Cathi Unsworth is a journalist, editor and one of England’s best-known crime writers. Here, she tells the story of the creation of Derek Raymond’s novel I Was Dora Suarez, and the journey that led to its unique musical interpretation with the Terry Edwards band.
“You wouldn’t have dreamt this would have come together in the first place. There was no premise for it happening, initially, at all, it was just a fucking good idea. It’s a bit chancy, and it’s not quite so self-laudatory as your average rock posturing. I’m just fucking glad I did it.”
So said Gallon Drunk singer and multi-instrumentalist James Johnston, on a rainy afternoon in Soho, some 24 years ago. He was talking about a record that he and his bandmate, saxophonist Terry Edwards had just finished making, in collaboration with the cult noir writer Derek Raymond. Dora Suarez was an aural evocation of the author’s blackest, most personal novel of all, a requiem for a murdered girl he had seen in a book of crime scene photographs, an image now reproduced in all its starkness on the album’s sleeve.
All three were ensconced in the institution Raymond referred to as his office – The Coach and Horses pub in Greek Street, a nesting spot for resting actors, literary reprobates, emaciated barflies and the sprucely-attired gents that fronted the local adult entertainment outlets, tended by Norman Balon, legendarily London’s rudest landlord.
It was the perfect setting for the author by day, evincing aspects of his many previous lives. Born Robert William Arthur Cook in 1931, he was the son of a textile magnate, destined for Eton at the age of 16. “Terrible bloody place. They were trying to make you into a good all-rounder, a cabinet minister, a bastard,” he surmised. Although Cook did eventually find a good use for his Eton tie — fronting long firms for Soho gangster and Kray twins associate Charles da Silva.
That was after he had completed his National Service as a corporal of latrines, been a war correspondent and an international art smuggler. In the London of early 1960s he found, “An Eton background is a terrific help if you are into vice of any kind.” Between inveigling funds, running gambling parties and working in a sex shop, he penned his debut, The Crust on its Uppers as Robin Cook in 1962. Its glossary of criminal argot was considered by Dictionary of Slang compiler Eric Partridge to have been his best source in 25 years.
For reasons never specified but not difficult to imagine, the author moved to Italy shortly after that, where he continued to write satires like Private Parts, Public Places and Bombe Surprise, ran a vineyard and was made foreign minister for his local Anarchist collective. In 1970’s A State of Denmark he had a nightmare vision of a future England under the dictatorship of a Labour party re-branded by its charismatic leader as The New Pace.
He returned to London, where he continued to pursue his literary career on what he wryly referred to as the “downwards escalator”. Trying to make ends meet mini-cabbing, he lost his third wife and a house in Holland Park in the process. He retreated to France, where he worked for years as a labourer, until a neighbour goaded him that he’d never write a book again.
On his next relocation back to the Capital, he reinvented himself as Derek Raymond, an amalgam of the names of two close friends, as he thought it necessary to differentiate himself from both the Sci Fi writer and Labour politician who shared the name Robin Cook. Starting with the highly biographical He Died With His Eyes Open in 1984, he conjured a London ‘scoured with vile psychic weather’ as tangible as the miasmas of the Victorian past. His unnamed Detective Sergeant worked a grim adjunct of the Metropolitan Police called A14 Unexplained Deaths, tending to the unloved, unwanted victims of a frightening, fracturing city under Margaret Thatcher’s curse: ‘There is no such thing as society’.
“I thought I was going mad” – Derek Raymond
Dora Suarez was a woman killed precisely for being female, by a psychopath who breaks into her rooms in the opening pages of the book and dispatches Dora and her elderly landlady with such brutality that, the legend goes, Raymond’s editor Dan Franklin lost the contents of his stomach while reading it.
As the author described it to me that day, the writing of the novel was, “like a hand grenade going off in my head. I’m not sure if it’s my best book but it certainly had the biggest impact on my life… I thought I was going mad, I wouldn’t get out of the other side of the bloody thing. What it did to me – and 18 months it took me, normally I only take a year to write a book – was knock me about like an old packing case.”
The accompanying music fashioned by Johnston and Edwards displayed an acute sensitivity to the characters and situations portrayed, as well as real empathy for the deep feeling in Cook’s stunning delivery of the words.
“The book affected me anyway, but even more so hearing it read,” Johnston considered. “It actually started giving me nightmares at one point.” His way of writing the soundtrack was to walk around the streets with a tape recorder, using the sounds around him to feed into his compositions.
“You’re on your own, you’re lost in thought, wandering across streets and not looking where you’re going. You’ve got a car horn going off and that inspires a sound. The tune at the beginning of the record is the trains that go past where I live – every morning you get a succession of horns going off, and you find yourself humming a tune and end up with one. A lot of the sounds were from Liverpool Street Station, ’cos it’s a huge, vast room and you hear all these amazing sounds like brakes from trains, with the acoustics of a giant cathedral. It was a real challenge to use the most conventional of instruments, like a violin and a saxophone, and try and recreate that feeling.”
It seemed to me that both the author and his musical collaborators were fired by similar motivations – a mutual disgust and loathing for the way society is loaded against the weak and vulnerable.
“Unless you’ve got the desire to ask some pretty essential questions, I don’t think there’s much point in writing a novel at all,” Raymond considered. “And the essential questions never change. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in 1600 or 1993, the human condition remains the same. I don’t think it gets any better or any worse. People have always faced the same essential problems and always will do. And that, of course, is what I try to get at.”
“Where it all ties in with Suarez is the theme about the aggression of dominance,” added Johnston, “be it social dominance, financial dominance or physical dominance. The killer obviously has a need to perform the whole act of murder, and all the violence involved in it is part of owning someone, leaving your mark. And socially, that happens in this country a lot.”
Both the author and his musical collaborators were fired by similar motivations – a mutual disgust and loathing for the way society is loaded against the weak and vulnerable.
“The upper middle class are always trying to struggle up the bloody social ladder,” Raymond concurred. “What’s it going to be like when you get there? It’s nothing to do with money, because there’s as much violence in their chateaux as you’d find in any working class home.”
“Except it’s all hidden in social graces,” added Johnston. “You can get away with it a lot more easily. And you don’t go to prison for it.”
The process of making Suarez didn’t just fire the personal cannons of those who came together to make it, but it also presented music and literature together in an entirely new format. I don’t think its impact has yet been equalled in the years since its debut on Clawfist in 1993, and subsequent re-release on Terry Edwards’ Sartorial Records in 2008, with the restored outtake ‘Roatta’ that was first performed by the trio live at the BFI Southbank. My own life would certainly never be the same after hearing it and meeting the man who was both the heart and conscience of British noir fiction. The fact my own novels now exist is entirely down to that precious afternoon in the Coach – and I know I am far from alone in taking so much from him. The Factory novels inspired an entire wave of British and Irish authors in the decades since their publication and continue to attract ardent new followers to this day. For there are no half-measures as far as Derek Raymond is concerned.
“You know, I was a bit edgy about it when we started,” he confided in Johnston, as we came to the end of another round. “Because I thought, well, I’m 62, you’re all in your 20s, it’s like having Grandad around at a day out at the races! Dear oh dear, poor old cunt, look out mum, catch him! And there was none of that at all, was there?”
“I should fucking hope not!” Johnston spluttered into his pint.
“I was really surprised. I’ve never worked with people as young as you are, and it just shows,” Raymond flashed a grin, “the age gap’s a load of old bollocks, just like the class structure.”
I will continue to drink to that.