As The Resurrectionist gleans the usual rave reviews, the great Jack O’Connell travels to London…
When I Was Almost Fab: In Brick Lane with a Werewolf of London…
I know it’s a cliché, made all the more distasteful by my advanced age, but there was a dreamlike quality to my first trip to London. Maybe it was just burnout—I arrived in the city, via the Euro-rail, after two weeks touring France. During that tour, some wine had been consumed. Strange foods had been ingested. Sleep had been deferred. And so, when I detrained in St. Pancras Station, I felt myself sliding into that zone where identity melts just a little and paranoia explodes and story ideas rain down like the spray of automatic weaponry.
It was a Sunday afternoon in late November. And it was colder than France had been. My bags were overloaded with rumpled clothes and too many books picked up in my travels. I caught a cab to the hotel on Shoreditch High St. On the drive, I couldn’t stop my brain from playing with all those Life magazine images of the city that I’d fed on as a kid. Growing up in a rustbelt mill city during the ’60s, London had seemed the center of the world. Out of which had emerged the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. But they were really the gateway drugs that led to a lifelong excitement for all things London Mod: the UFO Club, Carnaby Street, Blow Up and Privilege, Petula Clark and the Kray Brothers. And most of all, perhaps, Jean Shrimpton.
I know: Nobody expects this from me. It’s the books—located as they are between the shadowy black & white of ’50’s noir and the sputtering, blue-tinged neon of next week’s apocalypse, it’s hard to imagine their author digging all things Fab and Mod and Swinging. But I spent a lot of time in early adolescence delighting in TV fare that could only have come from that time and place—The Saint, The Avengers, and the series that influenced me more than any other, The Prisoner. (Just the thought of that Lotus 7 tooling across Westminster Bridge can still bring me close to a swoon.)
So, when I checked into my room, the first thing I did was to turn on the tube, hoping to find one of those ITV nuggets that had thrilled me in my teens—and maybe discover a show of similar pedigree that I’d somehow missed along the way. What I found instead? A rerun of Friends. I turned off the set, pulled "Georgy Girl" up on the iPod and unpacked.
An hour later, any lingering media-disappointment was erased by my meeting with the affable and charming Ion Mills. Ion has been my UK publisher for the last decade but this was the first time we’d met in the flesh. Walking into the hotel bar, I found the man much as I’d expected—a little bit of the post-Get Carter, pre-Dressed to Kill Michael Caine. Before our first beer had been drained we were—allow me to say it—mates.
Over the next 48 hours, I insinuated myself, less than subtly, into the family that is No Exit Press. Ion and his tribe had set up a launch event for my latest novel, The Resurrectionist, at the Rag Factory, an art space in Brick Lane.
Now, for the uninitiated, all of my novels take place in a noir nightmare known as Quinsigamond. But, for me, in the midst of this blighted megalopolis, there is, mercifully, one pocket of saving coolness where my ever-victimized populace can find music, drink, the vibrancy of a gutter-culture attempting always to counter the brutal and casual debasement that permeates the rest of Q-town. I call this bohemian enclave The Canal Zone. And what I realized on the night of 23 November was that, from the curry houses to the street art to Rough Trade Music (geriatric sigh), Brick Lane is the real-world manifestation of my Canal Zone.
I’ve read and signed at some fun spots in my misspent past—the KGB Bar in New York is one favorite, the 540 Club in San Francisco, another. But the Rag Factory is now my preferred venue. I was sharing the bill with another Brit charmer, Max Décharné, whose latest book, Straight From the Fridge, Dad, mines the hipster slang out of all my choice hardboiled reads.
The only hitch in an otherwise delightful evening was learning that Max and I were roughly the same age. The man looks like he could be my … nephew, let’s go with nephew. I’d like to attribute the discrepancy in appearance to my decades of debauchery. But for one thing, I’ve never had that much fun. And for another, Max has done time as a pro rock ‘n roller, for God’s sake. Genetics, I decided, is an unfair business. Then I toasted my stoicism with the evening’s sponsor, Tiger Beer, just as the dean of crime and mystery lit came through the door.
I’d met Maxim Jakubowski, briefly, in passing, on a couple of occasions in the past. Tonight, he had generously agreed to converse with me, live, about The Resurrectionist, and Quinsigamond, and all things noir and weird. I felt more than a little abashed, as if I should be the one quizzing the master and taking notes. But we quickly fell into the rhythm of an engaged pub chat and, as Van Morrison says, the craic was good.
And the crowd was wonderful—energizing, smart, hip and fun. I left Brick Lane and London with an abundance of memories that are bearing me nicely through the travails of a New England winter. But perhaps the one that triggers the biggest smile occurred at the end of the evening, as I signed the last few copies of my books. I was approached by one of Max’s musician pals, a sartorial standout with a great laugh and, I thought, a bit of the Ronnie Wood-style rogue about him. He handed back to me a copy of The Resurrectionist that he’d purchased earlier in the evening. I started to imagine that he had perused the first page and wanted a refund. But, instead, he asked me to bite the copyright page.
I thought I’d misheard him and asked him to repeat the request. He held out the page in question, brought it up to his mouth and mimed a big chomping bite. I looked to the No Exit bookseller next to me, who smiled brightly. I looked back to the musician. I’d never before been asked to bite one of my books. Not even by my dentist. But, as is my motto, anything for the reader. I took the book in hand, brought it up to my face, took a breath and then bit down hard, leaving in the paper half-circle impressions of my teeth of which my long-deceased orthodontist would be proud.
I handed the book back to the musician, who inspected it, nodded, smiled, thanked me, and departed. And as I wondered what had just transpired, I happened to glance back at the bookseller next to me. He shook his head and asked, "Have you never seen an episode of CSI?"
My blank face gave away my confusion until the bookseller explained, "He’s now got your DNA. You can be implicated in anything!"
I didn’t care. The night had been a great, brain-rousing happening among new friends. And even if Twiggy and David Bailey failed to show, I left London exhilarated. And with a few new Canal Zone hotspots in my back pocket.
The Resurrectionist is publshed by No Exit Press