In the Beginning, there was the Novella

The Seal Club (London Books) is a collection of three novellas in 300 pages. Those Darker Sayings by Alan Warner, The Providers by Irvine Welsh, and The Beasts Of Brussels by John King, are neighbours in common, each with a narrative driven by disenchanted protagonists. Each story in turn driven by characters who possess a defiant humanity, pitting themselves against betting odds, familial friction, political forces and old enemies.

Those Darker Sayings is set within British Rail, its employees awaiting the arrival of privatisation. Not amongst train drivers, considered an elite – a labour aristocracy, but amongst passenger timetable staff, ground-crew on telephone headsets. Slorach is one such ‘whipped cream voice’, once trialled and failed as a station announcer after swearing and threatening a passenger who stood too close to the platform edge. He becomes the enigmatic centre of a small, close group, of mid-twenties pub tourists who outsmart quiz machines to hit the jackpot every time. With free rail travel they move from town to town, pressing buttons and bagging coins. Their crime is as impersonal as their living and hardly lucrative, but it bears the satisfaction of beating a machine. They can plan and execute the ambitious trips because they are walking timetables, reciting the sequence of stations like the long range weather forecast. Warner works with details, the set is perfectly dressed as early 1990s, we are there unseen, at the table with loquacious Slorach and his scheming crew. It’s a Scottish story, the humour is dark and unfussed, the scam seems hardly worth the trouble, it’s purpose is rebellion, mundane as it is.

If in Warner’s novella everyone is yet to achieve, in The Providers, everyone is past their best. It’s Christmas Day evening at Greg and Elspeth’s. The children are in bed, Elspeth’s mother, Val, is in the corner under a chemo wig, face behind an oxygen mask. It’s a dialogue heavy piece, a one-act play in prose. Enter Frank and Melanie. Frank Begbie is Elspeth’s brother, formerly of Trainspotting and a life sentence, he has just been released and reborn as an artist. Mel is an American art lover and she’s certain she knows the real Frank. The once dangerous brute is now tamed and cultured. Cue Val, with nothing left to loose but to disabuse Melanie of Frank’s blather. The text is awash with alcohol, regret and uncontained emotion. ‘Merry Christmas and aw that shite.’ Actually Frank drinks only tap water these days and his mother is affronted by this and his slim waist line. The dénouement begins with the arrival of Joe, Elspeth’s other, unreformed, unsuccessful and consciously uncouth brother. At times Welsh has too many in the room for us, too many unhappy voices to process and one wants more of his concentrated descriptive prose. But, he builds the tension, layer upon layer and we get the pay off we have earned at the end.

In The Beasts of Brussels, John King is back on tour with football hooligans. This time we’re with a firm of England fans in Brussels, post referendum but still in the EU, Remainers playing for extra time. Football is a hermetically sealed world for King’s characters, a place to go, and it is an arena for the author to represent and discuss much else: Thatcherism, neo liberalism, the destruction of community and class, to celebrate camaraderie and tribalism. Whilst the sport has moved on to the age of New Football, King’s firm refuse to budge from appointments for mass brawls and one to one clashes with like minded foreigners. They are viewed on TV screens, from inside Euro wine-bars, as another species, once believed extinct by the 1980s. The very sight of them testing the seams of an England shirt induces a physical reaction in Eurocrats. The firm are of as much interest to the media as the England team. ‘Football hooligans were good earners for publishers and journalists alike.’ King writes with fluency, the most refreshing element to this novella is though we recognise type in his characters, there is a depth that the reader doesn’t see coming.

‘Football saved your life. All you wanted was to be on your own for a few days, but not alone, because with England a lone ranger can travel freely, sleep on trains and linger on platforms and worry the vending machines, drink too much of the local beer and talk to strangers without being seen as a crank. It’s the best sort of holiday. You told Kelly at work that England is like owning a dog, that a four legged friend lets a man walk on the common or in the park without women looking at him and seeing a rapist…’

There is self talk, subconscious reveries and foul mouthed rants. It’s poetic in places and it’s a narrative in the traditional sense with events. Of the three, it is the one where I wanted to be, albeit on the side lines of the action, with the England boys ‘who were going to mention the war and piss in the fountain.’

The three novellas concern not the marginalised, but rather the self exiled and whilst we might not recognise ourselves on these pages we appreciate how the characters that are there, might regard us. Novellas are traditionally high on symbolism, focused on a single event, over a short period of time and, under 40,000 words. We read fewer of them these days, perhaps because fewer are written, perhaps because the publishing market can’t sustain their economies of scale. Binding them together in two’s and three’s as London Books have done might be a financial solution. Novellas got off the ground in the Renaissance, predating the longer form. Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, Animal Farm, War of the Worlds are among the most enduring. They require an intensity, a concentration of forces and I do wonder if the word processor, has let us run away with ourselves a little.

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