‘If you’re not angry, you’re not listening’ is the message on the front of Sitting Ducks and it’s hard to disagree. Lisa Blower isn’t alone in using literature to explore post-industrial Britain, but where others may struggle for authenticity, her first novel convincingly captures the world of zero-hours contracts and profiteering landlords.
Stoke-on-Trent is the setting, but the city-region better known as the Potteries is much more than a backdrop, running through the book like the lettering in a stick of rock. Even the title has a double meaning as ‘duck’ is a common term of endearment in Stoke.
The demise of steel production and coal mining hit the city hard and cheap global production of pottery led to the closure of dozens of factories and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. In the city’s heyday, Potteries-born author Arnold Bennett (Anna of the Five Towns) would take great pride in turning over plates to show his dinner guests the mark of his hometown. Teapots and dinner services are still made with love and craft in north Staffordshire, but on nothing like the scale they once were.
Lisa Blower’s protagonist Josiah ‘Totty’ Minton is one of the many men unable to fill the hole in his pride and his pockets left by the vanished pots and pits. Totty and his mother Constance are struggling to hold onto their house and their hope. Houses have changed hands for a pound in Stoke – sadly, this is not fiction – and Constance battles to hold the family together despite serious illness. Totty cannot find work and represents the generation of men left behind, as jobs migrate to warehouses and call centres. Talking to his son, Joss, he is only articulate in describing his despair. “I was born for summat and I’ll die for nowt cos this world don’t need men like me. Robot does it faster. Computer don’t need paying.”
Lisa Blower has created strong characters and given a timely voice to the legions of people struggling to regain a sense of purpose, pride and community
And men make trouble and join unions too, Totty says. Joss is saddled with the burden of parental expectation, but feels he cannot escape his upbringing despite his talent. He’s the brightest lad in the year but resents being used as a ‘poster boy’ for the downtrodden and when Totty tells him he’s different he replies: “I can’t be. I’d never fucking survive round here if I was.”
Joss has to blend in and that means acceptance of his surroundings. A line of social workers and councillors passes through the Mintons’ lives but never gets to grips with their problems. Malcolm Gandy, the predatory landlord, is always looking for properties to buy and rent and the Mintons can only watch as he snaps up the houses around them. There are no chapters in Sitting Ducks. The author opts instead for rounds, as in boxing, to capture the arguments. In Round 35, Constance describes the long list of neighbours that once surrounded her, now gone forever.
There is a stark message about what has been lost, but if this all sounds too depressing or without hope, it isn’t. Humour is always there (except perhaps for the Lib-Dems following the 2010 election). As Constance observes: “The one with the least votes has become the kingmaker. Nick Clegg could finally spin – “I’m with the band.””
There is tenderness and beauty too, with a wonderful comparison between the delicate handling of fine bone china and Totty as a baby boy. Constance says of Totty’s father: “Then he’d carry them away, like porcelain babes, and hand them over to the dippers who’d plunge them into love once more.”
Characters are summed up with economy and skill. There’s Rhonda, the ex-social worker, who “can fill a phone box with her chub and gristle and ginger ale skin.”
And Frank Blatch’s father: “Gunner in Korea he was, two perforated eardrums. Had no balance after that. Used to keep buckets on the stairs for he when he went up, he’d be that sick.”
Despite moving across the Midlands, Lisa Blower has retained a Bennett-like (Alan rather than Arnold this time) ear for the rhythm of Potteries speech. “She went to Australia: fat as butter, stack of kids, never writes.”
The Potteries dialect is said to be close to Old English and words such as ‘werritin’ (worrying) will have many readers heading for Google, but this isn’t a bad thing in an era of homogenised speech.
I’d like to have heard more from Joss (can he escape his surroundings?) and his imaginative sister Kirty and I can’t help thinking Totty’s temper and diminutive stature would’ve got him into deeper trouble or danger. Sitting Ducks may be too political for a minority of readers but it is the characters’ voices that come through rather than any agenda of the author. A few typos that crept in will be spotted by locals – Wedgwood incorrectly spelt with an extra ‘e’ – but Lisa Blower has created strong characters and given a timely voice to the legions of people struggling to regain a sense of purpose, pride and community.
British politicians have been scratching their heads in recent months and if they really don’t understand the frustration that exists out there, they should read this book.
Failing that they could always help the craftsmen of the Potteries and buy a plate “baked with love” instead.
Richard Lakin trained as a chemist and has worked as a policeman on the London Underground, a farm labourer, print journalist and pharmaceutical salesman among other occupations. His short stories and travel writing have won prizes in the Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers in the UK and been published extensively in magazines and online. He lives in Staffordshire, England.
His blog can be found at richlakin.wordpress.com