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Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh


This reader has many failings, but one in particular is an impatience to get to the story. Introductions become postscripts for me, and epigraphs are lucky to recieve a momentary glance as I settle down into a book. It was fortuitious, then, that – for whatever motive – I slowed down to consider the opening of Helen Walsh’s novel Once upon a time in England, taking in its two epigraphs: One from Enoch Powell, and the other from American civil rights activist and artist James Baldwin. Something about their proximity to each other, on the written page, declared a serious and ambitious intent (along with the title), and it’s against that backdrop that the novel should be judged. Both quotes deal with the dread of change, albeit in decidedly different ways. Reviled author of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Powell’s sees dreadful change as being brought by the alien, the foreign, whilst civil rights activist and novelist Baldwin’s view sees change as inevitable, and thus a universal experience. Walsh’s novel is big and bold enough to present both views as she examines the lives of an ‘english’ family from the 1970s onwards.

The opening pages are breathless, not simply because the opening scene presents one of the main characters, Robbie Fitzgerald, hurtling at speed through the icy urban plains of warrington, during the coldest night of 1975. They’re breathless because Walsh, with few – but supremely well-chosen – words manages to set up a scene full of anticipation, urgency, and no small amount of foreboding. Within nine short pages a drama unfolds stout enough to carry the whole novel. Colours are subtly weaved, demanding importance from the start. There’s Fitzgerald’s red hair, the white snow, the dark slicks of spilt Guinness in a bar, through to the dark skin of Susheela, Robbie’s pregnant wife who is at home anxiously awaiting him. The epigraphs that have stood guard at the first chapter, combined with Robbie’s running act like flashing red warning lights, tell us all is not well, and colour is at the heart of things.

But, it’s not just colour, and this, perhaps, is what makes this novel stand out amongst the plethora of recent novels examining multi-cultural Britain. Whilst this reader was reeling, shocked by the brutal racism of the opening chapters, the author quietly and confidently shifts the attention away from Susheela’s skin-colour, moving her characters out into a pleasant middle-class neighbourhood, presenting a context devoid of skinheads and BNP votes, but bursting to the seams with challenges to her fictional family’s identity. Out of the frying pan and into the suburbs, Walsh – who studied queer theory, masculinities and porngoraphy for her Sociology thesis – is as much interested in what makes up the identity of a father, mother, son, daughter, or sibling, as with questions of race and immigration. So, she builds up portraits of four very different people living within one family – all struggling to work out where they fit in relation to each other, and in relation to their society. And the amazing thing is that she manages to keep us equally interested and involved in all of them.

Perhaps the key to it is sympathy – an interesting though not obligatory trait for a novelist, as discussed here by Tim Winton in interview with Three Monkeys. Walsh is an omnipresent narrator, one who is always present to show the warts and weaknesses of her characters, but never to judge. This is perhaps shown best by the constant weaving of music throughout the novel. Robbie’s dream is to make it big on the cabaret circuit – something to be sniffed at by your average smiths fan (Morrissey’s music makes its own important contribution to the narrative) – and his dream is treated with care and respect by Walsh throughout, to the point where the novel’s most tender and moving moment is intimately tied to a song that, in the hands of a less sure writer would be a quicktrot into unbearable kitsch. Walsh doesn’t distinguish between high and low art – these are all cultural elements that go into the forging of an identity. And let’s be clear, I’m far from in favour of the inclusion of pop lyrics in a ‘serious’ novel. Nine times out of ten it’s simply a lazy shortcut to evoking a shared feeling – at worst it’s clumsy and dates a novel unecessarily. So Walsh’s bravery and success in including pop culture deserves its own round of applause.

On reading, and re-reading the novel it becomes clear how complex Walsh’s England is, and as a result how true the novel rings. Class, regionalism, nationalism, sexuality and race all jockey together alongside assumed sub-cultures to produce feelings of belonging and alienation in this fractured family that is rarely afforded the space to simply ‘be’.

Once upon a time in England, thanks to its drama and complexity fully deserves to take a front-row position in the debate over what it means to be ‘English’. More importantly, it deserves to be read, because it’s a very fine read.

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