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Book Reviews

Closing Time at the Royal Oak by John Lucas (Shoestring, £10)

It was the old dog who noticed it first. About thirty years ago, Sunday-walking round Lambley I passed four pubs. As we approached each one the dog speeded up, waiting at the pub door, but I carried on. After a moment he would follow., looking confused. When I passed the fourth and last pub he shook his head sorrowfully. Something had changed. No drink for me, no crisps for him. No shared cheese and onion sandwich. I was no longer somebody who customarily went into pubs. Pubs after meetings and events, pubs for meetings, pubs for a quiet read, pubs for a social evening out – all gone or in decline. The dog was not happy.
In John Lucas’ excellent memoir of Beeston’s Royal Oak he describes the glory days and the decline and fall of his, and by extension the local. The Royal Oak would be packed at weekends, the Ladies’ Darts Team would travel to their away matches with a busload of supporters, on Saturdays people would dress up for a night out in their pub, sitting at the same tables with the same people. Suits and ties, dresses, the women maybe wearing a nosegay. The men would be on pints of “mix” – that Nottingham working-class favourite of half mild, half bitter – the women on gin. The Oak, however, was a pub where women felt comfortable going in on their own or in pairs, knowing that the landlord/landlady would not stand for any nonsense. Indeed, Lucas remarks that a openly gay couple of friends were just as welcome as others there (at a time when it was rare for that to happen). He doesn’t give their names, but it must have been Mick and Simon, Beeston stalwarts of the era.
This was a community pub – you could buy your week’s fruit and veg there from the local allotmenteers, and sometimes a pair of socks from someone doing the rounds of pubs with a suitcase. There were pub singers; the men who came round selling whelks; the moment when the trays of pork pie slices and sandwhiches would be passed round by the landlady. The Jug and Bottle room where locals would turn up with enamel jugs for a pint of two to take home for “t’maister”. The games of cards, the pub league football team. Lucas’ description of one particular match will live long in the memory. 6-2 to the Royal Oak, the two goals against being scored by the Oak players too, one being a backpass to the goalkeeper who was temporarily otherwise engaged off the field sharing a joint with his girlfriend. This was a pub where you might expect to find someone to do a couple of hours cash in hand labour. A Shippos pub selling “honest piss” – check the anagram. Most pubs in Beeston were Shipstones, one of several Notts brewers – the main rival being Home Ales, the scorned Mansfield, and there was Kimberley Brewery whose spectacularly beautiful building out there is under the sledgehammer now.
And yet, side by side with this idyllic picture were the solitary men, drinking night after night on their own before walking home to God-knows-what. Lucas describes several of them, warmly, sympatheic to their quiet desperation. Sheffield Tommy, an ex-soldier, who would put by six or seven pints. Big Bob, a wiseacre. Or Ian, not so solitary, the genuine pub intellectual, another where drink got to him in the end. Reading some of these passages I recalled Dave Bishop’s Nottingham short story which goes, in its entirety “Shippos, mild; Home, bitter.”
The Royal Oak faded. The big lace factories in Beeston closed, as did Beeston Boilers. The workers who would come down after their shift were dispersed, redundant. Lucas blames Thatcher, rightly, for the the damage done. He also goes through the changes in local shopping; you could see Beeston turning into Anytown with the resulting decline in community. At the same time money was a problem. John – enough of the Lucas, he is a good friend – mentions moving to Beeston in the early 60s where he bought a three floor semi on twice his junior lecturer salary, just round the corner from the Royal Oak. Such a house might as well be on Millionaire’s Row now for many people, including lecturers – junior or otherwise. How, now, do you buy a round let alone spend the whole evening in a pub without mortgaging your future?
The brewers too, can be blamed. Landlords were squeezed, bled dry while locals became sports bars, “vertical drinking establishments” over one floor with no nooks and crannies to tuck yourself away from the loud music.
Writing this reminded me of a particular local in Forest Fields, the Carlton, in which one particular bar was the watering hole of the Nottingham left. The anarchists, Trotskyists and mainstream Labour, if I remember right, all sat at different tables but always had a -more-or-less friendly smile for the others. I’ll raise a glass to that memory and, maybe, after pubs open, nip over to the Gladstone in Carrington or to a micro-pub, just to see. Just to see.
Closing Time at the Royal Oak is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/closing-time-at-the-royal-oak/
Ross Bradshaw

