Tuesday, 26 July 2011

MAN BOOKER PRIZE LONGLIST - The Testament of Jessie Lamb - Congratulations Jane Rogers



I first posted this review back in May for those experiencing deja vu. Jane Rogers is a tremendous novelist, never afraid to confront issues. She's also an inspirational teacher.  

In Jessie Lamb’s world there are no Thought Police or Republic of Gilead. Her comfortable suburb of Manchester is entirely recognisable. Jane Rogers' eighth novel makes a point of co-opting the ordinary, the everyday world of scrambled eggs, mum and dad’s arguments, college relationships and teenage loyalties. However, in Jessie’s world – a few months into the future – women have been infected by a virus known as maternal death syndrome (MDS). Once MDS is contracted, any woman who becomes pregnant develops a fatal form of CJD, dying within days. The human race must confront its demise.
The novel has echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Children Of Men, but it is the 360-degree realisation of 21st century community in the process of fracture, told in the voice of an assured, intelligent 16 year old that makes Jessie’s story so captivating. This is a nightmare in waiting; society still functions as the adult world looks to science for solutions. But for groups of young people like Jessie, science is the cause. Their search for answers drives them into the arms of extremist groups, each of whom offers a form of protest against a single element of societal breakdown.
As a parent, the novel resonates most powerfully with that moment you realise your own kids’ view of the world is fed by the complex reality of their own lives, entirely independent of your parental influence. The smart thing is to stand back and listen, however when Jessie makes a decision which could benefit humanity, but which her parents regard as a needless sacrifice, they cannot help but act on her behalf. The novel is at its most powerful handling the complex mix of young adult/parent relationships.
Much hangs on the reader’s relationship with Jessie as she fights to assert her independence, discovering her own sense of power to challenge adult conventions and certainties, particularly those of her geneticist father. She is not alone. Teenagers are increasingly drawn towards active protest; it is their world and their future adults have effectively destroyed.
Superficially, the most resonant aspect of The Testament Of Jessie Lamb might seem to be the fear of science getting out of control and creating a dystopian future for us all, but Jessie is such an engaging narrator that the novel offers far more than a pale ‘what if science screws up?’ scenario. The conclusion is both shocking and inevitable with power ultimately in Jessie’s hands.
The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers is published by Sandstone Press.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

