Perhaps it is Charles Dickens's fault, but villainous local factory owners are just not what they used to be. Last week's news about a poor West Country writer and her struggle against a big local employer seemed so encouraging at first. We were led to expect cackling mill owners and smut-faced orphans. What we got was a hippie cobbler versus a dejected writer of thrillers.
Not that Joan Brady was always such. In 1993, she became the first woman to win the Whitbread Prize for her novel Theory of War. She has recently been working on another novel, Cool Wind From the Future, but she has had to give it up. All she could manage in place of this sensitive and elegant story was a brutal crime fiction entitled Bleedout. Why? Because she has been rendered low-brow by the solvent fumes coming from the Conker Shoes factory near her former home in Totnes. Last week, she won a settlement of £115,000 after a series of court battles .
This will come as a shock to the good citizens of Totnes. Since it was established in 1977, Conker Shoes has come to epitomise everything that is warm and loveable about the South Devon town. "We make all the shoes ourselves behind our shop in the high street using the finest quality materials and traditional cordwaining techniques," it boasts. It is an embodiment of sustainability, democracy and old-fashioned environmentally-friendliness – provided you ignore the local by-law that says the shoes can only be worn with purple stripy trousers and a didgeridoo.
Totnes, as all Devonians know, is where old hippies go to breed. Its high street is full of organic clothing and reiki healing centres and the most dangerous thing people inhale are fumes from the local scrumpy.
But Ms Brady begs to differ, and the settlement appears to vindicate her claim that she was so affected by the smell of Conker's glue that her writing has suffered. "It is much easier to write a thriller," she said, "and I was so angry that it was therapeutic to write about murder and blood."
Bleedout features a Mr Poole: the author's tribute to one of the Conker factory owners. Her author's note blames South Hams District Council, which initially failed to detect the smell.
Ms Brady has recently moved to Oxford because she fears the council now has a grudge against her. Perhaps her head is now clear enough to start a cautionary novel starring the Conker bosses as Mr and Mrs Bumble and South Hams District Council in the role of Fang. The moral of the story: many things can hold a community together in a small market town; glue is not always one of them.
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