Caught by the River

Irvine Welsh meets H.E.Bates uptown – by the Wimpy

John Andrews | 4th January 2008


just when my copy turned up in the post. thanks for the dedication – will read it in a sitting this weekend. just recovering from the flu – knocked me sideways for almost 3 weeks my latest letter from arcadia was no more than a note in an empty benelyn bottle cast into the waves from a desert island.

sky like lead here and i’m looking for the connectors to wire myself back in. feel like a heron that’s been left out in the rain. bait long stolen off the hook.

garlands on the birdtable


ps: in case you hadn’t already found it online – boyd tonkin’s review (from The Independent online) below. well done mate will raise a glass on the kingsland road for you tonight.

Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Published: 04 January 2008

This year may mark the 40th anniversary of a fabled revolutionary spring, but Britain’s novelists have set their sights elsewhere. How revealing that the soiled Seventies rather than the shiny Sixties should preoccupy so many gifted writers, including some scarcely alive on the Mars of that not-so-distant decade. Early-birds such as Hari Kunzru have already sung their retro songs, and a flock of others – Linda Grant, Philip Hensher, Hanif Kureishi and Helen Walsh among them – will add their own notes over the next few months.

Novelists’ nous has served them well. In the British Seventies, long-simmering tensions over class, culture and cohesion reached one boiling-point after another. Now, after the smoke-and-mirrors “revolutions” of both Thatcher and Blair, the decade’s unfinished business returns to haunt us in the shape of stalled social mobility, yawning gulfs between the haves and have-nots, economic “stagflation” and a paralysed Labour government (with Led Zeppelin as the hottest band in town).

Another new novel tackles the class divisions and humiliations of the Seventies with the passion and even fury of a tale for today. Dexter Petley has published four books but chooses to live far from the madding literary crowd, as an angling journalist with an organic plot in Normandy. His One True Void (Two Ravens, £8.99) brings the sensibility of Irvine Welsh to the landscapes of HE Bates. Slackly proof-read, with some silly howlers, it still delivers scene after scene of exhilarating rage, tenderness, lyricism and pitch-black comedy as its angry young hero discovers that “there was a chasm in society that no book-reading would ever fill”.

Conventionally enough, this is a rite-of-passage story about the events that fix the path of a bright but stranded 17-year-old. Less predictably, Petley writes, with a bittersweet mix of stifling intimacy and sizzling exasperation, about the English rural working-class of the early 1970s – no longer the peasant stalwarts of Hardy or Lawrence but the pikey scum that all now feel at liberty to loathe. Aspiring poet Henry Chambers grows up clever in a forlorn council-estate village in Kent, a “weirdo” loner scrapping with defeated parents (“the baggots”) who “had bleakness down a fine art”. Between run-down semis and the “big ‘ouses” of privilege a war of attrition drags on – a war that brings “inequality, misery and depression” to the poor.

After a sink secondary-modern, his sixth-form studies in Tunbridge Wells only confirm Henry’s contempt – blended with doses of murderous envy and raging desire – for the local toffs. Their glossy kids read The Hobbit while he devours Pound’s Cantos. The plot twists around his affair with a married grandee, Maxine: the wrecked femme fatale of Plato Villa. She both opens the door to a more expansive life and, deeply damaged, slams it shut.

Shades of both Great Expectations and Lady Chatterley combine to make the self-harming Maxine an almost mythological anti-heroine, a druggy belle dame sans merci in Athena-poster style. Meanwhile, Petley’s knife-sharp rendering of the ambient hum of 1973 – from Tubular Bells to Austin Maxis and Chelsea Girl tops – delivers not nostalgia but an object-lesson in how, to stratified Britain, every trifling taste will carry indelible marks of caste.

One True Void ends with Henry striking out for France, as Petley did, ready “to cuff and rub that anger into a shine, the insults into freedom”. Petley’s poetry of longing and loathing feels more like headline news than a period piece, as the language of class creeps back into the lexicon of public life. Those wounds never went away; no more than the sounds of Neil Young and The Eagles which (along with Led Zep) twang away in the background. Plus ça change, as young Henry would learn to say.

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