‘Means nothing to me.’
‘I can help,’ I said tentatively.
He shook his head. ‘No, lad, it’s not that. I can read well enough to understand what it says. It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.’
Amongst a list of hotly tipped books, big-hitters, former shortlistees and award winners, Elmet, the debut novel of Fiona Mozley, was the surprise inclusion on the 2017 Man Booker longlist and, now, of the shortlist. Indeed the only Goodreads review of the book at the announcement date was from an advanced reader credited in the author’s afterword.
Elmet isn’t a striped elephant from a children’s book but rather, per a quote from Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet, which serves as this novel’s epigraph:
‘Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York [. . .] But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-gunnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law’
Nowadays the Elmet name is primarily known (at least to those of us interested in U.K. politics) for the Elmet and Rothwell constituency, one swinging increasingly to the Conservative party as working class communities are displaced by commuters into Leeds.
The ancient area of Elmet also includes the Calder Valley, the setting for The Gallows Pole, a novel I had tipped for and hoped to see on the Booker list, based on the very 17th Century Badlands that Hughes identifies (my review here).
So was Elmet worthy of its place amongst such illustrious company on the Booker list, and indeed worth its place ahead of The Gallows Pole? It is certainly an original and intriguing read.
Mozley’s novel is set in or near the present time; the text is oddly timeless, but the references to the Bosnian and Iraq conflicts and Pendelino trains provide some clues.
Daniel (almost 14) and Cathy (15), having lived for years with their maternal grandmother, move with their father to a house he is constructing deep in a copse:
Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives. Tales of green men peering from thickets with foliate faces and legs of gnarled timber. The calls of half-starved hounds rushing and panting as they snatched at charging quarry. Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants, whistling and wrestling and feasting as freely as the birds whose plumes they stole. An ancient forest ran in a grand strip from north to south. Boars and bears and wolves. Does, harts, stags. Miles of underground fungi. Snowdrops, bluebells, primroses. The trees had long since given way to crops and pasture and roads and houses and railway tracks and little copses, like ours, were all that was left. Daddy and Cathy and I lived in a small house that Daddy built with materials from the land here about. He chose for us a small ash copse two fields from the east coast main line, far enough not to be seen, close enough to know the trains well.
Their father is a giant of a man, the most feared bare-knuckle fighter in all of England, taking on all comers in illegal prize fights the length and breadth of the land.
The slap of shoes against the mud. Men stamping and rubbing their hands. Daddy and the Bear, their fists in guard. Barking dogs. Spitting men. A sticky wind. Ancient oaks arching their backs to cover the scene. The scent of diesel. Diesel, dirt, sweat, blood, burning meat, the sugars dripping from fried onions. A ring of men standing above rings of mushrooms, connected and hidden beneath the earth, and then rings of limestone.
The first half of the novel sets the scene for their unconventional life. They aren’t travelers, but neither are they conventional members of society, largely wanting to be just left alone. Even when living with their grandmother they didn’t really fit in at school, bullied by the other children, and Daniel’s mind often turns back to a time when his sister fought back against some boys tormenting them.
I wondered if she thought about it too. Or if the boys did. Or if any of the other small people at the far reaches of my recollection spent the time that I had thinking about the bits in which they played a part. It seems to me that so much of everything came from this, and that if anyone thought about moments like this enough, the future would be done before it had even started, and I mean that in a good way.
Although Daniel and Cathy were the victims. and the bullies got what they deserved, when the boys complain to their parents, the headmistress takes the boys side. Summoned with Daniel and Cathy to her office, Daniel is disappointed that his father accepts the headmistress’s guilty verdict against Cathy, despite knowing her to be wholly justified in their actions:
Mrs Randell’s assessment was simply the way people saw things, he told us. It was the way the world was and we just had to find methods of our own to work against it and to strengthen ourselves however we could.
They were so nasty to me, Daddy. Not the pain, Daddy, I dindt mind that, but the way they made me feel inside. No matter what I do, I can never win.
