Ratmen by Steve Ely

What did I know about rats before reading this excellent novel? Well, I was aware of the role of the black rat in the Great Plagues, and one or two diseases they can help spread. I could also name a couple of ratcatchers: the Pied Piper and Tommy Saxondale from the TV series starring Steve Coogan. But neither of these things got me inside the head of ratcatchers per se.

On the other hand, I learned a lot from this fictional work about two such workers who deal with infestation in a number of buildings and outdoor environments. It’s a subject that many will not care to dwell upon – far less dedicate hours of reading time to. More’s the pity, because Ratmen is both enlightening and thought provoking. It’s even very funny at times. Take the ferret called Beckham that meets an unfortunate end. Hard to feel much sympathy for any creature with that name.

Rats are not a fashionable subject like zombies or vampires. Yet, they are very real, which makes this book all the more chilling and believable. I don’t have a phobia about rats or any particular animal, though I would qualify for the squeamish category. I’m sure some readers will be attracted by dark forces and the grotesque. But in spite of a catalogue of rodent corpses and some violent crime, this is not a book that sets out to shock for the sake of it.

Ratmen was never likely to be a comfortable read but this carefully constructed novel makes perfect sense in the end, due to the mad world we live in. That in itself is a fine achievement, especially when it revolves around a vegetarian ratcatcher. At first, the novel reads like a series of interrelated short stories, but it all comes together and really gathers momentum in the final chapters as a day job turns into an ideology and obsession.

The main characters are known throughout as The Man and The Boy. I expect Ely has his reasons for this, but the absence of first names for the main characters jarred with me and I was about halfway through the book before I got used to it.

Some of the description is wonderful and it’s evident that Ely has a deep knowledge and feel for wildlife and the environment he writes about. He can carry this off with apparent poetic ease when the fancy takes him: “As they walked, huge flocks of wood pigeons lifted from the stubbles. Straggling flocks of smaller birds, finches, the boy thought, fled whistling and peeping before them along the haw-studded hedgerows, with blackbirds and thrushes sounding their staccato alarms…”

And the dialogue is equally superb. The exchange of ideas, especially between The Man and The Boy (the apprentice), is fascinating: ‘You don’t have to think like a rat to understand a rat. You have to think like a human… the thing about rats is they’re just like us – their survival instinct, their ability to adapt to new environments, their ruthlessness, ferocity, endurance, their creative desperation.’ – The Man

Steve Ely is described at the end of the book as a writer who is ‘rarely delightful’. Somewhat tongue in cheek perhaps, but he does deal with a combination of issues that people who prefer escapist fiction might find hard to handle: crime, extremism, violence, conspiracy, race, class, identity politics and religion.

Ratmen is a novel of real substance. Once you get used to the many ways of killing rats, you could even start to enjoy it. You might even be tempted into becoming a conspirator in the ‘holy war’ between man and rodent.

Ratmen is out now from Blackheath Press.


Abide With Me – Interview with Ian Ayris

We might might come from the opposite ends of the UK, Ian Ayris from Dagenham in East London and me from a small town just east of Inverness, but we seem to have quite a lot in common. Born just weeks apart at the tail end of the 60’s, we’ve both written and published novels that deal with growing up in Britain in the 70’s and 80’s. Ian is keen to point out his book is not about football as such. Rightly so, but Abide With Me does feature a character called John Sissons who is brought up as a fan of West Ham.

I compared notes with Ian, chewing the fat over that old Countries of the World theme of the changing face of football as well as writing, spellin(g), and some of life’s big questions, such as whether it is advisable to call your son “Kenny”…

SP: “No-one would dare to write a story like this, even in a fictional world,” said Brian Moore, I think it was, during West Ham’s 1975 FA Cup win. Well, in a way you did.

IA: Great quote. I remember him towards the end of his time getting the names of the teams wrong and players. Very sad. Sunday afternoons at our place were the smell of roast chicken cooking, Police 5, then On The Ball. Great memories.