Smart, by Kim Slater (Macmillan Children’s Books, £6.99)

Kieran lives in the Meadows in Nottingham with his mother, who he loves, a bully of a step-father and his waster son. Life’s not easy like that – his step-father orders him about, barely allows him to be fed and calls him a retard. The waster son watches violent stuff on Xbox all day and joins in with a bit of bullying on the side too.

It’s even harder if you are a bit different. When you’re a child whose favourite artist is LS Lowry, when you know the rules of grammar and your specialist teaching assistant helps you get by at school, but wants to know what is going on in your homelife. In the playground you learn to stay on the outside, to keep away but the bullies still find you. Your mum tries to protect you but even she loses patience sometimes, telling you she doesn’t have time for that when you have to make your special moves when you get near home. Kim never uses words like autistic, but Kieran’s problems are clear enough. The problems are other people.

The book opens with Kieran finding a body in the Trent, a tramp who the police, when they arrive, think simply fell in and drowned. The tramp’s friend, Jean, knows otherwise but nobody listens to her apart from Kieran. One of his obsessions is CSI so he sets out to solve the crime, which he does with the aid of his own drawing skills and the help of Karwana, a Ugandan boy who turns up at his school.

Kieran – the book is in the first person – feels the need to explain everything to you, and tell you the ways you can win, even when you are losing. Along the way he sets out to visit his grandma in Mansfield. She’s banned from the house because she took on Tony, the step-father so he gets a bus to visit her.

I sat near the back. It was 4.45 p.m.
I tucked the ticket inside my notebook and refastened my satchel.
At 4.45 p.m., I walked down the aisle to the driver.
It was difficult walking when the bus was moving but not as hard as you think it would be, because there are silver rails to hold on to, all the way down.
‘Are we nearly there?’ I asked…. ‘I’m worried the bus will go past my stop.’

There’s a lot going on. Kieran drops by the homeless shelter to seek clues and finds the security man acting suspiciously. Wasn’t he the one he saw speaking to his mum? Tony – the step-father is dealing rocks from home, and there’s Tony’s vicious dog, confined to a shed since he bit the wrong person. There’s hints that Ryan, the waster son, is perhaps not as bad as he seems. But if you are Kieran you also need to find the special pencil sharpener that vanished from the kit you won for your art. No other pencil sharpener will do. Finding a murderer might just be easier.

Smart is Kim Slater’s first book for older children. There’s two more I’ll be reading soon. Impressed.

Ross Bradshaw

Copies of Smart are available from £6.99 post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: Then and Now by Ron Disney (self-published, £9)

This book is such a good idea, stills from the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with black and white pictures on the facing page of the exact same scene now in Nottingham.

In most cases the scenes are unrecognisable – Arthur Seaton cycling out of Raleigh on Faraday Road, now no Raleigh but plenty of student accommodation; Derby Road with a variety of buses, a trolley bus and a Ford Cortina, now the one-way system and a variety of hotels in view; Salisbury Road with cobbles and children playing in the street, now a weed infested car-park… So much has gone, though who wants to go back to having outside lavvies even if your kids could play in the streets and you could leave your door unlocked (because you had nothing worth stealing)?

