‘Every Town’, the near-mythical setting of Gavin James Bower’s post-industrial landscape in Made in Britain, is peopled with dysfunctional families, suffused with social disengagement, law-breaking and public disorder. It’s a bad but normal British town. A bit too bad. It’s as if an evil giant has gobbled up the moral fabric of this ‘dirty old town’ and spat it out to lie in the gutter – unnoticed, unloved, and unwanted. If the townspeople are waiting for their fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and turn the clock back to a golden age of full employment, to a time when money made people nicer, it isn’t going to happen. The mills and mines scarring the hills and streets around ‘Every Town’ point to a longer trajectory and a bigger problem.
Parents are over-worked or workless, children are neglected and neglectful. The future is hopeless, yet, ironically, and authentically, their lives are centred on school and the fake promise that education is a golden ticket to possibilities. Going unsaid but lingering in the air above the sex-obsessed teenagers waiting anxiously for their results is, ‘what’s the point?’ I wondered that too. We know it’s Grimm ‘up North’ – have known since the century before Orwell hurried past Burnley on his way to Wigan Pier.
[Charlie] I’m up the canal, and can see the whole town from where I’m sitting. The old mills to my left, the rows of terraced houses boarded up now on that side of town, and the council blocks where Trafalgar Flats used to be, before they knocked them down. Straight ahead’s the new bus station, lit up in purple. To my right’s the new sports centre, which used to be the multi-storey, which used to be the sports centre.
Nicely done and preventing the story from tipping into relentless misery is a fractured narrative that follows three distinct but ‘typical’ Northern teens: Russell ‘the lonely boy’ is a bit weird [or nearly normal]. Day-dreaming his way through life, imagining a perfect love and a perfect life, he’s scared of his street-wise peers and lives with an uncaring, troubled mother who stays home all day and won’t even raise herself to wash his shirts, for goodness sake. He imagines city-life [Leeds not London] as a portal, a release form responsibility – and ‘because there’s always someone who’s more different than you. You can just get on with being yourself.’ Charlie is Russell’s doppelganger-figure; clever, yet wise enough to realise the futility of academic qualifications, he purposefully sets out to utilise his skills in other ways and for other means. Motherless; Hayley lives with her two-jobs-and-no-time-for-fun Dad and flaunts pent-up sexuality at the naive English teacher, Mr Mitchell, while at the same time she lusts after Charlie. Her imagination works overtime: always set to ‘compare’, constantly coming up short.
Made in Britain is smarty-pants clever. Stock tropes from teen novels, such as text-miscommunication and a triangular lust plot are packaged within a tissue-paper layer of poignancy that dares us to care. Russell is not Holden Caulfield; Hayley’s eyes are not ‘the bluest’; Charlie is not Renton. The characters are more archetype than realistic and the humour is too sincere to devastate. And yet, it’s a bleakly wry anti-Bildungsroman. A dead body lies unheeded in an open grave, and Bower takes us down a more sinister path than the grimmest of Northern crime fiction. Who can bother to report it – who cares enough to begin an investigation? An absence of blue and white tape is more revealing than Hayley’s bare behind.
Published last year, reviewers said Made in Britain was ‘timely’, and made comparisons with disenfranchised teens and summer riots. Perhaps. Depressingly, Bower reveals how little has changed since Trevor unleashed his racist vitriol on the local jobcentre in David Leland’s 1982 TV drama-cum-movie of the same title. Nowadays, no one in Every Town would waste their energy lobbing a brick through the window.
And no one would notice if they did.