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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ernest McKeag

In my early days as a paperback collector, way back in 1980, one of my first big purchases was a collection of dog-eared crime paperbacks published by Modern Fiction. The pick of the pile was a run of early titles by Ben Sarto, including the first Mabbie Otis story, and a run of early novels under the name "Griff". They had superbly evocative titles: Rackets Incorporated, Only Mugs Die Young, Dope is for Dopes, Trading in Bodies..., and on the back of the former, Griff was introduced as a famous American crime reporter, making his British debut. "[Griff] tears aside the veil that cloaks the activities of the callous racketeers who batten on human frailties. He pulls no punches; he tells with stark realism some of the sordid stories that lie behind the bright lights of Broadway. This is the first of a series of books by a journalist of international repute who shines a searchlight on the basest motives of mankind - murder, gang war, vice!"

Behind provocative covers by H.W. Perl, "Griff" spun hard-hitting yarns that lived up to the boasts of his publisher, introducing in the first Bill Truscott of the "Tribune-Sun" in a tale of kidnapping and death. Truscott teamed up with the delectable Susette Delaine, a synthetic blonde moll with Big-shot Killahan’s mob who became his wisecracking sidekick when Bill turned gumshoe in later novels. The dialogue was delivered in a style made popular by Hank Janson, the background sparse, picked up from pulp novels and Hollywood gangster movies, and at 2/6 the books were more expensive than dozens of other similar titles that were beginning to flood the market. But "Griff" succeeded where dozens of other crime paperback authors folded, selling something like 40,000 of each title. Maybe he was tougher than the rest, with violence piled on violence:


Susette already had the hypodermic poised over Killahan’s arm when Joe butted in. Killahan gave a yell of pain. Susette was not fairy handed. She had broken the point of the needle off in Big-shot’s arm.

"You bitch!" yelled Killahan, and let her have it.

She took a pile-driver on the point of the jaw and went careering across the room to finish up in a heap alongside Bill. Bill made a move to help her, but Joe’s voice stopped him.

"Make a move and you’re dead meat." (Rackets Incorporated, p86)

It might not be Chandler, but "Griff" novels moved at the pace of a runaway express; the dames were always delightful and the stories always solid, piled high with incident with no pause for a breath between the action.

There was little to connect them in anybody’s mind to the sexy stories Rene Laroche, whose Tragedies of Montmartre was typical of a breed of paperback that dated back to the 1920s concerned with white slavery, honour in peril and prostitution, often set in Paris but usually with an English girl caught up in a loveless marriage to some swine who walks out on her, leaving her nowhere to turn but the cabaret to earn a living. Yvonne, the teenage girl whose "tragedy" is told in the above titled book, travels to Paris in the footsteps of art student Michael, whom she has fallen in love with, has an affair with Gaston, who leaves her suddenly and forces her into a brief life as an artists’ model - fraught with the danger of being ravished by lust-filled counts - before meeting someone she can truly love. All encounters are tactfully dealt with in the time honoured tradition of "..." or, at its spiciest, "she lay in his arms, thrilling to the moment."

Could there be any connection between the voluptuous Yvonne and curly-haired Kitty Dainton, one of the Fourth Form chums of St. Miriam’s English School for Girls, oddly situated near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris? Kitty’s encounter with her first Parisian, unlike Yvonne’s, sends her on a search for the girl’s missing Uncle, and when a thrill runs through Kitty’s body, it’s because she and her chums are hot on the trail of artwork stolen from a local gallery. The story was called The Schoolgirl Artists in Paris, and Eileen McKeay appeared on the byline.

The connection, of course, was that all these yarns shared a common author - not "Griff", Rene Laroche, or Eileen McKeay (or for that matter Tony Barton, Jacque Braza, Mark Grimshaw, Pat Haynes, Jack Maxwell and a dozen or so other names), but Ernest McKeag, known to his friends as ‘Mac’, a prolific and solid writer who never achieved any great fame for his yarns, but nevertheless churned them out to welcoming editors of the British pulp markets for over forty years.

Ernest Lionel McKeag was born on September 19, 1896, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where his father, John McKeag, supported his wife, Alice (nee Ingledew), and family working in Insurance. After attending the local Armstrong College, McKeag joined the British Mercentile Marines in 1913 as an apprentice officer and travelled the world before returning to England to join the Royal Navy as a Midshipman, rising to Lieutenant by the end of the Great War. He left the navy in 1919 after gaining his Master Mariner’s Certificate at South Shields Marine School, and became a reporter.

In around 1921 he was eking out a precarious living working "on space" for a theatrical paper and as a freelance journalist and short story writer, living in the top room of a Bloomsbury boarding house. It was Eric McLean, then writing stories as Eric Townsend, who suggested to McKeag that he might try the juvenile market, and McKeag scored immediately, selling a number of tales to Richard Heber Poole, the editor of British Boy. McKeag was invited to meet his editor, who assured him of a regular market for his stories and of longer yarns to the pocket library titles he also produced for Lloyds.

