There Ain’t No Justice. By James Curtis

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There Ain’t No Justice. By James Curtis


Thu, 15/05/2014 - 11:41


There Ain’t No Justice. By James Curtis
James Curtis
15 May, 2014

THERE Ain’t No Justice is a novel steeped in blood, sweat and tobacco smoke.

Originally published in 1937 and now re-issued by the London Books imprint, it is a novel based in the shadowy world of semi-professional boxing rings of the decade.
London Books specialise in rediscover­ing classic novels that depict the lives of working Londoners, and this is the third work they have printed by Kilburn-based novelist James Curtis. 
Born in 1907, Curtis came from a middle-class family, was well educated and was a keen linguist, speaking six different languages.

But, as London Books editor Martin Knight describes, 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 his writing”.

Curtis’s life can be split into two halves. By 1939, he had written five well-received books, two of which had been made into films. He was just 32.
At the outbreak of war, he joined the army, rising to the rank of major and was involved in the Burma campaign.

Perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress, Curtis wrote only one more book, the 1956 novel Look Long Upon A Monkey

His marriage failed, and he moved to a bedsit in Kilburn.

He became a well-known face in the area’s pubs, where he made good friends with many of the neighbour­hood’s Irish diaspora.

He worked for a time as a caretaker in a Kilburn primary school, and died in 1977, virtually forgotten.

But, as this re-issue proves, his legacy is worth celebrating. 
In There Ain’t No Justice, the hero Tommy Mutch is a streetwise teenager from Notting Dale, who is handy with his fists.

His ageing coach Tommy Dunn scents a bright future – if he can keep away from small-time weekly bouts for prize money to feed his family.

But as he shows his aptitude, the sports business vultures circle, keen to exploit and corrupt – leaving Mutch with difficult choices to face. A sub-plot involving backstreet abortions further sets the tone.

Curtis’s novels captured a sense of the period.

A far cry from the literary pretensions of the time, he wrote in a Cockney vernacular and covered the sorts of topics that were familiar to millions but rarely written about: working people, life in the Depression, the growing threat of Fascism, the street politics of the Left.

He knew about London’s seedier life, his books creating a “hard-boiled” world that lovers of Americana gumshoe detective books would have recognised, but transposed into London.

Curtis saw using how the novel form could carry political issues well. In the same way John Steinbeck wrote of the Great Depression through The Grapes of Wrath, Curtis brought to the reader the daily travails of working-class life and the hard choices people faced as they sought to earn an honest living in the face of hardship.
It is no surprise that Curtis seized on boxing to use as a metaphor for the lot of the working man.

In the 1930s, boxing was in its heyday: as well as boxing clubs, schools and the armed forces provided opportunities for wannabe pugilists. 

Boxing was advertised as the way for working-class men to make their fortunes.

As Martin Knight points out – and as Curtis reveals in the book – this was not the case. Curtis’s point was that while boxing was considered a route to riches, it simply wasn’t true.

“It was an illusory goal,” Martin says. “Many would end up penniless, physically and mentally damaged, taking small comfort from peer admiration in the caffs and pubs of their manor.”
The reality was young boxers would be hoodwinked by unscrupulous promoters, quickly corrupted, made to throw fights for bookies and dragged into a world where sporting honour simply didn’t exist.
There Ain’t No Justice is not just a powerful, political story. It is also terrifically evocative novel.

It is littered with the language of the period and we’re treated to plenty of street slang that is now rarely heard outside a Chas and Dave concert – cowsons, cor blimeys and bleeders.

It also recreates a part of our city that has long gone.

The Notting Dale communities where much of the action takes place, were hit by the building of the Westway that prompted slum clearances.

Today the area is known as Notting Hill (though that is an elastic geographical entity) where homes – once split into multiple flats  housing people like the Mutches – cost millions. 

As Martin adds, Curtis drew on his own experiences, illustrating the circles he moved in. “The author’s grasp of 
the real world and how real lives were being  lived is no more evident than in the boxing scenes,” he says.
“One can almost smell the iodine during the fight passages, his boxing knowledge is technical. There can be no doubt Curtis had immersed himself in this world.”

There Ain’t No Justice. By James Curtis, London Books Classics, £11.99.

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