Trendier Than Thou
Andrew Stevens reviews two new East-End focused novels by Tony White and Matthew D’Ancona.
Depending on your point of view of course, locality-specific, or locality-driven more to the point, fiction can be a good or bad thing. At some point several years ago, a group of authors assembled in an agreed spot and carved up the areas surrounding the Thames as their own hinterlands and from that moment onwards things were agreeable, if a little predictable. More recently however, a number of usurpers and Johnny-come-latelies have emerged. Following the preponderance of DJ-cum-wanky-trendies (the oft-cited Shoreditch Twat) in the E1 postal area has been the distinct literary trend for fiction set in the environs of Hoxton, Shoreditch and, most significantly for this review, Brick Lane.
If Hasbro ever decide to do a new version of Monopoly based on the creative industries in London, then Brick Lane and Hoxton Square could easily supplant Park Lane and Mayfair as the premier property hotspots in the capital, whereas Aldgate East and Shoreditch tube stations could replace Fenchurch Street and Euston BR stations (they could retain Liverpool Street, obviously), with Whitechapel Art Gallery and the White Cube replacing the utilities. This rapid cultural regeneration of the once run-down and decidedly unfashionable Whitechapel parish has seen a glut of books follow in its wake — Monica Ali’s much-feted Brick Lane (whose unpublished manuscript saw the author propelled on the Granta Best Young Authors list before a single copy had even been printed) and Jean McNeil’s Hoxton boho novel Private View spring to mind. Post-White Teeth, any book about London has to have a substantial, even if entirely superfluous, multicultural air about it before a publisher will even glance at the opening page these days. It’s all a far cry from the cafes and grimy subsistence of Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock it would seem, much to their chagrin no less.
Is Tony White, author of Satan! Satan! Satan!, Road Rage! (Crusty!), Charlie Uncle Norfolk Tango and editor of Britpulp! a usurper, an interloper perhaps? Not quite. White’s previous novels are all written in the pulp style which draws its lineage from Richard Allen (author of the Skinhead series in New English Library), Allen’s Joe Hawkins character being something of an indigenous East End reaction to the emerging multiculturalism of the 1960s. As Literary Editor of The Idler, he also enjoys fellowship in a literary milieu that stretches back to the Grub Street era. Hardly the hallmarks of a cultural tourist. Foxy-T therefore marks something of a departure. Gone is the pulp style, replaced with an entirely patois stream of consciousness, using the vernacular of the Whitechapel Asian youth. Gone are the far-fetched yet rock and roll plots, replaced with complex and sensitively played-out depictions of human relationships and bonds of friendship, all accounted for in detailed psychogeographically depicted surroundings. And gone is the cut and paste lurid sexual content (a la Richard Allen), replaced instead with evocative yet contextual discussions of sexual tension and frisson among the relationships, both real and imagined. In fact, all point to an entirely imaginable recipe for literary disaster, in the wrong hands. Fortunately, Foxy-T finds itself entirely under the right literary pen for the job.
As you would imagine, Foxy-T is the protagonist of White’s story, an East London Asian gal in her early 20s who, alongside best friend Ruji-Babes (“them sound like tag init”), runs the E-Z Call in Whitechapel (E-Z Call being one of the many international call centres-cum-internet access shops that are taking over the more cosmopolitan parts of the capital). They run E-Z Call on behalf of Ruji-Babes’ absentee uncle, a fully paid-up member of the Asian gangsta fraternity of London’s East End and self-reliance underpins their relationship. This isolationism is interpreted and dismissed by other local Asian youth as covert lesbianism, especially as both girls share a one-bedroom flat above the enterprise. It also doesn’t help that Foxy-T is in possession of a voluptuous figure and sports an altogether eager bosom, albeit disguised behind (male) tracksuit bottoms and polo shirts, which apparently accounts for half the shop’s trade if the narrator is to be believed. Ruji-Babes, on the other hand, is of a lither frame. Their self-sufficiency and mutual reliance continues unhindered until the entrance of Zafar Iqbal, a recently-released detainee from Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution looking for his grandad (a former occupant of the premises, now deceased). What begins as an interim arrangement for him to sleep on the sofa until relatives can be located, soon descends into obsession and jealousy over Foxy-T between Zafar and Ruji-Babes. Despite acceptance of marriage from Foxy, albeit obtained under duress, she exits Zafar’s life as quickly as she enters it. In all, it makes for a tragic set of circumstances and such eloquence is not usually associated with White’s work. In fact, White pulls off several triumphs in matching the patois vernacular of Victor Headley (himself no stranger to the pulp style), with the vivid and rich evocations of Iain Sinclair’s deep affection for the East End and its institutional landmarks, from the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) to the vast array of halal kebab shops.
Going East, on the other hand, represents the very worst of both charlatan-like cultural tourism and “turgid upper-middle class fogies who write like Victorians” (this being a charge levelled by Attack! Books publisher Steven Wells in a London Review of Books letters page spat, in defence of White’s earlier work). Unlike White, it is Matthew D’Ancona’s first novel. Nothing wrong in that in itself, except that D’Ancona is Deputy Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and author of The Quest for the True Cross and The Jesus Papyrus. Terrible stuff. Like White, D’Ancona may live in E1, but that just signifies his status as one of the loft-dwelling meejah types who’ve driven up property prices there in the last five years. This is not the occasion for banding around such accusations, relevant as they are, but merely to concentrate on the man’s work, terrible as it is. As such, D’Ancona probably shares more in common with Nick Hornby and Amy Jenkins than anything else.
The principal character in Going East is Mia (although there are a cast of others), a neurotic Islingtonian lobbyist whose family are wiped out at the beginning of the book by a bomb, initially blamed on Islamic extremists (hmmm, dubious al-Qaeda reference straight away), her secure world shattered incomprehensibly. Typically, she abandons this secure world to up sticks a couple of postcodes and begin a new life in the East End working in a New Age centre (good for a few right-wing digs at liberal-left types of course). What then ensues is a formulaic journey of self-discovery and a quest to uncover the truth behind her family’s death. Subsequent to this, Mia then elects to move once more, to Brighton (where else?), where she can live out her cliched right-wing parody of a liberal-leftist’s existence.
Any further contrasts can only serve to insult and diminish White’s achievements here and I know which I’d prefer as my morning distraction on the DLR journey to work. Foxy-T is a wonderful account of sexual obsession, the realities of life outside of the regeneration bubble and the experiences of second-generation Asian families, all told through White’s cunning eye for psychogeographic and linguistic detail. Init?
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is Co-Editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 14th, 2003.