The Back Streets o the Claw

Author: James Fenton

Date: 2001

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 8 Hairst 2001

A Review by James Fenton

Quill and ink

This highly entertaining and always intriguing novel is rightly described as a “companion” to the author’s Wake the Tribe o Dan; in no sense a sequel, it is nevertheless linked to the earlier work both thematically and formally. The rural, to some extent quasi-allegorical, Drumcrun Near and Far are replaced in the Back Streets by an almost typical urban, working-class district, with a population of Ulster-Scots origins, called the Claw, a name which may or may not be variously symbolic. (The blurb’s description of the entire novel as a “humorous fantasy” is quite misleading, and its use of the term “surreal” inappropriate.) The troubled relationship of Betsy and Stephen in the Wake novel is parallelled by the failed one of Lily and Jack; the cultural changes at Drumcrun and the flitting are reflected in the redevelopment of the Claw and the effective diaspora, whether geographical or social, of its denizens; and the role of the “Guilds” in the second novel is as central as that of the Knights of the Gibralter Pass in the first. Most immediately noticeable is the reversal of the identifying linguistic feature of the “kailyard” form: the dialogue of the Claw dwellers is in local vernacular, but the narrative centred on that community is laced with a leaven of Ulster-Scots words and phrases.

The Claw is a city district of terraced houses, ranked “like a mighty redbrick regiment” (an army of long standing, yet soon to be disbanded), the homes of an archetypical working-class community, uniform in its staunch loyalism, but otherwise typically heterogeneous. This district, and this community, in their present form, are doomed, the original mill-linked purpose that brought them there now no more than a part of history and folklore. The people themselves are descended from rural, Ulster-Scots forebears, some from Drumcrun, but that is an aspect of their history that has little conscious part in their lives: “family trees have been left to rot”, their speech “stripped deliberately and willingly” of the Ulster-Scots tongue. Yet, at a deeper level, the expunction is far from total: “The connecting narrative of their very existence was still underwritten with the signature of that hill-billy nation.” (It is to reflect this that the linguistic device referred to is used, a feature about which one has considerable reservation.) That culture and that heritage, in their many manifestations and in their inescapable exposure to economic, political and social change and, by implication, the Ulster-Scots identity itself, are the real concern of this novel, a rich, multifaceted portrayal that manages to combine detachment with empathy, objectivity with (when it can be positively identified) satire.

The novel develops around the short life and often troubled times of young Jack M‘Clean, son of a retired shipyard-worker. More troubled than most else in his life is his relationship with Lily Gamble, daughter of Ernie, also a shipyard-worker, from the lower and, for some, socially inferior end of the Claw. They are employed at Ulidican, a meatcanning factory where both receive promotions which help to bring about the end of their already faltering courtship, Jack’s jealousy growing as their young boss’s amorous interest in Lily becomes ever more apparent. (Ulidican is one of the many names devised to give the author’s themes a relevance beyond the local and specific; they are carefully, often wittily, fashioned; yet the “Cowardies-Shook-On-Us” label will surely not only outrage certain lawmen but test the tolerance of punsters everywhere.) Jack’s is an entirely, and appropriately, ordinary life; but it is the connecting thread which runs through a colourful tapestry of character (characterisation sometimes, and deliberately, verging on caricature) and sub-plot, all portrayed with perspicacity, sympathy and lively humour, and, as in the description of the Ulster-Scots language classes and the faulty Ulster-Scots labelling of streets, with a satire that is gentle rather than savage, a salutary curb on the excesses of all forms of “revivalist” enthusiasm. His life is indeed short. Having given up his job at Ulidican and, subsequently, moved with his parents to Newbiggins, a modern housing estate — a “cold, sterile, hoor’s ghost of a place” — outside the city, he spends most of his time listlessly helping the feckless van-driver Dave in his sometimes shady, always unexciting, tasks, until he finds the answer to his restless seeking in membership of the new police force. It is a fulfilment soon ended by a terrorist’s bullets. His death is preceded by a detailed account of a recuperating stay in hospital and back in the Gambles’ house, of a kind of redemptive reconciliation with Lily and his hitherto neglected roots, and his return to police service, ending in a revelation that is striking, but perhaps not entirely convincing. Short and ordinary his life is, but significant as a generational indicator of the increasing irrelevance of much of the old culture and at least some rejection of the old identity.

