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Roland Camberton: The Scamp

This is another novel that came out with a fairly limited print run, had a moderate success and then disappeared. It is now very difficult to find (except in French translation!) which is both sad and somewhat surprising, as it is really a very good novel. Julian MacLaren-Ross wrote of it Mr Camberton, who appears to be devoid of any narrative gift, makes this an excuse for dragging in disconnectedly and to little apparent purpose a series of thinly disguised local or literary celebrities. The fact that one of these very thinly disguised literary celebrities is MacLaren-Ross himself, in the person of Angus Stenforth Simms, former commercial traveller (MacLaren-Ross sold vacuum cleaners when he was broke), short story writer, squire of a corner of the Corney Arms and player of scrag, a game involving guessing how many buttons a player has hidden in is hands, may have influenced MacLaren-Ross’ judgement. I can only say that I strongly disagree with his opinion.

Apart from MacLaren-Ross, I do not know how many of the other characters are based on real people but whether they are or they are not, Camberton draws a series of wonderful portraits of this literary demi-monde. The main character is presumably based on Camberton himself – Ivan Ginsberg. Unlike his creator, Ginsberg went to Cambridge University. While there he and Hugh Bellenger both fell for Zena Yadcott. Unfortunately, Miss Yadcott was caught passing four bad cheques in Cambridge and was sent down, never to be heard of again. Bellenger and Ginsberg became friends and set up flat together in London, with Bellenger paying the bills out of the allowance he receives from his father who is drinking himself to death in Tanganyika. Bellenger spends his time chasing women – he has numerous affairs – and dealing in antiques and bric-à-brac. He is also nominally writing a thesis on psychology at the University of London. Ginsberg is perennially broke and has very limited sources of income. These include the ten shillings a week he receives from Mrs Chabbers, to whom he teaches Russian, the small amount he earns from the Literary Institute, where he lectures on Russian literature (all stolen from the standard handbook on Russian literature) and the money he earns from short stories, which is pitiful, as only three have ever been published, despite the fact that he was written and submitted large numbers. His love life has also been troubled. When serving in the army during the war, he had been having an affair with Margaret, a Welsh woman. While in France, he receives a six-page letter from her, in which she pledges her undying love for him but is planning on killing herself, as she is pregnant and cannot bear the shame. He does not hear from her again but does not know whether she did kill herself, as he dare not approach her parents and cannot afford to go to Wales to investigate. He then moves on to Lolita, a woman from Gibraltar, with not all too successful results. (Note that this novel was published five years before Nabokov’s novel.) This is the situation at the beginning of the novel.

Early on, Ginsberg decides to found a literary magazine called Scamp, aimed at the younger generation and being more daring than other magazines. It will, of course, publish his work, as well as that of his friends. For funding, he first approaches the uncle of a friend, who works for the publisher Scrowicz and Scrowicz but is turned down. It then occurs to him to ask Mrs Chabbers. She is a well-to-do though not particularly wealthy widow who has sexual designs on Ginsberg, though he rejects all her advances. It is then that we meet the thinly disguised literary celebrities, criticised by MacLaren-Ross. Firstly there is Angus Stenforth Simms, MacLaren-Ross himself, who holds fort in the Corney Arms for his acolytes, who agrees to the reprint (for a fee) of one his stories set in five different hotels. He will be further mocked at the end, when we see his career faltering. There is Storningham, who is undertaking a tremendous psychological study of homosexuality, who will be later arrested for illegal perfume sales. Ginsberg also approaches Kagaranias (Kaggy) the rich Greek property owner, who lives with the poor and who is very stingy. He collects many books of all types and quality but does not read them. He rejects Ginsberg’s approaches. On his travels through London with Kaggy, he also meets Anstruther, the doctor who has been struck off for performing an illegal abortion and who sleeps in various railways stations and who is writing his memoirs. Camberton will later criticise the then harsh anti-abortion laws. It is Kaggy who introduces him to the drunken, anti-semitic journalist, assistant night editor of the Daily Post, Bert Flogcrobber. Flogcrobber moonlights doing freelance to support his large family and his drinking habit and pays (eventually) Ginsberg to help him, by having him ghost some articles. Much attention is given to the young Julius Kripkin, a dilettante, who has finished school and is living on a meagre allowance from his mother, supplemented by work as a film extra in Caesar and Cleopatra. This makes him a devotee of Shaw, whom he goes to visit with not entirely satisfactory results. His study of philosophy, his attempt to get a job as a literary critic, his unhappy love affair with Rita and, finally, his own attempt to start a magazine are all mercilessly mocked.

Kripkin had put an ad in the New Statesman, calling for contributions, which leads to a huge number of responses. However, by the time he received them he had gone off the idea and passes them all to Ginsberg, who rejects all but one, a story by a young Irish woman, Kathleen O’Flanagan from Ballykelly. We are introduced to more characters – Spiffhorn and Trunt, the possible printers; Buchsfindlemann, the art editor of the London Daily Echo, who hates his boss, hates Simms and hates being mistaken for a Jew; the Finn Korganin, who may have been a close friend of Lenin and may have almost been shot for being a Trotskyist but who now survives without a job by sponging off friends and wants to be the unpaid assistant editor of Scamp. But Ginsberg’s efforts are proving unfruitful. Mrs Chabbers is proving difficult. His letters to various famous people for contributions have borne little fruit, except for a guinea contribution from the Sultan of Katakanak, aka Stevie Lemills, whose island has recently been incorporated into the British Empire. He gets one advert – the entire back page for eight guineas from his friend Sid, for Sid’s Red Hot Rhythm Sextet. But, one by one, things start to go wrong for many of the protagonists. But Ginsberg, despite the adversities won’t give up.

This really is a first-class comic novel and one that definitely should be better known. Camberton creates a rich array of characters and we follow their development and laugh at their foibles, though, at the same time, we pity some of them, (though not the Angus Stenforth Simms/Julian MacLaren-Ross character). The story of Scamp is clearly a MacGuffin but that does not matter, as what drives this novel are the characters and their behaviour and not the plot. But why has this novel disappeared?

Publishing history

First published 1950 by John Lehmann