World travel, whisky & crime in the 'roaring twenties'

Don’t Call Me A Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky and Crime by Bob Moore (Dissident Books, New York 2009) is apparently a reprint of a tome first published in 1935 by Hurst & Blackkett of London without the exclamation mark; and the variant subtitle My True Autobiography. When I first read the introduction to this ‘reprint’, I suspected Dissident Books CEO Nicholas Towasser was pulling my leg over the provenance of the text when he wrote: “There mustn’t have been many copies printed (of the original edition), because despite many Web searches, I’ve found no used book dealers selling it. In fact, I’ve located only five owners of the original Hurst & Blackett edition: the New York Public Library; the National Library of Scotland; Cambridge University; Random House (years ago Random House acquired a publisher named Hutchinson, who had earlier merged with Hurst & Blackett); and a woman in Essex, England.”
Towasser’s claims immediately sound suspicious to anyone familiar with the legal deposit system for books in the UK. British publishers are required by law to send free copies of their books to the five legal deposit libraries in the UK (supplying the national library in Dublin is currently optional but many publishers still send them complimentary tomes). Towasser mentions only two of the legal deposit libraries (Edinburgh and Cambridge), and it struck me as unlikely that more than half the legal deposit copies of a book like Moore’s would have disappeared from these orderly and well maintained institutions. My gut feeling was that if the book couldn’t be found in at least the majority of the legal deposit libraries, then the provenance Towasser provided for it in his introduction was at best dubious. I checked at the British Library and found they did in fact have a catalogue entry for the Hurst & Blackkett edition of Don’t Call Me A Crook. Of course, entries can be forged, and even whole books produced with fake publishing histories and then slipped into library collections. However, the most likely explanation seems to be that Towasser isn’t familiar with the UK legal deposit system and therefore didn’t think to check with the relevant libraries (which isn’t difficult, anyone with internet access can consult the British Library catalogue via its online service).
Likewise, when I checked online, I found an entry for the Hurst & Blackkett edition of Moore’s book on both and, from which one can conclude that at least one used dealer has offered the book for sale via those sites. These amazon entries may have gone up after Towasser wrote his introduction, or he may have missed them. Since I found evidence of further copies and online sales in the first three places I looked, I didn’t pursue the matter. Regardless of whether Don’t Call Me A Crook was first published in 1935 or the ‘original’ edition was faked later (still possible but rather unlikely on the basis of what I’ve found), it is fairly safe to conclude there will probably be entries for further copies of the ‘1935’ edition in the legal deposit libraries I haven’t checked, and that a search of online auction sites such as eBay may turn up further evidence of a used trade in the ‘1935’ edition.
I’m a huge fan of literary fraud and I always appreciate a good leg-pull. I’d rather like Don’t Call Me A Crook to be con job involving a faked provenance; hi-jinx that would place it on the same level as ‘anti-literary greats’ such as the cod medieval works Thomas Chatterton attributed to Thomas Rowley, James Macpherson’s bogus cycle of Gaelic poetry credited to a non-existent ancient bard called Ossian, and Clifford Irving’s phony ‘autobiography’ of Howard Hughes.  For me, more recent incidents of literary fraud, including Laura Albert’s J. T. LeRoy hoax and James Frey passing off works of fiction as memoirs, are considerably less thrilling than chicanery that entails concocting more complex counterfeit attributions for pieces of writing. Sadly, despite Towasser raising my hopes with what I take to be honestly made but improbable claims in his introduction, it does rather look like Don’t Call Me A Crook was first published by Hurst & Blackkett in 1935.
Nonetheless, despite being published as a non-fiction ‘memoir’, Moore’s book resembles a picaresque novel and its literary origins can be traced back to Elizabethan works such as The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene’s cony-catching pamphlets. Moore tells us little about his childhood, his story really begins when he joins the British military underage in the hope of seeing action in World War I. He ended up greasing aeroplanes for the Royal Flying Corps at a base near Boulogne. Moore tells us that after the war he qualified as a mechanical engineer. From that point on he mostly worked on ships, but combined this activity with maintaining hotel lifts and other odd jobs. Moore criss-crossed the Atlantic, spending a lot of time in New York and Chicago, where he combined bouts of employment with opportunist thievery and con-artistry. When he comes into large amounts of money, he inevitably blows it on high-living (with women, boozing and gambling, being his favoured recreational divertissements).
Mirroring Robert Greene’s real and ‘fictionalised’ life, Moore abandons his wife and child and adopts a sardonic attitude towards the world, which he combines with endless serious drinking. Imagine Celine if he’d had a working-class upbringing in Glasgow and no interest in literary posturing. That said, Moore’s anti-semitism and other bigotries are casual, and not ideologically motivated. Moore reflects the prejudices of his time and place without consciously embracing any overt political ideology; this contrasts sharply with the fascist stink that envelopes Celine’s writing. Perhaps Bukowski makes for a better comparison, except Moore is better than Bukowski.
Despite its casual racism, the Chinese setting of Moore’s ‘autobiography’ in its final section makes for very interesting reading. From Shanghai he travels up the Yangtze, where he battles river pirates. This part really rams home the parallels between Moore’s book and The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton (1594) by Thomas Nashe. The narrator of the earlier work, Jack Wilton, relates his adventures as a page during the wars against the French, and subsequent travels in Italy where he serves the Earl of Surrey. Wilton witnesses numerous atrocities, he narrowly escapes both being hanged and cut-up alive as an exercise in anatomy. His tale climaxes by detailing the brutal revenge of one Italian against another. Wilton eventually escapes from the clutches of his foes and returns to England.
Moore’s tale very much mirrors The Unfortunate Traveller; his first ‘foreign’ experiences are in France, but he substitutes the ‘savagery’ of Nashe’s caricatured Italians for an equally stereotypical Orientalism. Moore describes various forms of Chinese ‘cruelty’, ranging from deliberately drawn out public executions down to unnecessarily vicious acts of banditry. He is nearly killed on a number of occasions, is kidnapped by pirates but eventually escapes and returns to Glasgow. Moore and/or his ‘editor’ (perhaps ghost-writer) Pat Spry need not have read Nashe’s text to have been influenced by it. The Unfortunate Traveller is a foundational work of modern English prose, its influence has been widely felt and its structure can be picked up from later tales it influenced.
To me it isn’t important how much of Moore’s book is true, it’s a fast and fun read. My guess is that the book is loosely based on fact but the adventures are exaggerated to maximise their impact. If you like over-cooked and not entirely reliable ‘memoirs’ such as Jungle West 11 by Majbritt Morrison, or even Mr Nice by Howard Marks, then you’ll love Don’t Call Me A Crook too!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Bianca on 2009-06-28 13:39:32 +0000

