Sous les paves, la vide

Neil Campbell – Sky Hooks (Salt)

The landscape of this novel is very particular and familiar. Apart from some trips away, the story takes place almost completely in the strip around the Manchester university campuses which stretches out to Ardwick, then up to Longsight and Levenshulme. The protagonist gets a black eye outside Retro Bar: These are real places; and of course one asks how much of this is simply biographical, but with the names of those who might litigate changed. In fact, it feels as though it is exactly that.

The tower blocks by the MMU and Manchester University campuses are already important urban geography lessons: Here the largely privileged young make their way through everyday rites of credentialism and qualification, they enjoy the city centre with all its exhilarating, transgressive cultural scenes; yet in and among all of this are places of acute poverty and misery.

This is in fact the landscape of the Russell Club and post-punk Manchester: Hulme is on the border of this book’s territory too. But it is also the post-rave landscape of Mark Fisher, the hollowed out futureless emptiness. Except in Manchester, that void has always been there.

As Peck and Ward observed in 2001, even before the crash of 2008, jaw dropping structural poverty existed. Here, in a tower block by the Mancunian Way, women are on the game, blokes are mugging people for their phones and selling drugs. Campbell is essentially describing the ‘qualities’ of structural, unecessary abjection in the name of riches for the few.

Manchester has long had a psychogeographic tradition, but in 2016, with all the sinkholes opening up – including the now legendary chasm under the Mancunian Way – it is no longer ‘sous les paves, la plage’, but Under the Paving Stones, The Void.

Those holes are very far from just metaphorical: There are terrible jobs in vast, freezing warehouses. At one point our narrator says that manual labour is the worst kind of work there is. He is right. Yet we still hear it, from the Northern Powerhouse House rhetoric to leftwing chest-beating: ‘This wonderful world “we” have lost’; but how many of those who bemoan the loss of industry actually worked a factory job for any length of time without alternatives? I expect none of them.

The protagonist describes being threatened on a monthly basis with job loss, by the company boss, if they don’t work harder. He doesn’t give a toss and rightly so. His work regime only speeds up when he wants to get through the day that way: He knows this life is a dead end, he can see it in those who have been there for forty years. I have had all of those experiences and so have many people I know. This is a book of shared ‘experience’ in the sense that Raymond Williams uses that word: That the working classes have what the posh people call ‘heritage’; and this is fucking it.

J.B. Priestly said something like, when you’re done in the factory, all you want to do is go to a pub to quench your thirst, preferably where there are some girls. You don’t go home and read a book by the fireside like the middle classes. This is not a ‘choice’, this is structural, it is in the labour, and it is in the division of labour. Yet the right and far right dogma piles up, that ‘these people’ have a choice, that behaving differently is somehow a flat decision between good and bad. It is not. Our protagonist says exactly the same as Priestly: Your first pint after work is the best thing you have ever tasted. But the trajectory from there on, short, medium and long term, is of course something else.

But there are no chumpy political speeches or cloying sentiments here. This book is strong precisely because it doesn’t have characters standing by the fireplace talking about co-operation, like some ghastly Walter Greenwood novel. The work it does is largely done through flat description and that description is as close to the interior monologue of a young Mancunian lad of a particular generation as it is possible to get and still end up with a saleable book. For that alone, this novel is surely already a regional classic of some sort.

This book has its nearest equivalent in Mark Hodkinson’s northern writing. It is unpretentious and powerful, cuttingly honest. It would be a mistake to put this book in the lineage of the ‘lad fiction’ that emerged in the 1990s, with Irvine Welsh as its Guru, although I expect some reviewers might.

This book is far too subtle. It tightens its grip on you by loosening its hold. It achieves high results by not trying. It is the first time in a long time that I have immersed myself in a novel, forgetting, for significant periods of time, that I was reading at all. This may be because I am of the same gender, class and probably generation, give or take a decade or so. But that isn’t the whole reason. It silently slides its tentacles around you, showing you how life in structural poverty feels.

All of this is achieved through very workaday description, interior monologue and dialoge. A football, blowing in the wind on the roof of the International College, links back to the protagonist’s failed career with Manchester City. The author has mastered the art of tiny details that do massive amounts of work. It should be given to creative writing undergraduates for exactly that reason. ‘Creative’ as a word arrives loaded with connotations of being ostentatiously free to overflow with ‘expression’. Campbell’s writing sticks deadpan to its own minimal code and by doing so is hugely creative.

There is a section where the protagonist goes through a brief phase of picking prostitutes up on the streets. It is chillingly, shockingly matter-of-fact. It is an incredibly refreshing antidote to the hearts and flowers gush of… well, most contemporary writing, frankly. His youth is rising in him constantly, he ogles the women at work. These obsessive oglings are not edited out, but the book is far stronger and more honest for that. Some, of course, might object.

He goes off to America, naive, and on other trips. He tries to have sex. He honestly describes the banality of failure. He comes back and it feels ten times worse. He is looking for something, but without any of the familiar signposts or advice that arrives naturally in middle class households. His escape, finally, is going to university, one of the big Manchester ones.

At one point he describes folding university hoodies and putting them on sale where the German literature used to be. He is clear that he becomes someone else by going to university and emerging out the other side. I am equally clear, as I work in them, and this detail speaks to the idea, that the university is becoming something else. The book ends with the author publishing his first novel.

Much of the narrative is bleak. But it is what might happen to the escape routes writers such as Campbell have taken that is, for me, the bleakest story of all. The unwritten story, that is nonetheless present. The people who don’t make it through this rite-of-passage, through the class maze, which at the bottom has no clear signposts, will be stuck in dead end jobs. Turning to drink, drugs, prostitution and crime. Or just stagnating in nothing. An early death in emiserating circumstances is the price of this obscene masterpiece we live in.

George Osborne still fantasises about it, and anyone who clings to this fantasy, even just a little bit, should read this book and renew their refusal one thousand fold.

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