The Silent Traveller in London Chiang Yee (Signal Books reprint, 2001)
This endlessly beguiling travelogue by Chiang Yee, from Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province in China, was published in 1938, after the author had already been in England for five years and had written The Chinese Eye (1935), The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland (1937), and Chinese Calligraphy (1938). It is partly a love letter to London, and partly an attempt to explain Chinese culture to the English and thereby subtly correct stereotypes. Illustrated throughout with the author's own artworks (which he often exhibited at various London galleries), such as delicate studies of the geese in Kew Gardens and the deer in Richmond Park, Chiang Yee brings Confucianist philosophy and Chinese literature to bear on his surroundings, and the results are never less than illuminating.
Chiang Yee's voice is unique: poetic, limpid, humorous, and above all wistful. In his description of searching for spring on Hampstead Heath, Chinese and English nature writing traditions intertwine imperceptibly and inseparably, to produce a sort of urban eclogue. He rhapsodises over bluebells and displays an affinity with birds of all sorts, marvelling at the close familial relationships of the ducks in St. James's Park, and even engages with pigeons, which will "take a rest on your head if you do not object." The weather is, unsurprisingly, a major preoccupation, and he writes evocatively about London wind, rain, fog and snow, quoting Robert Bridges' famous poem on the latter.
The author is particularly prone to amusing or touching glimpses of other lives on the Underground, such as the appreciative audience reaction to a tipsy and uproariously merry lady, the conversation of some precociously contemplative public schoolboys, and the prestidigitations of those who own more than one pair of spectacles. Indeed, eyewear is a source of considerable interest, especially monocles and pince-nez: "I cannot help looking with fascination at people who just put them on and off with a mere twitch of the nose!" His humour is delightfully gnomic and mild --one chapter is given over to a linguistic analysis of English surnames (such as Whatmore) to demonstrate their nonsensicality. He has a keen ear for accents and dialects, finding Cockney musical and less monotonous than what we now call RP.
On occasion his social observations verge on the mordant. He notes that the same twenty or so sentences, repeated in different combinations and to different people, form the entire discussion at English tea-parties, so that a foreigner could spend years attending them without ever learning much English. Far ahead of his times (and possibly ours) on the subject of women's rights, he attacks the obsession with slimness that leads to fatal eating disorders, and blames it on male objectification of women in art and literature. He also deplores the pay gap, which prevents women from leading fulfilled independent lives, the cultural obsession with beauty that drains women's energies and ambitions, and the imperative to marriage and dismissive attitude towards spinsters which he views as contributory to Englishwomen's unhappiness, for which, he believes, English society has little compassion. These original observations are all the more striking given that he had already criticised what he viewed as the oppressive cult of female beauty in a Chinese article before moving to England.
While alert to differences of culture and philosophy, Chiang Yee is always ready to seize on commonalities. His comparison of tea-time customs in China and England is fascinating, quoting a Chinese scholar who believed that the English character could be explained by the national beverage, which is "a cup that cheers but does not inebriate," making "the Englishman serious….and almost ascetic." There is an extremely witty passage on the logistical struggles of English tea-parties: "after some experience I began to wish I could be a good deal fatter in order to have a wide lap to hold things safely." He comes out strongly in defence of English cooking ("it is mild and clear"), cherishing the memory of an encounter with Cumberland ham, but is repelled by the smell of cheese and celery.
The book is generally sunny in tone, but there is an abrupt shift when he describes the existential anguish of choice displayed by rich Londoners: he does not believe that the Chinese will ever have the chance to suffer from what he terms "the worry of happiness." In a rare revelation of his inner anxieties, he comments that "During these past two years, my worries have grown, and besides my personal failures I have to worry about the ruthless war which is being waged on our land and people, the death of my brother, the moving about and the scattering of the members of our big family, the damage done to our properties, the flood in my native city, and so on." His exile means that he is unable to visit his ancestors' tombs every year, as is the duty of a good son.
Although admittedly a bedside book, The Silent Traveller sometimes wanders a little too much, which can strain the reader's patience. However, it is charming and moving in equal measure, and is not to be dismissed as a curio. On the contrary, it should be cherished for its pioneering attempts at cultural comparison, its glimpses of a bygone London, and above all for the author himself, a warm-hearted, curious, sociable and modest man who managed, despite private pain, to find considerable happiness in the small things that make up the warp and weft of life in a foreign city.--Isabel Taylor
Writing under the pseudonym James Curtis, Kent-born Geoffrey Basil Maiden produced six novels, mostly in the 1930s, although his last, Look Long Upon a Monkey, came in 1956 after a creative drought. Despite his success, which included a small number of politically motivated essays and screenplays for two films plus consultancy on an unmade adaptation of his first novel, The Gilt Kid, Curtis died in relative obscurity in 1977. Unknown in his own North London environs, Curtis did not possess a level of material wealth commensurate with his achievements: his funeral was a basic and (apart from his daughter and son-in-law) unattended affair. Whether this was due to poor fortune, his fondness for a drink and a bet, or his socialist principles is open to interpretation.
Curtis was certainly unafraid of biting the hand that fed him --in fact, according to letters published by London Books as a coda to their reprint of They Drive By Night, he was happy to set about that hand with the teeth of a crocodile. In 1974, Raintree, a film production company, had taken an option on The Gilt Kid. In May of that year Curtis Clark, a producer, wrote to Curtis in order to explain delays, casually dropping names like John Boorman and David Puttnam, as well as alluding to "deals in the USA" to garner finance for the movie. Near the end of the letter comes a mild reference to potential further changes to the screenplay. The response from Curtis was caustic, railing at the "infantile" and "badly constructed" screenplay, in which all semblance of authenticity had been "thrown to the winds"—this from a man on his uppers, let us remember, specifically lambasting a twenty-two-page section of "nonsense" that he could only deem "excruciatingly boring." It was hardly the way to get people on side. Curtis knew that if the film were made at all, it would be their way—and much the worse for it.
