You Can Never Go Home Anymore

'Peterdown', David Annand's novel of class and regional divides, threatens to be the state-of-the-nation novel we badly need – but settles too often for easy caricature.

No one is ever truly home — or, at least, very few of us are. Georg Lukacs, in his Theory of the Novel, puts this condition at the heart of modernity. He calls it ‘transcendental homelessness’; an existential restlessness contrasted with the organic connection to the absolute in the era of the classical epic.

This homelessness  is reflected in the characteristic modern form, the novel. Where the heroes of Homer were searching for a return to their home and to their roots, the heroes of the modern epic are lost in the world, rootless individuals plucked from the mass. There is, for the novelist, no organic basis to work from; we can never go home.

It’s good to remember then that, as one of the protagonists of David Annand’s Peterdown, Ellie Ferguson, the middle-class architect transplanted from North London to deindustrialising Peterdown, puts it: ‘There [are] no new ideas in the world.’ Ellie is in her early 30s, and at the novel’s outset is in a relationship with local boy done sort-of-good Colin, the sports correspondent for the local newspaper.

And nor does Annand himself shy away from big ideas. Much of the plot of Peterdown is driven by the pull of contradictory, seemingly impersonal and irreconcilable forces—community and capital, decline and regeneration, home and development, class and classlessness, the nowheres versus the somewheres—the plot weaving in and out, rarely slipping into didactic monologues or plodding narration. With so many contemporary novelists following the path of Knausgaard and Sally Rooney in plumbing the depths of the author’s inner world, it’s interesting to see a young novelist deftly mapping the world around them, avoiding emotional sincerity in favour of sociological detail.

What Annand gives us is a story about the changes to the urban fabric of contemporary Britain that in many ways mirrors Sam Wetherell’s recent work of urban history Foundations, taking us from the public spaces of the post-war years—the industrial estate, shopping precinct, and council estate—to the privatised and securitised shopping malls, business parks, and private housing complexes of neoliberalism.

The fictional Peterdown, a grey ex-industrial enclave in England’s middle, was once a great railway town, yet its glory has faded over recent years, the past lustre worn down to its dull present. For locals, there is little left to celebrate. It’s a town like many other non-metropolitan boroughs, politically as well as socially. In short, it’s a bit ‘Brexity’, as one of the characters describes it.

So the coming of a futuristic new railway hub (modelled quite obviously on HS2) connecting Peterdown with a giant international airport, and bringing with it the promise of new jobs and the extensive redevelopment of the town’s crumbling infrastructure, would seem a welcome development. The problem, though, is where to situate the station, and what to knock down to make way for it.

On the shortlist for demolition is the Generator, a massively expensive and recently constructed PFI arts venue, the kind of tawdry gimcrack that sprouted up across the country in the ’90s and 2000s and which, rather than delivering the promised high culture to Britain’s forgotten regions, now plays host to comedy tours like ‘Googling My Cock’. The second proposed site is currently home to the Larkspur, a gigantic modernist masterpiece designed by a renowned husband and wife team the Blofelds, and whose early architectural promise has not borne fruit for the residents of its social housing flats — the complex now blighted with damp and decay after years of council neglect. The third and final site is the Chapel, the rather dishevelled home of Peterdown United FC, a team of plucky underdogs fighting their way towards football’s top flight.

While Ellie is a recent arrival to the town, Colin is a born and bred local. At school, he was one of the ‘chosen ones’, a bright child, born and raised in Peterdown, whose promise was seen young by teachers at the local comp. This would appear fulfilled when he leaves home at 18 to enter university and then on to London after graduation. It was there that after fumbling a casual encounter with Ellie, his beautiful then-housemate, he is forced to return to his hometown, new partner and new child in tow.

When the novel begins, the couple have been in Peterdown for a decade, with Colin now a journalist following the fortunes of the local football team and writing on such riveting events as the under-16 javelin championship; Ellie works three days a week in the nearby city of Broadcastle, Peterdown’s slightly more bougie sibling, for an architectural firm designing minor details for a series of out-of-town shopping centres.

With the coming of the new railway, their individual and collective futures collide with their present. Colin leads the opposition to the Chapel’s destruction as Peterdown United’s fans fight against the club’s owner, the payday loan shark Andrew Kirk, who seems destined to decamp them several miles out of town to a new stadium-cum-retail park and hotel complex. Ellie, filled with a desire to realise her own dreams as the ‘Grand Architect of the Universe’ and follow in the footsteps of Majorie Blofeld, the creative force behind the Larkspur, spearheads the initiative to save the beleaguered housing complex.

Through each campaign, Ellie and Colin are drawn away from their somewhat joyless coupling. Ellie’s eye is caught by the up-and-coming local MP Pankaj Shastry, a slick former lawyer with nebulous politics; Colin by Kerry, the football team’s operations manager, a brashly attractive woman (‘five feet four inches of lips, hips and heady scent’), a world away from Ellie’s vintage Comme Des Garçons and cultured elegance.

From the off, the book emphasises its idea-driven narrative; its opening line is spoken by unnamed psychogeographers on an imagined dérive through the town, proclaiming them the ‘Real-time historians of the neoliberal scorched earth’. There are similar interludes throughout, drawing a thread of submerged radicalism through this imagined city.

We hear of Major Wroth, the collective nom de guerre of Peterdown’s machine-breaking artisans who via acts of historical excavation resurface centuries later in the campaign against Kirk’s social vandalism. History continually breaks through into the present, the past reactualised by present-day radicals at Walter Benjamin’s ‘moment of danger’. Ranged on the opposing side is an alliance of corrupt Labour councillors and dodgy businessmen who want to turn Peterdown into a kind of Kingston-upon-Trent, a new dormitory town for London financiers and their families.

