One day a cockroach decides to leave the safety of the wood panelling in the Palace of Westminster, head across the road and into 10 Downing Street. In the morning, the cockroach discovers he has become Jim Sams, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
It seems the cockroach has made this metamorphosis at a time of national crisis - the population has narrowly voted to embark on Reversalism - a crazy idea of reversing money flow - and the Government is determined to deliver this outcome despite the manifest lunacy of doing so. This is obviously a parody of Brexit, although in one scene Jim Sams considers how Revarsalism might work when adopted by only one EU member state. Presumably this scene is enough to throw Brexiteers off the scent so they won't realise they are being lampooned.
This is not great literature - although it is also not bad. The main selling point is the topicality and obvious speed with which it has been thrown together and published. Some of the details - the arrival of Boris Johnson, the attempt at proroguing Parliament, the expulsion of long-standing members of the Conservative benches for opposing hard Brexit - are barely weeks old yet they play a pivotal role in this novella.
What is really depressing is the plausibility of the conceit that the Government (and perhaps President 45) are really cockroaches in disguise, running the world into the ground just for their own immediate self-interest. Does Boris Johnson lie awake at night and fondly remember his missing set of legs and his exoskeleton?
The Cockroach is (hopefully) a quirk, a piece of ephemera that will forever look like an oddity in the canon of a literary giant. It probably owes a big debt to Kafka, and the metaphor and the aliases are very transparent. The ending will really bug you [can you see what I did there?].
But it is as good an illustration of the madness of Brexit and the frustration at the lack of any real backbone in the opposition - especially its leader - that you'll find. It is shows how significant an issue Iain McEwan thinks it is, that he is willing to put his name and his branding to something so obviously created at speed.
I suspect that Tim Lott is a misunderstood man. He writes about grotesque characters in a sympathetic way and people imagine this is because he wants the characters to be admired.
In When We Were Rich, we re-encounter the characters from White City Blue - four lads living in and around the White City estate in West London. Frankie Blue is an estate agent; Nodge is a taxi driver who has recently come out as gay; Colin is a computer geek; and Diamond Tony is persona non grata following an incident on a golf course.
Picking up almost immediately from the end of White City Blue, we follow these characters and their newly found partners from the eve of the false Millennium (the real millennium started in 2001); through the boom years of the New Labour project and into the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.
What Tim Lott does, seemingly effortlessly, is capture the atmosphere around major events and show how ordinary people responded to them. He holds up a mirror to ourselves and if we don't like what we see, we have only ourselves to blame. In When We Were Rich, we see the naked greed around the London housing market. We see people who believe they deserve the wealth they have accumulated through owning property - and expect to be able to repeat the feat for ever. We see people who judge others by their income, their job, their postcode. And because we have lived through these times ourselves, we know it won't end well. It's Rumours of a Hurricane twenty years on.
I believe firmly that Tim Lott wants readers to sneer at his characters, not admire them or aspire to be them. Whether it is venal Frankie, selfish Vronky, lazy Roxy, the vain and hypocritical Fraser, the psychopathically angry Tony - they are all there to be mocked. Especially Fraser, the fifty-year old ripped EasyJet pilot - promiscuous on the gay scene while demanding fidelity from Nodge - turning up to Labour Party meetings to lament the fall of Militant. A thoroughly vile man in every way.
When We Were Rich is the perfect summation of London in the 2000s, just as White City Blue was for the 1990s and Hurricane was for the 1980s. It is an easy, enjoyable read with much humour and quite a bit to say about class struggle and karma.
Most readers will hate When We Were Rich if reviews of Tim Lott's past works are anything to go by. Their loss.
A Stranger City is an ambitious novel that seeks to draw parallels between recent history and Brexit Britain, using the stories of various members of northeast London’s diverse community to illustrate the situation.
The frame on which the novel hangs is the discovery of an unidentified young female body in the River Thames. The discovery is investigated by a policeman and featured in a documentary by a filmmaker. We then broaden out and meet their families and some of the wider community. We find a community that is diverse even within the United Kingdom, including Scots, Irish and migrants from elsewhere in England. Then we find migrants from the Commonwealth and semi-recent conflict zones - Iran after the fall of the Shah. And then there are the more recent migrants from within the EU. All are seen to be integral to the London we see today.
Contrast this with an England that seems to be retreating into itself, harking after the glory days of an Empire, capital punishment and boiled cabbage. Those who are smart enough, able enough, want to move away from this increasingly hostile and ignorant society. Which is ironic, since so many of them came to London precisely to enjoy a broader, global perspective and experience culture and sophistication.
The story of the dead woman remains in the background. For a while it is (intentionally) confused by a parallel story of a missing social media star - a vacuous young woman who is famous only for being famous. And while the dead woman mystery is ultimately resolved, it is not satisfying. The main point is that it is possible for someone to go missing and not be missed, not be reported in this unfeeling society. Might it have been different if she had been English?
A Stranger City is successful in depicting a multicultural society; it makes interesting political points showing the contradiction between the current insularity and the aspirations of individual members of that society. There is some wonderful depiction of characters. But it doesn’t quite hang together as a story. It is too difficult to hold so many characters in the mind all at once, so each time a character re-appears, he or she has to be re-learned. Their inter-relationships are too opaque and the narrative drive is just not there. Which is a pity, because the descriptive writing is fabulous.
Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews.
The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole.
The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town.
Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated.
The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean.
Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land.
By Rod Beecham
Dear BGO Members,
I write to draw your attention to my eBook, ‘The Evidence of Our Senses’: Language, Belief and Britain’s Great War. The book is the product of a student of English literature whose interest, in postgraduate years, turned more specifically to history and the relationships between language, patterns of thought and decision-making. The book examines the confection of a British sense of national identity during the second half of the nineteenth century and relates this to the illogicality and irrationality of the British decision to intervene in the European war that broke out in 1914. It examines the language of English poetry of the war, avoiding the sterile labels of ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-‘ war verse. It gives the most thorough account to date of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1917 protest against the war’s continuation, demonstrating that the incoherence of that protest is attributable to the incoherence of the war itself (i.e. there was nothing identifiable against which to protest). It reviews British military conduct of the war, demonstrating that the shortcomings of senior British commanders are attributable to their subscription to the meretricious value-system confected in the nineteenth century. It reviews the Treaty of Versailles, confirming both that the Treaty was an improvisation and that the tenets of economic orthodoxy are fundamentally incompatible with a world-view that accepts the possibility of war. It reviews the factitious ‘war-books’ controversy of 1930 and indicates that latter-day attempts to attribute negative British perceptions of the First World War to the influence of a handful of literary works are recrudescences of the mind-set that created the war itself. In this sense, the book is an allegory of the contemporary Zeitgeist. An earlier version of Chapter One appeared as, ‘Confecting a British Identity’, in The New Nationalism and the First World War, ed. Lawrence Rosenthal and Vesna Rodic (Basingstoke and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 19-46. An earlier version of Chapter Three was delivered as the paper, ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’, at the English Association Conference, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, at Wadham College, Oxford in September 2014. An earlier version of Chapter Seven appeared as, ‘Fiction and Memoir of Britain’s Great War: disillusioned or disparate?’, in the European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 22:5, 791-813. In an age of ‘fake news’ and labyrinthine relativism, I believe my book is extremely important. At the very least, it could start a discussion about the nature of truth and how we are to establish it. I think that is a discussion we need to have.
I hope I have not committed a solecism by advertising my work here. Of course, I hope that people will be interested in my book, but I understand that advertisements can be irritating!