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Kitchen-sink drama in recession-era Hastings

The Wright stuff: HOT’s Chris Connelley gets immersed in a new novel by Mel Wright set so close to home that one of its characters could be a neighbour.

There’s a well-established tradition that portrays the modern English novel as a pretty bourgeois affair, invariably focused on the lives and loves of an educated urban elite, sipping New World wines and sharing their midlife crises over kitchen suppers in hip London postcodes.

And if it is not about Tarquin and Cordelia falling apart in N1, it is their well-heeled country cousins, Henry and Celia, often expat Londoners themselves, more or less successfully adjusting to a less frenetic rural life and trading stories in the shadow of their pastel Agas in picture postcard rectory kitchens.

Under this account, ordinary working people are now effectively frozen out of the novel form, bringing to an end a distinctive post-war tradition of social realism and ‘kitchen sink’ narratives that allowed for a representation of more modest working class lives.

Stories crafted by the likes of Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe, Nell Dunn, Barry Hines, Catherine Cookson and Leslie Thomas, whose writing reached its high point in the post-war period between the 1950s and mid 1970s.

There’s a dated quality to some of these names, with much of this material now rarely seen, but I was reminded of the tradition recently on reading Mel Wright’s You Can Save Me!, a new novel set here on the south coast.

It tells the story of a group of ‘baby boomer’ friends trying to make ends meet in recession-era Hastings, taking up the baton from where he left off with his first novel, One Thing and Another, though this second book can equally easily be read as a stand-alone piece.

We get to meet enterprising Leo, bouncing back from bankruptcy to launch a new budget food empire; Rita, redundant since the collapse of Woolworths, newly single and forced into what she sees as a demeaning ‘zero hours’ cleaning job; Abi, good-time girl and sometime carer to ageing Auntie Millie as she drifts benignly into dementia; and saintly socialist Bill, driven south from his native north-east after the death of his beloved wife to search out a new life in the town that provided the inspiration for Robert Tressell’s agitprop classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

We follow their attempts to turn a penny, to make sense of changed times and to nostalgize over the more optimistic glory days of their youth, when you could walk out of one job on a Friday and into another on the following Monday.

We get a strong sense of the enduring bonds of friendship, of the sacrifices made, the ambiguities tolerated and the limits on what can be said, even amongst friends, with much of the novel recorded as extended conversations between the various parties. At times, there’s a real sense we are there, in the moment, eavesdropping conversations at a neighbouring table in one of the un-modernised seafront cafes leading into the Old Town.

What’s more, we get a real feeling for Hastings, anchored in the book’s many references to actual locations, which allows us to identify specific shops, or even homes. This quality of raw localism was most powerfully brought home to me by the author’s descriptions of Bill’s flat near Alexandra Park, which immediately evoked images of my own road, and even apartments on the road, a reading subsequently confirmed in direct correspondence with the author.

You Can Save Me! is a gentle, clever, warm-hearted slow-burner of a read that sneaks up on us, capturing our interest and demanding our full attention. Mainly driven by character and dialogue, though with one exceptionally strong plot line involving Millie’s granddaughter, it only occasionally succumbs to over-sentimentality and overall offers an affectionate take on a world that is a million miles away from more mannered literary forms.

The ‘kitchen sink’ novel may be down, but thanks to writers like Mel Wright it is not entirely out for the count. Which is surely cause for a hearty hurrah.

 

You Can Save Me! By Mel Wright, published by Deptford Forum Publishing, priced £4.99. It is available from Bullet Coffee House, 38 Robertson Street.

Posted 11:34 Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014 In: Literature

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