Richard T Kelly: On a mission from God

Richard T Kelly's mammoth debut novel traces the links between religion, politics and crime in the North-east. And its troubled hero has more than a touch of one T Blair...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The exposure of property tycoon David Abrahams' donations to the Labour Party has shone fresh light on the North-east's tangled web of politics, business and religion. There's a certain inevitability that on Tony Blair's departure from Downing Street his heartland has come under intense scrutiny as well as how his religious faith shaped his actions in office.

This is precisely the territory charted in Crusaders, the hugely ambitious debut novel by Richard T Kelly. Weighing in at 556 pages, divided into six sections in a quasi 19th-century style, the book feels like it has been chiselled from Gateshead granite. We follow a young Anglican priest, Reverend John Gore, as he attempts to create a church from scratch in a deprived Newcastle-upon-Tyne housing estate in 1996. His mission takes him into the lives of three locals: a gangster, a single mother and a New Labour MP on the make. Religion and politics intertwine as Gore finds himself drawn into a moral quagmire.

"It's a big old novel but when it comes down to it, it's about a priest, a criminal and a girl," Kelly laughs. "From that you can imagine there's going to be a dramatic climax."

The book's genesis was in the mid-1990s when Kelly read about the phenomenon of church "planting" a low-budget version of new church building with an explicit social mission, where congregations are nurtured in public spaces. Then a headline caught his eye: a bouncer had been shot dead, blowing the lid off Newcastle's clubs-and-drugs underworld. In the same spring, Durham boy Tony Blair became leader of Labour Party. "That conjured something a story where the church, politics and crime would be in same mixing bowl," he recalls.

Kelly is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for his books about film history and trivia, most recently Ten Bad Dates With De Niro: A book of alternative film lists. He also helps edit Faber's renowned list of film-related titles. The discipline of his non-fiction background gives the novel its sense of captured veracity: he visited Newcastle's estates, clubs and committee rooms frequently over the last decade to research Crusaders, clutching a tape recorder and a notebook. He is tight-lipped about how far his endeavours took him: "I can only say so much, but some of the book is based on detective work and all the characters are imbued in observational writing. Like any good reporter I know when to make my excuses and leave."

He certainly has the solidly set appearance of a seasoned hack, with a quietly forceful manner. His clear-cut consonants carry a flavour not of the North-east, where he was born, but of Northern Ireland where he grew up, when his father, a chartered loss adjuster, relocated the family for work purposes in the 1970s. We meet at Faber's august offices in Bloomsbury, but I sense he's more at home prowling the provinces, reporting back from the frontline of sitting rooms, pubs and community halls.

Blair himself appears in the story, outmanoeuvring the party's militant ten-dency with a classic speech at a crucial regional AGM. ("The biggest party is the biggest party... and I don't happen to think there should be sects within it.") The Rev Gore carries something of the idealist, Christian socialist Blair about him; a sense that religion can enact material as well as spiritual change, and an almost apologetic style which belies a steely resolution.

"Blair's Durham background and his own religious faith and conservative father are intriguing to me," Kelly says. "When friends asked me what I was writing, I'd jokingly say the hook was that Blair, instead of becoming an Islington barrister, had become a slum priest. I was writing this when his [prime ministerial] honeymoon was over, so I liked the idea of revisiting his earliest incarnation. Like everyone else in the 1980s, Blair had to go to a lot of damn meetings to pick the [Labour] party off the floor."

While Gore regularly questions his own faith, he has an unfashionably clear vision of the need to work among the poor. Kelly resists the temptations to satirise this sense of a calling. "There's something pure and spartan about his mission; his desire and struggle to do good is not something I'm cynical about. He gets in harm's way, argues his corner."

Up in Hoxheath, Gore settles into his council flat and manfully tries to generate interest in his Sunday services, held in a draughty school hall. He draws early crowds and is lauded by the local media, but his pared-down style and considered sermons are no match for the happy-clappy evangelicals who are taking over a nearby parish. "Gore is from the tradition of radical doubt questioning the tenets of faith while wanting to keep alive the 'rumour of God'," Kelly says. "But it becomes clear he's slightly on the wrong side of history."

In his naivety, Gore is drawn to local hardman Stevie Coulson, accepting his help and donations while turning a blind eye to the nasty side of his activities. He also takes tips from a sharp-tongued single mother, Lindy, who sees through his pulpit performances. Inevitably they end up in bed together but it is a relationship fraught by class differences and by Gore's abiding sense of guilt.

Then there's Martin Pallister MP, a former director of the Tyneside Regenerative Economics Corporation with a drawer full of corporate consultancies. Gore is suspicious of Pallister's overtures, but he's not caricatured as a charlatan. "It's right that we shout at politicians when we hear them canting on, but it's also true that the government is not Christ and his 12 disciples they have jobs to do," Kelly says firmly. "Pragmatism is hard choice but it is unavoidable."

Worlds clash old and New Labour, old miners and the media, the liberal Anglicans and the evangelicals, welfare dependency and big business, brothels and Sunday services. Flashbacks flesh out the interior worlds and histories of the four main characters "we see how political economy inflects their life choices" as they draw perilously close, despite Gore's bids to extricate himself.

The dilemma centres on when he'll face up to his antagonists, and ultimately himself: "He has enough fortitude and intelligence to carry so far but the drama of the book is about where he's deficient." Yet again Kelly refuses to be ruthless in judgement: "One has to be wary of sanctimony how much do any of us live up to the vaunted tasks that we give ourselves? It ain't easy."

The book carries a debt of love to the stark, post-industrial splendour of the North-east. The dialogue is rendered in thick Geordie, laced with "yee" and "wisnae" and "summat". Kelly knew the risks of trying to reproduce this dialect phonetically, but was confident that Geordie has currency thanks to Viz and Our Friends in the North. "I decided I'd go in with both feet." The gamble pays off spectacularly, particularly when it comes to bar-stool banter: "Aye, but guess what, Fatha... Steve gans to the Toon but he's a mackem, yknaa?"

At times the writing is darkly humorous, but Kelly's seriousness of intent and direct moral interrogation call to mind contemporary American giants Roth and Mailer. As does the panoramic sweep: rather than Brooklyn warehouses, the backdrop to Crusaders is the scarred mines, skeletal steel arches and rising call-centre blocks of North- east England.

Mailer, he says approvingly, was "never afraid of turning out a 1,000-page book, with 'To be continued' at the end". This chutzpah seems to have inspired Kelly. "You can only write the novel you felt the call to write. But I have to beg the patience of a lot of readers." They will surely be drawn in as the narrative reaches a thrilling crescendo. Crusaders is a powerful, assured literary arrival that will create loyal congregations of devoted followers. *

The extract

Crusaders, By Richard T Kelly (Faber 12.99)

'Despair crawled over Gore, that this awful man wouldn't leave him to his slumber ... "It's not your Church, Simon you didn't make it, you don't own it. You think your lot could ever get it back to what it was? ... Not in a million years. You'd drive away twice as many as you ever got in, I'd bet any money."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Because you're a bigot. It's all just poison comes out of you. Anyone can see it a mile off. It'd be too much fun just to ignore you. You'd make me want to kiss a man on the mouth just to get you to fuck off."

Barlow lunged at him. For a sick instant, Gore thought they would fight.'