For Ted Lewis, Hull was that ‘city across the river’. It meant Saturday afternoon at the pictures; the only place you could buy decent jazz records. A train journey from Barton to New Holland and a ferry ride. Down in the Tattershall Castle bar with its atmosphere of warm Double Diamond and rum, where licencing laws didn’t apply and trawlermen coming home to Hessle Road played brag for pound notes.
When Lewis arrived to begin a four year course at Hull College of Arts and Crafts in 1956, the sense of Americanised modernity that so entranced the post-war grammar school/art school generation had taken root in the city. For some incomers, Hull was the end of the line, but for Lewis it was a place of opportunity. Art school tutors, William Sillince and James Neal, recognised his ability, encouraging him to think for himself, to explore new ideas.
Lewis came of age in the city, earning a reputation playing jazz, drinking, and going out with girls. It was a time of bohemians and beatniks, smart suits and beehive hairdos at Hammonds’ Picadish counter. Lewis joined the Unity Jazz Band on piano, one of a number of bands to ride the crest of the trad jazz wave, playing sweaty gigs for beer and cigarette money in the room above the Blue Bell. Many were accomplished players: the Bay City Jazz Band from Bridlington showcased the talents of Mick and Chris Pyne on piano and trombone. The brothers would later join Humphrey Lyttleton’s band and Mick would tour as piano player with Stan Getz.
Jackie Scoble first saw the Unity at an outdoor gig at Little Switzerland and remembers ‘these really dishy looking guys, playing brilliant music, out for a good time with the girls. Lew (Lewis was known as Lew to his friends) was like a film star … and jazz was the thing. The music was enough to get us on a real high. You got up and danced, and you were worn out at the end of the evening.’
[Lewis’ first book]…told the story of his final year in Hull and the love affair which had dominated it.
When Lewis moved to London in 1961 to work in advertising, he’d already written early drafts of his first novel, All the Way Home and all the Night Through. The book told the story of Lewis’s final year in Hull and the love affair which had dominated it. It spared no one, least of all the author, whose dark moods and booze fuelled blackouts had made him difficult to be around. His love for the city, the river and the landscape shone through. The review in The Times called it a ‘fresh and original book’.
Lewis’s breakthrough came with Jack’s Return Home in 1970, the novel adapted and directed by Mike Hodges as the classic Get Carter (1971). This, too, was a Humberside story, a downbeat fusion between the hardboiled American school and Lewis’s taut, lyrical, social-realist storytelling. It showed him to be a pioneer, a writer exploring new territories for noir fiction with an unflinching mix of underworld violence and an unerring eye for detail.
Like his American heroes, Lewis used the crime novel to present an unsparing vision of society’s underclass and sent Jack Carter home to the terraced backstreets and boarding houses of Scunthorpe, a steel town High Noon, shabby and peripheral under grey skies. Never shy of rifling his own back pages for characters and stories, the darker Lewis’s writing became, the closer the convergence of truth and fiction.
Without him there is no Jack Carter; Michael Caine is short of one iconic role; and British crime fiction is denied a genre defining classic.
His follow up to Jack’s Return Home, now retitled Get Carter, was Plender (1971); a dark and dirty blackmail thriller set in the bars and dockside streets of Hull. The novel opens with Brian Plender surveying the city (clearly Hull, though unnamed) from the window of his 12th floor office. He looks over the docks and the river, following the lights of the ferry bringing his blackmail victim. Plender describes the cityscape: shuffling shoppers late on a wet winter Saturday afternoon as the ‘grey wet wind’ screams up the estuary and dirty barges ‘shift surlily on the greasy swell’. He is a malignant puppet-master, manipulative, friendless and damaged, pulling strings of plots in which he entangles his victims.
More provincially claustrophobic even than Carter, Plender contained implicit, provocative statements about Lewis’s own life; at times ironic, at others sincere, he explored the notion that our sins will surely find us out.
Unable to repeat Carter’s commercial success, Lewis turned increasingly to drink. His personal life descended into chaos. Considered a spent force by many, the psychological thriller GBH (1980) would be his last published work, a final, unmerciful and masterful statement of brutality. If a single novel makes the case for Lewis as a great writer, it is GBH.
Ted Lewis may well be one of the most influential writers you’ve never heard of. His best work centred on places he knew well: Scunthorpe; Barton; Hull; and the bleak Lincolnshire coast. Without him there is no Jack Carter; Michael Caine is short of one iconic role; and British crime fiction is denied a genre defining classic.
Nick Triplow is the co-founder of Hull Noir, a crime fiction festival taking place from 12-19 Nov, featuring panel talks from the likes of Martina Cole, John Connolly and Mark Billingham. Day passes for Sat 18 and Sun 19 are available now at £40 and weekend passes are available at £75.