At a writers’ event I asked the panel if there was a bias in the publishing industry against Northern writers. One of the comments made was to mention a quote of someone or other that you can’t be considered a great writer until you have written a novel set in London. There clearly is a bias: the belief in the almost exclusively London-based publishing and literary agents’ world that literature is written about the middle classes and for the middle classes. (And of course that means London.) If you write about the North, no matter how good your writing, you are classed as a “Northern writer” and you automatically become niche. (Ever heard Ian McEwan called a Southern writer?) If it is about working class people it is a further sub-category. I was told that a historical novel set in the North was regarded as a “clogs and shawls” genre and had to have female lead to fit the publishing demographic. Publishing has become risk-averse: it is less about quality or diversity than about what Tesco will sell. This post is my attempt to show that you can base good writing in somewhere like Sheffield. For me, to qualify as a ‘Sheffield novel’ it is more than it being set in Sheffield - I want to feel the place coming through.
Here I propose to post reviews of Sheffield novels as I get round to them: there are more than I first thought: it may take some time. Any thoughts or recommendations most welcome.
Evelyn Orange - Secrets and Shadows
This book is surprisingly good – I say surprisingly because, judging it by its cover, I expected it to be romantic fluff (going by the picture, and what I assumed to be a pen name). You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – though we all do. The cover of Secrets and Shadows cover would lead to many people rejecting it, I suspect – though it may appeal to its core readership.
Although this book may be pigeon-holed as romantic fiction, it is more than that – it is well written with only one or two relatively minor flaws. The story is intriguing and well-researched, containing, on the whole, the right amount of historical detail – enough to transport you to another time and place without you feeling you are receiving a history lecture. You feel you are in the hands of someone who knows her facts: with historical fiction you need to be able to relax, feeling you are being led by a reliable tour guide.
It will probably appeal more to female readers. Female friends often moan about some books (for example, step forward Mr Conrad) having no strong female characters. This is the opposite – the anti-Conrad – she rites her female characters very well but the men remain flat and often just objects. The boot is on the other foot. I feel I have no right to complain at such a redressing of the balance; though it would be more rounded if the male characters breathed a little, had something in them that made them want to live a bit, other than just their reflection in the women. To illustrate: one of the male characters is a footballer, but that fact is totally skipped over except to justify well-honed muscles in someone who would otherwise be what is known in today’s language as ‘a geek.’ He also drives a red Triumph – in the early sixties – and the only description of it, coming from one of the women, is ‘gorgeous’ – we get no feel for why he bought it, nothing comparable to the attention paid to the sensual descriptions bestowed on frocks and suchlike.
The novel is only partly set in Sheffield – the author was a student here. The bulk of it takes place in Sunderland, where she grew up, but also in Scotland and London. It ought to be a very commercial novel – surprising then that it is indie-published. Does Sunderland suffer like Sheffield in being a place the London commuter doesn’t want to read about (or acknowledge exists?)
She says she finds families and their secrets fascinating – anyone who shares that interest will enjoy, or possible love, this book.
Kate Hanney - Safe
Safe is advertised as a book for teenagers who don’t read. It is only a novella – a couple of hours in length at the most. Hanney is a teacher and clearly draws on her experiences to write a very real story about a disaffected fifteen-year-old boy. Danny Watson is probably the sort of kid you’d try to avoid making eye contact with at a bus stop. Probably not a very nice person at all. But the way the book is written from his point of view, you get to see how has become the person he is, how limited his choices in life are. Like any good character portrayal, you see things from his point of view, sympathise with him, and will him on to come good in the end. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it turns out.
Not a novel for anyone seeking escapism, but teenagers or adults seeking an accurate portrayal or a sociological study of life on the margins of society will like this – and it is well written. There’s not much that grounds it firmly in Sheffield; the accents are not strong, but the voices are convincing. A pleasure to read the correct past tense for the verb to treat: “We didn’t treat ourselves that night. I mean even for us, we really tret ourselves.”
David Fine - The Executioner's Art
I read this so that you don’t have to. I can’t review The Executioner’s Art without a bit of a spoiler – but it is justified if it stops you buying something you’d rather not have bought. The quotes on the back call it “rich, gothic prose” or “edgy and dark.” I’d prefer words like “nasty” and “sordid.” I like fiction to tell me something about what it is to be human, sometimes to be uplifting, but at least to make me think I have spent my time well – that I have gained from the experience, or at least been entertained. This novel won’t do any of that, unless you find snuff movies/ horror porn entertaining. Instead it will leave you feeling diminished. It is repulsive in places: it describes in detail a horrific torture and murder, and child sexual abuse leading to psychosis that might end in someone carrying out such a vile murder.
David Fine can certainly write. Some of the prose is well crafted, for example: “A tired grey hearse pulled itself through the cemetery gates. It seemed to change colour is it twisted through the graveyard, from the darkness of the headstones to the lesser grey of the scattered clouds above.” But at other times he is tempted into explaining things from too many points of view, not even flagging the change to the reader. For example, here we have been following a newly introduced character DCI Naylor – then it shifts without warning to DI Tilt:
“His flu had left him feeling hungover for nearly a week. DCI Naylor rubbed the jowl line below his chin before realizing he hadn’t shaved.
Tilt handed over the papers without a word. Through the frosted glass of the office divider he watched a female shape pass their DCI in the corridor. DC Wilet wasn’t due in this morning.”
Fine also gets carried away with his own writing, as some novice writers do: a whole paragraph on someone using a photocopier, for example, with all the details and the troubles the character has with the copier!
There are problems with the plot and the story isn’t rounded off terribly well.
It is set in Sheffield but could really be anywhere – there is not really much of Sheffield in this fictional version of the city. It is painted as a very bleak place – “a city where rivers disappear.” Anyone who has lived in the city won’t recognise the portrait: At certain moments Sheffield becomes a creature its inhabitants rush to hide from. People only see it inside their heads when they come close to evil – whatever that means.
The attempt to ground the novel in Sheffield by use of dialect fails miserably. These are some examples of ‘local speech:’
“Home, with Beryl. Ask her, ’cos you don’t believe me. Charlie and I’d have been here except for weather. He were probably at Anna’s.”
“Visiting hours are between two and eight.”
“That’s all right, luv. We’ll be done while then.”
(The author clearly has some knowledge form somehwere that people in Sheffield say “while,” in a non-standard way – as a substitute for “until” actually.)
“Don’t work in pit,” he said. “Join army or police. Don’t work too hard to kill yoursel’ ”
Chris Rose - Wood, Talc and Mr J
I really wanted to like this book. It is set in the late seventies early eighties in my home-town, with cultural references I understood. I was not into Northern Soul, but I knew people who were. I at least “got it.” It even has references to football and Sheffield United. So what’s not to like?
It is indie-published because Rose says “I wouldn’t change anything about Wood, Talc. That’s why I went independent. I wanted to keep my soul in the book. I’ll always be that way. Let them write their own books, not mine.” That statement may be true, and worthy – indie-publishing does allow originality to be preserved. Sometimes trying to force something into a commercial book will kill an original work or unusual, innovative style. However, indie-publishing has also opened the floodgates to an awful lot of dross from self-obsessed people desperate to have their self-belief of brilliance acknowledged. Would Ulysses even find a publisher today if its author were an unknown? Would it’s impenetrability rule it out from commercial publishing? I confess to never having read more than snippets of Ulysses. If I were to take it on, I would need a parallel text of almost equal length to explain exactly what all the underlying meanings were. Does that make me a thicko? Or does it really mean that Ulysses is too opaque to really be classed as something other than a niche novel? Is the job of the writer to convey meaning in such a way that every word and every line is understood? – assuming your reader to be at least reasonably intelligent. Or is it sufficient to string words together that just sound nice as some poets do, knowing full well that no one but the writer understands the full meaning? I write all this because, despite wanting to like Wood Talc and Mr J, I struggled with it, and I am left wondering why?