And some of the progress is welcome. The two shots of the Castle Terrace where Brenda meets Arthur shows industrial filth settled over the city while in modern times you can see for miles. Our air is cleaner, and those living in the valley that is Nottingham don’t die so young.
Of the instantly recognisable scenes there is Brenda paying attention to her headscarf at the bottom of the stairs at the Savoy in 1960 and then the same stairs though ticket prices seem to have gone up a bit.
The contrast between the still pictures and modern photos is a delight and it is easy to see why half the copies sold at the special screening of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning when the book was launched at the Savoy. But, oh my, the book could have done with a bit of proof-reading. This is a shame as the information is good and people’s memories of the period are interesting, not least those of Shirley Ann Field who provided her recollection of the filming.
But let’s just accept the book as it is, a loving, amateur (in both senses of the word) effort. And the author has his heart in the right place, dedicating the book to “those Nottinghamshire miners who came out on strike in 1984 to defend their industry and communities only to be defeated by the real ‘Enemy Within’.”
Ross Bradshaw

Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain by Lisa McKenzie (Policy Press, £14.99)

GettingByIt is 30 years since the end of the Miners’ Strike in March and looking back, for those of us who were involved, has been a mixture of being amazed by what happened during that year and being angry when we look around at the state of Britain in 2015.

Lisa McKenzie’s family were part of that struggle. She grew up in north Nottinghamshire, part of an honourable tradition of the mining community: she is from a family where generations were miners and during the 84/5 strike her mum was chair of the Women Against Pit Closures. In her new book she tells the story of the St. Ann’s Estate where she went to live as a single parent. We get an insider’s viewpoint of what life has been like for her community over the last 20 years.

It is a story from the inside, but also one that aims to challenge the simplistic and uncomplicated way that council estate life is often represented.”

Like many working class people, including myself, she was brought up with a belief that she was just as good as anyone else; “I knew I was working class, and I had been taught that we were the backbone of the country, strong and proud, and it never occurred to me that ‘others’ did not think the same.”

Lisa left school at 16, became a single parent at 19, and later on went onto an Access course at the local college. “Like most working class women I wanted to do something more worthwhile with my life – I thought I could do more than make tights in a factory….I wanted to work in my community, to give something back.”

It was while she was at University she found out that her estate had been the subject of research in the 60s by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn (Poverty: the Forgotten Englishmen, 1970) and this led to her changing her study from social work to social policy. In 2010 she completed her PHD and in 2015 she published this book. “This book is the outcome of nine years’ academic research; it is the fruits of that labour, and the fruition of my goal, to tell my own story of council estate life.”

Today council estates are seen as the epitome of everything wrong in society and as Lisa points out: “The council estate appears to have become the symbol of the Conservative Party’s vision of what ‘Broken Britain’ looks like.”

She shows how the reality is that it is the consequences of long term disadvantage and inequality that has affected the lives of the poor and working class in neighbourhoods such as St. Ann’s. It is not just about the economic dimensions of inequality but the cultural dimensions of how people are looked down upon and the effect that this has on their lives.

The St. Ann’s estate is north of Nottingham. Nottingham has been until recently a thriving industrial city:built on the wealth of coal mining, manufacturing and engineering it attracted a new proletariat to work in the mills, factories and mines. New Town, or as it is now called St. Ann’s, was the place where these people went to live. Over the years it attracted people from all over the country, as well as immigrants from eastern Europe. Ireland, and Jamaica. Lisa says; “Very rarely is a city’s history mapped through the everyday lives of those who have gone unacknowledged for generations, and who are still barely acknowledged today, and even then only through reports showing their “lack of ” everything from education, employment, culture and morality.”

Getting By is a fascinating book because we sit with Lisa as she talks to individuals and groups of women and men about their lives on the estate. We discover what it has meant to women and men who are the descendants of Irish and Jamaican families, we learn about the lives of the men who no longer can be part of the workforce and how they deal with it, and the problems of money and drugs.

She has no problem in defining where the problem is – and it is not the people of St. Ann’s;
“What does exist here, in Nottingham, and within communities across the UK, where the poorest people live, are hardships caused by the consequences of structural inequality, a political system that does not engage those who have the least power, disenfranchisement relating to the notion of fairness regarding their families and their communities.”