With a regular income guaranteed, McKeag decided to tour the continent, getting as far as North Germany where he settled and lived like a lord: his income, paid in Sterling, was worth five or six times its spending value in Germany where he was receiving 18 million Marks to the Pound.1

McKeag was forced back down to earth with a bump in 1922 when Lloyds Periodicals folded their entire line, and he returned to England to work as the editor of a short-lived Northern Weekly Review whilst turning out newspaper features and serials for a Syndicate. He still had a hankering for the juvenile market, and began submitting tales to the recently founded Champion, edited by F. Addington Symonds. Symonds asked him to call at the Amalgamated Press’ Fleetway House, and whilst visiting, McKeag asked for a job; as Symonds already had a burgeoning staff, he suggested talking to R.T. Eves, who had recently launched a series of girls’ papers, and McKeag was hired in 1923 to take over the editorship (from Draycot M. Dell) of the short-lived Ruby which lasted only 20 weeks. It was for Ruby that he produced his first girls’ story, ‘The Ghost of Wither River’, later telling Bill Lofts, "I had never tried a girls’ yarn before, but an author had let me down and one was needed urgently. I left the office one day, had a meal and went to my flat which was then in Chancery Lane. I set to work with no clear idea in mind, and by 2 a.m. had completed the whole yarn of 14,000 words. It went down to the printers the next day, while the artist was working on the illustrations." 2

McKeag worked at Amalgamated Press during the Golden Age of story papers, editing Girls’ Favourite and writing, mostly for Schoolgirls Weekly and School Friend (as Eileen McKeay) but turning more to the boys papers which were taken over by Eves’ department. For Champion and Triumph, McKeag turned out an endless stream of serials under the names Pat Haynes and Jack Maxwell, ranging from battles in history to battles on the football field, from mountie adventures and invasions from Mars. As Mark Grimshaw, he wrote some 330 stories featuring ‘Colwyn Dane’ following in the footsteps of Edward R. Home-Gall; he also wrote back-up stories for the Nelson Lee Library, serials for the famous Magnet, and the editorial feature ‘Come Into the Office, Boys and Girls’ which offered prizes and advice for the Magnet’s readers between 1929 and 1937.

McKeag did not limit himself to writing for Amalgamated Press: in 1924, he met two other well-known inhabitants of Fleet Street, Fred Mowl and Arthur Gray, who published vast numbers of paperbacks under various imprints. "One of the worst paying firms in Fleet Street, who specialised in ‘sensational novels’," was McKeag’s recollection of them. As Federation Press and Gramol Publications they had begun producing a line of saucy novels, written by some of the most prolific authors of the era, the most famous being Richard Goyne who, as Paul Renin, caused a sensation, especially in 1931 when Mowl and Grey were taken to court over four of his novels. The result was a six month prison sentence for both, national coverage in the papers, and a more careful wielding of the editorial blue pen in future novels.3

Unbelievably tame by todays standards, we can only imagine the flushes that were brought to readers cheeks when they read, for example:

With a quick movement he swung her feet from the ground, holding her in his arms as he might hold a baby. Her nearness, her sweetness intoxicated him. Youth, love, passion - all were urging him on! Forgotten was everything save that he loved this wonderful creature who lay there unresisting in his arms.

As he kissed her passionately something seemed to snap in his brain! As though in a trance he walked with her across the room, turned back the snow-white coverlet of the bed, and laid her warm, pulsating body between the sweet, pure sheets. She lay there like a statue, her night clothes slightly disarranged. The sight intoxicated him.

He threw off his coat, breathing hard. Then, tiptoeing across the room, he turned off the light. A few stray beams came through the curtains from a street lamp outside. He could still see her dim form in the darkness - waiting, waiting for him!

A few moments later he crept beside her, and her arm went out and encircled his neck. Her lips met his, and a thrill shot through them both, as, locked in each others arms, they were borne upwards on the wings of love... (The Girl Who Surrendered, p74)

This was a typical scene from McKeag’s spicy novels, rather ‘hotter’, in fact, than he was allowed to write twenty years later, which would probably have dropped any mention of Celia (the pulsating statue) being carried to the bed. In the fifties, as various Watch Committees and the vice squad bit into sales of ‘sensationals’, the chapter would have ended with the first paragraph’s "unresisting in his arms..." Roland Vane, McKeag’s pseudonym for this kind of novel, continued to appear until 1953, by which time he occasionally slipped away from Paris and white slave trafficking to tell more home-grown stories of London’s Soho clip-joints, and even warnings about drugs and juvenile delinquency.