I am sure Chris Rose won’t begrudge a fellow Yorkshireman a little plain speaking.
As I picked it up I thought this is going to be a tough read, but I’m not one to quit a book? I appreciated some of the imagery and the protagonist’s relationships: his mother and father come through as very real, and his relationship with his “grom” – his grandmother is warm and funny. There is something of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandons about them.
Sometimes a book takes a while to get into the style of writing: like Shakespeare, for example: you just need to get an ear for it. But with Wood, Talc it seemed to get harder and harder as there was less story-telling and more stream of consciousness pouring off the page. I had to re-read sections and still couldn’t really work out what was going on. I was left feeling that a little more concession to the reader, a little more focus on the story – on things like the effect of his grom’s and his father’s illnesses on him – and a little less authorial integrity, would have been a very good thing. Was there just too much cleverness or was it in need of a good dose of reality, and a good edit? A little bit of both perhaps.
Sentences such as the following are just clunky, in my opinion:
On my asking whether they thought it – the frilly item my mum couldn’t have worn outdoors, I’d never seen it before – went with the trousers, my dad left, leaving the door ajar.
Are paragraphs such as the following replete with meaning and allusion or just too dense:
April’s eager beaver, his eyes looked fashioned for lunging down those same bowling lanes, like he’d misread the prescription, sliced into the second ration, necked a double-dosage. He’d never accept the accusation. Putting princes to shame, he felt wiser than any king; route beckoning to the Temple of Soul, he basked in the knowledge and peak of it, and rose from the artful bow in recognition of the polluted standing ovation.
About halfway in I just started to lose it completely. Whilst with his mates in Skegness on a night out, this happens:
Screams of a different nature rippled like a breeze of bitter change, and yet I couldn’t put my finger on its source. Groups silhouetted, an approach, a retreat; a car shunned dug-in feet, the to-ing and fro-ing. And then, in squadron-like re-formation, on a general’s growl all, all became as plain as size ten boot: ‘Skinhead! Skinhead!’
They run and:
I took the knee-high wall Red Rum-style, only to recognise that one of us had committed an error of judgement: a step, a day out-stepped, my grand-national winner falling to dust at this last hurdle; a frantic thought on which to cling, this short-straw-of-a-moment million. And so again I placed a glossy sole upon a Jolly Fisherman’s sun-bathed stairway, in past imitation or practice for the future – I had the world at my feet after all…
Teeth penetrated the footwear in Morph-ish splatter. Courage cared for the spine.
Do you really need so many words to describe, what I think is, someone trying to jump over a wall and falling over? Others may like this kind of thing, but with so many books to read and so little time it just frustrates me.
Nick Holland - The Girl on the Bus
The Girl on the Bus is set in the Hoyland/ Elsecar area of Barnsley, in Sheffield, and a little bit in Huddersfield.
It weighs in at something in the order of quarter of a million words: well over twice as long as the modern commercial model and putting it up there with Middlemarch and Dostoevsky in length. You shouldn’t judge a book by its length – a story is as long as it needs to be, but the main trouble with The Girl on the Bus is that it is much longer than it needed to be. The first chapter is the weakest of the lot and when you finish it and your Kindle is telling you that you have another 15 hours to go, your impulse is to give up. The author is asking you to give up a substantial chunk of your life and all he has told you to tempt you is that the protagonist has a really boring life and when something potentially interesting happens to him he reflects: “this wasn’t the way I wanted to start my year. I wanted everything to continue in the same and challenging and lonely rut.” Not promising. There is the prospect of something interesting to come dangled before us and the chapter finishes with a hit-and-run, but still it doesn’t escape from the sometimes tedious mundaneness.
Holland feels compelled to describe John Halle’s boring morning routine in detail, and his boring job, and his boring journey to his boring job. I’m sure what the author set out to do was to show us what an ordinary bloke Halle was before all the action that unfolds but it could have been done so much better. Even the opening line: “Death and excitement are two sides of the same coin…” makes you stop, and think: “No they’re not. That’s ridiculous.” He goes on to qualify that with: “they can both arrive when you least expect it.” Fair enough, but the same coin?
Holland’s tendency to overwrite things is a shame – it spoils what otherwise could have been a good book. At times it is pacy and gripping; and, of course, that needs to be interspersed with slower passages, but he slows it down so much at times with his desire to describe every character in detail and every location down to the colour of curtains, that it doesn’t just slow down but grinds to a stop. For example, he takes a whole page in describing making a cup of tea, including a whole paragraph to describe the character putting the kettle on. We have all boiled kettles and are perfectly capable of imagining the process without being told what the switch was like or what type of kettle it was. An author may well enjoy writing this detail, but it is something that should fall at the edit. It adds nothing to plot or character so it should go. Readers are quite capable of imagining scenes and people for themselves with just a little hint from the writer.
I persevered past the first chapter and was glad I did – the story picked up nicely after that and follows the typical up and down roller coaster ride to the end station that you expect in a modern thriller. People will like it for that despite the problems with the writing. There are plenty of page turning cliff-hangers, a fair bit of gruesome violence (if you like that sort of thing), and some clever plot twists.
There are plenty of other errors of spelling (e.g: they’re/there, hear/here, alright, meter/mete, repost/riposte) throughout, an apparent version to possessive apostrophes and hyphens that more effort in editing should have sorted out. Pedantry? I don’t think so. It is the writer’s duty to make their work as clear as possible to the reader. You are asking them to pay in time and money and you should seek to convey meaning to the best of your ability. It is hard and difficult, it is sometimes tedious trying to get it right but even indie-authors have no excuse.
Brian Sellars - Dance Floor Drowning
Dance floor drowning is a fantastic follow-up novel to Tuppenny Hat Detective. It does not disappoint. It is another warm, funny story, proving it is possible for stories of murder to be warm and funny: “Did tha ’ear worra just said? Thiv found a bloke’s eeyad. He’s deeyad!”
There is something very comforting about the nostalgia – it is the literary equivalent of a big fluffy dressing gown and a mug of cocoa on a cold evening. The characters are just superb: so well observed – Yvonne, the girl who keeps the boys feet on the ground, Billy himself with his insatiable curiosity, Doctor Hadfield and Kick. Even the very minor characters are good: such as the baby who eats porridge with its fingers from my saucer on the floor, then smears it on Billy, or women from the pubs.
The plot is both farcical, in a good sense, and clever with just enough to keep the reader thinking they’re working it out, combined with surprises thrown in. It is indie-published so, like Tuppenny Hat, it is not without the odd typo, but that is easily forgiven: the writing flows so nicely and it is an effortless read. As with Tuppenny Hat I can see this working well on TV: I would love to see it. If there are any production companies out there looking for an idea?
Lynne Whiteley - Pocket Full of Hope
You have to take this book for what it is: it is not some fancy novel by a renowned author, full of clever prose and elaborate turns of phrase. It is the author’s honest and heartfelt effort to tell her family story going back to the beginning of the 20th century – a story shared by many people. It is a great achievement and the author has put in a tremendous amount of work to produce it and has poured a good deal of emotional energy into the project. She is donating from each book sale to The Royal British Legion as well, so good luck to her.
The way the two parallel story threads are brought together is satisfying, even though they get somewhat out of step at times.