SP: I’d forgotten about kicking a tennis ball around in the playground until you wrote about it. We had a huge grass park in my primary school grounds, and a football pitch, but weren’t allowed on there in winter and, playing on the concrete around the school building, we had to use a tennis ball so we didn’t break any windows. Should have ended up with the skills of fucking Brazilians when you think about it. And talking of memories, May 1975 is a month that seems to have left its stamp on us football-wise. The England v Scotland game at Wembley is mentioned early on in Countries of the World (COTW) and that’s genuinely the first match I can remember watching on the telly. What about you? Can you remember West Ham winning the FA Cup in ’75, as described at the beginning of your novel?

IA: That final was my first experience of watching a match. Funny how me and you seem to have those sort of connections.

SP: I feel there’s a lot of scope for quality fiction featuring football, but one of the drawbacks is that many people will not go near it if they don’t like the sport.

IA: I think there is a definitely a place for football in fiction – the literate supporter is a huge untapped market, I reckon. COTW is such an original spin on the tired old trope of Fever Pitch copies, it’s a book, as I’ve told you before, I will read over and over again.

SP: Thanks. On the one hand I think there’s still some literary snobbery around that dismisses using football in fiction, and on the other there’s a sort of anti-intellectualism that resists any association with serious literature. Neither is healthy and too often the result is mediocre writing or more cliches. I’m not sure which other books you’re referring to but I liked Fever Pitch at the time. I know it gets a lot of stick for being very middle-class now. Whether Hornby was aware of this back then I don’t know, but for me it kind of reflects the era around Italia ’90 when the game underwent a makeover and its public image changed.

IA: I too loved Fever Pitch when it first came out. As much, I think, because the night Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield was still pretty fresh, and still ranks probably as the most incredible finish to any football season ever. But looking back I think the accusation commonly aimed at Hornby as representing the middle class football supporter is pretty spot on. Can’t blame him for it. Just how it was for him.

SP: Are we in another phase now when you look at the growing number of empty seats in stadiums? Do you notice that at the games or is it business as usual at Dagenham, the team you support?

IA: The only thing that’s changed at the Mighty Daggers from when I was a kid is the grass mound behind the goal I used to sit on with my brother and our mate, Nicky. It’s now an all-seater stand – we have a digital clock above the opposite terrace, and the rickety wooden stand sat on the half-way line is now an all-seater affair running the entire length of one side of the pitch. But the other side is all still one long covered terrrace – and it is fantastic. Just a low wall all the way round separating the fans from the players, the smell of burgers and hot dogs, the banter, and the same old faces. Nope, fundamentally, all the millionaire shenanigans at the top end of the game have failed to filter down to our level. And I pray they never do.

SP: I love your description of the 1980 FA Cup Final in Abide With Me (AWM) as well. For me, it’s one of the highlights of a very powerful novel, and a pivotal moment if you like. But were you concerned some people might be put off by too much football?

IA: You’re right about the pivotal moment of the novel being the 1980 Cup Final chapter. After that, things for John sort of go downhill. Being a Daggers fan and not a Hammer, I had memories of the 1980 final, but not enough for what I needed. So I got hold of the DVD off ebay and basically watched it with a pen and notepad, transcribing the match as it went along. Just a case of transposing some of my experiences of standing on the terraces at Dagenham over the years, and it all came together. I didn’t think about there being too much football because to me this isn’t a story about football. Football is merely a vehicle for the emotions of men to join together when all hope is lost. Working class glue, if you like.

SP: Another thing we have in common is that we both use some local dialect in our writing, you more so than me I think it’s fair to say. AWM is written in Cockney vernacular if I can call it that? It must be a nightmare to put it through a spellchecker?

IA: An absolute nightmare. Had to go through it dozens of times. I still think I missed a couple. With the male characters dropping ‘g’s and the female characters and Kenny not, just that alone was a horrendous job.

SP: I know the problem. I’ve started a sequel to COTW and standardised some stuff, such as leaving all the ‘ing’ endings in. It’s such a hassle otherwise. Maybe one day they will invent something that can cope with Cockney and Scots – a Jockney spellchecker! But I hadn’t picked up on that point with your novel. What’s the reasoning behind only some of the characters dropping the ‘g’s?

