International Play-Offs

Well, I can hardly believe it, but this is the very last book of this Placing Myself literary journey around England and, funnily enough, I really have come full circle in many ways. From the first moment I let it be known that I would be challenging myself to read one book from every ceremonial county of England, it has been from the Cornish that I received the most interest, feedback and, occasionally, criticism. Cornwall, many stipulate, is not a county of England, but a Duchy, with an unique historical and cultural identity, rights to political and social autonomy from Westminster, and, overall, a thriving Cornish nationalist movement.

Alan M. Kent's "Proper Job! Charlie Curnow"

Alan M. Kent’s “Proper Job! Charlie Curnow”

So because of all this interest, I’ve been dying to reach Cornwall on this fictional journey since… well, since I was all the way up in Northumberland! The author I have chosen – Alan M. Kent – was nominated by several of my Cornish commenters as someone who identifies himself as Cornish, rather than English or British, and I am so glad I followed the suggestion, for Proper Job! Charlie Curnow has been an outstanding 5/5 star read. Here’s why.

The novel is set on a dirty and dangerous estate called Trelawny, “a shite-hole right at the arse-end of Britain” (12), where live Charlie Curnow and almost all of his friends. From the outset, Cornwall is shown to be a far cry from the stereotypical “fuckers’ holiday destination” that is “always sunny, had kids playin’ in rockpools an’ makin’ sandcastles [and] every cunt walked around smilin’ an’ happy t’live in social deprivation” (122). Instead Kent’s Cornwall, and Charlie’s estate in particular, is filled with “the usual proliferation of dog shit, burnt tarmac, rubbish and broken fences” (11), and most people, young and old, are “on the dole” since all the work in Cornwall was “shite”, seasonal and unpredictable, “either selling fuckin’ ice creams t’cunts down Portreath, or else bagging groceries for second-home owners in Sainsburys” (9). In summary, Charlie and his peers sometimes “hated Cornwall”, colonised as it is by outsiders and tourists (otherwise known as “emmets” (37) from “up the line” (27)). Moreover, these tourists, just like the media and (apparently) the Westminster government, are entirely ignorant of Cornwall’s real battles against drugs and poverty, and the seeming impossibility of establishing “social cohesion” (9).

Filled with frustration at their poor state of affairs, and sick of being on the dole with no hope of a brighter future in sight, Charlie and his friends Yak, Neil and Bev decide to take their fate in their own hands and form a band. Not just a wimpy, lacklustre, cover-songs-only, teenage-years-style band, either; rather, through the combination of good musical talent and hard writing/gigging/practising, they are determined to develop a rock band that will “make the fuckin’ scene” in Cornwall, and “take the world hold by the bollocks” (20) to prove that the county can produce much more than just “clotted fuckin’ cream” (19) and so-called “Cornish butter” (27).

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent - an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent – an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

As much as Charlie and his friends might profess to ‘hating’ Cornwall, therefore, they are also incredibly proud and nationalistic about their home, aiming to prove that both it and they themselves are worthy of having a definitive place “on the map” (56). Charlie, in particular, is aware (even through all the Trelawny grime and misery) of the truth behind the stereotypical observations of “Cornwall’s ancient and romantic landscape” (7) and the “noble tradition[s]” (37) that are part and parcel of Cornwall historical, Celtic identity; he notices the beauty of the “frost in the air and the moon […] over Carn Brea (18). He knows that “Cornwall used t’be fuckin’ called West Barbary n’people from up the line reckoned we was fuckin’ savages”, and so wants the band to develop a modern identity that is just as “intense…it’s gotta’ reflect where we’re from” (65-6).

There is still a great difference between Charlie’s nationalistic feelings and those of the “fuckin’ middle-class beardie-weirdies” who “sat ‘round an’ lamented lost olde worlde Cornwall” and had “fuck-all else t’do but argue over spellings o’place-names” (128). He has no real interest in their version of Cornwall’s identity, or even of learning the Cornish language which “sounded unnatural as fuck” (133) to him. But, as the band garners more and more interest and success, Charlie is proud to feel like Cornwall is becoming “the centre o’the world” again, “not just some forgotten piece o’it” (226). Heck, “if the bus driver t’Trelawny knew” of Charlie’s band, then that’s all he needs to know that “he’s made it. He knew it had been a proper bleddy job” (246).