WONDERLAND




July, 1966

After the first hour in the interview room at Princes Road, D.I. Moody’s intensity fell away. Maybe it was a sign of resignation, Michael couldn’t tell. All he knew was his fingernails had stopped digging in his palms. Moody looked at his watch and yawned. He lit another Regal and gave a half smile. “You ever run into Cliff Brumby?”
The room had become a sweatbox; Michael loosened his tie. He would have spun Moody a line to buy a lungful of clean air, but he had nothing left to say they hadn’t already chewed up and spat out. “Councillor Brumby? Just another face in a cheap suit to me.”
“That all?”
“Every man and his dog knows I work for Duke. Oil and water, right?”
“Yeah, well you don’t work for him anymore, no-one does.”
Moody flipped his notebook open and gave it the full Jackanory, how Johnny ‘Duke’ Wayne had made a name for himself after the war with dead men’s ration books and knock-off booze. How in the late fifties, he enforced protection on the arcades in Cleethorpes, exporting seaside thuggery to resort towns along the east coast. How he made moves on pubs and clubs and in nineteen-sixty was implicated in a fatal arson attack on Archie Forrester’s illegal drinking den.
Michael cut in, “Before my time.”
Moody shot him a look. “In sixty-one, he put the Café Dansant out of business – apparently somebody stopped paying. Earlier this year he put dirty money into a new housing development and bought himself a seat on the borough planning committee.” He snapped the notebook shut. “He disappeared three weeks ago. Just gone, thin air. Then Wednesday morning he turned up in the dunes near the Fitties, stripped naked, a mouth full of sand, shot in the back of the head.”
Moody let the reality hang.
The Fitties was a collection of single-storey, pre-fab and wooden cladded chalets, the kind of place mothers warned their daughters not to go and where they went anyway. Michael imagined Duke’s white body, the red ambulance blanket. Policemen knocking on chalet doors at dawn.
“So Michael, where was he for those three weeks?”
Michael shrugged.
“Ah, come on, you must’ve known – if not you, then who?”
Moody had half a story. And half a story was no story. He’d never seen them, him, Duke and the boys in twilight stand-offs in Wonderland. He’d never tasted diesel and sweet peppermint in the back of his throat, or felt the fear on hot nights when they’d fronted up to teds and tinkers – all the grubby-collared gods a town like Cleethorpes could muster. To Moody that was unseen history. He had no romance in him, coppers never did.
“Duke was dropping you, Michael. You, Val, Sean, Colin, the lot of you. He wanted to do business with reasonable men. He’d had enough of bits of kids like you and shagged out old cases like Val.” He stubbed the fag out.
“You call Brumby reasonable?” Michael bit and knew he shouldn’t.
“So you do know him?” Moody split a match and picked the dirt from his thumbnail. “Think about this, son. I know you’re lining up to step into the old man’s shoes. Think again, because if you really don’t know who did this, it’ll be you getting sliced up with the teeth knocked from your gob.”
Michael felt his eyelid twitch.
“You never knew that, did ya smart lad? They didn’t just kill him, your boss, they messed him up first. Then they dumped him where decent people walk their dogs and let their kids play; where they don’t have owt to do with rubbish like you.” Moody got up, pocketed his fags and swung his jacket off the chair. “I’m getting some fresh air. It stinks in ‘ere.”

When Duke took off that last time, Michael knew someone had to keep the money coming in. He figured as long as the slot machines were chugging away and he kept collecting, things’d be right. He squared it with Val, Duke’s right hand bloke and made the rounds, mostly on his own, occasionally with Sean or Colin along.
For Michael it was more than business. He loved the sticky-handled bandits, the clatter of pennies in trays, pop songs in the speakers, shooting galleries, bingo calls and cheap plaster vase prizes. He never walked away from his rounds with less than a fiver in his pocket and if he was lucky, a feel from Janice in the Wonderland change booth.
Even without Duke, he got nods and backhanders from the arcade owners.
He had a new suit made in Baileys, a three-button job, Italian style, chocolate brown. None of yer fishermen’s bell bottoms, this was neat and sharp.

