Tim Lott’s first novel, White City Blue, came out in 1999. The narrator, Frankie Blue, is a West London estate agent. His best friends are Tony, Nodge and Colin. Diamond Tony – formally, Anthony Diamonte – is a flash Italian hairdresser: handsome, charming, apparently successful, he has a flair for cruelty. Nodge – or Noj, Jon backwards – is an overweight cab driver with intellectual pretensions. Colin – just Colin – is a computer nerd with bad skin who still lives with his (ill, possessive) mother. They’re all QPR fans; all more or less thirty. Every year, without fail, the four of them celebrate 14 August, the anniversary of a perfect (in their collective memory, anyway) day they spent together in 1984, ‘halfway through the last summer we were together at school’. But in 1998 there is a problem, in the shape of Frankie’s fiancée, Veronica Tree, who will turn thirty on 14 August. Oh dear.
Frankie met Vronky – the homophony is presumably deliberate – when she was looking to buy a flat, as we learn in the novel’s syntactically inauspicious opening sentence: ‘The one and only thing you could have predicted about my meeting the woman who changed my life was that it would happen while I was trying to sell her something.’ Veronica is a pathologist with an inexplicable faith in New-Ageism. ‘What a paradox people are . . . On one shelf of Vronky’s flat I can see this huge, intimidating volume, Gray’s Anatomy. Pure science. Right next to it, Astrology, Destiny and the Future of Mankind. Pure shite. How can someone so smart be so dumb?’ Contradiction stands in here for rounded characterisation; but then Frankie, like Lott, isn’t all that interested in Veronica, who functions as a catalyst in the recombination of relations between the four men. She and Frankie bicker a lot, break up and get back together, but there’s no real sense of what they see in each other (which may not be wholly unrealistic, but is dissatisfying in a novel).
There’s not much sense of what the men see in each other, either, but that’s part of the point. They’re still friends now only because they have been for so long. Colin and Frankie, whose mothers are cousins, used to play together as little children. Tony was king of the classroom at secondary school, and Frankie became his friend the same day he acquired his nickname, Frankie the Fib. The episode in question is designed to illustrate Tony’s psychological strength, and his cruelty. The boys have a religious studies teacher called Dr Koinange, a black South African ‘who, we had heard, had lost several members of his family in the struggle against apartheid’. He keeps Tony under control by mocking him in an Italian accent. Tony’s revenge is elaborately plotted, both by Tony and by Lott, and though it works for one I’m not sure that it does for the other. In a class discussion about whether or not animals have souls, Tony – he has planned all this in advance – steers the conversation onto the subject of pets, and describes the stupidity of his own dog, which he says should be put down, before revealing, with feigned reluctance, that the animal’s name is ‘Nigger’. Dr Koinange strikes him twice across the face, hard. The violence of Koinange’s response is implausible – it isn’t surprising that he should want to hit the child, but would he lack the self-control and intelligence to restrain himself, especially since he knows he’s been set up? He has, after all, faced more formidable enemies. Questioned by the headmaster, Frankie supports Tony, claiming that the teacher hit him for no reason – hence, ‘Frankie the Fib’. The ‘particular cleverness’ of Tony’s scam is, apparently, ‘that his parents really did have a dog called Nigger, Sicilians not being much noted for their enlightened attitudes towards race’. It’s hard to tell how much of the irony in this last clause is intended.
Lott makes a number of jokes at his narrator’s expense, some of the most obvious having to do with vocabulary: he says ‘convex’ when he means ‘concave’; gets ‘tautology’ confused with ‘oxymoron’. Frankie, who has a 2:2 from Staines Tech, is scathing about what he sees as Nodge and Veronica’s intellectual pretensions. It’s an unattractive trait, no more appealing in Lott than it is in his narrator, with the added disadvantage that it alienates us from Frankie as we are invited to smile at his ignorance and misplaced intellectual confidence.
