The rush of metal and glass, brick, tarmac concrete and flesh makes London what it is, and buries the past. But glimpses of an older London remain, often in books. They stand obstinate like boulders in a fast river, each creviced in past lives and attitudes, thoughts fossilised in words.
Oxford Circus 1943 Arthur H Nellen
Peter Cheyney’s heroes and villains inhabit a London now gone, as alien in their prejudices and outlook on life as any Arcadian Greek. It would be easy to sneer at them as smug and small minded with very poor teeth, except for the fact that Cheyney’s heroes have exceptionally good teeth considering the amount of alcohol and nicotine they ingest.
John le Carre was recently asked about what spy books that might have influenced him as a child. His answer was interesting. He duly bowed his head to Kipling, Conrad, Buchan and Greene, and then referred to the:
‘…awful, mercifully-forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co. And an anti-German rabble-rouser called E. Phillips Oppenheim who practically launched World War One singlehanded.’
John le Carre’s judgement, though true to a point, is flawed, partly from class, and by his own talent as a writer. Cheyney was chauvinistic, and pretty awful as a writer, but he shouldn’t be forgotten mercifully or otherwise. Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time do not necessarily make his books great, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it an played it back to them. And we’re talking about the popular mood, not that necessarily of the educated but of people who bought his work in droves.
Books are treasure troves of the past, and people reading Conrad J.B Priestly or Greene might recognise a particular version of it, filtered through the author’s imagination. It will though have, or represent, a relatively narrow class base.
Cheyney’s books travelled with soldiers to the battlefields of Europe, and were found in the homes of the ‘Resistance’. His ‘Dark’ series had relevance and brought a new degree of realism to the spy novel with its soiled glamour, its weary brutality.
Peter Cheyney’s world might make one shiver with horror or suppressed glee at his robust and thoughtless chauvinism, his narrow certainties that ‘pansies’ were abominable and foreigners not to be trusted. He is, though, reflecting an uncomfortable fact that the real heroes of World War II were not the moral icons that the media then and now prefer to portray – the awkward bits cut out. The heroes of World War II would be homophobic, racist bigots by our standards, but heroes nevertheless. It was the ordinary man with the ordinary prejudices of the time – and the aspirations that Cheyney portrayed. Those less literate than Greene or le Carre made Cheyney rich because he wrote what they wanted to hear, and so provides a reader today a fascinating insight into a world long gone.