Put the kettle on, you'll need a pot of tea to get though this.
So I did have the stamina to reach the other end of 540 pages of twentieth-century life, the paint slapped on that huge canvas in all its glorious, gory and gut-wrenching detail, and my immediate feeling is one of sheer relief that authors like Richard Kelly are having the courage to write books like Crusaders.
On the critical front the tendency is to go for the jugular with long books and immediately decide that we could have done without half of it. Which half of Crusaders I'm not entirely sure because it all contributed to the essential whole for me.
I'm sure critics will reveal the literary flaws in the writing, perhaps criticise the non-linear narrative which hops all over the place (but I liked that) and possibly mock the perceived failed ambition of a book that tries to do so much. Then the critical attention usually turns to the violence and that's often defined as gratuitous and thereby excessive. Well if a definiton of gratuitous is 'being without apparent reason, cause or justification' then sadly that's exactly what violence is. Often the first phone call I receive on a Monday morning will be from the WPC from the Domestic Violence Team recounting the weekend's incidents of 'gratuitous' violence.That's life.
But I'm going to ignore all that, none of it jumped out and bit me or detracted from what felt like a sheer, good honest attempt at a fictional representation of life out there.
Yes, it's fiction but it boils down to Real People living Real Lives and real lives are like this.Richard Kelly (I'm bored with the T in the middle) has gutted it, skinned it and pinned it out and you can examine every last detail, uncomfortable though that might be.
Just to recap, the Revd John Gore sent out to plant an Anglican church in a run-down area of Newcastle in the 1980's, change is rife both in the church and in the world beyond as Old Labour must relinquish its grip and make way for New and for many it's all a threat too far to the life they may loath but can't face the uncertainty of leaving behind.
The church becomes the focal point for local gangmeister Steve Coulson and his mob and there are genuinely darkly funny moments as he supplies a pool table to double as an altar at Sunday services and patrols the aisles to keep order, while single mum Libby fixes her gaze on John as the new man in her life.The invasion of the local evangelical wing to liven things up a bit will appeal to many but equally cause many old fashioned lapsed Anglicans like me to cringe with embarrassment and affirm why so many of us fled the ranks of organised religion and may never return.
Hopelessly naive and gullible, yet with best if undefined intentions at heart, John is drawn into the seemingly unsavoury world that he has been sent to transform, manipulated on all sides and soon up to his dog-collared neck in trouble.Out of his depth and completely unsupported by any form of useful diocesan back-up, John ploughs onwards regardless, deeper and deeper into the mire.
Eventually I was rationing my reading because I didn't want the book to end, nor could I quite predict how it would end. But once I turned the final page I was sure of several things.
At risk of repeating myself I have to say it again, even the most ordinary of lives are fascinating, which on reflection might be why I've done the job I've done for so long. In an average day I might meet and listen to twenty or more people telling me about their extraordinary lives. I'm never bored and there is much to hearten even given the direst set of circumstances and people usually find this for themselves without me finding it for them.
I never cease to be amazed at what people cope with on a daily basis, none of which ever finds its way here because of course I am bound by confidentiality, but often it's heartbreakingly sad. People everywhere are trying desperately and often with the odds stacked mountaineously and horrifically against them, to keep their heads above water whilst their feet are firmly trapped in the mud.
Choices are few verging on nil and Richard Kelly knows this too.
Good honest, tell-it-like-it-is books like Crusaders need to be written in every era.
I will often indulge a passion for the so-called middlebrow writing of the 1930's and 40's, but how true and representative of life is what I read?
It's a simplistic argument probably explained by great social complexities but few seem to demonstrate with complete honesty how terrible life was for so many then?
Do we really see what life was like for the disadvantaged?
Is social injustice ever clearly defined? I actually want to know everything, not just the nice hot water bottle cosy bits.
I'm currently searching for books that do recount that time honestly and would welcome your suggestions because surely they must be out there? Rosamund Lehmann comes close with some of her short stories but there must be others.
If you read Crusaders, yes it might make you feel very uncomfortable indeed, there's violence and prostitution, drug abuse, gang warfare and bits of brain liberally smattered around Pizza Hut, but this is truth writ large on the page and it recounts an aspect of 20th century life as it really was and still is with very big warts and all, whether we like it or not.
I doubt the 1930's was much different in its own way we just don't get to read about it that often.
If you don't like the thought of all that, 'tis fine , the answer is easy, don't read Crusaders .No one will think any the worse of you, but if you do read it I'd love to know what you think.
Fiction or fact, I personally feel history requires big honest courageous books like this, they have their place and as to whether it's the Great British Novel of the Decade, well I couldn't possibly comment because I haven't read all the others yet.