England’s Lane of the late fifties alive again

ENGLAND’S LANE by Joseph Connolly Quercus Books, �20

Should England’s Lane ever catch the eye of a film director, then I hope he has the cast of The League Of Gentlemen on speed dial.

They would be perfect as both male and female protagonists in this bizarrely addictive tragi-comic slice of shopkeeping life in Belsize Park.

Fate being what it is, the review copy of Connolly’s 11th novel landed on my desk the day the “for lease” signs went up at England’s Lane Books, bringing my own brief tenure as an NW3 retailer to an untimely end.

And that’s where I hope that all similarities begin and end because, in this England’s Lane, Connolly has assembled a wickedly grotesque cast of characters in his three shopkeeping families.

This is the England’s Lane of the late Fifties.

It’s still the era of make do and mend and there’s not an artisanal loaf or designer kitchen in sight.

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There’s also precious little joy, married or illicit, to be had and for Connolly’s characters scratching a living on the Lane, life, as well as marriage, is largely something to just be gotten through.

It was an era when people didn’t share their feelings much so Connolly homes in and out of his characters’ inner monologues, interspersing them with dialogue, a device that, to begin with, can be a little unnerving but actually serves to draw you into the characters’ lives full tilt. Unsettling isn’t even half the story.

“No one knows what goes on behind closed doors”, says the country music ballad – and, the inevitable infidelities aside, you would be hard pressed to envisage what Connolly has in store behind the shabby shopfronts.

The cover blurb cites comparisons with everyone from Dickens to Amis M, but England’s Lane brought to my mind nothing so much as the boarding-house novels of the wonderful Patrick Hamilton and also Gerard Woodward’s fabulously perverse (and also post war) Nourishment.

Here is an uneviable world in which one affection-starved woman describes sex with her husband as “charmless invasions”, while of her (inevitably less than worthless and uniquely vile) lover she notes: “He will grunt just once and then there is a sigh”, although she is still moved to remark that being hugged by him was “the single most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.”

But it is in the slickly malevolent mind and motivations of Barton the butcher that Connolly really lets rip and enjoys himself with the most odious and darkly comedic character you could wish for. It is in his passages in the book that Connolly really excels as a stylist.

England’s Lane is a hefty undertaking at more than 400 pages and, while the opening chapters amble along at a gentle pace, the story quickly gathers momentum, roars into life and becomes as gripping and unique a read as anything you’re likely to encounter.