The School Prom, part 1

An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl

Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson.

Rick looked at his watch again. It was seven thirty, the official start time and still there was no sign of any guests approaching. There were a few knots of teachers standing outside, all in their finest party outfits, apart from those, like Rick, who had had to go there straight from school. Kevin, had, as usual been assigned official photographer status, and his tuxedo and Dickie-bow combination, was completed by a camera with a huge zoom lens. It was a serious bit of kit and Kevin spent his time in between chatting to some of the other teachers, fiddling with knobs and dials. He also took the opportunity, every year, to limber up by taking photos of the staff, singly and in groups, wearing their glad rags in front of the shabbily impressive Longdon Park, an eighteenth century mansion in acres of countryside that had been used as the venue for the Prom for as long as anyone could remember.

Rick paced to the bend in the drive, his shoes crunching pleasingly on the gravel, so that he could get an extended view of the long sweep to the main road. Nothing. He turned and retraced his steps, checking his watch again as he went. It was a beautiful early July evening, warm and sultry, with the scent of honeysuckle heavy on the air. Everything was set for a fitting send off for the Year 11 students, but the nervous shifting from foot to foot, the glances down the drive, and the stilted conversations spoke of anxiety. This was not like any of the other Prom celebrations any of them had ever attended.

In the previous week the school had been alive with rumours: Camilla had cancelled it. Only forty tickets had been sold. Social Media was facilitating a planned storming of the Bastille by the disaffected and dispossessed. In Camilla’s new Fairfield there were many members of both groups. There was even a rumour that had surfaced only the day before, that those students who had  bought tickets, were planning on boycotting at the last moment and had hired a club in town, where alcohol and other stimulants could be ingested.

Rick had considered that the boycott was a realistic proposition and that it had been avoided by the final rumour that had sprung up on Thursday, that Camilla, breaking over thirty years of tradition, was not going to attend. As he himself knew, that rumour was firmly rooted in the truth, and he had made a good job of ensuring the news got around the students.

He thought back to Monday of that week and his surprise at being summoned to Camilla’s office. Was she finally going to spring a trumped up disciplinary on him? Alastair’s protection could only last so long. He steeled himself, knocked on her door and went in.

“You wanted to see me?” he began. She was sitting at her desk, hand on mouse, and he just caught a glimpse of the familiar orange of the EasyJet site before she minimised it.

She looked up. “Ah yes, Rick. Come in.”

Rick hovered just inside the door. She rarely invited him to sit down.

“I won’t keep you long.”

That was the phrase she used when she meant “Don’t sit down”

He stood in front of her desk, like a naughty student about to be told off.

“I assume that you are going to the Prom on Friday?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I always do.”

“Good, I thought so. I just wanted to make sure that you know I’m expecting you to stay for the duration and make sure that everyone has left the site.”

“So, you won’t be there, I take it?” Rick asked the question in his most innocent voice.

Her eyes flicked left and right. “No, I have another meeting that night.”

“Bollocks you have,” thought Rick, “A meeting with a bottle of red in an expensive restaurant more like.”

He smiled at her. “I suppose you’ve heard the rumours that there is going to be trouble? Students you excluded and banned coming en-masse to gate crash?”

She bristled. “Oh, I’m sure that’s all just talk. But just in case, I need you to be there for the whole event please. You have a, ….er.., good relationship with the students, even the feral ones, and it’s about time it actually came in useful.”

“Will O’Malley be there?”

“Patrick? Yes Patrick will be there. Well, at least at the beginning.”

“Yes,” thought Rick, “someone else who is wetting himself at the prospect of meeting a group of kids he’s bullied and brutalised all year.”

He contented himself with a thin smile. “Fine. So, was there anything else?”

She thought for a moment and then finally took the plunge.

“Have you heard anything about this Rick? What do you think are the chances of there being trouble? We must avoid any bad press in the Advertiser. Alastair is still exercised about the last front page.”

He considered the question. He knew the answer, he just wanted to make her sweat a little.

“I think it’s highly likely. There are a lot of students, past and present, who hate your guts. Lot of staff too, but at least you can be fairly confident that they won’t burn the building down. Well, most of them. Just saying.”

A look of pure hatred tinged with fury took possession of her face.

“How dare you? Don’t you think I deserve some support from my Deputy?”

“Calm down Camilla. I’m not saying that’s what I think, I’m simply reporting what other people think.”

“And what do you think?”

“Oh,” he said, making for the door, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. I’ll be there Friday.”

He closed the door behind him and walked down the corridors to his office with a spring in his step. He had rather enjoyed that.

And so here he was, spending a precious Friday night on duty, expecting trouble. He sidled over to Kevin, who had taken as many photographs as he could of the staff and was now standing in the shade so he could flick through the thumbnails to check them out.

“So, Kev, do you think anyone’s coming tonight?” he asked.

Kevin looked up from his camera. “Yeah, I do actually.”

“How come you’re so confident? They’re leaving it a bit late, aren’t they?”

“Look,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the road.

Rick turned around. There, sweeping round the bend, was the first stretch limo of the evening. Kevin got himself into position with the camera and the car crunched to a halt outside the entrance. The doors opened and eight young people, four girls and four boys, self-consciously unfolded themselves from the limo. They were in strict regulation prom outfits. The girls tottered on high heels, in tight satiny dresses that showcased cleavages of all sizes. They had extraordinary bouffant hairstyles, that had to be slightly repaired or adjusted after removing themselves from the car and encountering the slight summer breeze that drifted across the gardens. There were a variety of shades of spray tan on display, and as they negotiated the treacherous gravel in their heels, they left a trail of glitter behind them.

The boys seemed to have all got their prom suit from the same shop and this year’s look was the ever popular, very shiny, skin-tight suit, winkle pickers, gold bling jewellery and an assortment of silk ties and waistcoats. The more daring young men had taken a chance on either a floral shirt or a dickie bow.

Their procession into the venue followed a set of unchanging rules that, although not written down anywhere, seemed to be known by all. There was a spontaneous round of applause from the gathered staff, followed by five minutes of photographs, and squeals from the female staff, approving every dress and accessory. The male staff confined themselves to comments about football and mercilessly took the piss out of the rather awkward looking boys, in an oddly affectionate and good-natured manner.

Then, after a few minutes of this small talk, they made their way into the main building. Their slightly unsteady progress was down to more than the combination of stillettos and gravel. Like all fifteen year old prom-goers all over the country, they had dealt with the alcohol ban that was always strictly enforced, by getting drunk at home or in the pub, beforehand.

After this first arrival there was a steady stream of students in a variety of modes of transport. Some long -suffering parents had drawn the short straw and had driven groups there. There were several more limos, a couple of horse drawn carriages and one girl, resplendent in leather and Doc Martens who roared along the gravel and round the turning circle, riding pillion on her Dad’s Harley Davison. She was shortly followed by her soul mate, similarly attired, on the back of her father’s moped. They embraced, had their photograph taken and disappeared into the bowels of the Palladian mansion.

