Williams, Gordon - Big Morning Blues (Leisure Books, New York, 1974, 252pp)
Better known for having written The Siege Of Trencher’s Farm (upon which the film Straw Dogs was based) Gordon M Williams knocked out this highly enjoyable snapshot of London’s petty hustlers in 1974. Misleadingly marketed in the US as the story of the "desperate plight of a man rushing towards self destruction" it is in fact a great deal more piss taking and laid back than its jacket blurb would have the reader believe.
Teasing out the life and language of London’s underworld Williams draws together the not so artful dodgers of the past and present by heading up each chapter with the tale of a eighteenth century thief’s miraculous escapes from the hanging judge. Whilst the kind of "villains, guvnors and tarts" who populate this book still exist to a lesser or greater degree within Britain’s largest city the book’s finest achievement is in capturing the feel of a Soho subculture soon to be irrevocably altered by the twin calamites of Thatcherism and hard drugs.
Primarily concerned with the meanderings of a 29 year old Scot who spends much of his time hustling up free drinks in various "boozers" the novel not only fleshes out life in a not so "Swinging" London, but also dabbles with the lower end of the bohemian set. As a part time talent scout with a sideline in hacking out low grade porn our hero sees himself as a cut above his fellow drinkers down at "The Armpit", "Leafless" and "Abortion Clinic". Still as cynical and superior as he is he increasingly finds himself facing the kind of dilemmas an entire generation of slackers would face in the coming decades- how to successfully reconcile being fabulously talented with being fabulously lazy? Having drifted along for 29 years and a 100 pages or so our man’s hand is finally and harshly forced by his tangential role in a grisly stabbing.
Judging by this novel as well as his career Williams appears to have been well acquainted with the trashier end of the publishing game. After his major hit and then this novel he spent the rest of the 1970s knocking out The Micronauts series of novels in which scientists respond to growing famine by cloning miniature humans! Following that he collaborated with former soccer great Terry Venables (under the pseudonym of PB Yuill) on the Hazell novels which were to go on and spawn the highly popular British TV show of the same name. Despite a brilliant career amongst the pulp bracket Williams holds himself up here as capable of knocking out a sustained effort whilst also possessing a keen eye for comic detail. The world of Big Morning Blues is certainly rough, somewhat mysoginistic and a bit thin on the plot side, but as a tale of a particular time and way of life it comes out head and above of its shallow, exploitative rivals.
"Instead, through the door came the most dangerous man in The Rookery. He had no name and I had never seen him before. He could have been any one of ten thousand identical men. This one wore a mass produced fake leather jacket with a greasy nylon-wool collar. He was not a criminal or a professional hard man, but he was to be avoided at all times.
You know that man? He is still young enough to feel the pain, but old enough to know that there will be no more magic around the corner. His hair is going and his face has hardened and no one is attracted to him any more. He has come to The Rookery for escape. He goes into pornography shops, but that only makes him feel despicable. He goes into strip tease shows and feels branded as a sucker. He goes from pub to pub, but there aren’t going to be any more romantic miracles. He goes into the sex-shops and sees only ointments and aids for the lucky ones. He knows its stupid, but he goes into the clip-joints and this time the hostess appears to be honest and he gives her five pounds to buy temporary freedom from the relentless boss, and as he waits in vain for her to come to the hamburger joint he sickens in shame at his own gullibility. Soon he knows he will be confirming his own hopelessness by climbing the narrow stairs to pay three pounds to a woman who openly despises the endless crowd of failures who trample desperately through her life.
It is his night of escape and its minutes are ruthless. By the time he reaches The Rat’s Castle he is a desperate man. The next face that sneers at him is going to be smashed to a pulp. How else can he keep a man’s self-respect?" (pp199-200)