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Culture: Books: Champion of the inner-city world; Alan Mahar, a key figure in promoting Birmingham writers, had his second novel published by London publishers Methuen. Ross Reyburn reports.

Byline: Ross Reyburn

'W hile financial wizards were drinking champagne at lunchtime in London in the 1980s, it was quite different in Birmingham and other cities.'

The recollection is from Alan Mahar who, in his intriguingly titled new novel After The Man Before, offers a portrait of social realism in Birmingham in the decade remembered for the rise of Thatcherism and the yuppie.

'In a way it is a historical novel trying to say what it was like at that time - I don't think the truth has been truly represented. The decade has been characterised as a time of financial triumphalism when, for most people outside London, it was tough.

'People were very divided politically and ideologically. Birmingham's manufacturing base was destroyed and there was the problems of unemployment and despair.

'The mid 80s was a time of recession and a furious property boom that was about to go out of control. People who hadn't been involved in the housing market before were encouraged to become part of the home-owning democracy under the Thatcher Government.

'The interesting thing in Birmingham was that old housing stock was rejuvenated by the work that was done. The urban renewal schemes were actually quite far-sighted.'

His story centres on a rundown inner city terraced house renovated by the book's central character, a social worker called Elizabeth, with the help of an unstable artist called Richard, who specialises in converting rubbish into sculptures. The previous owner of the house - 'The Man Before' - has left messages revealing the property's past and the tragedy that happened there.

'Even though there is an incident in the book that involves the police and violence, it not presenting the inner city as a place of violence and fear but rather a place where people try to build their lives,' said Mahar.

Born in Liverpool where his highly-praised first novel, Flight Patterns, was set, Mahar is well qualified to portray the virtues of inner city life at a time when there are signs that planners are finally realising the folly of the misguided obsession with decamping our urban population out into the countryside.

He arrived in Birmingham 25 years ago with a London University degree to become an English lecturer at Solihull College where he still teaches. From 1980-86, he lived in an inner city terraced house in Sparkhill with his art teacher wife Elaine. Today they live just 500 yards away in Moseley with their two daughters.

'It is a great place to live,' he said. 'I couldn't live in suburbia in Solihull where I work or in the countryside.

'Inner cities work because of the co-existence of people willing to get on with things and negotiate problems that arise. I've always found it fascinating for its mix of people and also for its down-to-earth approach to life. Where I live, if I enjoyed baltis, I could walk to 35 balti restaurants from my house. I can walk to Sparkhill swimming baths. I can get into town in five minutes.'

The fact that novelists David Lodge, Jim Crace and Jonathan Coe have achieved national renown provides some evidence that being associated with Birmingham doesn't entirely blight a literary career with London publishers. But the quietly-spoken Mahar believes writers portraying the the city's social realities face a problem getting into print and this is why he and others formed Tindal Street Press in October 1998.

'I believe there are a lot of good writers here and we should be able to get national notice because of our writing and not be ignored because of where we are,' he said. 'There is just a suspicion that London publishers feel that, because it comes from Birmingham, it is not going to be as good as if it comes from Oxford or from London.'

The award-winning fiction produced by a succession of TSP writers has justified the creation of the Birmingham publishers, now based in the Custard Factory in Digbeth.

Mahar's own work has no links with TSP where he is joint publishing director.

Like the award-winning Crace, who also lives in Moseley, Mahar began as a short-story writer. He managed to attract the notice of publishers after getting his short stories published by London magazines, with the initial breakthrough coming in 1982 when Safe as Houses appeared in the London Magazine, edited by the late Alan Ross, in 1982. Next month he will be presented with a pounds 7,000 Arts Council of England Writers' Award for the work in progress on his third novel, Heyton Suite, in which he returns to Liverpool, centring the story on a famous Merseyside wartime camp for internees.

He is careful to exclude his own case from his views of London attitudes to Birmingham writers dealing with the realities of life in Birmingham.

'I have managed to get my books published so I shouldn't really whinge about it,' said Mahar. 'I was being encourage by editors to do a novel and so I started my first novel. Now I have a publisher for my second book which is set in Birmingham.

'I hope it shows some of the positive qualities of the inner city. I like the variety of the inner city. It can be pretty and ugly. It is the beauty of Birmingham.'

Simon Evans gives his verdict on After The Man Before by Alan Mahar (Methuen, pounds 12.99)It's a sign of Birmingham's cultural renaissance that some of the country's most vibrant fiction is being produced by this city, by David Lodge, Jim Crace, John McCabe and now Alan Mahar.

As a founder of Tindal Street Fiction, and joint publishing director of its successor, Tindal Street Press, Liverpool-born Mahar has already done much to encourage new writing in the city and this, his second novel, sets the standard for what may come to be regarded as a distinctive genre - the Birmingham novel.

Set in Sparkhill, this beautifully observed book takes as its theme the reconstruction of the past and the ability of art to impose meaning on the disparate strands of existence. Richard is a disturbed young artist who is employed by his social worker, Elizabeth, to rebuild the terraced house she has just bought, just off the Stratford Road. The time is the mid-80s, the height of the last property boom, when houses ceased to become homes but instead become simply part of a 'portfolio' of investment opportunities.

For Elizabeth, however, the house is her dream home - a way of bringing together her family and creating the happy family environment she never had as a child.

Richard had been evicted from his flat because of his habit of hoarding rubbish from dustbins for eventual use in his artistic 'assemblages', and he comes to regard the rebuilding project as a work of art in itself. He sets about stripping away the mistakes of the past to create something of enduring value. It doesn't quite work out like that, however, for the house has its own secrets, gradually revealed to Richard through letters from the previous owner that he keeps finding during his renovations. As the plot takes off into different directions, some obvious, some less so, Mahar's intent becomes clear - to demonstrate that, like Richard's assemblages, it is possible to find beauty and understanding from the most unlikely combination of elements. In this way the house, as a work of art in itself, becomes a metaphor for Birmingham.

'It looked from outside like an ugly city, an ill-conceived city, a mess of a city. Yet there were close on two million individuals hereabouts. What did they see in the city? It couldn't only be that they didn't know any better.'

And it's from her new home in inner-city Birmingham that Elizabeth comes to appreciate 'the little surprises that upset her preconceptions about what was interesting and what was beautiful'. It's these 'little surprises', and a constant ability to confound preconceptions, that make Mahar's novel, like the city he's writing about, so endearing - and enduring.


Writer Alan Mahar revisits the inner city street in Sparkhill where he used to live
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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