In the middle of all this, one of the cars that drove in didn’t stop in front of the house but carried on around the side to the car park. Rick peered against the sun that was getting quite low in the sky, and made out the figure of Patrick O’Malley, a set line of a mouth and a furrowed brow, behind the wheel. He did not look as if this was where he wanted to be sending his Friday night.

“Oh great,” he muttered to Kevin, “Torquemada’s here.”

“I’ll leave him to you Mr Westfield,” Kevin smirked, “I’ll go in and you can do small talk. That is way above my pay grade” And then he sloped off, whistling.

A minute later O’Malley came round the corner, remembering at the last minute to fix a smile on his face. He seemed to have been practising it on the way from the car park. Rick was the only person left out front now, bar the burly, taciturn security guard. Everyone had gone into the venue and the disco had started.

“Rick,” he said, drawing up next to him.

“Patrick,” he replied.

“This was going to be a good conversation,” he thought. “I’m not going to make it easy for him. He needs me more than I need him.”

O’Malley’s smile was beginning to fray at the edges.

“So, are there many here?”

“Not bad. About fifty or sixty. They’re all inside. You should go in. I don’t think there’ll be any more arriving now.”

“What do you make of the rumours that some of the banned kids are going to try and get in later?”

He said this with a smile and in a light, airy tone as if he were idly speculating about something unlikely, like an extra-terrestrial invasion, but Rick could see he was petrified and was probably already calculating a respectable time of departure.

“Well, it’s possible, I suppose. It’s happened before, but we’ve got security on the gate at the main road and on the door here, so I don’t think there’ll be a real problem.”

O’Malley glanced down at his watch.

“You’ll be able to go soon Patrick, don’t worry. But you do have to make an appearance inside before you can leave. Come on, I’ll hold your hand.”

He led the way to the entrance and the security guard stepped aside grudgingly to let them in. Rick was loving this. For the first time for months, he had O’Malley exactly where he wanted him. On his territory.

Part 2 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:

Signed copies available here

King Lear at The Globe – Shakespeare at its very worst

A first return to The Globe after a pandemic-induced absence of a couple of years made me long once again for lockdown. As someone who was an English teacher in London for about 35 years, I’ve been a regular visitor, both on my own and with students. In the days of Mark Rylance as Artistic Director it was invariably a thrilling experience, with the pleasures of the authentic setting enhanced by the quality of the productions.

In recent years, however, a trip to The Globe (pictured right) has been something to be endured rather than enjoyed. More and more it has come to resemble just another version of famous world city tourism, an experience to tick off the list made by people on a schedule: The Colosseum in Rome, The Louvre in Paris, The Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank  in Amsterdam etc etc.

I knew nothing of the production before we booked. We originally wanted to see Much Ado, but that was all sold out. There were tickets for Lear and as far as I could  see, very little publicity for it. I was amazed to find out, when digging a little deeper into the production, that this was a reprise of a famous role for Kathryn Hunter, who first did the role back in 1997, also for director Helena Kaut Howson. That, apparently, was a groundbreaking, brilliant production and performance.

It was very hard to tell from this feeble revival. I have to begin this merciless hatchet job with a tiny caveat. We have both got to the advanced age where subtitles are necessary for us to be able to follow any drama on TV. That undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties we both had with this performance, but to be honest, by the time we walked out of the theatre at the interval, I was actually glad I couldn’t quite hear the lines clearly. That would have just served to underline just how much the play was being brutalised. 

We were also badly served by our seats -The middle gallery,  level with the two main pillars of the stage – so for seventy percent of the time, the speaking actors were facing away from us, and their lines drifted away into the summer’s evening air, to compete with the helicopters and jumbo jets that seemed to pass overhead every five minutes.

But all of this was just background annoyance. There are more substantial complaints to come. The story is complex, the language difficult, the characters and relationships hard to pin down. So a production has got to do the bread and butter of exposition much better than this. Clarity of verse speaking, costume, gesture, body language, props, scenery- all of these need to be used imaginatively to pin down what the scenario is from the beginning. Of course, the division of the kingdom, the three daughters and their declarations of “love” were established well enough (partly because they are so well known), but the subtleties  of the interplay between Edgar and Edmund, Gloucester and Kent, the husbands of the “bad” sisters, all of this and much more was abandoned to garbled verse speaking, knockabout comedy, and lots of stage business, with hammy actors walking around the stage for no apparent  purpose except to lend the lines some additional dramatic force. It failed miserably to lend any of it any dramatic purpose at all.

It was old fashioned  Nigel-Planer-Nicholas-Craig-style Actoring at its worst. (Nicholas Craig pictured left) Hand waving, strutting, movement across the stage with no discernible realistic purpose  – it all just screams, “We are doing serious Shakespeare stuff here.” This was also accompanied by full-on, shouting-the-lines,  Shakesperean declamation.

This was particularly the case for Regan. Or, in the case of Edmund, lines delivered in a softly spoken accent that made them very difficult to follow or to take seriously. He also seems to have been directed to play a lot of his lines for laughs, like his legitimate brother, Edgar, whose performance when he had “gone mad” was particularly ludicrous.

That appeared to be the default position. To give this difficult stuff more audience appeal, let’s make sure we mess about and crank up the physical comedy. It seemed to me to be totally inappropriate, and detracted from the drama and tragedy of the play. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the groundlings seemed to be heavily stocked with the friends and family of the people working on the production, such was the enthusiasm of their laughter, like regular bursts from a machine gun. What on earth they were laughing at, and how that helped a complex, subtle, human tragedy was beyond me.

I don’t especially blame the actors for this. Presumably, they were responding to the director, and in Shakespeare in particular, the director makes (Nicholas Hytner) or breaks (Rufus Norris) a production. In this case, Kaut Howson (pictured right) absolutely destroyed this production. She has been recuperating from an accident, apparently, so perhaps that explains it, but nothing can reasonably excuse this exercise in painting-by-numbers direction.

It did occur to me, as I tried in vain to take my mind off the car crash as it unfolded in front of me, that actually, the play would have been much better suited to the dark, atmospheric candle lit magnificence of the Sam Wanamaker theatre. The Globe can manage knockabout comedy. A warm Summer’s evening lends itself to a lighthearted romp. The Wanamaker would certainly have helped Hunter, whose voice seemed lost in the open air setting.

During one of the many longeurs in the first half, I found myself looking down on a gaggle of young people, mainly boys, either on a school trip or on a foreign exchange arrangement. I lost count of the number of them who were surreptitiously messaging and surfing the net on their phones. My old-person-English-teacher instinct kicked in immediately, but I did manage to exert some self control and stop myself from scowling and tutting. By the time the interval arrived, I’d joined them, checking my messages. 

They’re not daft, kids today.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A review

Doerr’s latest novel is his first since the Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. That book was a particularly happy accident for me. I found it lying around the house, and knew nothing about it, so began it with no expectations. After about thirty pages or so, I knew I was dealing with something special. I browsed this new one in Waterstones in the run up to Christmas and rejected it. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea: three separate stories spanning several hundred years, including a sci fi section, all linked together by a fictional fragment of a Ancient Greek text. No, thank you very much, I’ll pass on that.

