Charles Egan (2017) Cold Is the Dawn

When people talk about literary merit, I wander away to the pub to have a pint. Since the pubs are closed, and I get smashed by a snifter of poitin, or indeed three pints, perhaps slightly more (when I’m watching Celtic) I’ll hang about. Literary merit is just a fancy way of asking if you liked the book. I don’t finish books I don’t like. Cold Is the Dawn is 427 pages. So you do the maths of how much I liked it.

If like me, you have a manuscript (or indeed manuscripts) lying about in various stages of distress then you note who publishes them. Cold Is The Dawn is published by SilverWood Books. I had a look at their business model. They help self-publishing authors publish. Something I’ve been thinking about. I know it’s not meant to be funny, but point 11 of Frequently Asked Questions: I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?

https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/faq

You know when Oliver Hardy pokes Stan Laurel in the eye (you need to be a certain age to remember Laurel and Hardy) and stamps on his toe, then they accidentally bump heads with a knocking sound. And then they sing The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, by the trail of the lonesome pine, because it makes more sense than I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?   

I guess a book deal with SilverWood Books costs an author around £10 000. An Unbound Book costs much the same. That’s the market rate if you’ve got that kind of dosh. So Charles Egan invested his cash, put his money down as an investment in literary merit. What did he get for his money?

The cover of a group of miners (if that’s what they are) staring at the camera, with the superimposed image of an older man in a flat bunnet looking on—passable. The white font of white on black for the author’s name and the title of the novel stands out. The reader is told it’s ‘A novel of Irish Exile and the Great Irish Famine’.

The Irish Holocaust interests me, because I’m part Irish and I’m thinking of writing about it. The current population of Ireland is almost five million, with more citizens living in Dublin, than all of the other areas combined.  https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ireland-population/ If we go back to the 1960s the Irish population dipped under three million.

Ian Gibson writes in the foreword The Great Famine, Ireland’s Potato Famine 1845-51, that out of a population of around eight million people, about a million people died, and around another one-and-a-half million emigrated, but there were no exact figures, and this is likely to be an underestimate. Many of the poorest weren’t registered and included in official data. They did not live in Dublin and were wholly dependent on the potato crops.

Charles Egan’s way into carrying the weight of such history is by concentrating on Luke Ryan’s extended family and their fortune in the aftermath of the potato blight. County Mayo, where Michael and Eleanor, Luke’s mum and dad, have a farm and quarry was one of the hardest hit regions in Ireland.

This is home territory, for Luke’s wife Winnie and their son, Liam, before they sail across the Atlantic to join Luke in New York and later Pennsylvania, where the couple starve in the new world.

Luke’s younger brother, Pat, is the bridge to England. Irish farmworkers often made the journey across the water to help harvest crops in England and send money home to pay the rent to rapacious landowners. But Pat returns to Mayo to work compiling reports on the effects of the famine.  This allows the reader to travel with him as he charts the impact of ‘The Exterminator’, Mayo’s largest landlord, Lord Lucan as he cleared the land he owned of tenants.

In the Preface, Egan tells the reader of the Railway’s boom and bust.

‘Of the estimated two hundred thousand navvies working on the railway construction in 1847, one hundred thousand were without work by the middle of 1848. For labour contractors on the railways, many of them Irish, this was an excellent opportunity to exploit hungry Irish workers.’

Egan places his characters in the middle of this moral quagmire. Luke’s aged Uncle Murty Ryan (he’s around my age) works on the construction of the English railroads. But to begin with he works as a clerk. Murty Ryan’s eldest son Danny is a contractor, hiring and firing Irish labour, shipped in directly from the workhouse in Mayo. And shipped back home by Bradford and Liverpool workhouses when they were no longer needed. They regarded Irish people as a pestilence and a plagued nation. But relief efforts were a fraction of the sum spent on The Crimean War.

Egan makes use of news reports to add ballast to his fiction. London, Morning Chronicle in November 1848, for example, reported, as an opinion piece that might  have been written by a Nigel Farage of yesteryear.  ‘We say therefore that we grudge the immense sums which we appear likely that we have to pay this year to Irish Unions very much indeed, because we know that it will be thrown into a bottomless pit, and because we feel that money, thus wasted, would be better in removing them than feeding in idleness the people of Mayo—in getting rid of the burden, than in perpetuating it.’

Murty Ryan’s eldest son, Danny had established a foothold in the railway construction business, before he committed suicide. An Irish man he was an exploiter of his fellow man. Something Murty abhorred. When his youngest son steps into his elder brother’s shoes he proves even more ruthless. He pays them even less than Danny and charges them rent for shacks. He pays them in script that can only be exchanged in company shops. In other words, Murtybeg is a good businessman that exploits needy labour. In modern parlance, he creates jobs for his fellow countrymen.

