Novel of the week

The Men from the boys

Philip Collins <em>HarperCollins, 358pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0007126174

Whatever else Philip Collins does with his life, he has managed the unusual feat of combining the words "think-tank director" and "novelist" on his CV. Having spent most of my adult life in or around think-tanks, the thought of reading a novel by almost anyone I work with would normally fill me not so much with dread as with a profound longing for alcohol, or something else to numb the pain. Statistics and wonkery do not a novel make. It is not the least of the achievements of Collins - who is director of the Uber-Blairite Social Market Foundation - that his book does not read as if it has been published by a think-tank. I didn't spot a single statistic or policy proposal. Perhaps they were all excised from his first draft.

In truth, Collins has pulled off a neat trick: he has written a book that can be read on at least two levels - as the latest contribution to the "how men think" debate, and as a piece of neo-Dickensian social commentary, albeit with a narrow focus. This is the story of Adam and Kevin, who are neighbours on a council estate in Bolton. Although they are best friends and blood brothers (Collins is particularly good on such peculiar boyish rites), Adam is bookish while Kevin is a gifted footballer. Collins charts their lives over a generation. The plot is obvious from the first page, so I am not giving much away by saying that, while Adam enjoys the classic "poor boy makes good" success, Kevin's life falls apart. Given that Collins is writing a book not so much about Adam and Kevin but about class, fortune and social mobility, it would be easy for The Men from the Boys to be painfully didactic, the characters mere mouthpieces for his purpose. Yet they aren't. Nor are they mere archetypes. They are recognisable, yes. But they live and breathe. Even though I knew what was going to happen next (when has a book about two lifelong friends not involved one succeeding and the other failing, with a twist at the end?), I still wanted to see how they reacted, and what they had to say. I kept turning the pages.

Collins's theme - how we are now what we once were, no matter how far we travel, physically and emotionally - remains as true today as ever. The statistics so thankfully absent from Collins's book show that, as a general rule, where we are born on the social scale is far and away the most important predictor of where we will die. Education is the one thing that can really make a difference. But because today's state education is so dreadful, especially in poor areas and the inner cities, we have become far less socially mobile than we once were. The story for much of the past century was one of gradual improvement, with working-class children being offered an escape by the grammar school. The snuffing out of that option, by the ideologically driven determination to replace grammar schools with comprehensives, was an explicit piece of social engineering. As such, it has been hugely influential, but in precisely the opposite way to that intended. Instead of promoting mobility, the decline in standards brought about by the deadly combination of monolithic comprehensives and supposedly progressive teaching has made class divisions even more pronounced. Today, more than at any point in the past 75 years, where you are born once again predicts where you will end up.

The Men from the Boys is, inevitably, blokish. The women are little more than ciphers for the story of Adam and Kevin. But Collins is particularly acute in his depiction of the breakdown of Adam's relationship. The novel suffers from the besetting fault of most male-angst fiction: it is written from a decidedly middle-class perspective. Even though the book goes out of its way to be about two working-class lads, at the heart of it is how one of them copes with joining the middle class, and how the other copes with not doing so. But then, Collins is middle class, as will be most of his readers. There's nothing wrong with writing from a position of knowledge. Especially if you run a think-tank.

Stephen Pollard is writing a biography of David Blunkett

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Time to bite back?