Gotta get a move on tryin´to find a man I know – A near-review of Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke

by Steve

Graffiti on Canvey Island -

Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke is a book about a man who goes to Canvey Island, then Southend, to sort out the affairs of his uncle who has recently died. That’s as much plot as you need. I don’t want to give away the plot. Plus, while it is a good plot, and the story matters, Vulgar Things is about a whole lot more. At least how I read it, anyway.

the end of nowhere

The last time I went to Southend my uncle had died. Well, it was a little outside Southend, further out. He wasn’t like the uncle in Vulgar Things, for what it is worth. But he was certainly one of the characters in the family, a good man with a good story. I’m pretty sure he was a bookie’s runner as a kid. He avoided National Service over here so that he could join the Air Force in Canada. He moved to America when nobody really did. Then he came back to England, settled in Southend, lived his life.

After the funeral we went back to the house. The skies are pretty big around there. You feel like you’re on the edge of things. Not quite the middle of nowhere, more the end of nowhere. I look a bit like my uncle did when he was my age. I should have asked for stories about him, instead it made me a think a bit about my mortality. I’m self-absorbed like that.

reflect and repeat

I remember reading somewhere that there are only really seven stories to tell. I might have the number wrong. It probably doesn’t matter. The point is, there is nothing new to say, there is nothing new to experience. Somebody has already told your tale, and probably told it better than you can. Someone has already experienced whatever you are experiencing now. We’re not unique.

If there is anything new, it is in how we rework those old tales, engage with them, ignore them, see the parallels, fail to see the parallels. History doomed to repeat itself and all that. We can rewrite the old. We can film our commentary on this. We can then watch that through our camera phones, filming again, watch again on our phones, then write about that. Working through the media. Going around and around in circles. Each time something changes, each time something stays the same.

Not just how we document. We have the same obsessions, make the same mistakes, as those before us. We observe others acting the same way as us yet don’t see it in ourselves. Our lives reflect and repeat the same old stories. That’s what we do.

Vulgar Things is a simple tale. But it is also story after story, looping, feeding back, distorting, breaking up. You could draw a chart, it would probably look like those old charts of the night sky.

Image of Saturn, 1979

drag him out

The protagonist of Vulgar Things is a man who lives in Islington who works in publishing. My heart sank when I read that. There are enough books about men living in cool parts of London (or any other major city) who work in publishing, or academia, or any other thinly-veiled occupation to stand in for whatever the author gets up to every day.

Yet, as I read on, I think I understood. Or at least rationalised it. It might not have been the intention of the author, but it worked for me. Here was the standard literary protagonist archetype being taken out of the standard location and story of your standard literary novel. Drag him out of that trendy London and get him to where the really interesting tales are taking place. The suburbs, the places outside the suburbs, the other places. Make him more than just a tourist, show him the humanity and the soul of the people in these places and the places themselves. This is where I want my books, and their protagonists, to go.

all the best bands

I don’t know a lot about Dr Feelgood. I know they are/were from Canvey. I know Milk and Alcohol. That Lee Brilleaux died around the same time as Kurt Cobain, and his death got overlooked because of that. I’ve started listening to them more. I learned a little more from Vulgar Things. Dr Feelgood were rooted in place, they built up a mythology around themselves and Canvey Island, the Canvey Delta where people played the blues. It didn’t matter if it was true or not. All the best bands have a mythology around them, the very best ones build that mythology themselves. When that mythology is rooted to place then you see real devotion. It’s like a football team or something. You feel like you own them, that they are fighting for you.

I live the other side of the river. Squeeze are the band most rooted in place for me. I remember working near Greenwich and wandering around on my lunch break finding all the places referenced in their songs. I went to a secret pub gig of theirs a couple of years ago. It was packed full of people who had been following them since the seventies, it felt like being in a secret society of some sort, a sense of belonging. These were the people of our place. I think some people resented us (relatively) younger people being there. “It is not the same since they started telling people about these gigs on the internet.”

Southend, view of the sea and sky

tall tales and secrets everywhere

There is obviously mythology in place too. Psychogeography and flaneurie and all that are interesting concepts, I like them, but I’m wary of them. There is a fine line between milling about a bit and finding something new, or true, about somewhere. The concepts are rooted in London and Paris, yet these places hold fewer secrets than the places outside. I guess that is why the most interesting work has been on the ‘edgelands’ of cities. We know the mythologies of the major cities, yet there are myths and tall tales and secrets everywhere. And these stories give a place a certain feel, there is an undercurrent, they shape the people whether they know it or not. The atmosphere changes with every step you take away from London. The suburbs, the places beyond the suburbs, the other places, aren’t just a homogenised mass. They are different, to be discovered, yet more unknowable than any city.

just tell their tale

Our internal dialogue builds our own stories. We have a conversation with someone and the story we construct almost certainly doesn’t match the story they have constructed. We observe people and fill in our own tales, who they might be, what they want from life, and this definitely won’t match the reality. All we have are versions and interpretations.

Our mind spins off in many directions. Riffs on connections nobody else would make. Our own personal view of the world. The best books inspire this. They don’t just tell their tale, they are also a leaping-off point for memories, meditations, for other art, for places, for who we are, who we might be, and who never were. Vulgar Things does this, yet I can’t quite see how it does it. Like all good myths.

Canvey Graffiti photo from Jodi, via Flickr

Saturn image from NASA, via Flickr

Southend sky photo from Gem, via Flickr