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by Jim Westover
Silverwood Books, £11.99
ONE of the golden rules for writing your first piece of fiction is to stick to a scenario you know.
In this, his debut novel, Jim Westover sets his story against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, focusing on the 1984 miners’ strike, not in Yorkshire, but in Westover’s home town of Brightlingsea, Essex.
The story is told in a first-person narrative from the lips of Jarrod Brooks, both hero and rebel without a cause.
This young man has just been expelled from a state boarding school — I won’t reveal why — and returns home only to find that his left-wing mother has allocated his bedroom to a striking miner. Puzzling, because they don’t live close to a coalmine.
The new arrival has come to join the picket lines at key British ports in an attempt to stop shipments of coal being brought in from other countries as a way of breaking the strike.
Jarrod joins him on the picket line, but the police violence he faces makes him cough and retch, and feel real fear. The swinging truncheons are evidence of police and politicians working in unison.
Jarrod is quite a mixture: aware that his birth was the result of a one-night stand, he doesn’t get on with his step-father, but he’s smitten by a no-nonsense feminist, Verity, who hates patriarchy and doesn’t want to be “anybody’s bird.”
Verity wears a “Coal not Dole” badge (I’ve still got mine). While on the picket line, Jarrod sees a small piece of coal by his foot and puts it into his pocket to show to Verity, as proof he was there.
She accepts this, but inwardly recognises that producing a piece of coal from your pocket proves nothing. Nevertheless, eight years later, the piece of coal is still in his pocket.
It’s Jarrod’s dodgy mates and their shared activities that take over Jarrod’s life and he ends up with a custodial sentence.
He has a tricky time in jail, but manages to read Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, mainly to impress Verity. Alas, by the time he finishes the book, she has finished with him.
The story moves from one situation to another as Jarrod proceeds on his experiential journey through Thatcher’s Britain. He and his friends feel like real-life characters in a fictionalised setting.
There’s a reason for the book’s title, Penknife. The knife represents misplaced loyalties, violence, criminality and toxic masculinity. By contrast, the pen symbolises self-discovery, reflection, sexual awakening and redemption.
Jarrod experiences both pen and knife in many diverse ways as the story progresses.
This book captures the culture and politics of Thatcher’s Britain: the music scene, protest songs, fashion, class struggle, feminism, sexual politics, industrial unrest, the workings of the law and petty criminality.
People all across the country strongly supported the miners’ cause and most of you reading this review will remember the miners’ strike and might well have been involved in direct action.
In order to raise money for miners’ families, I swam between the two piers at Blackpool at the time of the Labour Party annual conference and was chased all the way by a soiled disposable nappy!
Anyway, thanks to the generosity of others, the action raised £6,000.
Seen through the perspective of a young man full of both good intentions and weaknesses, Penknife is a highly readable book, gritty, poignant, funny, at times tragic, and set against the political and economic dogma we now call “Thatcherism,” but whose continuity is easily recognised in today’s Westminster debacles.
It may be Westover’s first novel, but I predict it won’t be his last. A good read.
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