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Bad Penny Blues

We talk to former music journalist Cathi Unsworth on her dark and violent third novel set in the post-war 1950s London

Bad Penny Blues is former Sounds music journalist Cathi Unsworth’s third novel, in which she returns the reader to a forgotten era of west London, where the crumbling post-war British Imperialism of the 1950s is giving way to the relativism of the 60s. At the centre of it is the infamous Jack The Stripper murders, based on the real and unsolved case of a believed serial killer that took the lives of at least six prostitutes without ever being caught. Dazed caught up with Cathi to talk sex, violence and whether evil is as old as her subject matter.

Dazed Digital: What was it like writing for Sounds in the 1980s?
Cathi Unsworth: When I started, it was 1987 and we had this great editor called Tony Stewart who was really good at giving people a chance. All he cared about was how passionately you wrote about music.

DD: How much of that has infected your fiction?
CU: Tony Stewart was a big influence. He was very much against the 'personality-cult journalist', and he never let you use the words 'I' or 'me', because you were supposed to be writing about the music.

DD: So, the novel starts in 1959 with Oswald Mosley trying to win support in west London after his failure in the East End during World War II. Why did you begin there?
CU: Well, it was when the first Jack The Stripper murder took place and I couldn't get over the strange confluence of events. The first victim was last seen stood outside Joe Meek’s studio. Back then people were attracted by the cheap rent. Meanwhile, the West Indian community was setting up their own clubs, and overall you just had this unusual mix  
of upper and lower class people creating new circles of power – secret circles of power. It just seemed worlds apart from the known idea of London. But you never get to the end of London, do you?

DD: True, but the book is littered with historical fact. How long did it take to research?
CU: Two years. I basically didn't have a social life. But it was fantastic, and the best thing is watching films from that era, such as the footage from the famous Henry Cooper versus Muhammad Ali fight, which I used in the novel. That was really fun to write, and it's deeply metaphorical, too. I had jump from 59 to 63 in that chapter, and I wanted to show how the world had changed. When Ali got in the ring he looked fantastic because he hadn’t been on rations for years; Britain  
was on its way out and America was on the up.

DD: What Bad Penny Blues suggests is a transition from one era of global moral decadence and empire building to another, more personal one. Are you trying to say that evil is inherent and timeless?
CU: Some of the issues I discuss are very relevant to today. When I was doing my research I got the feeling that time just loops; the same crimes happen over and over again. I don't know whether that's about the inherent character of evil or product of social circles, but we face the same dilemmas as Hogarth did, it's true.

DD: Do you think that it's the place of the arts to reappraise the past?
CU: I like what James Ellroy did. In all of his books, LA is the real main character, and in my books it's London.  I just wanted to write something for those women, because I feel like they've been fucking wronged. It's the thing that I learnt from punk: Question everything. The personal is the political.

Bad Penny Blues is published by Serpent's Tail