Christopher Howse

Low life and high style

The return of Roy Kerridge

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Raised on Skiffle

Roy Kerridge

Custom Books, pp. 179, £

In 1977, Roy Kerridge was a lavatory cleaner; in 1979 he was a well-known contributor to The Spectator. Yet this was no rags-to-riches discovery of a literary talent. Apart from anything else Kerridge had perfected a line in second-hand clothes — a short sheepskin coat, a brown Dunn’s suit, pastel shirts — that fitted his own style: out of fashion and down at heel. After a busy decade in the 1980s we began to hear little from Kerridge. Had his star burnt out?

In 1984, a slice of Roy Kerridge’s life in the 1970s appeared in The Lone Conformist. But he had travelled the same road 20 years earlier, and now his trajectory in the late 1950s from unqualified school-leaver to a darling of the New Statesman is told in Raised on Skiffle.

Brighton, that seedy Soho by the sea, is the scene. The author tells his own story as an anti-hero, under the name Ray. Young Ray’s condition in life is unusual. His mother, abandoned by his father, has had several children by a sometimes violent African man, absent in London. She has fallen out with her prosperous Polish émigré father and racist Danish mother, though they pay the rent of her Sussex bungalow.

The teenage Ray lives with his grandparents, and his deepest resentment is to be sent to a grammar school. Inspired by music — Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie — he is determined to live with workers, or criminals. The two classes seem equally romantic.

Ray makes a fantasy world for himself, hanging around the Whisky a Go-Go coffee bar and wishing he could be a housebreaker or drug-dealer. Socially inept, he stands observing, and only wins admiration with his drawings, such as the pictorial Adventures of Augustis Chiver, a Teddy Boy who ‘did dreadful things without altering his pleasant expression’.

Ray hero-worships Colin MacInnes (whose City of Spades has just been published), and bombards him with letters until they are returned unopened. Ray has no suspicion that MacInnes, so keen to help young men, is homosexual, though he has heard of ‘queers’, and happily evades helping out when his mother has another baby by joining old school-friends at a ‘queer pub’, getting free drinks from not very gay men in regimental blazers.

During three weeks as an art-school student Ray attempts nonchalance in a life-class with a middle-aged woman model, ‘secretly appalled at all the folds and loops of flesh that women evidently possessed’. When he comes to write a novel, New Storyville (on MacInnes’s advice), he invents for himself a 13-year-old live-in girlfriend. The police call after a typist is alarmed by the manuscript.

Kerridge is good at showing how heartless his arrested emotional development could make him. He spoils his half-sister’s first day at school by getting his friends to shout ‘Midwife! Midwife!’ at her because of her uniform. Ray’s insecurities come together at a party thrown by a nurse in a disused hospital ward, where, unable to dance, disliking the taste of drink (apart from cherry brandy) and resenting the middle-class guests, he proves his working-class credentials by stealing the nurse’s Ray Charles LP, leaving her in tears.

Half of Ray’s life is a sort of role-play in failure: no typing, no foreign languages, no dancing, no going out with girls, because he can’t, he just can’t. Instead of accepting an invitation to take part in Daniel Farson’s television documentary Living for Kicks, he nominates his exact contemporary Royston Ellis. (A young Ellis in beatnik beard and donkey jacket featured in the recent National Portrait Gallery exhibition of bohemian photographs by Ida Kar.) And his determined efforts to acquire a rough Brighton accent ‘turned his agreeable educated voice into the Marty Feldman nasal squeal it remains today’.

Then suddenly Ray becomes the spokesman of teenagers. Kingsley Martin, the veteran editor of the New Statesman, eager to hear the youth voice, accepts ‘A Teenager in Brighton’ from him, with a fee of £15 (when a family man might earn £8 a week in a warehouse). With the money Ray buys two outfits: Italianate working-class (short jacket and pointed shoes) and corduroy scruffy art-student. A succession of teen pieces by him follows (‘A night with the mob’, ‘Café society’, ‘Teen Who’s Who’). For Honey magazine’s feature ‘What teenagers think’, he declares: ‘My advice is: don’t work, learn to live simply and draw the dole.’

After Kingsley Martin gave up the NS editorship in 1960, Kerridge slipped back into an obscure life in single rooms — which he rather liked. In the 50 years since then, Roy Kerridge has been utterly uncompromising as a writer. He covers foolscap pages with neat, curling, blue biro script. He carries his plastic carrier bag from Appleby in Westmorland to the fiddle-contests of Alabama. He writes what he wants, in a style naive on the surface, but given an ironic depth by his photographic observation. This lack of compromise explains why he is seldom published, but gives him a voice that should be read.