A subplot involves Murtybeg being played off by Irene, who claimed to be his elder brother’s common-law wife, and therefore in control of the company they created. Murtybeg, being merely a paid employee. He gets an immediate rise in pay of three shillings a week, but his workload increases accordingly. Irish navvies working for the company make do with a shilling a week. Murtybeg is both exploiter and exploited by Irene, but he’s far above the Irish navvy class. He’s almost gentry.  Facing off against Irene to take control of the company Murtybeg seeks legal advice. It’s not Charles Dickens Jarndyce and Jarndyce, (a book I haven’t read) but the way in which it was resolved had me thinking of another novelist. Emile Zola’s La Terre had a woman raped and falling in love with her rapist, which in a different era tied up plot points.

Exploitation takes many forms. Egan’s novel runs on rails and touches on the horrific and short lives that many lived, with children under ten, for example, working in Bradford mills, or pushing coal trucks in the fictional town of Lackan in Pennsylvania, where Luke holes up with Winnie and their child. His novel spans the old world and the new industrial order. It touches on the historical events such as cholera epidemics, fever epidemics, typhus epidemics, repeal of The Corn Laws, the rise in trade union activity, and the search for universal suffrage. The Molly Maguires get a walk on part, as does the less secretive Hibernian associations that tried to the poor Irish, especially those landing in New York harbour and fresh off the boat for exploitation.

Much of the novel relies on conversations between characters to carry the narrative. And like many modern novels can read more like a screenplay. Egan’s problem is characterisation. Luke Ryan, for example, has two lives. One in New York and in Pennsylvania. His backstory about being a gaffer and hated, because he had the power of life and death during an earlier famine, and the rate-funded road-building programme is relevant and stands out. But I couldn’t pick Luke Ryan out in a police line-up. I don’t know what he looks like. His friends and companions, say six in each region are interchangeable doodles. Different clothes, same person. Similarly, major characters such as Pat, Murtybeg, or Murty also carry the weight of another six, sometimes more, minor characters that are also doodles. Egan in going for greater breadth of worlds has given his characters less depth.

Pat, for example, slaps the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s eugenic views were on par with ‘The Great Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, who was sure it pleased God that his troops had massacred 3000 men, women and children at Drogheda, with only a handful escaping.  Carlyle may have been in Mayo. Few would argue he needed slapped (add the moron’s moron Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to my list, fling in anyone that identifies as One-NationTory) but Carlyle seems smoke and air, and little of substance.  Where I  overwrite my characters, Egan underwrites.

Charles Egan has tapped into the Irish holocaust and the cultural heritage of The Great Famine at home and abroad. It did change the new worlds. Around 40 million Americans with Irish roots and the current President Joe Biden brings that message home. Capitalism in its rawest form and xenophobia combined. Somehow it seems a familiar tale of rich men and poor men, only one group dying of hunger, labour fodder for the new industrial age. I’m sure with global warming, the worst is yet to come.

Douglas Stuart (2020) Shuggie Bain

Hi Dougie, I’ve had a look at your manuscript. We both know that it’s hard trying to get anything published when we write about people like us, using the language we speak—Scottish dialect. Remember all that fuss when James Kelman, for example, wrote in stream- of-consciousness, working-class dialect and a judge ofThe Booker Prize winner 1994, a Rabbi, no less, resigned because she (it might have been a he) thought How Late It Was, How Late was shite? Dialect in your manuscript isn’t as combative as Kelman’s and runs light touch as, for example, William McIlvanney. You’re far more likely to pick up readers and have far more chance of finding a publisher because of this.

The trick is to be consistent. And I must admit you did a great job. I only spotted two slippages and both were the same (you were consistent in that too, which is a good sign). When the narrator leads with ‘It got her goat’, when, for example Agnes Bain questions her son, Shuggie, while living in Pithead, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’  I think you mean: It got on her goat. He got on her goat. Not he got a goat. Small things, but you might want to look at that again.   

Your debut novel will never win the The Booker Prize, but if you’re looking for a publisher most people that write books offering writing advice tell you to never start with mood music or the weather.

‘The day was flat.’

Do you need this?

The day was flat. That morning his Shuggie’s mind had abandoned him and left his body wondering down below. The His empty body went listlessly through his routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights,  as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.

That’s an intriguing opening paragraph to your manuscript. And it leaves the reader with a question, why is tomorrow different from today? Your book begins and ends in the same place: Glasgow, The South Side 1992. The titular Shuggie Bain, fifteen, going on sixteen, going out into his past and coming back to himself. Time doesn’t stands still. He bears witness to his mum, Agnes Bain’s passing.

