My first book review for Cornish Literature was of Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! by Alan Kent. There’s a certain symmetry in having my first after the long summer being of a book entitled Proper Job but it does lead to unavoidable questions regarding the imagination and creativity of some of our writers. The similarity in title is further reflected to some degree in the contents of the novels (both are comic novels focusing on the travails of a teenaged protagonist) and in the authors (both are university lecturers). Delve a little deeper, however, and the similarities are revealed to be rather superficial: Alan Kent is a literature lecturer at the Open University whose figure looms large over contemporary Cornish scholarship and creative writing, Ian Hocking is a psychology lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University writing self-published fiction; Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! charts a year in the life of a Camborne school drop-out as he attempts to make something of himself, Proper Job covers a couple of weeks in the summer of one St. Austell student studying for his A-Levels.
Hocking has built a bit of a reputation for himself since the launch of his first book, Déjà Vu, in 2011. That book won praise and sales for the author as he became one of the more successful authors to take advantage of the ease of digital publishing. Since then, Hocking has been fairly prolific – releasing the first sequel to that cult science fiction work (another is due to be released shortly), a short story collection and this, his first comic novel, whilst continuing his academic career.
The cover of the book features a quote comparing the novel to Spike Milligan and the first chapter, in which the protagonist (Andy Carrick) lands a job in a packaging factory, does feature the kind of word play that Milligan was famous for in a set piece drama right out of the Goon Show back catalogue. I found the execution of this unconvincing, with the jokes not quite coming off and although not wholly terrible I was concerned about where the rest of the novel was heading. Chapter two though, sees an immediate change in both the writing style and the humour, which gives me cause to wonder at the gestation of the novel: perhaps there was a significant gap in the writing here and a firm editor might suggest removing or reworking the first chapter, a luxury not afforded to the self-published author who can, understandably, be too close to their work for objectivity. Any writer who can compare St. Austell to Birmingham though, in no matter how an offhand way, has my attention.
“Relatively few tourists stop in St. Austell, where granite has rotted to china clay, and fathers stamp the white dust off their boots before coming into the house at tea time.”
Ian Hocking clearly has some talent for creating imagery, combining the factual and the descriptive with an eye for the beauty of small things. In fact, the more times I read that sentence the more impressed I am: it combines social commentary with history and science in a way that is not patronising or forced and finishes by rooting it with experience on the level of the family and individual. Hocking employs the first person throughout in his narrative and it works very well, as the novel settles into the kind of fish-out-of-water situation led comedy tradition of P.G. Wodehouse.
[Note – Spoilers Follow] After losing his job in the factory after just one day, Carrick visits the pub with his friends where he spies a girl he immediately begins to fancy; his friend then arranges for them to meet again in a paint-balling competition. During these little adventures we are also introduced to Jeff, a Cornish grotesque. Jeff owns an ice-cream company and it is here that our hero works for the rest of the book. It’s a situation which is ingenious in its simplicity for looking at Cornwall: a thin plate of glass dividing locals from tourists – a division which adds the complication of reflection. This is a comic novel, however, and this ground remains largely unexplored. Where it is touched upon, tourists are shown to exist on another plane of reality (such as when they happily mill around but refuse to get out of the way of an oncoming vehicle).
The Ice Cream company also serves as a medium through which to explore employment in Cornwall. It’s notable that Andy’s friend, Doogie, has to keep this job because he can’t get any other. Andy himself spends a day wandering the streets of St. Austell asking every business for employment and the ice-cream drivers are all older men, unable to find another job ‘at their stage of life’. Most significant of all is the exchange between Andy and the ice cream company mechanic. Andy is, at the time, applying to study physics at university and is amazed to discover that the greasy, disreputable mechanic has a PhD. Higher education presents a double-edged sword for the intelligent of Cornwall, as the author probably knows only too well: study well and far and you suddenly find yourself unsuitable for any jobs at home, effectively sending yourself into exile.
Other parts of the tale are a little less consistent with ideas of Cornishness, however: a simile involving a cricket bowler completely lost me, I’m afraid. Perhaps Ian Hocking is a keen cricket fan but it’s not a sport with a strong following in the Duchy and I’m sure I won’t be the only Cornishman to struggle with the imagery at that point. In fairness, it’s worth pointing out that Andy Carrick, despite his name, may well be a second generation immigrant anyway (that point is not entirely clear) and is always a bit of an outsider – differentiated both by his love of science and by his middle class accent. Using an outsider to explore notions of identity is a familiar literary device but the employment here is inconsistent: at times (particularly in that first chapter) Carrick constantly translates dialect for the benefit of the reader (and, presumably, comic effect – although this was one of the jokes I found a bit flat and repetitive) whilst later on in the story he occasionally struggles with interpreting dialect himself. Again, this is probably something that an editor would help to sort out. There were a couple of apparent anachronisms as well: apparently eBay did exist in 1999 but I’m pretty certain I hadn’t heard of it then, in fact I’m pretty certain that most Cornish had still never been on the internet at that stage and certainly wouldn’t have heard of it – it’s also odd that a Baker’s son would have mobile internet, crucial to the novel’s closing segment, in 1999.
Yes, 1999. The eclipse summer. What better climax could there be to a Cornish comic novel with an ice-cream selling hero than the eclipse?