27 December 2011

Roland Camberton: Scamp (1950; repr. 2010)

A short time ago I wrote a few words about the recent (re-)publication of Roland Camberton's Scamp, which I've just read, and which I think deserves a comment of more than a few words.

Scamp was a novel with a contemporary story when it was first published in 1950, but today, with its rat-infested Bloomsbury hovels, its journalists with whisky flasks at the hip, its greasy spoon cafés, its politically incorrect talk, its war rationing hangover, its national service, its unwanted pregnancies, and its omnipresent fags and newspapers, it seems to belong to a very distant England indeed. It is a world where Bernard Shaw, James Agate and Cyril Connolly are figures of great importance.

If there'd ever been an English dream, this would be the flipside of it, a society of virtually unemployable losers, many of whom only half-heartedly try to make it as writers, have sex without emotional commitment, and whose idea of social networking is meeting for hours in the pub or the café to philosophize and talk of unrealizable dreams, often scrounging or conning at the same time. Although far less menacing — in fact decidedly cartoonish —the characters aren't so far removed from those of Patrick Hamilton , and the title Scamp indicates an essentially childlike as opposed to sinister nature, although this is in fact a kind of maguffin, being the title of a magazine that's never published.

John Minton's cover is revealing, and Iain Sinclair (in his Introduction 'Man in a Macintosh: Roland Camberton, The Great Invisible in English Fiction') certainly believes that the man depicted is a representation of Camberton (born Henry Cohen). This man is the only clearly drawn human, but focussed to the right of the drawing, behind an unnamed pub. It is perhaps early evening, and in the background are sketchy figures walking together. The man, though (maybe late twenties or early thirties, balding with stubbly chin), is alone and either deep in thought or unhappy. He has a sheaf of papers or a wad of magazines under his arm, and surely the main point here is the weight given to the background: the eye is drawn to the main detail of the man under the pub, who is disappearing bottom right, his head full of what he's leaving: the pub, the people, the streets, the noise, the conversation, the whole fantasy world. Leaving mentally or physically, or perhaps both?

Ivan Ginsberg, the 30-year-old main character in Scamp, is an under-published ex-short story writer who wants to be a literary magazine editor, his only problems being that he has to find the money, contributors and printer to do so. Like many of the other characters, he hasn't grown up, although he begins to do so at the end.

No comments: