Ahead of the Hull Noir festival which gets underway later this month, two writers from the city praise the influence of local author, the late Ted Lewis. Julian Cole reports.
THE Minerva Hotel is a fitting place to talk about Ted Lewis. In the days before the Humber Bridge, the crime writer drank in here until the last ferry sailed for Barton, then he’d have another drink in the ferry bar on the way home.
He liked a drink, did Ted; and perhaps the drink liked him for a while, giving him confidence and a certain allure. But in the end the drink became a disease and he died, shockingly young, at the age of 42.
Ted was born in Manchester but grew up in the grim environs of post-war Humberside. He attended Hull Art School, played piano in a jazz band, loved the cinema, and wrote the classic Brit noir novel that became the film Get Carter. That book sent him south to London to sample the bright lights and the high life. He later moved back to Humberside as his life dwindled to obscurity.
The Minerva is a Victorian pub that stands tall on a corner by the quayside. Its front suggests the prow of a ship, while inside you will discover what is said to be the smallest pub room in Britain. The tiny enclave is already taken, so we find somewhere else in this pub of corners.
It’s midday and our table is filled with soft drinks, as if to taunt Ted’s ghost. Hull crime writer Nick Quantrill is here with fellow writer Nick Triplow, author of the new biography Getting Carter.
Ted Lewis is woven into their Hull Noir crime festival, which runs at the Royal Britannia Hotel starting next week.
Triplow is a crime novelist, author of Frank’s Wild Years, and a writer of social history. Moving some years ago from south London to Barton-upon-Humber, he kept hearing three stories about the town.
One was that Sir Isaac Pitman, who invented shorthand, had lived there. Another was that the American fugitive Robert Elmer Kleasen, who is said to have inspired the film the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, ended up in the town, too. And then there was Ted.
Triplow was researching a social history book about industry on the Humber bank. “And lots of people in Barton kept saying, ‘You want to write about that Ted Lewis’.”
Lewis had a tragic life, I suggest – but Triplow isn’t so sure about that.
“There are times when you can look at it and think it was a sad way to go. But he did what he wanted to do,” he says. “You have to admire someone who writes what they want to write and to hell with the consequences.”
Lewis wrote nine novels, alongside screenplays for Z Cars and a never-seen four-part series of Doctor Who.
“I wish he’d have done more and I wish his health had been better and he’d been around for those people who felt affection for him,” says Triplow.
“If you’re an alcoholic, if you’re suffering from that illness, certain things come with it and closing yourself off from people is one of the things that comes with it. And gradually pushing away people because you can’t handle that affection and you can’t handle people caring. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the illness.”
Many people had great affection for Lewis, and some appear in the book as character witnesses. Chief among them is York artist and musician Ron Burnett, who played in a jazz band with Ted.
Were people happy to talk? “Some were, some less so,” says Triplow. “He affected people quite deeply, in positive ways. The friendship with Ron was the one that lasted and endured. Ron still has a great deal of affection for him.”
The biography is a fascinating read and makes a case for Lewis as a forerunner of much modern British crime fiction, with his revenge thriller Jack’s Return Home – filmed as Get Carter – being an exemplar of noir, crime’s darker cousin.
The autobiography’s cover shows Ted in a leather jacket, arms folded, hair thick, gaze constant. He is standing next to a suited Michael Caine, who plays the cold-blooded London gangster in the film.
As a true man of Hull, Nick Quantrill says of the book that became Get Carter: “It’s 50 years ago but it still feels like the north and it resonates now. I think that’s what it is for me as a writer, the fact that he’s a very northern writer. Everything I have written has been set in Hull essentially, so I feel there is a line there from what Ted did.”
Triplow cherishes the toughness of Lewis’s writing. “It’s not contrived. There are a lot of British writers who tried to write like Raymond Chandler and Ted didn’t try to write like that – he just wrote the way he wrote. And that’s his style.
“He was immersed in film and Chandler novels and all that stuff. It didn’t come through self-consciously. It came through completely naturally as non-metropolitan noir fiction.”
Quantrill adds: “I think you can draw a line from people like Lewis to Ian Rankin, that authenticity of his work and the toughness of it. With people like Rankin, you can still see Lewis’s DNA.
“And David Peace, who acknowledges that influence,” adds Triplow.
Hull Noir has three strands. One will look the city and its contemporary crime-writing scene; another contains the Iceland Noir festival, that usually happens in Reykjavik, but sometimes travels, in this case to its twin city; and the third strand is Ted Lewis.
“We wanted to tell his story to a wider audience,” says Quantrill, “and place him within the context of the crime-writing genre.”
Martina Cole, who’s been perfecting her own tough brand of fiction for a quarter of a century, is among the big names, along with John Connolly and Mark Billingham.
Both Nicks will be appearing on panels during the festival, which will also feature a murder walk along a gruesome trail through Hull, as well as a Noir in the Bar event at the Minerva.
Triplow, who will launch Getting Carter during the festival, will introduce screenings of three films at Vue Cinema – fitting as Ted Lewis was a film obsessive.
The first is Point Blank, the 1969 John Boorman movie, starring Lee Marvin. “Obviously that film was an influence on Lewis,” says Triplow. “He’d seen that as he was working on Get Carter.”
The second film is, naturally enough, Get Carter, while the third is Dead Man’s Shoes, the Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine film. “There’s a line through it,” says Triplow. “Those films that influenced Lewis, his own film and films influenced by him.”
One panel at the festival has the provocative, if enjoyable, title of Brawlers and B******* – and it explores how writers create compelling characters who aren’t particularly likeable.
As a proud man of Hull, this has been a great year for Quantrill, and he is loving the cultural focus. “I think City of Culture has been about uncovering untold stories in the region and I think Ted Lewis is a major one in the crime field.”
Both Nicks recommend trying to find a copy of GBH. “It’s his masterpiece,” says Quantrill. It’s a dark novel about a pornographer and all-round villain who leaves London to live on the Scunthorpe coast, where he suffers a psychological disintegration while looking back to his London life.
The house in the book is one where Lewis lived for a while. Triplow wanted to see the house and spent ages tracking it down. The owner had no idea about its past. “I said he should check the cellar if he had one,” he jokes.
For more information about the festival go to www.hullnoir.com
Hull Noir: City of Culture gets gritty
Hull Noir runs from November 12 - 19 and celebrates the best of British and international crime fiction.
It also highlights Hull’s crime fiction heritage from Get Carter author Ted Lewis through to the current crop of writers working in the city.
The star turn is Martina Cole, who has been writing her tough brand of fiction for 25 years.
Other guests include John Connolly and Mark Billingham, who will share a stage – “That’ll be more like stand-up comedy,” promises Quantrill – alongside Quentin Bates, David Mark, Luca Veste, Jake Arnott and others.
Icelandic novelist Lilja Sigurdardottir, whose novel Snare is the festival’s Big Read, will also be taking part.