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.
The Outer Circle is set over the course of five days, shortly after the end of the London 2012 Olympics. The story is set on the other side of the city in the very affluent area of Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A man walks into the Regents Park Mosque with a flamethrower...
We follow the event and the aftermath through the eyes of five different characters:
Saul - an older man who walks through Regents Park to get his daily treatment for prostate cancer Rashid - who works in the bookshop at the Mosque, a recent convert to Islam Deena - a black police officer Tom - a student Jan - a journalist
The narrative is broken into sections that drop in and out of the characters' lives, all trying to unpick what has happened. At times the characters can seem a bit cliched, and the dialogue can sound pretty clunky at times, but the story is compelling enough to capture the reader. The book's real strength is the sense of place. Regents Park is a pretty small area, even though, as we're told more than once, it takes a while to walk the length of the park. It is an area with cafes and bars, bandstands and bunkers. It has a high footfall from tourists, locals, dog-walkers, homeless... The park is almost a place apart from the rest of the city; the roads through it are closed at night and feel like secret roads; there are lawns and trees and bushes instead of the buildings and CCTV cameras; the park has its own rules and those who use the park feel temporarily relieved from the rules of the rest of the city.
But as well as adhering to the strict geography of the park, there is also a sense of multi-cultural London. It has been in broadcast into every home around the world through the Olympics, it has folk of all colours and creeds. The cultural diversity is great enough that, for the most part, people can walk around unnoticed in a busy and somewhat impersonal city. We step into the world of politics and prejudice - with a firmly left of centre editorial policy applied sometimes with a heavyish hand.
The novel is pacy and the pages seem to turn themselves. All five characters have their individual quests and part of the fun is seeing how they interlink. This is a light, entertaining read that sometimes promises to provoke thoughts and sometimes succeeds in doing so. This would be worth taking to the beach on holiday to deliver a taste of home.
I have always found Alison Kennedy's books a bit dull, which is a shame because in real life she is a live wire with a mordantly dry wit. So I approached Serious Sweet, courtesy of its Booker longlisting, with a bit of trepidation.
I needn't have worried.
Perhaps it is the basic premise - a middle ranking civil servant working in Tothill Street finds himself out of favour at work and bored by his lonely home life. I was that person, right down to working in Tothill Street, way back 15 years ago. Or perhaps it is the sardonic take on London life in the 21st Century. But whatever it was, I couldn't get enough of Jon Sigurdsson. Meg Williams, on the other hand, as a clerical worker in an animal shelter felt less immediately accessible.
The novel itself is a bit like Ulysses. Jon and Meg wander around London over a 24 hour period with a vague intention of meeting up but being waylaid by various people. Meg spends time in hospital, almost as a parallel to Joyce's scene in the maternity hospital. And whilst there is a love story between the two of them, what you really have is an extended study of two characters, set against a wider study of contemporary London (and the wider nation and its government). Neither Jon nor Meg is terribly likeable - Jon is pompous and Meg is a whinger - but neither is either of them contemptible. They are complex, flawed characters who are unhappy with life; the reader comes to want them to have a chance of happiness even if it is not going to be in the terms of a Hollywood Rom Com.
The writing really is stellar in terms of creating a sense of person and a sense of place. Kennedy uses a device of third person narrative blended with italicised first person stream of consciousness from both Jon and Meg's perspective. There are also little vignettes dropped in of everyday city life - life in cafes, on the streets , in parks or on the Tube. This scene changing offer welcome relief from what might otherwise have felt too claustrophobic. It also offers enough hooks that anyone who has lived in London will recognise details. Kennedy has a way of making everyday details seem significant, and in such a way that the reader gets an "a-ha" moment on recognising each of those details.
The novel is long; there's no getting away from that. And at times, the lack of plot driven action can feel a bit like meandering (which is, of course, what Jon and Meg are doing). There are diversions into politics, philosophy and personal history. There is a wealth of words dedicated to the gap between the personal and the public self. And at times, it can feel slow. But, again like Ulysses, if parts of the text can feel like a bit of a slog, the impression at the end is one of heartfelt beauty and grace. For the reader, it comes together as a complete experience that handsomely repays the effort it took to get there.
Over the passage of time, the memory of some novels grow and others recede. I suspect this one is a grower.
The Busker promises three cities, two years, one chance. Yes, the cities bit is correct, and I’ll take Liam Murray Bell’s word for it that it takes place over two years – although it is difficult to gauge the passage of time – but “one chance” is a bit misleading.
We open the book to find Robert Dillon, homeless on the streets of Brighton, having pawned his guitar to buy a bit of food and some drugs to help him sleep. Since Robert – or Rab – is a busker, this seems to reflect some pretty short term thinking. Rab seems to be a stereotypical Glaswegian junkie, having incoherent arguments with his incoherent homeless buddy Sage. Certainly, Rab is at rock bottom.
So it challenges pre-conceptions to discover that Rab is an articulate man from a middle class part of Glasgow who recently signed a recording contract and had an album released.
The novel layers back in time, first to London where Rab is living the high life, raiding the mini-bar in his swanky hotel room, being ferried about the place by record company limousines, and looking forward to a life of fame and wealth. And then it is layered further back to Hyndland, Glasgow, where Rab’s friends are looking at universities as Rab is making preparations to head down to London for the big time. He is full of hopes and expectations; perhaps his girlfriend Maddie might come to join him; they could buy a house and once the royalties start to pour in, Maddie’s English uni tuition fees wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket…
Obviously, we know that Rab’s music career is not going to end well; part of the intrigue in the novel is seeing how such a low ebb can be reached from such promising beginnings. The journey gives a searing portrayal of the music industry which seems so cut-throat and unsentimental that it’s a wonder anyone would ever consider joining it. Everyone seems to be in hock to someone else – those who seems to be screwing over the artists are being screwed over themselves.
There is also a good deal of cynicism about celebrity endorsement of grass-roots movements. Rab is encouraged to involve himself with the Occupy movement, pretending to be sincere, pretending to live in a tent, pretending to be in touch with the streets. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the future that is waiting for Rab.
One of the strengths of the book is the development of Rab as a character. He may not have been much chop as a rock star, he may take some poor decisions and sometimes seems callous, but he does have an innate optimism that is hard to dislike. He doesn’t want charity; he doesn’t want to admit defeat; and he seems to still have hope that he’ll be able to pull himself up. In each of the three sections, he is counterpointed by more pessimistic characters – Sage in Brighton, Price the record mogul in London, and Maddie, the girlfriend in Glasgow. Rab is never deterred by the fact that the voices of pessimism often seem to be right; and the reader cheers for him.
Does he get there in the end?