The Books Interview: Orphans in the Underworld ; Does Jake Arnott Glamorise Seedy Gangsters? No, He Tells Jane Jakeman: He Depicts the Lost Souls of Post-Colonial Britain
Jakeman, Jane, The Independent (London, England)
Jake Arnott has a blokeish reputation as a writer. Indeed, you could say he invented the Bloke-Saga with his first book, The Long Firm, which followed the career of Harry Starks, racketeer and gay gangster, from the swinging Sixties to the Brinks Mat robbery. It made a celebrity out of an unknown lad from the provinces who was offered a highly lucrative - and publicised - book deal. Arnott's second novel, He Kills Coppers (Sceptre, pounds 10), deals with the same territory and follows the fortunes of three characters - an ambitious detective drawn into corruption, a tabloid journalist with some very nasty habits, and a petty thief capable of intense violence - over three decades.
The third character, Billy Porter, will be the controversial one. He is based on the murderer Harry Roberts, who shot and killed three policemen in 1966 and was eventually captured after a long search. Roberts is still alive, presumably a shrivelled old man somewhere in the prison system. He comes up for parole soon.
The Long Firm set out a version of the old claim made for the Kray brothers - that they were actually useful because they killed off lesser fry - and presented the world of the gangster as a self- contained moral universe that punished its own infractions of code. There was the implication that so long as the violence didn't involve "godamned innocent bystanders", as described in The Godfather, it was acceptable to society at large. And the very title of He Kills Coppers may lay Arnott open to criticism of glorifying brutality. It's taken from a football chant with which fans taunted the police after the incident: "Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend. He kills coppers."
This was in the days before football was adopted by the literary middle- classes and became "something middle-class heterosexual writers use to explain how they feel emotion," in Jake Arnott's perceptive words. "It was a very violent arena, working-class, very rural. Something very dark emerged from that in the Seventies."
The hard edges with which publicity have endowed Jake Arnott are not apparent on meeting him. In fact, he had a nice middle-class upbringing as the son of a Buckinghamshire management consultant. The house was full of books from Marylebone station bookstall, bought to while away the long hours of commuting - gaudy old paperbacks his father loved for their very trashiness. The young Jake acquired his knowledge of the seamy side of life when he left home at 16 for a series of squats. But those glitzy old thrillers have left their mark on his own views of crime and punishment. If Harry Roberts gets parole, he may emerge to find himself some kind of hero romanticised by the kind of "geezer chic" for which Arnott has been lauded. It's a chilling thought.
So what does Arnott say to the charge that he glamorises gangsterdom in the spirit of that brutal old chant? His reply is that he sees a moral equivalence of the legitimate and illegitimate worlds. "All morality, when it becomes codified, is an excuse for brutality. The notion of chivalry was essentially a code for armed mercenaries. It became romanticised because they became dominant, but they started off as gangsters, essentially."
This leads to the logical conclusion that members of a criminal gang are in some way Knights of the Round Table. Arnott seems to view all moral codes as licensing brutality. But he claims not to see the world of the gangster as isolated: "I'm not interested in crime as separate from society. I see it where it rubs up against conventional society. That's most interesting - that's where you get the notion of what is to be permitted and what is to be condemned."
He points out the gradations within the criminal community. "Criminals do have fixed rules in order to separate themselves from other criminals. You do get a hierarchy, and the notion of respect and approval, and certain criminals, bank robbers, jewel thieves, people like that, seem to be the most respected because of the elements of risk and daring... But it's the gangsters who are essentially just the ones with the power and the brutality, who end up becoming in cooler slang what are known as thieves' ponces. They take money off other criminals for protection."
What about Harry Roberts, who killed three innocent men? "He wasn't really a gangster, he was a small-time villain. Part of his tragedy was that there was very little at stake in his activity. Harry Roberts wasn't a highwayman-like figure. He was put through the sausage-machines of Borstal and National Service. Ironically, the army was where he felt most at home, but he got thrown out. He went back to crime, the only thing he was capable of. But we can't really know what was going on his head. I did feel he had a kind of detachment which he could use to his own benefit."
I put it to him that gangsters are in it just for the drugs or the money, but Arnott sees a political dimension. "I'm interested in post-colonial Britain. There's a lot of writing about the collapse of empire from the perspective of South Africa, Southern Asia, the Caribbean, but behind [my writing] always is the idea of what happened from the Fifties onwards, when we weren't a great power any more, from within. It struck me that the way to look at it was from underneath - from the underbelly.
"I don't consider my work to be in any particular genre, but it's probably more historical than anything else. I come from a generation where there hasn't been a major war. Nothing much has happened. The Sixties were a period of liberalisation and life was getting better, but there was always a shadow to that, and that's what I'm interested in."
A major liberal act of that era was the repeal of anti- homosexual legislation. The Long Firm was deeply imbued with gay culture, but its presentation in a tough working-class setting was novel outside the ranks of rough- trade porn. "I won't accept the notion that there's anything particularly un-blokeish about homosexuality," Arnott says. "Gay men in books are often parodies of themselves because people aren't really like that. A lot of homosexual men are very camp - I wouldn't say I wasn't camp in lots of ways - but campness inhabits anywhere. There's nothing more camp than fetishised masculinity. In Islington guys are dressing in workman chic, but actually they're working in desk jobs."
Arnott may be openly gay, though his photographs usually make him seem tougher than he is. He is charming, dressed in a sharp grey jacket, and has deep eyes of that particular colour described so precisely by Flaubert in Emma Bovary: a black which is so dark it has reflections of blue in certain lights.
There aren't many women in his books. He has created a spectrum of characters, writing always in the first person, and this sophisticated narrative technique was one of the distinctions of his first novel. But only one of the five characters in that was a woman, and they occupy decidedly minor roles in He Kills Coppers. Does he think it's interesting to inhabit a woman's mind?
"In this book I found there was no real space for a strong woman character," he replies. "I made that decision early on; I did start to worry about it. But the women who do appear in it are very strong, and appear to be more in control of their destiny than the men."
Jake Arnott, a biography
Jake Arnott was born in 1961 into a middle-class family in Buckinghamshire, attended a local grammar school, and left formal education at 16. He has worked as a mortuary technician, a labourer, an artist's model, an actor and a sign-language interpreter. Living in Leeds and London in a variety of squats, he experienced homelessness when one was burned down. He worked for for a radical theatre company, then began to write part-time while making extensive studies of the popular culture and underworld of the 1960s and 1970s. The success of his first book, The Long Firm (1999), enabled him to write full-time. His second book, He Kills Coppers, is published by Sceptre next week. Jake Arnott lives in Islington, north London.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Books Interview: Orphans in the Underworld ; Does Jake Arnott Glamorise Seedy Gangsters? No, He Tells Jane Jakeman: He Depicts the Lost Souls of Post-Colonial Britain. Contributors: Jakeman, Jane - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 5, 2001. Page number: 9. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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