Gordon Williams – From Scenes Like This

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

Two Readings

1.

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”

or:

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

or:

“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?

2.

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.