But Shuggie is not the sole narrator. That would tie your book to his life experience. And when you take the reader back to Sighthill, 1981, Shuggie’s experience as a boy aged four going on five isn’t enough to carry a book. He’s not old enough to know what marks him out as being different from other wee boys, as being shunned, bullied, spat upon. Different in a way that his brother, Alexander, aged 15 and nicknamed Leek is different, able to retreat somewhere inside himself. Or the way his eldest sister Catherine, aged 17, is different but the same, as the other women at the Friday night card school in Agnes’s mum and dad’s high-rise flat. By giving yourself an omniscient narrator you give license to travel through time and follow your characters to where the story takes you. This works well, in your circular narrative journey, but like any superpower it must be used cautiously.

Agnes Bain, telling, not showing, since the novel is mostly about her being an alky, is a good place to start.

‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Him, her man, who when he shared her bed, now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things.’

Shug Bain raping his second wife, Agnes, beating and humiliating her on a trip to Blackpool worked great. It showed exactly the kind of psychopathic narcissist he remains in an aging body with is sweep-over bald head. His holy of holies was his hole. The father of fourteen children, none were loved, but some like Shuggie were an embarrassment, not a chip off the old block and best jettisoned.  If Shug Bain was born a rich American he might well have been elected 45th President. But in telling, not showing, his true vindictiveness finds an art form. When he takes Agnes and his children from the relative safety of Sighthill and her mum and da’s house to Pithead, it had been a test to see if she would follow him to the gates of hell.

‘She had loved him, and he needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces for another man to collect and repair later.’

Crawling around the warped logic of his psyche works well. But the constant mirroring shift in point of view from one character to another can be overdone.

Catherine looking at her half-cousin Donald Bain, who she marries to escape her mum’s alcoholism and back again, to show what the other is wearing, or how they feel, is a neat trick, but could be classified as overwriting. A shift from Agnes’s lover and potential saviour in Pithead, Eugene’s point of view, for example, back to Shuggie’s in the following paragraph tells the reader little we need to know.

‘For a while Eugene said nothing. The strange little boy had stunned him to silence. ‘You know son, maybe it’s time you thought more about yourself. Leave your mommy for a while.’

Here again we have someone looking queerly at Shuggie. We get it at that point. No need to over-emphasise and over-write.

‘The secondary school was bigger than any he had seen. He had waited and cautiously followed a boy that lived on the landing downstairs. The boy was tanned and the colour of summer holidays. At the street corners he turned around and with big brown eyes he looked suspiciously at the little boy who followed him like a stray.’

‘Following like a stray,’ is clichéd.  And I’m not sure you need a change in point of view.

For example, a simple tweak such as:  at street corners he turned and his big brown eyes glanced in my direction. You retain your (Shuggie’s) point of view, which carries on into the following paragraphs and his experience of disappointment and alienation the East End school that he felt in Pithead. Dreams of a new start—dashed.       

These are only suggestions. As the author you are omniscient, but also omnipotent. It’s your shout. Your characterisation stays the right side of caricature. Most debut novelists when trying to decide whose story it is, for good reasons such as they lack a more mature writer’s experience of life and what it takes to write a book, go to narrow. Agnes Bain is the focal point of your book. Shuggie Bain whose name is on the cover is the most consistent, but you go wide. Other characters get to tell their story.

Agnes is brutally raped by her husband, and another taxi driver. She’s also found with her tights ripped off at a party under a pile of coats. She’s diddled into sex by Big Jamie and countless others. She’s beaten and demeaned. But by going wide in your characterisation you highlight an episode even more chilling, and give your novel greater resonance and stickability with readers.

When Little Lizzie, Agnes’s god-fearing mother, somehow finds herself pregnant by the greengrocer she owes tick-money, while her husband, Wullie, is away fighting in the second world war, the reader fears the worst when he comes home. Agnes is still a baby, daddy loves and coos over. Little Lizzie doesn’t get it in the neck as we’d expect. Wullie understanding and soothing. He reassures her even after she admits to have done everything she could to get rid of the child before it was born. He takes the bastard child out for a walk in the pram, but comes back without the child or the pram. He no longer wants to talk about Little Lizzie’s mistake. He’s dealt with it. This sub-plot or story within a larger narrative helps set the background tone to the world Agnes lives in. Poverty isn’t just about money, it’s about circumstances and choices, who gets to say what.  A mother can’t even mention the child she held and lost, because that wouldn’t be right, isn’t a fiction, and had the ring of a world-weary truth.  

Poverty is the living coffin. Being an alky the nails in the coffin for Agnes and her dependents. Every generation writes its own epitaph. You got it with your sign spray-painted outside the pit in Pithead. ‘No Coal, No Soul, Only Dole’. In particular, you nail what it’s like to be dependent on the Monday book, followed by the Tuesday book of £8.50. No waffle. No generalisations. Being explicit ties you in with so many other great writers from Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2012) Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (2019) to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and writers like Emile Zola that know the price of everything, especially failure.

