The 9 Lives of Ray the Cat Jones: A Novel by Stewart Home (Test Centre, 2014)
In June 2013 Stewart Home, an (in) famous London author/writer/performer, receives a parcel. There is no return address on it; or a name to indicate who the person who sent it is, but Home is excited for there are few who use the postal service nowadays; it must be something of value (not economic but fundamental). He unwraps it and inside is a manuscript; it is the story (auto? biography?) of Ray the Cat Jones, a notorious cat burglar who worked out of London in the ’50s and ’60s. Strangely and coincidentally, Home is doing research into Ray Jones, has been for a few years, for he is intrigued and fascinated by the life of this politically aware criminal (they share the same politics; both loathe the bourgeoisie, the ‘toffs’, the ‘gits’, the rich who profit because of their vicious, evil (no not evil this smacks of Christianity) exploitation of the working class) and (is this important) Ray Jones is his first cousin once removed. Home’s mother, Julia Callan (she visited Ray the Cat in prison, not often but more than once) was the daughter of Ray Jones’ mother’s sister (I think). Julia Callan, a one-time ‘good time’ girl who partied with Christine Keeler, (rumour has it that at some stage in the good time John F Kennedy came to London, he grooved in these circles, and nine months after he left town Julie Callan had a child, Llewellyn, born in, not sure when, but born sometime around the time that Home was born).
And so I wonder: Who speaks this novel? Who writes this novel?
Is it an autobiography? Is the manuscript that Home receives the actual words written by Ray Jones, and, if Home accepts this supposition, must the text be treated with a degree of scepticism? It is written by the subject of the text and so, as with most people, the writer thinks highly of himself (Ray Jones does not have the luxury of a nice life crisis, ‘I am worthless I need therapy’), he is more erudite than others (Ray Jones analyses Stalinism incisively and knows the names of other, for he is one too, Robin Hood figures, for instance Ustym Karmaliuk from the Ukraine) and he has deep and silent emotions (some would say sentimental); he loves his wife Ann, she was the only woman for him, he urges a fellow burglar who has no politics to put flowers on Karl Marx’s grave. Or, have the original words of this scholarly thief been edited (maybe even re-written) by Home, stolen, changes been made? Home is not a clerk typing the words of another, he thinks about the text as he reads it, he makes (necessary) amendments to it, a grammatical error, a refashioning of certain political ideas. His writing, Ray Jones’, yours–is this text lost in translation? Or maybe Home writes it from nothing, from the thoughts in his head (after a little research), a rendition (somewhat hagiographic) of someone he admires (and shares blood with).
Why do I want to know (and here I must pose a vexing question for I must sound learned, analytical, academic and sound)? Will knowing who writes the text change the way I read it?
If the author is Home (not Ray Jones) is he committed to the art of writing, what he writes or believes is of no consequence? Or, as a writer, (Ray Jones) only seeks to explain and instruct, language is a tool that he uses, all he wants to do is communicate.
Answer yes or no and explain. But do I want to know this; do you want to know this? Not particularly, all answers and explanations are inconsequential; let’s just talk about the book.
So what is the text about? There is a story; the story is of the life of Ray the Cat Jones. It progresses in a linear fashion, Ray Jones is born to a working family in Wales, and then later, after many adventures, he dies of cancer. Ray Jones is a cat burglar, he is also a victim of the vicious exploiter of the working class, the British bourgeoisie, (and he is Welsh and we all know how the English hate the Welsh -‘sheep shaggers’, so he is a victim of racist bigoted loathing), but he is a righteous man. And so he takes a stand, he is, (becomes) a person of agency, he knows he does not want to die in the coal mines of boredom and pain, so he steals from the rich, why should a ‘toff’ have a full belly and the poor man one groaning in hunger? His dreams of becoming a professional boxer are thwarted as, just as he is making it on the boxing circuit, he is set up by some lackeys of the bourgeoisie, (those who are employed to protect wealth and property, uphold unjust laws, those who have ‘sold out,’ grassed their spirit to slothful owners), a ‘plod’ (‘rozzer’ ‘old bill’ ‘fuzz’) and so spends time in jail for something (I can’t remember what the allegations are). He vigorously protests his innocence but to no avail, Ray Jones is guilty, he will always be guilty, for he is a working man. Ray Jones is a victim, and so, as a victim, he is grounded in a state of innocence. Ray the Cat Jones is the target of an exploitative abusive system, every which way (and he is really innocent). And so he takes up bare knuckle boxing, a dangerous sport, and he boxes for money, and wins lots of it, but then, once again, he is incarcerated in a British jail (also against his will, whoever wants to go to jail), also innocent, (he never was jailed for anything he actually did, albeit he did a lot). Then once out he makes a conscious decision to become a cat burglar, he will steal from the rich to give to the poor, a revolutionary decision, an act of rebellion, he will gut the rich, metaphorically (not literally, he never uses physical violence against those he steals from although he often uses his fists and, most often, in fact always, when the fight is a fair fight, he beats the other party senseless), as they suffer when they lose their objects of economic value (jewels, furs, this was before fur became politically incorrect and so unfashionable) and experience a loss of power, for wealth is always power. They are a disgusting bunch of creepy bigoted violent