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First published in 1962, The Crust On Its Uppers, Derek Raymond’s first novel (aka Robin Cook) is a gripping tale of class betrayal. With ruthless precision, and a great deal of humour, it brings vividly to life a London of spivs, crooked toffs and bent coppers.
‘Tremendous black comedy of Chelsea gangland, written and set in the early Sixties, on the cusp of swinging London’ The Face
‘Peopled by a fast-talking shower of queens, spades, morries, slags, shysters, grifters and grafters of every description, it is one of the great London novels’ New Statesman
‘The Crust on its Uppers is the kosher article by a man who was on the down-escalator all his life’ Sunday Times
‘A breathlessly good read… funny, relevant and resonant’ Literary Review
I MUST warn you that everything that follows emanates from the following figure: sacked from the most super public school in the country at the age of sixteen. Puzzled. Sacked from crammer the following year, with clap caught from the Greek maid. Still puzzled.
Joined the army because still too green to knock. Glowing career at Mons, blinded by the toothpaste smile reflected from my boots at adjutant’s parade? Certainly not. Latrines corporal. Still puzzled. Illegitimate child in Weymouth, now about nine – one of the few things that made sense in those days, because the punishment fitted the crime: Daisy was a right old boiler. Demobbed with the following report: Officer potential, nil – N.C.O. potential, nil. C.O.’s comment: a very poor soldier indeed, with a nice smile. What next? Oxford and turn over a new leaf? No, no, morrie, I was beginning to learn . . . to the north, full, of demon energy – to London – a proper ice-cream to look at, only I assure you I’m all about trout, aged twenty-eight with a hard apprenticeship behind me since those army days: two years in Spain flogging hot tape-recorders, a year in France busy vanishing; I lived on the Left Bank subsisting on ten poundses my mother sent me in Illustrated London Newses, taking Civilization at the Sorbonne and penicillin for clap, living all that year like a sort of Lucifer among the scabs and crabs, with a record player roaring out skiffle and trad jazz on the end of the bed. Odd period in London – but come to a rub: nishte. Then off to Rome where I had a right touch teaching at a languages school; nipped off on the plane with Anzac Jack, a dead young grafter, leaving a whole load of angst behind. Anzac played it cool out there: I believe he still is in New York, married to a watches heiress and fooling them all on Madison Avenue. Anyway, having copped on to this job in London and been flown out by the old darling who ran the joint, at first it was dead boring, playing the half-wide mug on ten bob an hour; but we soon got organized and grafted four ton apiece from the old dear and got to the States. Looking back I’ve done some odd things, but all down to learning; I’ve done the lot, in a way, from tutoring a British commercial attaché’s son in Latin and Greek to moody rabbits in Spanish bars with my heart going like an outboard motor and my eyes running about in my head like ball-bearings, with plain-clothes Seguridad watching me and a stack of those dodgy tape-recorders outside in the motor. As to form, though, nothing, though that isn’t to say that ripples don’t pass over the ganglia of the boys down at Chelsea nick every time they clock my boat. And that’s not just down to experience, me not having done any bird – just a weird sort of instinct which tells you when enough’s enough. My old man? Well he’s a sort of dustman, as you’ll see.
And what do ice-creams like us add up to? Ah, well, that’s a question I’ve often asked myself and the rest of the morries. But nishte. If I knew the answer I daresay I’d be laughing. We all would. ‘I can give you the facts,’ I’d say, like a super Lord Morrie dictating from his seat in a 707, ‘but you’ll have to draw the conclusion yourselves.’ All I know is I’m a modern, mixed-up, metamorphosed phenomenon, like the other morries, and maybe something’ll come out from what’s to follow, though I don’t know, because I don’t know what’s to follow myself. As for the other two morries, I was at school with one of them – another point in this strange new world of 1962: there are still only two good schools to come from – and you can guess which they are. All the best Anglo-Saxon grafters come from mine, and the Bubbles and the Indians from the other – what you might call the creme of the ice-creme. All the rest of the so-called kosher establishments are really down to the snob angle, trying to Moody through to the royal enclosure on the knock, like the slag in the King’s Road. The point to grasp is that if you’re a morrie you really sit up there. You plan. If you live near the King’s Road it’s just a nasty coincidence. Nothing to boast about. You know how you hear the slag in the Cavalryman rabbiting about the morries pub, the Tealeaf up in Park Lane Lord This and Morrie That – well, that’s how the slag gives itself away. The real morries never do that. Don’t have to, do they? They’re all about trout, flying dodgy kites with each other at bent spielers till the punter, for very shame, outs his kiting-book too and scribbles a straight one, sort of not to be outdone. And even when the old firm’s going a bit unsteady morries never hock their gold kettles and never walk or bus it like the slag do. Always the XK or the three-point-four, never the Sprite or the knocker’s aged small-boot Bentley or the A30 van.
