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Rescued from oblivion after six decades: the long-lost memoir of Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians

Jack Rudolph Neave , self-styled ‘King of the Bohemians’, was a well-known if somewhat infamous Soho character in pre- and post-war London with his standard attire of cloak, cravat and wide-brimmed hat, that trademark crumpled cigarette dangling from his lips.

Variously, during his life, he was an escape artist, fairground strongman, astrologer, numerologist, night-club promoter, raconteur and founder of a quasi-religious sect. But most of all, he was the deviser of numerous dubious ‘fiddles’ to make ends meet by circumventing the system: in other words, he was a con-artist, albeit a benevolent one.

His soubriquet arose from an accident resulting in a shortened right leg requiring a metal device on his boot which led him to be called ‘Iron Foot’. He gave various tall stories about the accident, including a shark bite while pearl-diving, an avalanche in Tibet, and being shot while smuggling!

It was in 1957 that Jack (b1881 in Australia) left the manuscript of his picaresque memoir The Surrender of Silence with the young author Colin Wilson (then 26), for the two men had become acquainted some years previously, probably in Soho, after Wilson had arrived in London in the early Fifties.

Jack hoped that Wilson — following his (Wilson’s) overnight fame following publication of The Outsider (1956) — would be able to find a publisher for the memoir, but Wilson was unsuccessful in this and, in 1959, Jack died.

Jack puts in two appearances in Wilson’s 1961 semi-autobiographical novel Adrift in Soho — ‘He was a strange looking man, a cross between a tramp and a character out of The Prisoner of Zenda’ — and Wilson had thought about dedicating the book to him, the only character in Adrift in Soho given his real name. Ironfoot Jack is also a character in the film version of Adrift in Soho (2018), directed by Pablo Behrens.

It wasn’t until 2016, three years after Wilson’s own death, that the typed carbon-copy manuscript of the memoir was discovered among Wilson’s papers by his bibliographer Colin Stanley who grasped the significance of it and, to his credit, set about editing and annotating the text for publication.

And now, more than 60 years after its genesis, Jack’s book — The Surrender of Silence: The Memoir of Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians (Strange Attractor Press UK £12.99, September 2018) has finally appeared in print — rescued from oblivion — with introductions by cultural historian Phil Baker and Colin Stanley as editor.

Jack’s account of his ‘fifty years on the fiddle’, as one newspaper of the time succinctly described his life, is genuinely fascinating in its self-portrait of a luminary of the British demi-monde in the first half of the 20th century, and in its evocation of lifestyles long vanished.

However, as Jack dictated it while having his portrait painted in 1956, and then had it typed up, what we have is not considered prose from a practised writer but one long, rambling direct quote in Jack’s self-congratulatory tone.

With a smattering of knowledge about occultist and esoteric subjects, Jack liked to pass himself off as a kind of mystic or would-be guru, a ‘professor’ of the arcane. Indeed, ‘his ignorance never failed him on any subject’, wrote Mark Benney in his 1939 biography of Jack (What rough beast? A biographical fantasia on the life of Professor J R Neave, otherwise known as Ironfoot Jack. London: Peter Davies).

Ironfoot Jack with the young painter Lucian Freud / Pathe News

Yet while Jack’s memoir is an interesting social document, it is hardly what Jack himself said of it, with typical hyperbole: ‘the greatest book ever written on Bohemians in Europe’; he told Colin Wilson this in a letter in 1957. Had Jack lived longer he doubtless would have seen himself as a precursor, or even founder, of the Sixties counter-culture.

The Surrender of Silence was the outcome of years of struggle to survive, Jack wrote, of day to day efforts to ‘solve the problem of existence’ — one of his favourite phrases, indicating not a philosophical exercise but simply a pragmatic one of making enough money, ‘by various and curious methods’, to survive on the streets.

Most of the people he knew — gipsies, travellers, show people, buskers, fairground workers, market traders, poverty-stricken artists and sundry down and outs — led precarious lives, winning their livelihoods from day to day. ‘They worked to live, they did not live to work,’ was Jack’s oft-repeated mantra, his summation of the Bohemian world-view.

In the memoir, Jack is exceedingly coy about the Caravan Club scandal of 1934 which led to a 20-month prison sentence for him, as well as about a later jail term he served in Birmingham.

The Caravan Club — ‘London’s greatest Bohemian rendezvous’ — was gay and lesbian-friendly and tolerated low-level criminality and prostitution. Jack and many others were arrested in a police raid; he was charged with running a disorderly house. The trial at the Old Bailey was described in Benney’s biography which, said Jack, perhaps ruefully, made for ‘a good education for the sociologists’.

In that 1957 letter to Colin Wilson, Jack added: ‘I have written The Surrender of Silence not so much for my material gain but to the memory of a glorious past of Bohemian life which is now gone with the wind leaving behind only memories and a brief spell of passion and strife.’

The title of the book remains a puzzle and open to interpretation, as Jack does not explain it (he didn’t have to, of course), but perhaps we can see a ‘surrender of silence’ in the Bohemian hubbub in which Jack was enveloped, or maybe just in his malapropist monologues — or, as Colin Stanley has suggested, Jack’s telling of his story at last at age 76, with only two years left to live as it turned out, was itself ‘a long silence surrendered’.

A number of appendices to the memoir, providing a good measure of ‘bonus material’, comprise a series of congenial letters written by Jack to Colin Wilson, an article about Jack entitled ‘Ironfoot — last of the Bohemians’ from Reynolds News in 1958, a pamphlet, The Drama of Life, written by Jack, and Jack’s numerological ‘4 Advices’.

The Surrender of Silence certainly is a literary curio, but none the less revealing in its portrayals of roguish streetlife, particularly of the ‘underground’ London of Jack’s day, its fly-by-night denizens and their seedy dives, now almost lost to living memory.

  • Ironfoot Jack appears on film in the Coffee Bar feature — from the Look at Life series of short documentaries which were shown in UK cinemas at the time — shot in Soho in the 1950s (he appears at 5.29).