If such heavyweight material makes the plot sound leaden, it shouldn’t. There’s a humour and a lightness to Annand’s writing. Debts to Jonathan Coe’s satirical state of the nation novels, and even David Lodge, with his ear for funny, awkward dialogue, are obvious. Annand’s class politics are razor sharp; Peterdown is What a Carve Up! for the post-crash era of gentrification and Iconic developments, skewering many of the bromides of contemporary politics and culture along the way. There’s elements too of ‘hysterical realism’, the term coined by critic James Wood to describe Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and broadened to include the writing of Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon and others writing the ‘big, ambitious novel’ that seeks to represent the social world in all its wild complexity.

While there is none of the wacky detail of those other doorstops—there’s no giant cheese or cloned mice in Peterdown—the people remain similarly flat, the characters lifeless, the bright lights just as much signs of habitation while empty of people. Those like Ellie’s new boyfriend, the rising star of the Labour machine parachuted in from head office to a constituency he knows little about, never get going, their role resigned to nudging the plot along at sticky moments (although, with his perfectly coiffed hair, love of natural wine and Moroccan earthenware bowls, and his empty rhetoric, he’s a type recognisable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Labour’s many identikit men-in-navy-suits).

Perhaps the real issue with slipping into caricature in this way is that it can leave the reader searching for real-world analogues: Rodbortzoon, Colin’s chubby and belching best mate, is an oddly unsatisfying Zizek figure, constantly rubbing his nose and expostulating on the hidden revolutionary implications of Marley & Me — although a Zizek strangely attracted to football and its political implications. The Blofelds sit somewhere between Peter and Alison Smithson and, with their Bond villain surname, Erno Goldfinger. Their Larkspur could be any number of brutalist masterpieces cleansed of its former residents to make way for artists, aesthetes, and the recently transplanted middle classes. Kirk is part Mike Ashley, part more or less every other dodgy football/business tycoon.

Even the town itself is generic: is it Derby? Mansfield? Nottingham? Events happen, characters arrive, and we’re left wondering what their role will be: are they integral to the plot or stand-ins introduced to poke fun at a social type for a page or two, before they vanish just as swiftly as they arrived?

In her campaign to save the Larkspur, Ellie resorts to the usual tricks to get it noticed. Its brutalism, once maligned, is now celebrated on Instagram feeds and architectural blogs. She spends hours taking the perfect photos of the sweeping concrete, the raised walkways and the sharp angles of this forceful structure. She even breaks into the café at the head of one of the towers, once the Blofeld’s dream of a social hub for residents now left empty, and reopens it as a volunteer-run coffee shop.

But such grand dreams collide with the estate’s working-class residents. Ellie’s liberalism chafes against their world, their lives clashing with her dreams of contemporary design and good taste. To one resident, who pushes back against such idealism with knee-jerk bigotry, she bristles: ‘OK. We get it. Your personal experience of living here has been difficult. But if you hated it so much you could just get a job and then you could move yourself.’

Lindsey, another Larkspur resident, though more thoughtful than the rest, shows Ellie the depth of issues faced by the tenants. When Ellie explains that the problem isn’t the building itself but housing policy, Lindsey counters: ‘Housing policy is what you say, but I listen, Ellie, and I know what it means: it means lumping together all the scum.’

Later, looking back at her Instagram account, Ellie realises that of all the dazzling pictures of glorious architecture, not one contains a human figure. Hiding behind the architectural visions and grand ideas are people, those residents ultimately forgotten in the rush to preserve. By making the focus of the campaign the building itself, the bricks, concrete, and steel rather than the social and political role of housing, Ellie becomes the unwitting handmaiden of gentrification.

Ellie and Colin too can appear as ciphers, merely acting out Annand’s ideas, often against their own expectations. At times, Colin is an empty shell, his relationship to his hometown mostly uncomplicated. He is there, returned post-university, a bit of a failure but not all that much, floating between his work, his kid, his unloving relationship and, mainly, the football team. He has long since given up on his past life, occasionally lamenting the books he’ll never read, the languages never learnt. But there’s little sense that this really, truly, troubles him, despite his acknowledgement of his own social homelessness. Neither fully middle class (when at his daughter’s school production of Mother Courage, he thinks of his previous visit to see Brecht, ‘an experience that had all but made him start voting for UKIP’), yet not quite back with the working class, either, what troubles him deeply is Peterdown United.

Ellie, on the other hand, yearns to get back to London, back to culture and to art and to fancy coffees. Yet, there’s signs that even she won’t fit in again — Pankaj’s natural wine, for instance, leaving an unpleasant taste in her mouth. What home means for each seems easy. It’s where they are, or where they want to be.

But there’s another problem with searching for IRL analogues for fictional characters: what if that person is you? It may be a sin to put yourself into a text in such a manner, to look into a work of fiction and see only yourself reflected back, but the resonance of Colin’s life will, I imagine, be familiar to many of the other escapees from Britain’s crumbling regions. And I wish, in turn, that my own relation to the world left behind was so easy, so painless, as Colin’s appears. Perhaps a more psychologically nuanced, if less polemically powerful, version would have seen the quinoa-eating Ellie and the mushy chip butty-munching Colin as the same person — the torn halves of a whole that no longer fit. Instead, the caricature of the middle-class Londoner vs. the uncouth Midlander (with his ‘crap clothes’, eating ‘crap food’) is a little too blunt, crowding out some of the sharper social observations.

What we’re left with is a novel of impersonal forces—the movement of money and the play of politics and business—acting on and through the lives of people. Finding a home in such a world is an impossible task. Perhaps then we should leave the final line to Rodbortzoon, after his comical occupy-style protest camp outside of the Chapel is finally evicted, the numbers having dwindled to a few hapless radicals. ‘The true radical,’ he says, ‘is always homeless.’