Simon WarrMichael Gold
Howson's Choice
Medium: book
Year: 2011
Publisher: Bronwyn Editions
Country: UK
Writer: Simon Warr, Michael Gold
ISBN: 978-0-9562993-6-9
Website category: British
Review date: 30 May 2011
Last week, I attended the funeral of the most generous and extraordinary man I've ever known. His name was Mike Gold and he was a genius in two fields (music and mathematics), with an extreme personality and an almost pathological lack of shyness or restraint. It was commonplace for him to get stopped by the police after going shopping because of something outrageous he'd done in the store. The tales about his antics are legendary. The tributes at his funeral during the service were getting laughs from the congregation... and that was only the stories that were fit to mention.
Anyway, among the many other things he did, he also co-wrote a novel. (I should apologise for not singing any praises of Simon Warr, incidentally, but him I hardly know.) They'd been working on it for years and it's a minor miracle that only weeks before his death, it finally got published. This is that novel. It's nowhere near as jaw-dropping as its author, but it's still pretty good and it paints a convincing picture of its two distinct worlds.
The story involves a public school headmaster who gets involved with a prostitute. The protagonist, Dr Joseph Howson, is a high-flying star in the teaching world who's a bit of a bastard, but frighteningly good at his job. Put him in charge of your school and within a term you'll find he's sacked a bunch of teachers, but everyone else (staff and pupils) will be working as they've never worked before. Furthermore the book's taking its school milieu seriously. It's not just the boring stuff between the scandalous bits. On the contrary, the day-to-day details of running an English public school were my second-favourite thing about the book. It's always fascinating when someone's talking in detail about something they know intimately and that's what the authors are doing here. Mike was a public school headmaster himself, while Simon Warr both was and still is a teacher today. It's a specific portrait they paint of a certain kind of proud, ferociously dedicated institution that you could imagine having lasted since the dawn of time.
Anyway, that was my second-favourite thing about the book. My favourite though was the drug addicts, street people and prostitutes. This is just as convincing. You wouldn't believe the people Mike would invite to stay with his family in Reading, for months. Personally I found this book really interesting when it was talking about public schools, but at its most entertaining when it's portraying the shadow world that swirls and festers around its Cambridge Road. Dogger is particularly fun. The insights into the working girls' lives are far more truthful and down-to-earth than you might be expecting. These two worlds and the juxtaposition between them are the strongest thing about this novel and the reason why I'd recommend it.
Incidentally this means that the prologue isn't as awkward and patronising as it looks. When that first page says "street person", for instance, it's giving it a precise meaning.
That's basically the setting, though. What about the story itself?
Well, it takes a while to get going. The book has a distinctive narrative voice, which is mostly Mike's and is clearly that of someone who loves their rich vocabulary and isn't going to be mistaken for Dick Francis any time soon. Dialogue will be correctly in the voice of whoever's talking, but the prose surrounding it sounds like a headmaster. This is just right when we're reading about Dr Joseph Howson, but a bit odd for Mary Anne. Couple that with a narrative that during the first hundred pages will happily jump back to someone's childhood and then spend chapters talking about them, and it doesn't feel like a plot-driven novel so much as an old, ridiculously well-educated guy telling you a story after dinner. This is fine. I didn't mind it. However it's something to be prepared for, even if the plot picks up steam in the second half.
Did I enjoy the book? Sometimes, yes. The fly-on-the-wall side of things is well worth reading, but the plot takes a while to gather momentum and Dr Joseph Howson isn't particularly likeable. Did I care what happened to him? Again, sometimes. I never had the slightest scrap of sympathy, but there's also a lot to admire about him and there's some power in how the book manages to end his story. Besides, he makes a determined enemy who ends up getting just as much screen time as he does.
Overall, pretty good. It's a first novel from both authors and it feels a bit that way, but first novels often have a personal quality that makes them interesting and that definitely applies here. It's not streamlined. It's driven by its settings and its basic idea. It's not trying to be heartwarming, but you could do a lot worse. And I definitely enjoyed Dogger.