As it happens I have also just read, one after the other, two novels in which much of the action takes place in Wolverhampton, a place I’ve never been to in real life, nor, as far as I can recall, fictionally.
Raphael Selbourne‘s Beauty (Tindall Street Press, 2009) is a car crash of urban clichés just waiting to happen. And as such it held a certain fascination. If it hadn’t been a Book Group book I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing it through. Indeed, I took against it on the very first page when I encountered the word ‘nostril’. Beauty, a – ahem – beautiful innocent young Bangladeshi girl stuck in all the traditional traps of an immigrant family (and then some) is going through her early morning toilette. She “cleaned her nostrils, face and ears three times.” Now, as a reader I favour vernacular rhythms, language that flows – Mark Twain is my hero – so apart from reading it just now, when was the last time you came across the formulation ‘nostril’ for nose? I rest my case. The stilted prose never actually gets much better than this. Why three times? We are not told why specifically. (Because it’s in the Hadith, where it says Satan resides in yer nose overnight). Nor are we given any explanation of the ritual Islamic phrases Beauty says to herself throughout. Not that we’re given much help with the Wolverhampton accent coming from the mouth of ex-con chav trying to turn his life around by breeding Staffordshire bull terriers Mark either; I’ve worked out that ‘ay’ actually translates as ‘aint’.
Who else? Cynical under-achieving porn-using white middle class loser Peter, on the run from white neurotic London pseudo-intellectual (says Peter) smart set girlfriend Kate and – the most rounded of the characters, I thought – white working class patriarch fat Bob. Plus a full supporting cast including the family meanies (I don’t doubt it), birds down the pub, teeth-kissing African Caribbeans (Selbourne is big on teeth-kissing) and the off-stage presence of yer inner city inhabitants and tensions including – Iranians (?), Pakistanis, Sikhs, Hindus and … Kosovans (?).
Here’s the problem. At one time Peter (who just happens to be about the same age as the writer) had
[...] thought he’d do something creative. He’d even sat down to write, but had soon realised he was unable to follow Goethe’s imperative that a writer should turn his attention to the real world and try to express it; to write one must have something to say. All that Peter had laboured to produce had been a list of grievances born of his despair at the dumbing-down and coarsening of the arts. How many acclaimed novels had he flung into the corner of the room, enraged, when he reached the inevitable ‘he was sat’ and ‘they were stood’? And what was the moral purpose of these novels?
So here we are. To be fair, Selbourne plays a fair game of rock, paper, scissors in the moral philosophy stakes, as his characters wrestle with notions of family and duty, freedom and responsibility, community and society, modernity and tradition. The passages in an old peoples’ home, where Beauty works in her bid for freedom, where the English have dumped their elders, are some of the book’s most affecting, while those set in the Job Centre are the wittiest and ring true enough. But Mark and Peter seeing their liberation in Beauty’s, and other episodes of self-help babble, reek of happenings in fictional space rather than the real world. Mark undergoes remarkable changes in the space of a few days, and here, for example, Peter is speaking:
Leaving aside his designs on her for a moment, would she understand the implications for herself, that she was in control of her destiny, that she could break free of the shackles of a religious mindset that would only enslave her to a paralysing fatalism?
In the end – in a philosophical sleight of hand that even the book’s supporters at Book Group weren’t convinced about – Beauty comes to a surprising conclusion as to where she wants to be. But in getting there we have been treated to the revelation of heroism from a previously unexpected corner, while Peter’s comeuppance is neatly done with a nice irony involving search engine histories. For all I’ve said, I can’t deny the narrative drive, even if I did start this off mentioning car crashes.
Caitlin Moran‘s Wolverhampton starts out at least a decade and a half earlier, in 1990, in How to build a girl: a novel (Ebury press, 2014). It’s a rite of passage, coming of age romance about a teenager leaving home and seeking to become a legend of a rock journalist. “This is a novel and it is all fictitious” she pleads in duplicate between title page and chapter 1. Yea right, but you can see the joins.
I love her writing, its (aforementioned) vernacular rhythms endlessly quotable. This is Johanna Morrigan’s testimony and she says it herself at a certain stage: this is “The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”
How to build a girl is full of witty literary and pop culture references, and like Mole, she can deal in incongruities for big laughs. Just a few samples:
- At a family gathering just after Johanna has dyed her hair and become a goth: “ “I bet the hair dye’s sodded your grouting,” Aunty Sue says, flicking ash into the sink.“
- Her dad was once in a band: ” “I’ve spent twenty years waiting for someone to come along and get me a record deal,” he says, getting HP Sauce out of the bottle with a knife.“
“I give Tony my very best ‘dominatrix look’ – seeing my reflection in his eyes, I see it looks less ‘Venus in furs,’ and more ‘Mrs McCluskey from Grange Hill when Gonch has set off the fire alarms again’ … “
- An early sexual encounter with Big Al’s penis: “I feel like a snake-handler on Blue Peter […] The last time I saw something like this, it was at dead Fat Nanna’s house, across the bottom of the front door, with two buttons for eyes.” (She is very funny writing about sex).
She’s great on being a certain kind of teenager too:
- “… what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and co-ordinates, to tell you where you’re going.”
“I am collaging myself, here, on my wall.”
“I enjoy the feeling that deciding who I am is work. I now have a career …” and so she briefly becomes a goth. “Fake it ’til you make it,” is the mantra. “I am Chick Turpin. I am Madame Ant.”
- On the first time she heard the Stone Roses: “… feeling excited, for the first time, to come from a battered industrial town.”
And she’s great, too, on the rock press and its cynicism. Her nom-de-plume: Dolly Wilde. I should have grown out of this fascination by now (I’ve certainly grown out of a lot of the music) but it still fascinates:
Advice from the established rock journos when reviewing a gig: “… talking at the back is the right thing to do.” Learning, “It’s exhausting being cynical.”
The leading intellectual on the mag says something “… in a way that’s so post-post-post ironic it actually stops being communication.”
the editorial meetings at Disc & Music Echo (the real Disc ceased publication in 1975) are comic tour de forces.
The Wolverhampton passages that touch on what it is like growing up poor are as fresh as ever despite, the theme’s not infrequent occurrence in Moranthology , the anthology of Caitlin Moran‘s journalism, and her actual earlier memoir, How to be a woman. Part of the narrative crisis of How to be a girl is a weekend spent at her boyfriend’s affluent parents’ house in the company of, well here they are:
They call out their names – ‘Emilia! Will! Frances! Christian!’ Names that do not have to bear heavy weights, or be written on benefit application forms – pleading. Names that will always be just a joyous signature on a birthday card, or cheque – and never called out, in a room of anxious people.
So here’s to the girl who used to “go … down to the library, and spend the afternoon there, with all my authors, hanging.” Whose Dadda gave her the sage advice, as she embarked on her career, “Whenever you need to win a situation – talk about jazz, Johanna. It confuses people.” (How much am I smitten? – she can call him Dadda all she wants.) The girl who can say, at one point in her evolution, “Hot tramp! I love me so.” Yay. She makes me feel so young. Intelligent and hugely enjoyable. And right now, Sod the Booker Prize.