Sellotape

This story was written for GUTS Issue IV, a journal of confessional writing based in Dublin, available at that link for a tiny sum. All proceeds feed back into the mag, which is both a worthy platform for new writing and a beautiful object in its own right. This particular issue, titled 'Kintsugi', concerned stories of beauty within brokenness. Each story was illustrated by the grotesquely talented Fatti Burke, who has just co-published this gorgeous book you should buy right now. For my story, Ms Burke contributed the truly lovely portrait of Padraig Pearse you will find below, reprinted here with her kind permission.

This cool guy is (C) Fatti Burke, 2015. I mean seriously just look at him.

This cool guy is (C) Fatti Burke, 2015. I mean seriously just look at him.

St. Fiachra’s was not overly pushed about academic achievement. Other nearby schools pushed their students toward attending the best universities in the country. We were told we’d be lucky to attend one of the better universities on an oil rig.

Within this meagre orbit, I edged toward the top of the class. Not difficult, perhaps, if you share a classroom with Bartie Darkens - a boy who brought a beach ball to school with him every day for six months, a boy they just stopped calling in from lunch after a while. Even Trev Cassidy had to come in from lunch, and Trev Cassidy ate watch batteries. For three months at the end of fourth year, we sat in double Chemistry, and there would go Bartie, hurtling past the window, chasing crisp packets or blowing up that fucking beach ball down by the hockey pitches. These were my peers.

It strikes me that I was bad at cultivating allies. Felim Dundas was one such opportunity. He and I were fairly similar in several respects. While all around us ungodly brutes were sprouting beards, body odour, and baritone voices, we were bookish and slight, with little interest in sports. By 14 all puberty had gifted us was an Adam’s apple the size of a rugby ball and a voice like a rain-damaged trampoline. None of the body hair we’d grown thus far would have survived contact with a single, malevolent strip of Sellotape. Despite all this, we never really spent much time together until one day in 1999, which saw the end of us ever being friends.

We had been in double history. Mr. McCartney had told us to pick from a few different historical topics to write about as creatively as we could. Our writing could be historical, biographical, or totally fictionalized, so long as it wasn’t in essay-form. We began excitedly discussing our ideas. Caolan Dempsey was painting a watercolour of a death camp and Mickey Clark was doing a 10 minute play about Strongbow, set in 1920s Chicago. I knew little about either topic, but even I felt that they’d over-reached. Meanwhile, Conor and Moss Heap were writing reggae about Henry VIII and six separate boys were composing raps about the famine. 

Amid this throng of inspiration, I became aware of Felim striding toward me. He squinted his eyes and, placing his hand on my forearm, adopted the conspiratorial flair of an off-duty guard at a horse fair. He was hell-bent on doing a comic about Padraig Pearse, and asked me to pair up with him. Felim quickly explained the strengths of the idea: he’d been drawing Pearse for years so we could probably smash it out fairly quickly, with me writing and him doing the art. From his point of view, we could pay tribute to a great Irish hero and all I’d have to do is help him with the wording. It would also mean that we wouldn’t have to do a joint project with any of the other dum-dums in the class. A resounding rubbery dolphin-squeak filled the room. As if in encouragement, Bartie Darkens was rubbing his beach ball across the window from outside. I immediately agreed.

We were to write it that night in Felim’s small, square house in Creggan. His family were proper Republicans - capital R - the type that are only about an inch away from sleeping on sandbags and brushing their teeth with holy water. To them, Padraig Pearse was a holy poet, a national icon and a martyr of uncommon valour. My family didn’t have commemorative plates of Padraig Pearse on their walls, I tried to explain. We had one plate on our wall for a while, but I think it was just celebrating a hundred years of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. We’d kept it too close to the fryer and it went a bit yellow, so we took it down. By the time I’d finished saying all this, Felim had left the room and returned with his notebooks.

Prior to this I hadn’t exactly been sold on Pearse. He seemed so pinch-faced and austere, a small, prissy man you might see on holiday ironing his ties in a tiny caravan on the Aran Islands. Even as a child I knew we wouldn’t have gotten along. Certainly not in the way he would have allegedly liked. (It should be noted that Felim had a particular dislike for me mentioning anything to do with Padraig Pearse kissing young boys. Looking back, my choice to repeatedly do so was a poor move on my part. This I can see now).

