Wide Boys Never Work
by Robert Westerby
The reaction to the publication of Wide Boys Never Work in 1937 is currently lost in the fog of time, though as more and more of the nation’s archives become digitised they may one day reveal themselves once more. In the Methuen second edition of Wide Boys in 1942 Westerby mounts a defence of the novel in a fresh introduction. This is reproduced in full in the new London Books edition but in summary the author defends the notion that such people as the characters from Wide Boys did not really exist or were exaggerated. One assumes that if Westerby felt the need to insert this qualification he had come under some sort of attack and/or taken flak in the media or from individual members of the public. Gangsters like Darby Sabini from Clerkenwell were well established by then and Billy Hill was emerging but one can only assume that the public at large did not have the general knowledge about the workings of the criminal underworld as they do today. Billy Hill’s 1955 autobiography King Of The Underworld was, arguably, the first in the True Crime genre of literature that thrives to this day and that has been underpinned by the exploits, real and imagined, of the brothers Kray. Today, society wishes that the criminal classes among us did only wield razors at racecourses and seedy nightclubs at the extremes, as Westerby’s wide boys did, rather than the increasingly common use of handguns, rifles and knives seen on our streets, parks and public places that confront us now.
Westerby is generally credited with having been the first to use the term ‘wide boy’ in literature but it is highly unlikely that he created it. Language historians attribute it to being a British slang term to describe petty criminals, gangsters and conmen but Westerby may have picked it up from the American pot-boiler fiction he absorbed as a young man. Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s sometimes referred to people as ‘being wide’ and it is unlikely that the Americans could have so quickly assimilated this phrase into their everyday lingo merely from Westerby’s 1937 novel.
Whatever the origins, the meaning of ‘wide boy’ has certainly shifted over time. Westerby’s wide boys were thoroughly unsavoury people capable of serious crime and violence but by the 1960s ‘wide boy’ had become synonymous with a spiv and a spiv was a man who dealt with secondhand goods, who winked a lot, but was essentially spineless, harmless and normally pot-less. They were comedy figures personified by Arthur English in the 1950s in music hall, by James Beck as Private Walker in the 1970s on TV in Dad’s Army, by George Cole as Arthur Daley in Minder in the 1980s, and most famously and coming up to date with Derek Trotter from Only Fools And Horses. Indeed a geezer indulging in a spot of ‘dealing‘ is more likely to be called a Del Boy today as he is a wide boy.
Wide Boys Never Work finally made it on to the big screen in 1956 when it was made into a film called Soho Incident after going under the working title of 44, Soho Square. No doubt the name was altered to avoid any legal wrangles with the real occupants of 44, Soho Square. One speculates whether the reason the book title was not used was because spivs and wide boys were not the most popular people in the aftermath of the war because in some quarters they were believed to have shirked active service and undermined the war effort. In America the film went under the more inviting title of Spin A Dark Web. Westerby did not write the screenplay which was surprising as by this time he was an accomplished and much-used film and TV scriptwriter, but the simple explanation is most likely that he was over in America working on the screenplay for King Vidor’s epic War And Peace. Soho Incident was written by Ian Stuart Black who had penned many of the episodes of the early police TV drama Fabian Of The Yard and would later work on vintage TV classics such as The Invisible Man (as did Westerby), Dr Who, The Saint and Danger Man, and was probably well known to Westerby.
Lee Paterson, a Canadian-born actor, played Jim Bankley, the ‘hero’ of the book, but besides shared themes of boxing and the London underworld, film and book – like most literary adaptations – veered widely. Paterson was a stalwart ‘American’ in much British TV and film of the 1960s and played a supporting part to Kenneth More in the box office smash of 1956, Reach For The Sky, the biopic of war hero Douglas Bader. Paterson died in 2007 and his American co-star Faith Domergue died in 1999. Whilst the leads were clearly selected to please the hoped-for American market the supporting cast were comfortingly British and they didn’t come any more comforting or British than Sam Kydd. In Soho Incident he played a character called Sam and this may well have been to simplify matters as he appeared in at least fifteen other films that year including, of course, Reach For The Sky, and may not have known whether he was coming or going as he charged around between the studios at Pinewood, Ealing and Elstree.
Whilst Robert Westerby wrote about the wide boys that never worked he worried and felt for the real boys that couldn’t get work in those depressed decades of the 1920s and 1930s. In Wide Boys he refers to ‘the decent men, the hard and disillusioned men, who file slowly through the Labour Exchange’ and he often made the connection between enforced idleness and the potential to descend into criminality. In a later book Voice From England, despite being privately educated, he hoped that ‘the aftermath of war would bring an end to the gross inequality of the British education system’. There is no doubt that Westerby belongs to the school of writers who emerged in the 20th century, like George Orwell and James Curtis, who were born into privilege but campaigned against it in their literature.
For me, Wide Boys Never Work is an enigmatic, perfectly-formed cult fiction book, two or three decades ahead of its time. Jim Bankley could be Arthur Seaton from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night And Sunday Morning leaving the north of England to join Harry Fabian and Shorty Mathews in the grimy Soho as reflected by Gerald Kersh and James Curtis. I like to think that the three authors met through the course of their work and drank together in the famous literary watering houses of Soho and after each session went home with their heads fuzzy with beer and ideas and settled down to write chapters of their respective books – The Gilt Kid, Wide Boys Never Work and Night And The City all published in a short period between 1936 and 1938 and all masterpieces of lowlife literature. The biggest enigma, to me, in Wide Boys though is Robert Westerby’s dedication – TO JAS. NARROWEST OF THE WIDE BOYS. I’d really love to know just who Jas was. © Martin Knight, 2008