M.T. Clanchy has demonstrated that ‘there was no straight and simple line of progress from memory to written record [between 1066-1307]. People had to be persuaded – and it was difficult to do – that documentary proof was sufficient improvement [on oral testimony] … the written record was a dubious gift, because it seemed to kill living eloquence and trust and substitute for them a mummified semblance in the form of a piece of parchment’. The room for forgery in such uncharted territory was rife and who knows how many of our earliest manuscripts and therefore the foundations of our collective memory are ‘genuine’. The issue of the fake motivated and produced the paradigm of diplomatics which allowed for the authentication of documents and set up yet another model against which the subversion of the fake could act.
What is the nature of the fake in the digital realm? Is it always attempting to reveal itself as forgery? Does it only have subversive qualities if it is a ‘genuine fake’?

Comment by Tuesday Kid on 2009-06-28 13:47:58 +0000

I’ve always suspected that when old people write their memoirs they take liberties with the point that most of the other people in the book are dead and can neither confirm or deny the events.
That said, it makes for a better read.

Comment by Michael K on 2009-06-28 14:57:24 +0000

The only fakes that matter are the ones you can pass as real banknotes!

Comment by Christopher Nosnibor on 2009-06-28 15:11:19 +0000

I rather appreciate the irony of the possibility of a book entitled ‘Don’t Call Me a Crook’ being a fraud, and am also a huge fan of Nashe’s work.
I did try slipping ‘The Unfortunate Traveller’ into the syllabus last semester, but despite sending links to e-text versions to the students who all claim to be too poor to buy books (but who appear have plenty of cash for clothes and alcopops) no fucker read it. One complained it was ‘a huge slab of text’ which was offputting.
Then they had the audacity to complain there wasn’t enough prose fiction on the course.
Oh well, their loss.
I’ll be adding this to my ‘to read’ pile…

Comment by The Real Tessie on 2009-06-28 16:15:44 +0000

Get your nose outta that book and pay me some attention!

Comment by Theo Keating on 2009-06-28 17:21:31 +0000

Get with the real fakes, Fake Blood has it!

Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-06-28 19:09:48 +0000

I’ll buy a fake for a dollar!

