Things, as the narrator of Barney Farmer’s Coketown can’t stop observing, are both not what they used to be, and exactly what they used to be, only more so. Much of the book is concerned with ruminative comparisons between the era of childhood passing into young adulthood, and that of an increasingly decrepit middle age. The cruelties of childhood—a vivid passage recalls the particular savagery meted out to the bespectacled—are recalled without nostalgia, as simply an earlier point in a process of continuous recycling and retooling of cruelty. A comic fatalism hangs over it all, a leaden pall out of which everyday grotesques jabber and leer (several of the novel’s most unnerving moments involve approaches by damaged, jittery strangers in public venues). Violence is always a possibility.
The ostensible premise of Coketown is that the Preston in which its narrator lives, drinks and pisses is the fictional Coketown of Dickens’s Hard Times. (There is a play on words as “coke” becomes “cocaine”, fingered as the driver behind an intensification in the vindictiveness of street violence). The well-crafted introduction promises an exercise in historical settling of accounts, drawing together the violent suppression of the Preston Strike of 1842, Dickens’s stay in Preston while researching for Hard Times, and the town’s enduring legacy of poverty, violence and meanness. As ‘Barney’ later says to someone in the pub about the book he’s meant to be writing, it’s about ‘Preston. Hard Times. Dickens. Memories, murders. Pasts we can’t face, shit gets forgot. Toxic masculinity. All sorts, it’s vague’. But the book rapidly abandons its explicit manifesto, to pursue its goals by more oblique, modest and meandering means.
A recurring gag in the late-60s Frankie Howerd comedy vehicle Up Pompeii! was its protagonist’s inability ever to get to the end of narrating ‘the prologue’: each attempt at beginning the ‘official’ story would be rapidly derailed by the unfolding farce. In a similar way, Farmer is repeatedly pulled off his pedestal as narrator and would-be historical sleuth, and plunged into miry personal reflection and jarring happenstance. Dickens, Hard Times and the political violence of the distant past get an occasional look-in, but the ‘threads’ holding it all together largely hang slack. This isn’t—can’t be—that sort of novel: occasional references to needing to go back and ‘fix my introduction’ make a running joke of the fact. That is somewhat the point: the ability to give the kind of sweeping social synopsis for which Dickens is celebrated depends on the credibility commanded by the mellifluously articulate authorial voice. An avowed autodidact, Farmer opts for a different kind of articulacy, charged with intelligence but stripped of the transcendent consolations of superior knowledge. The book becomes instead the story of a single night out, with an unfolding backstory about violence, retribution and complicity.
A stream of consciousness driven into turbulence by an insistent self-questioning doubling back on itself, Farmer’s intermittently-rhyming prose derives much of its unsettling comedy from a nervy readiness to undercut its own assertions in the midst of making them: ‘Nothing beautiful ever came from the mouth of a goose. / Only – thinking about it this statement is lies’. There follows a lyrical passage swiftly deflated by bathos –
By the river, dead autumn mists and muted sunrise,
a triangle of geese crosses low, bound for the estuary,
the sea, then on, bit of warm, the annual fuckee offski.
then reinflated –
And their mournful hooting, rising then falling from distance to distance.
Will touch you.
then ploughed straight back into bathos – ‘Mammal music generally poo’. This is a voice which has fully interiorised the answering voice of the heckler, the teasingly-aggro conversational partner who is always on hand to tell you to come off it, take you down a peg or two when you seem to be getting above yourself. It is, in Bakhtin’s terminology, a ‘dialogic’ voice rather than a ‘monologic’ one: always hearing itself, incredulously if not antagonistically, from another’s perspective.
It’s no accident that Farmer’s work with the cartoonist Lee Healey (who contributes some memorable illustrations to this volume) has found a natural home in the scatological British comic Viz. Editor Graham Dury’s remark that ‘you’re no cleverer when you’ve read Viz. You might have had a few laughs, but you’ve not learnt anything’ has long struck me as masking a sharp comic insight behind self-deprecation: the best of Viz works much as Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s classic sitcom writing works, by eschewing progress or plot development and remaining within a tight circle of inevitability. Just as Harold Steptoe can never escape Albert Steptoe, Healey and Farmer’s Drunken Bakers will never leave a cake unspoiled or a pair of white baker’s britches unsoiled. These constraints enable an unsparing focus on trapped lives and hopeless circumstances, personal and bureaucratic meanness grafted together into a contemporary Hogarthian hellscape. In Farmer and Healey’s Viz strips, addiction, obsession, codependency and sexual compulsion (as in the ruthlessly unpalatable George Bestial) are all played for the bleakest of laughs.
There is a kind of resigned cosiness to the sitcom universe of Galton and Simpson or Clement and La Frenais, however confined the circumstances it depicts: perhaps it might not be so bad to be Porridge’s Fletcher, sharing a prison cell with the amiable Godber. Coketown considers the impact of contemporary synthetic narcotics on this arrangement: ‘Godber’d be a babbling psycho vegetable if he was in Slade today. He’d have battered Fletch to death then hung himself with his kecks’. In places Coketown reads like a catalogue of deteriorations, a final list of things that won’t be fixed. At the same time, there is a recurrent lyrical beauty to the writing, in spite of Farmer’s refusal to let this settle into an aestheticising posture that might facilitate easy detachment from, or a redemptive attitude towards, the blighted social landscape it depicts. Coketown is an often piercingly funny and thoughtful book that also includes long passages about piss – the accretion of decades of secretions, the reeking pheromonal signature, the ghostly echoes of generations standing at the same trough – and insists that you take the whole thing in as one. In this, it is in its own scabrous pulp-Modernist way a worthy successor to the Dickens whose defiled portrait adorns its front cover.