Cornwall (aka Kernow - Charlie's surname!) "must have political recognition as a nation", some argue

Cornwall (aka Kernow – Charlie’s surname!) “must have political recognition as a nation”, some argue

Kent is an absolute master of describing Cornwall’s various, conflicting and yet co-existing identities, which appear through perspectives ranging from the supremely nationalistic (as the “’Free Cornwall’ graffiti” [33] around the estate attests to) to the blissfully ignorant of any political undercurrents in the youth- and surfer-paradise. Crucially, there is no single version of Cornwall that its inhabitants and all-important seasonal visitors can agree on. Just as, I suppose, throughout this challenge there have been multiple embodiments of Englishness too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, Kent makes important political points about the subjugation, simplification and homogenisation of Cornish culture. By centring his novel around modern youth, he is also able to showcase the crisis the generation faces in growing up in a county that cannot define itself as it wishes to. Charlie’s efforts to establish himself among his peers and his compatriots reflects Cornwall’s own need, as Kent seems to see it, to redefine itself on its own terms. After all, it is the county’s outsiders (whether that be tourists, national media or Westminster) who insist on perceiving Cornwall in a single, sunny light and who ignore any pressing news that may jeopardise this idyllic vision. Neil and Yak put it plainly when they say:

“I mean it’s hard fur people in Cornwall to be proud o’who they are, ‘cause no fucker on tv has a Cornish accent. You’n be fuckin’ Irish, or Scottish, or Scouse or fuckin’ Geordie – an’ everyone thinks you’m cool, but if y’speak like we, no fucker wants t’knaw ‘ee […] Up the line they think we all have straw ‘angin’ out o’our mouths an’ spend the days makin’ clotted fuckin’ cream” (19).

Stereotypical Cornwall - beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

Stereotypical Cornwall – beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

I’m so glad I have managed to end this challenge on a high, with a book that I enjoyed. Now all that’s left is for me to summarise the year’s reading. With the Scottish referendum well on the way, I’d better get going! See you soon.


KENT, Alan M. Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! London: Devon, 2005.

Featured Image: Cornish Nationalists protest to be seen as a people distinct from the English and from the UK. This year, Cornish was finally recognised as an official ‘national minority’ (like Scots, Welsh and Irish) but, for many, this doesn’t go far enough.


Matilda Wren's "When Ravens Fall"

Matilda Wren’s “When Ravens Fall”

Since I’m running slightly behind in my reviews, I’m not going to dilly-dally too long on this one. I could not wait to finish Matilda Wren’s When Ravens Fall, set in Essex; not because I grew more enthralled with every page, but because it was, from beginning to end, a catalogue of uninspiring drivel.

What it tries to be is only vaguely interesting at best: a dark alternative to glamourous, bling-filled Essex. In this novel, Essex is a “pond” (8) where the fact that “everybody knew everybody” (47) and “inadvertently paths cross” (104) is dangerous rather than charming. The story centres around Sean Fergus, who grew up in “a council house on a run down and half derelict council estate” (64) and who now “supplied half of Essex with weed and ecstasy” (93) and a whole lot more. But as violent, evil and manipulative as Sean is, he has a soft spot – or perhaps an obsession – for Rachel. I’m all for dark, psychological thrillers, but that’s not what I got here.

This book is filled with all the melodrama, repetition, awkward description, cheap lust and poor editing that are inevitable when self-publication is made accessible to the masses. I don’t know why I keep bothering to read e-books – they’re all utterly irritating.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

Apparently, there’s a sequel. Can’t wait.

Next time I’ll be Reading Upside Down with Jo Platt for Hertfordshire. It’s another e-book (!) but somehow, I’m more hopeful.

WREN, Matilda. When Ravens Fall. Authorhouse, 2012.

Featured Image: Ravens



Nicola Monaghan's "The Killing Jar"

Nicola Monaghan’s “The Killing Jar”

The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan, is set in Nottinghamshire. Or rather, it is set in a “shitty brown” (60) estate seemingly in the middle of nowhere, abandoned by the police and any other sign of officialdom so that crime is rife and drug addiction a plague. This county, in the East Midlands, the novel seems to say, is neither north nor south. It is in limbo, in the crease of England. Abandoned. Forgotten. The estate itself is a depressing hovel, closed off from the rest of the world; a jar, Monaghan suggests, in which inhabitants, like insects, fester uselessly until the end.

