Crapping on your doorstep
In this Block There Lives a Slag
Bill Broady Flamingo, 242pp, £9.99
Before quitting journalism to write novels, I worked in what one profile piece called the "grim northern city of Bradford". As a Londoner newly resident in Yorkshire, I found this a curious phrase - especially because the hack who had interviewed me hailed from Rotherham. Was there a hierarchy of provincial grimness? On a tourist map of the post-industrial north, did a deposed wool capital merit more Grimelin stars than a blighted coal-and-steel town? More likely, the description was lazy journalese; noun and adjectival stereotypes fused by repeated usage - Bradford = North = Grim.
Bill Broady has spent many years in and around Bradford, and now lives there again. As the title of his accomplished - often remarkable - collection suggests, there is grimness in these loosely linked fictions. It is not, however, a grimness that panders to preconception. Rather, here is a city, its Pennine hinterland and people reconstituted in one man's singular vision. As he warps the real to create the surreal, the effect is to jolt the audi- ence into another way of seeing. Among Broady's talents, in this respect, is the culling of humour from darkest premise. After hearing a Bradfordian boast that "our lad" (Peter Sutcliffe) had claimed more victims than "that London bugger" (Jack the Ripper), the narrator tells us: "I submitted that to the Dalesman's 'My Favourite Yorkshire Story' section but, for some reason, they declined to print it."
This is from "Bouncing Back", the story title reiterating the slogan of a 1980s campaign to revitalise Bradford. In the days before spin-doctoring, this was a strategy ahead of its time - low on substance, high on presentation. Broady satirises it superbly, exposing the patronising subtext that folk are dumb enough to believe urban decay can be reversed by a marketing stunt deploying actors in bear costumes. Irony informs another story, "Tony Harrison", in which a would-be poet in a dilapidated block of flats learns that the Bard of the North is moving in next door. But this Tony Harrison turns out to be a thief who hides in utilities ducts to evade gangland retribution.
Sink housing estates and urban anomie are not as pervasive as might be inferred from the book's title. (The title story, incidentally, gets its name from a line of lyrically vengeful graffiti daubed by a wronged lover.) Now and then, Broady's landscape brightens from grey to green. And when he ventures into the dales and moors, he again eschews cliche, refusing to straddle the Bronte-Heartbeat fault line of idealised rural Yorkshire. From a youth who impresses girls by wrestling a Swaledale ram, to moortop hikes with a boyhood mate turned depressive, this is a far more diverting place. We also enjoy an evening in London, at Ronnie Scott's, with the funniest depiction of a jazz gig I have ever read.
Broady is an elegantly muscular writer, and a bold one. Swimmer, his moving debut novel about an exploited sportswoman, is told entirely in the second person. And while the stories of In This Block use a more conventional, first-person form, there is a refreshing honesty in the interrogation of the subject and in the introspection of a narrator who, at times, must stand at short autobiographical remove from the author. On occasion, he is too erudite, too culturally referential, for the good of the fiction. And the shortest pieces - "Coddock", in particular - lack distillation, reading as if they were treatments awaiting proper development. But even here we see the assured prose and the observation, pathos, wit and character study that mark the collection. The one duff note is the somewhat forced "Mr Personality in the Field of Poses".
I suspect Bradford will fume at Broady. Civic leaders, notables, the local media and - by prejudicial osmosis - citizens will be offended by what will doubtless be construed as the crime of crapping on one's doorstep. But these Yorkshire fables, as Broady calls them, are more Grimm realist than grim realist. And he shares with Hockney, another local lad made good, the art of surprising us with a perspective of a place we thought we knew. Surely Bradford, or anywhere else, can bounce back from that.
Martyn Bedford lives in the picturesque moorland town of Ilkley, near Bradford