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.
Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders.
Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down.
This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity.
The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting.
The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John.
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.