Face by Benjamin Zephaniah


There are a few things that you need to know about this book. Firstly, I love Benjamin Zephaniah. I could listen to the man talk all day long. He has a really interesting take on life and is widely known for his performance poetry. So when it comes to a sort of cool, detached approach to this book… yeah, that’s not going to happen! There are links to some  of his performances in the box and in my opinion, everyone needs to have heard a performance of “Talkin’ Turkey” at some point in their life.

Secondly,  it’s set in the late 90’s but the only thing that ages it are the references to technology. Martin, the main character, listens not to his MP3 player or iPod but to his Walkman. These references are very minimal and so don’t date the book too much really. In the interests of fairness I should probably point out that I was a teenager in the late 90’s and so this was a little bit of a nostalgia kick for me.

Martin is cool. He has his two best friends, he has his girlfriend, people are impressed by his bubbly personality. In short, his life is just what he wants it to be. This is the point at which an incident happens and Martin is left with a facial disfigurement and his life is in danger of falling apart. The ways in which Martin and his family and friends cope with his new appearance vary hugely and in the end, Martin has a choice about how to face the world.

This is a character driven novel and we spend the vast majority of the novel with Martin. This is no bad thing, Martin made me smile and laugh a few times. There are moments when I was thinking “blimey, you’re being a bit selfish” and I had to remind myself that Martin is a 15 year old boy who had been traumatised. He had a right to feel a bit selfish. Martin thought that he knew who he was before the incident but now he has to work out who he is and if he’s going allow other people’s reactions to him impact on his sense of self.

The secondary characters are all well defined and I found it easy to keep track of the three boys, despite the fact that they have very similar names. I think Zephaniah did this on purpose as the boys you meet at the start of the novel have quite a journey and they all change, as you are supposed to when you’re 15… (other side)or indeed, human. Natalie, Martin’s girlfriend, I found very difficult to warm to. I don’t know what it was about this girl, but I just didn’t like her. Martin more than made up for this, thankfully.

The way in which Zephaniah uses language in this novel is interesting. His use of very pared down, almost unpoetic language, means that the emotions and action in the novel are very real and raw. One sequence in particular made my heart race as I was reading. There was no way that I would have tolerated an interruption at that point. Although on the surface Martin and I have very little in common, I found it very easy to put myself in his place, which is a credit Zephaniah’s writing seemingly effortless skill.

This book is probably shelved with the ‘teen’ books and I know it was a book used in some schools but really I’d recommend this book to adults too. It is a book which deserves to be savoured, but having said that, it really didn’t take me long to read it.


A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

A Kind of Loving

A Kind of Loving is the story of Vic Brown, a 20 year old draughtsman who is yearning for something… he’s just not sure what. At first he thinks it’s Ingrid, a pretty girl from the typing pool but it eventually becomes to clear, at least to the reader, that what Ingrid represents is the escape Vic has been yearning for.

This was a book that I needed to keep reminding myself that it was written in a very different time. Stan Barstow, the writer, is creating people that I feel like I know largely because he was writing about the place that I’m from. Stan Barstow is from a village on the other side of a city close to where I live. Vic has grown up a grammar school boy in the 1950’s and in the new decade of the 1960’s is chained to his job as a draughtsman. It’s not that his life is uncomfortable, it’s just unsatisfying. He becomes at first infatuated with Ingrid, building her up in his head to be his perfect woman. When she falls short of perfection, he becomes dissatisfied with the relationship. Neither of them seem to be enthralled with the other after an initial kissing session in the cinema but they just bump along together because it’s better than being apart. Ingrid is a well rounded character but she is the kind of woman who has irritated me since I knew women like her existed, the ones who find it impossible to be single or to move on. There were a few points where I wanted to shake her, very hard. Vic, for all his faults, could just stand up off the page, a real person. His bitterness at being trapped by the consequences of his lusts and embarrassment in the chemists makes him increasingly churlish and eventually downright nasty that even his spiteful harpy of a mother-in-law seems to have a point.

I saw a review on Good Reads that said this book was “Nothing revolutionary.” I’d argue that it was, at the time, it was revolutionary. This wasn’t a subject that most people talked about, it was something shameful to have an intimate relationship outside of marriage, let alone to have sex outside of marriage. This book allowed the story of young working class people to be told in their own words, in their own language. Yes, Vic does refer to Ingrid (and every other young woman) as a bint and that’s coarse and misogynistic and it really, really got up my nose but they were his words. This isn’t a book by someone who is looking at the lives of working class through the lens of middle-class condescension, there are many factual links between Vic and Barstow. The novel is an unpatronising, unsentimental look at a relationship without much affection, let alone much love, that Vic and Ingrid are stuck in because they, like many people at the time, can’t face the disapproval of the society they have to live in.

I had a conversation with my Dad about this book after I’d read it as he was a young man at the time and he said a couple of interesting things. The first was that some men are just trophy hunters (which I knew) and that leads them to be disrespectful of women. That is very true of course but it doesn’t really apply to Vic. He repeatedly says that he wants what his sister has, he wants to find someone who he can be in love with. The second point that my dad raised was that if you’re not brought up to respect people, then you don’t. It dawned on me that’s what it is that makes Vic so unhappy, he only respects the people who he chooses to respect, the ones who prove themselves worthy of his respect. If you spend your time waiting for the world to be worthy of your respect, you’re going to be waiting a heck of a long time.

Is this book a modern classic? Well, I think it is. I think that A Kind of Loving wrote a landmark novel that at the time was truly shocking. It’s very well written and very stark. Unlike the rest of Barstow’s work, it is in print. I’d recommend it to anyone who wonders what life was really like before for young people in before the feminist movement, the pill or legal abortions, an era I’m very glad to have not had to lived through. 


The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl by Belle de Jour


This book, which was originally an award wining blog, was turned into a TV series starring Billie Piper.  I watched the programme  before I read the book and I’m really glad I did. The Belle we see on TV is more of an every woman than the one in the book. I’m not saying that she was dumbed down but there was less of a sense that she talked about literature, art and film with her clients than there is in the book. I prefer the Belle of the book and would have enjoyed the TV series a lot less had I read it first.

I keep calling it a book and that’s wrong really, I should be referring to it as a memoir. It has a narrative in the loosest sense of the word, just like all our lives do. It’s not that their is no sense of cohesion, but those picking this up expecting Bridget Jones’ Diary with a sprinkling of hardcore sex will be disappointed.  Bridget is fictional, Belle is very real.

I love Belle’s sense of fun and the lists that she writes, including the A to Z of  Working as a London Call Girl, are funny and informative (I defy you to know everything on that list. If you do, well… email me). Belle presents herself as the kind of woman you’d love to go for a drink with for her wit and conversation. Those who criticise this book for glamorising prostitution clearly haven’t read it closely enough, or with a sharp enough sense of irony. Belle repeatedly points out that she was one of the lucky ones; she was not addicted to drugs, not controlled by a pimp, able to choose who her clients were and was not brutalised.

I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to read an account of the life of a woman who knows herself and is empowered by her attitude towards sex, money and the reality of how the world works.