The White Stuff by Simon Armitage

When a woman wants a baby and a man just wants to mow the lawn
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The Independent Culture

When is a poet not a poet? When he's trying to be Tony Parsons. Of course there are plenty of reasons to try to be Tony Parsons, especially if you are a poet - principally cash. Actually, are there any other reasons? No one reads poetry and everyone reads Tony Parsons. Yet not everyone reads sub-Tony Parsons, which is something Simon Armitage probably still has to learn.

Armitage is a good poet, with 11 solid collections behind him. He has also, in All Points North, written a charming, quirky, non-fiction travelogue of his beloved northern England. Then came Little Green Man, which was sort of fine because it was his first novel. An account of a group of former school friends who grew out of their Choppers and into substance abuse and domestic screw-ups, it was, though bleak, rather poignant.

Now comes The White Stuff. While the title does refer to Bolivian marching powder, it also refers to sperm. And while there is a subplot which hinges on some illegal and seriously depraved behaviour, the most notable abuse depicted here, or rather Armitage's biggest crime, is over-sentimentality. The White Stuff is lad-lit lite. I don't think Armitage intended it to be quite so fluffy. He set out to explore the question of infertility and the possibility of childlessness from a male perspective, but somehow the tissues and clichés got in the way - or perhaps it was simply the sound of a cash register ringing in his ears.

Felix is married to Abbie. Abbie is about to be 40 and still hasn't become pregnant. And being adopted, and not having any proper family of her own, she's desperate. Felix is a good bloke, but he's a bloke and is not quite as sensitive to Abbie's needs as he thinks he is. Also, being a bloke, he's not able to express himself emotionally very well. So while Abbie lights the scented candles and lies back thinking of babies, Felix does his best to perform. But not much happens and other courses of action are called for. A neighbour, Jed, is asked to help, but this also comes to nothing. Felix and Jed, being blokes, resume their consumption of four-packs of Stella, while Abbie and Jed's wife, Maxine, resort to cracking jokes about how much they hate giving blow-jobs.

This all takes place in a quiet suburb of a rather rundown northern town. There are bad estates where nasty things happen and, as Felix is a social worker, he becomes involved in a number of incidents, one of which gets ludicrously out of hand. But again, Felix is unable to explain to Abbie either what happened or his feelings about it. What Felix likes to do best is to leave work early on a Friday, mow the lawn, tinker around in his shed and then have a couple of Stellas with Jed. You begin to wonder quite why Abbie wants his child so much.

This is really the crux of the story. She doesn't necessarily want his child so much, she just wants a child. And if she can't have one of her own, she'll have to have someone else's. Fortunately, being a social worker, Felix does have his uses in this respect. He also comes in handy when Abbie decides to trace her birth mother and family. But beyond that what Armitage seems to be saying is that men are of limited use when it comes to truly satisfying women. Well, they'd rather be mowing the lawn anyway.