How wrong I was. This is a singularly brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read for years. Each section is perfectly realised: the stories of two of the little people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1453 (pictured right) , Omeir and Anna is beautifully done in luminous prose. I’ve read some criticisms about the sentimentality and implausibility of this story, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the outcome, after years of hardship and personal tragedy. 

The contemporary section, which tells the story of a teenage eco-terrorist bomber, who is “radicalised” by a shadowy online presence that exploits his vulnerability and his disbelief at what we are doing to our planet, is the starting point for the whole novel. Each section as it is threaded through the bigger narrative, slowly ratchets up the tension of the unexploded bomb in his rucksack at the local library. The library is empty except for a group of young teenagers who are rehearsing a theatre production of the Ancient Greek text, Cloud Cuckoo Land, that  holds the whole thing together.

The links extend to the sci-fi section that is set in a spaceship of humans escaping a world destroyed by global warming. You might think that such a variety of settings would jar, and that the author would naturally display a weakness in the realisation of at least one of the stories, but the reverse is true. There is no sense that, in fact, these are three entirely sparate stories that have been clumsily welded together. The whole thing feels seamless, with each section being part of an organic whole. The plotting, linking all of these disparate parts is exquisitely done. Improbable, but done with authority, credibility and artistic integrity. Each section enhances the others, and the sequencing and pacing of the sections turns a heavy weight literary novel of ideas into a page-turner of real dramatic power.

A further structural embellishment is the regular punctuation of the text with extracts from the fictitious Ancient Greek “novel” by the classical writer, Antonius Diogenes. (pictured left) Each extract is short, with the gaps in the text, supposedly  produced by the passage of time,  represented by missing words, scholarly guesses and question marks. For a while, these sections work well. They are strangely poetic and they are a welcome pause for the reader, providing an opportunity to digest the main sections of the overall narrative. After a while, however, I must admit that I began to skim read these bits, but that was because I was so invested in the main story, I really wanted to press on to get to the resolution of the whole thing. So even the weakest aspect of the book is actually an indication of its great strength.

Doerr himself describes the book as “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. Guess what? He succeeds. It reaffirms the value and power of literature as a cultural endeavour that is capable of producing  great beauty and great insight. Immersive, big stories like this that tell us something about ourselves and our world continue to be important. In many ways,  the book is very explicit about that. It is a celebration of the significance of stories, of texts, (like the imaginary Cloud Cuckoo Land of Diogenes) and their ability to endure over the centuries so that they  continue to speak to people in the future. 

Literature, and story-telling in general, does a lot of cultural heavy lifting in our society, whether it’s a comic, a novel, a movie or the latest Netflix series. It can soothe, entertain, reassure, divert, excite. At its best, it can illuminate and make you see the world afresh, while doing all of the above as well. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land is literature at its best.

A School Inspector Calls

Chris Malone’s novella will be familiar – and infuriating- to anyone who has endured an OFSTED inspection

Chris Malone brings all of her considerable experience of school leadership and inspection to bear in her latest novella, “A School Inspector Calls”. The book deals with two very different primary schools that sit on opposite sides of the river in town. The first, St Drogo’s, is the archetypal glossy academy: new buildings, well-resourced, well-connected, high achieving, but with no room for “challenging students”. One such student, Ayiesha Medosa, has escaped from her hellish experience at St Drogo’s and found refuge in its shabby neighbour, Marsh Street Primary. She observes the unannounced OFSTED inspection of Marsh Street from her unofficial bolt hole, the little room where she does most of her school work when the noise and hard-to -understand dynamics of a busy classroom get too much for her.

While there, she observes the malpractice of the inspection, pre-designed to fail a school that is too child-centred to fit the current model of excellence, through a spy hole in the wall. Does her testimony overturn the inspection outcome? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

For anyone familiar with the current landscape of English education, this book will either be a reassurance or a provocation, depending on where you sit in the array of characters the book presents. If you’re open to different points of view, then this little book will be a delightful amuse bouche. It’s brevity is part of its charm, adding to its impact, rather than detracting. Malone skilfully lays out the oppositions, using the surprise inspection as the catalyst to a drama that will be all too familiar to anyone who has undergone the ridiculous palaver of OFSTED. To her credit, she does not simply present the inspectors as pantomime villains, but explores the institutional pressures that are brought to bear on Margaret, the lead inspector, who like the teachers she is scrutinising, has a family and a mortgage to support and has to make some difficult choices between her career and doing the right thing.

The portrayal of the impossibility of the job, leading a school with limited and further shrinking budgets, staffing gaps, crumbling buildings, needy children and relentless, myopic accountability pressures, is both authentic and sympathetic. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. The miracle is that, in such a context, there are any headteachers like the saintly Jill Grimly left at all, notwithstanding her naivety and muddle. The fear is that the oily, superficial charm of corporate yes man, Dominic Major, head of St Drogo’s, (surely destined for life as a government appointee to some ghastly hybrid quango/private sector “think tank” before assuming his place in the Lords with the other authoritarian populists) will become the de rigeur model of effective school leadership and the Jill Grimlys of this world will be set for early retirement and disparagement as beached dinosaurs, left by the tides of history. What am I saying? It’s already happened.

Regardless of where you stand, this little book is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in education and those that believe that all children, the challenged and the capable, deserve the best chance in life to succeed. It’s available from the excellent Burton Mayers books.

If you enjoy Chris’ book, you may want to have a go at my satire on the current insanities of the English education system, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below. It’s also of interest to anyone with any concern for the treatment of Syrian refugees in this country.

Long to Reign Over Us?

There’s been an awful lot of coverage in the news already about the Jubilee, and there will be an awful lot more. The hysteria whipped up by The Daily Lie and its chums has the added spice of the Queen’s age and health. Her recent absence from the state opening of parliament, and the obvious symbolism of Charles moodily staring at the crown on a Habitat cushion has sent the rampant royalists in our media into apoplexy. Although, given the fact that she popped up a couple of days later at the races with the verve and joie de vivre of an eighty year old, there is a suspicion that she just couldn’t be bothered to read out loud all of Johnson’s lies about the new Parliamentary programme. Charles, once eager to get his hands on the levers of state, has now clearly realised that the game is up, and would much rather William did it, while he, Charles, continued to talk to his plants, talk dirty to Camilla, and schmooze with Saudi murderers and horsey people. He delivered the speech in a bored monotone that would have embarrassed a sulky adolescent.

 Nicholas Witchell  has been wetting himself in excitement. The Prince Philip funeral was always only going to be a dry run for the big one – the death of her Madge. And it seems as if it’s not too far away. Obviously, as she is 96 years old. Nicholas has been preparing for this for years. It’s nice that he doesn’t seem to bear a grudge about Charles who was once caught on a rogue microphone muttering, “I hate that man”. But then, he knows who is buttering his bread, I suppose.

Despite the reliable efforts of the Daily Lie and the other rags, it does seem that there has been movement in terms of the Great British Public’s attitude to the Royals in the last few years. It’s not hard to see why. They are almost as gaffe-prone as the arch liar Johnson, and what is worse (for them, at any rate) they do have the decency to be a little shamefaced about their blunders.

