I reviewed Carol Morley’s debut novel for New Statesman….
Director Carol Morley’s debut novel joins a rich canon of writing by working-class women
Like her films, Morley’s 7 Miles Out is marked by the absence of men in a richly-realised northern culture. By Ben Myers
Where once the northern, working-class stories of David Storey, Alan Sillitoe et al were afforded considerable status in the literary world, today’s equivalents exist largely on the peripheries. The female voices were even more marginalised. Those who were most prominent – Shelagh Delaney, Andrea Dunbar – found an outlet through drama or, in the cases of Jeanette Winterson and Pat Barker, through feminist imprints. They remain rarities.
The film director Carol Morley’s debut novel, 7 Miles Out, is in this rich lineage, reminiscent in places of both Winterson’s and Barker’s debuts. As with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Union Street, the overarching theme of this fictionalised memoir – and, indeed, Morley’s output to date – is the absence of men. Men as question marks. Men as exploiters or cowards.
In her documentary The Alcohol Years, Morley pieced together fragmented memories of her promiscuous youth spent encountering faceless figures in Manchester’s hedonistic hinterlands, and her docudrama Dreams of a Life considered the effects of the lack of human contact. Her autumnal-toned The Falling, meanwhile, studied adolescent female bonds with twitching intensity. The significant male characters in it were a predatory, incestuous brother and an unseen rapist who had fathered the lead character. Collectively, these empowering, post-patriarchal works show modern men to be the corrupted, feckless, flawed creatures that we are, each film a challenge to the male gaze that has dominated cinema.
The suicide of Morley’s father when she was 11 has clearly had a bearing on her output and this forms the basis for 7 Miles Out, which follows the narrator, Ann Westbourne, as she navigates everything that 1970s Stockport has to offer. Her reaction to her father’s death is surprisingly emotionless – that of a child introduced to a concept for which there can be no preparation: “I put my fists to my eyes and pretended to cry. It seemed the right thing to do. I began to concentrate on what sort of picture I made, a half-orphan on a grown-up’s lap. I watched myself play the broken-hearted child.”
As puberty arrives, Ann begins to research what it is to be a man by looking at the men who orbit her world: clarinet teachers who stroke her hair while fumbling with themselves, or friends’ fathers who touch her knee in the cinema. Here, Morley summons Jimmy Savile’s 1970s. Further contact comes from the grubby paws of teenage punks or, during a youth club day trip, with a soldier on leave. Even Ann’s elder brother, Rob, is notable largely for his absence as he flees south (Morley’s elder brother, Paul, nine years her senior, had left home to document punk by the time she reached her teens).
She maintains a keen director’s eye for period detail: clothes are bought for punk makeovers from the Spastics Society and “Mum was usually on some sort of diet, eating Nimble or Slimcea bread, Ayds chocolate and Limmits biscuits and drinking the sharp lemon drink PLJ” – although passing references to striking council workers and “unburied bodies and rats crawling over rubbish mountains” feel slightly pat. Most readers will be well aware of the period’s socio-political backdrop.
Morley is most impressive when she depicts themes that are universal to the trauma of teenage life. In scenes reminiscent of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, there is mordant humour to be found in a Christmas spent trying to defrost a frozen turkey and Ann’s pretentious declaration that her punk band, Playground, writes “dark and Gothic songs about vivisection and lost youth”, inspired by Joy Division and Crispy Ambulance. She is 14 at the time.
Woven into this are her fleeting sexual relationships – often with older women, who open her up to radical politics and art at a time when the leading female voice is Margaret Thatcher’s – and also the chaotic coping methods of Ann’s mother, Brynn, another victim of her husband’s actions, in an era when male mental health was given little in the way of understanding.
The book ends with the 16-year-old Ann finding a home first in the Haçienda club’s pre-Ecstasy days as an eccentric faux-ingénue figure and then escaping through education in London, as Morley did. A story of survival in an England that still exists in certain northern provinces, 7 Miles Out can be read as the opening chapter of a wider body of work about burgeoning female strength. Morley continues to lead by example, doing rather than saying.