One thing that was clear from the notebooks, however, was that Pearse was undoubtedly the historical character Felim could draw best, unless you were to extend your definition of “historical” to include Alf, the affable, cat-eating, vaguely Jewish alien from the popular American sitcom of the same name. While Irish republican figures, flags, and emblems vastly outnumbered all the little Alfs he drew, there was a varied enough mixture of both to make those notebooks a lot more pleasingly surreal to thumb through.

Gradually, we laid down the first few sticky filaments of a story. We knew we wanted our comic to combine the historical savvy of a truly great biographical work, while also having the charm and pizazz of something more adventurous. At 14, we already saw ourselves as writers like Patrick O'Brian or James Clavell, only with bowl haircuts and Ellesse T-shirts. As our work pattern evolved, we moved away from slavish adherence to history and began speaking from the heart. I would suggest a panel and we'd talk through how best to frame it. Inch by inch we plodded forward and settled into a comfortable rhythm on his bedroom floor - both cross-legged and in silence, he drawing and me scribbling more nuggets of narrative gold. It crossed my mind that this was the sort of easy, co-operational spirit that Van Morrison had dreamed of when he wrote that song that ended the Troubles.

Even the missteps were in their own way thrilling, particularly those points at which, with a weary sigh, we’d crumple some paper and throw it into bin from where we sat.  It felt adult and exciting and dangerous to be writers. Struggling writers! We were proud when Felim’s mam called us for dinner and remarked on how messy the bedroom was. There were books open in all directions; papers, colouring pencils, and marker pens strewn everywhere you looked. Such was the artistic condition we reckoned. This was probably what Roddy Doyle’s gaff looked like, give or take a few pogs, or that sad army of stiff, roughened tennis socks under Felim’s bed.

We began to balance Felim’s preference for historical realism with my own taste for mild fantasy. I was cool so long as he didn’t make everything about the Brits, and he was happy if I kept references to pederasty to a minimum. I can see now that Felim had some valid concerns of his own about my contributions. It wasn’t that he wanted the whole thing to be a hagiography of the man per se. It was more that he didn’t think having Pearse getting trapped in a haunted house on the eve of the Easter Rising was necessarily the right direction to take. We compromised and moved toward finishing what we had in a timely manner, but I did begin to notice that what had once been a pamphlet had really quite recklessly expanded. Felim was in the grip of a fervent passion for his art and it seemed each time I looked up, there would be another new draft and another new dispute. Things came to a head when I looked up and found that the comic was now 16 pages long with 2 appendices. It had subplots and dream sequences. To make matters worse, I’d only narrowly vetoed a musical number earlier, so in the spirit of compromise I had to allow for the bewildering graphs and charts he’d added to page 6.

This was not the direction I’d anticipated for our project. We began to lash out at each other. Our teenage vocal chords were not ready for the onslaught. The volume increased and our sorry throats yelped and twanged, reducing us to undignified yodeling. I called him an artless hack. He called me a West Brit prick. I can’t remember who threw the first pencil, but it was I who began tearing pages strip-by-strip from the cardboard-lined pad he had filled with drawings. If we both had to start our stories from scratch, I didn’t care. This was a matter of principle. We hoarsely rasped insults and redoubled ripping and tearing every piece of paper in sight, showering ourselves in poorly daubed, historically-suspect confetti. When I eventually stormed out, I left the philistine alone in his nest of shreds, glowering from its centre like a massive, Republican hamster.

Upon my arrival at school the next day, I saw Felim sitting near the front, awaiting his turn to address the class. He squeezed a weak, smug smile from his lips. I was just thinking how cool and collected this was on his part, when he almost immediately started giving me the finger. I glanced at the bulky ream of papers in the manila folder he was holding. Even from where I was sitting I clocked the bumpy, rag-tag shape of it, and the bags under his eyes suggesting he hadn’t slept. A knot grew in my belly as it became clear he’d painstakingly pulled the entire saga together, gathering all the scraps like a madman into one absurd patchwork of bits, the whole thing lumpy from revisions, shiny with Sellotape.

