The British Threat
By Max Dunbar.
Made in Britain, Gavin James Bower, Quartet 2011
Back in February the Labour leader Ed Miliband made a speech in Gateshead in which he identified what he called the ‘British promise’. ‘We have always assumed that our kids, the next generation, would do better than us,’ Miliband said. ‘Not just the well off, the vast majority can expect that their kids will do better than them.’ The promise was something that ‘each generation will pass to the next: a life of greater opportunity, prosperity and wellbeing. We may not have given it a name in the way that Americans talk about the ‘American Dream’, but it is there nevertheless.’ But he gave a warning: ‘for the first time in generations, there is now a real fear that the British promise will be broken and the next generation will find it harder to get on than the last. Less than one in ten people believe that life will be easier for their children than it was for them, and seven out of ten think it will be harder.’
Literary fiction tends to concentrate on the lives of baby boomers. Few writers have chronicled the hopes, dreams, experiences and desires of people born in the 1980s, never mind the 1990s. Perhaps there is less material. For a child born in, say, 1991, the British promise has turned into the British threat. If it was articulated with honesty, it would go like this:
Welcome to the world. We estimate that your station in life will be determined forever at least by the age of three, and certainly by the age of five. We can almost guarantee that you will die in more or less the same postcode in which you were born. You will probably spend your adult life doing repetitive manual labour or service sector jobs – positions from which all autonomy, benefits, creativity and professional pride, in fact anything that made work something to aspire to, have been long stripped. We’re going to take care to keep your expectations at absolute zero, but just in case you ever dream of rising above this level of mediocrity, we might as well let you know that all the interesting stuff – journalism, politics, things like that – has been ringfenced via the internship system for the sons and daughters of the elite. The idea that young professionals must work for free is so ingrained that in London we actually have internship auctions where Oxford graduates bid thousands of pounds for placements in fashion and law. That’s another thing. University will not save you. We are using fees and debt to reverse the expansion of higher education and restore it to a fuck-holiday and networking event for the next generation of bankers, politicians, establishment novelists and establishment radicals and the other chosen ones who will rule the world. Even if you do make it to Oxford on pure effort and talent, you will find that the great professions are still closed to you if you don’t have the right family connections. Forget all the talk about meritocracy and working your way to the top. We are a feudal nation and for you our corridors will echo forever with the sound of crashing barriers and slamming doors. Oh, you might still find love, no one can legislate against that. But happiness in a strong relationship will be curtailed by long hours, no money, children that you don’t have time to play with or the resources to provide for. For poverty does not ennoble. It crushes every good human feeling. If you don’t understand that now – don’t worry, you will. No matter how low your expectations, we will find a way to disappoint you. Even if you keep your spirit, there will always remain whole levels of experience and opportunity that to you will be forever strange.
Welcome to Britain.
In Made in Britain Gavin James Bower makes a serious attempt at writing about the 1990s generation. On the first page his narrator Russell says he lives ‘on Every Street, in a town that’s so common it might as well be called Every Town’ but is later revealed as an inner-city suburb of Burnley. Things are grim: ‘Half the houses on our road are boarded up, the Asians are taking over and the only shop isn’t even a shop; it’s a Co-op Funeral Care.’ Pleasure is harsh and fleeting, the streets and canals and parks hum with violence and drift with derisive laughter, different ethnic groups circle each other in a guarded hostility. The adult characters are confused by news reports of the ‘credit crunch’ – to them the city has been in recession for decades. These are places the regen boom didn’t touch. Hayley reports seeing ‘a sign next to a bit of land behind Asda. It said Investing In Your Town but the poster was ripped and peeling off, and it didn’t look like owt was happening or even about to really.’ The only national news that filters to teen level is bad news. There are recurrent references to the South Wales suicides. Locally there’s a killer on the loose, and flytipping headless bodies. Cleverly Bower weaves song lyrics into the story through car radios: ‘And you think you’re so clever, and classless, and free/But you’re still fucking peasants, as far as I can see.’
Perspective is split between three young narrators as they approach final exams and whatever remaining promise or threat the adult world has for them. Russell is a skinny and powerless dreamer so fragile that you wonder how he’s survived into his sixteenth year. Charlie is a talented ornery kid, confused about his sexuality, who is co-opted by a local drug gang. Hayley wonders about sex and is seduced by a predatory teacher. Bower gets into the teenage head so well that you start to think the book was written by a teenager. The characters and voices tend to blur together, plots are indistinct and unreal, the language is so emotive at times it makes you wince.
However, Bower writes teenage life like no other, and not just because the locales and concerns are the same whether you’re born working class or middle class. You find yourself nodding in recognition at the signifiers of a small town childhood. The speech is bang on. The characters use drugs in a realistic way, sticking to MDMA and ketamine as it’s so cheap, and although the drugs don’t do much for them no one actually dies. At one point Bower lays out the schoolbus hierarchy, where you sit closer to the back depending on how hard, fit and popular you are. More than the detail is the way Bowers captures the place and sounds of adolescence, when everything feels terribly important and terribly real. The adolescent condition is an intense fixation with life coupled with a deadly lack of perspective. When Russell says ‘There’s a kind of radiance about the town in an evening, which I’ve never noticed until now’ you believe him. Bower understands why a fifteen year old would hang himself from a closet door.
The hopes of all three characters are entwined in the great cities of the North. Russell has a friend in Leeds who wants him to sign up for a creative writing course. Charlie’s dark mentor, the drug dealer Waj, takes him to Deansgate bars. (Hayley is impressed with the exploitative Mr Mitchell because he buys her dinner at ‘an Italian restaurant in Colne, proper authentic, with flags and music. Even the menus were foreign.’) All are held back by street bullies, codependent and abusive families, and their own insecurities and low expectations. Charlie has a good angel in the form of Roger, the candid gay loner, but his fate illustrates the danger of reliance on anybody but yourself.
Although Made in Britain is a good and interesting book, you wouldn’t read it again, as it’s not that much fun to read. Happiness is varied and multifacted. The tragedy of social realist fiction is that poverty is so often just a dull and cruel changelessness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 26th, 2011.