Book review: Secondhand Daylight

There’s not much mystery but plenty of atmosphere in trip back to Soho in the Thirties

I first encountered DJ Taylor sometime in the 1980s when he wrote an article saying just how bad most contemporary English novels were.

It was a clever young un’s article written to catch the attention of literary editors, which it did; and his career has deservedly gone swimmingly ever since. He expanded that article into a book (A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s), and has written biographies of Thackeray and Orwell, a book about the decline of amateurism in sport, another about the Bright Young People of the 1920s, and a dozen novels.

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Not bad going, especially since it takes nerve to set up as a novelist after starting out by slating other ones.

Taylor’s are pretty good novels nevertheless: Ask Alice was especially good.

A couple of years ago he wrote At the Chime of the City Clock, a crime novel, or sort of crime novel, set in London in the early 1930s. I make that qualification because, although there were indeed crimes and criminals and policemen, it seemed that Taylor was much less interested in the plot than in capturing the mood and rhythm of London life then, something he did exceptionally well.

The book was an exercise in seediness, homage to Orwell and early Graham Greene, perhaps to Patrick Hamilton also. If the narrative drive was weak, the charm was abundant. Taylor gave us the London of Lyons Corner Houses, cheap caffs, Woodbine cigarettes, lonely men drinking brown ales or Reid’s Stout in shabby pubs, door-to-door salesmen, landladies, tarts and bookies’ runners. Lovely stuff.

Most of that book was narrated by James Ross, a struggling poet, picking up a living when and as he could. Ross’s story was interspersed with chapters narrated in the third person, and gradually the two narratives came together.

Secondhand Daylight is a sort of sequel, billed as “A James Ross Mystery”, and, though the mystery element is weak, a mere excuse for an exploration of Soho in 1933, the subtitle seems to promise that we may in later books follow James’s erratic course through that drab, dishonest decade. Anyone for whom London in the Thirties exerts a nostalgic fascination will certainly hope so.

James is now eking out his meagre literary earnings with work as a rent collector and, three evenings a week, as a front-of-house man in a nightclub. He is still living hand-to-mouth and still having difficulties with girls, principally now with one called Gladys Marlborough who may or may not be a tart, and who is a girl who blows now hot, now cold. Meanwhile, as an unfortunate incident, James finds himself in a police cell, from which he is rescued by the police inspector, Haversham with whom he had dealings in the previous novel. This time Haversham instructs him to infiltrate Mosley’s Blackshirts, who are just getting going and are engaging in an operation to clean up Soho because the Vice is mostly in the hands of the Jews. (The man who owns the houses for which James collects the rents, and also the nightclub, is a Jew, though he says he is an Ulsterman.) Scenes in the Mosleyite Black House in Chelsea are comic, as is an episode in which James is recruited to work as a waiter at a dinner Mosley is hosting where the guest of honour is the Prince of Wales – who comes across as agreeable and rather pathetic. All this is good fooling.

There are other scenes which give off faint agreeable echoes of Anthony Powell’s early novels – notably one in which an old lady invites James and Miss Marlborough to attend. a séance. The plot is perfunctory. And James’s narrative is interrupted by one third-person chapter which seems to have nothing to do with it. A girl is collected by a man with a sports car and driven out of London for a day of drinking in pubs, having tea and cakes in a Fuller’s Café, and visiting a cinema before drink has them abandon the intention to return to London that night. The chapter is a gem, and I can only conclude that Mr Taylor liked it as much as I do and couldn’t bear to leave it out.

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Other chapters are proceeded by snatches of James Ross’s “Soho Eclogues” and the novel concludes with his “Ballad of Soho”, allegedly published in the New English Review. DJ Taylor has written a book which is simultaneously a slice-of-life re-creation of a largely vanished time and place, and a very literary novel packed with allusions to other books and echoes of them. If you like this sort of thing , you will love it. I found it a delight, and hope to follow James Ross’s progress through the decade. Taylor has also a very nice ear for the way people speak, or, rather, spoke then.

• Secondhand Daylight

by DJ Taylor

Corsair, 213pp, £14.99