Fictional representations of real events from Hillsborough to the Stephen Lawrence case – mostly in the form of plays and television dramas – have played a surprisingly large part in shaping national debates about the police and police culture. Novels, however, tend either to use the figure of the detective to investigate larger questions than those of routine police work, or to fall back on the conventional oppositions (efficiency and incompetence, probity and graft) which tend to prop up the morphology of the fictional plod. When three novels emerge which explicitly or implicitly claim to deal with questions of police power and its abuses, it’s hard not to hope for something more than straightforward inversions of the mythic neighbourhood bobby. Unfortunately, the only one of these books with any insight into the daily grind of law enforcement and the attitudes it engenders is a failure as a novel; the other two, no masterpieces themselves, content themselves with posturing and caricature.
Ike Eze-anyika’s Canteen Culture, which won the 1998 Saga Prize ‘for the best first novel by a black British or Irish writer’, is a fictional exposé of the Met (‘the arsehole of the Civil Service’) and an episodic comedy caper. Team I of Northwick police station – Bubba, Lionel, Speedy, Sponge, moustachioed Saddam and Jazz (who’s black) – spend their working hours drinking cups of tea, arguing over whose turn it is to buy the chocolate biscuits, smoking dope in the area car, rousting drunk-and-disorderlies and trying to avoid too much paperwork. Slippery, the sergeant, is as cynical and disillusioned as they are. There is an atmosphere of boredom and anomie in the novel: the top brass are out of touch, there’s no chance of a transfer to more interesting work, the station is permanently short-staffed, everyone is underpaid. When the driver of a car they’ve stopped runs off, leaving behind almost a million pounds in cash and some large bags of unidentified white powder (‘Why don’t you taste it like in the movies?’ ‘Because I still wouldn’t know what it was’), it comes as no great surprise that they decide to keep the lot. Equally unsurprising are their subsequent fallings-out, fears of being caught and other plot-driven problems.
For most of the book, the creaky and perfunctory plotting takes a back seat to vignettes of life in the force. Some new recruits turn up – Rigsby, a callow graduate, and Sonia, a ‘plonk’ (the feminine form of ‘plod’) – and the team instruct them in canteen culture. Important lessons include stitching a false police number onto one shoulder of your uniform (the ‘oops’ shoulder) to be displayed if something ‘moody’ is going on; various acronyms are bandied about, including ‘PPFA’ (pram present, father absent) and ‘sosno’ (scum on scum, no offence); and there is a comic scene involving a police dog called in to find a bitten-off finger (the dog swallows it). Speedy, the oldest member of the team, has ‘the sentiments and afflictions of an old sweat: bitter and twisted, racist, sexist, homophobic and divorced’ and there is a fair bit of talk about ‘wogs’ and ‘limp-wristed fairies’. We don’t, however, see the characters fitting up innocent people, crippling suspects or covering up racially motivated crimes. Even the death in custody of a black (‘IC3’) suspect comes across as an accident, caused by institutional and procedural failures, rather than as an indictment of the central characters.
Clearly, this is not Eze-anyika’s intention. But Canteen Culture’s material on prejudice fails to have much impact because, looked at sentence by sentence, the book’s overwhelming concern is not to dramatise the politics of policing but to showcase as many poor-quality jokes as possible. Here’s one of the better ones:
‘You never buy the coffees,’ protested Saddam. ‘You haven’t got a long slender dick from genetics.’
‘What’s that got to do with buying coffees?’ Sponge asked.
‘You’re a tight-fisted wanker,’ Saddam retorted.
