Sunday, March 26, 2006


Don’t read as much as I used to, and often have to force myself, and usually I’m glad to have done so. With Manners, a 1998 British novel by sometime comedian Robert Manners, I’m not quite sure. Picked this up from a second-hand shop, the one I used to work in, hunting for buried treasure. Hoping to be exposed to mind-altering ideas for a cheap outlay, in this case $5. ‘The writing leaves you spellbound’, proclaims one blurber. I must say I was left more bewildered and irritated than spellbound.

The book is intended as a meditation on good and evil, with the protagonist a policeman working a high-crime, high-risk area – where I’m not sure, but possibly London. Stood down and under investigation for killing a crim in the process of an arrest or an investigation or just while on patrol (the details are deliberately kept obscure), he passes into a dark night of the soul, during which he becomes a vigilante of sorts, kitted out in his banned police uniform, encountering various assailants, accomplices, victims, hanger-on and by-standers, and distractedly trying to solve crimes and retrieve his fallen estate via a police scanner.

The premise sounds promising enough, but I confess shamefully to a certain lack of sympathy for PC Manners. Partly it’s an ingrained lack of sympathy for the police in general, and for the motives for joining such a force (and the key is in that last word), but mostly it’s the authorial style and the nature of his character’s ruminations and behaviour. The mix of painfully naïve ‘analysis’ and street-wise smart-talk (much of which was incomprehensible to me, a combination of police argot, punk talk, regional slang and various unidentifiables which serious hampered the flow) might possibly work for a stand-up comic, but I found it increasingly grating. Perhaps, coming after Pinker’s The Blank Slate, the insights Manners scrabbles after struck me as too limited and dubious. In any case, I’ve never had much time for good-and-evil reflections – or rather, I tend to recast the material in my own very different light.

I’ve mentioned guilt feelings about not liking the book – after all, it’s about a struggling working-classer who happens to be a cop, who’s having woman probs and friendship probs, who’s critical of and sympathetic to housing estate culture, who gets mired in tragedy. Somehow, though, I couldn’t quite believe in him. I was irritated by a sense of performance from the author, and Manners’ irrational enthusiasms and strident if nervy opinions left me almost eerily cold. Just how sympathetic are we supposed to feel?


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