At the tail-end of 2000, Ian Sansom decided to move from London to a small town in County Down. He had half expected friends to dismiss his plan as a backwoods adventure, and was surprised when they said they felt the lure of the place. Sansom tells the story of moving house, and makes sense of his friends’ enthusiasm, in a typically buoyant essay, ‘Where Do We Live?’In the English imagination, he argues, Ireland ‘remains a place of refuge and fantasy’. It is one of those destinations – ‘like the South of France before Peter Mayle, and Tuscany before champagne socialists’ – which, it is assumed, is ‘unspoilt by the American coffee shops and the malls and the ring roads that have ruined Arnoldian England’. But as Sansom discovers, the Ireland of middle-class English fantasy doesn’t exist. His nondescript new town, just outside Belfast, boasts a Tesco, a heritage centre and a ring road.
‘Where Do We Live?’ shakes off several outmoded ideas about life in Ireland. The romantic hopes for his new home – the dreams of the craic, of thicker Guinness and unmetalled roads, of a comfortable domestic set-up that no longer comes at the price of a thankless job – are soon thwarted by reality. Sansom gilds things a little when he imagines ‘being able to enjoy the benefits of a growing European economy and the sound of the curlew’s song’. What he finds is a murky Irish town that is ‘like Bedford, or Batley, or Basildon in Essex’: ‘It’s a place that is good of its kind, but that no one would want to visit and that sensitive teenagers long to leave, or at least to write graffiti on.’ Its heyday has passed, the old buildings replaced by a hodgepodge of new developments. The town is ‘everywhere and nowhere’; it is ‘perfectly anonymous’.
The unnamed – and unlovely – Irish town at the centre of Sansom’s spirited and generous first novel owes something to his relocation. Ring Road’s entertaining preface denies the debt – ‘the town is not meant to be a replica of any particular place’ – but the tongue-in-cheek disclaimer is one of many intricate games that Sansom plays with the reader. (After he has ribbed authors who rely on ‘arrogance, bullying, puffery, rapacity, self-awe and the tipping of winks’ in order to get on, he makes a confession: ‘In the end I believe it’s better simply to be honest and to try to be explicit. And if you can’t be, you should at least try and pretend.’) The backward-looking shopkeepers on Main Street and High Street are isolated hold-outs in the fight against the new, swish shopping centre. The bookshop and the toyshop have already gone, along with the bakeries, the tobacconist’s and the shop that sold ladies’ separates, and have been replaced by ‘charity shops for old people, and blind people, and poor children, and other poor children, and people with bad hearts, and cancer, and dogs’. The council plans to build a multi-storey car park on the site of the old school in an attempt to regenerate the town centre – ‘a bit like trying to revive a failing marriage by taking other lovers’. The ring road circumscribes the life of each character in the novel.
Sansom’s autobiographical essay is circumspect, and in his descriptions of life in the back country he is neither a partisan nor a detractor. Some awkward moments are smoothed over with an elaborate riff or a clever joke. At other points he just keeps quiet. Does he feel cheated by the misleading image of Ireland that is ‘clutched as tightly to English chests as pints of real ale’, or feel gullible about the blarney he swallowed? Or is he reconciled to his disappointment? A British Council reading group chose to read ‘Where Do We Live?’ as a way to explore concepts of ‘diversity in contemporary British fiction’, and its online study guide sets out the main themes and discussion points in the essay – the significance of class and place; the nature of English perceptions of the Irish; the idea of Ireland, in Joyce’s phrase, as ‘a state of mind’ – before it reels off a list of questions. ‘What are the characteristics of the people, according to Sansom?’ ‘How does he expect people to treat him?’ ‘Is it a rich region or a poor one?’ And finally: ‘Do you think Sansom will be happy?’
The Truth about Babies: From A-Z (2002), Sansom’s compendium of observations on his first year of fatherhood, gives an inkling of what his answer to this question might be. ‘Having a baby is like deciding to leave home and go to live in another country,’ he writes. At first it’s ‘like being on holiday’, with long walks and lots of photos. But the charade sags. What was amazing becomes ordinary: ‘Eventually you get bored and you begin to lose touch with the people you used to know back home, you begin to run out of money, and you can’t understand why you ever came here in the first place . . . it’s too late. You’re stranded.’ Ireland does kindle feelings of hope and opportunity for Sansom, feelings which he associates with his baby. He quotes William Trevor – ‘The map of Ireland is not unlike a sleeping infant’ – as he compares his newborn’s tidy proportions with the ‘faltering outline’ of his own body: ‘I am coming to resemble the shape of mainland Britain.’ But there are other times when the pleasures of his new baby and his new country are hard-won. ‘You know what they say: Ireland is a great country to get a letter from.’
