There must be something in the air because Northern writers are churning out fascinating fiction at a rate of knots. Powerful, clever stories depicting the lives and history of people living in the North of England are flying off the shelves and, if Glen James Brown’s debut novel Ironopolis is anything to go by, it’s easy to see why.
Spanning decades of life spent on a Middlesbrough council estate, Ironopolis is an unflinching tale about narratives at the heart of working class communities and the struggle to keep them alive.
“Fiction has to reflect the experiences of everybody,” says Brown. “The experience of life is just as valid and vibrant as anything London-centric.”
Brown is sitting outside the library, enjoying the sunshine while he takes a break from working on his second book. I’m at my desk, still wearing my pyjamas, with his wonderful novel in front of me. I read it in two days, good going for 264 pages. Born in County Durham in 1982, Brown won an AHRC scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, where he graduated with distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Award in his pocket. Ironopolis is his first novel – and it’s a big ‘un.
The narrative is comprised of six testimonies, all distinct voices (Jean who is dying from cancer, Jim whose life is shattered during the raves of 1989, Alan who is living in his father Vincent’s murky shadow, Frank who can’t escape his past, gambling addict Corina, and the mysterious Peg). Not every author manages to use multiple perspectives to their advantage but Brown does an excellent job.
“When you read a book with a bunch of different voices in, sometimes it just sounds like the author in all of them,” Brown says. “I put a lot of time into thinking how the different people would think and write given their life experiences.”
So, who was his favourite character? I loved reading from Jim’s perspective but I liked Vincent, although the latter is vile.
“Some of the stories dropped out of my head fully-formed and not much was changed, and one of those was Jim. It’s first-person so it flows quite well. But my favourite is Mrs Terry in (Corina’s) story who just sits in a hairdressers and is quite sardonic. People go in and out of the hairdressers throughout the course of the day and she just sits in the corner snarking at people. I found her a lot of fun to write. She’s a repository of estate history.”
I’m drawn to Vincent not simply because he’s so contemptible but because there are moments where he’s extremely vulnerable. Brown captures the human in all of his characters and, as a result, none of them come across as clichés.
“You know when you watch a movie, or you read a book and there’s a character who is just evil, just a bad guy? It’s not as interesting as someone who is bad for reasons you can understand. Vincent has managed to achieve a certain amount of reputation on a council estate which is due to be knocked down. Everything he has worked for is all going away. Maybe a person like that, they fight back in the crudest sense? They beat people up and things like that. Everybody has two sides to them and you have to explore those.”
The novel is often uncompromising and bleak in its realistic portrayal of working class life. There are a number of funny parts (like Mrs Terry) but at times it is difficult to read, and I wonder if this was tough to write?
“I grew up on an estate and I’ve always wanted to write about it one day but everything I’ve written, I’ve never been able to write something that’s just 100 per cent set in the real world. There’s always some sort of speculative element. And so, when I was writing this one, I wanted it to be about what happened with social housing. It had to be real in some respect. There is a bleakness there but there’s always hope and warmth and, you know, gallows humour. I don’t think those things are separate. The whole element of Peg Powler found its way in there and I just let it happen because everything I write ends up having this weird undertone to it. I knew it would be the case with this one, it was just a matter of time.”
Peg is a fascinating and enthralling figure. Each character sees and feels her. Who is she? What does she represent? Is she real?
“She’s real,” says Brown, and I make a mental note to Google her later. “She’s a part of Teesside folklore. There’s mention of her going back hundreds of years.”
So, did Brown’s parents threaten him with Peg Powler when he was a kid?
“I come from 30 miles up the road in County Durham so I’d never heard of her. But one day I was writing in the library and I was flipping through all these dusty old books and there was one about folklore and I came across Peg Powler. She was believed to be a witch that lived in the River Tees and drowned kids. She just kept popping up and I figured out what she could mean. I think, to me, Peg and Vincent are mirrors. Vincent’s life, and who he is, is connected to the estate that is being destroyed and Peg’s the same.”
He continues: “Traditionally, working class people used to stay where they were born. Generations of people would work on the same patch of land and that’s where myth and legend get passed down. In the book, Peg’s story is passed down to the younger people but now all those people who would have stayed are being split up and taken to different areas. Everybody who knows who she is and carries her memory, they’re disappearing so it’s going to get to the point where she doesn’t exist anymore. She’s symbolic of working class history disappearing. Through the book she becomes increasingly active and maybe that activeness has come from desperation on her part.”
There are countless times throughout the novel where Peg’s sadness and desperation almost moved me to tears, and there’s something sort of wonderful about Brown stumbling across this old story, including it in Ironopolis and bringing her to a whole new audience.
Meanwhile, the estate takes on a persona of its own, a central character in the novel. Brown is hugely interested in place and landscape and the impact it has on people and history.
“These places are layers of history and stories. It goes back and back and back – this guy knows this person, or this person used to be married to her, or her dad used to do this – it’s all kind of tied up. That intermeshed history is fascinating. Council estates are not natural things. They were thrust upon people post-war mostly, a few in between the wars probably, but this idea that everybody is going to live in these huge concrete webs, it’s a strange way of being.
“Jim likes cheesy old Hammer horror movies and there’s this brief mention of a film that has an impact on him called The Stone Tape, this 1970s British teleplay. I watched that and it stuck with me. It’s the concept of what ghosts are – the walls and rocks reclaim and capture humanity that went before it. I feel like the estate is like that, it captures people’s history and just replays it but that affects the next people going on. People are a product of where you’re born and the history that shapes you, the walls that surround you. You can’t divorce the two things.”
Ironopolis spans a good chunk of time (late 1950s to present day) and involved a lot of research.
“When you come to writing about anything other than you, you quickly come to realise how little you know about everything. Even the smallest thing. I had to get books and articles and lectures about the history of social housing and consume it all. In the 60s there wasn’t a stigma [attached to social housing]. It was a home for everybody, and everyone could get one. But now they don’t build them anymore and people are getting left behind. When I really started getting into that, I got angry and I think I used that to write the book.”
The novel raises questions about truth-telling and stories. We are never quite sure if the characters are being honest. “One of the main threads was a son trying to understand the gaps in his own life and family history and put those together to make sense of things but, as I wrote, it made sense that may never be filled.
“I love the writer B.S Johnson. His main thing was complete rigid adherence to what he said was truth, and what he meant by truth was reality. His motto was ‘telling stories is telling lies’ but, to me, that never made sense because it plays such a distinction between reality which is truth, and fiction which is lies. But I’m trying to say this without sounding to pretentious. I think we’re all fiction, we’re not all truth. I’m interested in how people move forward under that knowledge, knowing the you’ll never know the answers to things.”
The ending of the novel is surprising, but not in a bad way. A downside of including multiple voices in one book is that sometimes this can leave the reader feeling confused or short-changed. Ironopolis doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow but it does loop a few narrative strands together.
“Life is rarely wrapped up neatly,” says Brown. “And I just wanted to reflect that.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Ironopolis is published by Parthian Books and is available to buy now.