Return to shock city

Ian McGuire – The Abstainer (Scribner, 2020)

Manchester in the late nineteenth century was full of coppers and rogues: The Scuttlers and their nemesis detective Jerome Caminada who nabbed Robert Horridge and broke up the drag ball. Arthur Conan Doyle was watching and writing Caminada into Sherlock Holmes. This is now a well-rehearsed script. But Conan Doyle wrote the James Bond equivalent of a 19th century detective, whereas McGuire writes the LeCarré version in his detective constable James O’Connor.

The villain of the piece, Stephen Doyle, casually sits in the detective’s office by the town hall for half an hour and then draws up its layout and leaves. He goes to the train station to watch the police looking for him. He fought in the American Civil War for money, not for ideals. This is no simplistic hero and villain show. This book explores the bleary, ethically-compromised but universal human landscape. It feels real. The prose is sparse; orange fires reflect off a ‘black and boatless Irwell’. In McGuire’s hands, four simple words in train do the job of a painter. The human understanding is acute and handled skillfully. Someone looks around at the furniture as though the answer to the mess they are in is to be found there. James O’Connor feels his alcoholism as a weight in his chest, lighter now, some time sober. Rats swarm like boiling tea leaves. Dead rats lie like ‘fat commas’. McGuire pulls the fullest picture from the smallest space. It is economic but very rich, albeit a richness of browns, greys and blacks.

Manchester in the late nineteenth century was full of Irish displaced from their conflicts with the English. Levenshulme was full of them. Levenshulme is still home to their ancestors. Irish politics became a little more settled on the surface, across the 1990s, even through a market crash. But the rage is burning through the flimsy frost once more. The toxic Tory-DUP punishment-reward relationship is just one place to look. The hanging of what became known as the Manchester Martyrs, which the book opens with, is real. Up in Levenshulme a few years ago a café was closed as someone had the bad luck to call it Isis. A little later, tabloids descended on a family whose son joined Isis. I cannot help reading the radicalisation in this book partly through that lens. Fenians taking the oath, spies within them. Of course, the Irish radicals seem closer to the white British, of course, Isis and the Fenians and later the IRA are not to be confused or conflated. But this book, bringing the 1860’s version of similar struggles back in fictional form, in 2020, is inevitably going to arrive loaded in a very particular way.

There’s a moment in which the old world revolutionary ideals of the Fenians and the proto-terrorism of Stephen Doyle meet and take leave of each other. The IRA, actually, is coming.

The Mayor, Robert Neill – a real Manchester Mayor, 1867-8 – became lauded for throwing up cheap back-to-backs. How very now, with a housing crisis and the stupid Manchester monoculture of property speculation continuing unchecked. The politics – of an American Civil War fighter and Fenian revolutionaries – could not be more contemporary, in a mythical-metonymical sense. We now have a government who five minutes ago were trying to install freeports and grease new and bigger connections with American capitalism. At the same time, the idea of full socialism is bust in Britain and the ravaged landscape of the late nineteenth century is back. Marx gave up on the working classes at the end of his life, so did Engels, which makes it incredible to see the ‘inevitability’ of class struggle returning to leftwing chat.

Author Ian McGuire went from the University of Manchester to the University of Virginia and then back to Manchester: His novel has an Irish emigré coming back to Manchester from America. In this, a very big fictional trope is broken up before we even start; that of the move west to ‘the new world’. It may seem like a tiny detail to focus on, but not only does it sever a cliché, it returns us to the possibility of connections with America meaning decline. When I grew up, the US of A was the land of gold pavements. This change of direction also refuses a Whig-historical reading, that time’s forward march means freedom and democracy. It is written plainly at one point: ‘We think we are moving forward, but we are only going round and round again.’ That is what the planet we are on does, after all.

America, in this novel, could be read as an associative curse. The American returns to wreak havoc. The Manchester landscape of the first ‘northern powerhouse’ is also one of living death. The ‘morning light is weak, recessional, as if the day is ending before it has even begun.’ The author’s geography is good. Piccadilly is a hill with a lunatic asylum on it. I already have my own nineteenth century Manchester in my head, from my own ad hoc research. My maps and McGuire’s match. Occasionally a place flashes up which is still here, the Turk’s Head pub for instance, it provides what Homi Bhabha once called a ‘reflux of astonishment’.

I could pick at it. The copper falls off the wagon right on cue. It’s being lined up for television. I can already see the BBC2 ads, all grey smog, but with a Peaky Blinders edge. If the boy had just fallen into the canal and died it would have been realer. It would have slapped me awake, but I began to drift here, if only a little.

But really, this nitpicking is churlish. This is great popular culture in the making. You can take it as a historical thriller, or you can take it as a lens through which you might scry the current landscape. It is either or both. All good literature is, and this is very good literature. It is highly relevant to the Manchester citizen and to the citizen of Britain and the world. It speaks terrifyingly to our times from the past. It is erudite, stylishly written and thrilling, an excellent piece of art.

– Steve Hanson

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