. Hang on, hang on – that was in Newcastle wasn’t it? Yes, the film was, but director Mike Hodges recognised that Newcastle had a more gritty allure in the public’s imagination than the north Lincolnshire steel town, which has long been the butt of gags in the stage routine of stand-up comedians.

Author Ted Lewis (right) was actually born in Manchester in 1940, but after the war his parents moved to Barton-on-Humber, just fourteen miles from Scunthorpe. Lewis crossed Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.54.40the river to attend Art college in Hull before moving to London to work as an animator. His novels brought him great success but little happiness, and after his marriage broke up, he moved back to Lincolnshire to live with his mother. By then he was a complete alcoholic and he died of related causes in 1982. His final novel GBH (1980) – which many critics believe to be his finest – is played out in the bleak out-of-season Lincolnshire coastal seaside resorts which Lewis would have known in the sunnier days of his childhood. In case you were wondering about how Jack’s Return Home is viewed in the book world, you can pick up a first edition if you have a spare £900 or so in your back pocket.

There is a rather arcane conversation to be had about the original name Jack’s Return Home. Yes, Carter’s name is Jack, and he returns to his home town to investigate the death of his brother. But take a look at a scene in the film. Carter visits his late brother’s house, and amid the books and LPs strewn about, there is a very visible copy of a Tony Hancock record, Check out the discography of Tony Hancock LPs, and you will find a recording of The East Cheam Drama Festival and one of the plays – a brilliantly spoof of a Victorian melodrama – is called …….. Jack’s Return Home.

You can find out much more about Ted Lewis and his books by clicking the image below.

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Before we leave the delights of ‘Scunny’, here’s a pub quiz question. Three England captains played for which Lincolshire football team? The answer, of course, is Scunthorpe United. The three captains?
Kevin Keegan – Scunthorpe 1966-71, England captain 1976-82
Ray Clemence – Scunthorpe 1965-67, England captain once, in a friendly against Brazil
Ian Botham – Scunthorpe 1980-85, England (cricket) captain 1980-81

Ouch! Anyway, back to crime fiction and we start up the Bentley and head into darkest Yorkshire to meet a policeman and his family in the city of Leeds.

Nickson

Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 19.01.43Does Chris Nickson preach? Absolutely not. This is the beauty of the Tom Harper books. No matter what the circumstances, we trust Harper’s judgment, and we can only be grateful that the struggles and sacrifices that he and his wife endured paid – eventually – dividends. The books are relatively short, but always vibrant with local historical detail, and I swear that I my eyes itch with the tang of effluent from the tanneries, and the sulphurous smoke from the foundries. We also meet real people like Herbert Asquith, Jennie Baines and Frank Kitson. Chris Nickson takes them from the dry pages of the history books and allows our imagination to bring them to life. For detailed reviews of some of the Tom Harper books, click the author’s image (left)

GETTING CARTER … Between the covers

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One of the many feelings I had after finishing Nick Triplow’s superb account of the life and writing of Ted Lewis was that it was all such a long time ago. The crucial decade from 1970 to 1980 just seems – and there is no other phrase that fits – like another country. A summary, then, for people who may not even have been born when Lewis was writing. Ted Lewis was born in 1940 in Manchester. After the war he and his parents moved to Barton on Humber, in North Lincolnshire. On leaving school, Lewis, a talented artist, traveled every day across the River Humber to art school in Hull. After graduating, Lewis found work further south with various advertising agencies, but his abiding passion was his writing. As well as enjoying a drink, however, Lewis was a serial womaniser. Lewis’s old Barton friend, Mike Shucksmith, recalls that the writer had a way with women.

“There was something about him that snapped their knicker elastic. I couldn’t see it, but whatever it was, he had it.”

Jacks_Return_HomeIn 1965, All the Way Home and All the Night Through was published. It is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, but Lewis’s breakthrough came in 1970 with the publication of Jack’s Return Home. The title was, bizarrely, taken from a spoof melodrama acted out by Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Bill Kerr as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. The novel, however, has few laughs. It describes the revenge mission of a London-based enforcer, Jack Carter, as he returns to his northern home town to investigate the death of his brother. The novel was adapted and filmed as Get Carter, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fame – and money – did not sit comfortably on Lewis’s shoulders, however. A mixture of drink and personal demons led to the break-up of his marriage, and a solitary return to Barton to live with his widowed mother. He died there, of heart failure connected to his ruinous drinking, in 1982.

Triplow

Nick Triplow (above) examines Lewis’s other books, all concerned with the dark side of British criminal life, far far away from the cosy crime novels where long-suffering policemen chased cheerily crooked villains. One of the most controversial later novels was Billy Rags (1973) – the story of a convicted robber and his attempts to escape from prison. Many of the book’s key moments are, word for word, identical to a memoir written, from his prison cell, by the ‘celebrity criminal’ John McVicar. A final novel, GBH, published in 1980, tells the story of a doomed London gangster trying to escape vengeful rivals by moving to a windswept and isolated coastal village in Lincolnshire.

91Kh85WdIYLThe centrepiece of Triplow’s book is, quite rightly, concerned with the novel itself, and its journey from a brutally honest and ground-breaking novel through to a partial re-imagining as one of the finest crime films ever made. Of Jack Carter, Triplow stresses that, despite the iconic image created by Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges

“it’s important to place him in context as Lewis originally intended. An ultra-real small town enforcer, violent, sadistic, irretrievably flawed, shouldering the burden of guilt; one of us maybe, if we dare to think it, taken a wrong turn, corrupted and unflinching.”

It would take a reader with a heart of stone and devoid of empathy to finish this book with anything other than a sense of sadness. The heartbreak is, of course, in our wisdom after the event, in our knowing that for Lewis the 1970s – the Get Carter years – were the apogee of his personal success and realisation that his immense talent had been recognised and rewarded, both financially and in terms of reputation.

GBHAside from describing what must have been harrowing conversations with Lewis’s widow and children, Triplow employs both the depth and breadth of his knowledge of British crime fiction to convince us just how good Ted Lewis was. It is intriguing that Triplow, supported by no less an authority than the magisterial Derek Raymond, makes a fascinating case for GBH being the apotheosis of Lewis’s talent, despite the groundbreaking style and success of Jack’s Return Home. Getting Carter is a sober and sombre account of the life of a man whose talent both defined and destroyed him, and Triplow makes no attempt to sanitise his subject. Lewis was clearly a man of huge personal charm when not in the grip of drink, but from the early days of illegally bought pints of beer in the 1950s through to the grim years of decline and death, alcohol had him firmly by the throat.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the evolution of British crime fiction should read Getting Carter and celebrate the brilliance of the man at the centre of the story. It would be salutary, however, to keep Shelley’s words in mind:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press and is on sale now.

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