IA: I wanted to replicate the speech of all the blokes I’ve known from round here. John’s mum is representative of the type of mum trying to bring their children up better than their husbands were brought up – trying to maintain a bit of respectability in the face of a tide of degradation. John’s aunts in the book – John’s dad’s sisters, all drop the ‘g’, whereas Becky doesn’t, the influence of her mum paying off there. Kenny speaks nicely – not dropping the ‘g’ – being inured from the culture that surrounds him due to his learning difficulty and his mum being ‘not from round here’.

SP: That’s interesting. The mother of the narrator in COTW also talks a bit differently from the others. I think that’s more geographical than anything else because she comes from a town where they speak less Scots. But you could be onto something there with the point about mums (!) … Both AWM and COTW have a character called Kenny who ‘isn’t quite right’. What’s with the choice of name? Just a coincidence or are a high percentage of Kenneths a bit mad?

IA: I didn’t, don’t, think at all when I’m writing. It’s more I write whatever comes into my head, listen intuitively, I suppose, and write down whatever comes. All I can say is that’s his name. But it is mad. Jung’s old collective unconscious, I reckon.

SP: Lol. There were a fair few mad or eccentric Kens when I was at school. There was one known as ‘Kenny Kite’ who stuck in my mind to characterise. Also, the protagonist’s hero is Kenny Dalglish, so perhaps in a way I wanted to have something of an anti-hero as well. Although, I agree as writers don’t analyse too conciously when actually writing. Biq question to end with… In COTW, the reader was asked to ‘imagine the FA Cup final without a rendition of Abide With Me’. The chapter considers whether football is a ‘religion for atheists’, as some people have suggested. Would you subscribe to that? Does it fill that ‘gap’? In other words, is it the new opium of the masses?

IA: Listening to the gamut of emotions blokes are able to express at Victoria Road – joy, extasy, fear, disappointment, hatred, projected self-loathing, anger, etc. – without football, all these emotions would either be pushed down inside or expressed at home or in society in general. Football, while no panacea for the masses, is a real outlet for vital male expression.

SP: Thanks, Ian. Hope the Daggers get a win this weekend.

IA: Speak to you soon, mate. Got to pick the kids up from school.

SP: See ya later!

ABIDE WITH ME will be officially launched in paperback and ebook on 19th March 2012, with book signings taking place around Essex and East London between 24th March and 5th May.

COUNTRIES OF THE WORLD is available in both paperback and Kindle format.

Late 70’s Christmas

Dear Santa,

I am writing to you with my wish list for this Christmas. If possible I would like a Grifter and a Subbuteo set. If you run out of those, Kerplunk or Buckaroo will do fine. A football yearbook would be good, Shoot or Scoop, please. I enjoyed the Broons last year and you always seem to have plenty of copies of those since you pick them up in Dundee, so the new Oor Wullie annual would be great. I always like to know what Wullie, Fat Boab, Soapy Soutar and Jeemy have been up to over the last couple of years – they never seem to change much, do they? Anyway, getting back to the point because I don’t know if you read Oor Wullie, I hope all is well in Lapland and that the reindeer and elves are all geared up for the Christmas rush. I will leave a beer out for you and a few carrots for Rudolf and his pals. The chimney sweep was round the other week after the lum went up so you shouldn’t have any problems getting down it this year.

 Ice cream and jelly didn’t compensate for the pressure of having to pick a girl for country dancing. I was quite quick off the mark. Standing around to make a point of not wanting to appear too keen was not the best policy. Might as well get myself a respectable dancing partner. I was heading for C. Mapp. She was easy to read and to get to know. But Sandy J. crossed my path and we arrived at the same time. When we got there we had to ask, ‘May I have the pleasure of the next dance’. I got the words out first although it sounded something like “mayieplesheoenesdans”. C. Mapp looked at the two hands in front of her face, hummed a bit and chose Sandy’s. His white Colgate smile and chatty manner were already making him a favourite with the girls. I wasn’t laughing. This delay had cost me time and when I looked around again there were only about five of the twenty girls left. None were beauties. Aileen was still there. We got on quite well so I picked her. It could have been a lot worse actually. She was a bit on the chubby side, which was why she hadn’t been picked, but she had warm red hair.

