Roland Camberton (1921-1965) was a British writer whose original name was Henry Cohen, though his family also knew him as Harry. He won the 1951 Somerset Maugham Award, given to authors under the age of 35, for his novel Scamp.
The following year, he published ‘Rain on the Pavements’,a novel reflecting Jewish life in Hackney during the thirties; this book received a much more positive review (this one from Julian Symons).
Camberton then vanished off the literary map. He does not appear to have published any books after 1951. Indeed, few details of his life are available, and there is no mention of him whatsoever in The Times archives.
Iain Sinclair has described him in an interview as a “Hackney writer”. He did, indeed, attend Hackney Downs School (formerly The Grocers’ Company’s School) until 1938 and two poems by him were published in the School Magazine (The Review). He was buried under his birth name, Henry Cohen, in Rainham Jewish Cemetery in 1965.
For more than 30 years, Iain Sinclair has been on the trail of Roland Camberton, the great invisible of English fiction, who wrote two highly praised London novels in the 1950s, and then vanished. When a clue recently dropped on to his doormat, he was finally on his way to solving the mysteryIn August 2008 Iain Sinclair wrote a long piece on Camberton for The Guardian in which he reveals much of his research, including the story of Cohen’s early death and the existence of a daughter.
Both Scamp and Rain on the Pavements will be republished in late 2010.
The design of the fiction put out by John Lehmann in the late 1940s and early 50s had the louche swagger to complement an edgily cosmopolitan list: Jean-Paul Sartre, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, John Dos Passos, Paul Bowles. And being by 1975 a trader in desolate and forgotten literature, I moved copies of 2 London books published by Lehmann under my stall, in the fond belief that the John Minton dust-wrappers would offer them a market value at some unspecified future date.
The Hackney author moved the conversation directly back to Lehmann. “The people you speak of were all discoveries of John Lehmann, a part of his effort to find a proletarian literature. There is, from Lehmann and his ilk, a homosexual attitude to the working class.”.
The design of the fiction put out by John Lehmann in the late 1940s and early 50s had the louche swagger to complement an edgily cosmopolitan list: Jean-Paul Sartre, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, John Dos Passos, Paul Bowles. And being by 1975 a trader in miserable and forgotten literature, I slid copies of 2 London books published by Lehmann under my delay, in the fond belief that the John Minton dust-wrappers would provide them a market value at some unspecified future date.
“The individuals you speak of were all discoveries of John Lehmann, a part of his attempt to discover a proletarian literature. Read more……
The Camberton Story and The Somerset Maughan Prize
Dan Carter has written “the life of reclusive author Roland Camberton, who disappeared in the 1950s, just as his career was taking off.
THE Somerset Maugham prize for 1951 had a book on the shortlist that has since become a classic: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim was a shoo-in, and considering its place in the canon of mid-20th century literature, it seems incredible it was not novel of the year.
Instead, the winner was a book called Scamp, a cynical, comic take on the life of Ivan Ginsberg, a scruffy pseudo-intellectual living in Soho, seeking to establish a literary magazine. And while Amis, the author of the book that didn’t win has become a major figure in English Literature, Roland Camberton, the man who beat Amis to the prize, had disappeared completely within a couple of years.
Camberton – real name Henry Cohen – went on to pen another book called Rain On The Pavement, about his native Hackney, in 1952.
He then simply disappeared. His story has become a matter of some interest for fans of his two works – and author Iain Sinclair, who has written a foreword to the books, republished for the first time since the 1950s, has turned detective to piece together the rest of Camberton’s life.
While from the same place and era of some the great East End Jewish writers such as Bernard Kops, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Emanuel Litvinoff, Camberton was always considered an outsider.
Sinclair recalls spotting the Camberton books at his second-hand stall in Islington. Inspired by them, he set out to find out more about this forgotten genius. “You would get book buffs coming in and speaking endlessly about their favourite authors,” he says.
“One man mentioned Camberton on a few occasions, and I remembered the name when I saw two volumes for sale. I was struck by a cover by Royal Academy illustrator John Minton, so I bought them.”
Sinclair realised he had in his hands the works of a man whose writing was unique – and who had been completely lost. He set out to discover what had become of the author.
“He was mysterious. There was no information out there. I had given up trying until one day I heard of a recording done by William Burroughs, speaking with Roland Camberton.”
The recording had been made by a mutual friend called Douglas Lyne, who had once lent Burroughs a pound. When Burroughs emerged from a drug-addled trip to Tangier, he tracked down his friend to repay him. They went to a Soho pub and were joined by Camberton. The three necked multiple brandies and then retired to Lyne’s home, where he recorded the conversation they had on a reel to reel tape machine.
Details emerged: Camberton was born in Manchester in 1921 and moved to Hackney as a boy. He went to Hackney Downs School and served in the RAF as a wireless mechanic. He was a teacher at Covent Garden’s City Lit, and became a copy writer and translator. Tantalisingly, a manuscript, long since lost, recalled hitchhiking through Europe and is described as a British version of On The Road. It was never published.
In Rain On The Pavement, the young protagonist describes adventures he had hitching through southern England – a precursor to the book which never made the light of day.
Camberton is also recalled by writer Bernard Kops. He recalls meeting the author around 1952, when his books had just been a success: Kops was running a second-hand book stall in Cambridge Circus, and Camberton would sift through his titles. “He was tall, austere, and monosyllabic,” Kops recalls. “He had a mysterious presence. He was interested in my writing but I found him evasive.”
Kops believes Camberton wrote brilliantly – but at the wrong time for lasting fame. “His style came too early,” he says. “He was Kitchen Sink, Beat and Angry Young Man, but before this was recognised.”
Kops also felt Camberton’s secretive nature may have had something to do with the atmosphere of Britain in the post-war period, where anti-Semitism was still rife. There was a drive by Jewish East Enders to assimilate, to Anglicise names, to move from areas their forefathers had lived in.
“He told me he was Jewish and a writer, but did not have a Jewish name,” recalls Kops.
“It was part of the time we were going through. He had an Englishness about him – as if he had been to Marlborough or Sandhurst. I suspected he was gay, but this was something you would never ask. I got the impression that he was a lost soul: there is no doubt he was an absolutely brilliant writer.”
Camberton worked for a time for film studio MGM and was seen by friends in Soho with an attractive woman described by Douglas Lyne as being “gentrified”. They stayed together until his death in 1965.
Rain On The Pavement is a selection of short stories put together to create a memoir. The autobiographical traits – it includes descriptions of the Jewish Hackney of his childhood – are further underlined by a character called Uncle Jacob, a bicycle-pedaling intellectual and failed writer who shuns the world of literature, in a way that suggests this is what he set out to be all along.
“He stopped as his career got going,” says Sinclair. “He was an outsider among outsiders.”