Brands, badges and labels feature prominently: a car is never just a car, it’s always a BMW, a Peugeot 205 or a ‘big two-litre metallic gold Cortina Ghia Mark V with tinted windows’; clothes are Gucci or Agnès B or Calvin Klein; Tony’s mobile phone is an Ericsson GH688. This tells us something about Frankie’s priorities; perhaps it tethers the novel to the concrete detail of the real world. But too often it can seem as if the characters are merely performing their brand, reverting to type: loser, bully. This needn’t matter; not all novels need to be character-driven – but novels about relationships probably do.
The book is a fairly unremarkable relic of New Lad culture, that 1990s efflorescence of an attitude, exemplified by Loaded magazine, which now feels very tired – as if it weren’t tired from the outset. It remains a mystery to me why White City Blue should have had so many people, from Tony Parsons to Gerald Kaufman via the Whitbread First Novel Award, in raptures.
Rumours of a Hurricane, Lott’s second novel, is a more ambitious, more serious work: the anatomy of a marriage, a dissection of the 1980s. The prologue is set in the winter of 1991. We are introduced to Maureen, who runs her own thriving small business, a driving school in Milton Keynes. Meanwhile in London, her ex-husband, Charlie, a homeless alcoholic, tries to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a lorry. He bungles it, as he has bungled everything else in his life, ‘so the lorry, when it hits, does not take him full on, but propels him from the shoulder, at an angle, twenty feet into the distance.’ It isn’t enough to kill him outright: he dies soon afterwards in Intensive Care.
The remainder of the novel tells the story of how it all went wrong, beginning on 3 May 1979, the night Thatcher came to power. Charlie Buck, a compositor at Times Newspapers ‘like his father before him’, is ‘on strike’ (he wouldn’t have been, actually, because the management lock-out was in force at the time). He comes home to a council flat in Fulham, to the stench of rotting rubbish (the bin men are on strike, too), to a revolting tea of instant potato, Spam, baked beans and cheddar cheese, washed down with four cans of lager: already he is drinking more than is healthy. After dinner Maureen watches Dallas, an occasion for which she always dresses up in her best clothes. Their sex life, such as it ever was, is faltering badly. Robert, their 18-year-old son (Charlie is in his late forties, Maureen ten years younger), is unemployed, and Charlie disapproves of him, calls him a ‘layabout’. It breaks his mother’s heart when he leaves home and moves into a squat.
Charlie has a younger brother, Tommy, the same age as Maureen. Tommy’s wife, Lorraine, is a decade younger again. Tommy is a model footsoldier of Thatcherism: crooked, self-centred, a cowboy builder on the make. For Christmas 1980, the family gathers at Charlie and Maureen’s. Charlie has given Maureen a microwave, in which he insists she cook the turkey. It is, of course, revolting: but Charlie says it’s delicious, taking a generous second helping while the others order a curry. It makes him sick. Staggering back from the toilet, he stumbles in on his sister-in-law giving his son a blowjob. The humiliations accumulate as the decade progresses.
In 1983, Charlie, a Labour supporter all his life, votes for Thatcher, impressed by her conduct in the Falklands. He stops reading the Mirror in favour of the Sun. He buys his council flat. Maureen, meanwhile, discovers she has a talent for creative accounting, and gets a part-time job cooking the books for her hairdresser. A year later they move into a new house in Milton Keynes. Their neighbour, Peter Horn, is a driving instructor and divorcee. Charlie persuades him to give Maureen lessons at a discount for cash, and it isn’t long before they start an affair. Maureen also takes up shoplifting: she enjoys the thrill of not getting caught, of discovering that her actions don’t have harmful consequences – not for her, anyway.
During the Wapping strikes of 1985, father and son meet on opposite sides of the picket lines; Robert has secretly become a policeman. A proper job, perhaps, but a further disappointment to his father. The same day, Charlie’s best friend, Lloyd ‘Snowball’ George, a machine minder in the print room and an immigrant from the Caribbean, is beaten up by a gang of racist policemen. When Charlie goes to visit him in hospital, Lloyd rebukes him for never having stood up for him. That is the last time they speak to each other.