We’ve had the fall out between William and Harry, with the related racist bullying of Megan Markle by jolly hockey sticks Kate, and her cheerleaders, the ridiculous Piers Morgan and the rest of the fleet street sycophants. One very entertaining sideshow of all of this has been to watch the existential angst of Hello magazine. Their very raison d’etre is to suck up to celebs, whether they be old school ones or the new kids on the block from reality tv. Now, they have to take sides in the royal turf wars. Their solution is very much part of the zeitgeist, the Johnson doctrine, which states that you can say what you like, safe in the knowledge that most people have the attention span of plankton and will not remember what you said by the time the next issue comes out. So one week they fawn and gush over William and Kate, with snide anti-woke allusions to the other two (cos one of them’s black, you know) and the week after, they do the same for the US wing of the firm, endorsing their various right- on campaigns. It’s as principled as my arse, as Jim Royle would say. From the proper Royle Family.

Then there’s the splendid spectacle of various Royals having to stand and smile and suck it up, as the elected representatives of a range of Caribbean islands tell them the unvarnished truth: colonialism is so last year. Apologise for slavery, start a conversation about reparations, and get the hell off our island. It’s a far cry from drinking gin fizz, watching quaint becostumed locals performing ancient cultural dances/rituals or neutered spear carrying savagery. No wonder the Queen won’t go any more.

What is really telling about this, with both William and Kate, and then a week or so later with Sophie and Edward, is just how hopelessly out of touch their advisors were about these trips. Didn’t statue removal register with them? How could anyone even vaguely part of the twenty first century think that this sort of thing would play well? It’s almost as if they believe that the Daily Lie, and it’s online shadow, the Mail online, has its finger on the pulse of the public mood.

The real clincher, though, is the appalling Prince Andrew. Yes, you remember him, don’t you? Paedophile, sex offender, sweatless, corrupt liar, whose every fleeting appearance instantly reminds people that the Royal family are privileged, entitled , free loaders, who like our friends in the modern Conservative party are laughing at us while we bow and scrape and fawn. This one did cut through with the young ones though, and he is now definitely persona non grata on the balcony. Even Hello magazine thinks twice before running a feature on his selfless work for charity.

So the landscape has definitely changed, and despite the inane patriotic culture wars of the militant Brexit tendency, support for the royals is dwindling. The Queen is held in high regard, and young William has some with-it credibility with the young, but that doesn’t solve the problem of Charles. Unfortunately for the would-be King, his subjects have long memories when it comes to the saintly Lady Di, and the wicked  Camilla. The monarchy will have to navigate some choppy waters in the next few years if it is to survive. Prince Andrew will find to his cost just how ruthless the ruling classes can be when it comes to clinging on to their privilege. They will throw him to the wolves the minute his mother has been buried.

How different it all was when we celebrated the Silver Jubilee, back in 1977.The Seventies, unfairly maligned by right wing historians, was a much more innocent age. Just imagine, if you can, a world before Margaret Thatcher, Neoliberalism, The Royal Wedding, social media, the internet, mobile phones, fake news. The post war consensus of the mixed economy still existed: no privatisation, employment meant you did not have to be on benefits, and homelessness was virtually non-existent because of a plentiful supply of good quality social housing. 

As a student at York University, the Queen seemed impossibly old and stuffy, and twenty five years before seemed to be a lifetime or two away, belonging to the olden days that were  always in black and white. How strangely one’s perception of time changes with age. Now, 1977 was forty five years ago, and in some ways it feels almost like yesterday. During my second year at York the jubilee hardly impinged on my consciousness. I barely read newspapers and certainly didn’t watch TV. There were far too many interesting other things to be doing. The thing that dominated our thoughts and minds back then was the exhilarating, whirlwind that was punk. It ripped through every aspect of life that mattered to a twenty year old – clothes, bands , ideas, taste, politics , opinions.

And it was through punk that my understanding of the Silver Jubilee was mediated. The scandal of God Save the Queen, the Sex Pistols swearing through the Bill Grundy interview, the sense that the old was being swept away by the new and exciting – this was the backdrop to the Jubilee celebrations back then.

It was a hot summer as I remember it. Earlier in May we had made the pilgrimage to Leeds to see the legendary Clash gig, and then God Save the Queen was released as a single. For a young socialist, who despised the establishment in general and the Royal Family in particular, it was cultural gold dust. The single was duly bought and played to death.

To add further grist to the mill, there was the suspicion that the BBC, crusty old Auntie Beeb, were playing their traditional role in what passed for culture wars back then, pumping out pro establishment Propaganda. It seems very quaint that in the name of anarchy and revolution we were all eagerly awaiting the release of the official chart in the week of the Jubilee itself. Lo and behold, the chart was issued and the Pistols had peaked at number two, just behind Rod Stewart’s “I don’t wanna talk about it” None of us blamed you , Rod, because we didn’t wanna talk about your record either.

There were the inevitable street parties and the harking back to the same kinds of events after the Second World War. For a republican, it was like being a stranger in one’s own land, eavesdropping on a conversation that was not meant for you. As if, you had switched on the radio only to find it tuned to Radio 2, and you became aware for the very first time of a whole other universe that ran in parallel to yours.

Life, of course went on. And for students, dedicated hedonists the lot of us, we went out into York for a curry and a session in the pub. The main route walking into York from campus ended up in Walmgate, one of the ancient thoroughfares of the old city. You passed through the city walls, under Walmgate Bar and then along this ancient mediaeval street, past the River Foss and into town.

For several weeks, the entire length of the street had been festooned with Union Jack bunting, cheap plastic flags fluttering in the traffic fumes. We put aside our distaste and enjoyed the symbolism: the monarchy celebrated with tawdry, tacky flags destined for landfill.

No such restraint was available on the return journey, where our liberal sensibilities had been fatally compromised by industrial quantities of Samuel Smith’s best bitter. Alcohol and Republicanism is a heady cocktail, beyond our understanding or control. I’m afraid, dear reader, I celebrated the Silver Jubilee in the early hours of the morning, singing God Save The Queen (no, not that one) at the top of my voice and pulling down every union jack I could find.

It was probably against the law. But we were young and it felt both important and harmless at the same time. Brave class warrior that I was, I lived in fear of the knock on the door by the boys in blue. Well, for a week at least. Thank God there was no CCTV back in the day.

And I am still, forty five years later, a Republican. I wish Elizabeth Windsor no harm. I’m not advocating a rerun of the French revolution. She seems at least to have some admirable qualities: a sense of duty, a work ethic, a lack of selfishness or ego that is refreshing in these days of rampant narcissism and egoism. This does not wash away her immense privilege and wealth gained by the systematic manipulation of tax laws and the careful avoidance of scrutiny. Ultimately, she is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Britain in the twenty first century. Immensely wealthy, the head of the rump of the British Empire, her presence as the Head of State encourages the appallingly corrosive sense of British exceptionalism that so disfigures and distorts our body politic, and poisons our approach to other countries. We are condemned forever, or so it seems, to live in a fictitious glorious past when we ruled the world and everyone was grateful. It is a childish version of how society should operate, as ridiculous and inappropriate as still believing in Santa Claus as an adult. We are not in some kind of  LadyBird book of Kings and Queens.