For the first fifty pages this raises a smile or two; after that it gets boring. The dialogue consists almost exclusively of superannuated one-liners, often followed by a pointless explanation: ‘ “I thought you had to be in reasonably good shape to be a copper, or can you get away with looking like a hamster – huge body and little legs,” the man said, ridiculing Bubba.’ The book is full of sentences like ‘Lionel stared at her, bewitched by her beauty and shape’ and ‘It was too late! The Rastafarian produced a revolver from beneath his jacket’; someone makes ‘an attempt to diffuse the situation’; character development is indicated with lines like ‘Bubba realised Sponge’s character was beginning to change’; and the storyline eventually peters out in a flurry of half-hearted plot twists that might even make Jeffrey Archer blush. Canteen Culture is good on the sheer boredom of routine work, but, despite the author’s experience in the Met, it reveals only that the police value solidarity more than legal niceties, have trouble accepting people from ethnic minorities as colleagues, and spend a lot of time stop-searching black people – none of which will come as much of a surprise to anyone.
Charlieunclenorfolktango is a bizarre, depressing and unreadable book which comes with an endorsement from Michael Moorcock (‘Tony White reports from the margins, the way all our best writers do’) and an optimistic but inaccurate billing as ‘the bastard offspring of Starsky and Hutch and The X-Files’. The gimmick is that the book is a monologue narrated entirely in phonetically spelled one-sentence paragraphs: ‘Coz yew gotta wav fuckin coppers in this weld ain chew eh.’ ‘Charlie-Uncle-Norfolk-Tango’ is the call sign of three officers of the ‘Retropolitan Police Force’ (their orders come – wait for it – from ‘Delta-India-Charlie-Kebab’). One of them, Lockie, is the narrator; the others are Blakie, who doesn’t say much, and The Sarge. The Sarge, we learn, claims to be a Yew-No-Wot – an alien robot or replicant, ‘Top a the fuckin raynj & ekwippt wiv the most ixpensiv kynd a “Real Blood (tm)” ’ and claims to be able to cure the ‘crimz & the killers & the nonsiz & the rapiss & the arsoniss & shit’ of their anti-social tendencies through the ‘ad-fuckin-ministrayshun ov a few undred million ov iz jeneticklee enjineerd nanobots’. (These are largely administered orally from The Sarge’s ‘delivree sistem as e cawlz it’; the victim does not always survive.) For good measure, he also believes that ‘denyal iz the shore-iss syne a fuckin gilt’ and ‘as far as eez concerned finkin is anuvver crim fuckin tendency.’
The trio drive about the ‘city a lyte & shadders’ in their police van, looking for ‘yore killers & yore crimz’: ‘Thass are job ain it.’ As they drive out of the city ‘inter the art ov fuckin darkness’, there is a flash of light and they find themselves floating up into a space ship, ‘juss lyke bleedin Star Trax’. Aliens (which ‘smel a petrol, sweets, bernin mettle & dog shit’) subject them to strange experiments. A high-pitched sound makes The Sarge bleed from the eyes, nose and mouth, while Blakie is first zapped with rays that seem to cook him from the inside and then has ‘inseck-type fingz’ blasted down his throat from a ‘choob fing’ that looks like ‘an oova’. The aliens turn to Lockie, who blacks out and wakes up back in the van with his colleagues. They are much changed, though, and it’s probably not giving too much away to say that none of them lives happily ever after.
All this takes more than 150 pages; things happen agonisingly slowly. Sometimes the narrator waxes poetical, as when he describes the sound of footsteps:
Iss maw lyke the sand a the wind blowin thru the fuckin treez in summa.
Or the sand ov a flock a birds in the ortum.
Yew no lyke fowzunz a stalins flyin roun the big bildinz in the middle a town.
& yew can ear awl a there fuckin wings beetin khan chew eh.
& iss juss lyke this kynd a murmerin sand.
There are also strangely formal rhetorical set-pieces – notably a list of 50 ways a ‘mad fuckin killer’ could have murdered you if there weren’t any police (sample: ‘bashed yore ed in wiv an ammer or a spade or a soddin plank or a varz or summink’). Another list exhaustively excuses Blakie for his shortcomings as a policeman: ‘it wern iz fawlt if e didden try & fit up mental blokes & birds fer stuff they didden do’; ‘if e wozzen a fuckin mayson’; ‘if e didden ate blak blokes & birds’ – and so on for three pages. The punchline: ‘Thass ryte Lockie. It wern iz fuckin fawlt at awl sun. The stewpid twot juss wozzen cut owt ter be a fuckin copper thass awl.’