He’d even gone so far as to remove my contributions, tippexing over them with his own, and had the genius to represent its shoddy, patchwork appearance as a feature not a bug. This was, he said, all the result of this hallowed historical document, being trafficked and manhandled as samizdat for the guts of a century. Everyone stood up when he presented it, students and teachers alike, all oohing and aahing in a tight circle, like when Gary Butler found that dead bird and we all took turns poking it with a stick. And although the name did prove distasteful to many, Padraig Pearse & The Curse of the Gypsy’s Tears was clearly a huge success. A success I’d had no part in. I’d been brought low by my own lust for control, I’d tasted the bitter fruit of a writer’s life,  and it would be some time before I wrote again.  

The day wasn’t a total bust. I learned a lot about myself and, in fairness, my rap about the famine was generally well received. Felim and I did patch things up, but we lost touch after school. I eventually did go on to college, and though I did write again, I turned down the chance to write a foreword to Mad About The Boy, a warmly reviewed anthology of Pearse’s poetry. None of the old gang have heard from Felim in a few years, although Izzy Moynan said she’d been told he's now a tattoo artist in Bangor. She said she’d never forget the RA head who told her that Felim was the best inker in the business; all across his chest, the most gorgeous, full-colour Alf she’d ever seen.

 

 

DIMENSIONS 2014 - Review for House of Disco

Upon arrival in Pula, the heat struck instantly, having come from London at its most overcast and sodden. Fanning himself with a newspaper, my taxi driver quickly asserted himself as a font of useful knowledge, background information and local history. His name was Roman and he wanted me to know he was excited about Dimensions. He even sought to make me comfortable by turning the radio to a channel playing what sounded like the Level Select music for Alan Shearer Tennis ‘94. He gets it, I thought to myself. Smiling, he pursed his lips and squinted his eyes as if to say “this, compadre… is the *real* shit”. I contorted my face so as to project the appropriate register of delight and in that moment he was satisfied that we were brothers in techno.

Though relatively remote from the world’s gaze, Roman was eager to point out that Pula has, in the last few decades, become a beacon of sorts to subcultures far and wide; festivals come into town for all manner of genres and lifestyles, from folk and house and punk and reggae to – more specific to Roman’s interest – their large, dedicated pool of biker gangs, one of which can claim Roman among their number.
If, like rastas and rave-loving bikers, the town had truly taken Dimensions to its heart, the best place to gauge this would be at the opening concert, held in the truly breathtaking Pula Arena, a stunning 2,000 year old amphiteatre far from the festival site in the town centre. One look at the venue raised expectations for all present, but the crowd had those hopes met with a blissful trip through Nils Frahm’s hypnotic, tonal repertoire, a rousing, leg-shaking set from the irrepressible Roy Ayers and a staggering tour-de-grace from Dark Side, which the Nicolas Jaar-fronted group confirmed would be among their last performances together. Caribou’s set was also predictably brilliant on the night, although lightly marred by a few sound issues early on.

 

The opener’s early audio tremors aside, Dimensions itself proved a thoroughly tight ship. Even the set up on the beach’s daytime roster offered a full-strength system blaring out an upbeat blend of disco, house and live work from the likes of Kwabs, Tall Black Guy, Conor L & Joma, The Internet and Trus’Me.
The beach itself was a real delight. Since the main music stages kicked off at around 10pm each night (closing up at 6am), the festival was finely calibrated to the nocturnal rhythms of its more hardened revelers. As a result, if you managed to avoid going completely mad the night before, you’d be pleasantly surprised at how much space you had at the site’s idyllic sun spots during daylight hours. The small cohort of the festival’s 6,000 attendees who did make their way to the beach generally sashayed their lithe, sun-kissed frames from around midday onwards and, though pleasant and charming to a fault, their perfect, hard bodies left even this svelte reporter feeling about as toned, tanned and buff as a surgical stocking filled with dog food.

