Tuesday 12 July 2011

'you keep on'

Getting into the yard and seeing that the graffiti on the hull had been added to - jokes, patter, Proddy slogans - so that when the ship was near completion you'd look at her and the whole of her side would be a mess of chalk scrawlings. Comic pictures of the managers. Competitions of who could write the highest. Two-year-long conversations. And then, when she was built, it would all be painted over and there'd be no clue as to what was written underneath; except if you looked hard enough, the tiny scribbling along the waterline where the painters had wrote their nicknames.

by Ross Raisin

And the award for most misleading book cover goes to... I don't know what you're thinking looking at that cover but I saw it and thought 'shipbuilders', 'period - maybe 1940's - definitely not modern.' Well. It most definitely is modern and whilst Mick Little may once have worked in the Glasgow shipyards it is a good thirty years in the past by the time we meet him. None of this is a bad thing, it just took me a while to adjust my expectations whilst at the same time adjusting my ear to the Glasgow dialect in which the book is written. It isn't overbearing that accent, this isn't Trainspotting, just the occasional word or phrase here and there. In fact John Self wondered whether there wasn't some clash between this accented narration, linked to the main character, and the author's own 'voice' creeping through. The example given was 'The nose is badly gone the now, sore and swollen, delicately fractured with blood vessels' Does the combination of "the nose is badly gone the now" and "delicately fractured" make the sentence clash in the reader's brain? I'm not sure, it's a fine line. Mick may be a working-class Glaswegian but I'd be careful of patronising him in terms of what language he might be capable of using. It isn't a direct first-person narration anyway so maybe Raisin is trying to have his cake and eat it slightly too.

Anyway, we're getting bogged down here; the dialect helps set the scene as much as any description, as well as adding some welcome biting humour. Mick as I mentioned used to work on the famous Clydebank shipyards but as that industry slowly died his search for work took him and his family to Australia. When that venture too failed he returned to Glasgow, working as a mini-cab driver, and the modern makeover of his old stomping grounds doesn't go unremarked. Plans to convert one of the huge old cranes into a pink neon-lit revolving restaurant are swiftly dispatched.

All very well getting the full panorama but if all you're looking out on is puddled wasteland every direction - gangs of weans playing football and smoking, pigeons roosting and crapping over the rusted fabrication sheds - it isn't going to make your mozzarella parcels taste much better, is it?

I don't want to mislead you about this novel though, it is a sombre book for as we join Mick he has been felled by the recent death of his wife, Cathy, a victim of Mick's work with asbestos. This fact means that death and grief are tinged with guilt and Mick has a strained relationship with one son who virtually blames him for his mother's death. His other son, Robbie, has returned from Australia (where he remained with his young family) and his house at the outset is also filled with 'The Highlanders', Mick's in-laws, whose middle class status has already received one jab with the mozzarella parcels in the extract above (their choice of funeral finger food). But after the visitors leave Mick finds himself alone in a house that immediately feels wrong and unsettling due to the absence of the person he has shared it with. I think this  may have been my favourite part of the novel. Raisin brilliantly observes the things that mark a man's grief beginning with simple things like the confusion of finding that you've made two cups of tea or the fear of those noises that fill even an empty house. His real skill however is in charting Mick's self-eviction from the house beginning with his inability to sleep in the marital bed, preferring the couch downstairs to begin with. Mick is struggling to keep a hold of his memories of Cathy and their stash of photographs don't seem to help.

He can't get a fix on her. Even if he stares for minutes at each one...And anyway, all this, it's just confusing matters, because these photographs cover years, decades and she looks different from each one to the next. They are all of her, clearly...but when does the picture stop changing so that he might get a final hold on who she is?

He impulsively gathers all of her possessions together one day and it is almost the power of their massed bulk that sends him out to the garden shed to sleep next. Raisin makes Mick's abandonment of his home, potential work, family and the pursuit of compensation totally believable so that when he boards the coach to London with no real idea of what to do when he gets there we understand it was almost the only course of action available to him. He does have an advert for a potential job and is soon working in a grim hotel kitchen, living in the subterranean accommodation that keeps the workers functioning like drones. A hint of staff discontent and industrial action awakens something of Mick's old politicism but it also loses him his job and so begins his real slide.

Mick has always been a working man, never tempted to go 'on the broo' and claim benefits, but that stubbornness coupled with the manner in which grief has cast him adrift are a dangerous combination and it isn't long before he is on the street, quickly caught up in the routine of the other homeless, a world of hostels, soup kitchens and super lager.

He thinks for a moment how the shame of leeching like this should be making him the more desperate to get doing something, but it's not, it's the opposite - he doesn't think, doesn't care; he's into the routine.

That routine and the obviously grim nature of life amongst the dispossessed means that the second half of  the book is a little repetitious and we can't help but look ahead and wonder whether Raisin is going to give us anything to cling onto and lift ourselves up from the depression. What is commendable is the lack of judgment throughout. This could have been a rather heavy book about the descent of a unionised worker; the extract at the top of this review hints at the ever-present divisions that exist in a city like Glasgow where even the allegiance to a football team can be a political statement. But Raisin isn't interested in making judgments about welfare, charity or society. What we get instead is an insight into how easily a man might find himself utterly alone and unsupported, even at the same time as support or companionship might exist. Raisin also intermittently employs the technique of viewing Mick from the point of view of a passer by; a man at a cashpoint, someone in a park; you or I in other words, who will probably have walked past someone who looks just like this dishevelled and drunken man without thinking for a moment about what brought him there. This novel may not be about to herald a paradigm shift but it may just give any reader pause for thought, and a hefty dose of empathy and compassion which is the first step towards seeing the way our society works (or doesn't) in a different light.


Anonymous,  12 July 2011 at 19:25  

Thanks for the heads up on the cover -- my take, if I had just seen it, would have been that this is a ship-building version of John Burnside's The Glister. And while your review indicates that the narrative streams of the two are different, the surrounding society and economic fallout have a fair bit in common.

As much as I liked The Glister (and Raisin's previous novel as well), your assessment leaves me inclined to give this one a miss at this stage.

William Rycroft 13 July 2011 at 07:50  

I hadn't thought of Burnside's Glister, the two books are indeed very different, but I see what you mean about the social and economic fallout. Waterline is uninflected by any kind of myth or menace; its a very modern book, in fact one review I saw hailed it as a strong candidate for 'the definitive novel of our times.' That's some claim, and I don't think I'd go that far, but it has been warmly received by critics over here so if you enjoyed his first then maybe keep this one in mind for the future.

Anonymous,  16 July 2011 at 20:02  

great review will ,I like this a bit when joe mentioned it as a friends dad use to own a large shipbuilders in tyneside so been there and thought a book about the decline of a once great industry would be interesting ,not sure thou I ve been read rather to many english books of late drifting towards a reader I was not the reader I am ,oh well nice review all the best stu

William Rycroft 18 July 2011 at 07:52  

Thanks Stu. Whilst this book is about the death of an industry I found that the 30 year gap between Mick's time in the shipyards and the present day events of the novel took away the immediacy of that strand. Far more engaging was the personal story of one man's grief and the process by which he becomes one of the anonymous grizzled faces that anyone who works in a city will be familiar with (and probably got used to ignoring).

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