Stewart Home lived in Hackney in the 1980s and his fiction has often included London’s finest borough as a setting. His earliest novels took a sly dig at the anarchist and arty scenes here, mashing up techniques from the avant garde with pulp fiction from the 1970s.
The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones is his fifteenth novel, originally published by Test Centre in 2014. (Around this time the publisher was operating a pop up space at the old Sea Scouts building on Stoke Newington Church Street – now a children’s nursery). I missed the original edition, but fortunately Cripplegate Books have republished the book.
“The Nine Lives of…” is a fictionalised autobiography, based on extensive research and conversations with people who knew boxer and cat burglar Raymond Jones. So… perhaps not something you would expect to read about on a website about the radical history of Hackney? Well, dear reader, I am pleased to say that your expectations are about to be confounded.
Ray grew up in the Welsh valleys and worked as a miner before becoming an infamous boxer and burglar in London. He lived at various locations in Hackney including Brougham Road (later to be an epicentre for squat punks and radicals), Colvestone Crescent and Cranwich Road, Stamford Hill (previously inhabited by anarchist Emanuel Michaels).
The author is not someone who thinks that all criminality is radical by nature and there are a number of amusing sideswipes at anti-social scumbags throughout the book. But by all accounts Ray Jones sustained a successful career as a cat burglar over several decades – and robbed purely from upper class poshos. In Home’s hands our hero becomes an entirely plausible class warrior – hellbent on revenge against a system that persecuted him and the working class as a whole. Ray even makes anonymous donations of wads of filthy lucre to causes like a miners’ benevolent fund back in South Wales.
There are a number of vivid accounts of daring raids on country mansions and even a couple of nail-biting prison escapes. This – along with some wry observations on London’s criminal subculture in the 1950s-1970s – is the heart of the book. It’s a proper page turner.
Jones went straight in 1972 at the age of 52 and set himself up as a market trader on Ridley Road. Throughout the story we are treated to a number of passing thoughts on world and political affairs and I found the juxtaposition of a reflective Ray and the unfolding political turmoil of 1980s London to be a ripping read. He even joins Hackney Anti-Poll Tax Union…
Home’s treatment of the subject matter is done sensitively and affectionately but without the cloying nostalgia that bogs down many a gangster memoir. He doesn’t shy away from some of Jones’ mistakes and regrets. At the other end of the spectrum there are some excellent demolition jobs on the scumbags of the aristocracy and judiciary who find themselves light of some jewelry or other luxury items after a daring visit from “the cat”.
Raymond Jones died in Homerton Hospital in February 2001 at the age of 84. One of his last wishes was for his life story to be published as a book and a film. The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones is certainly a fitting tribute to the man.