The Man Behind Get Carter: Ted Lewis
Ted Lewis, the man who wrote so convincingly about London-based gangsters, came of age in the same small North Lincolnshire town where he later went down in flames. Lewis continued to live in Barton-Upon-Humber while attending Hull College of Art, commuting across the Humber estuary via ferry. After years of living in London and other parts of England while working in advertising, then illustration and animation, and finally as a professional writer, he returned to Barton when his marriage collapsed. When Lewis died in 1982, just 42, it seems the only people to attend the funeral – besides his own immediate family members – were friends from Barton.
Many of Lewis’s friends from boyhood days (they knew him as Edward, or Lew) got reacquainted with him over the last few years of his life. Their remembrances of Lewis and his time in Barton create a picture of a man whose personal life appears as complicated as his literary work is undervalued.
Even friends who had a rough time being in Lewis’s company in his later years remember young Edward fondly. "A lovely looking little boy," one woman recalls, "very angelic with blonde hair in a little quiff. Couldn’t help but like him." But the likeable boy also wanted to make sure people understood he was rugged. This same lady recalls young Edward showing a kind of stubborn toughness in the classroom:
"I remember once he caught his finger in a satchel ring, agonizingly, and never uttered a word or groan, even when the ring was prized apart. It must have really, really hurt, but he wouldn’t have shown weakness to anyone. Guess that was his trouble." Further proof that Edward wanted to be seen as a tough guy is revealed by his mother’s once telling a friend of his, "He always wanted to be James Dean."
One friend remembers a life-changing incident involving Lewis and the headmaster at Barton Grammar School. Just recently back to school after suffering a spell of rheumatic fever, Lewis, who was carrying on in the cafeteria, had his face slapped by the official. If being struck in that way as a public spectacle wasn’t humiliation enough, the still weak-bodied boy wet himself for all to see.
Public humiliation, and how it can harden its youthful victims, is a theme that comes into play in many of Lewis’s novels. Billy Cracken, the anti-hero from Billy Rags, is beaten up by a tougher boy in front of a small crowd, and the already-rugged lad becomes all the more committed to making himself mean. In Plender, young Brian Plender is debased in a variety of ways by schoolmate Peter Knott, and when the two meet up again as adults, Plender seeks revenge. Much of the reason Jack Carter becomes involved in the underworld is because of the time, as told in Jack’s Return Home, when he watches a thug taunt his brother Frank in a snooker hall; Frank doesn’t stick up for himself, and Jack decides at that moment that he is going to be the perpetrator of any bullying that happens in his life. The face-slapping incident itself is referred to in Lewis’s vastly underappreciated autobiographical novel The Rabbit.
Sometime after the episode with the headmaster, Lewis took up with a pack of lads one Bartonian calls "The Riverbank Boys." This was a group of six or seven teens, all of them at least a few years older than Lewis. They liked to hang out around the banks of the River Humber, or at the pub, drinking and acting out scenes from the B-movies they watched together at the local cinema. One of Lewis’s friends, a Riverbank Boy himself, reflects, "He possibly felt he had to prove himself, being younger and smaller, and as a result tended to push himself further than the rest, be it climbing trees, smoking, drinking, etc."
Another influential development in Lewis’s teen years was the mentorship of Henry Treece. A novelist and poet who taught English at Barton Grammar, Treece recognized general artistic potential in Lewis (who had a talent for the visual arts and was a jazz pianist, in addition to his writing skill). Treece sometimes read from Raymond Chandler to his pupils, using an American accent
An event which caused him to become withdrawn from his same-age peers, a diet of B-movies and Chandler novels, an accomplished tutor guiding him towards creative expression . . . Edward Lewis was becoming Ted.
By all accounts, the last years of Lewis’s life were not an easy time for old friends to be around the man – whom they described as "an affable sort," and "good company," when he was younger. His drinking was now a debilitating habit, his behavior erratic, and it seems he was not someone you wanted to let your wife or girlfriend spend much time around. One Bartonian, who was in Lewis’s company often through these years, paints a picture of latter-day Ted in his about-town mode:
"The pubs used to have pianos in them. Ted was always there, playing the piano. One thing he’d do, if he was down – you know, blue – he’d come into the pub and start playing funeral marches, dirges. One time a bloke who was in there trying to have a good time walked over and slung him off the piano, because he was bringing everybody down with that music."
But this same friend tells of another time over that period when he and Lewis were celebrating his own 40th birthday: Ted didn’t have money to buy a gift for the man -who was once a drummer in an early rock ‘n’ roll band, – so instead drew him a picture that had his friend playing drums in a band whose piano player was Little Richard.
Many of these friends of Ted Lewis’s bemoan how little recognition the writer gets around his hometown. There is no public plaque, or other commemorative token, around Barton to honor the man who is credited with inventing the British school of hardboiled crime fiction. Writing the book that was the basis of the highly-acclaimed film Get Carter, doing animation work on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie – not good enough, apparently. One Bartonian suggests the town might feel somewhat disappointed in Lewis:
"When you come from a small town like this, and when you’ve got good looks like his, and you can the play the piano like he did, and you go off and write the books and all – you’re going to become kind of a legend at home. So he kind of had it all, but then he threw it all away, didn’t he?"
But was it really just self-indulgence in Lewis that brought on his hopeless alcoholism, which in turn led to the collapse of his family life and early death? Lewis confided in one of his friends as early as 1963 that he suffered from bouts of depression, which he called "the doom." He later confessed to this same man that he "needed to drink to write." Even in grammar school days, one female friend noted "He was full of anger and black moods," while another woman remembers schoolboy Edward as "a quiet rebel, really . . . a kind of dark angel, out of his time." The books are filled with mental anguish, profound guilt, and people who can never quite come to peace with those closest to them – the novels read like they could only have come off the pen of a tormented soul.
It must have been difficult to be Ted Lewis then. Once a hot-shot novelist with an enviable publishing contract, Lewis now found himself taking on a job making postcards for the local council for a meager amount of pay. Ted was obsessed with the landscape of North Lincolnshire and enjoyed making the cards, but still he must have felt ashamed over what he was paid for this gig. A friend says of that project:
"In fact the postcards were a smaller version of the huge original posters he made in pen and ink. They must have taken him hours and hours. It was an appallingly trivial sum of money to offer him – but Bertha [Ted’s mother] said he needed the money and I guess it stopped him drinking for a short time."
The same woman who tells of the postcard assignment relates that Lewis seems to have made an effort to find spiritual solace in his last days:
"Apparently the atheist he always proclaimed to be – right from school days – it appeared he tried to change and ‘find God’ or something to believe in during those last months. He began seeking help from a priest in Scunthorpe and helped the priest in practical ways around the church, by cleaning inside the church and clearing up detritus – sweeping leaves and tidying graves. I guess it was his way of seeking what had been missing in his life in so long. He must have been full of regrets and sadness."
Lewis’s last (and arguably strongest) book, Grievous Bodily Harm, is an account of a man who is watching his personal world shatter. Blue movie racketeer George Fowler knows he brought his demise onto himself to a great extent, but that doesn’t make his horrifying awareness of it any less acute. Fowler is tucked away at a seaside hideout, taking refuge from the city and all the people there who want to do him in. He is also holding his own internal demons at bay, using alcohol to quiet the mounting roar that threatens to erupt in his psyche.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that the hideout in the book represents Barton-Upon-Humber as Lewis knew it in his last years, and that the Smoke (the city) references all his time in London and other places. He was letting out a last cry from Hell in his own hometown.
Get Carter is published by Allison & Busby