REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 108

Discovering Scarfolk

by Richard Littler

Reading Discovering Scarfolk is a lot like having a certain type of love affair. The type of affair – and you will know the type – that follows a clear, three-part structure. It starts with passion, intrigue and infatuation; then quickly but inevitably progresses to disappointment, frustration, resentment even, before ending with sheer and absolute indifference. If you’ve never experienced such an affair, you might like to try Discovering Scarfolk.

Ostensibly, the book contains records from the archive of a character called Daniel Bush. We are told that Bush arrived in Scarfolk – a mythical town in the north-west of England – on 23 December 1970, and that his documents represent ‘the only tangible testimony to the town’s existence.’ What follows is part cultural critique, part mystery narrative, part socio-mythology; but the messiness and inconsistency of the parody drastically undermines the attempt at genre spoofing.

The premise – that the inhabitants of this invented 1970s town lived under a regime of local state control akin to brainwashing – isn’t essentially faulty. The premise, in fact, is robust. But the execution of the narrative via documents from Scarfolk Council grows wearisome and repetitive, relying increasingly on limited devices of wordplay and a passion for political incorrectness which provokes boredom rather than a questioning of society’s norms and values. While the plotline involving the brainwashing of Bush and the kidnapping of his two sons is an interesting narrative device, this is sidelined in favour of reams of pseudo-satirical Scarfolk propaganda.

The majority of these propaganda documents dwell on Scarfolk Council’s hatred of babies and children, (Steak & Kid Pie, How to Wash a Child’s Brain, Is Your Kid a Kitchen Kid?); its obsession with scatological folklore, (The Coprofilly Fairies, ‘the fertilised loaf develops into faeces’, ‘Never play with white dog excrement’); and mind-altering state-endorsed medications (Placebomol, Lobottymed, Panopticon etc).

Additionally, Scarfolk Council’s hatred of foreigners, gypsies and tramps is reinforced rather excessively to my mind. This has the unfortunate effect of undermining what could have been a really quite powerful socio-political satire. As it stands, satire is sacrificed in favour of bum-jokes – and not especially sophisticated bum-jokes at that – so that the book’s effectiveness as a source of provocation and cultural comment is utterly neutered.

Perhaps, I hear you say, I’m taking this all far too seriously. And yes – perhaps I am expecting a degree of nuance and depth which is simply beside the point. But the thing is I very much enjoyed the first third of the book: I admit it’s never quite laugh-out-loud; but even so there are moments of genuinely inspired satire. In the latter stages, however, Littler stretches the conceit to the point where it collapses into parodying its own parody.

To be sure, I can see plenty of mileage in parodying a particular kind of provincial northern town in England; I even spotted elements from my own childhood in Scarborough (albeit during the 1980s). But I think the success of such a parody relies on more, not less, of the kind of local, familiar detail which successfully connects the critique to reality. As it is, the process of defamiliarisation in the book strays further from the – already deeply bizarre – truth than is necessary. Sticking closer to the template of ‘home’ would surely allow the reader a more rewarding and active level of engagement: that is, satire relies on the reader’s recognition of what is familiar in a new, exaggerated context.

In spirit, the book is a distant cousin of Private Eye; but where the latter exposes the hypocrisy of our system through a combination of humour, truth-telling and self-awareness, Discovering Scarfolk simply descends into farce, relying on juvenile poo jokes and repetition of the same few ideas ad nauseam. What frustrated me most was the missed opportunity for serious political and socio-cultural satire. At first glance, this is indeed what the book achieves: but in my view the parody overtakes itself. Reality’s apparatus no longer forms a departure point; instead the gap between Scarfolk and ‘reality’ becomes so wide that the critique – if indeed it is a critique – fails by virtue of its own outlandishness. After a while, indifference sets in as satire is abandoned in favour of inane and puerile language play.

If you’re the kind of middle-aged reader who likes nothing better than toilet jokes, this is the perfect bathroom book. If not, you might want to give it a miss.

Amy McCauley’s poetry has appeared widely in magazines, including Ink Sweat & Tears, New Welsh Review, The North, The Rialto, The Stinging Fly and Tears in the Fence. Her poem, ‘Municipal Ambition’, appeared in the 2014 Viking anthology The Poetry of Sex. She has recently written a play called My Baby Girl and a verse drama based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.




       


previous review: The Greatest Need: The Creative Life and Troubled Times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine
next review: The Wood below Coelbren



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