You could hear Moody’s grating whistle halfway down the corridor. Above the tune, below the tune, but never on it. He gave a nod to the uniformed lad at the door. “You can get off for a cuppa if yer like.”
The lad closed the door behind him.
Moody emptied the contents of the ashtray in the bin. Sat down and opened a fresh pack. “Tell me about Val Harris, I hear he’s a bit of  liability.”
“Val’s one of us.”
Moody smiled, scratched his armpit. “He’s a Yorkie, in’t he?”
“You know he is.”
Val Harris’s no-mark career as a bouncer in a Leeds nightclub had ended the night Duke convinced him he could earn five times more on the wrestling circuit. Val spent the best part of five years up and down the holiday camps under the name Count Esposito. Yarmouth, Skeggy, Cleethorpes pier on Wednesday nights, then onto Brid and Scarborough. Duke made sure he did alright.
Michael caught the show one night on the pier; some fat lump squashing Val’s face into the canvas. The ref started the old, “One-a, two-a…” Val broke the hold, jumped to his feet and paraded around the ring givin’ it this fake foreign accent, “You’ll-a never count out-a the Count”. The old ladies loved it – when they weren’t sticking his arse with hat pins.
Then a year ago there was Mabelthorpe. Word was the padding came away from the corner post. When the Count got slung into it, he went down like a sack of spuds and never moved. They carried him to the dressing room and left him on the massage bench waiting for the pins and needles in his legs to disappear. He came back to Seaview Street in a wheelchair and hadn’t looked like getting out of it since. Duke kept him around, on equal shares.
Moody thought he was onto something. He had that bloody notebook out again. “You said Val sent you down Wonderland last week. Was that where Duke was hiding out?”
Michael laughed. “Yeah, on the big dipper.”
“As good a place to hide as any.”
“Nah, you know Mac who runs the place? He wouldn’t have it, he’s soft.”
“But you were set up, right? I can see the bruises.”
Michael looked around the walls, counted rows of grey glossed bricks. He could barely breathe. “I walked into Wonderland after midnight just as the shout went up for last rides. I spotted Mac heading out back and followed him. Greaser Buckland was taking the last few shillings on the dodgems; when I caught his eye, he turned away.”
“You must’ve known something was up,” said Moody.
Michael went quiet.
Moody kept poking. “No Duke, no protection, eh son? Not such a big man after all.”
“I saw Janice, I know ‘er, been out with her a few times, but she give me the cold shoulder. So yeah, I knew something was up.”
“But you went ahead.”
Duke said, never back down.
“When I got round the back, Mac had disappeared. He wasn’t in his office. Then the lights went out. There was someone in the shadows. I never saw him. I got a smack round the head, someone behind me. Must’ve been two, three…I dunno. I went down.”
“You got off light by the looks of it.”
Michael stood up slowly and unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it apart and eased off a bloodstained lint dressing. Two lines of stitches made a junction, crossing under his ribs. “Janice came out the booth,” he said. “She stopped ‘em doing any more.”
“Some kind of woman. Three hefty blokes and she calls ‘em off.”
“That’s the way it was.”
“But you knew they were hefty, so you did see ‘em. Brumby’s boys right?”
There was a long silence. Michael buttoned his shirt.
Moody said, “What next?”
“When I got back to Seaview Street, the front door was open. The place had been turned over. Val weren’t there, no chair, no cash, just gone. I put my gear in a bag and went round Sean’s, he’d gone an’ all.”
Moody shook his head. He fixed Michael with a cold stare. “All gone.”
Suddenly, everything was clear.

In the guest-houses, holidaymakers would be waking up, getting a wash and coming down for breakfast. Michael stood at the end of Princes Road, lit himself a cigarette and tried to clear the captive stink from his head. He made his way towards the High Street and down to the pier. He bought a tea and sat, looked out across the flat estuary, got the fish docks on the wind. Trawlers waited for the tide. He thought of Russian seas, high waves, nights fishing, your boots sliding in fish guts on the deck. The unthinking routine of work and sleep. His tea went cold. He ate the sugar cubes and made his way back to Seaview Street, stopping at a souvenir shop to buy a sixpenny postcard of sunny day holidaymakers snapped on the promenade. He slipped it in his pocket. As he reached the top of the cliff steps, a Jag pulled into the kerb opposite. Brumby’s Jag. Michael hesitated; for a moment he thought they were waiting for him. Then he saw Val walking towards the car, purposefully, like an old soldier leaning on a stick with each step. The Jag’s back door swung open and it was all smiles. Val got in. The indicator flicked, the car pulled out and made its way towards the High Street, and from there down to Grimsby Road.
            Councillor Brumby would stop to pick up Colin and Sean from outside the Kent Arms, before driving them all to his house at Burnham. They would sit, smoking Brumby’s cigarettes in Brumby’s billiard room. And in spite of the hour – it was still early – they would drink malt whiskeys, which thickened their sense of self-congratulation. Later, they would be joined by Detective Inspector Moody who would give re-assurances that the lad had been dealt with. That he had been seen in a café, buying a postcard and boarding a train. It would raise a laugh, but each man would find in himself the private realisation that in their business, such endings were rare.



Wonderland was written for the 'Murders in the Library' session at Cleethorpes Library - Summer 2011. Cliff Brumby is a character in Ted Lewis's novel 'Get Carter'. I wanted to tell the story of how it came about that: '...ten to one the slot machine belongs to Brumby and like as not the bloody arcade as well.'