'Sprawling family tale of gangsters' – The Book of Wag by Paul Sidey
Review by Lesley McDowell
Paul Sidey, who died two years ago, was a longstanding editor of various London publishing houses, as well as a published poet for children. He worked with some of the most successful authors, many of whom have aided the publication of this novel by contributing to its funding.
Some may find it curious that a man with so many contacts in the publishing world chose the Unbound route. Using the once common model of raising money by subscription, Unbound is a publishing project, started a few years ago, where writers pitch their ideas for a book to potential readers who in turn pledge money. When these pledges reach the desired funding target, the book is published. It’s sometimes seen as an alternative route for established writers who may have been dropped by their publishers because of low book sales, or a different route for new, emerging authors.
Whatever his reasons for choosing this route to publication, Sidey could draw on his editorial experience to transform personal anecdote and family history into fiction. The Book of Wag is a parallel narrative, told by ‘Wag’ Bourton (the origin of his nickname is never revealed), from his time during the First World War, through his life as a marginal criminal in London during the war and beyond, and by Jack, his nephew. After Wag’s death Jack discovers his uncle’s codified memoirs, and sets about trying to decipher them. As he does, Jack also recalls his own life growing up in South London during the sixties, his association with the criminal underworld somewhat mirroring his uncle’s.
Sidey based his novel on the real-life memoirs of his own uncle, and the sprawling Broughton family also resembles his own. In that sense, he has followed the path of most first-time novelists with a semi-autobiographical story. But he also has the experience to know how to stretch beyond the real life, as well as the ruthlessness of the novelist, taking his much-loved characters into dubious fictional dark places, the places a memoirist may not dare to tread.
Wag starts working life as an engraver, which quickly leads to illicit work on the side. Partly to escape further involvement with London’s gangster world, he volunteers when war starts. Some of the descriptions of his experiences are extraordinary: immediate, real, poignant. Wag only cries when his beloved horse is killed from under him; when a school-friend snubs him in the midst of fighting this almost causes him more anguish than attacks from the Germans. Throughout it all, the woman he misses most is his sister, Ethel, and she never betrays him, never lets him down.
Was Wag in love with his sister? Jack wonders, when he comes to the memoirs. Jack is searching for something in his uncle’s words, having drifted for a long time after studying English at Cambridge. Like his uncle, he has a foot in both camps, the gangsterish edges of South London and the respectable middle-class world. He never actually meets the Krays but he knows men who have, and when he’s asked by a school-friend to illegally import goods for his father’s business, he agrees. Jack wants to be a film-maker, but the real world offers too much technicolour of its own.
Where Sidey shows his inexperience perhaps is in his depictions of Jack and Wag. Both men are clearly defined at the beginning but as the novel moves onward, their stories becomes strikingly similar and it grows hard to tell them apart. Both men struggle in their relationships with women, both are attracted to boxing, both consort with gangsters and reflect with uncertainty on their relationships with their fathers. Edith is too sparsely drawn to count, although one suspects Sidey meant her to be more enigmatic than immaterial.
The seedy glamour of the worlds of Jack and Wag is expertly drawn, though, and the war experiences are riven with cynicism as well as shock, just as one might imagine they would be. It’s an utterly believable novel from start to finish, and a tribute to Sidey’s eye for a good story and appealing characters, as well as his ear for sharp dialogue. More than one lifetime has produced this novel and that shows, often beautifully.
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