I struggled with several aspects of the novel, however, and feel slightly guilty for the critique that follows because the narrative feels so personal; but then, I have to approach these reviews honestly. This is my opinion – everyone will have their own.
The main problem was the writing style: it is all “telling” and no “showing.” I struggled with the slightly unnatural prose and inexpert punctuation to start with and only managed once I had learnt to read it by not dwelling too much over the words, skimming certain bits, and applying a certain discipline in reading between the lines in spite of the prose. I was just willing the author to slip into free indirect style and let the characters speak for themselves: their own feelings and motivations, but it never happened. The hand of the author is ever present telling us what everyone felt and thought – from what often feels like a modern perspective. She also uses what seem like modern day speech and concepts. For example, a mother says to her son in the 1920s “I am here for you,” or, a death has “no emotional impact,” or, references to someone’s “home environment,” “enough said,” “no worries,” or, the very modern colloquialism: “End of.”
That modern perspective also seems to be only able to imagine misery. We are forever being told how relentlessly awful everyone’s lives were – there seems little room for even children to escape and to have happy times despite poverty.
On a similar note, voices of the characters are tainted by the author’s presence – they don’t feel like authentic Sheffield voices from between the wars. Part of the problem is, I suspect, the author’s passion and enthusiasm to tell the story getting the better of her: a rush to tell us what everyone was thinking. She has a tendency to over-explain: telling us things we already know or have worked out. In so doing she doesn’t give the reader much room to imagine; something a lighter touch would have achieved. Her desire to tell us what everyone is thinking leads us to flip ‘point of view’ erratically, sometimes even in the same sentence. For example: “He opened the train door and stepped onto the platform, as he alighted she had turned to look towards the front of the train where she could see the doors opening.”
Sometimes she uses dialogue when short description would move the narrative along better and sometimes uses description when it is crying out for dialogue to reveal something of character. The author also comes through in nearly every character. They all seem overly-romantic: everyone weeps excessively, even the male characters. There is no room for stiff-upper-lip in her writing.
In a novel every line should really advance the plot or build character. Had A Pocket Full of Hope had a ruthless edit it would have been so much better. Lynne Whiteley clearly has an instinct for a good story: that will be enough for many readers, but a novel needs more than just a story.
Roger Dataller (Arthur Eaglestone) - Steel Saraband
Published in 1938, this novel was used as the basis for the first film set in Sheffield: Hard Steel, released in 1942, starring Wilfred Lawson. The novel is actually set in a fictional town called Netherside, which is not Sheffield in the book, but is somewhere near. Netherside is three quarters of an hour by steam train from Doncaster and behind the town “ran the moors, purple now with heather, and threaded by the glistening limestone roads that ran into Derbyshire.”
Eaglestone was born in Parkgate, worked in a steelworks and in a colliery in Rawmarsh before getting a Miners’ Welfare Scholarship to Oxford at the age of 36. He then worked in Sheffield University’s Extra Mural Department.
The novel takes a little while to get going but improves as it goes on and the plot starts to develop. It follows Walter Haddon and his wife Freda as they move up in the world as Walter gets promoted in the Netherside steelworks. It is not really until Freda reflects that: “he had become very suddenly a person – a faintly comprehended and rather unlovable acquaintance. I’ve been living with a stranger” that you realise that there might be something resembling a plot thread. Nevertheless it is worth persisting with as the novel continues to improve right up to the end.
It must have been quite a radical book in its day: a book that could be put on lists for Feminist Studies. It charts Freda’s disillusionment with traditional marriage, an affair, and ultimately realising that she was not really important to either man. It ends with her acting for self-fulfilment –“marriage would have to become a good deal more than an unblinking backing of a man” – a rejection of “He for God, and she for the God in him.” Freda was a teacher but on marriage was made to give up her job by the Education Authority who wouldn’t employ married women. And children didn’t come to her marriage – but Walter Haddon scoffs at the concept of anything lacking in her life. Her husband’s view, hardened by his reading of Life of Napoleon is that she has been “too well-cared-for – house, home, husband, everything to your fingers – until you can’t imagine what it is you’d like to have next. Then you begin crying for the moon, and sulk because you can’t get it.” Freda comes back at him: “ ‘that’s just the trouble,’ she said quietly, ‘you are making things and you’re expecting me to just look on and, if I’m a very good girl, to hold your coat. Well I’m not interested in things you’re doing and I certainly don’t want to hold your coat.’ ”
She has a fling with one of her husband’s subordinates in the mill, Ralph Saunders. How far it goes is not explicit but the episode with the fiery tree has to metaphorical; “her action spontaneous as it was, took him fully by surprise. All that he cried warningly was ‘You’ll get your eyebrows singed’ … ‘Ah – if you are afraid!’ … a burst of acrid wood-smoke enveloped them, blotting out of the night. ‘Enough!’ he gasped. Later she has the smell of smoke on her clothes: “the odour she knew would cling tenaciously, subtly interpenetrating the fabric. She didn’t mind in the least. As she thrust her key into the door she was humming softly…”
The characters are well drawn – both Freda and Walter, but also some of the minor characters like the wonderful Mrs Haddon.
There are flaws in the novel – the point of view shifts alarmingly at times so that it is sometimes confusing as to who you are actually following – if it has stuck more tightly to the points of view of Walter and Freda it would have been much improved. Also some of the language is pretentious: for example, the use of ‘masticating’ instead of ‘chewing’ or ‘the wall ran contiguous with the street’ – why not just ‘bounded the street?’ and the over use of words like ‘pendant’ instead of ‘hanging.’ It makes you wonder whether this is the same pretentiousness that made Arthur Eaglestone (a fine name) assume the nom de plume of Roger Dataller – as if he had gone to all that trouble to get to Oxford and to learn words and literary references and was damn well going to impress everyone with them.
A J OATES - BOLT-HOLE
There can’t be many better value ways to spend an evening on your own than a couple of beers and Bolt-hole on your Kindle for 77p. It is an independently published novel: another great book that the publishing industry has missed (also see Tuppenny Hat Detective). Granted there are a lot of terrible indie-novels out there, but also some belters that don’t seem to have fitted the commercial publishers’ formulae.
More novels were published in 2013 than in the whole of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century combined so it is a mammoth challenge for the publishing industry to find the best. Often there seems a lot of luck involved in getting published: being a celebrity helps, or having contacts. However, getting a publisher seems no guarantee of quality – there are a lot of bad, commercially published novels too. Readers are faced with a surfeit of choice: not always a good thing perhaps. Another outcome of the supply and demand equation is that it is hard to see how a writer can make any money when earning only 24p per download. For the thousands of hours of work that a novel may take a cleaning job would pay better.
That Bolt-hole wasn’t snapped up by a publisher is surprising because it is the sort of psychological/crime thriller that is very in vogue. It is also well crafted.
It is a hard book to review without giving too much away and risking spoiling it, so I’ll be careful. Suspense builds very quickly and is maintained so that once you are a few pages in there is never any question of not making it to the end. And, of all the things, you find yourself rooting for a brutal murderer! There are clearly recognised bits of Sheffield in the story which adds to the sense of adventure for anyone that knows the city as you follow the main character on his route. (Oates describes himself as a having gone to Gleadless Valley Comprehensive School for Talented Children.)
There are minor flaws in the book: one or two transitions to flashbacks are a bit forced, it slows and would benefit from a bit of an edit at one point, and there are one or two spelling errors and a couple of oddly chosen words. These are all forgivable (after all, a self-published writer doesn’t have the professional editors and proof readers at their disposal). And you have no right to complain at 77p! My most serious criticism is the unnecessary epilogue – it diminishes the story and leads to one surreal reference to what happens on that last page earlier in the book. Treat the epilogue as an aberration or a crisis of conscience on the part of the author – easy enough to forgive him. Well worth a read. Great cover too.
