Running on Empty
Robert Henderson enjoys Derek Turner’s Displacement
In his last work Sea Changes Derek Turner presented a large canvas on which he painted both the predicament of the illegal immigrant and a Britain afflicted with a paralysing political correctness which traps both the British elite and the ignored and secretly despised white working-class. With the novella Displacement, we have a more intimate work which examines a dismal, deracinated England which has left the English with no sense of having a land that they could call their own. They have even been robbed of any sense that their predicament is in some way wrong.
Displacement is set in South London. Martin Hacklett is a member of the white working class, an endangered species in his London. Like the rest of his class Martin is not only materially deprived. He has also been robbed of his national identity. He has a job as a courier on a bike and, because he knows no better, thinks him self lucky to have a job because England has got to such a state that such jobs normally go to graduates.
The world Martin inhabits is unreservedly tawdry. Everything that once gave the white working class a sense of belonging, worth and respect has been removed by post war immigration. A creeping colonisation of Britain has occurred. His is one of the few white English faces left in the road in which he lives. His white English neighbours are not working class but the advance guard of a future gentrification. Martin wistfully thinks of a life in the suburbs. He used to dream of somehow finding the money to move there when he had a girlfriend, Kate, but that dream died after they broke up.
Martin lives with his father and elder brother Mike. His dad is a vessel adrift from its anchor. He worked on ships as a deckhand until the company which employed him went bust. Since then he has been unemployed. But it is not just his work which has gone. A natural Labour voter he no longer has a meaningful Labour Party to vote for or a union to which he can belong. Mike is a drug addict and minor criminal.
Martin’s release from the dreariness of a London in which the native English have been reduced to just one ethnic group is twofold. The first means of escape is free running. This frees him from the clutching mediocrity of his social and physical world, giving him not just a physical release but a sense that he is temporarily above the dreariness in which he lives. His second release is through poetry which he both reads and writes. Martin is not academically inclined and never got much out of school, but he has a desire to express himself and free verse can be, like free running, something which is not constricting, something he can bend to his will rather than he being bent by circumstances.
Against all the odds Martin becomes a sort of celebrity. Whilst free running Martin is seen by people in the buildings he scales. This causes alarm amongst some, because he runs in a white hoody which with his blondness gives him a ghost-like appearance. Martin is also seen on a building housing a senior politician, something that attracts the notice of the police who fear that he is a security risk. The media take up the story without knowing who the person involved is. Martin’s ex-girlfriend guesses that he is responsible. She is excited by Martin’s sudden if so far anonymous celebrity, reconnects with him and arranges for a public school educated journalist by the name of Seb to interview Martin about his free running.
The journalist visits Martin and his family in the spirit of an anthropologist visiting a tribe of hunter gatherers. Except for Kate, whom he tries unsuccessfully to seduce, Seb does not have any real interest in Martin and his family and friends; they are merely props for an article which will validate his idea of the white working-class as an out of date, redundant species, with Martin cast as the ugly duckling who is changed into a swan by his free running exploits, something Seb attempts to capture in prose of excruciating pretension such as “From his concrete eyrie he can discern the essential unity of humanity”.
The article is deeply offensive but Seb diffuses the anger of Martin and his friends and family by introducing Martin to a publisher of poetry who gives him hope that some of his poems will be published. What Martin does not appreciate is that this is itself a patronising act, a re-enactment of the patronage of working-class authors in the quarter century after the Second World War. It is a continuation of the offensive, patronising tone of Seb’s newspaper article with Martin in the role of a performing savage.
The real tragedy is not the mean circumstances in which Martin finds himself, but the fact that he accepts his lot without questioning it: he does not ask why he cannot set up a decent home because housing is beyond expensive; or why he cannot get the sort of job his father’s generation could get, manual most probably but paying well enough for a man to raise a family; or why his father has been reduced to idleness through no fault of his own. Most importantly he does not question how it is that where he lives is almost entirely dominated by people who are not like him when only a few decades before the place he lived in had been solidly white working class.
Martin should be filled with rage but he is a man resigned to being a victim because he does not realise he is a victim. He sees the unappetising mediocrity of the world he lives in but accepts it as how things are. He does not even have what Winston Smith in 1984 had, vague memories of what preceded the dismal world in which he lived. Winston, however ineptly, had an urge to challenge the status quo; Martin has no urge to change things, only to find a way to escape the grind of his daily existence with poetry and free running, which both gives him a focus on something untainted by the rest of his life and literally lifts him above it. Yet even these consolations will be fleeting enough because free running is for the young. It will not be long before Martin is too old to find his freedom there.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic. He blogs at http://www.living in a madhouse.wordpress.co.om/
DEREK TURNER is the former editor of QR. Displacement is published by Endeavour and is available as a Kindle Edition via Amazon Whispernet, price £1.99. Derek’s personal website is at http://www.derek-turner.com/