criminals the rich, only once does Ray the Cat Jones feel humanity in a rich person, he steals a silver sculpture of a boat, on the bottom there is a note that says if this gets into the hands of anyone other than the rightful owner please call this number for he will pay anything to have it returned. And so Ray (he is honourable) returns it, and has dinner with the man who owns it. The ‘toff’ tells him over fine food (the cost is unimaginable, what a miner earns in a week) that the ship belonged to his son who died in an accident. It is the only memory he has of his son, and so he will pay anything to have it returned. Ray knows that even this ‘git’ has humanity and so refuses to take the reward that he is given for its return. (He won’t do anything malevolent to a person who does not deserve it). He steals from the rich, the most famous thefts being from well-known persons. Sophia Loren, here there is something poignant as he acknowledges that Loren grew up in the slums of Naples and by dint of hard work threw away her working class roots, but, Ray Jones reckons, she betrayed the working man and so she must suffer. Elizabeth Taylor was not working class, she grew up in Hampstead, her parents were wealthy Americans, but she did marry Richard Burton (is this a redemption?), the son of a Welsh miner (Taffy was a Welshman Taffy was a thief), but Ray too is the son of a Welsh miner, thinks that Burton sold out, he betrayed the working man and so becomes a drunk, his guilt cannot be washed away, either in the liquidity of a beautiful woman, a fine bath or single malt whiskey. And the Windsors (nice one here), as Ray also finds documents which he is persuaded not to publicise, they show that Mrs. Simpson and her spouse never had ‘real’ sex (is penetration by a penis the only real sex?) as all the Nazi (scumbag) bastard wants is to be beaten. And so it goes. Ray Jones never becomes rich, he spends his money on gambling, the dogs and the horses, the tables, loses it all. He also donates some of it to working class causes such as the National Union of Mineworkers, and, most of all, he does not want to be rich, he does not want to acquire things, become caught in the system of spectacles, commodities and abuse. He is a cat burglar on a mission, he punishes and injures the exploitative ‘toffs,’ the ‘fuckers’ who have economic power and who hurt the likes of his mother, also called Julia, and his family. And then, when his career is over, his protests, his war against the class system, he takes up the market in Ridley Road, there he sells jewels and other such knick knacks to those who will buy them and, to put on a performance, he exercises constantly, people love an aged burglar who is fit and healthy. But health never lasts and later he is diagnosed with cancer, all sorts from the lungs to the pancreas (despite never touching alcohol or tobacco), and Michael Morgan, not a thief but a protestor in the poll tax war, persuades him to become famous, an icon for the working class, a powerful figure whom people will remember and admire. He wants to be immortal does Ray Jones. Does he write an autobiography that will be made into a movie? Who knows, all we know is that he embarks on a series of interviews, hires a ghost writer who cannot write and has never been published (he was recommended to him, Ray Jones would never choose such a loser), he hands himself in for the famous Sophia Loren jewelry theft, he ‘grasses’ on a fellow thief and then feels guilty about it, said he did it reluctantly. The allure of not gold but fame is too strong. We all live to survive for fifteen minutes of fame. Ray wants more.
So what is this text? (Here I go again).
A memoir, Ray Jones’s memoir, something for his children (we never hear much about them, two daughters) and the working man? Possible, for the memoir is the most natural form of writing, it is, after all, just everyday conversation, there is no mental effort of having to make things up for it all happened, and so, whatever its shortcomings, it is dignified by being true (would Home write a memoir, so Ray Jones must have written it?). A true story, a revolt against post modernism which holds that truths (and selves) are unknowable; they have no veracity. (Home likes the post-modern, he can’t have written it). Ray Jones sings himself (therefore he is) he plays his role in the cult of authenticity. (And Home, Home sings for himself, therefore he is authentic.)
A novel, Home knows that in a class-based society the imagination is suspicious, non-fiction sells better than fiction, it is empirical, grand and true, facts are important, we live by facts. And so he creates a novel, a fiction, (Home too is a protestor, fuck empiricism and veracity) memory is unreliable, it is fallible. Ray Jones remembers what suits him (and Home), and there is no limit to what he forgets. This is a novel, it has an unreliable narrator, it is fantastical, and it is of the crime genre.
But now I am getting confused. Who is using who? It is not Home who is the writer it is Ray the Cat Jones, he is speaking for himself, and Home, as the author, is trying to see things from Ray Jones’ point of view, to imagine what Ray Jones knew and what he did not. He is given the information in the manuscript, it was out of his reach, then it is not. And so this is a text that shifts between the present, Home is the present, and the past, Ray Jones is the past, it examines and writes, as Home does, as if he is its author, in order to reconstitute it by reading it as if he is Ray Jones.
And so Stewart Home takes the piss out of us again (and again) (and again).
Or does he?
Other novels by Stewart Home include: Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie (Book Works, 2010), 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess (Canongate, 2002), Tainted Love (Virgin Books, 2005), Memphis Underground (Snowbooks, 2007), Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane (Penny Ante Editions, Los Angeles, 2013)