I was brought up with the Provie man and Radio Rental for our telly. I imagine you stretching it a bit here. I thought renting tellys—paying 50p for programmes—went out in the seventies. But I bow to your judgement. Diddling the gas meter or electricity meter, well, that’s still an ongoing story. But I imagine it’s more difficult, if not impossible, now.

There’s a caveat I just don’t get. No milk in the fridge. No food on the table. No electric fire to turn on. Everything that can be pawned or sold is gone. Yet, Agnes is always on the phone. Where I came from, phones cost money. There was a waiting list for them to get installed and it cost (roughly) £110. That doesn’t include rental charges or call charges. When Agnes moves to Pithead, she’s immediately on the phone. When she moves to The East End, she’s on the phone—for taxis she can’t pay for—yet still on the phone. She even sends a phone cut off at the wire to Leek, like a severed head, emphasising their relationship was done. Yet, again, she’s on the phone afterwards. I suggest you look at that again.

Agnes’s relationship with her phonebook is part of who she thinks she is. Her relationship with the drink curdles the soul. I recognise the symptoms and you’ve caught them in flight.

‘Well, you get a little bit stronger every day, but the drink is always there waiting. Doesn’t matter if you want to run from it, it’s still right behind you like a shadow. The trick is not to forget’.

We know what’s at stake. And we care enough about your characters knowing they’ll fail, but we can’t just look away. That’s page-turning power.

I hope my suggestions make sense. And I wish you well with your debut novel. I’d a similar novel set in Clydebank in the early ninety-seventies and nobody wanted to publish it. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough. But I hope you do better. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your novel is great. If in doubt, write another, better, novel. Send me it, I’ll have a look. Writers write, reading always.

Darren McGarvey’s Class War, Episode 1, Identity Crisis, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, presented by Darren McGarvey.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s7hd/darren-mcgarveys-class-wars-series-1-1-identity-crisis

Darren McGarvey from Pollock admits he’s lucky, incredibly lucky. And he’s right to do so. He’s on a roll after Poverty Safari. The go-to man when the BBC, or any other media organisation, wants to signal that they’re doing the right thing. Giving the working class a voice. The equivalent of a black woman in the moron moron’s cabinet of his 45th American Presidency debacle. The alternative view. The Fool in Shakespearian plays, such as King Lear, who is allowed to speak truth to power. Invisible, but a place holder. Greta Thunberg addressing delegates at the United Nations, patted on the head, before they get back down to adult business of maintaining the status quo. Class War?

Not in my lifetime. Capitulation would be a better word. All the post-war gains since the second world war taken away. Marxism, is like liberalism or capitalism, difficult to summarise, but Marx argued that the point wasn’t to philosophise or interpret the world, ‘but to change it’.

The crudest formulations of class are clichéd.  If I working class man throw dice and keep throwing double sixes. Then the dice are taken to be loaded. The system flawed. He’s regarded as a crook. But if an upper class man throws six after six after six. Dice aren’t taken to be loaded. The capitalist system not flawed. When actors such as Darren pop-up they are pointed at as the exception to the rule-rule. They show how fair the system can be.  The end of history. The end of theory. The triumph of capitalism.

But clichés are also reservoirs of meaning. Darren flings out a few ideas and asks various characters—one of whom looks out of his face—what their thinking is on particular topics. ‘Buckfast’, for example, brought a satisfying chortle. Lower class, of course. But hey, it used to be a tonic wine, for middle-class folk.

I like the parody of class that features in The Frost Report: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hhrwl

The first thing to be noted is height. The upper class with better diet and access to proteins lived longer. Literally, walk taller. Those that own the land, own the people on the land. Windfall profits of billons for our monarch who also owns large tranches of our offshore sea, where windfarms will be situated. If you need to work for money, you’re in the wrong game. Money for the richest one-percent makes money by investing capital. After reaching a certain mass it’s a no-lose gain. It’s in all of Belzac’s books. And try a bit of Jane Austen. I’m a fan of Emile Zola, although he has a tendency to assume the working class get more sex and are sexually active earlier. Maybe they are. I must have missed that bit.

