John King scored an extraordinary commercial hit with his 1997 debut novel The Football Factory. A tale of disenfranchised working-class men who find an outlet for their aggression in football hooliganism, its success lay in not only King’s exploration of masculinity and animalistic attraction to violence, but also an ability to connect with the very people he was writing about. It sold a remarkable 300,000 copies in the UK and was also adapted into a 2004 film that became a slow-burning cult favourite, largely due to subsequent DVD sales, and – for better or worse – gave us the “nashernaw tresha” Danny Dyer.
Swaggering through a door kicked open for working-class literary writers when Irvine Welsh published Trainspotting in 1993 and James Kelman won the Booker Prize a year later (King was first published alongside both in Kevin Williamson’s influential counterculture literary journal Rebel Inc), King published a run of books that placed his fiction between the high-octane street pulp of Richard Allen and the plays of Alan Clarke – most obviously Scum and Made in Britain.
Exploring alienation in such locations as new towns, prisons, punk clubs, football pubs and hospitals, King’s unapologetically un-PC work was never going to make him a critics’ favourite. However, to dismiss a writer for depicting concerns deemed low-brow, yet which are all too real for many, merely confirms the patronising attitudes towards class that are still prevalent today.
King now runs the publishing imprint London Books, established to resuscitate a trove of excellent noir-leaning titles by authors such as Alan Sillitoe, Gerald Kersh and James Curtis, most of which explore the shadowy corners, smoky pubs and grimy bedsits of a pre-Second World War capital city that is unrecognisable today. As such, they’re not only valuable historic artefacts but also remind us that the working-class writer struggles both to get into print and to stay in print.
King’s ninth novel The Slaughterhouse Prayer is a curious work. It charts the tribulations of a former hunt saboteur, Michael Tanner, now middle-aged and living a self-contained single London life of allotments, vegan cooking and cab driver-like observations on the various insanities of the modern world. Continually self-searching, he frequently reminds us of his peaceful lifestyle. This being a King novel, however, there is a simmering, barely contained tension just beneath the surface of Tanner’s existence, which bubbles up whenever he is reminded of man’s cruelty to what he terms “non-human animals”, which is several times per day.
Initially King’s moral stance appears ambiguous: either this is a wry portrait of animal rights militancy taken too far, or Tanner is a mouthpiece to express the author’s unabashed hatred of meat-eaters and the surrounding industry. An unflinchingly powerful early section in which a young Tanner is left for a dead in a ditch following an attack by assorted pro-hunting farmers and terrier men is a strong opening, though with Tanner prone to proselytising it soon begins to feel that the author himself is hectoring. A hyper-awareness and sensitivity to the symbols of the meat industry – a leather belt, a butcher’s delivery van – signal that this will not end well, and soon enough two factory workers convicted of torturing chickens receive some rough justice. A fleeting reference to Tanner’s bloody knuckles reveals he is the vigilante – and that is largely the plot of a revenge fantasy as morally dubious as the Death Wish franchise.
Elsewhere the blokey aspects of Slaughterhouse Prayer – it’s not short of pub pints, mod clothing, ageing men discussing Northern Soul rarities and references to bands beloved of those of a certain age (Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians) – date the narrative in this age of identity politics. It’s almost a quaintly nostalgic adjunct to a working-class literature that can no longer be defined by pursuits such as violence, crime, poverty and, in this case, ultra-masculinity. Instead, King reads more as a sort of distant, slightly conservative uncle to a thriving contemporary scene of emerging class-conscious writers of fiction, many of whom are female, among them Kit De Waal, Wendy Erskine, Jenni Fagan, Lisa McInerney, Heidi James and recent Man Booker winner Anna Burns.
King is readable and his reflections on the differences between urban and rural attitudes seen in Tanner’s forays into the countryside provide the book’s strongest points, and remind us that England is still essentially two quite different countries.
Yet there are problems. Halfway through, an already thin plot gives way to increasingly brutal interludes of animal cruelty against “Daisy” (a cow), “Mary” (a lamb) and six pages devoted to the castration of a bull called “John”. It’s the equivalent of a grindcore song that just goes on and on, designed perhaps to shock the reader into becoming vegan. While I too enjoy Crass and Napalm Death, it’s only ever for a few minutes at a time. Then I turn off.
Here is where King slips up: in anthropomorphising all creatures and demonising anyone who works in the food production industry he loses sympathy for the cause. Frequent depictions of dairy farmers as “rapists” and “nonces” is just plain wrong; the herdsmen I know give more time and attention to their cows than their families, delivering calves in 4am snowstorms, and carefully tending to their every illness and injury. That we happily pay more for water than we do milk suggests the problem is economic rather than agricultural.
Such sections are nearly as unforgiveable as a scene featuring two high-flying beef and milk advertising executives, in which the words “bonking” and “crown jewels” are deployed without humour. No-one needs 50 Shades of Vivisection, nor the overlong and frequent descriptions of Tanner’s recipes. A better editor might have streamlined this uneasy mixture of narrative, diatribe, cookbook and state-of-the-nation address into a more persuasive and nuanced study of the unsustainability of mankind’s appetites.
This shouldn’t necessarily diminish King’s reputation; other readers will find a persuasive argument here, and as a working-class writer fighting to be heard in a business that remains resolutely middle class, he should be applauded for his tenacity.
Ben Myers’s “The Gallows Pole” won the Walter Scott Prize 2018
London Books, 303pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain