It takes a certain boldness to set a state-of-the-nation novel in Newcastle. The North-east has always been a place apart from the rest of England and, while they have been profound, the changes of the past decades have not diminished this sense of difference. The Tyneside that existed up to the Sixties is now almost unimaginably remote.
The collapse of heavy industry and urban clearance unravelled close-knit communities. A new economy developed based on hi-tech services and cultural production, and the region embraced the post-industrial lifestyle. But the depth of the changes it has experienced has reinforced the separateness of the North-east.
Though most of the action takes place in the year before Blair came to power, Crusaders aims to chart the shifts of the preceding two decades. The story begins in the mid-Seventies, when the move away from the old industries was well under way and the tightly-woven street communities already slipping from memory.
The central characters of Richard T Kelly's refreshingly ambitious and strikingly accomplished first novel are all caught up in a process of change. As the old economic structures melt away, so does the old political culture. The core of the book is the story of the Rev John Gore, a Labour idealist who leaves a comfortable parish in Dorset to return to his home territory, only to find himself in an environment he does not understand.
Gore's mission is to "plant" a church in a deprived area, and this he does on the Hoxheath estate: a desolate, anomic place in a city where community survives mainly in criminal gangs.
While Gore wrestles with this unpromising milieu – linking up with the local crime boss, Stevie Coulson, and ending up in bed with Lindy Clark, a feisty single mother who works for Coulson – the atavistic Labour machine is in the throes of reinventing itself. Tony Blair has a walk-on part but the main protagonist is the fictitious Martin Pallister MP, once an ardent leftist, now a moderniser whose interests lie chiefly in property development.
There are some sharply observed cameos of Pallister's evolution from ethical socialism to the high-minded venality of New Labour. When the four lives begin to come together the result is dramatic, but Gore's mission has no clear conclusion. He is left in a state of uncertainty, not giving up but no longer entirely sure what it is he is trying to achieve.
Kelly has an acute eye, and an ear that is almost pitch-perfect. His scenes of political chicanery amid urban dereliction have an unmistakeable feel of authenticity. Gore is a more questionable figure – born in the North-east in the Sixties, and yet seemingly untouched by the counter-culture that washed through the region. It may be that Kelly intends Gore as an anachronism, whose function is to embody the breakdown in cultural continuity that is one of the book's chief themes. If so, the device illustrates the difficulties that go with a sweeping historical narrative of this kind – particularly of a time when identities and values have become provisional.
Old-fashioned narrative seems unsuited to conditions in which people are at a loss how to recount their own lives, and some writers have adopted a more direct approach. In his astonishing The North of England Home Service, also set on post-industrial Tyneside, Gordon Burn reproduces the fragmented life he finds there in overlapping vignettes. The consecutive structures of the traditional novel have little purchase on the deeply fractured existence he describes. Burn's characters are not embarked on any quest for spiritual meaning. They are too busy struggling to make sense of each day.
Kelly has chosen a more conventional framework to set his tale of unresolved dilemmas and inconclusive endings. This is an old-fashioned novel that aims to capture a type of post-modern fragmentation, and the result may not be an unmixed success. What is undeniable is the verve with which Kelly renders a slice of history that reaches powerfully into the present. In Crusaders, he chronicles the metamorphoses of Tyneside with exceptional skill, and uses them to present an unsparing picture that is recognisable in every part of Britain.
John Gray's latest book is 'Black Mass' (Allen Lane)
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