Christopher Howse

Low life and high style

The return of Roy Kerridge

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’.

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