Taking to the written page with no background in writing was a daunting task. I thought/knew I had a story to tell, but how to go about that was a bit of a mystery to me, when I finally dipped my toe in the publishing waters around 2002.
I mean other People did this, not the likes of me, was basically my thinking back then. Well, I soon got over myself, with the considerable help from writers who I met, such as Paolo Hewitt and Simon Wells.
After self-publishing the book ‘The Mumper in 2007, it was Simon who first mentioned to me, that my writing had echoes of Frank Norman about it. I had to admit that I didn’t know who he was. Mr. Wells then kindly explained parts of Norman’s life and career and pointed out book titles to explore, like ‘Stand On Me’ Banana Boy’ and his musical play ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be.’
From what I had heard, I liked the sound of this fella. He wrote in a London argot, and his grammar and spelling, due to a poor education, left a lot to be desired (I certainly sympathised with that) but it was the way that he rose from the most unpromising of backgrounds to turn himself into a highly respected writer and face about the Soho and London circuit of the late 50s and 60s that made me curious to find out more.
I picked up the aforementioned titles cheaply enough from the second hand book world; as well as another of his books ‘Bang To Rights’ and immediately soaked in the man.
He was born John Norman in Bristol in 1930. Abandoned by his parents, Frank and Betty, early on, he ended up in the adoption and care home system.
He finally found refuge in a Dr. Barnados home and it was around this time he changed his name to that of his father. He was discovered to have learning difficulties, with reading and writing not coming easy to him.
His book ‘Banana Boy’ captures his life at this time, with often troubled stays at various London children’s homes. Upon leaving the care system at 14, he quickly fell into petty crime and eventually served three years in prison on the Isle of Wight. He would go on to serve five prison sentences by the age of 27.
In between the jail time, he had ended up in and around Soho and became a regular and well-known face in the area. And what a face it was.
He had an aggressive appearance, highlighted by a razor scar on his cheek, though in truth he was a cut above (pardon the phrase Frank) above the usual ‘scar faced ex con’ description of him, used by lazy journalists.
There is a story of an attempt to settle down and leave his West End life behind, He had got married and opened a newsagent in Suffolk. Only, in truth, he couldn’t keep away from Soho. He would drive in, get hammered in one night club or other and then drive back and then be late with the newspaper deliveries and the whole thing collapsed.
After his last prison term, he vowed to change his ways and stay out. His first book ‘Bang To Rights’ from 1958 was written as a result. Detailing his time in prison, the story is that a girl friend of his, a cleaner at the offices of the magazine ‘Encounter’, left Frank’s manuscript in the in tray of the editor Stephen Spender. Spender loved the work, published a ten thousand-word essay from it, which in turn, earned a book deal. The celebrated writer Raymond Chandler wrote the foreword.
The text was printed as Frank had written it, complete with the bad spelling and grammatical errors. This added extra spice to the already vivid cockney language peppered through the book, giving it an edgy and raw feel that readers loved.
1959 sees the publication of ‘Stand On Me’, which detailed his life in Soho before his success. It is the tale of petty crime, prostitutes and ponces, con men, forgers, razor gangs, drugs, and ultimately serious crime and prison.
By 30, Norman, was a genuine publishing success. Next up, was ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be’. The idea started as a straight play, but maverick theatre producer Joan Littlewood saw it and teamed up Frank with songwriter Lionel Bart. They were already Colony Room regulars, so knew of each other.
Very similar in story line to ‘Stand On Me’, it opened at The Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1959 before transferring triumphantly to the West End. Among its original cast were Barbara Windsor, Yootha Joyce and George Sewell. Frank went on to win the Best Musical award in 1960 at the Evening Standard theatre awards.
Another book I particularly like is ‘Soho Night and Day from 1966. Frank, provided the text and legendary Soho botherer Jeffrey Bernard took the photos. Stories of the work on it are littered with tales of bar owners and pub landlords providing free ‘refreshments’ in an attempt to gain a place in the book. The pair eagerly took advantage of that situation.
‘Loose women can indeed get you into a lot of trouble and drink can destroy you both mentally and physically and as for gambling it is a curse that can end you in the poorhouse. However there was one thing my headmaster did not tell me, and that is the best place in the world in to find these things is Soho – that I found out for myself’
By the 1970s he had settled down with his wife Geraldine and mainly visited his old haunts in Soho only on Fridays. It was said, if only one day a week, they were still a master class in the ways of old Soho.
Later books include ‘Dodgem Greaser’ 1971, and ‘The Fakes Progress’ written with his wife Geraldine and art forger Tom Keating in 1977, but I think it is fair to say it is his books from the 50s and 60s that have best stood the test of time.
Sadly, it was all over at the age of 5O, when he succumbed to the disease Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and died in December 1980.
The Mumper of SE5