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Authors: Gerald Kersh

The Song of the Flea

BOOK: The Song of the Flea

The Song of the Flea





That’s a valiant flea that dare eat
his breakfast on the lip of a lion

, Henry V

At his death in 1968 Kersh had left us with a dazzling gallery of criminals and artists, characters filled with love and loathing, and carrying the seeds of their own destruction. It’s a mystery that he is not regarded as a great British writer of the twentieth century.

Christopher Fowler,
Independent on Sunday
, 18 September 2011

Forty-five years after he left us Gerald Kersh still suffers from little better than the ‘large, vague renown’ Orwell famously ascribed to Thomas Carlyle. He is remembered chiefly for
Night and the City
(1938), one of the great novels of London’s Soho, driven by its shabby anti-hero Harry Fabian. Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version starring Richard Widmark has certainly helped that book to endure. But Kersh’s novel lives on by itself because it teems with adroitly observed forms of (low) life, and it still feels like the real thing. Readers who come newly to Kersh usually sense quite soon from his salty,
presence on the page that this was a writer who lived fully, and who never missed a trick. Evidently all he saw was of interest to him, not to say fair game.

Kersh does have his notable and steadfast champions today: Harlan Ellison has vigorously sought to promote awareness of a man whose talent he considered ‘immense and compelling’; Michael Moorcock is the ‘sometime executor’ of the Kersh estate and has kindly made possible Faber Finds’ reissues of a selection of Kersh’s finest works; while cinema-book specialist Paul Duncan has also been an avid advocate for Kersh, and is understood to have been at work awhile on a biography. What general readers may know of Kersh for the moment is largely down to the information these men have placed in the public domain.

Kersh was born in Teddington on 26 August 1911. Writing as a meaningful pastime came quickly to him, such that he soon sniffed a vocation. He quit schooling early, and raced through a succession of jobs as if seeking to go one better on Hemingway’s maxim that a novelist ought to have a friend in every occupation. In 1934 he published a
roman-à-clef, Jews without Jehovah
, but it wasn’t on sale for very long, since three uncles and a cousin of Kersh’s made out unflattering renderings of themselves within its pages, and sought legal redress – apparently a lasting source of tension at Kersh family occasions.

Following the outbreak of war Kersh joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940 and seems to have been rated a decent soldier. His first stint of leave was during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, whereupon he narrowly escaped fatal injury but was thereafter reassigned to desk duties. In 1941 he drew on his Guardsman experience to write
They Die with Their Boots Clean
, a classic fictional account of basic training, and he enjoyed a surprise bestseller with a work that is richly illustrative of his gift for refining into print things you can well imagine he actually heard. (Finds offers the book, bound up with its sequel
The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson
, under the title given this pairing by their US publisher:
Sergeant Nelson of the Guards

Thereafter Kersh would be phenomenally productive: a writer not merely of novels and stories but of journalism, sketches and columns, radio and documentary film scripts. After the war he settled in the US and there made himself a fixture in popular magazines that paid well for stories and brought him to huge readerships: the
Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier’s, Playboy
. Kersh’s stories are the most accessible demonstration of his protean gifts: the strange and fantastical tales are especially
cherished, and may be sampled in Finds’ reissues of
The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories
as well as a broader selection chosen by Simon Raven entitled
The Best of Gerald Kersh
. At the height of this productivity came three of his most admired novels:
Prelude to a Certain Midnight
The Song of the Flea
(1948), and
The Thousand Deaths of Mr Small

Kersh wrote so much, his printed output was so compendious, that one might suppose he never had time to blot a line. And yet his sentence-making is remarkably strong. He was both a singular talent and a hard grafter: a crafter of sentences, spinner of yarns, scholar of human follies. His living by the pen, however, seems to have been rarely better than precarious, for a variety of reasons: he had money troubles, personal troubles, health troubles, and over time these tended to come at him in battalions. Amid this turmoil he could still produce
Fowler’s End
(1958), judged by Anthony Burgess as ‘one of the best comic novels of the century’. Burgess was also a champion of
The Implacable Hunter
(1961); and
The Angel and the Cuckoo
(1966) earned Kersh more high praise. But by then he was very nearly through: he died in New York on 5 November 1968, aged fifty-seven. He remains one of those writers perpetually in need of revival, admired by near enough all who read him, awaiting still his golden hour of evangelism. The reader, if not already a convert, is warmly invited to start here.

