Book Of A Lifetime: So Long, Hector Bebb, By Ron Berry

Ron Berry's fifth novel, first published in 1970, has been, and continues to be, a guide and pilot to my genesis and evolution as a writer. Other books share this badge, of course - 'Moby Dick', 'The Return of the Native', 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' - but 'Bebb' came first, at age nine or thereabouts, and stunned me with recognition and a wondrous awe at the possibilities in words. As a reader, I flailed and floundered when a child; 'Rothman's Football Yearbook' was a staple, as was the 'I-Spy Guide to the Hedgerow', which told me everything I needed to know about the daddy-long-legs except why.

Everything I was given to read in school was told in a language unfamiliar and alien; this wasn't how people spoke on the estate where I lived. This wasn't the language I knew. I was vaguely aware that this should be seen as the correct and proper tongue and one to which I should aspire, but it stayed bizarre and unbelievable to me.

What first drew me to the book, in the box at the jumble-sale I still don't know, but it was a wild revelation to read. Its vernacular did not precisely match that which I was hearing around me, but that was irrelevant. I realised, for the first time, that the ways in which ordinary, non-TV people spoke - their rhythms and elisions, their slang, their ungrammatical but identifying linguistic tics - were important and valuable and uniquely expressive and possessed of a huge communicative power. Ordinary people could be the subjects for books; they mattered. Their lives were worthy of exploring in literature. This was seismic.

It remains an extraordinary novel: 14 different voices tell how Hector Bebb, a Valleys boxer, punches and kills the barman who has been openly having an affair with his wife, and then escapes to a hill farm for five years where he is looked after by an admirer, a one-armed ex-soldier. On discovery, Hector flees further into the mountains, turns feral, and is destroyed during a pursuit by armed police. The plot of a thriller, then, or something like one: but the manner of its telling rings and lingers; the voices capture, perfectly and utterly without caricature or condescension, the rich and swirling interior monologues of the cast. Unmawkish, unjudging, it can only have come from the pen of one completely unafraid to write from the centre of his own culture.

It's the book that I missed when I was seeking a voice in the 1980s. I'd long lost my copy, and it was then out of print, and only in the work of, in Britain, James Kelman could I find a living rhyme for my mind and soul.

But I remembered, always, the thrill of Berry's language, and his anger, and I remembered Hector, a beast in the hills, killing and eating sheep among the slag-heaps and rusting machinery of a culture forced into desuetude.

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