My interview with A J Oates is at: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/interview-with-j-oates-author-of-bolt.html
ANTHONY WARD - OUR HUMAN CONSTITUTION
So far, this has been the hardest of all the Sheffield novels to review. At times I admired the writing: for its powerful imagery and lyricism, at other times I cringed, was annoyed by it or was disgusted. When I finished reading it I tracked down an obituary of Ward. Like his writing I don’t doubt if I had known him he would have been equally likeable and detestable in parts. He was born in Sheffield, the son of a miner, and was brought up in Lincolnshire when his father got a second career as a butcher (there is a lot of autobiographical inspiration for the novel). He was remembered for what the obituary writer termed his “unrestrained conviviality” – he died at the age of 57 of liver disease, no doubt as a result of too much conviviality. As well as being a bon-viveur he was an inspirational lecturer at York University, went fox-hunting and shot bears in Canada. Not surprising then when reading the novel that I reacted as I did at times as its author’s complexities came through.
The novel gets its title from the words of A. J. Cook, the General Secretary of the Miner’s Federation during the General Strike of 1926. In response to a speech by Stanley Baldwin in which he said that the miners “were fighting the British Constitution,” Cook said that the government “were fighting our human constitution.”
It is the story of three generations, starting with George, a miner, scrabbling to make a living for his family in Attercliffe in the 20s against a backdrop of pit closures and strikes. It then follows his son Will’s post-war attempt to become a self-made man, and ends with the somewhat feckless grandson George – a product of the post war welfare state. Each is saddled/blessed with similar psychological flaws/strengths (like in Larkin “they fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you”) – but each of them is placed in a different environment, though held by an invisible rope to Attercliffe and their forefathers.
It is not a terribly easy book to read – the narrative uses stream of consciousness – employing internal dialogue and a free indirect style (though don’t worry, nowhere near as dense as Joyce). For example: “The cloth of his trousers under my cheek, holding him round the knee and looking into the fire. Beams playing, crossing, dividing in my eyes. Only warmth. The thick serge, the face of the lad I’d laced in the fire. Tony Brakes who I’d blinded in one eye for laughing at one of my mother’s hats. She was rattling pots in the kitchen. There’s be no more warmth when she came in.” As sometimes happens with use of this style there are at times passages heavy with description of minor detail, sometimes overly so. It is also unremittingly bleak in places; so not for the light-hearted. Nor is it one for the prudish.
The locations are authentic from Attercliffe to Nether Green, the Porter Valley and Padley Gorge. You can follow the routes in your mind. It’s definitely worth a read. One to make your own mind up on. It is a book to divide opinion.
LEN DOHERTY - THE GOOD LION
This is the story of three years in the life of Walter Morris, starting as a seventeen-year-old arriving in Sheffield for the first time to carve out a new life for himself. His plan is to become a miner which has the added advantage of avoiding National Service. The ‘good lion’ represents Walt’s initial outlook on life: basically self-centred, looking out for himself only – the lion that kills a deer not being a ‘bad lion.’ The story sees him struggling for a meaning in his life and moving away from this initial framework.
It is a largely forgotten book, the third of three, and regarded as the best, by a former reporter on The Star newspaper. Published in 1958 and set ten years earlier it can be compared to other, more popularly acclaimed, 50s novels by working class authors: Waterhouse, Storey, Barstow and Sillitoe. (Stan Barstow acknowledged the influence of Doherty in his writing of A Kind of Loving.) Its relative obscurity is strange because The Good Lion is if anything better written and a more satisfying read than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for example. Sillitoe’s book is more sensational perhaps, but the plot is less tightly written: things happen for no apparent reason, and there are strange shifts of point of view. As Sillitoe admits in the preface to the 1979 edition, it was a first novel, “with all its liberties and limitations.” The fact it was made into a film perhaps explains its enduring popularity. By contrast, in The Good Lion everything is part of the whole, building the voyage of self-discovery that Walt is on and it explores the psychology of the lead character, where there is a gap in Sillitoe’s exploration of Seaton. One can only speculate as to The Good Lion’s obscurity: was it Doherty’s politics that alienated him from the establishment? That is a more challenging read? Or the very fact it was set in unglamorous Sheffield?
Like Arthur Seaton, Walt is an angry young man, whose growing up includes much drinking, womanising and fighting. Perhaps as a book about contemporary society its appeal was limited, but now, when Walt would be in his eighties, if still alive, it has matured like a good wine: the reader reflecting on the lives of their parents or grandparents and finding plenty of interest other than just a well-crafted plot and the problems, opportunities and mentality of a post-war teenager.
The city is never actually named and the locations are all fictional, though very believable. It is a time of bomb damage: “chopped timbers hanging awry and the pale grey of solitary walls against which staircases leaned leading nowhere,” a time of rationing, smoky dance halls where bands play waltzes, jazz or “bop,” of suede shoes, fights between gangs, fear over the cold war and atom bombs. It is a time when someone could commute to London from a new house built onto a village consisting of a pub, a post office and a cluster of farm labourers’ cottages with no running water and lit by oil lamps; cottages, no doubt now demolished or yuppified and surrounded by modern estates and Waitroses.
The writing is good. Take this, for the effect after nearly four pints: “a whirling fluffiness was spreading through his head, like cotton-wool wisps in a fairground candy-floss machine which spin round and round as they slowly gather into a light pink mass; and many normal thoughts and feelings were being smothered like encumbrant weaklings leaving him aware of himself in a fine new way. He felt reckless, confident and invincible.” Or this description of post-war Sheffield: “The city was ugly and knew it, and tried to cover its knowledge with a touchy self-sufficiency, but it was this ugliness, brusque gruffness and lack of sophistication which made him like both the place and the people…” Doherty writes well about fighting and brings to life the old-style gang culture; his descriptions of boxing are some of the best I have read. As an ex-miner himself, he also conveys the sense of honour, loyalty and community amongst miners.
It is out of print but worth getting hold of a copy if you can. I will consider publishing an e-book version if I can locate the copyright holder and get permission.
TERRY DEARY - PUT OUT THE LIGHT
This is a story aimed at children (perhaps aged 10+) by Terry Deary of Horrible Histories fame. I read it to my daughter when she was learning about the Second World War and the Sheffield blitz in Year 6. It is a wonderful book and shows the power of fiction. This one book will teach children so much about WW2. And, better than any text book , school lesson or film, it places you right there: empathising with the characters, feeling the peril, imagining what it was like.
It follows Sally and Billy in Sheffield’s East End in the lead up to the Blitz and the 12th December 1940. Some of the chapters are given dates so you feel the tension build towards the night of the twelfth.
The book also follows Manfred, a German boy and Irena, a Polish Jew from Dachau.
For such a short novel it is packed with themes and plot threads – a detective story, Irena’s escape, what it was like to be a bomber pilot or a fighter pilot and so on.
The writing is excellent: economical with no wasted words, and is gripping. You don’t predictably take sides: you empathise equally with both sets of children and as a result some of the futility of war comes through. Everyone should read it to their children, particularly everyone in Sheffield – there is no better way to teach them something about what their grandparents or great-grandparents lived through. The plot threads are tied up superbly at the end and will have you sniffing away the odd tear if you’re a sentimental, old so-and-so.