 

There were of course distractions *other* than the fear of dying fat and alone that dragged people from their beach towels. Every day, half a dozen boat parties catered to every conceivable demographic with a positively greedy roster of artists. Competition for tickets was fierce but standouts included Hyperdub’s early sailing on Thursday, which featured Kode9, Scratch DVA and Cooly G as well as the gnarling, energetic frenzy of the Exit Records’ party, which featured drum and bass cuts from Alix Perez, Skeptical and the immeasurable dBridge. Meanwhile the massively over-subscribed Eglo skiff proffered the equally heavyweight attractions of Daphni, Floating Points, Alex Nutt alongside the irrepressible, Fatima. For her part the Eglo diva had wowed the crowds the night before in The Clearing where she attacked her live show with all the cock-sure, bulletproof swagger of Erykah Badu phoning up to contest a very high gas bill.

In the same vein, there were a smattering of other, less explicitly dance-oriented, acts in attendance, with the aforementioned Roy Ayers proving the most high-profile on the roster. Odd Future soul combo The Internet turned some heads for their loungey, beachside set, while Omar put in a good shift readying the Clearing stage for Moodymann on Friday. The peerless, breezy class of Jessy Lanza continued to win over fans to her seductive mélange of chopped n’ screwed R&B and there was a solid, if incongruous, turn from LA rockers Warpaint, who acquitted themselves with great aplomb despite being the only indie-rock act at the entire festival – a mysterious island of ripped denim amid a sea of pressed khaki shorts.
Moodymann’s set itself was a perfect distillation of his distinct appeal, with a classic dose of house and funk classics as well as his by now trademark enthusiasm for impromptu bouts of public speaking. The crowd were suitably entertained when he extemporized on his broad musical diet by comparing it to his varied and unpredictable tastes in the bedroom. Previous to that we’d seen Space Dimension Controller whip the crowd into a frenzy with an excellent selection of synth-pop classics that might have been this reporter’s favourite set of the entire weekend.

 

With a slight change to his billing, Theo Parrish arrived without his band due to an ill vocalist that unfortunately put the kybosh on live plans. The crowd needn’t have worried, however, as he duly served up a rollicking set of fader-hectic house and techno that wanted for no greater garnish nor accompaniment. Elsewhere, Jon Hopkins had his set time amended which wrong-footed several festivalgoers, but those who made it were treated to a stonking run through of his inimitable, lavishly cut slices of boffin-house. On stage, he cut such a pleasingly nerdy figure that one hopes a quick peek inside his leather satchel would reveal some cod liver oil tablets, a chemistry set and a slim volume of difficult modern verse. All present agreed that we’d done well to see him at all, since it’s been rumored that his mum banned him from doing any more festivals because those boys from Disclosure keep stealing his pogs and breaking his glasses.

Sunday night began with rolling black clouds ranging in upon the site from 10pm. There followed a spectacular light show, as pretty, bruise-coloured hues swirled around the ominous cloudbanks in truly surreal purples, greens and blues. Sporadic, and then constant lightning soon generated even more melodrama before the heavens inevitably opened with a force that was positively sarcastic.
Spiteful torrents of rain were soon battering everything for miles, and dusty trails from beach to fort melted into treacherous mud slides. The rain fell heavy enough to splash muck and small rocks upwards at waist height while, all around, great stabs of lightning continued to flash through the deluge. In a telling indictment of our collective scientific literacy, this broiling electrical storm sent most of us hurtling for shelter under the nearest tall, metal structures we could find. Where was the analytical mind of Jon Hopkins when you needed it? On a hill, carrying out experiments with his homemade turbines one expects.

 

The abject weather conditions soon began to take a severe toll on the event itself and the whole site shut down for safety. Sadly, the Fort Arena I and Clearing stages remained closed for the rest of the event, and a lot of chopping and changing of rosters to compensate ensued. This was a shame as it denied us a few of the more anticipated live acts of the night, as Aux 88, Underground Resistance, Metro Area and Karenn all had their full hardware sets shelved by fears of the inclement weather.