Richard T Kelly

Editor, Faber Finds

July 2013

his cold filmy eye, his long wrinkled red neck, shiny morning-coat and flat bald skull, the landlord resembled one of those small Mexican buzzards that float down out of the sky and find, in village rubbish heaps, eatables that even the pigs will not touch. When you see a large number of them wheeling and hovering in the distance you know that somewhere below there is dirt, apathy, poverty, and death. They can sense the death of a rat or the decay of a cast-up fish a mile above the earth. As soon as their claws touch the ground their mighty wings fold; they stop looking like birds and become little wicked mean old men, like Busto, with their hands hidden under the tails of their greasy morning-coats. They advance cautiously, never moving their heads, abstracted-looking and seemingly indifferent—until they are within pecking distance. Then their necks stretch like concertinas and their murderous beaks go to work. If their prey is not dead, but dying, they wait, looking not unlike respectable tradesmen. Then, as soon as life flickers away, they go straight for the eyes, which are to a buzzard what oysters are to a city businessman: a little
to roll around the tongue before the main dish. How they rend and gulp! You see the scrawny, rugose necks jumping and quivering. From time to time they raise reddened beaks and look (as you might think) straight ahead. In point of fact, their horrible muddy sepulchral eyes are taking in everything. They never pause for long: one of their brothers, sons, wives or husbands may take advantage of the pause to gulp an extra beakful. In the half second of pause, however, they look strangely serene. Then they go to it again, ripping and tearing, burying their filthy heads in the carrion. Wave a stick at them and they stop, put on an expression of outraged respectability, and waddle away—only a few feet away—and stand equidistant from one another with every appearance of disinterestedness.
One of them seems to be looking at his neighbour; another might be admiring the sunset; a third looks as if he is working out some deep dark metaphysical proposition. But they are watching their carrion and you, and as soon as you turn your back there they are again, taking what they can while they can, bloody to the shoulders, but always decently covered in shiny shabby genteel mourning and ready at any moment to hop back and raise their wrinkled heads to heaven in silent ecstasies of injured innocence.

Busto the landlord was like that. Fifty years of watching and listening had given him a sort of second sight. But he did not live in the upper air: he lived in some dark place under the earth. His room was in the basement. It was a converted
. There he lived and slept and kept his accounts, and he knew the meaning of every sound in the house. He could interpret the inwardness of every intonation and the significance of every footstep. He could read the nervous defiance in the heavy stamping and loud laughter of the tenant who was trying to establish confidence in spite of an empty pocket. He was infallible in his assessment of true and false nonchalance, and might have written a monograph on Walking Downstairs. Some people walked quietly because it was their nature to do so, because they did not want to disturb their fellow men. Others, again, walked quietly because they were afraid: they had had experience of apartment houses, and were anxious to earn goodwill as nice quiet tenants; they walked flat-footed, firmly, slowly and with great care. There was considerable difference between careful and stealthy descent. The stealthy descender—the man with his heart in his mouth—made a different kind of noise; Busto could almost hear the unhappy wretch’s heart missing a beat as the floorboards on the second landing creaked. Then, of course, the footsteps paused for a second before coming on down. The landlord would be waiting. He knew. In the malodorous little passage, which to the haggard eyes of the departing tenant appeared to be a quarter of a mile long and strewn with nightmarish obstacles, Busto always appeared, blacker than the night in his black coat, hideous as a wizard in the light of a sixpenny paraffin lamp.


