By Mary Brodbin
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Scamp/Rain on the Pavements

This article is over 11 years, 1 months old
Roland Camberton, Five Leaves, £9.99
Issue 353

Looking for a good holiday read or Christmas presents? Look no further. Five Leaves have brought out two novels, first published in the 1950s, by Roland Camberton which are wonderfully readable, light-hearted portrayals of London more than 80 years ago.

Camberton, born Henry Cohen, was a Jewish Hackney lad who attended Hackney Downs School in the 1930s and later anglicised his name to hide the shame of his writing career from his strictly religious family. Both his books are certainly semi-autobiographical.

His first book, Scamp, tells the story of would-be author Ivan Ginsberg’s attempts to produce a literary magazine which gives this book its title. It is set largely in the squares of Bloomsbury and the decaying backstreets of Soho and Fitzrovia.

The three things Ivan needs are money, a printer and contributors, and the trick is to keep all separate from one another – each might be secured by pretending that the other two existed.

Ivan lives in a rented room in Bloomsbury with mouse tracks on the congealed fat in the frying pan and the gas fire spluttering away when he can feed the meter. When the washing up is left too long, the plates, saucepans, frying pans and ashtrays get dumped to stew in the bath for a few days.

He takes us for midnight rambles from the pub off Charlotte Street where he goes to mix with bohemians and oddballs to drum up support for his magazine, then on to the all-night cafe in Fleet Street to eat sausage and chips with the printers and hacks. He mixes with anybody who is likely to be able to put some money up front for Scamp. This includes buttering up the nervous but well-off suburban divorcee Mrs Chabbers, to whom he gives weekly Russian lessons. She fancies whisking Ivan off to the Riviera but Ivan has only one plan on how to spend her money. With Scamp in mind, he forces himself to go for long all-night treks with Kagaranias, the book connoisseur and millionaire slum landlord dressed like a tramp.

His regular King’s Cross cafe is peopled by “crooks and ponces, prostitutes during an off-hour, one or two bookies, furtive sexual seekers, a bunch of toughs of primitive simplicity rarely encountered during the day”. Ivan’s prospects don’t look good.

Camberton sets his second book, Rain on the Pavements, in Hackney. David, the main character, could well be Camberton himself as he records his life growing up in an orthodox Jewish family.

Organised as ten short stories, we first meet six year old David with his Uncle Yunkel, himself only 12, as they dash round London on their sixpenny all-day tram tickets, returning late at night to the warm kitchen of their grandfather’s house, full of aunts and uncles.

Each chapter describes important people in David’s life, his young uncles and his schoolfriends, and their forays into Soho cafes, hiding their school caps, reciting poetry and looking for girls. He takes us down Cable Street as they watch two of their braver school friends tackle the fascist Mosleyites.

These two books by Camberton are a wonderful dose of London during that period, written by someone who was fascinated by street life and people watching.

After their publication, Roland Camberton vanished. In his introduction to Scamp, Hackney author Iain Sinclair writes a riveting account of his attempt to track him down. An extra bonus!

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