Friday 23 April 2010

'Black Country' by Joel Lane

Nightjar press are doing a line in chapbooks, small runs of individual short stories. I picked up one of them this week to check out the work of Joel Lane.

I like chapbooks. They’re light and portable and usually contain work that might not ordinarily see the light of day through the usual publishing channels. I associate them with radical thinkers and free spirits keen to get out a message as quickly and as cheaply as possible, people hanging round on street corners under the cover of fog, faces in shadows, words worth ten times their actual weight.

Apparently they’ve been around since the sixteenth century (who knew?) and were put out of common circulation by the rise of the newspaper.

The name, according to scant research on my part, derives from chapmen, slang for peddler, seller of such works.

The modern chapbook from Nightjar is a nice production. It has the thin and flimsy feel that it should have and a nicely designed cover.

My favourite chapbook is of Cowboy poetry, valued for sentimental reasons as much as for the quality of the work. I also enjoy the idea that a cowboy could wear the book to protect his legs if ever necessary.

‘Black Country’ opens with a quote from the Nightingales.

That takes me back. I saw them a couple of times. For my group of mates they were only a peg or two beneath the Fall and that was high praise indeed. I see that they’ve reformed and that members are with John Robb’s (take no prisoners) Goldblade who I also saw once (I think supporting the 60ft Dolls – my memory is failing more quickly than my eye-sight) and the UK Subs.

I mention these things quite deliberately. I may not remember the details of my youth or even later life, but I have the images, the sensations, the emotional ties to a time that’s no longer here – time is never actually with us; soon as we think of it, it’s in the past. That is something that ‘Black Country’ did for me, evoked times and people and places that are no longer here as they were. Reminded me of playgrounds, bullies and fighting. I thought about breaking into my own school one night just for the hell of it. We didn’t know what to do once we got in, just put things under doors so everyone would know we’d really done it. We didn’t give a thought to the cleaners who’d get there before anyone else on that next Monday morning.

Back to the point.

The story starts with an air of mystery. Clayheath, the Black Country town of the protagonist’s youth has all but disappeared, swallowed up by spreading conurbations, little more than a grid reference any more.

In the vicinity of the place our man believes to be his hometown strange happenings are afoot. Children’s pictures have been slashed in the classroom, the toy shop’s been robbed, kids have been waking up battered and bruised for no apparent reason. A bag of kittens is drowned in the local swimming pool, the mother is found hanging with a collection of Monopoly pieces in her throat. A girl is bullied, identifies her tormentors as a mass of children whose faces blur and merge.

We seem to be inhabiting a world of shadows, a place that’s neither wholly real or dreamt. It holds the nightmares of childhood in a space that feels nine-months pregnant with angst and darkness.

There’s a tension throughout that builds gently, simmers uncomfortably as you are taken through this crazy messed up world into it’s impossible to predict climax.

On the journey through the tale we encounter mysterious moments and characters, spectral and ethereal, and Joel throws in cracking lines every now and then to keep us from complacency. There’s a poet lurking in the prose, that’s for sure. There's that weight to the words that the paper itself doesn't have.

I really enjoyed the piece and would recommend you to part with £3 of your cash to take a look. It may not the best thing you’ll read this year, but it will likely surprise you in a way that will make you feel good to have it in your collection.

The link below will take you to the site so you can get your own copy. If you're quick, there's the nice touch of receiving a signed limited edition - judging by my number, you'll need to be there pretty sharpish.

One man’s opinion.

And thinking back to my cowboy poetry, there are a couple of lines a friend gave me once from a poem we’ve never been able to trace. I love them and would like to find the body to go with the head:

“The best you can say is he’s good to his horse, the worst you can say is he aint.”

If you know it, please get in touch.

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