© Nicolette Edwards
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 - as well as at least one non-fiction work, A Guide To British Liberties , part of the Fact series of political observations by left-wing authors in the 1930s. They Drive By Night and There Ain't No Justice were both made into films.
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, 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 writing, as well as the course of his life.
As an author, Curtis was especially interested in spoken English. He would learn six languages and 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 novels that go beyond fiction to provide a window on the working-class London of his day, and of those operating at the margins of society.
He would have been a regular face around the pubs and clubs of Soho and 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 and dangerous, the glamorous core of a huge industrial city. Writers such as Curtis, Gerald Kersh and Robert Westerby felt at home here. Curtis’ fiction deals in notions of justice and equality, his characters often moving through the criminal twilight zone he had come to know. It is believed he served time in prison, and his characters know a lot about the workings of the penal system,.
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 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 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.
He died in Kilburn in 1977, leaving nothing of financial value and none of his novels 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. Despite the sadder aspects of his life, Curtis remained his own man, the box of papers found after his death including an angry rejection of a film treatment for The Gilt Kid. His novels stand fresh and vibrant, celebrations of a culture as much as commentaries on the ills of society.