Made In Britain
by Gavin James Bower
I know I'm just an arty-lefty-ponce but I'm sure I wasn't the only person to wrinkle their nose when Kenneth Clarke talked about a 'feral underclass' in the wake of the riots and looting that appeared across the country this summer. I won't get into any kind of analysis of those events (we get on so well here talking about books, let's leave politics out of it) but Gavin James Bower has written, with the kind of prescience that novelists probably dream of, a novel that gives us direct access to the lives of three teenagers who are exactly the kind of person that Mr Clarke would like to put in a box and forget about.
I live on Every Street, in a town that's so common it might as well be called Every Town.
The town remains unnamed throughout this novel and that of course is the point. It could one of many towns in the north of England, the kind of place where old industrial buildings aren't turned into fancy flats but are left to fall into ruin. In this town we meet three teenagers, all on that frightening cusp of early adulthood; the period of exam cramming, raging hormones and dangerous experimenting with the world of the adult. Russell Crackle lives with his mother who suffers from depression, his father no longer living with them. As well as a curious surname Russell is saddled with another disadvantage amongst his bullying and brutish peers: intelligence. There is one glimmer of hope in the form of his cousin who lives in Leeds and where Russell might be able to realise his potential if only he can slip the bonds at home. His sections are addressed to a friend of his who commited suicide although we sense that Russell has always struggled to make real friendships with those around him and his sense of alienation is palpable when he considers their drug-taking, drinking and sexual exploits, 'When did enough stop being enough?'
Hayley is also living with a single parent, but it is her mother who is absent having died of cancer, her father combining work and care. Like many of her friends she dreams of being famous without any clear idea of what she'd like to be famous for. In her struggles to keep up with the bragging of other girls in the school she begins an ill-advised relationship with a teacher, something which threatens to distract her from those upcoming exams. She also has the hots for Charlie who could be said to be the novel's linchpin. Charlie still has both his parents at home but his father is drunken and abusive to both wife and son and his mother is understandably a shell of her former self. Charlie is the classic example of a kid far cleverer than he realises but who doesn't have the right outlet for that intelligence He also articulates the hopelessness felt by many children growing up in a society where the usual standards of work and reward seem to be leap-frogged by others.
...nobody from round 'ere ever amounts to owt, unless they become a Premiership footballer or win the lottery. I'm only OK at football and don't play the lottery - so basically I'm fucked.
It is from a Pakistani drug dealer that he gets respect and encouragement and Charlie becomes the acceptable (white) face of that operation amongst the non-Pakistani community. Will he manage to use that opportunity to build up the stash of cash he wants to give his mother to allow her escape or will he be another life absorbed into the violence of drug gang culture?
That theme of escape is very important. All three of the teenagers in this triangle have notions of escape from their circumstances, no one wants to remain trapped in this Every Town, and our teenage years are in themselves all about escape from childhood into adulthood (and sometimes even back again when things become too much). But there is another subtler way in which these children are trapped which whilst not a modern phenomenon certainly seems at odds with our concept of parental care today. Each of them is in some ways trapped by their parents and the demands they make for care from their own children when it should surely be the other way round. Russell is most obviously prevented from making his escape by the suicidal threats of his mother, Charlie by his duty to earn enough money to finance his mother's escape from domestic abuse and even Hayley is paralysed slightly by the remorse that comes from her mother's death and the impact that has on her widowed father. It is possible it seems in our attempts to make all roads open to our children to leave them with little choice to make at all.
Whilst reading this book I wondered what sort of classification it fell into, it seems to straddle some kind of line between YA and adult fiction. There are some fantastic observations about the lives of school children, the strict code of school coach seating arrangements being just one (hint: if you're anywhere near the front then you are very low in the food chain) but it's possible that some adult readers might find a want of complexity in the teenage narrators. I personally struggled to remain much more than an observer having experience a childhood so far removed from that described but that lead me to wonder whether this book might usefully straddle that invisible line between age groups, providing a useful insight into the worries and occupations of today's youth whilst also speaking directly to at least some of the very varied people who found themselves caught up in a wave of disaffection that could only find expression in broken windows and stolen merchandise. It is those that feel frustrated enough to take direct action like that who might most benefit from reading this novel, proving once again that art has the ability to speak to and influence young people in a way that politics never has.