This was Charlie Hill’s first novel. The usual advice for aspiring novelists is to write about what you know. Charlie Hill obviously knows the Birmingham suburb of Moseley very well as his novel is largely situated in its parks pubs and Victorian houses, partitioned and let as flats. The suburb is described accurately in the book. “Moseley may once have been the best looking district of south Birmingham, now it was fraying round the edges, an unremarkable looking place.”
The book is set between 1990 and 1993ish and the domestic and international politics of that time form the backdrop. At a party to celebrate the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, Arch, a dope-dealing, dole-drawing, feckless individual with no prospects and no goals apart from finding the next party, meets a girl called Verity (or Vee). Arch is smitten from the outset. Vee works as a photographer for a human rights agency that wants evidence of atrocities being carried out in the former Yugoslavia where the conflict between Bosnians, Serbs and others is in full-tilt.
Arch too finds politics and a purpose in life after attending the notorious Castlemorton common rave and falls in with a crew of anti-road protestors, full of righteous rage over the plans for Twyford Down. In sharp contrast to Vee’s experience of a humanitarian and political crisis, Arch’s political motivation seems to be an extension of his love of a free party together with an ill-defined demand for freedom. You might ask ‘freedom from what?’ and ‘freedom to do what?’ and the answers would seem to be ‘freedom from The Man’ and ‘freedom to party wherever and whenever I want to.’
Arch feels that he is part of a movement with a worthwhile goal. He has the opportunity to join the anti-road protests, to become infamous like Swampy (remember him?) but never quite takes that step. He remains on the fringes, dancing to techno and dropping ecstasy. However, this is a kind of progression as ‘getting by’ was his previous modus operandi.
The book is peppered with colloquialisms such as Oh’ ar (signalling affirmation), Yampy (a stupid person), Mardy (stroppy or moody) and Geez (short for geezer, meaning mate). Some of these are used particularly in Birmingham but some are universal. Those who try to avoid the much unloved Brummie dialect should not be put off as these colloquialisms are not used to the point of distraction.
The dole-scrounging laziness of Arch and his friends would raise the hackles of most of us who work for a living but the characters are human and there are many funny passages. Arch and his mates dedicate themselves to ‘creative indolence’.
Arch and Vee hook up but for the most part it is a long distance relationship. Vee sends postcards from the Balkans, her memories of Arch and his easy going attitude and simplistic approach clearly buoying her mood after witnessing brutal and bloody scenes. For his part, Arch misses Vee but shows little interest in what she is doing or the conflict. At one point Arch asks a friend, who pays more interest to the news, what the Balkan conflict is about, the response is:
“It’s Serbians and Croatians and Bosnians and anyone else who can lay their hands on a gun as far as I can see. Muslims as well, for what that’s worth. They’re all turbo nutters, Arch, don’t you worry about that. You’ll never work out what’s going on though, so you might as well not bother. Come to think of it, you never used to bother. Why start now?”
It’s a great passage and one that sums up the complicated nature of the conflict and Arch’s previous antipathy for global politics.
Whilst Vee is away, Arch and his pals revel in the press coverage and the notoriety that they and fellow ‘free-ravers’ receive. In their eyes, being vilified by The Daily Mail validates their actions.
When Vee returns, Arch is keen to demonstrate that he is now an activist and is working to change things in England. He does not talk to Vee about her time in the former Yugoslavia through a mixture of disinterest and not wanting to force the issue. For her part Vee recognises that there are serious issues in the UK about the erosion of civil liberties but is not convinced that Arch’s approach recognises the point.
This is a great first novel full of humour, love, frustration and politics. It will strike a chord with all who remember the free-rave scene, the Criminal Justice Act, the tragic events in the former Yugoslavia and anyone who has passed through Moseley. Recommended