  Darren gets pulled up about his posture. Watch any programme about long-lost families. You’ll find those that went abroad, including those transported to Australia, are taller, more muscular. Fish and cheap cuts of meat for the less well off at home. Starvation is back in fashion in Old Blighty. Food banks as a solution to hunger. In Shakespeare’s day people that got to around thirty-eight were the equivalent of our old age pensioners. Thirty-nine was ancient. Gladstonian liberals allowed for a pension for those aged over 65 in 1909. Less than a fraction of one-percent of the population was expected to live that long to collect it. We know now that is no longer the case and pension age has risen to over sixty-eight. But for the first time since records began the average age of British citizens has stopped increasing annually. It’s a class thing. A working class thing. Our babies die first and in greater numbers than their middle-class or upper class cohorts. A negative impact that carries on throughout life.  Like those infected with Covid-19 we’re dying off quicker and pulling down the average age of our general population.  

The second thing to be noted is dress. Darren plays that dressing up game too.  All of our characters wear hats. The upper class character wears a bowler. A marker of rank. Bowler hats were a useful tool in preventing directors, such as Stevens of Steven’s shipyard, knocking his head. His father would have worn a top hat. Workers in the yards didn’t wear hats. Their heads were thicker. They wore overalls.  

Winston Churchill wore a top hat to his public school. Accent speaks of breading. Churchill was regarded as a bit of a thicko. But he had the right kind of accent, Received Pronunciation. He famously barked at an opposition Labour MP to take his hands out of his pockets. And as a reflex action to the upper-class demands the MP complied.  Here a butler is brought in to give Darren the once over when he’s dressed as a toff. The butler demands he take his hands out of his pockets and pull his socks up. Ho-hum, bit of playing to the camera.

Then we have the big reveal. The butler reveals he’s one of us. He’s working class. But he worked harder than everybody else at learning to be a butler. He got up to bed earlier. Went to bed later. He’s using Thatcheristic language reiterated by George Osborne in his debate about ‘strivers versus shirkers’. The universality of a Dickensian appeal to an imagined past that never existed. One hand destroying the welfare state, and the other clapping NHS workers, before crashing the economy into Brexitland and calling it a triumph.

Darren does cricket. I’m working-class enough to hate it. Just a little reminder here, wasn’t that the Malcolm Rifkind that was caught selling access to our British Parliament for ready cash? Cash for questions?  Like the whisky priest in Father Ted I can’t help jumping out my chair and shouting ‘Tory Scum’, and for good reason. In a propaganda war they set out to destroy us, and largely succeeded.

Darren touches on it with the seeming contradiction of the ever-shrinking working class.   Two-thirds of the population at the end of the nineteen century to around a third today. A mix and matching of definitions of what is meant by the working class relating to income. Weberian definitions as opposed to Marxist definitions where those that need to sell their labour are authentic working class. The proletariat. Academics toyed with these ideas in the sixties, the embourgeoisement thesis. Luton car workers because they were so well-off were the new middle class. Yet, when interviewed they claimed still to be working class despite having enough money to be considered bourgeoisie. Ronnie Corbett instead of wearing a bunnet would wear a flat cap and vote Tory. Corbett’s working class character, ‘I know my place’. You hear that kinda crap all the time, rich folk have money and they must know how to manage it. The answer is simple. By claiming working class origins, the middle (or indeed, upper) class gain greater kudos for achieving what they have achieved. They’ve rolled more sixes in life because of their skill. Look how far I’ve come, narrative.

Funny, until you consider 170 million Americans voted for the moron’s moron, and ‘red wall’ constituencies in deindustrialised areas such as Yorkshire voted for the equivalent here and for Boris Johnson and Brexit. Racist, dog-whistle politics, triumph. Eugenics is back with a bang, but dressed up in the clothes of morality.

In short, follow the money and the stories of machismo. Boris Johnson shouting through a microphone about returning £165 million a week to the NHS, while pedalling the same old bullshit as the moron’s moron, the other side of the Atlantic, about making America great again.

Marxism follows the evidence. Going against the grain. Prejudices are so engrained they need to step back and look at them.

Gramsci’s view of popular culture. Class is ideology in action. Pattern recognition of narrative the stories we’ve been told again and again until they have substance. Truth is relative.

 Cul-de-sac of boring, often impenetrable theory to develop ideas of what is meant be class. Premises, methodology, perception.  Examining the ideas behind our assumptions. We better be quick talking about class before we all become middle class tomorrow.  

Darren examines the idea of marrying outside our class. It happens less often. Money becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands Remember 7:84, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil?   The history of Scotland in Brechtian theatre. How our sovereign wealth went to pay for Unemployment Benefit in Thatcher’s Britain in the mid-80s. Eighty-four percent of the land owned by seven percent of the population. We’d expect that figure to be a lot higher, now. And with green energy relying on having access to land, we can also expect those that hold the people to ransom, the capitalist and rentier class to become even richer. Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century documents this process. To be working class is to be powerless and treated as expendable scum. I’m not sure I learned anything here. But it’s a reminder of how far we’ve fallen. More of a hotchpot rant than a review. But this class stuff gets in my wick.