A slight degree of amusement aside, this exchange tells us a great deal about Curtis: a man with a temper; a man with ideals; a serious artist for whom the integrity of the work was paramount. Despite the "pulp" influences in which his novels were steeped, Curtis believed in them and in the people and environments that they represented. It is doubtful whether many authors of his minor status would have behaved so boisterously towards the movie industry, no matter how warped or misguided its intentions (1). "Don't expect me to waste time and energy over something by which I am thoroughly turned off," blasted Curtis, prompting Penny Clark (a relation of the producer, perhaps?) to issue a conciliatory and doubtless tempting offer of a drink in Soho, with the subtext of discussing his issues with The Gilt Kid. An angry riposte came from Curtis, citing "petit bourgeois fancifulness." The film was never made.
But for the advent of London Books and their ongoing 'Classics' series, there would not be a great deal of accessible information about James Curtis. His disappearance from the literary radar mirrors that of Robert Westerby, Simon Blumenthal, Alexander Baron, Henry Green and a host of other London-centric writers --some of whom are thought to have known each other, frequenting the same drinking establishments. They are the 'proletarian novelists' referred to by Robert Bond in his essay Wide Boys Always Work (the title is a play on Westerby's novel Wide Boys Never Work). Bond attempts to trace a direct lineage from this type of novelist to the modern-day author Iain Sinclair. While Curtis is not directly mentioned, he is undoubtedly in this company, and the label 'proletarian novelist' undoubtedly fits. Fascinated by the spoken word, he was notorious for his copious and sometimes wilfully impenetrable use of working class and criminal vernacular: street slang, in other words, and lots of it. As his London Books (2) biography puts it, Curtis was "a restless spirit who wasn't motivated by money or position. He rejected the easy path and embraced socialism, his beliefs influencing the direction of his novels…" To this end, he rubbed shoulders with those who occupied a social status below his educated upbringing. It is debatable whether his obvious knowledge of the penal system came from these acquaintances or as a result of some personal experience.
Jonathan Meades, who has penned an introductory essay to They Drive By Night, notes the obvious resemblance between Curtis and that erstwhile producer of classic and frequently disturbing crime-noir, Derek Raymond—their constant and joyous use of slang. Raymond also wrote under a pseudonym (his real name was Robin Cook), and experienced an upbringing of similar comfort to that of Curtis, backgrounds which both men ultimately rejected in favour of a Soho-centric, bohemian life. In contrast to Raymond, however, the moral bias in Curtis's novels is always weighted in favour of the underdog, the miscreant, the woman of ill repute, and against the likes of the police, the judiciary and well-to-do society. In The Gilt Kid, no authorial judgement is passed on the golden-haired housebreaker, fresh out of prison, as he wastes little time or contemplation in re-launching his criminal career. They Drive By Night, perhaps Curtis's best-known work (made into a film of the same name) places the reader firmly on the side of runaway murder suspect Shorty Matthews, as he frantically attempts to con, fight and steal his way to freedom. Relating these tales in a detached manner, Curtis make his points about society and the establishment: the titular Gilt Kid views himself as a communist favouring direct action, while the more repentant Shorty Matthews moves in a world of women mired in the slough of prostitution. The unrelenting use of slang provides a constant reminder of where our sympathies should lie (the necessities of dialogue aside, Curtis never wrote a word in the voice of the System). Following The Gilt Kid, 1937's You're In The Racket Too has a blackmailing prostitute preying upon a middle class office worker. In the subsequent There Ain't No Justice (made into a well-regarded film starring Jimmy Hanley), a hopeful boxer is exploited by a devious promoter. (Incidentally, these two novels sell to collectors for many thousands of pounds.) Next came 1939's poorly received What Immortal Hand, described by the writer Paul Willetts in his introduction to The Gilt Kid as a "melodramatic and laboured tale of a poor child's upbringing and gradual descent into criminality"—common Curtis themes, yet perhaps not so brightly executed. This novel and 1956's Look Long Upon a Monkey are nigh-on impossible to locate. If Curtis is to be presented to a new generation, then reissues such as The Gilt Kid and They Drive By Night are essential (3). In an afterword to The Gilt Kid, Curtis's only child, Nicolette Edwards, not only expresses her delight at the reissue of some of her father's lost novels, but also fills in a great deal of interesting background colour to his life. From personal experience she confirms both his destructive streak, and his complete lack of interest in things of a materialistic nature.
James Curtis, or rather Geoffrey Maiden, had been a known patriot, fighting for his country in the Second World War. After this, his marriage fell apart and his writing career dwindled into menial work and a library-haunting quest for inspiration. In his later years, living alone, he was drawn to the London Irish community, converted to Catholicism, and became a supporter of the IRA. It is rather incongruous to imagine him walking the streets of London in the 1970s - an age still tangible in terms of popular culture - when the era of his stories and characters had long vanished into a sepia-tinted ether. --Neil Jackson
(1) The Comic Strip's 1988 film The Strike satirises just this situation to great (and award-winning) effect. (2) See the London Books website, www.london-books.co.uk, for their full biography on James Curtis and information on other rediscovered London novelists. (3) A London Books reissue of There Ain't No Justice is in the pipeline.