Anne Fine has written six novels for adults. All but one are black comedies. (The first was just black.) They sell tremendously well in Europe, less well in Britain, and not at all in America. In Britain, she is best known as a prestigious writer for children, having twice won both the children's Whitbread Award and the Carnegie Medal. She has also won, among other prizes, the Guardian Children's Fiction Award and the Smarties Award. She was Children's Laureate from 2001 to 2003. Anne is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been made an OBE for her work for children's literature. Her latest novel for adults is the coruscating Raking the Ashes. Below she reviews Bernard Hare's Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, and Alexander Masters' Stuart: a life backwards.
Anne Fine on Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew by Bernard Hare, and Stuart: a life backwards by Alexander Masters
Staggering across London a couple of months ago with a heavy bag of books to furnish a heavy week of work, I was accosted by a merry and healthy-looking young man slouching companionably with one of his mates against a wall - all four of their legs sticking out irritatingly far across the pavement.
Taking care not to knock over his beer can, he waved the fag in his hand in my direction as I passed. 'You look like the sort of person who could easily spare me a couple of pounds,' he offered.
'And you look like the sort of person who could smarten yourself up in no time and go and get a job,' I retorted.
Not a bit like me, but I had reached some sort of cracking point. And that's what I absolutely love about both of these books, in some ways so alike, and both so very worth reading.
Bernard Hare was born in 1958. He's the son of a miner. He had a grammar school education, and after taking his degree worked as a social worker till, disillusioned with the system after the 1984 miners' strike, he dropped out and fell into a few of the bad habits shared by Urban Grimshaw, aged twelve, whom he met on the grim Leeds estate where they both live. Young Urban, with whom he managed to make friends, was a malnourished, illiterate and, even by today's standards, breathtakingly ignorant twelve-year-old mucking about with his anarchic gang of homeless, glue-sniffing, joy-riding kids. There were more than half a dozen of them - male and female - and they had the run of the shed in someone's back garden - one of those 'feral gangs' of which we hear so much. Kind, amiable Bernard graphically describes exactly how the estate has changed for the worse since he himself grew up there. He felt impelled to pitch in and help, and had the skills to hang in and - up to a point - even succeed.
This book is so damn funny. I know we're supposed to go all po-faced when we're faced with children who have been so desperately failed by their parents (my God! their parents! wait till you read about them!), failed by their communities, and failed by society generally. But, let's face it, like that great hulking lad who was cluttering up the pavement rather than shaping up enough to get a job, they get horribly on your nerves. They're graceless, unrewarding, and seemingly deliberately make it almost impossible for anyone to want to keep on trying to help them for long. The average wishy-washy middle-class liberal like myself finds herself thrashing desperately between her worthy political world view of them as victims and sheer annoyance at their failure to seize their chances.
Bernard Hare is a far more cuddly and sympathetic and generous person than I will ever be. (I could try telling myself that the difference between us is that he hasn't burned himself out raising kids of his own, but I know he's just nicer.) Still, he captures this ambivalence brilliantly. He's laconic, droll and deeply, deeply honest. I learned a huge amount about life on the worst of our housing estates. I shivered deliciously. I laughed like a drain. And I came out more of a liberal than I went in in some ways and less of a sap in others.
As it happens, I'd already bought Alexander Masters' book on much the same subject. The hopeless case Masters is focusing on is Stuart, a not-quite-right-in-the-head beggar he gets to know during the campaign to get two charity workers released from prison after a draconian decision following little drug deals on the premises of their hostel for the homeless in Cambridge. Remember the case? Stuart's dead now, but Masters charts his life for us. (Yes, backwards. Don't ask. But it works.) Masters is posher than Hare, but he's just as honest and just as funny. As in Hare's book, the insights come tumbling out on every page. It's as readable as any novel.
I'm Grumpy Old Woman age. Sometimes I look around at everything crumbling about me and try to comfort myself that at least it's all good fodder for Britain's last, unfailing redoubts of good cheer: Have I Got News for You, The News Quiz, The Now Show, etc.
Now these two books have given me a further consolation. They are a pair of absolutely brilliant reads. (Don't skimp. Read both.) I'm hoping neither author moves into my own patch - black comedy - to hot up the competition.
And will I, in future, snap back so fast at any of the fit young men cluttering up the London pavements, begging?
Not telling. Not even sure myself.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]