Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer

Despite Britain being home to a bewildering range of working class subcultures, the British novel only occasionally dips its toe into these. Whether its Colin Macinnes "Absolute Beginners", Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", Richard Allen's bovver boy novels, or John King's "The Football Factory" the visceral nature of young, violent working class Britain has rarely been a mainstream strand of contemporary literature. To that list we can now add Max Schaefer's debut novel "Children of the Sun", which mines a powerful vein of material through exploring four decades of British Nationalist movements. Whereas viewers of Shane Meadows' "This is England" might come away with the sense that the skinhead is essentially harmless, a self-realising club of working class inclusion, in Schaefer's novel, the skinhead is placed firmly in his historical reality, as the symbolic look of the far right.

"Children of the Sun" runs two stories in parallel. In contemporary London, middle class, homosexual James is looking for material for a screenplay, whilst living with his black skinhead boyfriend Adam. Discovering that one of the most violent sociopaths of the 70s and 80s far right movement, Nicky Crane, was also gay, he gets drawn to researching this story. In parallel, we meet Tony, a working class east end boy, who has his first gay experience at 14, and continues his experimentation in parallel with an increasing identification with skinhead culture and the far right millieu in which it thrives. We follow Tony from the late 70s right through to the early 90s, through punk NF band Skrewdriver concerts, Rock Against Communism festivals and race riots in Brixton. Tony's story sees him becoming close to the major fascist names of the period, and is a potted history of the far right's multiple reinventions, from the National Front, through the British Movement, the paramilitary Combat 18 and the early days of the BNP, including walk on parts for a young Nick Griffin. Schaefer assiduously weaves Tony into the narrative of the far right, finding room for Nazi occultism, gay skinheads, and even the AIDS epidemic.

In the contemporary story, James' own fascinations start to go beyond his research, and he becomes obsessed with the obscure material he's researching, logging on late at night to a gay dating site to have risky conversations with an anonymous gay nazi. If at times Schaefer's own research lies too heavy on the page - its leavened by set pieces such as the elderly Nazi who invites the young skinheads round his house to toast the Fuhrer. Never afraid to delve deep into the violence, the sex, and the violent sex of the world about which he's writing, the overwhelming sordidness of this world is handled deftly, and with some humour. James own attempts to dress as a skinhead are playacting, and when he finds the "skinhead" night that he and Adam goes to, is just a pose, rather than some unchanging subcultural scene, his own fantasies crash into the reality of his life. One of the few women in the novel, his sister, is a key character, as though she is only there in brief moments, she provides a counterbalance to his increasingly dysfunctional quest for the truth about the eighties gay nazis he's frantically searching for.

If some of this sounds like a manufactured structure, it is, but it never gets in the way of a story that runs in two directions - switching between the past and the present. Tony's episodic life gets less interesting as it reaches the late 80s and early 90s, when there is no longer the mainstream acceptance of violent racism that still pervaded the late 70s and early 80s. The confused gender-race politics of the period is summed up by the using of Nicky Crane on the "Strength Through Oi!" album cover. I remember reading Sounds, and Oi scene propagandist Gary Bushell, in the early 80s, and finding it difficult to separate the violent, monodimensional music of those bands from the violent, racist skinheads who lurked round the subways of every provincial town. Schaefer, who was born in 1974, does a remarkable job in painting a world that he can only ever have known second hand.

If the book has a failing, its that its reliance on historical sources, rather than being purely a story set in the period, means that the characters, even Tony, remain distant. It has something of David Peace's veracity, or even echoes of Jake Arnott's sixties true crime novels, without the characterisation that a more fictionalised version might have given it. There's little chance of sympathy for characters who are addicted to warped ideology, mindless violence and ever riskier sexual behaviour, yet there remains a pathos at the end, when the two stories finally come together. The book's structure serves it well, and the powerful use of contemporary cuttings from a wide range of far-right publications, which intersperse the chapters, gives a genuine context which Schaefer successfully matches in his own text.

I haven't seen much about "Children of the Sun", and picked it up on spec from WH Smiths a couple of months ago; like those earlier "subculture" novels, and with fellow travellers China Mieville and Stewart Home namechecked in the credits, its certainly likely to garner its own cult. The material that he has unearthed is remarkable, even if the story doesn't quite match the research, and in getting under the psychology of the "skinhead" - its a novel that will probably have more resonance than any number of sociological "white studies" texts.

There's an illuminating interview with Max Schaefer in 3AM Magazine, which is also well worth reading.


Jeff Marshall said...

“If the book has a failing, its that its reliance on historical sources, rather than being purely a story set in the period, means that the characters, even Tony, remain distant. There's little chance of sympathy for characters who are addicted to warped ideology, mindless violence and ever riskier sexual behaviour..”

Quite. The 3:AM interview shows that he did not think it appropriate to meet anyone in the BNP before trying to write about them (“avoiding personal contact seemed pretty consistent with the plot and structure of the book overall”), although in Children of the Sun one of the characters even has a dream that he is staying at Nick Griffin's house.

You cannot imagine, say, Tom Wolfe trying to write about a “subculture” without going out and investigating it first – as his mentor, Dickens, another novelist-journalist, would have done.

I doubt if Wolfe would have worried about being “compromised” in the way gutless left-liberal English writers seem to.

And so you get a sense of undigested research, as you do in the sixties crime novels of Jake Arnott.

But that's the modern English novel for you.

Adrian Slatcher said...

It wasn't the lack of ground research with the far right that was an issue for me - after all it is a novel, not a true crime - but that by sticking so close to the research, I don't think he quite succeeded in shaking it off in the way that, say, David Peace does. Perhaps for a first novel that's understandable, but he is writing fiction, rather than non-fiction, and the bar is therefore higher.

John P said...

Nick Griffin has just put this up in his twitter account

nickgriffinmep Nick Griffin MEP
Both good. Also got Children of the Sun for 1p + postage. Strange book, but I'm in it. Not for prudish.