It really is time to put away childish things and to grow up. We should be citizens, not subjects, and there is a world of difference between those two things. The approaching death of Queen Elizabeth, sad though that  is for her family and maybe for some people in the country, is an opportunity for us to rethink the whole monarchy thing. Time to get over it.

I bet Rishi’s house is warm

I bet Rishi’s house is warm.
No extra jumper for him.
Perhaps a silken dressing gown
Over shorts and sliders, as
He pads across the heated tiled floor,
To eat eggs benedict and read the FT.
He never stops working, to keep the economy safe.

I bet Rishi doesn’t turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees,
Or shares the bath with his wife to save a few bob on the bill.
To be fair, she’s a non-dom, so she doesn’t live here.
Not really.
Unlike Dom, who does.

I bet Rishi has a shiny walk-in fridge, with banks of delicacies from around the world
To sustain him when he’s peckish.
He will choose between smashed avocado on sourdough
or locally sourced quails’ eggs with truffle oil.
We will choose heating on, or white sliced toast with marge.
He’s just like you and I, underneath, honestly.
Because we are all in this together.

He does not know how to use contactless,
Or fill his small, grubby car with petrol, bless him.
He’s too busy for that. Because
He never stops working, to keep the economy safe.

So, it is just terribly unfair
When moaners smear his wife for avoiding tax.
After all, Rishi, a very modern Conservative, 
Does not own his wife.
He just owns
Us.

Looking back on Boro v Chelsea in a house divided

A great FA Cup quarter final in prospect: a potential Giant Killing with added moral fibre

The excitement has been building ever since young Josh Coburn lashed in the winner against Spurs in the fifth round, but now it’s reaching fever pitch, given the long overdue sanctions against Abramovitch. That, and the London club’s spectacularly cack-handed attempts to get the game played behind closed doors, has given this game, already a spicy prospect, extra helpings of chilli.

It’s telling that the responses to Chelsea’s entitled maneuverings on the Boro bulletin board, Fly Me To The Moon ( www.fmttm.co.uk, an excellent confection of passion, intelligence and humour, well worth checking out, btw) have routinely described Chelsea as a horrible club with horrible supporters. Even the saintly Steve Gibson stuck the knife in and twisted it with his carefully considered judgement that “Chelsea and Sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence”. What a brilliant put down, so refreshing to see, rather than the usual bland, diplomatic answers that controversial topics generate. The sort of diplomacy that will not see Gibson sent to intervene with Putin and Lavrov any time soon, even though it would do them good to hear the unvarnished truth for once.

The posters that use this inflammatory language, point to key moments in the history of the two clubs, episodes where Chelsea fans did not cover themselves in glory. I was there at all of them (more of that in a minute), and share the general sense of loathing for the club, but as the big grudge match approaches, I find myself in an awkward situation. It’s a situation that compels me to swim against the tide for a moment and speak out for Chelsea supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin, and who will be there long after the oligarch, and the next “fit and proper person” who takes over, have gone on their way to exploit another potential trophy club.

Before I explain why, let me just take a little digression through the highways and byways of footballing history. It’s undoubtedly true that there is “previous” between Boro and Chelsea, and for Boro at any rate, a sense of unfinished business. The first game I can remember, a few years before the bad blood started, was back in the bad old days of the mid-eighties. I went to see an end of season game at Stamford Bridge.

In those days, the Bridge was a crumbling Victorian shell of a stadium, needing more than the annual lick of paint to keep it standing. There really wasn’t a lot to choose between either the teams or the clubs at this point in their histories. The only thing that set the Bridge apart from Ayresome Park was the fact that it stood just a little way along from the uber fashionable Kings Road.

Even the most blinkered die hard Boro fan might concede, albeit grudgingly, that was a little more stylish than the area surrounding Ayresome, notwithstanding the delights of Middlesbrough General Hospital, The Blind School and The Yellow Rose. It may have played a part, later on, when Roman was deciding which club to use to launder his corrupt Russian Roubles.

The only thing that has lodged in my memory of this end of season relegation scrap goalless draw was the grassless, baked mud surface at the Bridge that echoed to the sound of Mickey Droy’s lumbering runs. Droy was a big lad, an old school centre half, and someone who clearly had the diet and fitness regime of Razor Ruddock after he left Liverpool and resigned himself to the Harry Redknapp school of post football careers: Brown envelopes, Betting apps and Reality TV appearances. He moved like that massive, engineered Orc in the Lord of the Rings films, a dinosaur powered by a tiny brain, like a supermarket own brand AA battery powering a double decker bus. We escaped the dreaded R word, but these were clearly two clubs going absolutely nowhere, if they were lucky.

The real first chapter of the bitter rivalry, however, was the historic Play off Final in 1988, the first time such a marvel had taken place. It was, even stranger, between the team just above the automatic relegation places in the old First Division against the team finishing just behind the automatic promotion teams. So, you can see, it was a very high stakes game. It was the culmination of a brilliant first season back in Division two by Bruce Rioch’s team, the legendary liquidation avoiders, and was propelled on the back of an awesome defence and the outstanding goal scorer, Bernie Slaven, the poor man’s Gerd Muller. 

It was over two legs, with the first leg being played at Ayresome Park. So long ago was this, children, that it wasn’t televised, but it was beamed direct into a few select cinemas in the heart of London’s glittering West End. Living in London, it was a chance too good to miss and I duly got myself a ticket for one of the cinemas in Leicester Square. I went on my own, as none of my footballing friends thought it was anything more than a gold-plated opportunity to get a good kicking at the hands (and boots) of the SW5 chapter of the NF. In those days, Chelsea’s reputation was a mere cigarette paper above that of Millwall.

Sure enough it was a hairy occasion. The commentary was full of the chuntering of chairman Ken Bates complaining that Boro had watered Ayresome Park before the game kicked off. The cinema was packed  with the great unwashed of Chelsea. I saw one lad bravely wearing Boro colours, and I spent most of the after game journey home fearing for his safety.

This was because as the game went on, and Chelsea were being both outplayed and outscored, the “fans” in blue began to pay more attention to him than the game itself. I simply turned my collar up, hunched down in my seat, and kept my trap shut. I slipped out of the cinema a few minutes before the end , hyperventilating as I went. I often wonder whether the lad got home unscathed or not.

