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Seal Club Furies

By Koushik Banerjea.

Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King, The Seal Club (London Books, 2020)

Theres a row going on down near Slough, and theres several breaking out on the pages of this threenovella collection, the latest offering from the idiosyncratic London Books imprint. (Alan) Warner, (Irvine) Welsh, (John) King, the clue right there in the acronym WWK, more than a hint of tag team wrestling or reunified boxing codes about it. And if that harks back to a 1970s past of World of Sport, then these stories are also peopled by ghosts of younger lives, the dying embers of an analogue culture, or even of a doomed sectarian folklore.

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In remembrance of things past, heres the ghost of Balti, in John Kings The Beasts of Brussels, the Headhunter with his head blown off, still missed by his spar, Harry, running the gauntlet across Germany with some of the old hands from the hooligan heyday of The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away. Harris, Carter, Tommy Johnson: likely lads who are no longer lads but still doing their best to push the limits of tolerance, rowing with locals, and offering their own lager-soaked reverie for a Continent undergoing seismic change. Its England Away redux, the prelude to the upcoming Belgium-England fixture in Brussels, and this time the encounter is lent added spice by the tribal suture of Brexit, its repercussions still being absorbed across the Eurozone, and in English hearts. Gentle giant and avid England fan, Pat, has just had a serious kicking at the hands of some locals, which would have been even worse but for the timely intervention of his pals. Yet the appetite for violence is by no means limited to the skirmishing hooligans. King develops a common thread which runs through much of his work, namely that violence, whether between tribes, cultures or even across species, is cynically exploited for profit and political advantage by both the media and political classes. Such that here its extractive value, beyond the occasional moment of catharsis at the coal face, resides with those warping the telos and peddling the outrage, namely unscrupulous journalists and their employers.

Football hooligans were good earners for publishers and journalists alike.

Of course the moral outrage cuts both ways, further unsettling the tabloid stereotype of the mindless thug.

A plate of harissa-heavy stew was better than all that French muck the dead horses, snails, foie-gras. Fucking horrible cunts force-feeding ducks until their livers exploded then eating the mess. You had to be a perv to think that one up. He was no vegan, but the people responsible deserved a bullet in the head.

There are shades of Repo Man, even Len Deighton about this tale, with a subplot involving the mysterious pickup of unspecified merch, whilst centre stage is taken up by a whirligig of nightmarish headlines Stone Island, Brexit, Salafists, Molenbeek.

Fact and fiction were easily conflated. News was entertainment after all.

In the end this carousel has much the same effect as those Trappist beers that Matt, the bag man, tries, and fails, to stay away from.

Its my round. Trust me, it will blow your fucking head off!

King gets behind the double standards which go with the Dubbel. The narrative offers no saccharin resolution, casual racism interchangeable with conviviality as the beer flows and the blood thickens. But this is writing which gets past the headlines, the manufactured outrage, leaving you in little doubt that some people are cunts while others (Pat) are innocents abroad. It is storytelling that seems to intrinsically understand the classic John Stuart Mill paradox, that of being a democrat in my own country, a despot in someone elses.And its razor-sharp, this tale, but it would still rather share a pint than slice you to ribbons. Truth to power. Double trouble, triple filtered.

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Patterned jumpers, mince pies, gift-giving, the cozy, fireside glow of one too many sherries as the clan settles down in front of the telly to hear what Queenies got to say about another annus horribilis. Or perhaps not. This, after all, is the festive four-to-the-floor in Irvine Welshs The Providers. Christmas chez Begbie, he of Trainspotting fame, and the only charade taking place is of a happy family, which, in true Tolstoyan fashion, this most certainly is not. Terminally ill family matriarch, Val, might be running out of real estate, but if its one last happy gathering shes hoping for, shes right out of luck. The clan is as radgeas ever, bitter sibling rivalries on show as the peeveflows and inhibitions are lowered. Her younger son, Frank, nowadays missing the vowel but very little else, is keen to flaunt his new-fangled happiness in front of the slightly disbelieving clan. Or is this just another charade? The career criminal now apparently reformed, following his latest stint inside, via the love of a good woman and his burgeoning career as a successful artist. He seems fit, tanned, carefree, is teetotal by choice and now listens to Bach and Mahler, rather than Rod Stewart, in his studio. His sister, Elspeth, whose house is the venue for this gathering, is finding his smugness insufferable. She has worked hard for the happy marriage, nuclear family, and petit-bourgeois trappings she now enjoys, and which are a reminder to her of how far she has travelled in one sense from the housing scheme where she, where they all, grew up.

