Well, this is a rum do…
From 1984 to 1985 Barry Unsworth was writer in residence at Liverpool University. This was the time when he was doing research that resulted in Sacred Hunger (1992), his powerful novel of the Atlantic slave trade that moves from Liverpool to West Africa, Florida and the West Indies, and which was joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1992. It was also a period in which, if we are to draw any autobiographical conclusions from the book which preceded Sacred Hunger, Unsworth suffered from writer’s block. Sugar and Rum (published in 1988) was inspired by Unsworth’s residency at Liverpool University and contrasts the city’s decline and problems during the Thatcher years with its prosperous heritage.
I stumbled upon Sugar and Rum via Google Books, where it is possible to read extracts. I discovered that the novel’s opening scene takes place just round the corner from where I lived in 1985, and still live. Since it’s not every day that you find a novel set so close to home, I decided to read it.
Unsworth’s novel is a journey through dark, inward-focussed zones of depression, both in the economic sense (with scenes that draw us back to the Liverpool that decayed and smouldered with rage under the Thatcher regime) and the personal (the book’s main character, Benson, is suffering from writer’s block and appears to be close to a mental breakdown). Depressed, nearly manic, unable to work on his historical novel about the slave trade, Benson roams the streets of a Liverpool whose decline seems to mirror his own; a city filled with ‘abandoned projects, derelict enterprises, boarded-up ambitions’.
The novel has a suitably dark beginning. Benson is walking down Croxteth Road on a February day. It is ‘a time of trouble for Benson’ – he feels silence ‘forming over him like a crust. He can neither work nor sleep, and has taken to ‘walking around the city in an ancient overcoat of grey tweed, talking to strangers, looking for signs, portents, auguries’:
He was approaching the tall block of flats at the beginning of Croxteth Road. The white railing round the top was half lost in light, half dissolved in the blank, milky-blue heaven of mid-afternoon. Casually glancing up into this bright zone of air, Benson saw the flash of the leap, heard a cry, but despite this thought at first it was a carpet falling, a red and blue carpet, because of the way it seemed to drift and sidle in the first moments, but then it went straight and fast and landed on the concrete forecourt with a sound a carpet wouldn’t have made. Feeling slightly sickened, Benson strove to fix the sound of impact in his mind so that he could make a note about it when he got home – he still made notes. The man was lying on his back, motionless, inside the forecourt but in full view from across the road. His face was turned aside, away from Benson, as if that mild sun were too bright.
A car had stopped farther down. A small man got out and walked towards Benson. He was wearing a black leather hat with a very narrow brim. ‘Somebody fell off the roof,’ he said. His eyes were bloodshot and sad. He looked across to where the man was lying. ‘He’s had his lot,’ he said. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’
‘Looks like it. No one else seems to have noticed anything.’
Which was odd, considering the sound, the fact that he had gone hurtling past windows and balconies. Benson too was sure that the man was dead. There was no sign at this distance of blood or damage; but he knew, he recognised, in a way at once obscure and definite, that quality of stillness, that semblance of ease. The man was strewn there, littered.
Unsworth prefaces his novel with the OED definition of ‘metaphor’, signalling a key theme. Benson continually tries to ‘wrench the reality of things to a metaphor’. He sees signs and portents everywhere, starting with the suicide’s leap from the tower block – a leap he interprets as a personal omen. This tendency has already wrecked his marriage, his wife accusing him of ‘trying to make people subject to my imagination, to the requirements of a story, instead of seeing them as they really are’.
So, on one level, this concerns a novelist who struggles with writer’s block, making occasional forays into the city library to pursue his research into the slave trade, make notes and ponder the moral implications of the city’s past – the slavery, rum and sugar of the triangular trade.
But it is a rum concoction, this novel. Not only do we have Benson roaming the streets with his writer’s block, falling into conversation with tramps and vagrants, we also get the high comedy of his creative writing classes, attended by his ‘fictioneers’, an assortment of aspiring authors whose hilarious manuscripts he critiques while eavesdrop on snippets:
‘She eased the implement of his power into the deepest fronded recess of her being’. There was a disturbing touch of the Black and Decker in the description of Albert’s member, Benson mused.
Alongside these scenes unfold Benson’s wartime memories of the Anzio campaign, revivified when he encounters two fellow Second World War veterans, one a homeless alcoholic, the other a wealthy right-wing, Cheshire businessman. In a packed hall on Upper Parliament Street, a demonstration of hypnotism is brought to a suddent halt by rioting on the streets outside. And, at the book’s conclusion, Benson assembles an unlikely band of malcontents to bring the revolution to the sleeping burghers of Cheshire. It’s a strange and uneven mix: readable, but nowhere approaching the standard of Unsworth’s best work. It has a grim fascination, now, in drawing us back to the 1980s, that decade of Liverpool’s ruination.
Barry Unsworth has confirmed in at least one interview that the struggle of the fictional novelist Benson in some way mirrored his own difficulties at the time:
I used a blocked writer in Liverpool to extricate myself who was a blocked writer in Liverpool at the time. I used that. … I don’t think Sacred Hunger or Sugar and Rum would have been written if I hadn’t gone to Liverpool and I only went there because there was a post as Writer in Residence at the university. I believe I was the first and last writer they ever had; I think they ran out of funds. I was there for fifteen months and by going in I stumbled on Liverpool. As we said, I had a block and there was the slave trade interest… The focus of interest on the Atlantic trade was really accidental in the sense that I hadn’t any such interest before I went to Liverpool.
Yet just four years after describing Benson’s tribulations in Sugar and Rum, Unsworth completed the extraordinary Sacred Hunger, a towering achievement and one of the best British novels of the last 50 tears.