James Curtis was the author of six novels - The Gilt Kid , They Drive By Night, There Ain't No Justice , You're In The Racket Too , What Immortal Hand and Look Long Upon A Monkey - and at least one non-fiction work, A Guide To British Liberties , which was published as part of the Fact series of political observations by left-wing authors in the 1930s. His life and work has remained unrecorded for many decades, and while much of his story is still to be discovered, information is at last coming to light.
Curtis was born in Kent in 1907, although his parents lived and worked in India. He was well educated and his life could have been comfortable and conventional, but he 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 and his style of his writing, as well as the course of his life.
As an author, Curtis was especially interested in the spoken word, the clever flow of everyday English. He would learn to speak six languages, so obviously had a leaning in this direction, but was open-minded enough to embrace the informal as well as the formal. He was familiar with the official classics, yet revelled in the use of slang, bringing the power and imagination of the vernacular alive in a series of books that go beyond fiction to offer a record of working-class London and those operating at the margins of society.
He would have been a regular face around the pubs and clubs of the West End, where the attractions of theatre and film rubbed up against London's underworld. The classes collided in Central London, as did the various nationalities. Soho was cosmopolitan, flamboyant yet dodgy. It was the glamorous core of a huge industrial city. Writers such as Curtis, Gerald Kersh, Mark Benney and Robert Westerby could operate relatively easily here.
James Curtis dealt with the themes of injustice and equality, his characters often moving through the criminal twilight zone he had come to know. It has been speculated that he served time in prison, but there is no evidence to back this up. However, his characters do know a lot about the workings of the penal system, and it is not impossible that he spent some time inside.
During the Second World War, Curtis served his country and was even involved in the making of the Victory In Burma documentary, reaching the rank of major. He was a patriot and is believed to have been involved in intelligence work, but returning to civvie street proved difficult. He wasn't alone, of course, as many men found it impossible to come to terms with the peace-time routine after their experiences during the war, but this doesn't diminish the sadness of his struggle.
Curtis separated from his wife Shirley and daughter Nicolette, and the change in his fortunes as a writer were also dramatic. Only one of his six novels was published post-war, and that was after a gap of twenty years. He worked as a porter in West End hotels, spent many hours reading and researching new ideas in the British Library, and much of his free time drinking in Camden Town and Kilburn. He also liked a bet on the horses. Camden and Kilburn were well known for their Irish pubs and he would later became a supporter of the republican movement, even going so far as to convert to Catholicism.
Curtis wasn't an easy man, and described himself as 'unemployable', yet he had impeccable manners and remained a gentleman. He was demanding, but this can be seen as a reflection of his idealism and his inability to compromise. He held firm beliefs and retained them to the end.
He died in Kilburn in 1977. He left nothing of financial value and none of his novels were in the flat where he lived. He was buried in St Pancras in North London, the only mourners at his funeral his daughter and her husband. Beyond the sad aspects of his life, Curtis was his own man and chose his path. He remained true to his beliefs throughout his life, the box of papers found after his death including an angry rejection of a film treatment for The Gilt Kid . Two of his novels were adapted in his lifetime - They Drive By Night and There Ain't No Justice - but he wasn't the sort of author who signs his ideas away for mere money.
It is a lasting tribute to James Curtis that while the writing of other more-celebrated, more-accommodating authors have aged, his novels remain incredibly fresh and vibrant. As such he fits into a continuing tradition of English-speaking authors - both English and American - who have tried to free the novel from the narrow limits of the literary establishment, to reflect and celebrate the lives and language of ordinary people.