There’s also a comic scene involving a grindingly costive variant of the ‘my dog’s got no nose’ gag (in this case, because ‘eez bin ded fer about a year’). Most irritating of all, though, there’s a tirelessly reiterated opposition of the lights of civilisation and the ‘dark playsiz’, ‘playsiz ware the bryte lytes don’t reech’. ‘Patrollin the edges a the fuckin nyte’, Lockie concludes that ‘iss a ryte ole bastardin weld a lyte and shadders ain it,’ and muses on ‘ow blokes & birds on Erf can keep the dark dark nyte at bay’. Taken with the vague hints of a confluence between The Sarge’s crimes and the depredations of the aliens, and the coppers’ constant definition of themselves in opposition to the ‘fuckin crimz’, this starts to raise suspicions that The Sarge might be on more than nodding terms with The Other and that there are half-baked metaphysical maunderings rattling about behind the self-conscious strangeness and writing-bum-on-a-wall prose.
The benchmark for Charlieunclenorfolktango and, to a much lesser extent, Canteen Culture, is Irvine Welsh’s sprawling bent-copper novel Filth. When it was first published in 1998, the word-of-mouth was very bad indeed. Compared to White’s book, however, it comes as a relief of sorts – Welsh at least knows how to write a novel. That’s not to say that Filth isn’t a farrago; it is, but it does at least feature differentiated characters, a few reversals, and enough of a plot to keep the story bubbling along. Filth is the monologue of a racist, misogynist, schemie-hating, bourgeois-bating, hard-drinking Edinburgh detective, who also has piles and an itchy rash on his scrotum. His name is Bruce Robertson, and his interests include football, drugs and auto-erotic asphyxiation. A racist murder has taken place – narrated in a first-person prologue, as in an airport thriller – and Bruce’s hated boss Toal makes him head up the investigation. This he transparently fails to do, and instead spends almost four hundred pages making obscene phone calls, scheming against his colleagues, getting drunk at Masonic gatherings, coercing sexual favours from suspects and having a nervous breakdown.
During his evening piss-ups, bowel-shaped columns of text start to overlay Bruce’s narration. They give us the words of a tapeworm living in his guts (‘I travel through the inside of this vessel, growing, filling its cavernous voids’) which gradually proceeds to explain the protagonist’s seemingly irrational hatred of fossil fuels by filling in his traumatic life-history. Drawing on Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Miners’ Strike, this is an aetiology of madness that contains the words: ‘He made you eat coal.’
Depressingly, Welsh also puts in his narrator’s mouth a defensively playful attack on ‘some fuckin schemie writing aboot aw the fuckin drugs him n his wideo mates have taken. Of course, he’s no fuckin well wi them now, he’s living in the south ay fuckin France or somewhere like that, connin aw these liberal fuckin poncy twats intae thinkin that ehs some kind ay fuckin artiste.’
There’s even a brief swipe at Martin Amis, the last person you’d expect to meet in an Irvine Welsh novel. Strangely enough, Filth – with its self-immolating and self-deceiving narrator, exaggerated misogyny and bodily horror, slow-burning running gags, comic set-pieces, ego-bruising skirmishes with minor characters, dénouement in which the narrator is undone by the people he least and yet most suspected, and broad-brush but faintly ambivalent politics – is structured almost exactly like a gruesome parody of Amis at his most overblown; it even includes a pointless excursion to a favoured foreign location, as in The Information. Unlike even the weakest Amis novel, however, Filth is a humourless affair; indeed, the funniest sentence in the paperback edition is a quote from an unnamed pundit who felt that ‘there is an energy and vigour in Welsh’s invention and his handling of prose that reminds one of the great, coarse, vivid novelists of the 19th century.’ As Bubba puts it in Canteen Culture – in a phrase that applies to all three of these books – ‘this is one LOB.’