You could not deceive him by running. There is a remarkable difference between the sound of a man running in a hurry and that of a runner in a fright. Nothing can disguise it. Busto could have told you whether you were trying to get to a place or away from a place. A mad dash in the dead of night would not save you. He knew in advance what you intended; but the devil knows how he knew. He was a connoisseur of poverty. There are men who can guess your weight to an ounce: he could guess your means to a shilling. Not only could he detect a lie—he could feel it coming, and had an unearthly way of knowing whether there was anything of value in your battered old fibre luggage. He could tell, by the way you carried it. His sombre, stuffy, cold, dank little room was full of suitcases confiscated and held in lieu of rent. Tears would not melt Busto; neither could promises impress him: he was beyond pity or faith. He knew his customers. He knew that you were lying, to him or yourself, or both of you, when you swore with tears in your wide-open eyes that you had been promised a job on Thursday, or that you had at last persuaded your mother to send you a couple of pounds by Friday at the latest. Busto knew that on Thursday morning or Friday afternoon you would go out whistling, with a false grin on your hopeless face, leaving your bag in your room; and you would never come back. Naturally, for your departure, you wore your best clothes and carried a clean shirt, if you had one, under your coat. He saw. He knew.

His cold, soulless rheumy old eyes were full of deadly omniscience. Tenants had often tried to take their property away piece by piece … a shirt to-day, a pair of trousers to-morrow, a couple of books on Monday; but Busto observed what was taken out and what was brought back. He knew the contents of every room, down to the last handkerchief. So, having strode out humming or whistling, forcing your grin—which fell awry and went away like smoke in the open air—you wandered on your way and never came back. If you owed fourteen shillings in rent (and he would never let you owe more) you knew that you had left thirty shillings’ worth behind you,
because he would never have given you those few days of grace if he was not assured that you had that much to leave.

So his room was crammed with abandoned personal property, clipped down in cardboard attaché cases, fibre suitcases, and leather valises that had seen better days and changed hands a hundred times. Before selling what you had left he held it for a year. Sometimes, not often, you left something that he could not sell, and which therefore he kept. Busto threw nothing away. He had, for instance, a number of books; an air-pump; a cracked Buddha; an extremely filthy tin box, hideously encrusted, full of untouchable powder-puffs and dried-up sticks of theatrical make-up; a cavalry sabre; a French pewter jug with a melted bottom, in which someone had tried to boil water; a birdcage, two-thirds of a fishing-rod, thirty wooden chessmen, a magnificent fountain-pen without the nib, a fine copper kettle without a spout, a broken flintlock pistol, a steel engraving of the burning of the Palace of Sardanapalus, and a painted Persian box which might have been valuable if the lid had not been missing. There was also a cluster of artificial flowers under a glass bell, which had belonged to a mysterious old lady who had come primly out of nowhere with this and another glass-domed Victorian ornament—a wax figurine remarkably like herself, but better dressed. She had sold the figurine and run away, leaving the artificial flowers and a few clothes, which Busto had managed to sell at a profit. There were ink-wells without tops, peculiar old hats, out-dated women’s shoes with the Louis heels of the 1920’s, a moth-eaten overcoat with an exhausted beaver collar, which no one would have as a gift, and an enormously complicated radio set with twenty-two dusty valves shaped like tulip bulbs. This had belonged to an inventor, a Russian, who was tormented by persecution mania and hallucinations. No one ever knew exactly what he thought he was inventing: it was impossible to understand what he said. He put three padlocks on his door. Every morning he went out on some mysterious errand. Sometimes he would return five minutes later and creep upstairs, grinding his teeth, for he believed that enemies, spies in the pay of Marconi, were lurking at every corner. His neighbours complained: he used to talk to
himself, and the conversation, growing acrimonious, always ended in angry screaming. One foggy morning he went out as usual, and never came back, leaving his strange machine. A radio engineer, who examined it carefully and said that it had no meaning; the transformers, coils and valves were just wired together in a highly complicated way, and all the connections ended nowhere. It was the merest fantasy, a foolish dream: the Russian’s life-work.

