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