Perpetual PlaygroundJoe Solomon£7.95Pouncecat PressISBN 978-1-905633-11-1
As a humorist with his own unique style, Joe Solomon was well known on the Bristol scene for many years, even making Venue’s list of ‘The Hundred Most Important People in Bristol’. But when he wasn’t putting on events like ‘Lyrical Myrical’ or ‘The Totally Nude Piano Show’ Joe was organising ‘Poets against Racism’, writing to prisoners on Death Row, lobbying MP’s, founding the Shellfish Network (which campaigned against boiling creatures alive) and of course, writing this novel.
It’s a long cry from present day Bristol to wartime Edinburgh where this book begins; but the reader, looking through the eyes of ten year old Martin Vanskin, the book’s central character, is immediately immersed in the everyday normality, the greyness and repression of the time, and the small economies made necessary by the war: ‘Not too much water,’ says Daddy at bathtime. ‘Five inches is supposed to be enough.’ ‘Should I use a ruler?’ asks Martin seriously. There is a definite touch of Alan Bennett in this sort of exchange.
But although Joe has obviously drawn on his own childhood to describe the gritty reality of the 1940’s, the novel is in constant movement as it begins to focus on Martin’s boyish worries about his sexual development and his despair as he finds that he is not like the other boys. Here we have Joe’s trademark approach to a taboo subject from a totally different and unexpected direction.
Martin is an unlikely, but very likeable hero. His parents are excessively strict and he is bullied at school – a small bespectacled boy who despises himself because even younger boys can shove him around and wrestle him to the ground. But these incidents give him a strange excitement.
As he grows up he pushes away his desire to lose wrestling matches with younger boys and seeking a normal life he meets and even goes out with girls. But the difference is still there, and he is driven to seek therapy in the hopes of finding a permanent cure.
Armed with improved insight and self-esteem he finds an office job, and a promising relationship develops with a girl colleague. She has a schoolboy brother who is a sensitive boy, not given to aggression, and Martin feels able to tell himself that he has attained a healthy, normal way for an adult to relate to a child. But his feelings about this child are more complex than he thinks, and he disastrously fails to recognise the danger-signs.
Joe tells Martin’s story with a deliberate simplicity that draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning. For all its seeming innocence, here is a book which challenges assumptions in a serious way. This is powerful stuff:
"Martin reminded himself that Penny didn't exactly leave him cold...Wasn't this sure to be increased...once they had touched, caressed, kissed...And yet again, he felt unaccountably frightened."