Sansom had become so accustomed to what e.e. cummings called ‘nonunhappiness’ that the joy he felt at his baby’s birth was a shock. He had thought that no one wrote out of happiness – except for Emerson, Whitman and Frank O’Hara, a friend corrected him – just as no one writes when tired: ‘This is why there are no good books about babies. Or shiftwork.’ Sansom’s book collects anecdotes ‘like droppings’. There is the story of the first woman to receive chloroform in labour, who is said to have called her baby Anaesthesia; a snippet about the days before bottles had plastic teats, when a calf’s nipple pickled in spirit was used; and a vignette of Earl Silas Tupper, the far-seeing man who dreamed of flexible, lightweight, airtight containers. The Truth about Babies offers wheezes that promise to work like a charm – remove wallpaper stains by rubbing with a piece of soft white bread – and most of the breezy abecedary is given over to the ado of parenting, the fuss that surrounds bathing and bottle-feeding, crawling and crying, shit and snot. Sansom is full of praise for routines, calling them ‘the only freedom’, a ‘necessary and almost a sufficient condition of success in any endeavour’. He quotes Goethe: ‘Heaven gives us habits to take the place of happiness.’
Ring Road exults in the small routines of daily life. Its characters flounder in a state of low-level unhappiness; men and women are connected to one another by the reassuring habits that assuage their insecurities. Bob Savory, a bluff, unsmiling local millionaire and well-known tightwad, looks like he has ‘definitely made it’. An associate of Frank Gilbey, the ex-mayor and council chairman (whose cynical manoeuvrings have generated an undercurrent of disharmony in the community and made him an ogre for many of the characters), Savory is the most successful businessman the town has had since ‘the great whiskered industrialists of centuries past’. Bob fancies himself as a ladies’ man but lives with his mother. The pair have a peculiar habit. Every night, without fail, at ‘around about ten’, just before the news, he makes cheese sandwiches on white bread with margarine for both of them, the same sandwich his mother had given him at teatime as a boy.
Sansom doesn’t take sides as he summons up these unlikely lives. Plot is secondary to character here, and the depth and detail of the social portraits is impressive. There is a particular energy and polish to his depiction of Mrs Donelly, whose tangled history gives the lie to her well-ordered life. Her habits are fixed now that her four children have left home. The young Donellys have scattered as far as Sydney, but Mrs Donelly has her routine: aquaerobics on Tuesday, an Italian conversation class on Thursday, a trip to the cinema with her old friend Pat on Sunday nights. She can keep her secrets, and it takes the course of the novel for the details of the child she had with Frank Gilbey – which she gave up for adoption – to trickle out. Mrs Donelly’s house ‘used to be on the edge of town, an outpost, past the People’s Park’; it was part of a small estate that looked out over trees and fields. But the estate is no longer so congenial:
It has been humbled and made small, bleached and filthied not only by the passing of time and the fading of memory, but by the ring road, which has stretched and uncoiled itself around our town, its street lights like tail fins or trunks uplifted over and above in a triumphal arch, leading to mile upon mile of pavementless houses – good houses, with their own internal garages – and to our shopping mall, Bloom’s, the diamond in the ring, our new town centre, the place to be, forever open and forever welcoming, the twenty-four hour lights from its twenty-four hour car park effacing the night sky, ‘Every Day a Good Day Regardless of the Weather’.
In a town where it rains for 270 days a year, it is a confident slogan.
The novel’s plot, such as it is, concerns the Quality Hotel, the town’s one great landmark and link with the past. Bob Savory and Frank Gilbey ‘want it out of the way’, and the problem is dealt with by Mrs Donelly’s neighbour, big Davey Quinn, an honest roustabout who sets fire to the building because of his feelings for Lorraine, Frank’s rake-thin daughter. But bad weather is as much of a narrative thread. Ring Road opens with Davey’s arrival in a downpour, and closes in a snow shower as he leaves the town on his way to Spain. Sansom’s characters can be explained by their environment, by the unexpected misfortunes that drip into their lives.
Improvisations and asides punctuate the novel. Sansom’s clowning allows him to cram in chapter summaries, epigraphs and footnotes, and his knockabout addenda include an index of ‘key words, phrases and concepts’ that ‘may be used as a substitute for reading the book itself’: Sansom makes the wry suggestion that this would be ‘no bad thing’. Some of these embellishments are borrowed from Dave Eggers: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius features jaunty chapter summaries, a haywire list of rules and suggestions for enjoyment, a musical score to indicate the rising cadence of a conversation, and the real phone numbers of a few of Eggers’s friends. Eggers has a good time playing with this material, but the paperback dropped the phone numbers: he had made his point that ‘one could be completely factual, and still tell a story that felt and read novelistic,’ and didn’t want to settle for an easy effect. Besides, only 24 people put a call through to one of the numbers: ‘Those that did call often hung up; those that spoke were very nice.’ Industrial Diseases Compensation Limited must hope that Sansom’s readers are as sympathetic: the company’s phone number appears in Ring Road on page 27. Sansom acknowledges Eggers in his endnotes. But does it matter that the high jinks in Ring Road are old hat? Sansom thinks the question of small consequence. ‘Fashions come and go,’ he tells us, and if you keep his novel in a cupboard for long enough, ‘it’ll all be back in again.’