Wide Boys Always Work: Iain Sinclair and the 'London Proletarian Novel'

Robert Bond

<1> This article examines the way in which elements of what I will call the 'proletarian alertness' of Iain Sinclair's contemporary, neo-modernist writing -- features such as its presentation and contestation of the relentlessness of the capitalist work ethic -- are rooted in Sinclair's long-term interest in a neglected tradition of writing about East London. At one point in Lights Out for the Territory Sinclair labels this tradition that of the 'London proletarian novel', when he refers to Emanuel Litvinoff and Bernard Kops as two of its practitioners. In the sole academic essay -- that I have been able to locate -- that treats these London proletarian novelists, Michael Woolf notes how Kops's The World is a Wedding (1963) and Litvinoff's Journey Through a Small Planet (1972) together focus on 'the question of material improvement and upward mobility'; crucially, these ghetto memoirs show that 'relative material and intellectual success is not an untroubled process'. I want to suggest that the London proletarian novel foregrounded the relentless work ethic which sustains social mobility in particularly interesting ways, and that this writing's concern with the capitalist work ethic is sustained in Sinclair's writing. This preoccupation with the work ethic and with material aspirations, of course, could itself lead us to question whether these London novelists really were 'proletarian' novelists: the London proletarian novel is largely a writing of the proletariat leaving itself. Yet it nonetheless provides us with a valuable interrogation of the work ethic, one which -- I want to argue -- is developed in Sinclair's nonproletarian, neo-modernist writing. When he lamented once that 'even proletarianization of the intellectual almost never creates a proletarian', Walter Benjamin was noting that educational privilege 'almost always remains strong enough to exclude intellectuals from the constant state of alert, the front-line existence, of the genuine proletarian'. Sinclair's writing, I will suggest, shows proletarian alertness precisely in its foregrounding of the relentlessness of the capitalist work ethic. Yet this proletarian quality of alertness produces in Sinclair's writing what Benjamin called the 'only' effect 'that a revolutionary writer from the bourgeois class can resolve upon today': 'the politicization of his [its] own class'.[1]

<2> Proletarian alertness of course relates first and foremost, not to revolutionary suspicion of the status quo, but to the wide-awake struggle for self-preservation. The London proletarian novel vividly reproduced the ferocity of the struggle for self-preservation: it was commercial, accelerated work. 'The silver spoon of poverty was my propulsion', states Kops in The World is a Wedding. Sinclair noted the relation of this writing to the fight for self-preservation, and alerted the reader to the particular quality of propelled terseness which has so influenced his own writing, when he wrote -- in Lights Out for the Territory -- of 'the rich midden of London's sub-cultural fiction, terse proletarian narratives of lives on the criminous margin'. It is not hard to see that Sinclair's driven writing draws on the speed of terse proletarian narratives. But there are two particular extracts, from White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings and Gerald Kersh's 1938 novel Night and the City, that I want to compare at this point:

If he could find a Hessel Street squat connection, who also supplied a runner called Nolan, he might be able to get the phone-number of an Indian accountant in Enfield, who sometimes drove to country auctions with an Islington dealer, who was rumoured to exchange sexual favours with a Clerkenwell silversmith, who shared a stall in Covent Garden with an Italian ex-football player, who had unsubstantiated Sicilian connections, and who sold books as furniture, leatherware by the yard, to a Corsican whose former girlfriend worked in the same tax office as J. Leper-Klamm. If.

Then what had Figler done that was clever?
He had simply started another little circle of credit. He had a hundred pounds in hand. With this capital, he intended to become a wrestling-promoter. He owed Lipsky £60, and Liquid Gold £40. When these bills had to be met, he would buy, on credit, say half a dozen grand pianos, with the proceeds of which he would punctually settle the two debts. Then, his credit being still more firmly established, and his reputation being further strengthened, he could always rely on a consignment of goods from Lipsky or Liquid Gold, with which he could pay the piano-manufacturer.... and so Figler could go on and on, always owing somebody something, always robbing Peter to pay Paul, always digging one pit to fill another, always managing to keep a little bank balance and a good name; all by means of words and paper.[2]