A Frozen Death, BBC 4 iPlayer, 9pm, written and directed by Harve Hadmar.

A Frozen.jpg

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09h3nwt/witnesses-a-frozen-death-episode-1

I love Wallender and I’m a big fan of The Killing, wouldn’t say no to A Bridge or two, in fact, put subtitles on it and stick it on BBC 4 and there’s a more than fair chance I’ll be watching. The eight episodes of A Frozen Death will take us up to Christmas. Time to clean out that freezer and make way for fifteen dead bodies found frozen like turkey-wings on a bus that leads nowhere. That’s the kind of mystery that gets any detective chewing over the facts. This is France, the home of Zola and Rimbaud, so we don’t have a motive but a motif. It’s scrawled on the bus-stop wall. ‘Crazy mothers drop their children/who smash their skulls. ’

Easy-peasy, you might say, anybody that likes turkey wings in Paris the capital of French cuisine is a nutter and must be stopped.  This job falls to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier). Her fatal flaw isn’t bevvying, she’s French, and likes the odd glass of wine, or even smoking, that’s allowed as long as it chic and she can carry it off. She does. She’s pretty impressive. Her fatal flaw is she has children. Let’s face it. Kids get in the way when you’re trying to solve the mystery of 150 frozen fingers. Her eldest Chloe (Nina Simonpoli-Barthelemy) is twelve and drips disdain and treats her mother as some kind of bag-lady, as all kids do, but made worse by mama always nipping out for another dead body to work on. There’s a subplot that Chloe wants to go and live with papa, who’s downsized to someone younger, but not prettier than mama. Sandra’s youngest, I don’t know her name, let’s call her baby, is a problem easily solved. Sandra just takes her in the car seat to scenes of crimes. There must be a law against that. Specifications for what size of baby to take to what crime scene are stringent in this county, but over the other side of the Channel it doesn’t matter. The baby’s pretty cool about it and will, no doubt, be a top detective when she grows up into mama’s petite feet.

What baby has to watch out for is not sleeping on the job, but amnesia. There’s an epidemic of it about. I Know Who You Are is a series based on the fact that no you don’t. Here Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot) has been brought out of the deep freeze, where she’s been held for three years, like the victims on the bus, but she can’t find a thing. And conveniently seems to have lost her baby. She gave birth when in captivity. All the victims on the bus seem to be her former lovers. But she has amnesia and forgotten what she did with her life and her handbag. Roll on Christmas with all those weird delights like a guy that kidnaps women, and stages mock marriages with his victims, and makes their former partners watch the ceremony while being sloshed enough with non-prescription drugs not to care. Amen to that.

William McIlvanney (2016 [1975]) Docherty

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I think this was the first William McIlvanney novel I read. It won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. When McIlvanney was writing the book there were still such a thing as a coalminer. There’s probably a picture of one in the Daily Mail hate archives, the equivalent of a Lascaux cave drawing to remind them what these men that held the country to ransom, the aristocracy of the working-class, trade-union movement, looked like. Coal powered the industrial revolution, but the men who dug it out saw little of the rewards. Such was its value coal miners were exempt from conscription in the First and Second World Wars. In the latter war 1939-45,  men could be conscripted not only to the army, navy, or air force, but also to the coal face and coal mines near the industrial heartlands. Bevan’s boys kept the machinery of war and killing going   It must have been around the 1980s when I read the book. And according to the right-wing hate mail propaganda machine, Arthur Scargill, and the coal miners were again holding the country to ransom. The strike of 1984-85 was notable for the coal miners out on the streets collecting donations and food – we had food banks even then. Scargill, of course, suggested that Thatcher and her cronies, including Ian MacGregor, had stockpiled coal and oil and set out to break the unions and to do away with the coal-mining industry. History proved Scargill right. It doesn’t take Agatha Christie to tell us there were 84 000 coal miners then there was none. Policing operations were particularly inventive. The cover up at Hillsborough part of that sad tradition. Hi, you might be shouting, what happened to the book you’re meant to be reviewing?

Well, it’s quite a simple book, a love story of the working class. It’s quite a difficult job to make a superhero out of an ordinary working man, Tam Docherty, who died, how he lived, a working class hero, laying down his life for another. There is another argument that the real hero of the book is Jenny, his wife, who gave him three boy and a girl, but who, with little money and loaves and soup pots works miracles that Jesus would be jealous of. He only fed the 5000, Jenny has to do it every day for over 25 years. You’d need to look at Maheau’s wife in Emile Zola’s classic story Germinal to show how one wage is never enough and each child is sacrificed to the pits, for an adequate comparison of how little miners made and how far it had to stretch. Or Jenny’s daughter, Kathleen, who marries Jack, who beats her and spends his wages on booze. Realism begins with reality and not fake news.