I also made it to the infamous Battle of Stamford Bridge for the second leg. Undeterred by my brush with physical violence in the first leg, I went with a friend. We could only get tickets in with the Chels. It was the main stand (The Matthew Harding stand, was it called?) and I made the very naive calculation that the posh folk would be there, and the hooligans would be herded into the Shed End, so we’d be safe. Every apocryphal tale you’ve ever heard about this game is true. It was terrifying. Right from the beginning of the game, it was clear we were surrounded by psychopaths in blue. For a football supporter, I was unnaturally quiet, and that in itself drew me to their attention. My mate, who had a soft Scottish accent, did a heroic impersonation of a Chelsea supporter to anyone in blue who would listen to him, and that kept us alive until halftime. As soon as the whistle went for the interval, we scuttled to a copper on duty at the gates and explained our very likely bloody demise in the second half unless we were let out. He could obviously spot naked fear when he saw it and allowed us through the gate and into the uncovered end behind the goal, in with the Boro faithful. What a relief! I can still remember the joy of feeling the sense of safety that came with the warm embrace of Teesside accents, and raucous chanting.

Until the end of the game. Where with some horror, it became clear that some of the Chelsea stewards had opened the gates of the Shed and an army of lager soaked hooligans charged across the pitch towards us. It was the only time that being fenced in seemed like a good idea, because it definitely prevented carnage that day. Getting back to the car afterwards seemed fairly easy as I remember. Perhaps the police had got their act together after the pitch invasion, I don’t know , but we made it back without further incident.

There were , however, untold stories of Chelsea violence, including one tale of a child being dangled over the top tier of a stand. Did that really happen? Or has the passage of time addled my memory? Whatever the truth of it , the  two legs were the beginning of the toxic relationship that developed.

I could go on to detail the Zenith Data Trophy final at Wembley a couple of years later, when I along with thousands of other Boro supporters ran the gauntlet of Chelsea “fans” spitting at us (including young kids) as we walked along the concourse. And I could spend even longer on the 1997 Cup Final, where we were not even given one minute of hope (typical Boro) in our first major final, when Ben Roberts flapped at a speculative long range effort by Di Matteo which crept under the bar. To add insult to injury, a perfectly good goal by Festa was disallowed. Oh for retrospective VAR!

There have been other needle matches since then. All of them collectively add up to this being a game of more significance to Boro fans than merely getting to a semi-final. This matters, because of everything that has gone before. So why, after all of that, am I left in a dilemma?

Well, gentle reader, after living in London since 1982, my son, bless his cotton socks is a Chelsea supporter. It could be worse and he could be  Palace supporter. (That’s a tale of personal rivalries, which I won’t bore you with now) No, Chelsea is his chosen team. I have to confess, I’ve played a part in fostering that allegiance. When you get, I took him along to Stamford Bridge for a couple of third round ties near his birthday in January. It’s the only time you can buy tickets for Chelsea home games without having to take out a mortgage and when you have a realistic chance of getting in. He is loyal enough to refer to Boro as “we” but really, that’s just him being nice to his old man. He would definitely fail the Norman Tebbit cricket test. And let’s be clear, there will be no divided loyalties come Saturday at 5.15.

So, this is just a gentle reminder that, notwithstanding the history I’ve alluded to earlier in this piece, and bearing in mind the appalling Abramovich money that taints all of Chelsea’s achievements in the last 19 years, there are still some nice people who support the club for all of the right reasons. 

Of course, I won’t be giving them a second thought come kick off. Up the mighty Boro! And for my son, well the one thing he has not experienced as a Chelsea fan is adversity. Real adversity I mean, not just the adversity of not qualifying for the Champions League. I hope this is the start of an exercise in prolonged character building for him. And if he gets fed up with Chelsea, I’m pretty sure Boro would take him back.

Appendix – for those still awake

What about the game? Well I’m full of anxiety. Chelsea are a much, much better side than either Spurs or Man U. I don’t mind losing as long as we acquit ourselves well. If Chelsea press us high and aggressively, I think we’ll be in big trouble. If they sit off, on the other hand and we get a chance to build some possession, then we have a chance. We’ll need Chelsea to have an off day and every unit of our team have to play well, especially Lumley and the defence. I think Isaiah Jones will relish playing against Alonso, and I just hope that the recent form of our on loan strikers carries on. 

Game on!

Hot Stew

A review of Fiona Mozley’s second novel

This is an unexpectedly fabulous book. Mozley received lots of critical acclaim for her debut novel, Elmet, published in 2017, but, I have to confess, I was underwhelmed by it. It seemed to me to be one of those novels that sacrificed the more humble virtues of plot, character and credibility of motivation for obliqueness and a certain poetic sensibility. Having arrived at an interesting (though not really believable) story, she recast it through a vague lens of obscuring the connections and back stories and motivations to make it more “interesting”.

The reader is forced to become a detective, piecing together fragments of description and dialogue, working out time shifts and changes in perspective until a narrative emerges just in time for a vaguely satisfying resolution to come into view. Of course, you can only do this if you’re an experienced and sophisticated reader, so in a very real sense you’re being set a test. If you like the book, you’re an intellectual. If you don’t and you wish that the author would just bloody well tell the story, then you’re out of your depth and should stick to Mills and Boon. The real sign, the dead giveaway, is when the puzzling out of the connections is actually more interesting, more satisfying than the story that is eventually revealed.

Hot Stew is a million miles away from this. It’s a wonderful confection of a book, Dickensian in its portrayal of contemporary Soho, and the depiction of an extraordinary range of characters and relationships. It also functions very effectively as a critique of modern urban life and the interplay of rich elites with us ordinary folk. Mozley portrays all of them with skill and verve, so that the reader is propelled along by concern for the characters and the forward motion of the plot. She handles a vast cast of characters, who interconnect and intersect at times, very skilfully, and with an instinctive feel for pacing and sequencing. Aspects of the plot verge on the dreaded magic realism, and at times one has to suspend one’s disbelief with an industrial winch, but it’s all done with a knowing wink that left me at any rate, indulgent of any flaws or half baked, unresolved threads. This is partly because it’s funny and partly because Mozley is on the right side – there is a clear affection for the area and for people forging lives and relationships from adversity. This is a welcome departure from the world of Elmet, that turns rural Yorkshire into a kind of Deliverance style grim struggle, a world of violence, amorality and shabby survival. In Mozley’s Soho, there is love and humour, as well as exploitation and snobbery.

It’s received a lukewarm reaction from the critics, in comparison to Elmet. That is clearly because it’s written in a transparent, open style that invites its readers to participate in receiving an entertaining and thought-provoking story. Come on Fiona, wise up! You’ll never win the Booker like that – but you will win readers, who, like me, will eagerly await your next offering.

Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure.

The View from The Great North Wood

I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.”

I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring and evolving relationship between a “difficult” middle class young woman and a talented working class young man.

So I come to this with some perspective. Neither an adoring fan, nor an anti-woke critic, I really wanted to love this book. And there is much here to enjoy and admire, but ultimately, it disappoints. It tells the story of four young adults in Dublin and some unspecified Irish seaside town, and their attempts to find meaning in their lives and relationships, doing so via different perspectives, omniscient narrator and text/ digital message exchanges.

