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Spring 2001, and the countryside of the North East of England resembles Fitzgerald’s ‘valley of ashes’: the air is choked with the stench and smoke of the pyres which are burning in an attempt to contain the epidemic of foot and mouth disease.
After forty years away, Ray Cruddas, a comedian with a national, considerably faded reputation, has returned to the North East to live. He has a new wife, a new club and a house close to a stand of trees which has haunted him from childhood.
But he still believes he is living life at one remove, through the more vibrant, seemingly less complex and conflicted person of Jackie Mabe, the former boxer who, in his capacity as driver, drinking partner and gofer, has always stood between Ray Cruddas and the world. Jackie Mabe performed this role once before: for Jack Solomons, known as ‘Jolly Jack’ and ‘the potentate’, who ruled British boxing in the decades before and after the War.
Along with the Victorian painter Ralph Hedley, the Geordie comic Bobby Thompson, and Margaret Thatcher’s director of communications Gordon Reece, Solomons is among the many real life figures who populate this extraordinary blend of fact and fiction. The North of England Home Service, like Gordon Burn’s earlier novels, reanimates and reinvents popular culture, making unexpected connections and salvaging something palpable from the evanescent spectacle of contemporary life.
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