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.

The James Ruse Story: An Epic Tale of Everyman

In 1782 at the age of twenty-three, farm labourer James Ruse was sentenced to hang for stealing two silver watches in the village of South Petherwin, Cornwall. He was reprieved and sentenced instead to transportation to one of his Majesty’s settlements on the coast of Africa for the term of seven years. He wasn’t taken to Africa because the convict settlement was almost immediately doomed by climate and disease. He was sent instead to a prison hulk off Devonport and then four years later to Sydney Cove, New South Wales. Ruse acquired some prominence in the history of transported convicts and that of his adopted country by being awarded the first land grant on the continent. He is Australia’s first self-sufficient farmer. But it does not end there for he was at the cusp of several significant moments of the infant colony, to such an extent that it appears almost strange.

He was reputedly the first ashore in 1788 at Botany Bay, ferrying the officers up on the beach on his back. He was among the first emancipated. As well as being given the first land grant at Parramatta he went and laid claim to plot number one on the Hawkesbury River, placing him at the apex of a conflict with indigenous Australians that at the Hawkesbury escalated to a war. His wife, convict Elizabeth Perry was the first woman emancipated. The description of Ruse’s process of composting and fertilising the soil in Watkin Tench’s memoir 1788, is apparently the first ever written record of such a process. Captain Tench who was uninterested and generally unsympathetic to convicts, devotes more than a page of prose to Ruse and singles him out for praise.

I am not aware of any historian suggesting an explanation for the repeated cameo roles that Ruse performed, for I suspect there is no research out there to be found. Let’s face it, European settlement was at its very beginning so it is hardly surprising that an individual, anyone that survived long enough, could be at the forefront of one endeavour after another. Yet even as we begin to look more closely, at one poetic moment: Ruse carrying the officers on his back up the beach, we learn that he had rowed the longboat from the ship Supply, a ship that officially carried no convicts, a ship that carried only marines including the Commodore, the future Governor of Australia. Why was he on board?

It is left to fiction to explain, to the art of story to tell us why. The James Ruse story needs the causality of plot and likewise historical fiction has an ongoing vacancy for the story of James Ruse. For another feature of this man’s life, are the pendulous changes of fortune, his long physical struggle against man and nature, and against man’s nature itself, including his own.

Those that know his story, including his many descendants, will each have their own James Ruse, constructed upon what biographical facts we can be sure of. His character is formed in Cornwall, that we know. In all probability brought up on a farm. But my James, the twenty three-year old that steals the silver watches is not a farmer, he is a landless labourer, a cottager dependant on common land fast becoming enclosed. He might even be a squatter on the edge of woodland living in a hovel he has built himself. He knows how to eke out a living, a food supply from a narrow strip of land, a kitchen garden, the few livestock he has on commons pasture. He is near the bottom of an economic system that dates back to the Norman Conquest, some say the Roman invasion. An agricultural system and an agricultural community that was taken apart at the end of the eighteenth century, as England went from a country of commons and common fields to a land of individualist agriculture and large enclosed farms. He is someone who dreams of establishing himself as a farmer, of securing a tenancy, of following his father. It is this ambition to escape common land farming that drives my James to steal the watches and it is also his cottager’s ability to live off scraps of land that enables him to succeed at Parramatta.

That he is chosen for a place on the Supply, and for a chance to prove himself self sufficient at Experiment Farm, I have put down to the humanity of Watkin Tench, and to the notion that Ruse convinced Tench that he had been a farmer with acres of his own back in Cornwall. Tench wrote out his life in memoirs particularly his early adventures but there are five years missing. Some say he was, for part of that time at least, captain of a prison hulk off Devonport, the Dunkirk where James Ruse was held. An unglamorous experience he chose not to write about. The Watkin Tench in my story is there, driving a plot forward if not the ship.


Site of Ruse’s first farm on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales.

Until now Ruse has not had the attention of novelists or dramatists. He is perhaps seen as a little too pedestrian. The dogged farmer, clearing the bush, clod-moulding the earth. He didn’t escape, he didn’t try to, he never became a bushwhacker, and he wasn’t a highwayman to begin with. But he was a man always on the edge of calamity, his life and endeavours bound up with the very existence of the penal colony in New South Wales. He faced starvation, flooding at the Hawkesbury, losing land, beginning over, time after time, years of perilous sealing including a mysteriously ill-fated mission on the Speedwell. His story is epic because his deeds were quietly heroic. It is also an Everyman story of redemption and I have given my James a spiritual life as a Methodist. The James of us all we know became a Catholic in the end, shortly before he died.

Whenever I visit a stately home in England the guide will tell me that the property ‘was built by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1720’. Somehow I’m never able to imagine the earl with a trowel. I look at the marble, who carved that? Who built the walls, cut the stone pillars? What were they like, how much were they paid? Or as Bertolt Brecht put it, Caesar defeated the Gauls/Did he not even have cook with him? So it is with Ruse, barely known to many Australians. Though he has a school named after him he is for me still too much on the margins of history, perhaps because of his class, his unromantic occupation. He was also someone, one among many, who tore his limbs and bent his back making farm after farm to feed the colony, to feed himself and his family, to begin the making of modern Australia.


My novel The Stony Ground, The Remembered Life of Convict James Ruse is published by Waterside Press and is now available.

Forthcoming book launches Australia

June 23rd, Cambelltown and Airds Historical Society see here

July 8th, Hawkesbury Regional Museum see here

June 30th, Experiment Farm Cottage, Parramatta, see below.

July 1st. The descendants of James Ruse. Private function.