Friday, January 04, 2013

The Space Between Things by Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill's debut novel, "The Space Between Things" (Indigo Dreams), is set in one of those almost forgotten times, the early 90s John Major administration, where, for a brief moment, rave culture looked up from the dancefloor and the pills and became political. Arch is an all too typical boheme of the time, sat in his cheap digs in Moseley in Birmingham, smoking dope and partying as part of an ever shifting demi monde. It's that time in a person's life when responsibility hasn't intruded, when it's possible to believe that dope, music and squatting might be a true alternative to the 9-to-5. At a party he meets Vee, and his eyes are opened, albeit briefly, to another life. For whilst he is casual, Vee is serious, and yet they seem made for each other. When she goes off, almost as quickly as they've met, and then disappears for several months to a war-torn Balkans where she's taking photographs of potential war crimes, Arch has a slow coming-of-age.

The dawning of his own political views is a gradual one, and less to do with his pining for Vee, than the brutality that him and his friends encounter following a week long rave at Castle Morton. Between the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays dropping E in1989 and the rise of Britpop, there were a brief few years, when a strange fusion of hippy politics and dance culture fused together. In the grey years of the Major administration, road protestors and techno hippies, travellers and ravers, briefly became public enemy one, and the Criminal Justice Bill was rushed through parliament outlawing public gatherings with the playing of "regular beats." It is this millieu, almost written out of any pop cultural histories that I've read recently (certainly with none of the nostalgia of Britpop or grunge), that Charlie Hill so eloquently maps. For Arch is a bit of a poet-philosopher despite a can't be arse attitude that is typical of both the times and the place. There's hardly been any fictions that have looked at squat culture - Doris Lessing's "The Good Terrorist" from a decade earlier is the one that comes to mind - and this debut has some of the shambolic nature of that culture. Arch is sort-of an unreliable narrator in that we only get a partial view of the world. The Castle Morton rave is just another party to him and it's only afterwards that it becomes a big deal. The ne'er-do-wells who he shares a flat with are dropouts and drug casualties and drifters, and his loyalty to their wellbeing is somewhat less than that of a friend, but more than that of a stranger.

When Vee returns, the love story that frames the novel, begins in earnest. That they only existed as an idea before, a one night stand that is turned into a great love in Arch's mind, works up to a point, but she has returned from a horror that she won't even talk about to find Arch is no longer the loveable comic doper, but is putting his energies into this newly politicised scene. Yet, having come from a real civil war, Vee is exasperated to find that the only thing that has got this generation up in arms is freedom for the right to party!
Hill is excellent on the minutiae of this millieu, and the pre-regeneration, pre-internet of Britain's inner cities is nicely brought back to life. He's also very funny, although there are times when Arch's stream-of-consciousness telling of the tale reads verbatim. The short chapters help us whizz through the seasons, yet we're never entirely convinced by the love affair at the heart of things. There's so much veracity in the story, that one wonders a little at where the fiction begins and ends, and Arch and Vee's initial meeting is told in retrospect and doesn't entirely convince. That said, for a novel of near-contemporary events its fascinating to re-read the recent past. I'm suddenly puzzled as to why road building was the issue du jour of the traveller community - it seems parochial in the extreme! We rarely go beyond the squat culture of Moseley and Arch remains a somewhat inert presence as he takes us through the deteriorations of his community and his relationship, but that's perhaps inevitable given the looking-back nature of the novel.

Like Max Schaeffer's recent "Children of the Sun", Hill finds a wealth of material in a slightly forgotten recent subcultural world, and it brought back memories of going to see Back to the Planet, Chumbawumba and Megadog. But I was a tourist in this world, for by 1994 the illegal party scene was no more, and the traveller convoys were no longer in the news. A different nineties, disconnected from a drug subculture that briefly got political, was about to begin.

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