One of the charms of rural Britain is the number of relatively unspoilt market towns that litter the hinterlands of the great cities. Naturally there will be Georgian and Victorian architecture, sometimes medieval walls, a market-place, a parish church, a town hall, the essentials of a happy, self-contained community. Though, sad to say, the town hall may now be a restaurant, the church empty for most of its services, and the market-place full of parked cars.
But, as compensation for such changes, many small towns now have something else. To give the locals pride, and to lure the tourists in, it has become essential to have a museum or a gallery. The problem is what the gallery should contain – most works of art already having been snaffled up by greater, richer, and more secure galleries in major centres. Or if a museum, then of what? Again, all the big themes are in the big places. But the ingenuity of small-town man and woman can usually find something.
The small North Yorkshire town of Malton long has had a very comprehensive Roman museum, housed in the repurposed town hall. The remote Scottish town of Keith (Aberdeenshire) has a museum of tartan. The town of Settle – also in North Yorkshire, which is a big county – has a museum of cheese, though it has competition. Not far away is another museum of cheese, in the border town of Hawes (on the Lancashire border, for the perplexed.) And today we bring you, in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, the Ted Lewis Museum (to be exact: the Ted Lewis Centre).
Where? Who? To be fair, not many people could point to Barton-upon-Humber on a map, though they might get to the Humber, the great river dominated by Hull on its north side. Barton is on the other side and for many centuries was kept in moderate prosperity because it was the terminal for the ferry which connected Lincolnshire to Hull. Hull is the major city of this coast, but on the south side were, and are, a number of busy places, such as Cleethorpes and Humberston (seaside resorts), Immingham and Grimsby (ports) and Scunthorpe (a steel town). To get to the culture, the tertiary education, and the money, meant crossing the Humber to Hull. And that meant a trip to Barton to catch the ferry. Then: disaster. To keep the voters of Hull loyal to the Labour Party, in 1981 a bridge was built, the longest suspension bridge in Europe at the time. It is a beautiful bridge, as suspension bridges often are, but that was no consolation to the good citizens of Barton-u-H. Not only did it destroy the main reason for their town’s existence, it towers over it, Barton’s red-brick and slate cowering below.
So, the town needed to have a new focus for its civic pride, something to try to persuade tourists there is still a reason to call in. It is after all, not an unattractive town, with a Georgian market-place, a long history, and a range of pubs. But so can many market towns be described. What had Barton got that might stand out? Sir Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand, lived here most of his life. So did Henry Treece, a teacher at Barton Grammar School but much more famous as the author of many school text books. If you were at a British school in the 1950’s, ‘60’s, or 70’s, Mr Treece’s books would be only too familiar to you. And there was Ted Lewis. Who, you again ask?
Ted Lewis; enough teasing. He is forgotten at the moment – though not for much longer, if the Ted Lewis Centre has its way. He wrote Get Carter, the iconic gangster book of the 1970’s, which became the film that made the name and reputation of Michael Caine. (Lewis called his book “Jack’s Return Home” but Get Carter was thought snappier on the cinema billboards.) It was Ted’s second book and in the way that writers dream of, not only became an instant best seller, but the film rights were sold at publication for enough to buy a small house. And Lewis was employed to do much of the film dialogue. His reputation was established, his future assured.
Lewis had been born in Manchester but came to Barton when he was five. His father was manager of a large quarry at nearby Scunthorpe. Ted was taught at Barton Grammar by none other than Henry Treece, who recognised his enormous talent and encouraged him both to paint and to write. After school he took the ferry daily to Hull, to Hull Art College, and then after graduation he did what bright graduates do and went to London. He drew for a living – animations mainly – and wrote in his spare time, and haunted Soho, then still a pretty sleazy area, full of villains and pornography. That inspired his writing as can be seen throughout his works, but it was born of an earlier fascination with bad people, in Scunthorpe, which affected even the quarry that his father ran.
Get Carter was indeed set in Scunthorpe, but Newcastle-on-Tyne, where the film takes place, was chosen by Mike Hedges, the director (on his first movie – what a debut!) as more photogenic and already having a reputation as a dark place. (This culminated in the mid 1970’s with police raids, the closure of various gangster rackets, and the jailing of prominent locals, most notably the leader of Newcastle City Council, T Dan Smith, for corruption.). It is truly a great movie, the stars including Caine, Ian Hendry, John Osborne (better known as a playwright, of course, but here a chilling gangster), Britt Ekland and many others; and not least Newcastle itself, right at the point of its evolution from an industrial and coal city to a modern regional capital.
The next paragraph contains a spoiler. Jump it if you intend to read the book or watch the film.
Carter made Ted Lewis rich and famous, but it gave him a problem. Jack Carter is the most wonderful villain, but by the end of the action he is dead. The only answer was to write a prequel, or in fact two, but that was never going to work in the cinema (however, they are very good books).
Ted Lewis wrote nine books; they are all great reading, and they are not all about villains, though arguably the best ones are. Most are set in and around Barton on Humber and Humberside; he was remarkably loyal to his home territory. Apart from Carter, Plender is especially strong: the tale of a Barton boy who goes to London, fails, and comes back to avenge himself on a boy who tormented him at school. But the best is GBH, the finest British noir-fiction book of books: a cleverly structured book in alternate chapters relating the tale of a nasty villain a year earlier in Soho (“the Smoke”) and now (“the Sea”), as the villain hides in fear in a bungalow on the muddy Lincolnshire coast. What is going on? What has happened? Is he dreaming or fantasising? Read it, (lock the back door first). It is one of the best crime novels ever written. But I will be very surprised if most of our readers have ever heard of it.
And that is because Ted Lewis became almost one of his own characters. He had had an alcohol problem even at school. He managed to keep it under some control in his early years working in Soho, and then in an initially happy marriage, living in Suffolk. But the marriage fell apart, he returned to the drinking haunts of Soho, then as he became less reliable and the income dried up, he returned to live with his mother in Barton. There he drank himself to death, writing GBH in notebooks in pubs and bars. In 1982 he died in Scunthorpe General Hospital. He was 42.
GBH was finished and published just before he died. But with no author to promote it, it vanished, as did Lewis. Until a few years ago, when a local lawyer, a huge fan of Ted Lewis, began to promote Lewis’ work and managed to collect many artefacts connected with him, enough to start a Ted Lewis museum. It includes memories from old friends and school mates around today – Lewis would still only be 82 if he had lived. If he had lived, he almost certainly would now be one of the UK’s greatest writers, a rival to John Le Carre, Len Deighton, and Mick Herron. He would, one suspects, rank with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
It’s a long way to Barton-upon-Humber, nervously trembling under that bridge, from almost anywhere. Maybe you won’t get there. But salute a town that now recalls an exceptionally talented son. And read his books, like, if you know what’s good for you, mate.