A.L. Barker – John Brown’s Body

The events of John Brown’s Body are centred around a small block of flats. Marise and her husband Tomelty are newly arrived as the book opens, Ralph has lived there for six years, all other residents are as close to permanent fixtures as is humanly possible. Tomelty notes that Ralph resembles John Brown, a man accused and cleared of a murder. Marise becomes convinced that Ralph is John Brown. Ralph, a clerk who at weekends lives under the rule of first his wife and then more powerfully her sister, and during the week lives in the block of flats, becomes obsessed with Marise. He starts to research John Brown and then his personality moves toward that of the murderer. One of the characters ends up in a wardrobe. The end.

In her introduction to the edition I bought, A.S. Byatt says that the “meanings and inter-relations never become merely schematic, a writer’s clever game. People and events are quite sufficiently real”, but I tend to disagree. The characters feel contrived, or more accurately heightened, to suit the story. Everyone does things with dismay or anguish; even normal things like talking – “He looked at her in anguish”.

At times Marise feels naive, at others she is childlike, childish, insane, lobotomised, or even severely mentally handicapped. The extremes of her unknowing depend largely on how big a potential plot hole they need to fill. Her thinking that Ralph is John Brown relies on him not aging in the decades since his crime. Tomelty is a cockney wheeler-dealer barra’ boy when it suits the story and not when it doesn’t. Ralph is indecisive to the point of ineptitude. And none of them feel totally human. I would be happier if this were a writer’s clever game – all fiction is a writer’s clever game – because then at least I wouldn’t be expected to worry for the characters. It would be understood that they were understood to be signs. We are all big children now. We can cope with that.

So, a rather disappointing start to 1970. A book of its time perhaps. An experiment in heightened realism. There is nothing wrong with that – sometimes pushing an old method to an extreme produces work more interesting than finding a new method – and many readers will be seduced by Barker’s slightly eccentric view of our world. It didn’t work for me though. It is a bit like Giant Cadbury’s Buttons. You think they are going to be better than Cadbury’s Buttons but they some how just aren’t.




A new decade; the radio played the songs we made. Well, it didn’t really. I still wasn’t born. But if you are Cliff Richard, or Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin is a person? Yes?) then maybe it was laying the songs you made. Maybe it was. The charts were a simpler thing then. This was in the days before everyone had to squeeze a reference to Mick Jagger into their lyrics because so few things rhyme with swagger and YOU HAVE TO MENTION THE WORD SWAGGER IN A POP SONG IF YOU DON’T IT IS NOT A POP SONG IT IS CLASSICAL LOLLOL SMILEY FACE LOL FACE LOLLOLLOLSWAGGERLOLBIEBERLOL

The Booker was still small potatoes in 1970. It would will be a few years before it started to move toward its place at the forefront of literary prize culture in the UK. You are forgiven then, for not having read much on the shortlist. I can almost guarantee that even the most book-obsessed of you will not have read them all. That is because Terence Wheeler’s (who?) novel The Conjunction is not in print, has seemingly never been released in paperback, and currently goes for $2000 on Amazon.com.

It is a strange thing to think that a book could cost $2000. Most writers I know would come round to your house, tuck you up in bed, and read you their novel for less than $2000. One or two would probably even do ‘extras’ for another few dollars (though I am too much of a gentleman to name names). The trick is to ask, “has this story got a happy ending?” with a meaningful stare and a nod toward an open wallet. We all know what that means, but most of us will pretend we don’t.

I have gone off on a tangent here haven’t I? The shortlist for 1970 was:

  • A.L. Barker – John Brown’s Body
  • Elizabeth Bowen – Eva Trout
  • Iris Murdoch – Bruno’s Dream
  • Bernice Rubens – The Elected Member
  • William Trevor – Mrs Eckdorf in O’Niell’s Hotel
  • Terence Wheeler – The Conjunction

1969 – The Results

Waves gold envelope at camera one.

Turns to camera two.

I can now announce the winners.

Turns to camera one. Winks. Turns to camera two.

The actual 1969 Booker winner is… (was, whatever)… PH Newby – Something to Answer For.

Your 1969 Booker winner is… Muriel Spark – The Public Image.

My 1969 Booker winner is… shared, between Barry England – Figures in a Landscape and Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley,

Bows. Turns to camera two. Does pointy motion to camera. Grins. Walks of stage.

I couldn’t split them in the end so I decided not to. They are both superb novels, they are both almost completely forgotten, and they both deserve being rediscovered. My recommendation will not do either of them a jot of good, obviously, but they earned my love equally so that is what they are going to get.



The Debate

So that was 1969. Six books, two of which I found life-changing-good, another three I enjoyed, and one that right proper got on my tits. Not a bad result I’d say.