That is the sort of wretch that came limping out of the streets with a sagging suitcase to live in Busto’s apartment house. His place was a kind of sorting-office and clearing house for the jails, the casual wards, the lunatic asylums, and the mortuary slabs. Here, desperately clinging to the last strained strand of your dignity, you felt the fibres giving way; for you had to fall pretty low to live at Busto’s. The building itself seemed to have been forgotten of God: passers-by gave it a sidelong glance and then hurried on—it reminded them, inexplicably, of those silent, horrible outcasts that sleep on the benches outside the park at Bayswater. You do not like to be seen looking at them, and wonder how a human being can fall so deep and still hang on to the chewed, trampled, muddy butt-end of his life. Busto’s house ought to have been condemned twenty years before, but he held a long lease and would not move. He hoped to be paid to go: there was a rumour current that his side of the street was to be pulled down to make room for a large office building. He wanted substantial compensation: his house was his living, and he claimed to have built up what he called “goodwill”. It is true that he was notorious in West Central London for his squalid avarice and had become the subject of fabulous stories. There is a frontier beyond which disagreeable things become preposterous, and then it is not difficult to laugh at them.. Exhausted men, slouching into all-night cafés to drowse away the small hours over twopennyworth of coffee, passed the time exchanging reminiscences of Busto’s apartment house. They said that he was not a man but a ghost, too mean to give you a fright; that he smoked his tenants’ cigarette ends, used the ash for snuff and was slowly dying of a broken heart because he could not find a use for the puffs of smoke he reluctantlv let go;
that he washed, dried, and re-used toilet paper, which he stole from the public conveniences. They said that he never ate: he lived on the air in the house, of which you could cut yourself a slice. They believed that he had never taken off his clothes: that he sewed them on and slept in them until they flaked away. His morning-coat gave rise to macabre speculation. The sheets on his beds inspired unprintable legends. Busto, who knew that space was money, had put partitions across his larger rooms, so that he could accommodate two tenants at twelve-and-sixpenoe a week instead of one tenant at eighteen shillings. These partitions were made of beaver-board: you could make a
with a nail file. The things men claimed to have seen through these spy-holes are unrepeatable and best forgotten. Many years will pass before they stop repeating, with
, the incident of the consumptive night-club hostess. Busto threw her out for non-payment of rent, and kept her last warm garment—a dilapidated teddy-bear overcoat. The girl disappeared, but the fable-mongers say that she collapsed in the street, was picked up by a duchess, and is now Lady Something-or-Other … and when Busto heard of this he went along to the Castle with her clothes in a bundle, demanded five-
for arrears of rent, and was bought off for £10,000.

There used to be a dying idiot who went up and down the stairs with a worn-out brush and a tin dustpan, brushing and brushing and brushing. Nobody ever knew who he was, where he came from, or how he ended; but everyone says that this was Busto’s father, and that Busto sent him to the workhouse one dark night after he had ascertained that the old man had out-lived his usefulness.

If Busto had been a little less avaricious they would have hated him. But he had become a Character. In a way, they were proud of him. If he had ever been detected in an act of mercy, they would have despised him. But Busto remained Busto—intransigent, uncompromising in his pitilessness, greedy as a quicksand, inhospitable as the east wind, untouchable as a broken-toothed old wolf. And therefore they forgave him. They almost liked him. He was one in a million. A Busto was not born every day. There were some who admired him because
he had made good—that is to say, made money. His house provided something more than four walls and a roof. Having stayed there, if only for a couple of weeks, you had something in common with many other men and women—something to talk about; grounds for intimacy.

For example: you could talk about Busto’s Art Gallery. People like to put pictures on their walls, but when they run away without paying their rent the pictures are always left. Busto’s house was hung with the pictorial detritus of forty years. Sometimes someone left a picture in a frame; in which case, the picture not having been worth five shillings of any fool’s money, Busto sold the frame and hung the canvas on a wall. In general his tenants satisfied themselves with plates torn out of illustrated magazines. So you might have seen half a dozen September Morns, caricatures of chimpanzees by Starr Wood, cartoons by Spy and Ape. There were several First Kisses, Love-Me-
-Dogs, a score of cavaliers kissing chambermaids, a
handful of the drawings of Phil May, a quantity of nudes, and a surprising number of nostalgic Old English tavern scenes. Many of Busto’s tenants liked to look at big clean interiors in cosy firelight, where jovial red-faced men lounged in red coats, cutting mighty rounds of red beef and drinking deep draughts out of twinkling silver tankards … poor devils! And anyone who has looked into Busto’s room, the old wash-house, will tell you that over his bed hangs an oleo of La Gioconda, which he believes to be a faithful representation of the Virgin Mary.

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