Now for a quick lamp over the slag. Ever had someone put some snout ash in your rosie? Makes you put on that wry face, doesn’t it? Well, that’s what the slag does. Everything they’ve ever read in a linen or a clever-clever book held upside down they’ve got – all wrong. Go into the Cavalryman – it’s the slag’s Boodle’s. Ever seen the super card-grafter got up from head to toe in Woolworths? Well, he’s there, ordering half a bitter in the corner, trying not to look at himself in that scrubby old mirror with ‘Draught Guinness’ written on it. Mothy old waistcoat (with a sort of fob thing, dear God!) a string tie, chef’s spongebags with three creases in the front (probably slept on them in Waterloo Station and had a nightmare). But hear him talk – and Jesus! he’s got four long ones in the bank and a baccarat game all set up for tonight (come to a rub, though, you’ll find it’s somewhere along the Baize), the lot. Then there’re all those terrible old birds in black slickers got up like the wild ones or the bad seed or something, crackling and popping like damp firelighters, dim, boozy old bosoms all jumbling and flooping about like elephants at feeding time – or else the trim sort, gone all prim and coy because they’ve made it (do you mind!) living with the superthinker leaning against the pillar over there, some grubby Rachmaninoff scrubbing his ginger beard with a claw like a Victorian paperweight. The terrible thing about the slag, though, is that they actually survive, down to the Yanks and French being such pushovers and thinking this must be London’s left bank, when it’s nothing but a grafter’s paradise. . . . Oo, I get so livid listening to the slag trying to pass itself off as grafters: they couldn’t graft their way out of a wet paper bag – they’ve never done an honest day’s graft in their lives. They’d turn up at the Ritz to see a punter with last week’s socks on, they’re that daft. I tell you, it’s the slag that’s made Chelsea a dirty word. Left to the morries, it really would be something. Mind, I’d have nothing against the slag if it’d just stick to its silly old daubing or drooling out Rimbaud at a snap party. But oh dear no. Graft’s the new gravy train so the silly things have climbed aboard – last – and then when they’ve broken all the springs and brought it all to a grinding halt they stare around like moody old brontosauruses and want to know where the graft is! Anyone’d think it was the Klondike gold rush all over again; you can’t just kindly tell them to keep off the grass, that this thing needs brains . . . oo, I get so effing cross I could go moodying on for hours about them!
But for the morries, as I was saying, it’s gold kettles, the jam-jar and a kosher pad: keep going till the next touch, no matter what, and a good solid heavy like Chas to deal with the writ-servers. . . . The point about the morries is, they’ve got brains and initiative . . . none of this moodying about in bed all day like the layabouts, dreaming about the withering away of the state or something. Morries are sharp to bed at 6 a.m. and up at noon, no larking about. The thing is, we’ve had this expensive education; Marchmare even made Oxford for a couple of terms, and the Archbubble got a kosher law degree. So you see what we can do.
And we’ve got contacts, though we take a rather odd attitude to them, maybe. Marchmare summed it up best when he said to me one day: ‘You know, morrie, there’s never any point in remembering who anyone is unless it’s down to biz and they’re rich enough to be really worth hating . . . it’s extraordinary how they come drifting downstream and fall straight on to that hook.’
I never knew anyone who could hate quite like Marchmare. I remember we were doing some biz near Munich last summer and we were on our way to the Czech frontier for something we hadn’t got and had to have. One morning we got a flat tyre (we were using my lag) so we took it to the garage and told the krauts to get at it; then we nipped smartly off for a bevvy. Once we’d got well bevvied up Marchmare let go. Leaning forward he told me: ‘How I hate everyone, morrie.’ Very thin, is Marchmare, and very elegant and young and kosher-looking – a gemini same as me, with a boat-race that can slip straight from looking like an angel’s to a snake’s. I believe he really could palm a dodgy kite on the Assistant Commissioner or stick a fork (but he did this once) into the hand of a moody punter at a chemmy game while the latter was scooping up the chips saying well, well, fancy, eight beats nine.
