© Simon Richard Bloom
A short biography by Paul Duncan
For every successful author, there are a thousand others struggling to get in print. Gerald Kersh was one of those word hustlers who haunted all night coffee bars in London's Soho, writing on stolen toilet paper, making a mug last until daybreak. And when he made it, when he became one of England's highest paid wordsmiths, fate and circumstance cruelly ganged up to throw him back in the gutter.
The fruit of a life either bears fruit itself or, as in the case of the work of Gerald Kersh, it simply returns to dust. To find his work you must rake through the dust of old bookshops and flea markets. To find his life is even more of a task. Although a best selling author of his day, and a well-known personality and raconteur in his own right, there is painfully little of substance written about him. But there are clues…
And it is by pursuing these scraps of information, by stitching them together with records and hearsay, that I have managed to sow a threadbare blanket covering those years between the swaddling clothes and the shroud. Sure, there are holes and patches sown in from other cloth but, hopefully, there is enough to comfort you during this journey through the life of Gerald Kersh.
Born on 26th August 1911 in Teddington-On-Thames, Gerald Kersh grew up in a Jewish family full of ‘characters’ who were to provide a rich and painful source of literary material in future years. Kersh was a bit of a character himself. At the age of two, pretty little Gerald became very ill. His mother sat up with him for ten days without sleep, and then his heart stopped beating. The doctor pronounced him dead of lung congestion. Suddenly, he sat up and screamed the place down.
At the age of eight, Gerald started writing, publishing his prize-winning work Tom And Tilly Tadpole in a limited edition of one, bound in his uncle's brocade waistcoat. At 13, he won a scholarship and attended the Regent Street Polytechnic, eventually leaving to make his own way in the world. He knew what he wanted to be: a writer.
Kersh wrote to Edgar Wallace. His five-page letter reproached Wallace for his success, challenged him to read the enclosed short story which, Kersh claimed, was a better story than Wallace could ever write and, in the same breath, asked him for advice. Edgar Wallace replied politely, if briefly, through his secretary.
Whilst learning how to write, Kersh took on jobs to earn a living: cinema manager, bodyguard, debt collector, fish-and-chip cook, travelling salesman (‘selling everything from sausages to electric lights’), French teacher and all-in-wrestler (three bouts – one win, one loss, one draw). But it wasn’t all plain sailing – there were often nights where Kersh would sneak into Regent’s Park to sleep on their lovely benches.
Kersh was always getting into fights of one sort or another. One time, in 1931, a man tried to liquidate him with a sixpenny hatchet. Kersh side-stepped, escaped with a small gash on his forehead and a bit of concussion, retaliated with a little marble-top table and won on a technical knockout. However, the man succeeded in jolting a nerve which, for more than fifteen years, consistently gave Kersh a sore head and kept him awake nights. He bore other trophies – a knife wound on his left wrist and tooth marks on the knuckles of his right hand.
The publication of his first novel Jews Without Jehovah (Wishart 1934) garnered Kersh good reviews. It was the story of the trials and tribulations of a Jewish family in London, a tradition to be continued by Jewish writers like Brian Glanville and Bernard Kops in the 1960s. There is lots of talk, feuding, scams that go disastrously wrong, the fight of the artist against the pragmatic family. It is uncannily autobiographic. Unfortunately, three uncles and a cousin recognised derogatory sketches of themselves in it and promptly filed criminal libel suits. Later, both sides expressed their regrets, but the tension remained at weddings and funerals. Consequently, only a few copies of Jews Without Jehovah were sold before it was withdrawn from sale after half a day.
Much more successful was his savage and disgusting story of lowlife ponce Harry Fabian: Night And The City (Michael Joseph 1938). Set in London's Soho, Harry Fabian is a man who tries to look and sound like an American gangster, but he can't hide the fact that he's a loser. The more money he gets hold of, the quicker it falls through his fingers. He'll do anything for money, and eventually turns white slave trader. Harry is already at the bottom, but there are other men and women on the verge of falling into the pit. The book is as much about their lives, and the way that self-deception turns initial revulsion into acceptance. Kersh has an extremely moral standpoint, but he recognises that immorality exists and presents it wearing its true face. Kersh, in this and other books, has an artistic alter-ego who remains pure throughout and, in the end, leaves his sullied friends and lovers behind.
When Kersh sold the film rights for $40,000, all the important aspects of the book were removed, so he joked that he was the highest paid writer in history because they paid him $10,000 a word – for the title. After receiving the script, he suggested that they perforate it and hang it on a nail. A later script was used for the 1950 film directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark. I suggest that the more recent Robert De Niro version, which is set in New York, would have suffered a similar tongue-wagging from Mr Kersh.
