Review of The Noise of Strangers by Robert Dickinson

The Noise of Strangers by Robert Dickinson

Book Review of The Noise of Strangers by Robert Dickinson

The city of Brighton has been the subject of fiction from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, through to Robert Rankin’s Brightonomicon, with many others in between.  Going back even further, the town features in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray and even Dr Johnson visited and worked in the town.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the place.  I visit frequently, as our daughter lives in the “joined at the hip” town of Hove, and on a sunny day its pleasant enough, but that scruffy, rather disreputable ” other” Brighton always lurks just beneath the surface, a place that’s “not quite safe”, where there’s always a possibility you’ll get your wallet pinched.

Now Robert Dickinson has written in The Noise of Strangers about the Brighton of our nightmares, where social order has disintegrated and the comfortable classes have retreated into gated communities, leaving the streets to the lawless Scoomers. The city has retreated within itself and travel beyond its boundaries is unusual, the only escape seeming to be run away to France, where you stand a good chance of ending up in an internment camp.

The city council has become a threatening totalitarian organisation, where the descendants of the Conservative and Labour parties battle for power, with senior councillors acting as local barons with all the trappings of power. 

An overbearing bureaucracy governs the town, with the major departments of Audit, Parks and Transport wielding threatening levels of power.  The misnamed “Welfare” seems to be able to force children into nurseries where they are drilled in submission to the council and its teachings.  The only discernible religion is the “Helmstone Mission” which seems to have shades of fervent evangelicalism, but mixed with sinister attitudes redolent of cultish brain-washing.  Brighton is not a nice place to live!

Into this mix, we join a group of neighbours (I’m not sure friends is quite the word as betrayal and treachery seem never too far away), who hold weekly dinner parties.  The scene is set for a developing story set in the context of political manoeuvrings and increasing violence, both on the streets and in the homes.

I was impressed with this book. Admittedly I read it because it was set in a neighbouring town, but I was pleased to find myself rapidly becoming engrossed in the strange world which Robert Dickinson has created.  The book flows well, and provides a frighenting picture of the workings of the city aided by the authors habit of dropping in news-sheet articles, minutes of council meetings, witness reports and so on.  These break up the text rather well and reveal a coherent picture of a British city gone to hell.

Robert Dickinson tracks the fortunes of his dinner party couples, and captures the sense of living in a state where terrible things can happen to your neighbours.  Some characters fit in well with the system and blithely go about the business of controlling the lives of their fellow citizens.  Some are more equivocal about their local government and live lives of fear amid a struggle to survive.

I enjoyed the pictures of life working in these blighted offices, where capricious security guards form a daily barrier to getting to work.  Once inside, office-life is an unpleasant business and perhaps rings a little too true to the local government work which the author has as his day job (Dickinson is far from being the first civil servant to write books!).

With my rather tarnished view of Brighton, I found it easy to imagine how life could descend to these levels.  Road blocks infest the town, people are pulled from cars and are beaten up.  Toll booths extract annoying large amounts for the use of safe roads, while other routes have become the territory of Scoomers and a break-down could result in some unpleasant things happening to you. 

For a real-life city which is continually plagued by road-works and a viciously mean set of parking wardens, this almost rings true.  I think Robert Dickinson did well to choose Brighton, the town which Private Eye magazine characterises as “Skidrow on Sea”.  Who knows, fity years on . . .?

I rather like the idea of the interview sections included at the back About Robert Dickinson, About The Noise of Strangers and About Writing.  These three sections provide a lot of insight into the background to the book and filled in some of the gaps. 

I’m not sure about the authors decision to avoid physical descriptions of the characters – “I find that when I read other novels, I usually don’t remember anything beyond general indications of appearance”.  This reader at least found the cast of dinner party guests initially rather confusing and I think some visual keys would have helped me remember the differences between Alan and Margaret, Jack and Denise, Tim and Louise, Siobhan and Kieran.  A small point but if the author is going to explain his methods to his readers then perhaps he’ll fine his readers want to debate with him!

The book is well produced by Myriad Editions, an independent publishers based in Brighton.  I’d never heard of them before, but their catalogue looks very interesting. I can see I’ll have to seek out their The Brighton Book, a compilation of work by some fine and well-known writers.  Definitely a company to add to my growing list of excellent independents to the left of this review.

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