By Barney Farmer
Wrecking Ball Press, 2019
If you’ve encountered Barney Farmer’s work at all, it’ll likely be for his cartoons with Lee Healey, published in Viz but also spreading across the internet: most notably Drunken Bakers, the bleakly compelling tale of a hellish alcoholic bakery, and the Male Online, a study of a certain kind of ageing middle-class reactionary bile. In recent years, he’s expanded his range to novels, or perhaps epic poems: first Drunken Baker, which expanded the character of a pissed-up cartoon baker into a sprawling, mournful examination of the effects of thirty or forty years of neoliberalism, and now Coketown, his second book.
There’s a tangled ball of themes that swirl through a lot of Farmer’s work: the things that get labelled as deindustrialisation, austerity, neoliberalism, as experienced through life in run-down Northern towns, and the mess of resentments that tend to accompany it. In a sense, his work is the polar opposite of a Guardian writer swinging into a Northern town looking for a convenient artisanal pizza shop owner to say something bad about Corbyn, and then disappearing back to the capital: for some people, “left-behind towns” or “the Red Wall” are something that only registers on scattered occasions like the aftermath of the Brexit vote or the 2019 General Election. And then there are others who spend their whole lives in these places.
Coketown is a book about one such town, identifiable as Preston but never named. It begins with an examination of how official memory distorts a massacre carried out by troops in 1842: “Look what happened, not what was done, what simply occurred… Another grey area softly absolving those who pulled triggers, who ordered triggers pulled, who placed trigger-pullers in this town on that street that night.” The book was written before the George Floyd uprising, but state violence and the “past exonerative tense” that erases it are timeless themes. As Farmer says, “This not unique, is universal. Governed, groomed by the governing, the patient work of hands and minds over centuries, guiding a narrative, balancing our past.”
After promising an examination of the town’s “stint at the epicentre of a soon-to-be-global struggle, then new-born, crying out, now dying, old, the pitting of flesh against gold”, the book then shifts its scope: the main plot of the novel describes the narrator meeting up with an old friend in a pub, but the heart of the book is in the constant wanderings and stream-of-consciousness digressions.
In a recent review for Tribune, Dominic Fox identifies one of the defining features of Farmer’s voice as being “a nervy readiness to undercut its own assertions in the midst of making them… a voice which has fully interiorised the answering voice of the heckler”. Instead of the kind of authoritative voice that promises Great Claims to Objectivity and Truth, Farmer’s style is one that is constantly contradicting itself, and then contradicting that contradiction: “The aim was never a meticulous accumulation of all available data placed in a logical order then woven into a page-turning yarn. If that’s what you want jog on. Can’t help you. Don’t want to. Probably against you.”
As you may have gathered, it’s not an easy book to summarise for review purposes: a reflection about the uses and misuses of history turns into trying to remember which Chuckle Brother went UKIP, which flows into a description of the search for meaning by isolated, atomised individuals, and then arrives at a suicide. But certain themes turn up again and again, such as “patriots stirred with a burning sense of being cheated, robbed, swindled, by anyone and everyone, everyone except those who are actually cheating, robbing and swindling them.”
There’s a powerful depiction of far-right street violence: “But laughter came hard, choked in the throat, watching Dibble chased up the road, ducking stiff-arm shoves and hurtled cans, driven back by nutters up for anything… Don’t worry too much. They won’t win. Unless they do.”
Later, he reflects on “What you meant to do with these people – those you are emotionally saddled with, by blood or time – start to swing far far further and further right under the indignity and pain of age? … Age reveals, it never changes… And lately lots of middle-to-late-middle-aged English men are revealed as venomous.”
Yet another tangent reflects on the Great Wetherspoons Dilemma: “Set out to shun ‘spoons soon as that wanker got politics under his mullet and started putting nationalist agitprop out at Curry Club. He turned the breakfast pinters against us, the Full English sots. Trouble is, nobody else will do you a double good rum, not your Lamb’s Navy crap, and free mixer, for the same you’d pay for a single anywhere outside a working men’s club. Will they though? So what’d you do? In hard times? Wind in your neck, suck up the value. Easier, the principled stand, when one has cash in hand.”
Fittingly for a story set in pubs, piss becomes another theme trickling through the text. One unforgettable interlude involves the fear of being caught pissing in the sink by a relative or friend of the pub landlord:
“‘Who in fuck d’you think you are pissing in that sink?’
‘I’m a distinctive working class literary voice mate, trying to capture and communicate something true, in a form which although superficially stylised is in fact a hyper-realisti-’
Bang, and I’m down and wriggling in the piss of ages, cock still trickling.”
By this point, you probably know whether or not you want to read a meandering, rambling account of a night spent in shithole pubs accompanied by an aging bigot. If such a book doesn’t appeal to you, there’s not much I can say to change your mind. But if you are up for an account of life in the fabled “red wall” by someone who actually lives there and will still be dwelling amongst the mess once the Guardian journalists finish their artisan pizzas and go home, a tale of “Pasts we can’t face, shit gets forgot. Toxic masculinity. All sorts, it’s vague”, then you’re unlikely to find one funnier or more insightful than Coketown.
~ Cautiously Pessimistic