As well as the novels, Kersh was a prolific writer of short stories for magazines like Courier and John O’London's Weekly and was well-known in Fleet Street. Articles and short stories littered the Daily Mirror and Evening Standard. Eventually, some of the short stories were collected in I Got References (Michael Joseph 1939), originally titled Jungle Of Stone, which also includes character sketches of people Kersh met over the years. It is a wholly entertaining collection of autobiography, anecdote and tall-tale-telling, and probably comes closest to the experience of actually meeting Kersh, dashing from one story and emotion to another.
Kersh wrote many crime-orientated short stories but the best-remembered were his series of tall stories about Karmesin, the greatest criminal the world has ever seen, or its greatest liar. The format involved Kersh talking to this old rogue in various cafes and bars around London. As Karmesin told his tales of robbery, blackmail, deceit and murder, he would off-handedly cadge cigarettes off Kersh or surreptitiously fill his pockets with sachets of sugar. Written from as early as 1936, so far I have found seventeen stories, of which only three have been collected in Kersh anthologies.
Gerald volunteered during the Second World War, and joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940, becoming Guardsman Gerald Kersh 2663141. He was a good shot, winning 100 cigarettes in the company shoot. Kersh wrote at night, in longhand, after lights out. He got a manuscript half-finished then took his first leave during the London Blitz. Both he and the manuscript were buried alive by a bomb. Kersh survived, but the manuscript didn't. After the bomb, Kersh's knees kept locking so he had a cartilage removed, which he kept for good luck and later swapped with an American for a Zippo lighter.
The injury got Kersh transferred to special duties where the War Office asked him to write a pamphlet about infantry training. After three months the War Office rejected his efforts, so he finished it and called it They Died With Their Boots Clean (Heinemann 1941). The story of how a bunch of raw recruits are immersed into the cauldron that is basic training before being hammered into Guards was one of the best-selling books of the war. Kersh had arrived.
Kersh was a true multi-media writer. He was in correspondence with the BBC from 1936, and wrote comedy shows for the radio as well as an adaptation of They Die With Their Boots Clean, which was banned – reason unknown. He wrote scripts and narration for the Army Film Unit. Once or sometimes three times a week there was his anonymous Private Life Of A Private column in the Daily Herald, and then there were articles for London Calling and John Bull.
Kersh wrote as Piers England for The People from 1940 until 1946. The influence of his propaganda writing should not be underestimated – The People was the largest selling Sunday newspaper during the war, and the media often took their lead from ‘Piers England’. Kersh also wrote articles and short stories under his own name from 1944 to 1947.
When he failed to become an officer, Kersh was chucked out of the Army Film Unit. He wanted to participate in the war, but everything was against him. He acted improperly. An American Colonel got Kersh accredited as an American War Correspondent. Kersh put on a uniform, talked to a man with a plane, and flew to France. How many people can claim they deserted the Army to go to the battle front? In France, Kersh ended up at the liberation of Paris. Whilst there, he found family still living – he stole food from the army mess to give to them. He discovered that several members of his family had disappeared. Two of them, he established, had been taken away in one of the death trains.
Back in England, Kersh somehow got away with his desertion. It was a sombre period. He wrote about Belsen concentration camp and about the death of his close friend and fellow writer Carl Olsson. He also co-wrote the screenplay to The True Glory, a documentary film by Garson Kanin and Carol Reed about the victory in Europe – it won an Oscar.
Immediately after the war, Kersh visited America regularly and managed to ‘crack’ prestigious and high-paying magazines of the day like The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Playboy and Collier’s. If Kersh is remembered for anything, it is for his short stories. A staple of his work from the beginning, they are reminiscent of Guy De Maupassant or HG Wells in that Kersh wrote equally well in every genre. The invention and variety is staggering. Such is the conviction of his storytelling, that it blurs the line between fact and fiction.
One story in The Saturday Evening Post, about a pilot who flies so fast he goes back in time, regresses to a baby, then crashes, was actually broadcast as news by a radio station. Another, where it is explained that the Mona Lisa kept her mouth shut because she had bad teeth, is often quoted as fact. It is interesting to note that there were many excellent short-story collections published in the UK. These contain some of Kersh's best work, yet were never published in America.
Just after World War Two, Kersh wrote his most thoughtful novels, but their quality was woefully ignored by the reviewers of the day. Prelude To A Certain Midnight (Doubleday 1947), is about the hunt for a child-murderer in Soho. Technically, it is a critique of the whole crime and mystery genre. There is the Laura Ashley school of crime writing in the presence of the formidable do-gooder Miss Asta Thundersley, who pokes her nose into the case of a murdered little girl. She gathers everyone she suspects at a party, and the only thing she learns is how to mix punch.
