May 23, 2011 by markstani
“This ain’t no Mills and Boon.” And it certainly ain’t the North Yorkshire of Heartbeat, or James Herriot. Nor is it the countryside that the Yorkshire tourist board wants us to see and it’s definitely nowt like Yorkshire’s brand-spanking flagship city for the Noughties, Leeds. It ain’t Dracula either, though at least we’re edging closer in geographical terms. Finally, this ain’t kitchen sink drama either, not on your Nelly. Though “sheep dip drama” might at least be in the right ballpark. This is Mark Staniforth’s Fryupdale, and they do things differently here.
The tag-line for this collection, “Short stories from beyond the village limits”, comes closer to the truth. For these are stories which look beyond the white-picket fence (or in this case dry stone walls) of small town life. They are stories which expose the hypocrisy, the navel-gazing inward nature, and the secrets of the village of Fryupdale’s residents, and yet at the same time, they are stories which celebrate the individuality of those same people, for all the madness, mundanity, and murderousness which they exhibit.
Here, Staniforth introduces us to a motley crew of characters in the manner of a circus ring-master. “Roll up, roll up for the freak show.” These are stories of farmers, skanks, cow-tippers and alien abductees. Stories of “cig-stunted sons of too-young mums, or inbred hill farm folk,” workers on the travelling fair, White Lightning drunks, park bench glue-sniffers, Kwik Save strippers, kiddie-fiddlers, sheep-shaggers, bus stop gossips, Nazis, no-hopers, the Parish Ladies Group, the Aquarist Society and the Playing Fields Committee.
It’s often a fine line which Staniforth treads between being condescending to, or even ridiculing the people he describes, and giving them a voice and delighting in giving them that voice. And although some of the stories are dark, sometimes cruel, the sheer enthusiasm with which he introduces us to this rag-tag bunch, allied with the life he imbues them with, ensures that he always remains on the right side of the line.
When he gives these characters a voice, he gives them a fierce regional identity. The stories are pock-marked with dialect, muck-spread with often alien terms. His characters refuse to “talk nice.” They’d be the Yorkshire Republican Army if they could keep themselves out of the pub for long enough. As it is, we’ll settle for Welcome to Yorkshire, we do things (and speak) differently here. For this is the Yorkshire of “jug-lugs”, of getting a right “cob on”, of “cake-holes”, and of “baccy”, of “nosh-ups”, “braying” and “lugging”, of “flophouses”, of “skegging” and “skedaddling”. It’s conversational prose, pub-story prose, back seat, top-deck bus-prose. And despite the sometimes troubling words – which are easily brushed over – it is a compelling read.
For one thing there are recurring characters and themes, cultural shorthands which let us know exactly what kind of world we are inhabiting. A world of Frankie Says Relax Tee Shirts, bottles of White Lightning and Madonna. A quote from Madonna’s Borderline opens the book: “I don’t want to be your prisoner so baby won’t you set me free.” Right from the off, Staniforth’s characters jump off the page. Carnival Queen, the opening story and one which gives a whole new meaning to giving your right arm for something, opens fantastically:
“Marnie Sleightholme was well chuffed when she got the chance to be carnival queen, and she couldn’t give a shit if it was true what folk were saying about her only getting picked because she’d had her right arm ripped off.”
The collection continues in much the same tone. In Gypos, we meet Uncle Cyrus, who has “had had a beef with the gypos ever since he’d come up short at dinging the strongman hammer bell a couple of carnivals past.”
This theme of excellent openings continues with Eleutherophobia:
“Everybody knew Shandor Marley’s mother liked to spend more time flirting with serial killers than she did taking care of things at home. So when her son went round with an air rifle popping his neighbours like they were allotment pigeons, they figured all the boy really needed was a bit of attention.”
But it is in The Parish News that Staniforth really comes into his own in terms of developing from a brilliant opening. This is an experimental piece, a take-off of the parish noticeboards containing all the goings-on in the village. Only, Staniforth includes alongside the cookery competitions, the answers from the local quiz night and reports of the Vintage Working Day, the real parish news. For instance we learn of the new incentive scheme for the strikers of the Junior Football side (I won’t spoil it.) We learn how Danny Swales spends his days, skidding “his souped-up Vauxhall Astra round the car park till his tyres went bald. It spat gravel, spewed techno. He hung out an arm and held on the wheel one-handed. Sometimes he missed corners and ramped over flower beds. He sent a rubbish bin spinning. A fag stuck angled from his lips. Sarah Daley sat in the passenger seat, reeking Anais-Anais and exhaust fumes. She stared forward.”
And how Tammy Marsden and Kayleigh Barker are getting on sitting on the swings, waiting for the chip shop to shut. (“When the lights fizzed out they swigged the rest of their Lambrusco and crossed the street to the Kwik Save (…) Tammy Marsden took a spray can from her bag. She sprayed, ‘Blake Scruton is a homo’ on the front window.”)
Each item of parish news is a piece of brilliantly styled flash fiction which stands on its own, but combined they form what is Staniforth’s most coherent vision of the village in all its forms. Other excellent stories include Shiny and New, White Power (“At first, Posie Birtles seemed like just another of those posh-arse neighbours who lived off some long-gone husband’s life insurance and generally kept herself to herself. Till the day her carnation beds bloomed the words ‘White Power’. She fixed a flag-pole in her front lawn and hoisted the Union Jack. She got iron gates hooked up and a Rottweiler called Rudolph to keep her safe.”) and Cow-tipping, which has a sinister twist in store for those readers hoping for a story of innocent countryside high-jinx.
Throughout, Staniforth’s character development and sense of place are very strong. His description is unique and illuminating at times, but he’s not afraid to reach for the risqué too, such as in his pen picture of Patty Jenkins in Cow-tipping, an underage girl who has “…already replaced her school jumper with a tee-shirt saying ‘Frankie Says Relax’. It pegs the end of her balloon boobs then drops straight off, makes her look like some sort of slutty sandwich-board evangelist. She’s got tight scraped-back foster-home hair and smells of wet towels and cheese and onion crisps. She sags down between us and pokes a Benson in her cake-hole.”
And whilst some may find the Yorkshire twang at times jarring, this is a colourful, insightful collection. It is also very, very funny, dark and disturbing. I for one look forward to reading more from this promising author.