My review of Coketown, Barney Farmer’s second novel, is now up at Tribune.
A recurring gag in the late-60s Frankie Howerd comedy vehicle Up Pompeii! was its protagonist’s inability ever to get to the end of narrating ‘the prologue’: each attempt at beginning the ‘official’ story would be rapidly derailed by the unfolding farce. In a similar way, Farmer is repeatedly pulled off his pedestal as narrator and would-be historical sleuth, and plunged into miry personal reflection and jarring happenstance. Dickens, Hard Times and the political violence of the distant past get an occasional look-in, but the ‘threads’ holding it all together largely hang slack. This isn’t — can’t be — that sort of novel…
It’s almost impossible to imagine a TV adaptation of Healey and Farmer’s Drunken Bakers being made at the moment (there’s a stage version, which apparently has gone down quite well) — we have plenty of room for fantasy, but little for scatological bleakness. The innovative stuff at the moment is formally clever (Fleabag, Russian Doll, I May Destroy You) and intersectionally adroit, but firmly anchored to a “cultured” milieu. Possibly this sounds like a whinge that the stories of defunct white male plebs aren’t being told, but this is less about race or even class in a straightforward sense (the Bakers are if anything petit bouge, assuming they own their own bakery) than it is about picturing social and personal decay without any supporting “aspirational” frame, or reassuring hooks into middle-class culture.
(Obviously things get tricky if you start questioning the way the aspirational frame works in that part of UK black culture which makes it onto TV, and I don’t think Michaela Coel is in any way a dupe of that framing, but it’s still notable that it’s pretty much mandatory at this point)
A problem I don’t get into in the review is that the prevailing morality in comedy at the moment says that you mustn’t “punch down”, which means that you must always have in mind which way is “up”, and only those on the up-and-up can be safely depicted as morally deformed by their circumstances. Whereas Healey/Farmer take a Hogarthian view, in which social decay rots lives at all levels, and are wholly prepared to depict those on the sharp end of current social arrangements as venal, cruel and brutal in their own right. It’s not about apportioning blame, it’s about showing that social fragmentation does actually damage people, damage relationships, make people meaner and smaller (and, often, sillier) than they otherwise would be.
It’s a balancing act — years ago I stopped reading Viz for a while because I felt the depiction of Tasha Slapper was just unfettered prole-bashing, no better than Benefits Street or whatever. I think Healey and Farmer generally get it right — their sympathies are reliably with the meek and downtrodden — but they do also have plenty of room for depictions of monstrous spite, rage, self-regard and malicious cunning.