Intractable, sludge-strewn distances rendered me incapable of catching up with Floating Points or Motor City Drum Ensemble at the Void stage, so I settled in for the storm at the Moat stage. Seeing as moats are structures specifically designed *solely* to collect, retain and carry water, we shouldn’t have been too surprised that this function was performed beautifully and we were duly drenched beyond all rescue. This merely emboldened us to abandon any and all pretensions of comfort and just bed in for the rest of the night. We saw out the festival in the company of first Anthony Naples and then Nina Kraviz, who delivered a set that started brooding and lively, before then dividing the audience clean 50/50 in its latter section. The evening was capped off by Techno’s top typographical tough guy Ø [Phase] who won the soggy hearts and minds of the crowd with the festival’s bristling, razor sharp swan-song, now claimed by many as the highlight of the 4 days.

Mud-caked and bedraggled, Dimensions’ hordes stumbled out of the swampy depths some hours later to find an uneasy, mottled-grey sunrise, and a northerly chill that seemed to reflect the cooling off of a hot weekend. We that stayed on for another day or two found that the weather never returned to the highs we’d experienced when we first arrived. When I was eventually driven back to the airport, it was not by Roman, but the taciturn old lady from whom I had rented my apartment; four feet tall, stern and with hair like wire wool, she didn’t like techno or even belong to a biker gang. The radio played Croatian news. I longed for the optimism of a week earlier but the festival had come and gone. Only the hangover remained.

STRIKER! by Steve Bruce - Review for The Sliced Pan

Bright red blood on the knife blade.

The knife in my hand.

Duffy’s dead body stretched out on the locker room floor

And with such drama, begins STRIKER! the first novel by footballer, manager and actual published novelist, Steve Bruce. Written in the first person, Striker puts the reader in the shoes of Steve Barnes, manager of Leddersford Town, a small but historic club hoping to rise to the premiership from English football’s second tier.

But there’s trouble afoot!

Barnes finds young Irish striker Pat Duffy stabbed to death in the changing room and, becoming suspected of the murder, spends the rest of the book struggling to clear his name. He decides to do so by solving the case on his own, despite (a) the police already being involved, (b) he being a suspect himself and (c) his having neither the expertise, training, nor free time available to investigate a murder.

On his quest, Barnes encounters gun-toting Irish thugs, disgruntled baby mamas and treacherous, heavily armed coaching staff. Not to mention a gay, nightclub-owning drug dealer with a glad eye for middle aged football managers and a thrilling top-of-the-table clash between Leddersford and Fulham that’s watched over by a rogue sniper intent on killing our trusty hero.

This is the fizzing geyser of hot nonsense that is Striker.

The purple tags are *genuinely* just those which refer to either Bruce’s GCSEs or his Jaguar

The purple tags are *genuinely* just those which refer to either Bruces GCSEs or his Jaguar

Written in 1999, Striker is generally regarded as the best of Steve Bruce’s novels, and certainly the most readily available. Harper Lee has famously only published one novel in her lifetime. Well, she can eat shit because Steve Bruce has published three. Having said that, no copy of follow-up DEFENDER! has yet been detected on Amazon or eBay, while putting a hand to SWEEPER! will cost the truly dedicated masochist a sanity-warping £70.

Even the book’s front cover could itself be a topic for long, detailed discussion. On it, we see our eponymous striker himself, Pat Duffy, face down and bleeding on a drastically awful Photoshop representation of a football pitch, itself so poorly scaled as to render him roughly 40 feet tall. That’s not to say he looks a bit big. He is literally scaled 30-40 feet tall. The great painters call this artistic license. Sprawled sideways, on an actual pitch beside a tiny little linesman, Duffy looks like a recently divorced dad, reduced to crying himself to sleep each night on the Subbuteo mat he leaves laid on his absent son’s bedroom floor. It’s not going to bring him back, and he’ll ruin the little plastic nets lying on them like that. Astute observers will also notice Duffy is also wearing the number 13, because even Steve Bruce must tire of subtlety sometimes.

As the above quoted paragraph attests, we open with Barnes holding a knife over Duffy’s dead body and then the following humorous exchange between Barnes and his immediately suspicious assistant coach, Eddie Carberry;

“I didn’t do it,” I said weakly.
“And England didn’t win the World Cup in ‘66” he sneered.