‘You did though. You fought them and beat them. You protected your little brother. What more could you do?’ Daddy ran his hands through his hair and then his beard as if searching for an answer there.
‘I mean it doendt matter, does it? I mean that things will always be as they are now. I mean that there will always be more fights and it will just get harder and harder. I feel like I’ll never just be left alone.’
And as they live in their woodland home, their father brings them up to regard themselves as alone and needing to strengthen themselves rather than rely on others, an approach that Cathy wholly embraces:
Cathy took Daddy deadly seriously in his attempts to train us against the world. She found a kind of solace in his tasks. She wanted to be every inch of him but believed what he said about how different she was, about how she had to be good at different things, how she had to find a different way of surviving.
Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. We had been taken out of our school and our hometown to live with Daddy in a small copse. We had no friends and hardly any neighbours. We obtained a form of education from a woman who dropped books lazily into our laps from a library she had developed to suit only her tastes and her own way of thinking.
This woman is Vivien, an old acquaintance of their father’s but very different, living a much more conventional lifestyle. When they are first taken into account, Daniel’s sees her living room: the detailed recollection that he sets out (of which this is only part) is typical of his narration in the novel, perhaps relating to the aforementioned desire to remember things in detail, although the words don’t always ring true in the character’s mouth (and at times feel a little like padding):
There was a deep sofa covered by worn blue velvet, with two large sitting cushions. They dipped to meet each other in the middle but were still quite plump at their outer edges. There was a blanket on one of the arms with a scene stitched together with red and white wool but obscured by the folds. There was a carpet atop a carpet, one grey and fitted to the size and shape of the room, and one a set rectangle with tassels on the two shorter edges and a pattern of lines and angles that I would have sat down on and traced my fingers over were I younger or alone.
Daniel seems to be tempted towards the different lifestyle that he glimpses in his visits to their house, whereas Cathy can’t settle down to study:
I came to prefer the inside to the outside, the armchair, the blankets and cushions, the tea and the teacakes, the curtains and the polished brass, and Vivien’s books, and the comfort of it all. And while I sat and read and drank tea, Cathy walked or ran through the fields and woods and, in her own way, she read the world too.
The differences between Cathy and Daniel, and Cathy’s greater affinity to their father, extend to a theme of gender confusion. Daniel is the homemaker, which causes his father some amusement:
‘Why am I funny?’ I asked.
‘Don’t know. You like making house nice and that.’
And Daniel himself remarks that he never really thought about gender:
You have to appreciate that I never thought of myself as a man. I did not even think of myself as a boy. Of course, if you had asked me I would certainly have replied that that was what I was. It is not as if I had ever actively rejected that designation. I just never thought about it. I had no reason to think about it. I lived with my sister and my father and they were my whole world. I did not think of Cathy as a girl nor as a woman, I thought of her as Cathy. I did not think of Daddy as a man, though I knew that he was.
Various people remark that Daniel more resembles his absent mother, both in looks but even fashion sense, which they sometimes mean as a compliment and others an insult, depending on their view of his father. Daniel says:
I have to admit, I wore my clothes in this manner because I had seen my mother wearing her clothes in this manner. I wore those little T-shirts and those too-tight jeans and I left my midriff bare because I had seen my mother do this. And nobody corrected me. Or nobody noticed. Or it did not matter. Or I do not know what.
The second half of the book takes a more political turn and one that mirrors the author’s own interests and concerns about property ownership (see here).
They are visited by Mr. Price, a rich local landowner. He turns out to own the land on which Daniel’s father had built his house, although the land had been formally owned by Daniel’s mother who first inherited it but then sold it to Price when she had financial problems. Price also turns out to have had a fancy for Daniel’s mother before she eloped with Daniel’s father, who at the time worked for Price as both a prize-fighter and also a hired enforcer.
