I was in Manchester just before Christmas and got the urge to re-read this novel, set in the streets of the city where I lived for 15 years. It’s only the street names that are recognisable though, as Noon has created a futuristic dystopia that bears little resemblance to the present. The city’s population is a mix of pure human, dog, vurt (plastic), robo and shadow and every inconceivable variation of cross. Our hero, Scribble, is human with enough vurt inside him to make the use of widespread legal and illegal vurt drugs, taken via feathers, particularly risky. Scribble is in love with his sister, Desdemona, who has been trapped inside the artificial vurt world and now needs rescuing. This mission, undertaken with the help of loyal friends the Stash Riders, brings Scribble into contact with those who control and develop vurt and the feathers, dog pop stars, virtual serpents that cross the boundaries between different worlds, robocops, porn stars, subhuman life forms and shadows who enter your mind , as well as a number of characters hellbent on subverting the entire edifice. It’s an incredible world that Noon has created and the book as a whole is an interesting comment on the way that legal drugs could be used by the state to control populations. At times it’s difficult to follow what’s going on – in an echo of the state of mind induced by feathers – but the comparison with Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld and the fact that both stories explore what it is to be human is helpful in terms of trying to make some sense of the book. It won an important science fiction prize in 1994 and, like Marmite, most people seem to either love or hate it. I had no such strong feelings this time around, although do remember being blown away when I first read it, not long after publication. I wonder if what felt so groundbreaking then is now just less startling.
Monthly Archives: December 2012
In post war Britain it seems everyone is an outcast but this story focuses on Lewis Aldridge, son of a wealthy business man and a free thinking adoring mother, whose young life is torn apart by tragedy. As he discovers sex, violence, alcohol and love, Lewis exposes the hypocrisy and moral double standards of those who stand in judgement upon him. Acceptance is conditional on the appearance of doing the right thing and it is only thanks to the bravery of the daughter of his father’s boss, Kit Carmichael, that Lewis escapes self-pity and loathing to make positive choices about his future. The stifling atmosphere of 1950s small village life, where the women are driven to drink and manhood depends on asserting your authority, is the perfect backdrop for a story that is all about escape. Certainly the reader is left wondering whether in fact being an outcast is preferable to belonging. I have never understood the appeal of the kind of spare prose of writers such as Cormac McCarthy – here it is done so much more beautifully, with Jones’ every word carefully weighed. In her hands phrases such as ‘not looking at one another’ sear with heat, whilst descriptions like ‘she was calm and quiet and closed up’ seem to say all that needs to be said. Just gorgeous. This is a terribly sad book but it didn’t make me cry – I think that’s perhaps because the prose style draws you in without being sentimental. I felt a gut wrenching loss when I reached the last page but also a strong sense that justice had been done; that’s what I call a happy ending.
This is subtitled An East End Family Memoir and, part social history and part story, it’s an amazing portrait of life in East London during the first half of the 20th century. Life that, in this region of the capital, was defined by abject poverty. So Jenny, the main focus of the narrative, is taken to have her teeth forcibly removed – without anaesthetic and without warning – on her 18th birthday to prevent potential husbands from being putting off by the prospective cost of dental care. The man she does finally marry is a violent bully, who flaunts his mistress and finally leaves London with her, taking all the money he made on the black-market during the war and then invested in a cafe where Jenny worked her fingers, literally, to the bone. Stoic, perpetually disappointed and barely questioning her lot in life, Jenny takes refuge in sweets, using shards of barley sugar to sweeten the misery and hardship that make up her existence. She works in a sweatshop from an early age, ruining her eyesight and condemning her to arthritis, but it’s preferable to other options such as working in the flour mills and getting lung disease. Her daughter gets TB because of the appalling living conditions the family endure and the illness cannot help but remind Jenny of the death of her younger sister, from illness exacerbated by malnutrition, when they were children.
As with so many books set in London, the city is the real draw and here the Thames in particular shapes the lives of the characters on an almost daily basis. Most of the places have now changed beyond recognition – indeed many did so through the course of Jenny’s life – but I have passed some of the once great docks on a boat trip from Greenwich and these photos by someone I know chart the transformation that is taking place in the East End nowadays: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andyworthington/ Silvertown is a piece of history that reaches out very convincingly to the present day and this book has inspired me to make a visit to the East End that was Jenny’s home.