I have only two small gripes: firstly Deary gives back alleys to the street of Attercliffe, like his native North East; whereas Sheffield streets were not constructed like that (more courtyards and back passages). Secondly, he has Attercliffe Common as an open piece of grassy ground – a piece of common land – an easy mistake to make perhaps: he would have been better having that scene happen in Carbrook Park or the Pheasant Ground.
STEVEN KAY: THE EVERGREEN IN RED AND WHITE
I can’t review my own book obviously so you could take a look at: http://thetwounfortunates.com/book-review-the-evergreen-in-red-and-white/ , http://www.wsc.co.uk/reviews/62-Fiction/11478-the-evergreen-in-red-and-white , http://footballbookreviews.com/reviews/book-review-the-evergreen-in-red-and-white-a-novel-by-steven-kay , or http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-evergreen-in-red-and-white/. If anyone fancies doing a review of it for this blog, that would be great.
This is what the Historical Novel Society review says: "Rabbi Howell is twenty-eight. Born in a tent on the edge of Sheffield to Romani parents, he escaped the mines and became a professional footballer for the new-formed team of Sheffield United, but a heavy tackle leaves him on the bench for the rest of the season. Is this the beginning of the end? His in-laws regularly tell their daughter, Selina, that her husband needs a proper job. She is just glad that with young mouths to feed he is earning money, but sometimes it seems he is living a dream without her.
Rab is on light training until his leg mends, but he is being paid, and he has the support and encouragement of his brother, Charlie. Then he encounters a lame horse, and a red-headed girl… and everything changes.
This is a fictional account of a real man’s life, and much of the story is drawn from fact. The football history is fascinating and will engage even readers without an interest in the game. The life and work of a professional footballer in the 1890s was very different from the modern image – an employee of the club, players were expected to toe the line. There was no glory or adulation and Rab was looked down upon because he did not work in the pit. The social background is well crafted, drawing on real events such as the Queen’s visit to Sheffield. This was a world where everyone knew their place and duty; the common man respected his betters and did as he was told. A player who argued risked his livelihood; a married man who spoke to an unmarried woman was risking everything.
The story is about a footballer, but it is not a football story. Rabbi Howell is a Romani, but this is not a gypsy romance. It is an engaging, compelling, read, with finely drawn characters and a fascinating background. Highly recommended."
KEVIN SAMPSON - FRESHERS
The settings and detail in this book are all very authentic: pubs, the student areas of Sheffield in 2002/3 – right down to the kind of food you can get in Vittles in Broomhill. It is competently written; though there is not much a story to it. However, there is some interest revealed part way through the book, if you make it that far, as the underlying psychological flaw of the main character is revealed. In a hundred years time, if we are still here, Freshers might be of some interest to historians of the late part of the second Elizabethan era. As for now, if you are interested in the lifestyle of first year students, their angst, their desperation to lose their virginity, their self-pity, drinking habits, their getting off their heads on magic mushrooms, and their propensity for self-pleasuring themselves, then you will probably like this – otherwise don’t bother. Seriously don’t.
LESLEY GLAISTER - TRICK OR TREAT
This is an excellent read with rich complex characters who bring plenty of baggage with them into a story set over 12 autumnal days, a best guess being 1989. Olive, Arthur, Nell and Wolfe are particularly well drawn. It isLast of the Summer Wine meets 2013 BBC drama Mayday. Somehow Glaister makes “warm and cosy” (tea and toast, tins of toffee and chocolate limes, allotment gardening, parkin and candlewick bedspreads) feel slightly sinister. Little bits of imagery slipped in to homely scenes: “tips a fierce stream of tea into his cup,” a flower pressed in a book becomes “ a dead, flat thing, a brownish thing” that flutters out of the pages.
Glaister’s imagery is simple but excellent: describing the allotment: “Everything is still. Leaves hang damply or flop crumpled on the ground, onion flowers glow like little planets. Nothing moves. Even the one figure on the allotment, an old man bent over his spade, is motionless, like a man in a painting. The smell is green and brown and cool and rich.” Or: “the lights of the city spread out below her, glittering and fizzing under a stony moon. It is a mild night and the air is faintly orange, stained with street lamps and the tang of autumn smoke.”
The setting is clearly Sheffield (Glaister lived in Sheffield while teaching writing at Sheffield Hallam) though it is never actually mentioned. The clues include the people, the hills, the allotments with streams at the bottom, the bombing of the city in the war, an old water wheel ‘The Cutlers Wheel,’ and the layout of the houses (the front cover is odd: it represents nothing of the story – not the houses, not the mood – it is a strange choice to sell the novel.
Trick or Treat is melancholy, certainly, but strangely life-affirming.
SUNJEEV SAHOTA - OURS ARE THE STREETS
Reading this at a time when British Asian boys are again in the news for their radicalisation and disturbing views of Britain I was looking forward to reading this story about a young Sheffield man called Imtiaz and his own journey towards violent jihad.
The book is written as a journal and covers both life in Sheffield and in Pakistan/Afghanistan: when Imtiaz returns “home” following the death of his father. The scenes in Pakistan are perhaps the best in the book and seem (to someone who has never been) to capture the atmosphere of the place. Sahota captures Sheffield less well, though some of the city comes through (Sahota grew up in Chesterfield so knows Sheffield at least in part). I would have liked to have been shown more of what the experience of a British Asian Sheffielder was like.
One of the main failings of the book is that you anticipate some insights into what could possibly motivate someone like Imtiaz to contemplate such actions but it never really comes – his radicalisation isn’t really explained and in the end you’re just left wondering whether it was no more than a form of schizophrenia. Perhaps that is all there really is to it, a descent into madness; but if so even that isn’t described or explained particularly well.
The journal style telling only half works – Sahota could have been more disciplined if he wanted to continue with this device: he is addressing the journal to those he proposes to leave behind, in particular his parents, wife and baby daughter. And yet he describes quite vividly his sexual exploits – in a memoir for his daughter??? Sahota also flips from Imtiaz addressing his wife in the second person to writing about her in the third person – is that a deliberate shift, part of Imtiaz’s confusion, or just a lack of discipline on the part of the author – I couldn’t tell: if the rest of the writing had been tight I might have gone with it.
Sheffield is sometimes described inaccurately which is a bugbear of mine (see other reviews). For example, Imtiaz and Charag are at the Leadmill and see a tram go past heading to Meadowhall. Also he has floodlights poking up from Bramall Lane (they haven’t ‘poked up’ since the mid 90s – absolutely unforgivable error!).
The only use of dialect is that Imtiaz says “sempt” a lot – “no one sempt to bat an eyelid,” and says “were” instead of “was” – “she were fumbling in her pocket….” At first I was OK with this but it soon got wearing as it seemed (sempt?) less about capturing Imtiaz’s speech than a being writerly device. It is a hard thing to get right, I acknowledge: you want them to sound authentic without becoming unreadable.
One final criticism is Noor, his daughter: she is perhaps 18 months old at the close and yet has no character whatsoever – Imtiaz has apparently no relationship with her, no interaction with her, except for kissing her on the head towards the end – this feels really false and should have been explored better.
The e-book is totally riddled with formatting errors: missing spaces, stray carriage returns and missing carriage returns, “Asad- sounding song” (is that a song that sounds like the President of Syria?). Throughout the book “alright” is used – there is no such word; it is never all right to write “alright” – it is just ignorance. I wonder who has edited it: there is some weird stuff that an editor should have spotted: “I spent the whole of the tram ride looking at the passengers from under my eyes” – how is that done exactly to look at something from under your eyes? I can forgive some of these things in a self-published writer but from mainstream Picador who rip you off for £3.59 it is very poor.
Despite all these imperfections it is still a compelling read and does require some reflection from the reader.