McKeag’s association with Gray and Mowl led him to write a number of horse-racing novels and juvenile paperbacks, whilst for various Aldine annuals and libraries he penned many stories around the themes of the sea (usually involving the Navy) and football (usually involving a last minute goal); he also wrote hardcover boys’ novels for Pilgrim Press and romances for Modern Publishing; and all this whilst working editorially on School Friend and Schoolgirls Own Paper for the Amalgamated Press and keeping up an impressive fiction production for them too.

From the above you will begin to gather something of the man’s output, yet McKeag had other interests outside of writing. He married Constance Hibbs in 1928 with whom he had two sons, and stood as Labour candidate for Dover (1929) and Harwick (1931). He again served with the Navy during World War Two, and turned to freelancing journalism and writing novels afterwards, pounding out scores of new Roland Vane sensations for Phoenix Press, Modern Fiction and Archer Press; to this output he added more ‘sophisticated’ romances as Ramon Lacroix and Rene Laroche, crime novels as "Griff"4, and two lost world novels starring Shuna (or more properly, Esh’una), the White Queen of the Jungle, the first - Shuna and the Lost Tribe - straight out of Conan Doyle via Boys Friend Library. It was certainly a varied output.

McKeag returned to the Amalgamated Press in the early 1950s, this time to edit the Schoolgirls Own Library which was relaunched in 1946 (after a wartime break due to the paper shortage), and would run until 1963. McKeag was also a prolific writer of picture scripts for the companion Schoolgirls’ Picture Library, launched in 1957 with McKeag’s involvement but ultimately to be edited by Len Wenn, who recalls, "I had been taken on as editor and found that Mac had been assured of the job. Big row. I pressed my case having had enough of this sort of thing by now and it was sorted out in my favour. Mac and I became friends over a bottle of red wine that same evening and remained close friends to the end. Great fellow, Mac."5

McKeag retired from Fleetway Publications in September 1961, but remained a fixture at the "Cogers" where he had been a regular (and heavy) drinker for years. Mac was typical of the Street of Ink's colourful figures, thinnish, with a large nose through drink, sometimes to be found wearing a large Australian hat. Quiet when sober but boisterous when drunk, he rarely missed a function in Fleet Street, heading straight for the pub each evening and working his way home through a number of taverns; he complained bitterly through a spell in a nursing home in the late 1950s where he was forced to drink nothing but milk whilst recovering from an ulcer and, against doctors advice, drank more than ever when he was released.

His drinking was his downfall, and he later suffered a stroke and lost the powers of speech, but even that didn’t stop him visiting old friends at Fleetway, who would take him across the road to the infamous Cheshire Cheese. When he died, in 1974, he had his ashes scattered in the Gulf stream ("much to his wife’s dismay," recalls one correspondent, "for she had to attend and was very seasick."). He was survived by his wife and two sons.


NOTES

[1] McKeag wrote a number of titles that were based on his own experiences. His first adult novel, for instance, was set in The Night Haunts of Berlin, and a second contained the following character, clearly McKeag himself:


Leonard Morton, student, a bit of an author, journalist, jack of all trades, was getting blase. The pursuit of pleasure had been his hobby from youth, but in Hamburg there was not need to pursue pleasure. After a year of precarious existence as a free-lance in Fleet Street, he found Hamburg a second Utopia.

The difference in the rate of exchange, of course, had a great deal to do with it, for it was just the time when the mark had commenced its disastrous fall in value. With the small sum which he had managed to wrest from hard-hearted editors, as he put it, he had decided to cross to Germany and study the country a little... The sudden rise in the value of the English pound had enabled him to carry out his plans. (The Girl Who Surrendered, pp5-6)[back]

[2] Ernest McKeag, correspondence with Bill Lofts, 12 November 1958.[back]

[3] Although, according to McKeag, "there was no editor on that firm." Other contributors to the Mowl/Gray group included Robert C. Elliott, William Elliott, and future Ben Sarto and Griff writer Frank Dubrez Fawcett.[back]

[4] It should be noted that McKeag only wrote 5 novels as "Griff", a house name which was then taken over by others, notably William Newton and F. Dubrez Fawcett, who added a further forty-two titles to the byline.[back]

[5] Len Wenn, private communication, 24 October 1998.[back]

(* This was written a few years ago when I was writing and editing a newsletter called PBO for the British Association of Paperback Collectors. PBO folded after 9 issues and "Remembering 'Mac'," as the article was originally called, was never used.)

2 comments:

Richa Jo said...

Ernest McKeag wrote about 300 Dane stories before the war, and all those from 1939 until the paper was shut down, with possibly a few exceptions when he was indisposed, were by Harry Belfield. It was natural that Colwyn Dane should also appear in the Champion’s companion publications, Champion Annual and Champion Library.

Steve said...

Belfield was certainly the most regular of Colwyn Dane's writers, but even he couldn't keep up the pace of a new story every week for 16 years... although he had a good stab at it!

The writer who filled in for Belfield on occasions was none other than Edward Cowan, who later went on to write The Spider and many other comic strips.