Rooney seems at pains to demonstrate how much she really is the voice of a new generation by laying on with a trowel the importance of social media to all of these characters. Time and time again, scenes are punctuated with exhaustive (and exhausting) descriptions of tapping on social media icons, scrolling through news feeds, checking messages etc etc. Sally, we get it. You don’t need to do this. We all do these things, even old fogeys like me. It’s a bit like Charles Dickens droning on about closing the doors on that new-fangled train type thingy. Interestingly, the key relationship, the friendship between Eileen and Alice, only seems to work digitally, when they are writing to each other. Whenever they are together physically in the real world, they fall out, and their friendship seems false and unsupportive.

The social media stuff, and the painstaking, repetitive description of the physical choreography of sex, shows that Rooney seems to want to challenge Knausgard in her relentless accretion of the mundane details of the business of living. Again and again, we are battered with flat, colourless prose recording hands resting on limbs, legs touching and not touching. And just like Knausgard, it is draining and dull and says nothing, a mere inventory masquerading as an insight into a new configuration of millennial sexual relationships.

It’s also hard to love a book that focuses on such unlikeable characters. The two women, Alice and Eileen, apparently best friends, are tiresome in the extreme. Alice is a thinly-veiled portrait of Rooney herself, a young female Dublin novelist who is lionised from her debut novel. This in itself is a little depressing. It’s like the Rock Band who have made it big. Their first album is sparky, innovative, full of energy and ideas. The difficult second album is more of the same with greater technical competence. Then, when they’ve broken through and are established in the mainstream and are selling out stadiums in America, the third album is written in hotel rooms and includes songs about the emptiness of life on the road in endless hotel rooms. The songs reflect their changed circumstances, but who gives a toss? It’s very difficult to empathise with the neuroses of the creative rich and famous.

After a vague nervous breakdown, she now clearly despises the trappings of fame and despairs of the emptiness of her life and world. No matter how hard I tried, I really couldn’t summon any sympathy for a woman afflicted by wealth, fame and privilege. Her friend Eileen, from their university days, is presented as the junior partner in the friendship. Less successful, less confident, her relationship with Alice mirrors that with her elder sister, Lola, despite the fact that Eileen loathes Lola and idolises Alice. Her lack of agency, her diffidence in articulating clearly what she wants, her self-pity about her life, is after a while, simply grating, generating annoyance rather than empathy. A key narrative thread in the novel is her long-standing love for Simon, five years older than she is, who she has known from home since childhood. They have had a history of almost, but not quite, falling into the relationship that clearly both of them want, but circumstances and other relationships, and bad timing have prevented from happening. Simon is probably the only likeable character out of the four, and is in some sense, a rehash of Connell from “Normal People”. Committed to social justice, modest, strikingly fit and handsome, and successful in terms of a career in the political world, he seems like a nice self-effacing kind of chap. Obviously he is markedly inept in terms of opening himself up to intimacy, but dear readers, there are worse crimes to be indicted for.

There is an element of their relationship that works well for me and it’s another echo of “Normal People” which was a tour de force on tentative, awkward communications between people who really like each other but are scared they might say the wrong thing and ruin it all. This is beautifully done there and once again, the conversations between Eileen and Simon are toe-curlingly awkward and realistic, leaving the reader wanting to shout at them, “Just tell each other straight, for God’s sake” Rooney is brilliant on this kind of self-sabotage through embarrassment and feelings of lack of self-worth.

“Telling each other straight” is the one positive quality I could discern in Felix, the final character of the four. He seems to be the partner of choice for Alice so that Rooney can signal her right-on ness yet again. He’s an unskilled working-class chap who she meets on some Tinder-type dating app. Their first date is a disaster but she is intrigued by him. As the novel progresses, we learn that he was a low achiever at school, and does not read, so has little idea of her career as a novelist, but it is clear from Rooney’s descriptions and his dialogue that he is intelligent. The dialogue between Alice and him is refreshing and thought provoking. They fence around like all of the others, but Felix’s great strength is that he is fairly clear and straightforward about what he wants from her. He’s respectful about asking though – this is not a portrait of an abusive man – but Rooney deliberately muddies the waters by including a scene where Alice finds some particularly nasty, violent pornography on his phone. The fact that she does not judge him negatively for this seems to be part of Rooney’s schtick that modern love and sex is different somehow.

I don’t buy it I’m afraid. He lets her know he is bisexual and makes a mockery of his own name by making it very clear he’d like to have sex with the gorgeous Simon, right in front of Alice and everyone else. Rooney seems to be saying that, these days, for these fabled millennials, sex is just another appetite and is disconnected from other emotional connections. Loyalty, fidelity, exclusivity in relationships seems so last century. The ghastly Felix, appears utterly selfish on one level, such that, in a scene late on in the book, when he gets back home to be reunited with his beloved dog and there is a detailed description of him lovingly stroking it, I feared for the dog’s honour. We were genuinely just a short step away from a bold depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. Fear not, gentle reader, the dog survived, honour intact. As did Felix’s relationship with Alice, which just did not ring true to me.

There are some redeeming features. The opening 4 or 5 chapters are wonderful. She is a beautiful, precise writer, and effortlessly draws the reader in to a scenario. I was expecting something magnificent, but ultimately, I was disappointed. She is also brave enough to tackle big ideas. The email/message exchanges between Alice and Eileen have them dissecting weighty themes about the meaning of life. What is important? What really matters in life when climate change and populism threaten our very existence? Rooney concludes it is the connections we make with other people and the pursuit and enjoyment of cultural beauty. The trouble is, after a little while, one’s heart sinks when yet another musing whatsap message exchange about the meaning of life hoves into view. In the end, I just flicked to get to the narrative. Ideas are all very well, but let’s not forget about the story.

Speaking of the story, very early in the novel she gives us ten pages of back story, telling us about the childhood connections between Eileen, Simon and Alice. It’s a curious pause in the proceedings. On its own, it’s a masterful bit of plotting which could have been the outline of a very satisfying, better novel. And then I realised that it was too close to the plot/milieu of Normal People, so she couldn’t just repeat that again. So in effect, it’s a what-happens-next continuation of Normal People in disguise.

The weirdest aspect of the novel for me, given that I think that Rooney is a great stylist, is the curiously flat, perfunctory prose that sucks all of the life out of every description. There is a distance set up between the reader and the characters, and in effect, between the characters themselves, because the style makes it so hard to care about what happens either way. At times it’s like reading the shipping forecast, or a clinical psychotherapist’s academic report, holding up a mirror to the participants.

She’s a wonderful writer, but at the moment the scoresheet reads won 1, drawn 1, lost 1. She needs a big result from the next book. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

A Review of Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

The Great American Novel: the weight of expectations and current US obsession with Christianity is too much for Franzen’s latest effort to bear.

For a certain type of contemporary fiction lover, there exists a fascination with the pursuit of The Great American Novel. The very idea seems to me born out of a longing for old school respectability in the ranks of American commentators. American pre-eminence in the new cultures of the Twentieth century only serves to sharpen the longing for recognition of their excellence in proper culture – fine art and literary fiction – rather than the bubble gum worlds of the movies, TV and pulp fiction.

