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Book review: British Story by Michael Nath

PAUL SIMON finds anger, tenderness and resistance in this state-of-nation saga

BRITISH Story doles out the kisses and the coshes in equal measure. 

Fittingly for a book obsessed by the importance of character in literature, Michael Nath’s second novel can best be summed up as a swaggering and beer-bellied roar of anger, tenderness, reflection and resistance. I loved it.

The novel’s protagonist is the academic Ian Kennedy, whose literary focus on character, and especially that of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, is getting him nowhere professionally. 

His lectures invite ridicule and bewilderment in equal measure, his relationship with his wife is stalling and he is living an increasingly characterless life.

All this changes when Arthur Mountain, a huge green-eyed autodidact and campaigner from Swansea appears on the scene. Both directly and through his gang of associates he provides Kennedy with such a plethora of stories and characters that the academic is revived and refocused.

Nath takes the reader on an almost encyclopaedic tour of the often violent and always edgy relationships between the English, Welsh and Scottish nations. He is equally adept at providing satellite views of events such as the country’s railway network or the tactics of football hooliganism  as he is in zooming down to specific and little-known details.

Hence the book is a treasure trove of information about the Plebs’ League, Arthur Horner and the communist village of Mardy and the mysterious WWII “stoplines.”

Mountain, a fantastical character, is clearly modelled in part on Falstaff but with a modern Marxist’s understanding of why things are as they currently are.

On the narrow and boring illusion of “choice” that underpins capitalism, Mountain rages: “You can’t be comfortable and free, except in that negative way you [Kennedy] were telling us about. PinkWorld unlimited on your PC, dozen syrups to liven up your cappuccino with, inalienable right to wear a baseball cap.”

But Mountain also draws Kennedy into an increasingly dangerous world that threatens him even as his professional and personal life turns for the better.

A loud and extraordinarily compelling novel, tussling with the big issues of life and death.

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