So what happens now? We decide a winner. Actually two winners. Well, technically three winners.

There is the winner of the prize, the official winner – that was PH Newby – we already know that.
There is the winner of the what I think should have been the winner winner.
There is the winner of the what you think should have been the winner winner.

Yes. You get to vote.

For those of you who haven’t been reading along, here is a quick recap of my reviews:

Barry England – Figures in a Landscape

“The end of the book affected me more than almost any book I have ever read. As a reader, and as a writer, I was blown away by what England did with the last page. I am still reeling.”

Nicholas Mosley – The Impossible Object

“It makes you wonder what all that death-of-the-novel nonsense was in the Seventies (and in every decade since, obviously). This novel is vital, in both senses of the word. It is experimental, but experimental for a reason: Mosley was attempting to capture the essence of what it means to write about love.”

Iris Murdoch – The Nice and The Good

“Murdoch understood prose. She understood that prose doesn’t need to be entirely fluffed up or completely pared down but can be allowed to flow both cleanly and interestingly. At times her writing is breath-taking”

PH Newby – Something to Answer For

“In a way, Townrow becomes a metaphor for Britain or the British or Empire; dazed and confused as history progresses through and around it.”

Muriel Spark – The Public Image

“In a nutshell, Spark is easily one of the best writers to have been shortlisted for the Booker but The Public Image is not her finest moment.”

Gordon Williams – From Scenes Like This

“A horse called Big Dick (that should have been the title of the book, that would have been am-az-ing) is not a very subtle signifier in a book about masculinity.”

Gordon Williams – From Scenes Like This

It was going to happen sooner or later… I don’t like From Scenes Like This.

Two Readings


I tried, I really did. When I read this blurb:

From Scenes Like This is the powerful and violent story of Duncan Logan, an adolescent growing up fast in the austere years after the Second World War. His father is brutal, his life seems drab and pointless, and the future looks bleak. As his world begins to crumble around him, Duncan searches desperately for a way out, only to find himself trapped in a downward spiral of betrayal and violence.”

I took a deep breath and tried to like it, despite the fact that only the sentence “From Scenes Like This is an audio book read by Carol Thatcher and is available at dentists” could have made the book any less appealing to me.

Why do so many novelists think books about gritty, brutal lives are in some way more ‘true’ than other books? One of the reviews on the back describes the novel as ‘Raw and vigorous, harshly authentic’ but maybe, just maybe, there are millions of people in Britain who are neither living hand to mouth or massively rich; and maybe, just maybe, there are millions of working class people who don’t spend their entire life drinking, fighting and fucking; and maybe, just maybe, you can tell stories about ordinary people in extraordinary ways.

Because, and I say this as kindly as possible, if you are going to write about men being men and life being shit and some people owning a horse called Big Dick, at some point I am going to get the giggles.

It may be when you say:

“The black wick smoked into a ring of smelly flame”


“He could feel the great weight of Big Dick moving beside him”


“He took a firm hold on the rope so that it pressed hard on Dick’s soft mouth. It was a good moment for Big Dick to be well under control.”

but I am going to get them. And it will be your fault.

A horse called Big Dick (that should have been the title of the book, that would have been am-az-ing) is not a very subtle signifier in a book about masculinity.


But all this fun and silliness dissipates half way down page ten.

“Auld Craig reminded Dunky of the evil old uncle in KIdnapped.”

So our hero, Dunky, is not like the other boys. Our hero uses literary references. Oh Christ, I think this is autobiographical. Oh Christ, I think this is an autobiographical I-escaped-the-working-class-town-I-grew-up-in novel. Oh Christ this is revenge with a dash of nostalgia and a side order of chips on the shoulder. Oh Christ, I have to read this. Oh Christ, Oh Christ, Oh Christ.

I am always wary of novels with ‘something to say’. You cannot throw the money lenders out of the temple by writing 80,000 words about how absolutely beastly they are: and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the one novel that is usually held up as changing the world, is a bloody awful book (and obviously not the main reason for the American Civil War).

Because what would you rather read? A story that ‘needed to be told’ or a story that didn’t need to be told but is told well?


From Scenes Like This is a tragedy in the most classical of senses. Yes the characters are types, but that allows their lives to play out like a Shakespearian play. Duncan Logan, like Hamlet is, despite his unfortunate situation, finally undone by his own actions and inactions. The writing is harsh and strong but with a soft underbelly that reflects Duncan’s own insecurities and weaknesses. It is full of a blunted sexuality, confused by (and with) boredom by the men who populate the town Duncan is born in, and doomed to stay in. A town where drink is geography, an escape, a breath of life’s posibility, and a death sentence.