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Foreigners by Leo Walmsley
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Foreigners (1935)

by Leo Walmsley

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A slice of life period piece from the 1930s, it's all a bit jolly fisticuffs, really, but a magnificent product of its era. Perhaps I can explain with some "reading site" backstory? The inside front cover (or thereabouts) reminds me that I won the book as a prize for public speaking, in 1971. I still remember my late headmaster recommending this particular book, for we got to choose our prize. I remember being too easily swayed by his opinion, knowing he would have thought less of me if I'd chosen the Alistair MacLean or the Hammond Innes. So I succumbed, and was awarded the book Geoff Austin remembered from his childhood in the 1930s, and ignored the book, after glancing at its first paragraph, for nearly 45 years.

Stubbornness won in the end. It had travelled with me for all those years, perhaps I should see what I had missed? After reading three brilliant Nigerian post-colonial novels (yet to be reviewed here) I needed a change of scene. And how!

Worms, the narrator of Foreigners is a pre-adolescent (roughly) kid from Bramblewick (modelled on Walmsley's Robin Hood's Bay). The narrative is not entirely anchored in time, perhaps a little retrospective, pre-cars, perhaps Walmsley's own turn of century era. The characters are slightly wooden, not Dickensian caricatures, but more or less variations on a handful of themes: adult women (mother included), adult men, and boys. Girls do not exist. The adult men fall into two groups: foreigners (nice), locals (drunkards). The boys are the same grouping in inchoate form.

The "foreigners" are ostracised, are anyone not from Bramblewick, and to that extent at least Walmsley's most popular work slips into the mode of timelessness. Other aspects are now inescapably dated and regionalised: the propensity for silly nick-names (Chicken is one boy who, more or less, breaks into Worms' inner sanctum by virtue of greater weakness and more conspicuous otherness);Ginger (Worms opportunistically beats him up for the crime of having red hair), Slogger (a bullying teacher), Grab. A litany of nicknames with the occasional surname: Grab is Fosdyck and a bully. Mick Regan escapes a nickname because he is an adult and a foreigner, but his character (nice and big and strong when sober, drunk when drunk) is strangely undeveloped, and Worms' love for him (not sexual, but the love of a role model) unexplained. Except he can fight, and is strong. And dies, of course, of a stroke. Slogger boxes around ears because teachers do. Mother cries a lot, prays a lot, loves a lot. Father paints a lot, and is different a lot. Worms cries a lot, smokes a lot when peer pressure dictates, fights and more often loses than wins, and "scrats", a lot. Chicken has sticky lollies and leaves but [spoiler] comes back and Charley arrives and leaves and transforms Worms' fighting ability but probably inflicts irreparable damage on his lungs. Charley is a very foreign foreigner and calls his father pater but his father is so foreign he's a conman and the police try but fail to find him.

Yet amongst the jolly fisticuffs and bally swears and fags (not the prefect's caddy kind), xenophobia and dislocation, or their regional variant, are themes running throughout the narrative: the other is ostracised, and Worms is the other. Faith is clung to by some outsiders, strived for by Worms and more or less lost as if by rite of passage into adolescence. Prohibition comes and goes, ineffectually: the village drinks on.

Jolly fisticuffs, but a period piece gem. Perhaps I should read Biggles again, now? But I won't regret winning the public speaking prize in 1971, nor even Geoff Austin (long since died) persuading me to choose a book from his childhood past and its narration of its author's childhood past, and therefore take me back into a narrative near-lost. ( )
  zappa | Jul 1, 2015 |
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