<3> Sinclair's and Kersh's serial arrangements of clauses, and reliance on the frequent use of commas, clearly convey the breathless, accelerated quality of the rational activity of self-preservation. But their sentences also get us to think about the sheerly speculative and purposeless quality of capitalist activity. Since in these sentences neither Kersh nor Sinclair gives any indication as to what end their protagonists are speculating, other than that of continuing to speculate, or remaining running within the 'little circle of credit', we sense the truth of Theodor Adorno's observation that 'speculation is the negative expression of the irrationality of capitalistic reason'. To relentlessly 'go on and on', irrationally 'digging one pit to fill another', is of course precisely the movement of the work ethic which Max Weber described, when he saw how the work ethic ultimately relates, not to any rational activity of self-preservation, but instead to an irrational project of self-transcendence:

In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.[3]

<4> The anti-heroes of Robert Westerby's Wide Boys Never Work (1937) and Alexander Baron's The Lowlife (1963) refuse to adhere to the work ethic, and instead gamble or study ferociously. In the latter novel, Harryboy Boas describes his gambler's life as 'a good life, if you're not one of the goomps who think there is some virtue in hard work.' Westerby's novel holds an even more succinct formulation -- which reappears in Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (published the same year): '"Only mugs work."' In The Lowlife, Boas contrasts the gambler to the adherent of the work ethic, on the grounds of the latter's 'religious' quality; he calls his brother-in-law 'a hard-working business man, respectable, religious, cautious. No gambler he.' Yet this novel shows the gambling lowlife to be religious too, since his ferocious reading displays precisely the purposeless, relentless, 'transcendental' quality which Weber ascribed to the work ethic. 'I can go off on a jag with books like some people do with liquor. Weeks at a time. When I get on to a good writer I have to go right through him.' The London proletarian novel shows gambling to be as relentless as capitalist activity conditioned by the work ethic, as we can see if we juxtapose two passages from Night and the City and Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy (1935). Kersh's slot machine rite shares a relentlessness with Blumenfeld's automated rag production; in both environments Weber's seeming necessity of 'the making of money', supplants actual human necessities such as speech or wiping one's nose.

[Harry Fabian] sauntered through an avenue of clicking and clattering Jack Rabbit, Jig Saw and Merry-go-Round machines manned by intense, speechless people who feverishly crammed them with coppers ...

A dozen automata bent over the garments, sewing, machining, pressing, at top speed. Speed! Speed! That was the keynote. No time even to wipe your nose, the coats must be kept flying about the workshop, on the move all the while. Speed! Speed! The quickest worker set the pace.[4]

<5> It should be emphasized that it is the religious, 'transcendental' quality, which Weber ascribed to the work ethic, which unites the relentless studying and gambling portrayed in the London proletarian novel. In his introduction to the 2001 re-print of The Lowlife, Sinclair notes: 'The rigorous scholarship with which Harryboy chases his fancies, three-legged dogs and hobbled nags, is religious. He is a righteous man studying the Torah of the Tote.'

You buy a newspaper and you think you know. For God's sake, a gambler spends his whole day studying form. All day he talks to other gamblers before he makes up his mind. He has been doing this for anything up to thirty years. He bets every way up you can imagine, forecasts, reverse forecasts, place bets, combinations, ... he can bet on owners, he can bet on trainers, he can bet on jockeys, he studies pedigree, he invents systems a professor wouldn't understand. And he still loses.

I want to suggest that such a concern with the gambler's submission to 'the Torah of the Tote', or with the religious quality which unites relentless studying and gambling, relates to the way in which the London proletarian novel draws an equivalence between scholarly and commercial activities. For the London proletarian novelist viewed commercial activity as being itself a form of rigorous scholarship, to which one submits religiously. Night and the City presents Figler's notebook compiling his 'lifetime of tortuous research in the snake-haunted hinterland of questionable commerce. It was a kind of Kabbalah of buying and selling.' In the same novel, Lipsky's son features as 'a Darwin of the restaurant supply business, who might have undertaken a scientific classification of the vague flora and elusive fauna of the catering world'.[5]