Franks successful reinvention as an in-demand, newly minted artist, after a lifetime of violent crime, appears to mock the respectability his sister has striven so hard to achieve. And tensions only continue to rise after her other brother, Joe, arrives at the house already the worse for wear, subsequently antagonises everyone present, before being shepherded away by Frank to an uncertain fate in the snow. The peeve is its own Molotov cocktail, ruthlessly exposing every fissure and crack in the Begbie social fabric. Though to be fair, Joes already in a bad way, resembling a mirthless Department Store Father Christmas.Even Val briefly livens up, holding court on the Tories, the NHS, and Tony Blair: He hud the mooth ay a hoor. A cocksuckers mooth!But she too is haunted by ghosts, of police raids, Christmases past, and of a bitter and futile legacy in the service of violent alcoholic males. Welsh has his say too.

The marginal in society were not exempt from the crippling disease of narcissism that now polluted all aspects of our culture and politics.At other times his disdain is palpable.

What was so special about fucking America? Why no press outcry when we had their stuff foisted on us, yet there was this constant obsession with Europe and Brussels controlling our lives?

All that peeve and inevitably it ends in violence, recrimination and a shocking revelation. Another Christmas ruined!Its Pinteresque, as if the careworn remnants of Abigails Party were now mainlining absinthe. Or maybe its Frank Capra made to dine with Otto Dix, so that in an instant the bonhomie evaporates. Just one click. This is the internet age.

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And of course theres always a moment before, predating the digital slump.

This was still the blessed era before computers and mobile phones filled our hands forever.

But there are ghosts aplenty here too, some even lurking in the nomenclature. Slorach, Fossenkemper, Lorimer. Key figures in Alan Warners Those Darker Sayingswhose names seem to belong to a fast disappearing world anti-establishment, émigré, and, oh Christ, Leeds United! The ghost of Revie rippling the surface with a hint perhaps of violence-to-come. Lorimer, that name alone, an irruption from an earlier era, when legend has it that men were men, and machines followed suit.

The story follows the efforts of a crack team of machinists pub quiz machine addicts attempting to monetise their addiction while slaking their thirst for pubs and the free rail travel which is a perk of their status as British Rail employees, albeit disgruntled ones. Like Lorimer they have all eschewed the rat race back in some undisclosed erawhich turns out to be the early 1990s. Gazzas tears, perestroika, all that jazz. But in their air of abstraction and mathematical exactness there is also something of the trainspotter, the nerd, the vinyl junkie. They are largely cast-offs from the unspoken castesystem operating on the railways, with drivers as de facto Brahmins and everyone else filling subsidiary roles. Lennox is a shunternot a driver, though Fossenkemper hilariously keeps mishearing his designation as fluffer. But the group is spearheaded by timetabling guru Slorach, whose plan is to pool their intellectual resources and soon have the Thirst of Knowledge machines spitting out the fifties like a Gatling gun. And for a while they even prosper before Head Office of the quiz game manufacturer cottons on and presses the reset button, in one fell swoop stymying both the payouts and the mental payoffs from these gentle, if assiduously compiled, acts of subversion. For the narrator, Lennox, this marks the end of his brief flirtation with the group.

The analogue world is fast disappearing, replaced by the cool, corporate algorithm, designed to be failsafe. Much to his chagrin, Lennox notices how this computer-generated approach to a standardisedoutcome starts to percolate into other areas of life too. Extra-cold Guinness, too quickly poured thats when you know its all gone to shit.Its hard not to think of Magnus Mills1998 novel The Restraint of Beasts at such moments, or in this storys tragicomic unravelling, and in its paean to a warmer, older, more disruptive analogue sociality. Dissident pursuits, like the gamingof the (pub quiz machine) game, turn out to be not-so-trivial. The societal shift this story monitors, from analogue to computerised, ultimately proves disastrous for leftfield refuseniks like John Robert Slorach, pinpointing a steady decline into online gambling, debt, mental illness, and finally self-annihilation. Lennox, appalled by the frugality of his own needs, manages to move on. But he knows hes one of the lucky ones.

We didnt really acknowledge many things back in my early adulthood. Male mental health, depression, even the idea that you could be addicted to things other than drugs.

As with a dramatic upheaval like perestroika, the shift from analogue to digital, happening at more or less the same time, albeit in a very different locale, seemed to unhinge something within the societies they affected. And whilst there were clearly winners in this zero-sum game the oligarchs, spivs and political opportunists who accelerated the death throes of an earlier social contract’ – many more lost out, their fiscal instincts and moral calculus yo-yoing wildly up and down the class ladder, until, for some, like the unfortunate Slorach, only that final night schedule was left for him.

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Taken together, this triptych will make you groan, laugh, wince, think aloud and perhaps even reach across your own idiomatic aisle. Like Francis Bacons Furiesthere are moments when these tales are bent out of shape, by history, or by the sheer cumulative weight of their own melancholy. But then someone will stand a round, or Frank Begbie will fleetingly renounce violence, or Fossenkemper issue an unexpected sexual directive, and a more fluid commons will once more find its feet. These stories are funny, sad, maddening, and beautifully crafted. Read them and weep, drink, argue, exhale. But read them. Nothing wrong with a row. Its how you split the difference that matters.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Koushik Banerjea is a writer based in South London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 4th, 2021.