The first dance was a called Strip the Willow. The boys called it Strip the Widow when there were no teachers around . It was kind of like the Grand Old Duke of York, which we also did. Mr Richie and Bren Gun demonstrated the next dance; the Dashing White Sergeant. It was new for us this year but older boys like Ally Mac referred to it as the Slashing Shite Sergent. Bren Gun loved the precision involved in these steps and Richie tried to look as if he was enjoying himself too.

The teachers told us we’d better get used to this type of dancing as we’d be doing a lot more of it when we got to Breogan High. I wasn’t looking forward to that. Especially after I heard from Ally that his big brother was belted for not choosing a girl quickly enough. Afterwards, we danced to Heart of Glass by Blondie, which was pretty easy. I liked Debbie Harry and wouldn’t have minded doing the Strip with her.

Christmas parties were tiring. A few days later it was the do at Dad’s work. I had to get spruced up as if I was going up the town on a Saturday morning: hair brushed, purple shirt, brown tie tucked into the green snake belt around gray flannels.

I played games like pass the parcel and musical chairs with kids from other schools who I was never likely to see again. At least I got a good present; an Action Man with a bionic arm. More ice cream and jelly followed and socialising with strangers was over for another year.

I was happy to get home and settle down for the big day. The TV programmes were full of snow even though there wasn’t any outside. Magic stars shot across the screen. Cinzano adverts with Leonard Rossiter. Drinks spilled. “Is that the time? I really must be going.” It was all becoming a familiar part of Christmas. I already knew The Wizard of Oz inside out. There was a Breogan Primary version with Aileen as Dorothy, Martin B. as the Scarecrow, Sandy J. as the Cowardly Lion (getting most of the laughs) and Willie D. as the Tin Man. 

It was difficult to sleep on Xmas eve, the only day of the year when I wanted to go to bed at seven o’clock. I finally nodded off but Dad came home late from Blackie’s with beery breath and woke me up to tell me something. Maybe a joke. But he had forgotten half of it and kept repeating himself.

I left the carrot out for Rudolf and co. Some Santas got milk but ours preferred beer. The presents had arrived from the Avon Lady; perfume for Mam and aftershave for Dad. It had to be Brut 33 on the 25th. They paid for their own presents as my pocket money didn’t stretch that far.

Dad filmed me coming down the stairs on Christmas morning, desperate for a fight with the wrapping paper. Gran walked around picking up the scattered litter. Adults ran here and there, preparing dinner in the kitchen, while trying not to step on each other’s toes. Hot broth followed by turkey with oatmeal stuffing, roast tatties and brussel sprouts. Yuk! Clooty dumpling or plum pudding. It was basically the same thing but the name for it depended upon whether you were from east or west of Breogan.

On Boxing Day, Gran tripped over the Subbuteo Pitch, ending the season for my striking partnership. Their bases were broken. She was laid up on the settee but fortunately her ankle was only sprained and a little swollen. I popped out to see my mates in the evening to compare presents. I thought I’d done alright until I saw what Willie D. had got: a new bike, Mousetrap, Spirograph, Crossfire, Striker, a Bionic Man, Hungry Hippos, Connect Four and loads of Star Wars shit that I didn’t know anything about.

The rest of the holiday was an anti-climax. It was depressing to think that those weeks sprinkled with magic dust were almost a year away again. New year was nothing special without the drink. Tipsy relatives dancing to the Crystal Chandeliers. Maybe a sip or two of froth from the top of Dad’s glass of Sweetheart Stout or Granda’s Charger Lager. Cocktail sticks. Pickled onions. Cubes of cheddar. Peanuts, including the new dry roasted ones that Dad liked a lot. Twiglets. Embassy World Darts on the goggle box. Obese competitors like Leighton Rees, Jocky Wilson and Big Cliff Lazarenko, drank and smoked their way through matches. They carried almost as much weight as wrestlers like Giant Haystacks or Big Daddy. Being fat was no barrier to becoming a sports star of sorts in seventies’ Britain.

From the novel Countries of the World ©Steven Porter/Breogan Books 2011

Available in paperback and only £1.86 on Kindle.