This heady mix of formulaic mystery plotting and remedial references to football is utilized repeatedly throughout Striker’s breezy 128-pages. Some of the prose shows Bruce’s nous for witty one-liners, as in this moment when the antagonistic Carberry – spoiler: the actual murderer! - seems eager to point the finger at poor old Barnes;

“Duffy had a knife in his back. You don’t stab yourself in the back, do you?
I almost smiled. Eddie knew all about stabbing others in the back, at least with words.

Zing!

You might be slightly puzzled by the references here to Leddersford Town, so it’s important to note that Striker takes place in a partly fictionalised football league, populated with real clubs as well as slightly altered versions of those teams Bruce has played for. So Leddersford Town corresponds to Huddersfield Town, whom Bruce was managing while writing the book. There are also oblique references to his premier-league-winning time at Mulcaster United, and stints at such boundlessly imaginative fictional locales as Carlwell, Threshfield Town, Bridesford United, Doningford and Girlington. One feels Bruce goes well beyond the call of duty in creating this elaborate Rail network of fictional northern cities, like a pound shop Westeros filled with black pudding and fags.

The Bruniverse’s strange jumble of thinly-veiled footballing towns becomes particularly unwieldy wherever it rubs up against real world clubs and locations. So, for example, Steve Barnes played for Mulcaster United, but recalls spending his days off walking through Manchester’s Trafford Centre. Early on, there is admiration toward the real Alex Ferguson, but Bruce refers only to “my former manager at Mulcaster when describing Ferguson’s actual managerial accolades. There are also some touchingly blatant bits of wrong-righting, such as when Barnes recalls winning the European Cup with Mulcaster, something which Bruce never actually did himself.

His time as one of the “glamour boys at Mulcaster has made Barnes something of a celebrity in Leddersford, accustomed to being recognized and fawned over wherever he goes. Now that he’s suspected of murder, this is doubly true, as he notes himself in an early passage;

Julie would need to stop making a show of herself with the beverages.

Julie would need to stop making a show of herself with the beverages.

Well, it wouldn’t be long before the police arrived. Murder is a grave crime. There was also the added frisson of it happening down at the local stadium. And it wouldn’t be long before we had the media calling. Those guys miss nothing.

Generally not murders, no.

Nowhere is Barnes’ celebrity status more evident than when he interrogates a nightclub owner whose premises are being patronised by one of his more troublesome players. This bizarre sequence sees Barnes channel his inner private eye, interrogating him like Dick Tracy, if Dick Tracy was a mildly concussed Geordie. Having broken into the shady drug club, Barnes dispatches two bouncers with little trouble before angrily confronting Terry, the proprietor. Barnes may be a thoughtful and erudite soul, but Bruce does any hard men reading a courtesy by reminding them he’s “no pussy cat, unless you want a breed of tiger or leopard.

Terry isnt Bruce's most subtle creation; he's the a lisping, mincing, one-dimensional queen that makes Frankie Howerd look like Malcolm X. The mind boggles at Bruce’s reasoning for including this ludicrous character within his already full-blown bonkers novel but thank God he did, else we would have forever missed the following exchange;

The dialogue of Terry, brought to you by the Iona Institute

The dialogue of Terry, brought to you by the Iona Institute

“You have a very fit body,” he said, evading my question.
“Glad you like it,” I said, smiling sardonically.
It was clear from his words, his manner, that Terry Causton was no ladies man [sic].

But enough plot. The true joy taken of reading Striker is in the endless, inane bits of filler that seem to comprise 70% of its dismal word count.

For example, at one point two Irish gunmen – never thereafter named, identified, or revisited – abduct Barnes at gunpoint because they believe he had something to do with Duffy’s death. They lead him up to a secluded spot in the hills, at which point Bruce stares death in the face and begins delivering a long internal monologue on irrigation which really does need to be read to be believed;

I could make out the reservoirs made to provide water to the big cities of Lancashire. These reservoirs, dotted everywhere in hidden valleys, are themselves fed with water from upland streams. The previous summer had been a wet one, and the streams were torrents still. In order to facilitate the collection of this hill water, the authorities, the Water Board, had constructed concrete watercourses. These allowed faster and more efficient collection of the rain water.