Marchmare’s had more publicity in the linens down to general larking and going ahead than you could shake a stick at, and his real speciality is the old international moody. When he’s in London he leaps in and out of the bath at Rome Street, S.W.3, our gaff (but he’s never dirty, Marchmare isn’t, not even when he’s been all night with a bird – very sinister, somehow), and then he likes to put on a bit of flash, so he goes swimming up and down the King’s Road in his Chevvy convertible with the electric hood, throwing fireballs at the slag, parking this dreadful great orange-and-cream jam-jar (‘thoroughly nasty and vulgar, dear’, as my grandmother would have said) slap under a no-parking sign … more front than Buckingham Palace. He hates the law, and, believe me, it’s mutual. Never done bird, our Marchmare, but sus clings to him like an aura. There was one time the law thought it’d got him down to kiting, and it went all the way up to the High Court, but the judge was his mother’s cousin and a lot of strings were pulled nearly out of their sockets, so it was no go for Old Bill.
Besides, he was only nineteen. But, see what I mean, the difference between the slag and the morries? Anyway, back to this day in krautland: I’m a bit older than Marchmare so I lecture him a bit, because I think he sometimes pushes the boat out a bit far when he’s off on this hating kick and saying things like the above.
‘Oh, shup,’ he says to my lecturing, ‘moody old you.’
‘Oo, how I do hate everyone!’
‘But why, morrie?’
He doesn’t know, though, except obscurely it’s all down to Mum, who certainly does, from what I can hear, seem to have dragged him up a bit strange.
‘Listen,’ he says, ‘how much is your father worth!’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, moodying; ‘about eighty grand.’
‘What do you mean, habits?’
‘You know what I mean,’ he says, all impatient; ‘where’s his office, what time does he reach it, what time does he leave. See what I mean! Slip it into him in the street.’
‘Yellow streak down your back, morrie.’
‘Why don’t you, then!’
‘Not enough reddy in it in my case.’ He sighs. He isn’t joking. A real morrie conversation in the heart of the Tirol.
Moments like these, though, when we’re relaxing in the sun, life feels good. We’re a team. Down to biz there’d never be any grassing. We’d never grass on each other even at the end of time, nor even long after time had run out, as it threatens to sometimes: we’re not like the slag, who start grassing even before they’ve been whacked, soon as they get their collar felt – not even after a right punch-up from the law in a little granite room, not for a ten-stretch. Would you believe it, I think it’s something to do with being gentlemen – the last relics of romance, which always looks a bit grubby close up like the Spanish Civil War or something – out with the flashing rapiers and all that Errol Flynn stuff. Anyway, it’s kicks: Drake with his genes turned upside down, inside out; a new sort of Drake with pressure on him from all over the manor – pressure from the law, the income-tax boys, from the middle classes who hate us and the working classes, not to mention the oafos, the things who hate us . . . they all want to squeeze out the upper classes, strip us, put us out of our agony. We’re supposed to be in an impossible situation nowadays, too useless to exist: products of our parents who live on the shreds of their inheritances like Marchmare’s and mine do, and keep up a pointless front. But just because we’ve absorbed all that doesn’t mean to say us morries are the same. Maybe we’re a bit rotten (maybe: do you mind!) but we’ve still got our energy, brains, education – we’re all dressed up and nowhere to go, and they’ve taxed us out of our loot, but we’ve got expensive tastes and we need the loot so out we go and get it. Mind, that’s not to say I’ve got much sympathy for most of the ice-creams I was at school with, who keep on pretending that something that doesn’t exist any more still does. Would you believe it? I’ve known squares I was at school with (prefects, monitors, scholarship-winners, all that crap) take jobs in INDUSTRY, as management trainees! Oh, morrie, do me a favour, will you? You know what that is? It’s a formal death sentence. I don’t say one or two of them don’t make it, but oo the convulsions! No, no, Marchmare, the Archbubble and I – we know we can’t win, but we’re going to make sure we don’t lose. The game we play, it’s got its risks, but it’s a heady, intoxicating game; better than nine-to-fiving it and sex, cocktails and rows in a pseudo-tudo cottage near Sevenoaks. At least we’re living. So life’s a jungle. So it’s a terrible thing.