Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Strange Girls and Other Stories

I took the train across the Pennines from Manchester to Leeds in the spring, with the hills all verdant and the little train stations we stopped at glistening and bright from spring showers. The sun was shining in that weak, tentative sort of way it has in March and April and every town and village the train passed through looked like it was probably packed with second hand bookshops and winding streets full of junkshops and little cafes.

And yet the best bit of my trip south was none of that, but was when the train slowly chugged its way through the outskirts of northern industrial towns like Bolton and Blackburn, past abandoned factories and tumbling red brick walls, the signage long gone but the names of forgotten places still visible greyly amongst the soot. Obviously working factories are to be preferred to derelict ones, but I love industrial history and abandonment is perversely usually the only way to preserve industrial places as they once were.

That, and writing about them.

Co-incidentally, I picked up a copy of Sallie Day's The Palace of Strange Girls on another trip south, this time in Ilkley in Yorkshire. I bought it in one of those two books for a fiver deals you get in bookshops occasionally, and in another peculiarity showed it to Paul, who I was meeting up with in Ilkley, and he said 'I was on the judging panel who gave that book the Portico Prize you know'. Small world and all that...

The Palace of Strange Girls is set in that unfashionable post-war decade or so which existed before the Beatles and the sexual revolution. It's a particularly British period - or at least it feels that way to me - of austerity and want giving way to affluence and possession. It's an era amrked by masses of working class British teenagers aping their American counterparts for the first time, but in an awkward, not quite right, way that I recognise from my own teenage years in the early 80s but which no longer exists due to the Internet and the swamping of British television by US imports nowadays.

And yet at the same time it's a period of industrial upheaval, of layoffs and factory closures, as traditional working practices lose out to innovations generated by the wartime economy now filtering down to the country at large.

The story is of the Singleton family's trip to Blackpool in 1959: sickly Beth recovering from a heart operation ('A fifty/fifty chance of success' according to the surgeon), big sister Helen hoping to assert herself an an adult and parents Jack and Ruth bickering about everything, but mainly their differing ambitions.

It's a delightful, intricate sort of story, as the family interacts with other Blackpool inhabitants, permanent and transitory, and large and small tragedies loom out of the pages to come like speeding cars in the dark. In a very first novel sort of way, subplot layers upon subplot but unlike many first novels this kitchen sink approach works on every level.

And in the background, the destruction of the Lancashire cotton industry is tied neatly in to the familial strife, as Jack decides whether to take a job as a factory manager or as an area rep for the Union, and Ruth begs him to go with the union so that they can move to a bigger, better house.

It's Jack's story in many ways, in fact, which comes as a surprise in a book which could easily be read as very superior chick-lit. He has the glamorous past, the responsible and successful present and the promising future. His actions and inactions make or break everybody's future: financially, socially, personally, emotionally. His physicality - described at various times as a soldier, a worker, a fist fighter and a passionate lover - is contrasted with his intellectual abilities and more gentle nature: there's a gorgeous passage, for instance, where Jack wanders round the hotel dining room, naming the weaves in every different kind of cloth as Beth points to curtains and tablecloths, clothes and napkins. And in the end, even while the author claims that he is 'not a sentimental man' it's Jack who ensures that all of those who matter to him get what they want, even where it's not entirely what they deserve.

A lovely book all round, really - one character says towards the end of the book that he'll be glad to see the back of the fifties, but I'd have been happy to stay with the Singletons a little longer.

Blackpool in 1959

* Factory image courtesy of Mzacha

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