God Save the Village Green by Keith Cullen. (Setanta)
Reviewed by Frank Cottrell Boyce.
This is the first novel from Keith Cullen – founder of Setanta Records, purveyor of fine music to the people – and I really hope it’s not the last.
It tells the story of the growing up and falling apart of an Irish-English family – the Knightons – in Barking, from the 60s to the 80s. It focusses on the coming of age of two brothers – Walter and Arnold – as they feel their way through the equally dangerous minefields of musical taste and family breakdown. I’m assuming it’s largely autobiographical because it crackles with detail and hurt. Cullen has a fantastic eye for detail – the names of the characters, what they eat, what they watch on television, even the graffiti in the toilets – are all pitch perfect. Pa Knighton’s new girlfriend works in lost property and the catalogue of things she brings home for the boys is like a song from a lost empire But don’t expect any cosy nostalgia. Yes the Action Men and Evel Kneivel Jet Bikes are in there but they’re being used to beat you about the head.
As his other role models disappear Walter finds himself under pressure to keep up with his older brothers tastes in music, and attitudes to women. It’s a depleted, edgy, frightened of getting it wrong view of masculinity that I recognise from my own school days. It puts a chilll in your heart. The books power lies in watching Walter kick and finagle his way out of that strait-jacket. There’s a particularly moving and believable sequence on a day trip to the National gallery.
Kids thrive on routine and predictability. When parents are divorcing, or drinking, or cracking up, the hardest thing to cope with is the unpredictability. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this book is that it’s every bit as unpredictable as an alcoholic parent. I don’t say that lightly. I read a huge amount and I write quite a lot too. It’s unusual for me not to be able to see which way the game is going. But this book wrong-footed me every time.