Glen James Brown: Ironopolis
There is an expression used in England – it’s grim up North – which may be racist but which is intended to show that economic and social conditions in the North of England are worse than those in the South. Various politicians of both the major parties have tried to deal with these conditions, most recently George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, though this is by no means the first initiative and will be by no means the last. They have mainly been initiated by the Conservatives, who are aware that they do not get as many votes in the North as they would like and they generally fail.
Northern novelists have not ignored this situation. In the 1950s and 1960s, a variety of novelists (and playwrights) wrote about the situation up North. These writers included John Braine, Stan Barstow, David Storey, Alan Sillitoe and others. Their gritty Northern dramas were often made into successful gritty Northern films. The heroes of these books (nearly all written by men) were working class, tough and drinkers.
Cut to the present day and there is now a new breed. Some of these authors publish with publishers who are members of the Northern Fiction Alliance, though these publishers certainly do not limit themselves to gritty Northern novels. However, there are several other authors, like Glen James Brown, who are published elsewhere.
Various things have changed since the the 1950s-1960s. Firstly, there has been a massive loss of jobs, primarily because of globalisation. These jobs, in mining and manufacturing, were often the mainstay of their communities. They have now disappeared, leading to mass unemployment. Secondly, there has been a big rise in immigration, both EU and non-EU. This has caused tensions and was, in part (though only in part) responsible for the Brexit vote. This is not an issue in this novel. Thirdly, there has been a huge rise in the drug culture. Last and probably least, the music has changed. Acid, house, techno and grime now inform these novels.
I have two of these novels on my site, both written by women. Adelle Stripe‘s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is set on a sink estate, as is the novel under review. Fiona Mozley‘s Elmet deals with the issue of debt and unemployment, also found in the novel under review.
This novel is written by a man but, as with the other two mentioned, it is a first novel. Brown was born in the North of England, in County Durham, and studied at a Northern university in Leeds, where he became familiar with the notoriousQuarry Hill estate, since torn down. While the Ironopolis of the title is based on Middlesbrough, it is clear Quarry Hill was an influence.
This story is set in a sink estate like Quarry Hill. At the start of the book, a regeneration project is going on, with everything being torn down, the inhabitants being relocated and new houses to be built. The residents and Brown are clearly somewhat sceptical about this, seeing the motive to make a private developer rich and for the local council to abrogate its responsibility to the people.
We follow the stories of seven people (in one case, the stories of a father and son are told together) who live in various parts of the estate. In some cases they seem to have a defining moment, usually distinctly unpleasant, which altered their life. In all cases, their lives are generally miserable, with health, employment, relationship, financial and drug-related worries.
We start with Jean Healy. She has ovarian cancer. She is writing to someone called Stephan (whom we will later meet in person) who has contacted her about someone she knew as a child, whom he is trying to track down.
Una Cruickshank was Jean’s best friend as a child. Una, like most of the people on the estate, came from a difficult family. Her father had served in Sicily during the war and had not really (mentally) recovered. He does not work or, indeed, do much of anything. His wife, Talitha, had fled Poland as a child and does not fit in with the English. Una is something of a wild child, which is why Jean admires her. Una sets the tone in two related ways. It is she who first meets Peg Powler, a water spirit who drags children into the water. Others will meet and refer to Peg throughout the book. I would mention, in passing, that elements of horror are often to be found in the modern Northern novel.
The second and related area where Una is key is the painting she makes of Peg, called The Green Girl. Brown has said the painting is based on Egon Schiele’s Seated Young Girl. Una has shown a talent for painting early on and, apparently, has gone on to have a career as a painter, with The Green Girl her masterpiece and hanging in a famous gallery, though we see it later in a private home. It is referred to throughout the book.
Una and Jean drift apart as Jean gets more interested in boys and is clearly more sexually attractive than Una. They will later lose touch. Jean is now married to Vincent Barr. As we shall see throughout the book, he is the local thug, a big man with a terrible reputation for various acts of violence and various criminal acts, of which he is proud. He has spent time in jail and will spend more time there. Nevertheless, he is fairly devoted to Jean.
They have a son, Alan, who is the opposite of his father, to his father’s disappointment. He has been badly injured in an incident, about which we will learn much more, both from his perspective and from the perspective of those responsible.
The second story is about Jim Clark who has suffered in a way similar to Alan and now spends his time doing drugs and listening over and over again to a tape of acid music. When a young girl goes missing, he is blamed. We follow his sister Corina, divorced, struggling as a hairdresser, as she loses her clients, with the various people leaving the estate. She is addicted to gambling.
Alan Barr carries out some investigation of his own into the people associated with his father and his father’s dirty deeds, as well as into the explosion that rocked the estate on New Year’s Eve 1993. In particular he solves one of the mysteries – who has been abducting the young girls who have disappeared.
This could have been simply a It’s Grim Up North novel and while that is certainly an important part of the novel, Brown is clearly a fine writer and gives us much more. We follow the lives of a host of characters in some detail and all of them have flaws, in some case quite serious flaws, yet he attempts to show their side of the story and to show how they are, to a considerable extent both a product of their genes and, more importantly, a product of their environment.
The introduction of Peg Powler is very well done, as she hovers over (or, more often, under) several of the characters and key parts of the book. The hostile environment, both from other people, such as thugs like Vincent Barr but many of the others as well, as well as the unpleasant physical environment – damp and mould, dilapidated housing, decaying infrastructure, damage from hooliganism, abandoned, derelict and dangerous properties, remote and uncaring authorities and, of course, extensive unemployment and a cash economy – all contribute to the atmosphere of the novel. They don’t give a shite, one character says after complaining about the dangerous infrastructure left abandoned. Might as well be speaking Swahili.
Few of any of the main characters have what can be called an even vaguely satisfactory romantic life. Some have virtually no romance in their lives, while others end up with no-one, because their behaviour or ill-health/death have ended their relationships. Two of the main characters end up in prison (deservedly so). Several of them live in fantasy worlds, imagining a better life that we know is not going to happen.
Finally, I must mention the sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks make two completely separate appearances in this book. I cannot think of any other novel where that happens, though I naturally immediately thought of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, a 1968 It’s Grim Up North novel, better known for its film version Kes. Whether this was a homage to Ken Loach (director of the film) or to Hines, I do not know but I do know that it is touches like these (of which there are many) that help make this a very fine book indeed. I have no doubt that we will hearing more of Glen James Brown in the future. I can thoroughly recommend this book.
First published 2018 by Parthian