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The English Soil Society

by Tim Nickels

(Elastic Press, £5.99/$12.00, 248 pages, paperback, published 1 November 2005.)

Review by Mark Valentine

cover scanA collection of 21 stories, all but a few previously published over the period 1988 to the present, in magazines such as Back Brain Recluse, The Third Alternative and Scheherazade. A frustrating collection: it combines stories of great originality, revealing a strong and strange imagination, with others that should never have left the author's jotting-pad. It starts badly. In "maybe", a magnate eases his conscience after getting badly-typed letters from God -- maybe. It's a jejune theme, with a banal twist, that doesn't escape sentimentality despite attempting a wordly-wise, cosmopolitan air. Anything that ends with the words "God smiled" is going to have to have worked really hard beforehand: this doesn't. And then there are under-worked under-grad experimentalisms in stories such as "Backalong in Bollockland", which try way too hard to be rootsy and cutting-edge: and then, well, 'bollocks' in a title hasn't been shocking since the glory days of the Sex Pistols, thirty years ago.

I also can't see what exactly he's trying to do with the several pieces that are riddled with everyday banality -- like "Lusheart". Its eight pages manage to pack in references to a social worker, characters called Gary and Andie, Strongbow cider, shelf-stacking, singles bars etc etc -- establishing rather too obviously that this is an author who knows what contemporary life is 'really' like. Yet it all seems somewhat directionless and doesn't connect with any deeper theme. Here, it's as if the author's trying to be gritty but ends up just being cheesy. At my estimate, there's a good dozen stories in the collection that just don't work: they look like creative writing exercises, or the author trying out various ways of being different, without fully making them his own.

However, it would be a shame to let those stories deter the reader from appreciating the handful of pieces where Nickels really takes off. The title story is a rich little masterpiece, absolutely strewn with curious, striking ideas: some authors would have spun these out to a trilogy. With its wonderful opening words: "It was a good day for air-brollies. Marion and Betsy owned a model with dodo-wing stabilisers," we're plunged at once into an alternative-world England, one that seems to connect to the English psychedelia of the 1960s, and to the mad visionaries celebrated in books like John Michell's Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions. It is also in the same territory as Peake's Gormenghast, or Viv Stanshall's Sir Henry at Rawlinson End -- English scenes, characters, customs given several spiralling barley-sugar twists and re-presented as something teemingly bizarre yet also oddly familiar. I think only Rhys Hughes today has accomplished anything quite so concisely surreal. And the central conceit -- the idea of sentient soil -- is so subtly conveyed that it succeeds in being eminently convincing. The other successful pieces in this vein include "The Science of Sadness", "Another Summer" and "The Last of the Dandini Sisters". It is in these -- and only in these -- that Nickels presents a peculiarly distinctive voice.

It seems to me that Nickels would be well advised to let this sort of work expand to novella or novel length explorations of the themes that seem to engage him -- Victorian naturalists and pseudo-scientists, inventions that never were but should have been, characters absorbed by a not-quite-fully-cracked obsession, jaunty rogues and insouciant bluestockings, the lost golden age of an England that never was. That is where his fertile imagination can work at its finest. He should avoid in future, in my view, pieces that try to depict some world-ranging drama -- they end up overly generalised and unconvincing -- or drag in stuff too close to the contemporary, where he seems more dutiful than inspired. If he can really discern where his strengths lie, his next book should be well worth seeking. In the meantime, try this for that handful of really unusual tales.


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