Sometimes these characters go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Show Hide image

Check your privilege: satire is lacking in Left of the Bang by Claire Lowdon

A “cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores” prevent this debut novel becoming the “Vanity Fair for our times” that it promises.

Left of the Bang
Claire Lowdon
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £14.99

The blurb on the debut novel by the young critic and editor Claire Lowdon promises “a ­Vanity Fair for our times”, capturing “the foibles, hopes and difficulties that characterise a strata of young Londoners today”. If you’d like to know which “strata” we are dealing with, let me paint a picture. They have names like Tamsin, Serena, Bertrand and Ludo. They eat “supper” in gastropubs in Holland Park or Herne Hill. Sometimes they go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Among their set, the following can kick off a steamy first date:

Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.

An ideal target for satire. But as the caricatures continued to mount – one character plays “the incredibly rare oboe d’amore” while another wears “brown deck shoes, and Aertex polo shirts in navy blue and racing green” – I became less convinced that the necessary skewering would come.

Take the arrival of “Big Mac” Ollie Macfarlane at “an old south London pub that had recently been subjected to a trendy makeover”. “Big Mac was a consultant at Deloitte,” the narrator explains. “He had a fine bass voice; at Cambridge, he had been a King’s Scholar. His intention had been to work at Deloitte for a few years to build up his savings, then make a go of it as a singer – a plan he talked about with decreasing conviction as each year went by.”

This is pretty much all we learn about Big Mac. He is nothing more than a type. Left of the Bang (a military term for “the build-up to an explosion”) is saturated with these kinds of detail. It is not a revelation of souls but of CVs.

Much of this gossipy material is excavated from the snobby, bitter mind of Tamsin Jarvis, a floundering 26-year-old pianist who has refused to speak to her well-known conductor father, Bertrand, after discovering that he was having an affair when she was 12 years old (her comeuppance at the end of the novel, after perpetrating a betrayal of her own, is that Daddy buys her a flat).

Tamsin is in love with Callum, an arriviste – he is, spit, from Glasgow. She fancies Callum because, as we all know, princesses like a bit of rough. That is, unless the rough isn’t actually as rough as expected (Callum teaches classics at a private school and loves it). He represents a “vague yet unequivocally positive concept” that Tamsin calls “the Real World”. He chides her slummy affectations – socialism, Stravinsky, cigarettes – while she resents him for his regional accent, a “social advantage” that “won him un-worked-for respect”.

Complicating things further is the Rugby boy (bursary, you know) Chris, who shows up one evening at a fancy-dress party and is now a second lieutenant in the army, preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. (What is it with posh people and fancy dress?) There’s a lot of sex. Actually, there’s a lot of agonising about sexual stuff. Instead of the crescendo to infidelity that the reader expects – the bang? – what follows is a 300-page discussion of two couples’ sexual problems: those of Tamsin and Callum (the usual guy thing) and of Chris and Callum’s flatmate, Leah (the usual girl thing).

One further problem is the way the narrator insists on doing the reading for us. For instance, when Callum delivers a stilted line – “It’s good to have you around,” he tells Chris; “You’re a great guy” – the narrator informs us that this is a stilted line. When a squaddie makes a joke about a test tube and a female lab technician, the ­“banality of his humour” is noted. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to like or loathe these people – which is fair enough but presumably we should find them interesting. Just because a poor joke has been signalled, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It makes the reader less likely to identify the subtler writing in the book, as when, the day after Chris’s return, Tamsin watches Callum “running a hand over his khaki-coloured hair, which immediately sprang back to attention” – a line that would be ruined were it followed by: “Tamsin had a bad habit of making occupational metaphors to remind the reader who it was she really fancied.”

Lowdon makes the most of Afghanistan, using that military catastrophe to contrive romance and excitement in an era defined by millennial apathy and fatigue. Left of the Bang is a competent stab at the contemporary social novel, marred by a cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496