BRIAN SELLARS - TUPPENNY HAT DETECTIVE
Tuppenny Hat Detective is a really good read. If you’ve not read it you are missing a gem – and if you’re from Yorkshire it will appeal for many reasons, not least because Brian Sellars has made it available on Kindle for nowt, so tha dun’t even need to shell out thi brass! (The author tells me it shifts about 4000 downloads a month!)
It is reminiscent of Kästner’s classic Emil and the Detectives and the Just William stories, though it is not a children’s book – Sellars says he has aimed it at teenage upwards. It should have a broad appeal as a result – it is gently written and would translate nicely to a Sunday evening serial that all the family could watch –if any BBC producers out there are looking for ideas.
It is superbly grounded in time and place. Sellars makes good use of dialect and real locations to solidly root the novel. Of all the books reviewed so far it is the one that oozes Sheffield. It should be compulsory reading for anyone wanting to pass the Sheffield citizenship exam.
It follows Billy Perks through the spring of 1951 and the events that unfold after he discovers a dead body. Billy is a smart kid, at times so smart that you perhaps have to suspend disbelief but you are happy to do so: a sort of Billy Casper meets Jonathan Creek. The characters are cleverly drawn – Yvonne, Billy’s friend, is one of several strong female characters and often shows the boys up with her sharp thinking: “For a second or so the boys gazed around trying to pretend this was not a brilliant idea, but found her logic flawless. ‘Well, I suppose we could try that,’ Billy admitted grudgingly. ‘I mean if it will stop you moaning on about it.” In response Yvonne storms out with a: “You’re pathetic you two.” And Kick, the other one in the gang of three, observes ruefully: “Tha never knows where tha stands wi’ lasses.”
It is very funny in parts: for example, Billy’s granny and her wonderful little sayings: “The draught from that cellar would blow the bill off a penguin.” Then there is the little historical novelists’ in-joke when Billy is contemplating newspaper archives: “ ‘It’s a pity you can’t copy the stuff with a camera or something,’ he said. ‘It’d be great for people who like to go to see the archives and stuff and be able to make copies of it.’”
The novel is self-published which gives the lie to those who say if you can’t get a publisher for your novel that probably means it is not good enough. It shows how wrong publishers can be sometimes and how their fixation with defined genre (chick-lit, romance, fantasy, action adventure etc. etc.) narrows the choices available to readers. Sellars was told by a leading publisher that it wasn’t marketable because it was set in “the wrong period of history.” This is astonishing: all those baby-boomers who are retiring and finding time on their hands to read presumably don’t want to read a novel set in their childhood days?? With publishers and literary agents being almost exclusively London based, I suspect they apply a “London commuter test” – will it appeal to the woman on the Northern Line: to people like themselves? Despite that I reckon Tuppenny Hat Detective would still pass that test if publishers opened their eyes a bit.
My one small gripe with the novel is the denouement – even after it was all unravelled I was still left a little puzzled, but then I am the sort of person who is left scratching their head watching Death in Paradise even after the Ben Miller character has gathered everyone round and explained it. So it’s probably just me.
I will close by saying look out for the chapter six homage to pikelets. Marvellous! By far the best piece of writing on pikelets to be found in the whole of English Literature.
CHARLES READE: PUT YOURSELF IN HIS PLACE
Sheffield features briefly in Ivanhoe (1820) but Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade (1870) is probably the earliest novel to be set in Sheffield, for which he uses the not very imaginative fictional name of “Hillsborough.” The novel switches between there and a location called Cairnhope which is to the east (sic.) “where hills rise into mountains and amongst them towers Cairnhope striped with silver rills, and violet in the setting sun.” Cairnhope is clearly fictional and, if based on anywhere at all, it is only loosely.
He does not paint a flattering picture of Sheffield: but I suppose Sheffield back then didn’t try very hard to flatter. There is some good stuff: “Hillsborough, though built on one of the loveliest sites in England, is perhaps the most hideous town in creation. All the ups and downs and back slums. Not one of its wriggling, broken-backed streets has handsome shops in an unbroken row. Houses seem to have battled in the air, and stuck wherever they tumbled down dead out of the melee. But worst of all, the city is pock-marked with public-houses, and bristles with high round chimneys… More than one crystal stream runs sparkling down the valleys and enters the town; but they soon get defiled, and creep through it heavily charged with dyes, clogged with putridity, and bubbling with poisonous gases, till at last they turn to mere ink, stink, and malaria, and people the churchyards as they crawl.” There are parallels there with something I wrote in The Evergreen in red and white – if I had come across Reade beforehand I might have been tempted to slip in a bit of intertextuality (posh plagiarism).
Reade did apparently visit Sheffield in 1850 which I think you can tell from his light-touch, but convincing, use of dialect and patterns of speech. Also some of the details suggest either careful research or first-hand knowledge: awareness of the frequency of eye injuries, the remarkable insights (for 1870) into lead poisoning in file cutters, the descriptions of the outrages, the section the Great Sheffield Flood and of some of the industrial processes (lesson for Philip Hensher here: see below). The accounts of the outrages and the flood could have been put together from newspaper reports but there would seem to be more to it than that. The novel does have an authentic Sheffield feel to it in parts.
The story itself will perhaps jar in places for the modern reader: Henry Little is the archetypal Victorian hero: tall, dashing, brave etc, Grace Carden, the heroine, with fair hair and marble-like skin is at times too prone to swooning and blushing, the villain, Mr Coventry, is treacherous and scheming. But the women are not all weak and subservient. Edith Little is strong and determined, Grace Carden carves wood, and rolls up her sleeves and shifts rubble at one point. And Jael Dence, a country girl, is wonderful: at one point she beats up a villain, for example, and learns to grind saws.
If you like Victorian novels you will like this and there are enough cliff hangers and plot twists to get you through a novel that is twice the size of most modern novels at 48 chapters.
PHILIP HENSHER: THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY
A fundamental question with The Northern Clemency is the extent to which it is a Sheffield novel at all. Large parts of it are set in Sheffield in the 1970s and early 1980s, but Hensher could have chosen anywhere to set his story: anywhere with up-north grimness would have served his narrative equally well. He doesn’t really get under the skin of the city – it just represents somewhere non-metropolitan to him.
This is surprising since Hensher lived for nearly 10 years in the city from 1971. You can only conclude that he never really got to know it. Perhaps that says something about him. He must have been in the year below me at school and lived not far from me and yet his Sheffield is not the Sheffield I remember. My Sheffield meant seems to have passed him by: a vibrant music scene: The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, Artery, The Leadmill, The Limit, The Lyceum as a pop venue. Sheffield’s parks, 9 hole golf and tennis at pocket money prices, the ability to roam the whole city for a 2p bus fare, Millhouses lido, Heeley’s indoor skateboarding venue in the old cinema, the artistry and romance of Tony Currie and Alex Sabella (he probably never even knew who they were I guess). The proud defiance of the city despite everything that Thatcher tried to destroy, and the way it re-invented itself, never felt sorry for itself, never rose up in riot. Sheffield was then, and still is, the biggest village in England – it has a unique atmosphere and openness; nothing flashy. Perhaps Hensher never got out much. Perhaps his childhood was lacking, but there is little excuse not getting to know Sheffield better, or at the very least he should have done his research better.