<6> This suggestion of the affinity between scholarly and commercial activities can be seen to be developed in Sinclair's treatment of the bookdealing micro-economy in White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings. Sinclair emphasizes that, though bookdealing involves a rigorous scholarship of sorts - 'the febrile and inhumanly sharpened and quickened brain of Nicholas Lane had perfect recall of every catalogue, article, book he had ever had through his hands' - the bookdealer's rabid learning is marked by the sheerly speculative, 'transcendental' quality that also characterizes commercial, capitalist activity. In a sense these visionary ragpickers have 'come wholly into their own in the bleak days of enterprise zone capitalism', precisely because they are 'wild with speculations and futures'. In some interesting lines in Radon Daughters Sinclair went on to attach a sheerly speculative quality to formal academic study, again so as to emphasize the affinity between scholarly and commercial, capitalist activities. In these lines Sinclair portrays the scholars who seized on the writing of Simon Undark (a figure based on the contemporary Cambridge poet J. H. Prynne): 'They took his tonsured squibs for reading lists. Taught themselves runic characters, mandarin calligraphy, twelve-note systems, Stock Exchange mumbo jumbo, meteorological data bases. They learnt nothing.'[6] As in The Lowlife, the intellectual gambler 'still loses', but he is not in it to win. Sinclair suggests that what matters to Undark's interpreters is not learning -- in the form, for instance, of the fixing of supposedly given, brute historical facts -- so much as the vocation of purposeless, interpretative activity which Undark's poetry opens out to them. Sinclair claims that Undark's interpreters 'learnt nothing' from their examination of the meaningless ritual (or 'mumbo jumbo') of the stock market, because for Sinclair academic work is already in itself just as much an irrational, speculative activity as futures trading. Sinclair sees the academic, like the bookdealer, to be purposelessly going 'on and on', pitching rare books or singular concepts and exegeses.

<7> This short article should have given some indication, of how Sinclair's interrogation of the religious quality which unites relentless scholarly and commercial activities, making them speculative and purposeless, can be related back to his interest in the London proletarian novel. It could be argued, of course, that insofar as Sinclair's experimental, neo-modernist writing demands an immersive response, it imposes on its readers a religious vocation of relentless study, that was ruled out by the commercial nature of the London proletarian novel.

Endnotes

[1] Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Granta, 1997), p. 225; Michael Woolf, 'Negotiating the Self: Jewish Fiction in Britain Since 1945', in Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction, ed. by A. Robert Lee (London: Pluto, 1995), pp. 124-41 (p. 128); Walter Benjamin, 'An Outsider Attracts Attention', in Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany, trans. by Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 109-14 (p. 113). [^]

[2] Bernard Kops, The World is a Wedding (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1963), p. 91; Lights Out for the Territory, p. 312; White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings (London: Vintage, 1995; first publ. Goldmark, 1987), p. 85; Gerald Kersh, Night and the City (London: Joseph, 1938), p. 89. [^]

[3] Theodor Adorno, letter to Walter Benjamin of 2 August 1935, in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. by Ronald Taylor (London: Verso, 1980), pp.110-20 (p. 119); Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, trans. by Talcott Parsons (London: Unwin, 1930), p. 53. [^]

[4] Alexander Baron, The Lowlife (London: Harvill, 2001; first publ. Collins, 1963), p. 59; Wide Boys Never Work (London: Barker, 1937), p. 39 (compare The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (London: Gollancz, 1937), p. 212); Baron, pp. 141, 18; Kersh, p. 13; Jew Boy (London: Cape, 1935), pp. 12-13. [^]

[5] 'Introduction', in Baron, pp. v-xii (p. viii); Baron, pp. 169-70; Kersh, pp. 79, 83. [^]

[6] White, pp. 26, 41; Radon Daughters: A Voyage, between Art and Terror, from the Mound of Whitechapel to the Limestone Pavements of the Burren (London: Cape, 1994), p. 184. [^]


Works Cited


Adorno, Theodor, Letter to Walter Benjamin of 2 August 1935, in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. by Ronald Taylor (London: Verso, 1980),110-20

Baron, Alexander, The Lowlife (London: Harvill, 2001; first publ. Collins, 1963)

Benjamin, Walter, 'An Outsider Attracts Attention', in Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany, trans. by Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1998), 109-14

Blumenfeld, Simon, Jew Boy (London: Cape, 1935)

Kersh, Gerald, Night and the City (London: Joseph, 1938)

Kops, Bernard, The World is a Wedding (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1963)

McCabe, Cameron, The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (London: Gollancz, 1937)

Sinclair, Iain, White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings (London: Vintage, 1995; first publ. Goldmark, 1987)

Sinclair, Iain, Radon Daughters: A Voyage, between Art and Terror, from the Mound of Whitechapel to the Limestone Pavements of the Burren (London: Cape, 1994)

Sinclair, Iain, Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Granta, 1997)

Sinclair, Iain, 'Introduction', in Alexander Baron, The Lowlife (London: Harvill, 2001), v-xii

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, trans. by Talcott Parsons (London: Unwin, 1930)

Westerby, Robert, Wide Boys Never Work (London: Barker, 1937)

Woolf, Michael, 'Negotiating the Self: Jewish Fiction in Britain Since 1945', in Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction, ed. by A. Robert Lee (London: Pluto, 1995), 124-41