She’d felt no happier, no more settled, nowhere near to finding her ‘true self’. In fact, she didn’t think she had a ‘true self’. She made herself up all the time, as she always had done. It was exhausting. (p236)
With themes of identity, fractured friendship and, latterly, the legacy of a disturbed early childhood, as well as offering that gem of esoteric information about measuring cows, this ought to be my kind of novel. But with dreary dialogue, prose so plain it might have come from the quill of the Amish, an easily-guessed secret long withheld, and forensic attention to the wrong kind of detail, it reads like a good first draft, an impression reinforced by the knowledge that it was published after the author’s death. Yet Margaret Forster is a well-regarded English novelist and, having been fairly underwhelmed by another novel I read of hers some time ago, I suspect this is as good as it gets. Clearly, not her ideal reader, I wondered if one was supposed to take it all with a pinch of salt and I was missing the humour.
Let’s turn instead to her depiction of my home town, a place with which the author will be well acquainted, given that she was born in the area and had a home in the Lake District as well as in London. But it’s clear where her affections lay, as Tara’s brief visit to Belsize Park (where I too have eaten at the Pizza Express next to the tube station) is more strongly realised than her several months in Workington (p122):
She enjoyed looking across to the cinema, where they used to go so often, and the bookshop. The pavements here were wide, with benches now and again. She tried to analyse the difference between this scene and any street scene in Workington, but she couldn’t. Was it the buildings? Was it the people? Was it the general air of prosperity compared to one of austerity?
It’s a pity that the author didn’t see fit to answer her own questions, but used my hometown to represent some vision of a dreary place where Southerners wouldn’t like to live. I really wouldn’t have minded had she done so with style.
Lingua Franca, the naming rights agency of which Miles is the chief executive, is on a mission to rename every UK town after a corporate sponsor. Despite the fact that this cynical objective has earned him the scorn of his estranged wife, English teacher Kendal, Miles is committed to bringing a perverted kind of prosperity to depressed communities. But he hasn’t reckoned on the capacity of the residents of Birdseye-in-Furness (formerly Barrow) to resist.
My delight in this zany novel was not diminished by the fact that I’ve come across a similar concept before in the futuristic thriller, Jennifer Government, nor that I disagree that Miles is on a quest for linguistic supremacy when he’s primarily concerned with nouns and the power that comes from naming. It’s both an entertaining romp and a serious indictment of the way we live today, with rampant capitalism sucking the soul out of once-proud working class towns.
It’s about the culture clash between North and South, youth and tradition, rich and poor, a topic also explored, in very different circumstances, in my recently republished short story A House for the Wazungu. Anyone who’s ever worked in a struggling organisation will recognise that desperate drive to rebrand rather than confront the underlying problems. (While having endured several NHS pointless reorganisations, I now watch from the sidelines; even at my lowly level as a national park volunteer, I was amused and bemused when filming for the North Lees open day recently I was obliged to wear a borrowed fleece jacket with updated logo rather than my own with a slightly different shaped millstone, which you can see me wearing here, even though I’d washed mine specially for the occasion!)
Although it’s so long since I’ve visited I’m not qualified to judge its accuracy, I can vouch for a vivid and sympathetic portrayal of Barrow, even in this humorous first glimpse as Miles describes a promotional video (p20):
On the horizon are the rusting cranes … It’s hard to decide whether the sea looks green or grey. The clouds have no problem with raining on the town. There’s not much in the way of action, besides a slow-motion ship coming into the slipway. The next thing in sight is a fishing boat, from which it’s possible to make out the town as a silhouette. All you’re meant to know is that Barrow is a place, and it’s distant … We can see the town for what it is – a grid of terraced houses and a church in the middle … If the video is to be believed, what’s missing is the magic. Not money, of course.
Not often drawn to comedy, I might not have read this book if it hadn’t featured Barrow. I’m heartily glad that it does. I do hope the locals like it as much as I did.