His treatment of Sheffield is lazy: some places he refers to by their authentic names, and yet there are others such as “Peace Square,” which is clearly the real life “Paradise Square,” where he has inexplicably chosen not use the real name or couldn’t be bothered to get it right. (You may be screaming ‘pedant’ at me at this stage, ‘it’s only fiction so it doesn’t matter.’ Please stick with it and let me develop the argument.) Another example: Daniel and Sandra go out to the crags near Lodge Moor which are “made of limestone” – no they are not – there is no limestone this side of Castleton – the rocks are Sheffield are gritstone. Then later on Tim goes to Orgreave from Crosspool and meets others at services on the M18 – and yet the M18 is several miles beyond Orgreave and the only services on the M18, at Thorne, opened in about 2000. Picky surely? Well try looking at it another way. If I write a scene where characters kicked the piles of beech leaves that fell from the trees lining The Mall you’d accuse me of being an ignorant northerner, no? Or if they set off from Hampstead for Hackney on the tube and met some friends who joined them on the tube at Earls Court you would sneer at my inability to check facts. I can only conclude that Hensher believed getting basic facts right didn’t matter because it is only fiction and it is only a northern town anyway.
Another basic error he makes is in a little authorial lecture on Sheffield’s East End “This side of the city had been destroyed by German bombs, decades ago. Where money could be made again, those foundries had been built or rebuilt.” Those are presumably the same German bombs that destroyed St Pauls’ cathedral? – one of the facts we all learn about the war is that the bombs missed the steelworks and hit the city centre (I don’t even think that Hensher has a grasp of what the steel industry is, or was: generically calling them ‘foundries’ – just trivial details surely: it’s all industry – why bother? who cares about accuracy?)
He is also clumsy in his use of language: he throws in all the dialect words he knows in to one overheard conversation of some truants (of course none of us ever attended school in the 70s – ‘scoile’ was only for southern softies). Can you imagine an overheard conversation were you heard two truants get in all the words: ‘waggin’ it,’ ‘scoile,’ ‘gennell,’ ‘mardy,’ and ‘gi’ o’er?’ Some sort of Sheffield parlour game or just lazy stereotyping? Someone also breaks their leg and gets a ‘cast’ on it – it was called a ‘pot’ round here. Katherine, a Sheffielder thinks about people putting their doors on the ‘snib’ – the what? Call it a latch if you like rather than making a weak attempt to sound authentically parochial, or use a proper Sheffield word like ‘sneck.’
His writing on the sense of place is often weak. As the Sellers family approach Sheffield by car Hensher attempts a description of Sheffield in 1974. He is describing the journey from the point of view of the 9-year-old Francis. He (Francis) sees a “stinking black city of vast boxes and artificial black hills and unattended vast machinery” – quite a perceptive 9-year-old. But then Hensher wants to give a little more description and, perhaps realising that he can’t get Francis to lift this load, says: “poor Francis’s selfish focus and fear stopped him seeing the city he was entering…” Move aside little Francis, me Hensher coming through to give a little history lecture: “Francis saw the artificial black hills, the slag heaps piled up by the side of the motorway. But there were seven hill in Sheffield too. The city was founded on them. The six rivers too…” And he goes on to provide an inaccurate description of Sheffield’s industrial heritage and grime. None of which Francis saw. It is disembodied – a school lesson from a badly prepared teacher, told without context or emotion of the characters.
At no point so any of the characters convey anything about what Sheffield was really like. Throughout the novel it is all looking in on Sheffield (from Metropolitan eyes?) tinged with superiority, always disparaging. The main Sheffield family, the Glovers, with their degrees of autistic and psychopathic behaviour, are treated mockingly – the only relatively normal one, Jane, being an aspiring novelist (but of course, what else?) who conforms her normalness by going off to Oxford (where else?) and thence to London (naturally for a normal person). The Sellers family provide a mostly sane reference point, but of course they’re from London themselves. Helen is one of the few grounded people and had a calming influence over Daniel who comes out of it reasonably well in the end. The other character who is written as if he is not some provincial freak is Nick (from London) who despite being a drugs money launderer is a very boring, conventional person with little emotion.
Hensher does not write sympathetically of Sheffield people, in fact he often reverts to the grossest of sloppy clichés: “they were a Sheffield pair, fat-faced and middle-aged, though both – Malcolm looked down at their forms – barely forty. They had the local build, neither with much in the way of a neck; their square heads sat firmly on their shoulders, and their complexions were pale and moist.” Miners’ wives are treated with disdain, never a mention of their courage, bravery or principle, or their compassion for others. Instead they are “boot-faced,” “ratty, raw-faced women, in the bright Crimplene fashions of ten years before, their floral skirts at or above their knees” – women who probably sold food collections off at knock-down prices or just kept donations for themselves rather than sharing them out.
No, The Northern Clemency is not a Sheffield novel. It is a mere parody of the worst kind. If you want to read a novel set in Sheffield that reflects the city, I wouldn’t recommend wading through these 700+ pages.
DAVID NOBBS: SECOND FROM LAST IN THE SACK RACE
Second from last in the sack race (1989) is set principally in the fictional town of Thurmarsh which is somewhere to the north east of Sheffield: a tram ride away, west of pit country and south of textiles country. It has a large steelworks. It is not Rotherham: Rotherham being a place some distance away perhaps only a few miles because the noise of a 13,000 Thurmarsh United crowd can be heard “as far away as Rotherham.” (I imagine Tinsley not existing and Thurmarsh being there instead.) There are sections set in Sheffield proper, a section set in Somerset boarding schools, and also a chapter set in the Yorkshire Dales.
It starts with the Henry Pratt’s birth in 1935 and ends in 1953 as he starts his national service and becomes a man. Does it fit my definition of a Sheffield novel? It certainly has a very local feel. Even when some of the people could be described as grotesque they are only gently mocked and have redeeming features. Nobbs does not look down on these people with contempt like Hensher – there is no sense of superiority in his writing – these characters are warm and affectionately portrayed. There is no Crosspool snobbery in Nobbs’ writing. Anyone from round here with memories of that generation will recognise people they knew in his carefully observed portraits. The characters jump to life – you can hear them and see them from the words on the page; his sparing use of dialect helps bring them to life; he also doesn’t just describe event she feels them.
The first few chapters are probably the best: Henry’s dad and the birth, the parrot, the ‘bedroom scene,’ “the greatest moment in English cricket history ruined,” and Henry’s adventures as a small boy. As you’d expect from the writer of Reggie Perrin it is very funny at times – the sort of book where you have to apologise to people around you for chortling: like the name him and his friends would have called their variant on poohsticks “if those scruffy youths had ever heard of Christopher Robin,” – having no trees in their environment there were no sticks to drop off the canal bridge, so they improvise with something else to hand…
The chapters on public school life I found dragged a little but maybe if that’s within your experience it does more for you. Nobbs describes well Henry Pratt’s childhood and adolescence. The book ends with Pratt finally becoming a man. There are other Pratt books chronicling his later life also. I hope Nobbs can maintain his momentum in those.
DANUTA REAH: NOT SAFE
Not Safe by Danuta Reah (2011) is described by the publishers as ‘a novella’ so I was a little disappointed to find that at less than 18,000 words, it is more of a short story, perhaps only needing 90 minutes tops to read it. It is a crime thriller in many ways like an early episode of The Bill with a whodunit type climax and resolution of peril at the end. Also like an early Bill there is very little characterisation – the only character you get any insight into is Tina Barraclough. She sets off on a bad footing with the reader anyway: the story doesn’t open with her so by the time you get to her she is an irritation as you’ve been starting to get to know another character who is then more or less dropped. There is a bit about Tina’s lifestyle but nothing about her inner life, nothing to explain her sometimes rather bizarre actions. She is so flat that you don’t really develop any affinity for her; no real understanding.