Comment by Tom Keating on 2009-06-28 21:33:29 +0000

You’ll have to pay a lot more than a dollar for one of my Sexton Blakes mate! As The Guardian reported on 2 July 2005:
“Tom Keating startled the art world in the early 1970s when he admitted to knocking out more than 2,000 phoney pictures…. To compound the general frustration, he declined all pleas to list his counterfeits…. after his trial was halted because of his ill-health in 1979, the public warmed to him, believing him a charming old rogue. By 1984, when he died, his almost-Cézannes, nearly-Degas and virtual-Titians were selling for about £1,000. The demand for real-Keatings has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades. The same paintings now fetch £10,000 to £12,000.’

Comment by Elmyr de Hory on 2009-06-28 22:13:10 +0000

Forgers are the aristocrats of the criminal world, and they should act like aristocrats, Tom Keating is just too Cockney for me!

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-06-28 22:22:54 +0000

..too fast too take that
Jungle West 11… I have two movies : Jungle Street and West 11 that seem to have nothing to do with it but… they have David MacCallum in the former and
Michael Winner and Alfred Lynch and Diana Dors involved in the latter Notting Hill caper …

Comment by Barry Joule on 2009-06-28 22:30:53 +0000

There’s always myself Barry Joule, “friend” to some stars and alleged fake-Baconer. Terence Stamp thought I was alright.

Comment by Prince Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola on 2009-06-28 22:37:42 +0000

working class upbringing in Glasgow and posturing go together like haggis and neeps.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-06-29 10:05:52 +0000

Ray – Jungle West 11 is a great read, the story of a girl who comes to London and becomes a prostitute…. But West 11 is very interesting too; the film is based on Laura del Rivo’s novel “The Bed Sitting Room”, not a great book but okay and one that emerges from a curious if rather unpleasant scene. She was part of a group of Notting Hill centred writers of which the most famous was Colin Wilson (although he just had a room he shared with John Brain for use when they were in town, a Chepstow Road house in which other figures from this scene, like Tom Greenwell and Stuart Holyrod lived full time). They were all very right-wing in outlook.
Del Rivo worked for years on Portobello market, she was the daughter of a banker who grew up in the south-west London suburbs and moved to west London to be a drop out with a bunch of right-wing ‘existentialists’. She only wrote two novels “Furnished Room” and “Daffodil on the Pavement” (which was paperbacked under the title “Animals”), and then a novella (“Speedy & Queen Kong”) was published by the one of those small Colin Wilson fan club presses much more recently. Paul Newman writes the only critical stuff I’ve seen about her in his pamphlet “Murder as an Antidote for Boredom”, although there must have been reviews when the books came out. Writing something about her and that scene is something I’ve been meaning to do for a few years, but I’m in no rush, when I’ve some spare time since I don’t consider it massively important. I also actually need to see “West 11” before I do this too, a film I’ve been meaning to catch for some time!
And yes, del Rivo is someone else my mother knew, she seems to have been acquainted with all the writers from that scene, although only actually at all close to one of them (not del Rivo). But her outlook on life was very different to the views of that group…

Comment by I. see(s) on 2009-06-29 19:24:06 +0000

I see, Stewart

Comment by Bianca on 2009-06-29 21:45:11 +0000

I don’t – I’m blind, blind, blinding!

Comment by Michael Kearney on 2009-06-30 00:00:39 +0000

Clear the decks. I’m back to be bad.

Comment by Michael Kearney on 2009-06-30 00:01:20 +0000

Clear the decks. I’m back to be (remix)

Comment by Kurt Cobain on 2009-06-30 01:56:44 +0000

Any “True Autography” must be a fraud.

Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-06-30 12:28:10 +0000

I’ve been awake all night, only made it through the first few paragraphs, before the text started to do the Achy Breaky to the tune of Sukiyaki. Will have to read the rest later, but coincidentally, I just had an(other) argument with someone the other day about the validity of James Frey’s “memoir”, which I knew was a sham from the get-go, for reasons I cannot go into. Yes, there are indeed people out there who still haven’t caught on. And of course, anyone who selects their reading material based on Oprah’s recommendations deserves to be conned…

Comment by Jason Murray on 2009-08-12 04:40:51 +0000

Out of the three sections of this book, the first two were entertaining and the last one was sad.Bob takes a diamond ring from a lady in a train, tells her he is going to go pawn it and bring the money back in half an hour but does not go back for a week.And she is not there anymore. So she has an example in her life about not talking to stranger in a train.Bob is not a person i would have liked.

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