Anthony Burgess in a Reni Hat
By Andrew Stevens.
Richard Milward, Ten Storey Love Song, Faber, 2009
Recently I was told about the certain weariness among those employed in the publishing trade (the retail end of it, at least) regarding the rise of what they consider as the Young Male Debut Novelist (or YMDN). To some extent this isn’t the fault of those writers concerned, who no doubt value the efforts marketing departments are making on their behalf to shift units in the retail chains. But the indelible perception, warranted or not, is one of hype over merit and, ultimately, futility (as you can only remain a young or debut novelist for so long). Indeed, writers in what is termed “mid-career” often point to increasing indifference on the part of the industry which once lionised them and toasted their works. It’s happening, whether you like it or not. Given that such an assertion at least requires evidence to back it up, if you’re passing any such chain, simply take in the publicity afforded to the likes of Joes Dunthorne and Stretch and Chris Killen (you could also reasonably place Michael Smith and Adam Thirlwell into this bracket over the past few years). All rely on the same stock themes of sex and neurosis, secure over-enthusiastic reviews in freesheets and curiously enough grace the stage at the Bookslam ‘literary nightclub‘ on a regular basis. On this basis alone, it’s hard to deny YMDN exists.
Richard Milward’s Apples, published in 2007, was immediately lionised and toasted by critics for its gritty depictions of teenage life in Middlesbrough. This immediately qualifies him for YMDN status (he was in fact the principal writer singled out for criticism in the above-mentioned recent conversation), were it not for the fact that he has at least managed to follow it up with a second novel and is therefore no longer debuting. Apples captured my attention at the time as, like Milward, I was brought up on the periphery of Middlesbrough, but I simply couldn’t persevere with the book owing to the cloying whimsy, no matter how close to home the subject matter was. To some extent I put the critical reception down to a vicarious middle class appreciation of poverty porn/class tourism (while exempting Milward from this). A more objective assessment of Milward’s work however, both with Apples and now Ten Storey Love Song, would be to place it within the demi-canon of chemical generation fiction, most commonly associated with Irvine Welsh and Daren King. Milward appears to cherish this and certainly acknowledged his debt to Irvine Welsh very early on (Welsh is now a fan too, it seems).
Ten Storey Love Song doesn’t give the outward appearance of being as confident and assured as Apples but it is thankfully the better book. The allusion to the Stone Roses’ later career through the title is a sign of things to come as the book drips with name-dropping of reasonably obscure indie acts (Bardo Pond, Galaxie 500), while a track by track analysis of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless coincides with copulation (of which there is an abundance in the book). I’m still unsure as to whether this is worthwhile or just frivolous. Music clearly means a lot to Milward, as it does us all (I bought my own copy of ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ on CD single at HMV in Middlesbrough in 1995…) but I can’t imagine any house parties in Middlesbrough thrumming to avant-noise rockers Bardo Pond (the Milward household, perhaps). Similarly, in addition to the Wire magazine tendencies, there’s an Easton Ellis-like presence of clothing labels, though in this case it’s more JJB Sports than Fifth Avenue.
To some extent, the book represents a soul-baring of Milward’s own existence as a roman á clef, the presence of an artist as protagonist (Milward recently graduated from Saint Martins), indie rock affiliations and musings on Middlesbrough to London travel simply come across as too close to home. He also attempts to capture the moment for his own considerable affection for the town as it stands now, comparing the Linthorpe pub to the Beat Hotel (which certainly isn’t how I remember it). But Milward has made Middlesbrough his muse and rightly or wrongly this seems to be doing the trick for him.
This is a novel concerned with smalltown celebrity and the effect this can have on a community. Ten Storey Love Song, other than an affectionate homage to his hometown and marked out territory, is also a profound novel of urban psychosis. Other than the Stone Roses homage, the title alludes to the central location, that of the Peach House flats block in East Middlesbrough (the zone of the town set aside for statistical purposes/regeneration largesse, which is probably even less fortunate than the rest). The landscape painted by Milward is populated by those described by the sociologist Ruth Glass as “the zombies of the welfare state.” This is his Municipal Flat Block 18A, Linear North, marking the book out as something of A Clockwork Orange for our “broken society” times. Much of the action takes place on the “windswept” Cargo Fleet Lane, while he also maps out his muse-fuelled territory through other utilitarian geographic locations like Corporation Road.
As with Apples, there are customary inclusions of unique Teesside accoutrements, such as the parmo (a deep-fried slab of pork covered with parmesan) or in this case the Hot Shot Parmo (its spicier form). Ten Storey Love Song, other than being a well-drawn prose map of TS postcodes, walks us through the life of Bobby the Artist and his disturbed lorry driver neighbour Alan Blunt the Cunt, whose prediliction for pre-teens is offset by a tendency towards racial violence. I was left wanting by Alan Blunt the Cunt, who makes a handful of appearances and ends the book beautifully, but is always overshadowed by Bobby the Artist and his CD collection.
In doing so, again he manages to splice both spheres of Milward’s own world, the art world and the more localised domain of the Boro (conceivably the book has room for both Ravanelli and Marinetti). The scenes where Bobby the Artist arrives in London and indulges in the usual hoary cliches about the capital otherwise spoil a pretty decent analysis of what it is to find your way in a rootless and restless metropolis. Again, there’s a capturing of the moment through fresh eyes which give way to ephemeral glances, for instance the now defunct Colony Room where the brash Teesside artist soon finds himself. Here I can’t fault Milward, at all.
The book is a slab of text, unbroken throughout and untroubled by chapters or breaks. In this respect it represents a devotion by Milward to his craft as a writer and artist, consciously acknowledged in his discussion of CoBrA techniques, though equally it could be argued to at least convey some of the thoughtful devotion to experimentation present in B.S. Johnson’s work (and any number of comparisons to Perec’s best known work). What is interesting about Milward (though it remains to be seen about his Teesside YMDN contemporary Michael Smith) is his role in the emerging provincial realism milieu also found in the likes of Kevin Sampson and Helen Walsh, similar to that of Sillitoe, Barstow et al. The parts where the book fails by dint of poor writing (not that many, to be fair) are probably rather similar to Ian Brown’s vocal wobbles on occasion, a comparison that Milward would probably appreciate. Ten Storey Love Song is for the most part redolent of its parent track: a tad laboured, not exactly perfect but pleasing all the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM. He lives in London and still has a Teesside accent.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 1st, 2009.