Mick, Docherty’s oldest son, loses the sight in one eye and one arm in the trenches in the First World War and he accepts he’s one of the lucky ones. He made it back. But his search for  meaning has contemporary resonance and one of the books he reads to make sense of the post-war world is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. What he says to his wee brother, Conn, after his fight with his other brother Angus, is relevant today as it was then. Angus has broken with his father and his family. He’s got a girl pregnant and refuses to marry her. He marries someone else, Annie, and fathers another child. But Angus represents everything his father detests. Individualism, an atomised life, and every man for themselves. Tory dogma. Angus’s brute strength, he deludes himself into believing, will safeguard the future of his family. The older brother’s bitter experience, when the sky might be up and it might be crashing down, has taught him better.

‘Whit’s happenin’?’

‘Whit’s happenin’? is that folks don’t ken whit’s happenin’. They just want wages an’ they canny accept that they’ll hiv tae tak mair. Tae get whit ye want, ye’ve goat to settle fur mair, that’s a’.’

His father understood that better than anyone, he lived it. A community is not a collection of individuals looking after number one.

‘He was only five-foot four. But when yer hert goes from yer heid tae yer toes, that’s a lot of hert.’

The William McIlvanney’s and Docherty’s of this world would have their work cut out making sense of Tory councillors elected in Ferguslie and a moron’s moron elected as President of the United States. It makes a pleasant change to read about a working-class hero without the tag, Benefits, being added. Coal miners, aye, I remember them well and I understand what they stood for, what they stand for.

‘Nae shite from naebody.’

 

What do nineteenth-century French novels teach us now?

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http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/30/class-war-is-back-again

Think of the number of times you’ve said: I just can’t do that! Really, I can’t. You’d expect a Noel Edmonds-like figure to pop up on your shoulder, although perhaps not with a gingery beard, to tell you off for being negative. Give some advice about having the right mindset and some superbabble about if you want something enough the universe will provide it. I love that kinda crap. In the nineteen-century novel such dreams are anchored in reality. It’s all about the money.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Set you back straight against the chair take deep breathes. I want you to imagine you work in McDonald’s. Open yourself to the universe. You’re a male worker. You’ve been working for the same company for three years. You work over fifty hours every week. Even when you were sick you never phone in for a sick day. You’re positive about that.  Imagine what the CEO of your company makes. Shorten the gap in your mind so it doesn’t take you 864 years on the wage you now receive to what he makes in a year. Lighten up. You’re obviously doing something wrong. The universe hates you.

The universe hates everyone equally. You’ve got to laugh at some of those nineteenth-century nostrums and notions.  Look at the way Pere Goriot is cured enough to die properly. The universe doesn’t care.  Tisane. If it tastes of bitter herbs and is awful it must be good for you.  Mustard poultice from neck to spine. Bloodletting. Leeches. Moxas. I admit I didn’t know what moxas was. It’s rolls of cotton set on fire and applied to the skin, a jump up from mustard baths. Pere Goriot dies penniless grateful that his two daughters have finally visited him, but he is delusional. He clasps instead the heads of the two penniless students that stay in the same boarding house and have helped ‘treat’ him. He is buried in a pauper’s grave.  The service costs 70 francs, but it is not a Mass, that is too expensive, but Vespers. One of the students Eugene de Rastignac pawns his watch to pay for the old man’s burial, but has to borrow five francs from a servant that works in the boarding house they live in to give to the grave diggers. Lesson learned, even having God and the universe on your side costs a minimum of 75 francs. But that was then. Now it’s Noel Edmond prices.

Honore de Balzac precisely quantifies in terms of the food the lodgers ate, drink, furniture, clothes and past-times of the poor and idle rich in monetary terms. An old man dying in poverty alone in a foul-smelling garret room is only part of the story. He also shows that the rich were rich not because of innate superiority but because after a certain threshold of wealth only a true imbecile could not remain wealthy and watch their wealth grow and multiply—much as it does today.

Balzac does this through the cynical Vautrin who lodges in the ‘Family Boarding House’ run by Madame Vauquer who has seven guests who stay in the house with her and another 18 who paid 30 francs a month for dinner in a dining room that can hold 20. Pere Goriot pays 45 francs a month, for board and lodgings, as does the law student Rastignac. Vautrin who pays 72 francs a month but has special privileges that allow him to come and go as he please is an interesting character. He is amoral in the way that  Jean Valjean in Les Misérables cannot afford to be and flits in and out of upper-class and lower-society in a way that Edmond Dantès, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo cannot, and he is more homosexually inclined than many of Shakespeare’s best love sonnets, but with no softness.  The best apartment is occupied by the widow Madame Couture and her young charge Victorine Taillefer who pay 1800 francs a month. Looking at these figures it’s easy to see who is whom. The rooms at the top, occupied by the hired help, is the working class at the bottom.

