"I went round my mother's house
and told her my marriage was breaking up. I was looking for some
kindness. I told her the story, how things were ending, my feelings
for him, his feelings for me. She winced at the word 'feelings'. I
felt alone, sideways on to the world somehow. I didn't put it like
Reviewed by Mark Staniforth
Alan Beard's You Don't Have To
Say presents a throbbing, unforgiving soundtrack to broken Britain:
a bleak, concrete world of tower blocks and Little Chefs; sexless sex
and men with new tattoos "of flames and women and knives".
It is a world which offers little
chance of escape, and almost every character who inhabits Beard's
Birmingham sprawl is trapped: by love or fear or all all-pervading
sense of hopelessness.
These are not stories for
frolicsome summer days at the beach. In Background Noise, a girl is
sent to the shops after helping her drug-dealer boyfriend stuff the
body of a door-to-door salesman in a cupboard under the stairs.
"I should just walk the other
way, down the side street to the junction where I can get a bus to
the centre and catch a train, a train anywhere, not back home, and
start again and be happy ever after without him. Get a cat or
something, give up men altogether, sit at home and sing to myself."
She doesn't, of course. They
don't. Even those characters in Beard's razor-sharp collection of 14
stories who do escape the sprawl do so only in search of the brief
relief of illicit affairs.
Beard describes his characters in
a manner which is compassionate but never judgemental. They do not
inspire sympathy, but Beard's prose gives them a fair chance. Almost
without exception, it is one they fail to take.
In The Party, a paint shop
salesman watches a familiar flame clop by as drinking hour
approaches: "her liquorice-dark eyes look as if the colour will leak.
He watches her pass the specialist butcher's, game dangles above her."
It is just the kind of
descriptive passage which has earned Beard comparisons with Raymond
Carver - comparisons the author himself has apologised for, and yet
which are entirely legitimate: the same eye for everyday mundanities;
the flickers of body language which reveal so much in so few words.
Like Carver, Beard is a true
master of the form. He is a brilliant story teller, capable of
wrenching beauty from the unlikeliest of circumstances: in At The
Back Of Everything, a stabbing victim lies dying on his doormat
while his mind ebbs back to old liaisons and French bicycling
Failings are few: where Beard's
stories are less successful, there is perhaps a sense that some of
the less well-conceived characters are assuming roles designed to exhibit
the art of the form itself over their own motivations.
There are occasional inner-city
cliches. In the opener, Hot Little Danny revenge for a drug debt is
perpetrated in that well-worn setting "on an arc of wasteland, rubble
and brick and [the obligatory] waist-high nettles down the railway
But these criticisms are picky.
This is an excellent collection; an observational masterpiece which,
just like those tough tattoos, will survive as a testament to the
farce of government dreams of the so-called "Big Society".
Read a story from this
collection on Pulp.net