An ambitious novel about the North-East has the publishing world abuzz. David Whetstone talks to author Richard T. Kelly.
A BOOK described by one writer and critic as “the great British novel of the decade” is to be published in January – and it is set firmly in the North-East.
As well as that priceless plaudit, the cover is also decorated with overlapping sketches of the Tyne Bridge.
Publishers Faber and Faber have high hopes of Crusaders, by Richard T. Kelly, calling it “a major British debut, a novel of and for its times”.
It describes it thus: “A contemporary parable, shifting between past and present, its backdrop is the thorny history of Labour and industry in the North-East as a new shade – New Labour – steals across the landscape.”
That’s the hype. But you’ll turn the early pages of Crusaders quickly if you enjoy good writing and have a passing interest in big themes such as religion, politics and urban regeneration. Crime and deprivation are there, too, woven into a compelling narrative.
After a flashback to 1978, describing an eery ascent to the Penshaw Monument, the story gets under way in the autumn of 1996 – “the dog days of a corrupt government and a mood in the air that change is afoot”.
We meet the first main character, Rev John Gore, a young vicar en route to his native North-East where he is to establish a new church in a deprived council ward in the city’s West End – the fictional Hoxheath.
There, we are promised, his task will be aided and complicated by run-ins with “three impressive locals” who draw him into a moral crisis.
The book seems timely. Recently London-based journalists have linked various big headline stories with their roots in the North-East to highlight some perceived regional characteristic or malaise.
The run on Northern Rock, the disappearance of the two computer discs sent from a Government office in the region and the illicit Labour Party donations came on each other’s heels, inviting glib commentaries from what used to be called Fleet Street.
Richard Kelly (let’s drop that middle T) has discouraged some acquaintances from drawing erroneous conclusions. But he is not painting the region as whiter than white.
On one level, he says, his novel is “to do with this fantastically rich and dynamic region that has nevertheless suffered economically, so it has this grandeur to it but also this background of problems.
“On another level the North-East is seen as one of the Labour Party’s heartlands, although that relationship has been corrupted. The figure of T. Dan Smith (the disgraced leader of Newcastle City Council in the 1960s) still casts a large, meaningful shadow and there are those who will argue that Labour’s problems start in the North-East.”
Kelly’s view is that the North-East has done a lot for the Labour Party although it has also produced some very ambitious characters who have got the party into trouble on occasion. He mentions Mandelson, Byers, Milburn and the late Mo Mowlam.
“The North-East has driven Labour in all sorts of ways but sometimes with unhappy consequences.”
The party, he points out, relinquished power of Newcastle City Council to the Lib Dems not so long ago. Significantly, perhaps, the new Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, has declared that he doesn’t believe in God.
It was Tony Blair’s – and indeed the Labour Party’s – stance on religion that intrigued Kelly.
“Blair’s North-East roots were really fascinating to me and also his churchiness, to put it simply. His religious faith would become more important in the later years but it was interesting to me even when he became Labour Party leader. There’s something about the long relationship between the Labour Party and the Church that I find fascinating. Blair always said that he wanted to keep his religion separate but in the end he couldn’t. Margaret Thatcher was a bit the same. From the moment she quoted St Francis of Assisi she displayed a very individualistic idea of what religion was.”
Such is the richness of Crusaders that it could spark a long conversation on any number of topics.
Faber and Faber say Richard Kelly comes from County Durham. It’s true but he says he wasn’t here for long.
Now aged 37, he was born here – his mother from Stanley, his father from Lanchester – but when he was just two years old, the family moved to Northern Ireland. His father was a chartered loss adjuster and the insurance firm that employed him suddenly saw rich pickings amid the Troubles.
“Where we lived was quite safely remote,” he recalls.
There were frequent visits back to the North-East to visit grandparents during which he witnessed the transformation of parts of the region, beginning in the 1990s. The place maintained a hold on him.
After college, he knew he wanted to “do something creative”. He took a little touring theatre company on the road and then went to work for the British Film Institute. This was how his first book arose, a biography of Alan Clarke who made “edgy documentaries” for the BBC, including Scum and Made In Britain.
Among Kelly’s other books is a biography of the fiery Hollywood actor, Sean Penn.
But he found himself gravitating towards fiction. “At a certain point in the 1990s I found myself making notes and cutting things out of newspapers and thinking about the North-East in particular and how it was changing. I began thinking there was something specific about the North-East that could inspire something.”
In Northern Ireland, he notes, “there’s almost too much coverage. It’s as if you can’t throw a stick without hitting a writer of fiction or non-fiction. I never felt I had a particular affinity with Northern Ireland but the North-East genuinely interested me.”
Stories that fed into the fiction-making process included one about a vicar in Durham in the early 1990s “planting” (creating) a church. A little research revealed vicars throughout the region doing good and largely unsung work, “acting almost as social workers”.
Then there was the shooting of the Wallsend bouncer Viv Graham on New Year’s Eve, 1993. “What came out of that was a lot of coverage in the national press about Newcastle’s gangland. It was as if a layer had been stripped away.” The author, whose maternal grandfather notched up 40 years as a pitman, remembers being on Tyneside during the miners’ strike and the legacy of coal is an element of his story, too.
Then, of course, there was the coming to power in 1997 of Blair and Labour and, in the background, the gradual regeneration of parts of the North-East with echoes, he suggests, of what happened under T. Dan Smith before he fell from grace.
“This is not a tract or a treatise about the North-East,” says Kelly. “This is a work of fiction, a story, and I hope people will read it and find it interesting. I hope they will find in it things that talk to them about their own experience.”
The plotting of the novel began nearly three years ago and the writing two years ago – a process interrupted by the arrival of a daughter, Cordelia, to himself and wife Rachel, publicity director for a rival publisher.
Kelly, who works as a consultant for Faber and Faber, is gratified by the attention his novel is already getting. Rather like Peter Flannery’s play Our Friends in the North, which he greatly admires, it is being looked at for a TV treatment.
In the meantime, Richard Kelly will be talking about his novel at the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineering (next door to the Lit & Phil on Westgate Road) on January 26.
Crusaders by Richard T. Kelly is published on January 17 (Faber and Faber, £14.99).