Two views of Nottingham
Alfreton Road, Ilkeston Road and Derby Road – the A610, A609 and A6200 respectively – converge, a mile or two from Nottingham city centre, in a misshapen rectangle known as Canning Circus. Drive up there today and the main focal points will be the Sir John Borlase Warren pub, Bar Seven, a fancy dress hire shop and the Canning Circus police station, attacked during last year’s riots.
John Harvey’s 1995 Inspector Resnick novel ‘Living Proof’ opens near this nexus. If you wanted to pick the most memorable first paragraph in British crime fiction in the last couple of decades, you’d be hard pressed to beat this opener:
“The man running down the middle of the Alfreton Road at five past three that Sunday morning was, as Divine would say later, stark bollock naked. Poetic, for Divine, if not scrupulously true. On his left foot, the man was wearing a size eight, wool and cotton mix, Ralph Lauren sock, a red polo player stitched on to the dark blue. And he was bleeding. A thin line of drying blood, too light in colour to match the Lauren logo, adhered to the man’s side, its source, seemingly, a puncture wound below his pendulous breast.”
Less than a hundred words, yet Harvey throws the reader straight into the narrative, establishes the straight-talking personality of Resnick’s colleague Detective Sergeant Divine, teases out almost painterly details, and introduces the mordantly sardonic tone that makes the Resnick novels unmissable. With Harvey, detail is unlaboured but accumulative, giving his work character, authenticity and a keenly communicated sense of place.
Two paragraphs later, Harvey presents a snapshot of Alfreton Road in the mid-nineties: “… he continued to run, past the Forest Inn and the Queen Hotel, the carpet tile shop and the boarded-up fronts of the café and the fruit and veg shop, both long closed down; past Don Briggs Motorcycles, the Freezer Centre and Kit Em Out, all closed down …”
It’s Nottingham – then, as now – in recessionary times. A Nottingham defined by the pub and the local shop (the one that’s still in business, that is), a Nottingham of communities living very close to poverty. A Nottingham, turning the clock back even further, that chimes with the city Alan Sillitoe was born into in 1928. To quote an article published in The Guardian two years ago, Alan’s father “was illiterate and rarely held a job for more than a month at a time, and as a consequence the Sillitoes moved constantly from one overcrowded insanitary dwelling to the next, followed by mercifully feckless rent collectors”.
This transient, one-step-ahead lifestyle informs some of the most memorable passages of Alan’s 1961 novel ‘Key to the Door’. Charting the life of Brian Seaton – Arthur’s older brother – from his impecunious childhood in Nottingham to his National Service in Malaya, the rites of passage he undergoes and his return home, the tone is set early on as the Seatons plan a moonlight flit. How feckless are their rentbook-wielding pursuers? This evocative passage answers the question:
“The flit was planned for a Saturday night, when Raglin the rent collector (who had a room off the entrance hall) would be boozing in his favourite pub at Canning Circus. Seaton looked on the prospect of a ‘moonlight’ with elation: days beforehand he was taking down shelves and dismantling the furniture, was ready to rent a handcart from a nearby woodyard half an hour before they were due to move, time enough to carry everything downstairs on broad, long-accustomed shoulders and rope it firmly on.”
Two views of Nottingham, half a century apart capturing the same backdrop of economic hardship. Two authoritative voices who know the turf. Two novels that make for a hell of a good read.
John Harvey is guest of honour at The Alan Sillitoe Memorial Lunch on Saturday 21 April 2012. The venue is Welbeck Banqueting, Welbeck Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 7QW, 12.15pm for 1.00pm. Tickets are £22.50, including a welcome drink on arrival, a display of Alan Sillitoe’s life and work, raffle, and free car parking at the venue.
For more information, or to book a ticket, please contact Viv Apple at 38 Harrow Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 7DU. Cheques should be made payable to The Alan Sillitoe Committee.