England

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

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Travels through a small island

William Cobbett, as I recall, said you should make sure you know your own country intimately before you start trying to learn about anyone else’s. I’ve never got to grips with any other countries, so maybe it’s not quite as bad that I know so little of England. Last week I spent several hours on a train pressing steadily south through counties I couldn’t name without a map in front of me. It was amazing just how different it was; thatched cottages really do exist outside of jigsaw puzzles. Ploughed fields looked like wildflower meadows from their vibrant pinkish-red soil, a far cry from the rich dark brown I’m used to. And the weather was like being abroad.

As well as a hundred and eighty photos, a sunburnt nose and some scrappy notes that I’ll probably never follow up on, I came back with these questions:

  1. Is there really a wider variety of flora and fauna in Cornwall, or do I just not look closely enough at home?
  2. Why do small English towns, even in tourist areas, close down on Bank Holidays when so many people want to go out and do things (assuming they haven’t fallen foul of the Sunday-service buses)?
  3. Why are the buses on Sunday service on Bank Holidays when people want to go out and do things?
  4. Why am I always so rubbish at judging the right number of books for a train journey, either weighing myself down unnecessarily or leaving myself with three boring hours of watching the gradually darkening industrial landscape on the way home, unable to write because of the jolting?
  5. Why can’t I rent a picturesque rural cottage to write in for six months, as seemed to be so fashionable, and apparently so easy, in the past?

Answers on a postcard…