Ironopolis, by Glen James Brown, is a novel structured as a collection of interrelated stories detailing pivotal events in the lives of residents of a Middlesbrough housing estate across three generations. The setting is key. Built after the second world war to replace slum dwellings with practical family homes, the houses and brutalist high rises were not well maintained by the council who owned and managed them. Eventually the decaying stock was sold on to residents or a housing association before being forcibly purchased for area regeneration.
On one side of the estate is an old waterworks, bombed during the war and left derelict. The danger this poses proves a draw for the local kids with devastating consequences for two of the characters featured. Parents try to persuade their children to stay away by telling them stories of a water dwelling crone who could lure them to their doom.
There is a sense of community on the estate but also fear. Hard men make their money by nefarious means, uncaring of the damage wrought on those they snare. There is distressing cruelty. Jobs are physically tough and increasingly rare. Drink, drugs, gambling, theft and extortion are a way of life – the discontented seeking distraction from their lack of prospects across the years.
The book opens with a collection of letters written by Jean Barr to a London art dealer in 1991. She is recalling a childhood friend whose artistic output has recently been exhibited to critical acclaim. Jean is married to Vincent, a much feared character in the local area. Their only child, Alan, suffered life changing injuries as a teenager during a game at the waterworks with his peers.
The second story introduces Jim Clark, another victim of the waterworks’ dangers. He is now regarded as a freak due to his injuries, his sister Corina one of the few people who will speak to him civilly. It is widely believed that Vincent threw Jim down a well during an illegal rave organised by the boy’s friends, whom his parents disdained. Jim’s story is one of alienation, finding a place he felt he belonged and then having it snatched away.
The third story tells of a father and son, Scott and Frank Hulme. Frank was one of the boys involved when Alan was injured. Now he is taking his son to apologise to Vincent for another misdemeanour. History threatens to repeat itself.
Next up the reader learns Corina’s story, how she became estranged from everything she should have held dear. Her tale is set on her last day in a hair salon she established, unable now to trade due to the clearing of the estate. As with all the histories there are references to characters previously featured. Each story adds depth as perspectives shift, details are added and time frames vary .
The penultimate story is told by Alan as he searches for information about Douglas Ward, an associate of Vincent. Alan has watched behind the scenes of his father’s dealings, not always realising at the time their significance. Now he wishes to better understand the man, his activities, and the rumours that generated such fear.
The final section is also narrated by Alan and ties up several recurring threads. By this time the reader is familiar with a community facing dispersal, as happened to the slum residents when the estate was built. Although the older generation believe the young are getting worse, these stories demonstrate that the wheel has simply turned. Some will escape to what may be regarded as a better way of living. For many though, this is what they are and will be wherever they live.
The writing is tenacious in its depiction of working class life, with an undercurrent of compassion even during the darkest scenes. The reader can empathise with the various characters while wishing they could somehow find a way to change. Yet perhaps that is my middle class prejudice speaking. Those not content with their lot in these stories demonstrated little desire to become like the families on the regenerated streets. This may be a fictionalised history but is told in an authentic voice from a people who too few are willing to hear.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Parthian Books.