Price is not treated sympathetically in Daniel’s account:
Mr Price was the sort of man who accelerated his car when pedestrians crossed the road.
[… He] had a few cars but drove his blue Peugeot saloon when visiting tenants. The ones who paid in cash. The rest did informal work for him on his land or elsewhere. They paid their rents through this work. He preferred it that way. That way he did not have to organise wages and they were his to run like dogs. For the most part he had inherited the land he owned.
Daddy said that Mr Price just hated to feel the weight of helplessness. To interfere with the lives of others was to carve for himself a presence in the world. Mr Price detested that which he could not control. We lived here on his doorstep yet he had no access to our lives. We did not pay him rent, we did not work for him, we did not owe him any favours. And so he feared us.
The family start to become involved in the local community, seeking information on the exploitation of both local tenants and also the casual workers by the local landowners, led by Price:
There was little to be had around here. The jobs had gone twenty years ago or more. There was just a couple of warehouses where you could get work shifting boxes into vans. At Christmas-time there were more boxes and more vans but still not enough. There were jobs here and there for women: hairdressing jobs, nannying jobs, shop-assistant jobs, cleaning jobs, teaching-assistant jobs if you had an education. But if you were a man and you wanted odd jobs or seasonal farm work this was where you met.
The workers tell them how they labor for illegally low wages, while claiming benefits. Indeed the only good thing said about Price is that he will at least give you time off to report to the job center, except:
‘He’ll go and dob you in if you cause a fuss. He’ll go and tell job centre you’ve been working for him and he’ll rustle up some bits of paper he says he’s been giving you all along. Payslips and legal stuff. Stuff you’ve never seen before in your life but then it’s suddenly there and it’s your own fault for claiming benefits and for not paying tax or summat, all in one go. Happened to Johnno.’
‘Happened to Tony.’
‘Happened to Chris, and all.’
Similarly the locals complain that their landlords collect the rent but, unlike the council for their tenants, provide no services such as repairs to the property:
It’s land. Only land. I’m paying to live on a piece of land that we, all of us, used to own together. And I’m working as hard as I ruddy can to get enough money to pay for that land that we, all of us, used to own together. And I can’t see reason for any of it, any more.’
They, together with a local called Ewart, start to lead an orchestrated fightback, by collectively withdrawing their labor and withholding their rent, appealing to the times when the workers had strength and power through withdrawing their rent. Although Vivien slightly punctures their pomposity:
I saw that Vivien had been standing with us. She looked at Ewart uncertainly. I was not sure if they knew each other but before I made to introduce them, she spoke. ‘It wasn’t all that wonderful, all the time. Those men who would come together so naturally to support one another would go home drunk and beat their wives.’ Ewart was caught for a moment.
Vivien continued, ‘There are dreams, Ewart, and there are memories. And there are memories of dreams.’
But following initial success, Price and his men fightback, literally, and the struggle ends in a violent and bloody (and to be frank, rather over the top) conclusion, causing Daniel to flee his house and then desperately try to find his sister, walking along the train line to Edinburgh. This story of his search is told not at the end, but rather in brief interspersed chapters.
Elmet is certainly a very strong debut novel, and the Booker jury are to be credited with having bought in to our attention. It’s certainly much stronger and more distinctive that many of the surprise inclusion in previous year’s lists.
However, it is not without a number of flaws. Daniel is not a completely convincing creation: the lyrical prose of his narration doesn’t sit well with his blunt verbal speech and his character is rather exaggeratedly naïve (one remark — “We had driven all the way to Leeds for them” — rather called up Harry Enfield’s blunt-Yorkshire-bloke in my mind (‘Don’t talk to me about sophistication — I’ve been to Leeds’ (see here). And the Vivien – Daniel relationship felt underexplored.
The political aspects of the novel also felt rather unbalanced. Mozley addresses some legitimate concerns, but does so by creating a rather cartoonish protagonist in Price — buy-to-let landlords aren’t all that evil (honest!).