Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Week Twenty-One - Jeanette

Three Blind Mice by Caron Freeborn (2001)
Recommended by Naomi

This weekend, family has been high in my mind.

My uncle died. He was a gentle, gentle man. That gentleness is the main thing I recall right now (well, and that he ate his tea very slowly, which became something of a standing joke among the relatives – ah, those little foibles, always jumped on and exaggerated in a family). I’ll be going back to Norwich for the first time in nearly two years, and seeing people I haven’t seen for even longer, not since my own father’s funeral in 2006. That’s how family goes as you get older, I suppose. If you don’t have children of your own, the word becomes ever increasingly synonymous with rot and loss. Slowly, those people who knew you as a barely-formed, instinctive thing depart: the character you were before self-consciousness, before wanting to impress friends and lovers, before the branding iron of the day-to-day burned the skin.

What has this to do with Three Blind Mice? Nothing, really. It has a family in it, the Spences, but then most books have a significant family in it somewhere, even if it is one in absentia. It is about a working class family, but the differences between the Spences’ version of working class and the Leeches’ version of working class are such that I might as well compare my family to the Tudors. The Spences live in the East End, call each other the c-bomb all the time, and indulge in the odd bit of arson and GBH. We, er, didn’t.

Although Three Blind Mice is more thoughtful than a TV show such as Shameless, I do get a little edgy with works like this. When class is a central part of a book – and it often is with working-class authors, in a way it normally isn’t for other classes – it’s a difficult thing to get right. As Jude wrote in Week Fourteen, Jeanette Winterson is very skilled at honestly unpicking her roots while managing not to stereotype, or to come across with a massive chip on her shoulder. I also think the first series of The Royle Family did this very well. Apart from the major signifier of their house d├ęcor, identity was expressed incrementally, via tiny details. My favourite vignette is where Twiggy comes round to the house, to flog some cheap Wash ‘n’ Go; he says it’s ‘like in the shops, but there’s Arabic writing on the bottles.’ Most families can relate to incidents like these. Another example is the brilliant scene where Nanna Royle gets giddy at seeing a woman from Droylsden undergo a makeover on This Morning (‘Droylsden’s only ten minutes from me’). Nannas from Lancashire to Berkshire might do this. Taken individually, the incidents of The Royle Family are widely relatable; taken together, they paint an effective and human picture of a family who are, both economically and culturally, working-class.

At a time when the working-class is demonized by government, one could argue that it’s harder to write these natural depictions. Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash might, in 2013, think twice about creating Jim Royle. They may, for example, worry that they were propagating the myth that all people on benefits are ‘scroungers’, or simply think that an audience would not sympathise with a family who didn’t do much paid work, but who did watch a lot of telly.

Caron Freeborn was writing Three Blind Mice at the time when the grating Guy Ritchie fad for working-class gangsters was still flaring, and her book bears the mark of this. The main plot – which, until the end, is mainly a framing device for the issues she wants to explore rather than acting as a strong spine to the book – is debt collection gone awry, violent confrontation, stool pigeons and fall guys. This, in itself, is pretty Mitchell-brothers-in-Eastenders fare, but what Freeborn does well is – as in The Royle Family – humanizing the Spences through tiny details. I particularly enjoyed Darren (or ‘Spence’, the brother, and main hard nut of the book) and his almost constant observations of life’s minutiae.

Ben got a Mars out. Unwrapped it slow, more than what was natural.

Fucking nail varnish though – that white stuff what made out like it weren’t meant to show, but it was.

Rosie, the spiky sister, is the main focus of the book. Much of the story concentrates on her relationship with Alex, a rather earnest middle-class substance misuse worker. About a third of the way through, the dynamic between the pair is explored.

She offered him the glass, but when he went to take it, instinctively she refused to let go; he swore under his breath but leaned forward to sip as she held it. Rosie wiped her thumb across his lips.
                        ‘Thank you’.

Soon, their domination-submission dynamic is expressed sexually. Freeborn writes this aspect very believably; it’s far from the millionaire-in-sex-dungeon stuff. Instead, it’s often messy and instinctual, Rosie and Alex getting off on everyday circumstances such as muddy walks as well as via their more theatrical situations. Curiously, few of these scenes are really sexually explicit. I wonder, if Freeborn was writing Three Blind Mice in a post-Fifty Shades world, whether she would have written (or been encouraged to write) in a more detailed and overtly erotic prose style.

The hurt gleefully suffered by Alex is in contrast to the fate of the most interesting character in the book for me, Ben. Ben is Darren’s friend, and has been in love with Rosie for as long as he can remember (although has never got anywhere with her). He’s not a particularly pleasant person – racist and sexist, to start with – but has flashes of self-awareness and real poignancy.

At this rate, him and Spence’d end up two lonely old gits, off down The Mice every night with no-one giving a toss if they got off their heads.

Mixed up with Darren in the shadowy criminal netherworld, he suffers a horrific facial injury. Unlike the middle-class Alex, he’s not playing at pain, and nor can he cover up his wounds.

He touched the scars. Felt horrible, they did, like he was growing extra skin, with lumps underneath it. Him and Spence had took the piss something chronic out of Paul Carter for his acne at school, even now he was called Crater Face. They’d call him [Ben] something soon, if they never already.
            ‘Rosie, what do they call me?’
She never made out for one second like she didn’t know what he was on about.
‘Frankenstein,’ she said. Looked right at him. ‘Franky. Won’t be long before they’re calling you it to your face.’

Like my uncle with his leisurely eating habits, then.

Ben’s own family comes second very much to how he feels about Rosie and Darren; they are his people, his safe space in the world, even though his involvement with them ends up being far from safe.

And that’s, I suppose, how I want to wind up this rather rambling post, a post that (sorry) has been far less about the book and far more about my own tricky few days. For Naomi has been a very good friend to me over the last near-decade. Absolutely unshockable, she rallies round during difficult times, and her help does more than to tackle the problem in hand. I’ve always believed in myself that extra half an inch after a conversation with her.

For years now I’ve seen more of friends like Naomi than of any family member. So, friends, family: the distinction is a matter for semantics.