It speaks to a notion of America being both looked down on for its cultural poverty at the same time as being lionised as the world’s major superpower, politically and economically. “Give us some respect”, it seems to shout, “we’re just as good as you failed old Europeans. You’ve had your day -it’s our turn now”

This is the mindset that periodically proclaims someone to be the latest carrier of that torch. The writer in question (usually a white man) needs to have written a very long book, to be able to bear the weight of cultural expectation. It is, after all, The Big Country. The Great American novelist has been subject to regular reinvention – now a woman, now someone of colour – but the essential premise is the same: this is a great stylist, working on a large canvas, to portray some quintessential truth about a great country.

Jonathan Franzen has laboured for a good few years under the burden of this label, ever since The Corrections was published in 2001, and Crossroads is his latest epic that lays claim to the title, Great American Novel. So, how does he fare?

Well, two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. It’s just a shame that the one he fails miserably to reach is the most important. Let’s be clear right from the outset, this novel is a long way from being great. It is certainly a novel, of sorts. And unquestionably, it’s American. Looked at from the outside, at a distance and standing in the shadows it could be mistaken for TGAN, but it really wouldn’t pass muster in an ID line up under harsh neon strip lighting. It’s big (540 pages) and it deals with a WASP family from the Midwest, with the usual stresses and fault lines just under the surface, that break out with dramatic consequences in the second half.

So far, so good. If it sounds like a duck and smells like a duck and moves like a duck, it’s probably a …well, you get the picture. Except not in this case. Because despite all the approximations, this is quite clearly not a duck. And the breathless, positive reviews it has garnered all smack of lazy journalism from people who have not actually read it, but have, instead, gone on Franzen’s back catalogue and The Duck thesis. It’s not that Franzen has phoned this in. I think he thinks he was writing a significant opus. He wouldn’t have bothered to churn out 540 pages or so if he didn’t think he was writing a book that said something important and insightful about contemporary American Society. But in a sense, that’s the problem. The minute you start to write with posterity in mind you’re holed below the waterline. Rather like sublime pop musicians who don’t have the confidence in the validity of their genre and then try to write something proper to prove their cred. And before you know it, you’re Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Some previous Great American Novels

The frustrating thing is that much of the essential material is good. The extended family unit and their dysfunctional dynamic works really well. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the head honcho at the local church and has had a reputation of late sixties counter cultural credibility. This makes his later fall from grace, at the hands of a younger, newer version of the hip vicar even harder for him to take. He loses interest in his wife Marion and starts sniffing around a young widowed member of the congregation, the foxy Frances, all the while oblivious to the travails of his various children: Clem the favoured son who having discovered sex at college is on the verge of dropping out and volunteering for service in Vietnam; Becky the well-balanced, beautiful and successful girl who also discovers sex and religion (though not in that order) and Perry, the genius rebel who is quickly disappearing down the rabbit hole of  his many, undetected (by Russ at any rate) drug addictions. The characters are well drawn and there are some entertaining and well-drawn set piece scenes, with some sparkling prose at times. But for much of the time, particularly after about a third of the way in, it is painfully dull and repetitive and I found myself flicking the pages of yet more back story to get to the meat of the here and now. It’s far too long. Structurally, it’s a mess, with the momentum of the narrative repeatedly disrupted by really hefty expositions of the back stories of the main characters. In themselves, they are quite interesting, but the overall effect is of having three or four related novels clumsily stitched together to make one mega novel. As avoiding this to protect the reader’s interest in the drama of the main story is a basic rule drummed into wannabe writers by all of the agents, mentors, and creative writing tutors out there, it comes as something of a surprise that Frantzen, a veteran, seems to think the “rules” don’t apply to such as him. If this had been a first novel by a nobody, it would have garnered little but rejection slips.

And then there is the American obsession with religion. Or rather Christianity. Readers of faith may have to turn the other cheek here and forgive me, for I know not what I do. Not really, obviously I know what I do, but you’ll have to forgive me anyway. This is a portrait of a culture, of a community, a family and myriad individuals steeped in the conventions of the established Christian church. And what a stultifying, suffocating, irrelevant, dogmatic portrait it is. What possible attraction does this religion have for anyone? And where were the naysayers? Why are there no characters that push back against this rigid conformity? Becky shows admirable lack of interest at the beginning but then is tempted to join the ghastly Youth Group, the Crossroads of the title. This is initially to get closer to the boy of her dreams, but then after a ludicrous encounter with cannabis, she embraces Christianity with missionary fervour. It makes Cromwell’s puritan Britain in the seventeenth century seem like a liberal enlightenment. By the way, Frantzen’s description of what happens when you smoke a joint, reads like an extract from the reefer madness propaganda of the fifties. Ironically, he manages to serve up the most powerful anti-drug message imaginable. If this is what smoking weed does to you (turn you into a swivel-eyed Christian zealot) then no-one will want to touch it with a barge pole.

The Crossroads youth group is a terrifying manifestation of the brainwashing of vulnerable young people. Given that never -ending revelations about child abuse undertaken under the cloak of respectability provided by The Church are so familiar to us these days, it beggars belief that Frantzen offers no caveats about this highly dubious organisation led by the classic, “charismatic” young trendy religious leader. At its most innocent, it’s a portrait of a nauseatingly smug hero leader basking in the adoration of his teenage congregation. At worst, it’s a lot more sinister, but not for the author, who seems to see it as a force only for good. I imagine he had some sort of similar experience as a teenager or young man. Whether as the Messiah or the Disciple, I’m not sure.

The characters spend so much time agonising about whether they have lived up to the expectations and teaching of the scriptures, that they seem to have little left when it comes to actually treating their friends, family and community with love and respect. If they could just forget about doctrinal regulations, and put the same amount of effort into their own therapy and a better understanding of their fellow man, their lives, and those of the community, would be so much better.

Franzen appears to be aware that he could be accused of being obsessed with the emotional travails of the white American middle classes, and that these days in 2022, he runs the real risk of being cancelled, or worse, thought to be irrelevant. To counter this, he throws in a couple of tremendously awkward sub-plots, one involving the poor black community that are the focus of Russ’ do-gooding endeavours and the other centred on his relationship with a Native American community out in the wilderness of the reservation where as a young, firebrand preacher he had earned his radical, alternative stripes. There is some sense that Frantzen has the self- awareness to satirise white American liberal guilt, but only some. The overwhelming feeling is that these scenes are only there to provide a smidgeon of cred.

Finally, thankfully, the whole towering edifice collapses exhausted at the end. I have no idea why it ended where and how it did. The last third dribbles on in a meandering ineffective way. It could have ended at the full stops of any of the final several hundred sentences, but on it ploughed, as I listlessly flicked the pages praying for the end.

I’m sorry to have been so negative. Buried deep underneath the layers of subcutaneous fat here, there probably lurks a decent, interesting novel. But it’s the job to the writer to do that preliminary archaeology, not the reader.  It’s what the editing process is for. 540 pages that could so easily been 280 and so much the better for it.

And guess what? It gets worse. In preparing to write this review , I discovered something I was not aware of when reading the book: Franzen plans this as the first of a trilogy. Oh dear.

This blog was first published at rjbarron.co.uk