The story is set in Sheffield but it doesn’t really bring Sheffield to life – it could be anywhere really. The street names and landmarks are clearly recognised (but why does Tina go through Fargate and the Winter Gardens onto Arundel Gate in order to get to Snig Hill?).
It’s not a bad story for all that and if you aren’t tired of the crime fiction genre you’ll probably like this; it is competently written. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve read another: Silent Playgrounds perhaps.
DANUTA REAH: SILENT PLAYGROUNDS
I said I’d read another Danuta Reah, having not been able to judge sufficiently by Not Safe; thinking perhaps that what was only a short story hadn’t allowed Reah to show how she could develop character. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Silent Playgrounds, another “crime thriller,” is a good length for a novel but still none of the characters make much sense, nor are they fully rounded. There are so many points of view in the novel, and they sometimes switch so rapidly that you feel punch drunk as you are flipped from one person’s thoughts and perspective to another.
The main characters are perhaps Suzanne Milner and D.I. Steve McCarthy but there are at least another half a dozen points of view – some of them very minor characters – it is as if Reah feels she has created all these people and wants to be fair to all of them, give them all a turn. She even finishes the novel rather flatly on the perspective of a minor character whose point of view had not been introduced before, and for whom the reader cares little and so is left bemused.
Even the main characters never quite make it as believable humans beings. Suzanne’s background and psychology are explored in some depth but you never really feel it makes sense: she still behaves bizarrely in a way contrary to what the reader expects. She behaves recklessly in going on her own looking for someone she knows the police are looking for (there is a serial killer on the loose): a young offender she hardly knows, of whose background she has no knowledge other than that he shows ‘persistent, destructive criminal behaviour.’
Later in the book she lets him in her house and offers to put him up for the night (… like you do!) She leaves a six year old with tendencies to wander off unsupervised. She then loses her. Just a few days before that same child went missing for several hours in the park at the same time as her childminder was murdered (the body of whom Suzanne herself discovered).
Later Suzanne ends up in bed with the senior investigating officer on the murder case, D.I. McCarthy, without any groundwork having been done that might explain why on earth she would do so. It strikes you as equally bizarre that McCarthy would behave so unprofessionally as to sleep with a witness – the whole episode just comes out of the blue.
There are sloppy discrepancies in the plot: for example, the water wheel turns even though a few pages earlier the damn that would be needed to drive it was described as being empty. Police officers interview a child but exclude the mother from the interview for no apparent reason, other than perhaps it suited the author (to interview a child without an appropriate adult, who should be a parent in the first instance, would be unheard of). The police don’t do basic things like checking birth records. All this leaves you exasperated with the author, who keeps pulling you back out of the story and drawing attention to herself, rather than you being able to settle back feeling you are in the hands of an accomplished writer in expert command of their subject. I could go on: there are issues with the use of tenses, overly boring detail of mundane thing like doing the washing up. There are laboured transitions to internal dialogue. For example at one point the author wants to tell the reader about Suzanne’s childhood. How to do this? What we get is Suzanne looking out of her window: “(she) saw Jane in her small yard… Lucy was crouched over some game involving building blocks and the animals from her wooden farm. Mother and daughter.
She remembered her own mother, that close intense relationship….” etc.
On the plus side Reah does build tension quite nicely and the locations are all reasonably well drawn. She is largely faithful to Sheffield; although the following made me want to throw the book at the wall. It is the young offender referred to: “ Then he’d looked at her folder: ‘What are you doing?’ he’d asked. His voice was quiet, his accent broad Sheffield.” Since when was ‘What are you doing?’ broad Sheffield? Why patronise your characters this way? Not even a hint towards dialect. Why not let them speak in their own voices? I react in the same way a Scot would if Taggart was dubbed into Southern English. Does a novel really have to be dressed up in received pronunciation for a mainstream publisher like Harper Collins to take it on?
The blurb on the back cover has a quote from Philip Oakes of the Literary Review. Apparently he thinks “Reah tells her tale with real authority” and says it is “seriously good.” Make your own mind up.
BARRY HINES: LOOKS AND SMILES
Looks and Smiles (1981) by Barry Hines is the story of Mick Walsh; starting as he leaves school and follows him over the space of a year or so as he struggles, and largely fails, to find a purpose in life in recession torn 70s Sheffield. (The phrase ‘due to public expenditure cuts’ without any further political analysis gets to be wearing.)
It is a missed opportunity of a novel in many ways and falls short of being a satisfying read. Most people only think of Hines’ second novel – the one made into a famous film. It is generally the film that they remember – proved by the fact that everyone calls it Kes and not A Kestrel for a Knave, and the bits everyone remembers are the scenes from the film not the scenes from the book. This is understandable given how good and how visual the film is. It is one of those films whose quality far outstrips the original book. It is impossible to read the book and not have film images in your head.
Looks and Smiles is not as good as A Kestrel for a Knave and is not supported by a strong story like The Price of Coal (1979). The main character Mick is inconsistent – at times he is intelligent and sensitive, at others a loathsome thug. The two are not necessarily immiscible but Hines never quite reconciles it: you don’t get to understand Mick. This is perhaps always a risk when someone intelligent writes about someone less so – the author running the risk of leaking through when he/she should hold back and let the character live for themselves. The book’s portrait of late 70s Sheffield is not bad, though why he doesn’t use real locations to lend it more authenticity is a puzzle. Other than the shop Sexy Rexy, names are made up: Chatsworth Street instead of what is Fargate or The Moor, Adam N’ Eves nightclub instead of, possibly Romeo & Juliet’s – why? Novelists writing about London don’t feel the need to disguise Trafalgar Square as ‘St George’s Square’ or whatever. Is it just because writers can’t be bothered with accuracy of research or don’t want to feel shackled by real geography? (At one point Mick pinches a bike from the front garden of a house in the city centre to go to the bus station for example.)
Hines also doesn’t capture the people through their speech – there is hardly a hint of dialect or local speech patterns. (For example, there is a bizarre turn of phrase “Have we to…?” meaning “Shall we…?” e.g. “Have we to go for a walk?” Where has this come from?) Mick and his mate Alan largely speak to the reader in RP. This is also a puzzle since Hines shows no such , what’s the word? self-consciousness? betrayal? In other work. Was he badly advised by agents or publishers: “if you want to make this appreciated by the literati you’re going to have to drop the working class taint Barry” – to make it intelligible to Southern readers who, of course, would never want to read oikish language. All it does is make the characters jar.
Some of the writing is good – the description of a 1970s football match, for example: “The crowd kept falling forward, and the waves of movement down the Kop were like shadows racing across a hill.” At other time sit is truly awful: at a motorway service station: “Mick played pinball in the entrance hall while Karen went to the lavatory. On the doors of the Ladies, a symbol of a person in a wheelchair indicated that disabled people could use it too.” We switch from a point-of view of Mick in the entrance playing pinball to suddenly observing details of the Ladies toilets which presumably Mick can’t see from the entrance hall even if he weren’t concentrating on his pinball and was the sort of person who would even notice something like a toilet sign. And why does the reader even need to know it anyway? Hines does this flipping of point-of-view in a disconcerting fashion – one of the things aspiring writers are told to avoid at all costs. We suddenly go inside the heads of strangers at the children’s playground after Mick leaves, or into the head of a man that Mick tries to persuade to give up his tie so that he can get into a nightclub. It comes across as amateurish.
There is definitely something in this book, something of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning about it, though Hines falls short of Sillitoe in several respects. It is quite bleak but does try to capture a moment in time and a hopelessness, but it lacks any political analysis to put it into context: why are the characters so politically passive? No one was back then. Looks and Smiles could have been so much better with a bit more work on it.