Not long after Charlie loses his job, Maureen tells him she’s leaving him for Peter Horn, and he hits her, bruising her face, spraining her wrist, breaking a rib. She does much better out of the divorce settlement than he does. He remortgages the house to start up his own business, a model railway shop. Model railways have always been his passion: the council forced him to dismantle the track he’d built in the spare room in his flat; almost the first thing he did after becoming a homeowner was reinstall it. The garden in Milton Keynes is given over to the hobby, until the hurricane of October 1987 destroys it. Charlie rushes out into the night to try to save it: ‘Now Charlie is on his knees in the mud, trying to gather up these scraps of his imagined world, but larger forces have scattered them irrevocably. All the pieces acquired meticulously and painstakingly down the years have been thrown, literally, to the wind.’ This, if you hadn’t noticed, is symbolic. To make the humiliation complete, the children in the house opposite watch him in fits of laughter, because ‘his cock still protrudes from the front of his pyjamas.’
Over the course of the next two or three years, Charlie has a few unsuccessful dates with women he meets through the personal ads in the local paper, and his business runs deeper into debt. In 1990, in a last, desperate attempt to salvage his finances, he breaks into Maureen and Peter’s house to steal the cash he imagines she has hidden under the bed, only to stumble in on them having sex. He takes the next train back to London, the ruined man who eighteen months later is half run over by a lorry.
Lott’s first book was a memoir, The Scent of Dried Roses (1996). Written as part of the fallout from his mother’s suicide eight years earlier, his family history is lovingly told. Rumours of a Hurricane, by contrast, is fuelled by hatred: for the greed and brutality of the Thatcher years, certainly; but the novel also seethes with loathing for Maureen and her success, for Charlie and his failure. In an unpleasant scene in White City Blue, a flashback to Frankie’s schooldays, Tony and his cronies direct their bullying at Colin, aping his alcoholic father before stripping the boy naked. Charlie could be said to suffer something similar at the hands of his author.
Lack of restraint is one of the novel’s principal flaws. Another, perhaps not unrelated, is its carelessness. The narrative has many small, irritating inconsistencies. In Chapter One, we meet Charlie on the picket line on Gray’s Inn Road. Then, ‘five miles to the east’, we are told, ‘in a small municipal park, Charlie’s wife, Maureen, runs. Her trajectory takes her away from the small council flat she lives in with Charlie and their son’ – a very long way away indeed, if she’s run all the way from Fulham to Mile End. It wouldn’t have taken much for someone to change that ‘east’ to ‘south-west’. Charlie and Maureen’s 22nd wedding anniversary falls on 4 May 1982. Three years earlier, amid all the election excitement, the occasion must have slipped both their minds.
There are nice moments. Charlie’s pyjamas are ‘decorated with vertical stripes the colour of lightly stewed rhubarb’. Maureen likes the ‘roundness and cleanness’ of the number 20, and ‘rolls it around in her head like a cool green marble’. But Lott is too fond of words such as ‘atop’ or ‘abuts’; Maureen’s driving school is ‘juxtaposed’ to the shopping mall. Her ‘most prominent quality is that of density’, but she also seems ‘sprightly’. ‘She scrutinises the cars with a matronly, protective gaze,’ but in the next sentence this has become a ‘glance’, which is a quite different kind of look. ‘Perimeter’ is used as if it were a synonym for ‘fence’. ‘By midday, the car lot will, as usual, be empty, before the cars are all sucked back in during the late evening, like particles breathed in and out of a lung. The cars leave as carbon and return as oxygen, as profit.’ As well as being too laboured, the image doesn’t work because of its imprecise understanding of respiration. So far as fine writing goes – and fine writing is a condition to which Rumours of a Hurricane pretends – this is calligraphy executed in blunt, bright crayon.