Michael Richardson's first novel, The Pig Bin, was a charming and funny portrayal of Morley Charles, a boy growing up in Birmingham at the end of the Second World War. In this second novel, Morley is 13 and just about to enter the Balsey School of Art, a place reckoned by the "scruffs" who hang around at the end of his street to be fit only for "nancys and pansies".
Morley is alternately proud and ashamed of his uniform, its makeshift cap badge furnished by his mother. He also has to contend with the usual torments of early adolescence: the mystery of what lies at the top of girls' legs, a stammer, his tooth-brace, self-abuse (as it used to be rather disgustingly called), and the fact that he has not been to confession for four months. He lives with his mother, waiting for his father to be demobbed and to return home.
There is a touch of Billy Liar about Morley. He fantasises about his father being a war hero, and feels a guilty pleasure in discovering that some members of his family may have been in Mosley's Blackshirts before the war (fascism always has a strong appeal to adolescent minds).
He affects a French or Dutch accent when dealing with adults, a posh voice with his new and respectable friend Dawkins, and rough Brummie to talk to the scruffs. This is all good knockabout stuff and, particularly in Morley's confessional exchanges with Father Phelan, it can make you laugh out loud.
Life brightens up for Morley when his father returns and a round of parties ensues in which Morley is allowed to drink and smoke. In the late Forties and early Fifties, it was sensibly accepted that these were things a boy should get used to, at least in moderation. Morley starts to grow up in other ways when the posh Dawkins admits he is only the son of a chauffeur, not a doctor. Morley nobly reciprocates by confessing that his father has not won the DSO and is a Lance-Corporal, not an officer.
The dialogue is brilliantly lively and the period scene setting beautifully rendered; the book only slows when Richardson seems to want to detail everything a 13-year-old boy thinks and does. This is a warm and amiable instalment of Morley's Bildungsroman, but I hope that in the next part our hero samples at first hand the abiding insanity of the adult world.
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