"On the Holloway Road" by Andrew Blackman
I’ve just finished a major feature for the Independent on the state of British (or more accurately, English) publishing. Several writers have recently moaned that not enough of their contemporaries are writing about England now. In my opinion this is utter bollocks; there are loads of good writers producing novels about the “here and now” including Chris Cleave, Ross Raisin and (I hope this won’t sound immodest) yours truly.
One of the things that compelled me to try my luck with Legend Press was that even back in 2006 their output included a number of works set in contemporary England. As well as publishing “Fire Horses” and shortly “Out of Office”, a large proportion of their books are set in 21st century England. One of the best of these must be Andrew Blackman’s “On the Holloway Road”, which I have just read.
“On the Holloway Road” relates the story of a narrator, Jack, who having left a minor public school top of his class has fallen into a rut: unable to complete his Great Novel he lives with his mother in Crouch End, a chintzy yet dull suburb of London, occasionally driving around in search of adventure, friendship, inspiration – or perhaps just to escape the tedium of his life.
One evening he meets Neil in a kebab shop. Neil is everything the narrator is not: streetwise, funny, confident, and perhaps most of all a lover of life, the antithesis of Jack’s existential angst-ridden personality.
Jack and Neil become friends, and set out on a road trip up the A1 and to Scotland. The novel relates their adventures and mishaps – confrontations with oil-riggers, being arrested during a fuel dispute on a motorway – and finally to Barra in the Hebrides, where we meet one of Neil’s girlfriends, Nicola, with whom Jack briefly and chastely shares a bed. The novel has a twist at the end that I never saw coming, yet as soon as it happened was not only obvious, but probably inescapable.
Such then is the plot, but this is not a plot-based novel. Rather, it is an exercise in existentialism, a character study, a literate, literary novel that never under-estimates its reader. One of the things I like best about the novel is the way it describes the grimy streets I know so well in a lyrical, original style. I also like the way it alludes to Kerouac and plays with his most famous book, “On the Road”, with Britain’s backwaters poor substitutes for the great American canvas.
Having spent 25 years in the Holloway Road area, having grown up in Yorkshire, and even visiting Barra on a school trip (where with two other 14-year-olds I was sent Bivouac-ing up a mountain overnight, hard to imagine in these safety-conscious times) the novel described familiar places in an unfamiliar way. Andrew’s prose is poetic, thoughtful and mannered (perhaps overtly so in places), and I’m sure his next novel will be even better.