The City’s Son – Tom Pollock

DISCLAIMER: Tom Pollock once bought me a pint. As a result I cannot guarantee complete neutrality.

The City’s Son is Tom Pollock’s debut novel and the first in The Skyscraper Throne YA series. As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t read YA as a rule, but I made an exception for this book, a) because he once bought me a pint (see above), and, b) because it’s been very well previewed.  I’m very glad I did, because it’s an immensely enjoyable and fluently written urban fantasy set in a hidden London and filled with characters and creatures which bear testament to Pollock’s imagination and immersion in the genre.

Beth is a troubled graffiti artist kicked out of school, her mother dead, her father lost in grief. All she has is her Pakistani friend Pen, who has problems of her own to deal with. One night, out in the city, Beth is catapulted into the London of grey-skinned, railing spear-wielding, Fil, the eponymous Son of the City, his mother a goddess missing for years. Fil’s London is full of wonderful creatures: dancing, filament-filled glass women who live in the city’s lampposts, wire-dwelling spiders whose home is the Crystal Palace radio mast (a sight for sore eyes, in a manner of speaking, as I grew up in Crystal Palace), stone-clad undying priests, not to mention the darker inhabitants, the Wire Mistress and Scaff Wolves, servants of Reach the all-destroying Crane King, against whom Fil and Beth must battle to save their home.

The city is a character in itself, and the story takes us from North to South, East to West, from gentrified neighbourhoods, to graffiti-covered underpasses, and up the shining faces of the skyscrapers of docklands, huddled as they are against the warehouses of the East End. Pollock captures the facets of London’s identity very effectively, taking us from the heights to the depths, usually quite literally.

There are no fairy tale endings in Pollock’s London: this is a dark, death-filled, and hard-hitting novel beneath the surface of which lie themes of urban decay, regeneration and development, prejudice, abuse, and, I think, a hint of LGBTQ. Sprinkled with a good dose of humour and few good-natured swipes at the urban fantasy canon, this was a great read. If all YA was like this, I’d probably read more.

Sunday Story Society: ‘Bombay’s Republic’ by Rotimi Babatunde

The Sunday Story Society‘s second story is Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’. These are my thoughts before we discuss it on David Hebblethwaite’s society page.

The subject of Babatunde’s dark, humorous, and cutting story is ‘Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back as a spotted leopard.’ We follow him through the manipulative recruitment of the colonial administration, his training, and service in Burma, before he returns to establish his republic in a hilltop jailhouse.

The order and certainty of the colonial racial straitjacket is all Bombay knows, ‘But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became possible.’ On active service Bombay experiences the prejudice and suspicion Africans are subject to and which is exploited in Imperial propaganda . A Lieutenant tells him ‘The stories that preceded you to this war said that the Africans are coming and that they eat people. We fuelled these rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper.’

Yet Bombay also realises that the white man is vulnerable and unstable in a way Colonial government is designed to deny. He likes this possibility very much.

The refrain of expanded possibilities follows ‘That people would imagine he was a cannibal was something he had not thought possible.’

I felt the writing echoed Marquez and Rushdie in its colonial subject matter as well as its realism; their magic being replaced by horror in the unflinching description of fear, death, and mutilation in the Burmese jungle.

‘He was dead but there was no sign that he had been shot. His body had been severally pierced. The spectacle of his entrails spilling out of his excavated stomach and drooling down to his toes could not have been ghastlier.’

The Republic of the story’s title is founded shortly after Bombay returns from the war. Inspired by the vulnerability of his colonial overlords on the battlefield he declares his old jailhouse to be independent and raises a flag. In his republic of one Bombay descends into absurd pomp and circumstance, unsurprisingly winning every Presidential election. I particularly liked the titles Bombay awards himself, especially ‘Lord of All Flora and Fauna’, ‘Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem’, and ‘Father of the Internet’. Babatunde uses this to reflect on the corruption independence can bring in its wake, made the more absurd by its focus in a single individual. Bombay rewrites the constitution, recognises any government in power, and demands gifts on his many ‘state visits’. In the end, Bombay takes on the megalomania that was the mark of Empire and which mars the so-called republics of certain African states.

