Same and different

Miners review: Parallel Universes

Ajay Close Trust Tippermuir Books Ltd, 2014, pp355, £9.99

I confess to not being a reader of fiction, but Ajay Close, who is the author of two previous novels and a play, fair blew me away with this book. Not that this is sheer fiction: like GB84 and others this book is bedded in truth and a good deal of insight.

It is about two parallel social universes, which overlap and intersect like ships in the night, with almost subliminal consciousness of the other’s existence or meaning. One is the embattled pit community of Faxerley Colliery, as first it stands its ground as a private mine caught in the great struggles of 1984-85, and in the subsequent years survives the titanic changes following the Great Strike. The other is the distant universe of banking, the stock exchange, finance companies and in particular hedge funds and speculation. I say ‘distant’ in the sense of social standing, since in one way the fortune of one is tied up with that of the other - unseen hands manipulate the basic values underpinning workers’ lives.

There is something of the basic tale of Brassed off here - plain men and women, and their communities, fighting the enemy that seems to be before them, while underneath and above unseen forces move silently, pulling fortunes this way and that. I have to say that, while I thought Brassed off was very well observed, this book takes the scenario far, far deeper into the depths of the world of money speculation, market manipulation and the gross criminality of high finance, ripping into people’s lives without so much as a nod in their direction, let alone any sign of conscience. Trust would make an excellent film or TV drama.

What struck me most about this book was the author’s mastery of the culture and language of both worlds. First that of the mine:

“The colliery offices smelled of plasterboard and stale cigars. A copy of Women’s Realm on the desk beside the golf-ball typewriter … The colliery manager extended a puffy hand, with a signet ring embedded in the third finger … ‘It’s a geological lottery, this game. Some seams it comes off like shit off a shovel; some it’s not worth the bother … Their top seam’s under bunter sandstone, which is gassy, water-bearing and bloody hard. All we’ve got to worry about’s magnesium limestone and Mottershaw shale. We use drill and blast method ... The machinery they’ve got makes us look like something out of the Stone Age, but, ton for ton we’re a damn site more profitable … What you’ve got to bear in mind is, we’re all the same coalfield, but it’s not the same quality coal.’”

Then in the other world: “You were dealing in sub-prime mortgages … a leg-up for poor black families in East Louis, who couldn’t get a foot on the property ladder. And for others on the very bottom rung, paying crippling rates of interest on their credit cards and car loans. When those debts were consolidated into a second mortgage, the interest rate dropped by half ... You’ve never been to East St Louis. Nor have I. We can’t say who’s going to default. There’s a risk - a bigger risk than with a mortgage in Manhattan - so they pay a rate of interest reflecting that. And the investors buying packages of that debt receive a higher rate of return ...

“… someone had the idea: why not sell parcels of mortgage debt? You’re a bank. You’ve got squillions of these things on your books … You sell them on, you get your money now, do something else with it … the mortgage bonds that didn’t sell because they were rated as too risky, until someone had the idea of slicing them and mixing them up to spread the risk ... Someone came up with the idea of a synthetic financial product ... It would perform exactly the same way, only instead of the actual loans or slices of those loans, which would actually pay out, it had a swap. Basically an insurance policy. Investors in the shadow gambled on loans … being repaid. Investors in the swap reckoned there was likely to be a certain percentage of default. The two bets cancelled each other out, so there was no need for any of it to show on the bank’s books … nothing on the balance sheet ... Fiendish isn’t it?”

The book goes into reams of exposure and exposition like this, which explains a lot about how the ‘other world’ works - or spectacularly does not.

And we find strand upon strand of conflicting and overlapping social interaction and conflict. Class on class, sexism, patriarchy, painful human relations and social postures, power guises, how the game is played between men and women in both worlds, and between worlds, and between women within and outwith their classes and social standings. Some of this is quite biting and sharp as a blade:

“At parties when Lexa was asked what she did for a living, she always said, ‘I work in Cambusdyke’ … On her first visit she’d had to drive on to the pavement to avoid a three-piece suite on fire in the middle of the road. Cambusdyke was known for recreational arson and the stoning of the firemen who arrived to extinguish these blazes. Millions had been spent on a brand-new school, health studio, café and community complex … and 12 state-of-the-art, vandal-proof bus shelters, none of which had survived … And still Cambusdyke led Scotland in heart disease, hepatitis B, registered heroin use, unemployment, mental illness and a type of facial scarring known as the Cambusdyke smile.”

“... The waiter unfolded Lexa’s napkin with a matador flourish and spread it across her lap. She looked around at their fellow diners. A couple of custom-tailored cowboys (Haulage contractors? Landfill millionaires?), but mostly middle class managers … treating their secretaries or girlfriends on expenses. There was a good deal of cleavage on show in various shades of toffee and buttermilk and tanning-shop orange, all of it expensively wrapped.”

Apart from the sheer brilliance of the dialogue, there is the winding, inter-threading plot, which I will not, of course, reveal. Firstly the struggle for the pit in the strike and big politics, then the scramble to find a buyer in the 90s - save the pit, save the community. It is at this point the story gets dark, and well-intentioned roads to hell are devised. For the pit itself held a secret, which would steal the pride of survival - if survival it is.

Waxing lyrical over this book, not least by quoting from it endlessly, would be over-indulgent. Better you treat yourself to a ghost train of a ride through the haunted streets of the coal communities, on the one hand, and the nauseating, self-indulgent world of bankers and speculators, on the other l

David Douglass