It should be noted that when his surreal tribute to the Lancashire Water Board is being recited to the reader, Barnes has a gun in his back. Some say that scenes from your life will flash before your eyes in life-or-death situations. Steve Bruce reckons it’ll be Wikipedia pages on Northern England’s civic amenities.

During this abduction, the references becomes more specific still, and in one brief 10-page flourish he makes three entirely separate, equally bonkers asides to ancient history, and specifically to the habits of pre-modern humans in the Lancashire area;

Finally, we get around to talking some sedge.

Finally, we get around to talking some sedge.

In the Bronze Age, people came here, nomadic tribes. They had powerful tools and they cut down the upland forests. They hunted with dogs and possessed strong arrow heads and spears, driving away or killing the wild animals. These people kept cattle and sheep and goats, which grazed the forest floors. Soon the landscape was cleared, and it only needed rain to erode all goodness from the soil.

But while the Bronze age is pretty long ago, Steve “Way Back When” Bruce has more than that up his sleeve just two pages later;

Millions of years ago, before man on earth, animals we now associate with tropical Africa roamed this area. They had to move, or perished, with the advance of the Ice Age.

It bears repeating that, not only has this no bearing on the plot – he is at this moment being shepherded to his death by two unknown Irish gunmen - such insights are never again returned to or referenced elsewhere in the book.

Some elements, however, do recur; most notably details of his beloved car, a Jaguar XJ8 which seems to have truly been a pretty fancy motor. We can tell this because Bruce tells us at every available opportunity;

“Not my words, Carol, the words of Top Gear Magazine”

Not my words, Carol, the words of Top Gear Magazine


 

I drive a Jaguar XJ8, 3.2, the sports version. It’s a very nice motor; 3.2 litre AJ-V8 all alloy engine. Classic colour interior theme, fluted leather seats, contrast colour keyed facia, figured walnut veneer. As good a motor as you can hope to drive. But not a car you’d choose when trying to follow a Ford saloon in a discreet manner…my registration, license and all other statutory details are filly up to date

And later;

… I was able to see in the rear-view mirror. The XJ’s electrochromic rear view mirror, and the door mirrors – electrically adjustable and heated – ensured I had clear vision

Then;

Windscreen wipers seem to lull you to sleep. The automatic climate control wraps you in a cocoon of deceptive warmth. It is barely possible, with the 3.2 litre engine and the 5 speed electronic automatic transmission, to know that you are travelling at speed.

Also;

…I locked the car with central locking. The XJ8 has a food security system with ultrasonic intrusion sensing, radio frequency remote control, and engine immobiliser. All necessary: this is a desirable motor..

Not forgetting;

…I walked to where the Jag was still parked. For a thief to get into that motor, he must be a mechanical and engineering genius. Ten paces from the car I opened the doors using the radio frequency remote control. A police control car, the kind used by traffic control, cruised by. The driver craned his neck to get a view of the Jag. Why not? It’s an attractive motor

Bruce can also get topical, as when he discusses the powers of the predatory press;

“Two people on a boat, far away, can be made to appear to be right next to eachother. You don’t believe me? It happened to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.

And he’s not afraid to proffer his thoughts on the encroachments of the digital age;

“Shannon’s office was small. There was paper everywhere. On his desk was a PC. A personal computer, not a police constable

Such wordplay demonstrates the swagger of Bruce, a writer at the peak of his powers, and one who isn’t shy about showing off. This might also explain why he mentions his GCSEs no less than seven times in the course of the book, reminding us that he “managed a good GCSE in English, which is why I can tell you this story now.

My heart. Is. RACING.

My heart. Is. RACING.

Bruce is a writer unafraid of lofty allusions. Following a visit from Michelle, a mystery blonde claiming to be Pat Duffy’s pregnant lover, Bruce reconciles her with old flame Martin Thornton, another squad member at Leddersford, solving their relationship problems simply by telling them to sit down and be quiet until they love each other again, like a sleepy, taciturn Jeremy Kyle. Afterwards, he reflects on their situation;

I just hoped that he and Michelle would behave responsibly. If he were to beat her up, or even strike her once or twice, I would feel guilty.

Sound.

