Matthew Cookson is impressed with Ross Raisin’s novel about a shipyard worker widowed by asbestos
Contemporary British novelists have a problem with today’s working class.
Coming mostly from middle and ruling class backgrounds, they’re mostly concerned with the atomisation and alienation of the well-off.
When they do attempt to depict working class people, they usually fall into offensive and patronising stereotypes. The recent novel Lionel Asbo: State of England by venomous reactionary Martin Amis is an example.
So it’s a surprise and a relief to read Waterline by Ross Raisin. The book sympathises with the life and struggles of working people.
One of the most admirable achievements of this sad, beautiful novel is the way it captures the authentic voice of its protagonist Mick Little.
Waterline opens shortly after the funeral of Mick’s wife Cathy. She was the lifeblood of his existence, and has died of an illness caused by asbestos.
Mick used to work on the shipyards of the Clyde, taking pride in what his labour produced and his involvement in a number of fights against the bosses, including the 1971-2 work-in.
But Cathy’s death is a consequence of his work. The Clyde shipyard workers were exposed to asbestos—many of them and their families died from related diseases.
Mick, like many other Clyde workers, went home with the substance covering his work-clothes. Cathy’s absence, and the guilt that she has died and not him, lead Mick to lose all control over his life.
He is angry at the “lying bastard” managers because “they knew long before anybody else what the dangers were, but they did nothing. Nothing.”
But this anger does not lead to any positive action. Mick cannot bear to sleep in his home any more as it reminds him too much of her. He takes to sleeping in the garden shed.
Unable to get his job back at the taxi firm he was working at, and afraid to see the people he and his wife knew, he tries to leave everything behind by taking a coach from Glasgow to London.
Initially he gets a job in a hotel near Heathrow washing dishes, where he can lose himself in hard work.
But after getting involved in a dispute between the mainly migrant workers and their employers, which reminds him of the struggles on the Clyde, he is fired. Unable to get another job and with no money to support himself, he is soon living on the streets of a harsh capital.
Waterline is a difficult and painful read, but a rewarding one. Raisin creates a believable character whose uncontrollable grief leads to terrible consequences. The novel is mostly told through Mick’s inner monologue, capturing the language of a Glaswegian worker.
He evokes class struggle to describe the changing face of Glasgow—describing the “multi” tower blocks that “stand solid in a row like a picket line, looking down over the red tenement streets filing toward the Clyde.”
Waterline is wonderfully written and its success shows that it is possible to write sympathetic and engaging portrayals of working class people. If only there were more novelists like Ross Raisin working today.
Waterline by Ross Raisin is out now in paperback