The Northern Clemency, by Philip Hensher

Far from the mardy crowd
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The Independent Culture

Set between 1974 and 1994 in a quiet suburb of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency charts the lives of two ordinary, lower middle-class families: the Glovers and the Sellers. The incomer Sellers, with their "posh" voices, move up from London and land slap in the middle of a crisis at the Glovers.

In this well-populated novel, I counted at least 12 vividly distinguished main characters and several bit-part players including the removal men and a chorus of nosy neighbours. What is particularly enjoyable as the reader relaxes into this book is the portrayal of the complexity of family life: the layers, secrets and misunderstandings, the drama of different lives lived under the same roof, by people who are both strangers and kin.

Hensher is particularly good at getting under the skin of adolescents. Within this democratic work, personal concerns, whether large-scale political or small-scale personal, are treated with the same quality of attention. The agony of a girl starting a new school with the wrong gym kit assumes as much importance as a man deciding not to strike, or a woman to leave her husband. Hensher has a forensic eye for detail, providing nightmarish glimpses of the everyday. A neighbour's face looms close: "the little pointed wet teeth bared, a smudge of vivid red lipstick on the left canine, the flanks of the face warm and powdery and lightly furred".

Strong and varied though the human protagonists are, the main character is Sheffield, a city "made, by fire, out of water", with all the profound social and economic changes of the Thatcher years: privatisation, the decline of the steel industry, the miners' strike and the flurry of middle-class socialism that ensued; the selling of council houses and the revolution in technology. Sometimes the details become too schematic, as if Hensher is ticking items off a list of temporal markers: smoked-glass furniture, power cuts, cheese and pineapple on sticks, Coca-Cola-flavour jam, the shrinking of mobile phones, computers, futons, ecstasy, gastro-pubs and reading groups who will love it. The novel provides an enjoyable nostalgia fest as well as an acute cultural history of provincial England.

Sheffield dialect is employed to good effect though I dispute whether all residents of a suburban street on the city's "posh" side would be quite so broad and the book is structured round such lovely local words as mardy and nesh. Hensher also includes the Sheffield joke construction, "tin tin tin", meaning "it isn't in the tin".

In the 1970s, with the industry still strong, we see a manager on a mine inspection: the palaver of preparing to go underground; the clanking lifts, the hot, cramped conditions, "like being inside a huge body and listening to the... thunder of the heart", and the detail that "you could always tell a miner from the rim of black round his eyes, like make-up". This minute research sets the scene for the strike a decade later.

Tim, one of the Glovers' children, becomes involved as an activist and takes part in one of the famous riots at Orgreave, where Arthur Scargill appears, dressed "like your dad on a weekend, and his hair, complicated in arrangement but perfectly held, glistened in the sun like a badge of distinction". The battle between the police and the strikers as the "scabs" try to enter the mine is a virtuoso set-piece, the atmosphere perfectly caught. The contrast between the golden summer days and the violence; the policeman affably chatting to miners before the battle begins; the cries of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie out out out": all bring that time sharply back into focus.

This is a hefty novel: does it deserve such heft? It's a sprawling and leisurely project, reminiscent of a 19th-century novel, and its interests are the mainly quotidian concerns of its ordinary population. Though it is engrossing, amusing and moving, it is a fraction too long; in passages in the middle stretch, the very gentle pulse of the narrative becomes worryingly thready. However, the pace picks up again and the involving final scenes provide a pay off to the quiet, slow accretion of detail that brings this story world to such convincing life.



Lesley Glaister's latest novel is 'Nina Todd Has Gone' (Bloomsbury)

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