Paul Simon reviews John Ellison's debut novel.
Times Change really shouldn’t be such a satisfying read. John Ellison’s debut novel contains so many of those elements that singularly, leave alone collectively, ought to kill off any work of fiction before the end of the first chapter. Not so. Set over the period of a few months in 1979-80 in a local council, it centres on the office rivalries and child protection issues dealt with by a small team of lawyers and social workers. The author’s steady, patient and determined style and acute but humane observations — much like those of Robert Fordham, his protagonist — surprisingly enfold the reader in a slow and gentle embrace.
Fordham, a newly qualified solicitor for the London Borough of Haringey, seems equally a novice when it comes to meaningful relationships and, though he speedily develops as a professional, his advances on the sexual front are less rapid. But, through Fordham’s eyes, Ellison shows a council and a society already beginning to buckle under the Thatcher administration’s attacks.
The class divide is tellingly explored at the different benches of Holborn and Tottenham magistrates’ courts and in the schism between a sterile and mean-spirited management and a workforce, still idealistic but overwhelmed by the demands placed on them. Ellison’s fly-on-the-wall style captures the always awkward and frequently combative encounters in various stuffy rooms as Fordham seeks child protection orders for runaway teenagers, possibly poisoned youngsters and at-risk babies. His observation of the process and procedures needed to secure such outcomes at a time when the interests of children were not always treated as paramount by the legal system is an eye-opener. The author also highlights the often unlauded but essential work of shop stewards seeking to hold managers to account as they slyly bully and undermine their staff.
Times Change is a reminder that even as the Establishment renews its assault, the slow and steady resistance of working-class people can make a difference and through joint action positive results can be achieved — even if they might take decades to secure. A young Jeremy Corbyn appears leading a protest on Duckett’s Common against the first wave of savage Tory cuts and we know what he has since achieved and inspired.
This is not a classic “leftist” book — there’s no heroic revolutionary narrative — and it’s unlikely that it will be read in the trenches of the class struggle. But for those curious to more fully analyse the underlying mechanisms of societal development that lie behind Lenin’s dictum that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen,” Times Change is a must.
John Ellison adds: I wished in this book to convey a picture of the inadequacies of child protection law as it was at the end of the seventies, inadequacies which were mitigated only by high-level commitment from those working in that field. I wished also to convey a flavour of how it was to work in local government at a moment when the still largely solid pack-ice of the post-war class compromise was beginning to crack under the first onslaughts of the Thatcher government, and when resistance was already more than an idea. Times were, indeed, changing.
Times Change is published by Matador at £8.99.