Kerrie-Ann is a child growing up on this estate, sharing a house with a mother addicted to heroin and a series of wheeler-dealer boyfriends who slowly drag her into their seedy world. By the age of 10, Kerrie-Ann is already running drug-related errands for her so-called guardians, and that’s just the start of it; as we follow her through her teenage years, we meet sickness, death, violence, heartbreak, and a heck of a lot more drug abuse. The novel is miserable, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s also mesmerising.

Most of the time the characters “[don’t] move from the estate” (134-5); everything outside its boundaries that is “foreign” (2) is despised, and yet there is also huge hatred for the neighbourhood’s own “tossers” (25). In fact, anger is the ruling emotion in these parts, and even on the odd occasion that the characters venture off the estate, the dark clouds of their home lives follow them, inescapably. That is not to say that the characters do not try, in vain, to escape, through the abuse of drugs. Kerrie-Ann herself uses them to “remember there was other places away from my house on the close” (10) and to convince herself she “Had wings. Could fly” (39) to them. Whether or not she ultimately succeeds in this endeavour is up to the reader to decide.

One of the biggest measures of ‘place’ in the novel is accent, the differences between which Kerrie-Ann is fascinated by. She recognises the sound of those from northern “mining country”, with intonation “broader than my mam or me” (12), and the “posh voice and fancy manners” (80) that signify an individual’s London roots. In fact, the people on the estate spend a lot of time “making fun of [t]his accent” (112), “add[ing] h’s all over, dropped from other places, and put[ting] on that voice […] trying to sound posh” (34). Kerrie-Ann doesn’t like London, or its “wankers who thought too much of themselves” (144), or who are “too spoiled from being well off” (81). In her experience, southerners only undertake the journey to the estate out of self-interested charity, “some kind of community service” to “shove on [a] job application” (76), or to carry out academic experiments on its inhabitants, as though dissecting scientific specimen in a laboratory.

An entomologist's killing jar for insects

An entomologist’s killing jar for insects

I’m trying not to give too much of the game away, but Kerrie-Ann is young – no more than a teenager – when massive problems and colossal decisions come her way. The devastation of her childhood years is one of the most noticeable themes in the novel: as a young girl, she plays with “horse-riding Barbie” (38), but only as payment for her drug-running; she watches “the man dressed as a bear explaining to the pink hippo and the orange grin how to share a cake” (36) on television whilst various dirty visitors shoot up in a corner; she plays princesses and fairies “in the middle of Whitwell Park wearing clothes close to falling off […] with holes in them” (226); she combines trips to the children’s playground with her own first forays into drugs.  Even as a teenager Monaghan gives constant reminders of her lost childhood; at the beach, she longs to “build a sandcastle, […] a big one with a moat” because she feels “still a kid really” (103). And, like a kid, she is still scared of “ghosts” (141) and “werewolves. Bogeymen” (146) – only now the monsters take the form of drug addicts and wild-eyed vandals. Wrapped in this nightmare, Kerrie-Ann is shown to be constantly swapping between a feeling of adulthood and childhood, a conflict that is exploited by everyone around her, who “called me Kerrie-Ann if they wanted to lecture me […] But if they wanted me to do summat for them it were ‘Kez’ or ‘Kezza’ or even ‘Kerrie-Anna’ in this teasy way” (200).

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

I think it would be impossible to truly enjoy reading this book. It’s tough-going, miserable and made me utterly uncomfortable. Because of its unrelenting bleakness, it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually choose to read, but I think that attitude simply backs up Monaghan’s suggestion that places like this Nottinghamshire estate, riddled with drugs and seemingly so far beyond help, are so often overlooked and ignored, inconvenient as they are to the  middle-classes to ‘sort out’. It’s an extremely intelligent and well-written novel, and its tone reminds me greatly of another East Midlands text, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, which I loved. Perhaps I’ll get round to comparing the two some time. But for now, an admirable, albeit painful novel is The Killing Jar, to me worthy of a good 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Linden Woods by Michael Taylor, which I have high hopes for. Read along with me or join me next week to see what I thought!

MONAGHAN, Nicola. The Killing Jar. London: Vintage, 2007.

Featured Image: The Morpho Pelaides butterly, an important character in the novel.