Lisa is proud of her working class credentials and her academic career but she is firmly on the side of her community. In the General Election she is standing against Ian Duncan Smith, Conservative Party Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, one of the chief architects of the ongoing war against some of the poorest members of society. Let’s hope he knows what he is up against!

Bernadette Hyland (subscribe to her weekly newsletter – Lipstick Socialist)

Light at the End of the Tenner by Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves (Burning Eye, £10)

Light at the End of the TennerAlready a local legend on the performance scene, Mulletproof’s first full-length collection stakes an immediate claim to cool based on the cover alone. A striking image by Mark Dickson is capped with this quote from Jim Bob (of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine fame): “Like finding a great lost Roger McGough collection in a box in the loft.”

It’s a good call: the poems on offer here are as grounded in reality and conversational in their aesthetic as anything by McGough. But the ghost of Adrian Henri suggests itself in ‘Wings’, ‘The Love Tree’ and ‘It’s No Longer Tomorrow, Yet…’ – the latter the most nakedly experimental piece in the collection. In fact, Light at the End of the Tenner is thronged with ghosts: Soviet cosmonauts, rock ‘n’ heroes, suicidal comedians, B-movie casualties, and Jimmy from Quadrophenia riding Ace Face’s Lambretta over the cliffs and into eternity.

 Mulletproof’s subjects are certainly eclectic. From a geriatric Elvis swapping Graceland for a trailer park to deer armed with Kalashnikovs squaring up to their erstwhile hunters (“no more roof rack mortuaries / or tailgate processions // just the sun shot green canopy / and the assurance of a fair fight”), the poems bristle with attitude as they blaze their way through half a century of pop culture, span the globe and (quite literally) shoot for the moon.

But Mulletproof’s hometown is always the anchor. ‘Radford Road’ is an impressionist portrait of Nottingham in all its on-the-streets glory, while ‘Rammel Nitrate: Nottinghamshire Kisses and Laced History Lessons’ whizzes slap-bang through the county’s history, picking out a through-line of what made it the place it is today, while ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Rumour’ sees Alan Sillitoe’s racing-throwing anti-hero eternally on the run.

Clocking in at a chunky 116 pages (steroid poetry in a culture where most collections barely tap out at half that length), Light at the End of the Tenner captures on the page what anyone who’s seen Mulletproof live cherishes about the man: flair, fury and flippancy in roughly equal measures.

 Neil Fulwood

 

Going to the pictures: a short history of cinema in Nottingham by Michael Payne (Nottingham Civic Society, £4.99)

GoingtothePicturesJust round the corner from the Bookshop on Long Row was once the Long Row Picture House, opened in 1912. That particular cinema was one of the big two in Nottingham, with 600 seats, some of whose patrons paid a bit more to sit in the balcony. There was a cafe and a continuous programme from 1.00pm-10.30pm. Sadly the cinema did not make it into the era of the “talkies” and closed in 1930. The once beautiful building is now marred by a cheap and nasty sign saying Ladbrokes, but look up, the rest of the frontage is still beautiful.  The other of the big two was the Elite on Parliament Street, which could hold 1,500. This cinema had a special floor in the foyer to minimise noise, an enormous electric organ, a full-scale restaurant, a gentlemen’s smoking room and a ladies room.

But you could start this review with many “just round the corner” lines as Nottingham – like other big towns – was packed with cinemas in the city centre and in the suburbs. Packed, I tell you.  And they are all here in this book. With lovely photos, the stories of the cinemas, memorabilia. And on the cover is a lovely photograph of Broadway – an interesting choice given the range of historic cinemas inside. Broadway itself has some history too. I can remember its predecessor, the  old Coop Cinema, a part-time enterprise where they did not so much advertise changes in the programme as changes in the audience as everyone there seemed to be regulars who all knew each other.  Cinemas are not just buildings. This short, very attractive book will be a local  best-seller. Well done, Michael.

Ross Bradshaw