“A pair of star-crossed lovers,” I said to Julie.
She looked surprised.
“That sounds clever, Steve. You have a way with words.

"Not me. Old Bill Shakespeare.

As he’s known to friends.

“Since when did you -?
“When I was at school,” I replied. “Romeo and Juliet was a set text
“You never cease to surprise me,” she said.

If you were surprised by Julie’s reaction to Barnes remembering five words from the single most famous play of all time, well, you get used to it in Striker after a while. Several people in the book deliver gob-smacked reactions to the amazingly clever things Barnes says, not to mention how fit, handsome, glamorous and good-at-solving-murders he is. In fairness though, Bruce can also dish out a compliment, especially when he recognises a fellow poet, someone who, like Old Billy Shakes, also has a way with words. Like the driver who cheers Barnes up on the way to the stadium;

“Take Leddersford up, and you’ll be talk of the town,” the driver said.
I smiled. That was a nice play on words. Talk of the town.
Leddersford Town.

What Bruce needed while he was writing the book was someone to say, “Look, Steve, in the nicest possible way, that’s just not what a play on words is, mate”. Or maybe they did, but as they flapped their gums all he heard was them telling him how fit his body was.

It’s hard not to imagine Bruce in this way, a lone maverick stealing away to his typewriter after a training session. Pencil over ear, tongue in teeth, well-worn copy of Lancashire Moorland Digest open by his side. His lovely big cow’s face set in glassy-eyed focus. The studied concentration on his face giving him the look of Brenda Fricker doing a really hard Sudoku as he earnestly summons forth frothy torrents of hot, sassy verbage. All to the tap tap tap of his two index fingers and the endless, mechanical whirring of his wonderful, literary brain.

This is the kind of focus you need to write a book with the concentrated class of Striker. To write sentences like “An Englishman’s home is his castle. That applies to other nations too”, “I decided to wear tracksuit and trainers. That is the kind of decision I make regularly”, “include me out - drugs is for mugsor, most memorably, “in a contest between human flesh and a concrete shute, the concrete will always win. It’s also just interesting to see where all of these now classic household phrases originated.

It’s heartening to picture Bruce typing these words, then springing from his red leather desk chair, throwing open the doors to his walnut-panelled study and unveiling the manuscript to polite-but-baffled responses from his loved ones. One might have presumed that there also followed conversations with kind, patient doctors gently explaining in soothing tones that his family loves him and are just a bit concerned. Perhaps this conversation would be within the comforting environs of a nicely-lit part of an unfamiliar hospital, a few counties over.

Thankfully, Striker and its two sequels were released without risk of Bruce’s involuntary admission to protected housing, and so the world got experience it unhindered, particularly its thrilling conclusion. It would, of course, be presumptuous to imply that Bruce was running out of time or energy at this point, but it does bear mentioning that the end of the novel seems fairly rushed. A rather bewildering series of events - the outing of Eddie Carberry as the killer, his stealing of a weapon from an army facility, his subsequent attempt at murdering Barnes with a sniper rifle AND the climactic game against Fulham which seals Leddersford’s promotion - all take place in the book’s last four pages. This would be easier to understand had the previous 124 pages not contained long, rambling accounts of Lancastrian aqueducts, ancient nomadic tribes and constant references to that bloody car.

More though, as I turned the last page, I found I was sorry it was over. Sorry that I wouldn’t have any more Striker to read. Bruce himself may have been modest about Barnes’ abilities – “I was not Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional detective – so well does the author do his job that many people believe Sherlock Holmes was a real person - but perhaps in years to come his crime-fighting exploits will earn the same place in the popular imagination as that other great English sleuth; an inspiring genius whose exploits lead generations of readers to think maybe, just maybe, the stories were real.

Perhaps the series’ real legacy is yet to come, as it births a new football-wide passion for crime writing among lumpen, steadfast defenders with heads like baseball mitts, a good GCSE, and a truly great car.

Until I get the 70 quid necessary to buy SWEEPER, we may never know.

This was, astonishingly, a library book…

This was, astonishingly, a library book

…a library book that was withdrawn from a library in the Shetlands

a library book that was withdrawn from a library in the Shetlands