Central to all this, but of diminishing importance, is the role of the guilds, organisational composites having something of the character of trade unions, of friendly societies and of secret orders, all members of a loose hierarchical federation. Jack’s initiation into the local “chapter” of the Fleshers and Fowlers Guild (ritual and emblems based on the Old Testament story of Elijah and the ravens) and later the Carriagemen’s Guild (ritual and emblems based on the danite story and fanciful legend, thus representing a kind of closing of the thematic circle) are, like Stephen’s into the Knights in the first novel, to some extent rites of passage. But it is their role and place in the author’s scheme of things which concerns us here. The guilds’ holding of their annual parade in July, marching with painted banners behind bands, must lead to at least partial identification with other well-known organisations; and readers innocent of such arcane experience must surely speculate whether the account of rituals here is a literal one (Is the author a closet Flesher? A covert Danite?). Formally, they are the kind of composites described; but that is of secondary significance. They are ultimately, in the present view, wholly literary creations, allegorical embodiments of ancient and hitherto identifying aspects of the tribal culture, otherwise unrecorded, its essence not susceptible of conventional expression. And they are in decline, their membership ageing, in a changing and encroaching world where sectional or tribal culture and identity must adapt to survive. This is further indicated by the author’s light descriptive touch, detached, a little tongue-in-cheek. (In his initiation into the Carriagemen, Jack is asked to choose between joining the Danite or remaining “an idolatrous priest to Micah”: MICAH being also the acronym for the somewhat tortuously contrived name of the firm in charge, with the cooperation of the local RDA, of the Claw redevelopment.) Yet here, as in the Wake novel, it is not always clear where allegory and satire end and “straight” depiction begins. (One detects, or suspects, at times the perhaps insidious influence of Flann O’Brien, whose writing is altogether sui generis. This is absolutely not to imply that the Robinson novels are in any way derivative.) A possibly more serious doubt arises from technical considerations. There is the persistent impression that the novels’ two elements — that just described and the day-to-day chronicling — sit somewhat uneasily together, not quite fully integrated in a unified organic realisation of the author’s vision.

It might, however, be argued that the doubts expressed find at least some resolution in the short but concentrated denouement. Is it set against the background of the guilds’ parade a year on from Jack’s death. Here, unlike Noah’s errant scout, the author’s corvine symbols return in some profusion. Three women in mourning black are like the “three craas on a wall”; two “enormous crows” are regularly perched on the heating tower which has replaced the reeking lum-pots of the old Claw; and, more importantly, the black commemorative bows on top of the banners come “bobbing down the Blackfort Road like a line of Ravens” which appear to be carrying not meat but the painted banners themselves, “food for thought, perhaps, to anybody tempted to think of the Claw as only bricks and mortar.” As the “bright, bounding river of colour” approaches, the women are enabled “to trace the rainbow through the rain.” It is this symbol and guarantee of God’s post-diluvian covenant that is the basis of Lily’s hope, the underpinning of her enduring faith in the “unending dawn” of a Claw with a reality, an imperishable soul, beyond the merely physical or symbolic.

That, in essence, is the story of the Claw and its people. Much has had to be omitted in a necessarily impressionistic account: the rich gallery of such colourful characters as Ernie in the role of backyard inventor and pigeon-fancier; “Hambo” Jack, the local “hard man” and his devious associate Len Bones, with their paramilitary ensnaring of the lapsed Catholic living in the Claw through his mixed marriage; Sammy Agnew the street-corner preacher, confident he has “catched” the dying Jack in time; Sally the long-suffering wife of Dave, whose seemingly doomed marriage finds a saving transformation; and beside all this, the ever-stirring presence of the “other” community in the nearby Mossvale area. All this is told, as noted, with keen insight and abounding humour. One’s reservations have been stated, and they remain. There is, however, a further, pertinent consideration. Creative writers usually (and usually rightly) follow their vision with compelling dedication, aloof from and wholly impervious to myopic criticism and blinkered doubt; and if, as anticipated, the author completes a trilogy with a third companion volume, the realisation of that vision may then also be complete indeed, the critic confounded and the doubter silenced. It is an intriguing prospect. Meanwhile, one hopes that enough has been said here to send those who have not yet done so hurrying to read the novel and its fellow, which remain the absorbing products of a truly original imagination, a formidable creative talent.

[The Back Streets o the Claw by Philip Robinson is published by the Ullans Press].



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