Man Booker Longlist: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices

This is a hard book to review. Not because it is bad. In fact, it is by turns charming, heart-warming, distressing, and profound; a novel of intense regret, grief, great tenderness, faith, and desolation. As Rachel Joyce’s debut novel it is a great achievement and deserves its place on the Man Booker Longlist. It is hard to review – at least as I find it – because the achievement of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is so tightly bound up with the cumulative effect of its various vignettes – the people and places Harold comes across – with the insights and setbacks Harold experiences, some of which seem trite or mere truisms in isolation, but which grow in the telling and in the initially Prufrockish person of Harold himself. Likewise, Joyce’s style is so unobtrusive, not plodding but diligent in its articulation of Harold and his wife’s voices that it threatens to defy analysis.

Harold is a retired and retiring sixty-five year old living in South Devon and with nothing to do. He is intensely insecure, private, wary of attention and emotional engagement.  His difficult childhood and that of his troubled son have hollowed him out, fearing and mishandling emotional connections to others. One day in mid-April, as he sits at the kitchen table, a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former employee at the misogynist-dominated brewery from which Harold has retired. She is dying of cancer in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold resolves to escape the house and his snappy, impatient, and sarcastic wife, for a while and post her a rather lame reply.

 Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the post box.

Harold keeps walking, meets a girl in a petrol station who speaks of cancer and faith, and comes to believe he can do something for Queenie, who long ago did something for him. So begins the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Berwick-upon-Tweed: ‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.’

Maureen is left alone in Devon to contemplate a life without Harold, from whom she has become so estranged. ‘She thought of their cold beds, in separate rooms, and the words they shared, which skimmed the surface and meant nothing.’ Since their son left them, Harold and Maureen have come to be coincidental occupiers of the same house, unable to bridge the gap between them. As in Larkin’s poem Talking in Bed ‘more and more time passes silently’, so

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words and once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

I was recently reminded by Charles Fernyhough of a line from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory: the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ As he walks Harold’s memories, of his son, his wife, his absent mother and unsatisfactory father, and Queenie, assail him, deepening his despair and losing nothing in their recollection, but rather intensifying as though thickened by time and the impotence of distance.

Later in the same book Auster quotes Hölderlin who, before his first mental breakdown, undertook his own three-month walk from Bordeaux to Stuttgart across the Massif Central in 1802. Following the death of his wife, he spent thirty-six years in a room in a tower, built for him by a carpenter called Zimmer (which means room in German). Like Hölderlin Harold seems to have lived in one stuffy compartment of his life. And yet,

TO ZIMMER

The lines of life are various as roads or as

The limits of the mountains are, and what we are

Down here, in harmonies, in recompense,

In peace forever, a god will finish there.

The heart of this book is the walk, the journey along the lines of life begun by Harold as he finally steps away in his yachting shoes from his staid life, only to find himself walking through it, seeing everything around him in terms of it his memories, regrets, optimism, or despair. Throughout Joyce summons parallels between the weather and Harold’s state of mind. The landscape of Britain becomes the geography of his life, the people and places, flora and fauna, the moments of joy when all around appears radiant, and the moments of desolation and utter isolation, which are themselves intensified by Harold and Maureen’s inability to communicate. There are moments where the story can strike one as repetitive, punctuated as it is by many moments of despair and subsequent new beginnings; but then such a journey is repetitive – will involve returning to thoughts, moments, memories. Some images can feel a little contrived, but occasionally they really hit home.

He looked out at the rain, waiting for it to break, and saw a crow with its head bowed, its feathers so wet they shone like tar. He wished the bird would move, but it sat sodden and alone. Maureen was so busy she had hardly noticed Harold had gone.

What rescues Harold’s insights from apparent triviality is their place in the context of his stunted emotional development. He meets an apparently prosperous gentleman in a railway café, and yet,

He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there was no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake…It must be the same all over England.

This line might feel, perhaps does feel somewhat underwhelming, but Harold has never felt such things before, and this realisation, reinforced with each person he meets, leads to the heart of Joyce’s novel.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

And thus, as in Pilgrim’s Progress so in Harold Fry atonement integrates both the journey and its telling. At-one-ment: the return to a state of harmony, an act of reconciliation and reparation for past wrongs. The dark heart of this book questions the meaning and possibility of such things for Harold very effectively through the lens of his troubled relationship with his difficult son; but, at the same time Joyce questions the limits of our responsibility for others’ choices, a weight that surely all parents feel. She does so very well indeed and marshals the turbulence, love, fear, doubt, and faith of a life with originality in that most frequent of metaphors, the journey.