Gustave Flaubert’s, A Simple Heart, is set around the same period 1809 (give or take ten years). Here Madame Auburn has married a ‘comely youth’ who just as promptly dies, leaving her with two young children, debts and an annual income ‘which barely amounted to 5000 francs’. Rastignac’s family income in Pere Goriot, for comparison is around 4000 francs, which leaves after paying his digs,  130 francs a quarter for education and personal needs. His father mother, brother, sisters and aunt make do with  200 francs a month. His two sisters are unmarried for whom a marriage dowry must also be found.

Madame Bovary begins with a dowry. Charles Bovary’s father, retired assistant-surgeon major, ‘compromised’ in 1812, about some conscription scandal, marries a hosier’s daughter with a dowry of 60 000 francs. For 200 francs a year he shuts himself, his wife and son in a kind of half house, half farm.

Goriot’s daughters of a vermicelli maker are, in comparison, each given a dowry of 800 000 francs by their father so they can make a proper match. Goriot rises from his death bed and sells all he owns to pay off a 1000 franc debt owed to a dressmaker by his daughter La comtesse Anastasie de Restaud who needs it paid immediately, her credit is not good, so she can be seen at a socially important ball, an occasion that demands the best – and the worst.

Jump forward fifty years into the coal mines of newly industrialised France in Emile Zola’s Germinal. Money still does all the talking. Maheu is a model worker, widely respected in the Montsou colliery. He works for the Company and mines coal at a rate set by the them. He is paid three francs a week for price work and employs Zacharie his twenty-one year old son, who is also paid three francs (but he has a partner who lives next door and they are parents to two children). Catherine who is fifteen, when the story begins, works as a putter, pushing the underground trolleys full of coal along a line, much like a pit pony, only cheaper and more adaptible, is paid two francs.  Maheu’s father, Bonnemort (named after the good death that has chased him all his working life) is an old man, who works above ground as a banksman. He’s fifty-eight and near retirement age, but the reader understand spitting up an ink-like soot and with dropsy and rheumatics he’ll never retire. Jenlin aged eleven makes one franc. The pit boss, Hennbeau has a frigid relationship, but loves his wife despite being continually cuckolded by her. Hennebeau, on a salary thousands of times greater than his lowly workers. Here it’s easy to look at his and make comparisons with McDonald’s worker and the CEO of his company. But Zola takes the analysis further. The Gregoires have a share in the Company. It was once worth one million francs but the share price has fallen to around 600 000 francs, less than the dowry Pere Goriot offers for his daughters. Gregoire is almost the same age as Bonnemort, but the former is content for those scuttling below ground for him and his family. It takes 10 000 Bonnemorts working together below ground to make one Gregoire.

All money flows to Paris. Vautrin’s education of Rastignac (4000 francs a year) is increasingly relevant.  ‘Love and church,’ declares Vautrin, ‘demand fine cloth on the altar’. He breaks this down for the reader. A young man needs at least three horses and a tilbury for the day, and a brougham for the evening. 9000 francs for your carriages. 3000 francs for your tailor. 600 for the perfumer.  300 for hats. Laundry 1000 francs. Gambling/walking-about-money 2000 francs, basic necessities 6000 francs. Not be the laughing stock requires 20 000 francs a year. When Rastignac visits on foot his distant cousin La vicomtesse de Beauséant her lover’s carriage and horse is estimated to be worth over 30 000 francs.

Vautrin contrasts this with the salary the young student can expect to make when he qualifies from his studies. By the age of 30, possibly a judge, with an annual salary 1200 francs. If he finds a political patron a royal prosecutor 5000 francs, if he does a little dirty work for his political masters prosecutor general by the time he is 50, but with 20 000 applicants for such a position his chances of getting it are slim. And in the meantime he must spend 1000 francs a month to have any chance of getting the lowest office. His answer is to marry one of the potentially richest woman in Paris with a dowry of over 1 000 000 francs, which offers an annual income of over 50 000 francs. The rule of patrimony applies. Mademoiselle Victorine who shares a boarding house with them has a brother who shall inherit, but for a man like Vautrin that is a quibble that can easily be erased – for a small cut.  It does come as a surprise when Noel Edmonds appears on Rastignac’s shoulder.

At today values, it would come to around 100 000 000 euros (over £125 million) which would be something of an underestimate, but it’s still not enough, he would probably want McDonald’s tomato sauce and chips with that. Dream on for that pay rise. Dream on equality.  McDonald’s workers unite. The nineteenth-century novel teaches us twentieth-first century readers. Voila! plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole