June 1, 2010
“It was Tuesday, February on the deathbed of its final day, eking out its last breath in an unhealthy pallor of grey sky and a hint of fog that would thicken as evening came. It was dismally cold, the clammy cold of a toad’s belly. Chilled to the bone, London moved reluctantly about its business and wished it had been born somewhere along the equator; monsoons, hurricanes, earthquakes and all.
In the buffet of Cannon Street Station it was just a little warmer, though the breath of the dying month showed itself on the wide windows, was spread across them like a close, grey curtain. Beyond the windows was the dull throb of waiting electric trains, the sound of drills and urgent voices as the station’s great and ugly hulk was slowly demolished to make room for the ideas of this decade’s drawing-office.”
I was prompted to re-read this one by my friend Clive, who recently asked if anyone could recommend him some “good British crime fiction” adding that he was looking for the “British equivalent to the US hard-boiled stuff (no cosy manor houses where the butler did it); spivs and grim boarding rooms and B&Bs.” So I rummaged through my books, and came across The Sheep and the Wolves by George Burnett, which I hadn’t read for ages anyway — I couldn’t remember what happened in it, but thought it would be just what Clive was after.
And you know what? It’s just the sort of thing Clive was after, showing London in the early 1960s as it slowly wakes up to the burgeoning delights of the decade of glamour and love, after the extended down-trodden existence of enforced austerity in the post-war decades. We’re shown this contrast of the old and new through the eyes of two families, the Smiths and the Brummles.
Smith junior, a ne’er-do-well called Wilf, is made in the same mould as Pinkie Brown, only not as wily. Brummle junior is Ron, a dippy day-dreamer. His sister Doris is an ambitious but naive starlet-in-waiting, who gets herself on the ladder to fame by working in a strip club. These three are all, in their own way, attempting to become the wolves who succeed amongst the masses of sheep in London, but none of them really do, and only one of them has anything like a happy ending.
The story nicely intertwines between the fortunes of its cast, with a gripping plot, albeit a predictable finale. But where it really shines is in the dialogue and the descriptions of a city packed full of people all dreaming of becoming wolves, but living like sheep.
The cover illustration is by Pat Owen, who painted many of the covers of Pan Books, but it’s hard to find much information about him online. I’ve been unable to find anything at all about author George Burnett online, but this comment on the Flickr page describes his author photo quite aptly and amusingly: “George Burnett looks more like a cross eyed Wurlitzer player from the Croydon Gaumont, or a flirtacious pork butcher, than a writer of gripping fiction.”
Regardless of how he looked, he certainly had a flair for words, and if his descriptions of London in this book are anything to go by, it’s a shame that he remains unknown and unsung, like so many other sheep.
a 1991 interview with Pat Owen (and Sam Peffer who painted lots of Pan Books covers as well)