Boyd Tonkin: Drugs, sex and art: the kids are all right

The Week In Books
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Behind the hullabaloo over drug-using youngsters and the ways to tell – or not to tell – their story, images with a long, flesh-creeping history lurk. Fears for a straying child who begins to careen down a slippery slope of abuse bring older backsliders to mind. Painted in the 1730s, Hogarth's eight depictions of "A Rake's Progress" – from devil-may-care indulgence to debt, prison and the madhouse – fixed a model narrative of folly and excess descending step-by-step into utter perdition.

What might the lowest circles of the young rake's fate look like to a writer today, now that the Fleet Prison and Bedlam no longer beckon? How about a threadbare, hand-to-mouth existence high up a crummy council high-rise in one of Britain's least favoured industrial conurbations? Add to this benighted plight a stalled career as a would-be artist, some intimate connections with the neighbourhood villains and – inevitably – a serious affair with psychotropic drugs, and you have a 21st-century recipe for off-the-rails hell.

So far, so cliché-sodden. But proper literature exists to complicate and renovate the stories we inherit. A new novel by a mid-twenties author begins with its starving-artist hero in his tower-block garret in Middlesbrough, coming down at that "tail-end of the acid" when "he's no longer seeing the cat from Dr Seuss in place of the lamp-stand". On first acquaintance, this penniless tripper brings every fretting parent's nightmare into pale-faced focus. Yet the novel that unfolds around this scapegrace and his feckless mates overflows with good humour, generosity – and an oddly strict code of ethics.

Richard Milward may have written Ten Storey Love Song (Faber, £12.99) as a virtuoso exercise in portrait-of-the-artist fiction more than as a corrective to media moralism. But every accuser of the wayward young would still benefit hugely from having a copy pressed between their wagging fingers.

Behind its craftily delirious prose and low-life lyricism, the novel has artistic ambition to spare. Milward casts the tale of Bobbie the Artist, his girlfriend Georgie and another, less sorted couple – bad-lad Johnnie and his lover Ellen – as a single 286-page paragraph. It unspools through dire straits on Teesside through temptations and travails on the London art scene and a happy return to the North. The concept of lives entwined in an apartment block may well owe a debt to Georges Perec's Life: a user's manual, while Milward's art-biz allusions have the inside-track snap and bite you might expect from a graduate of Central St Martins. Some of the most exhilarating British fiction around just now comes from writers with art-school connections.

For all this lightly-worn sophistication, Ten Storey Love Song is a double song of innocence: the innocence of art, and love. Illicit drugs get copiously downed, though significantly not by its moral lodestar Georgie, who customises sweets into "cocaine" and "ecstasy" and swallows them "with a swig of fizzy pop". Plenty of graphic sex – more blundering than blissful – is had by almost all. Yet the plot revolves around the superior delights of creative toil and loving togetherness. Back in Middlesbrough after the rancid fleshpots of the capital, Bobbie shudders at success if it trails in its wake "a slow decline into mediocrity and backlash and paranoia".

Ten Storey Love Song shows, behind a rakish, shameless charm, how good work and good mates deliver a lasting natural high. Yes, the kids are all right; but the kids get there by themselves. Here, Blake's road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom. And, to defuse the threat of sentiment (Bobbie has a baby on the way), Milward tells in grim counterpoint the fate of another neighbour, Alan Blunt: a man without art, without play, without hope. He spends much of his tormented life disapproving of young people today. So do some authors who ought to know better.

P.S.The catch-all categories for the Galaxy British Book Awards (the "Nibbies") make that stale prize jibe about comparing apples and oranges look way too restrained – shoes and ships and sealing-wax, maybe, or cabbages and kings? Lewis Carroll might have enjoyed a surreal "Borders Author of the Year" shortlist that embraces Barack Obama (left), Stephenie Meyer, Diana Athill and Aravind Adiga. The "Tesco biography of the year" yokes Obama (again), JG Ballard and Paul O'Grady; the " popular non-fiction" contest sets Niall Ferguson against The Mighty Book of Boosh. But won't the awards (on 3 April) at least give a televised boost to an array of worthwhile books? "Televised" but not broadcast, now Richard & Judy – the Nibbies' partner – have left Channel 4 for the digital wasteland of Watch. R&J still thrive online, but their exile has made books even more – scandalously – invisible on terrestrial TV.