The police procedural is in the hands of Detective-Inspector Turpin, whose hands find nothing but walls as each clue leads to a dead end. The innocent in fear of her life is Catchy, the woman who knows everything. She is one of life's natural victims who gave the murderer confidence because she took all the abuse he could give. She was his training ground, and Catchy has to live with that. The little girl's family, the Sabitinis, were effectively destroyed by the murder. They never recover. Emotionally, the book is about the realisation that life is not always what you want it to be, that there are many losers for every winner. And in this story, the only winner is the murderer. I always recommend people to read this Kersh novel first.
The Song Of The Flea (Reginald Saunders, 1948), a loose sequel to Night And The City also set in seedy London, explores the bad luck and degradation that a writer will endure in order to make the time and money to write something of integrity. It is a testament to the optimism and sheer perseverance of the writer that even though he is foiled at every step, he continues bravely to the bitter end.
The Thousand Deaths Of Mr Small (Doubleday 1950) examines the life of a man falling into the abyss of a nervous breakdown. Mr Small wants to live a life, but he is prevented by the behaviour he learnt as a child. He blames his parents: his mother’s domineering presence, his father's meek surrender. Stopped at every turn from doing anything, Mr Small is reduced to lying, still, on his death bed. Kersh shows great understanding and sympathy for his people, and is not afraid of showing both the humour and horror of living. Honestly, sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Kersh’s reputation could easily stand on these three novels alone.
But the rot which was to haunt him for the rest of his life was setting in. He had an overdraft because of high taxes. Travelling the world in search of a home and a tax haven, he bought a $20,000 house in Barbados, but it was burnt down with practically no insurance. So he became a Canadian resident for five years and then decided on American citizenship. Illness began to overtake the body of Kersh. From 1950, he suffered from infections, diseased tissue and God knows what else – the result of his travels and, no doubt, his 22-hour work days.
Still, the books and short stories flowed endlessly from him. He wrote crime, romance, war, humour, horror and even SF. His only SF novel is The Great Wash (Heinemann 1953), published as Secret Masters in the US, which pivots on the plans of a group of scientists who want to take over the world by melting the polar ice-caps, hence flooding most of the world’s population. The plot is structured like a Edgar Wallace or Sax Rohmer thriller. As enjoyable as this book was, Kersh lost favour with the critics, who were lauding writers more concerned with experimental techniques than storytelling. From this time on, sales of Kersh’s books would fall and copies are sometimes hard to find. Always in financial difficulty, his lodgings became more shabby – credit was no longer extended. His acrimonious divorce from his second wife in 1955 left him with even more debts and responsibilities.
Kersh soon remarried, to Florence Sochis, and settled in various, remote areas of New York State where he could spot a creditor at ten miles. From this adversity arose a book which Anthony Burgess described as: ‘One of the best comic novels of the century, with Sam Yudenow as superb a creation (almost) as Falstaff.’ The novel is Fowlers End (Simon & Shuster 1957). The central figure is the cinema proprietor, Sam Yudenow, a sly, cruel, greedy man with the most infectious dialogue you are likely to read in a book – by the end of the book, I began talking like him. This was also the year that Kersh received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers Of America for his short story The Mystery Of The Bottle, which gave an eerie account behind the disappearance of writer Ambrose Bierce.
Despite the oxygen tent and operations, Kersh worked day in, day out on The Implacable Hunter (Heinemann 1961). Whilst Fowlers End was cruelly ignored by the critics, praise without end was heaped upon Kersh’s story of the life and emotion of Saul, the hunter of Christians, who became St Paul. Favourable comparison was made to the Claudius books of Robert Graves. Anthony Burgess thought Kersh at the height of his powers.
After the unsuccessful crime screwball comedy A Long Cool Day In Hell (Heinemann 1965), Kersh spent a lot of precious energy on The Angel And The Cuckoo (New American Library 1966). In many ways, it is superior to his other Soho novels Prelude To A Certain Midnight and Fowlers End, being a culmination of ideas and characters, of situations and plots, that have a richness of texture and resonance rarely found in any fiction of any age. It is a pure joy to lie back and immerse yourself in the mind of a master storyteller. The tragedy is that trouble at the publishers caused this book, among others, to be released without any backing or promotion. It didn't have a chance, so it floundered unnoticed.
Gerald Kersh died on November 5th. 1968. Brock (Heinemann 1969), a spy novel and love story with science-fiction overtones involving the ultimate explosive, was published posthumously, but was a minor work, no matter how enjoyable.
During my research I have learnt there is a sizeable number of people who think that they are the only ones who read Kersh. You can always spot a Kersh reader – they have this inner light, this twinkle in their eye, that says ‘If only you knew what I know.’ They know about Kersh. It’s their secret. The world is foolish and chooses to ignore him. Bad luck for the world. Good luck for us.