Before I begin, this is going to be a very emotional review and a very personal one. For those of you who know me in real life, you will know I am from Middlesbrough. I moved away for university and didn’t move back. When people ask me “Do you like Middlesbrough?” or “What do you think of Middlesbrough?” I struggle to give a clear answer. It’s not easy for me to travel home so I do have some nostalgia for the town but I listen to a lot of (and I mean playing the same several albums on repeat on my commute to work every day kind of a lot of) Maximo Park and that cures the homesickness. If my family didn’t live there, I would have no reason to visit the town. I have always felt like it is a place stuck in time, tucked away in the North East of England and forgotten about, and the town feels enclosed where the walls have ears and everyone knows everything about everybody. This is something I have struggled to explain to people who are not from Teesside and I didn’t think there was a way to let people know and understand that kind of environment.
That is, until I read Ironopolis by Glen James Brown. This book was recommended to me by my friend’s uncle (shout out to Pete) and author Kerry Hudson mentioned she had read it and reviewed it for The Guardian so instantly I ordered it into my bookshop. The novel is set on the fictional Burns Council Estate in Teesside and is composed of several interweaving story lines. The sections of the novel tell the stories of several different characters living on the estate. The Burns Council Estate threatens to be rejuvenated and the characters fear losing their homes and the community they have built up over decades.
What I cannot stress enough is how real the experiences are in this novel. I know of men like Vincent Barr. I have been to New Years’ Eve parties that are the same down to the playlist every single year. I am familiar with what it’s like to work on a council estate and the community feel of the customers who enter the shop. Brown has managed to bottle up life in Middlesbrough and pour it into his book and he has done a brilliant job. I was brought to tears by how complex and human the characters in Ironopolis are.
Each story is told in slightly different formats; for example, ‘Day of the Dark’ is told in epistolary form whereas ‘UXO’ is told in the form of an academic essay or article. As the novel progresses, characters mentioned in previous stories reappear and events overlap which creates a rich tapestry of life on the estate. This is done so tightly and pretty much to perfection. There is so much happening in this novel – whether it will be the personal stories of the characters, larger story arcs that span several stories or the political commentary on life in the North East – it is all brought together so perfectly and every detail in this book is important.
One thread that explicitly connects all the stories together is the presence of Peg Powler. When reading Ironopolis I thought “why does that name sound so familiar?” and after a quick internet search loads of childhood memories came flooding back. Peg Powler is a water spirit who in British folklore haunts the River Tees. If you misbehaved as a child, you would fear Peg Powler creeping through the pipes and snatching you while you were on the toilet. I remember when I was 10 years old there was an exhibition in the local museum about the River Tees and that was how I discovered Peg Powler. I was scared of the toilets at school because I thought she would be in there. Peg is mentioned by most of the characters in someway or another which highlights the shared identity of Teessiders. Whether the character is in Thornaby or Boro town centre, they all have a friend in Peg.
Brown does not shy away from politics – and rightly so. Drive up the A19 and the skyline greets you with steelworks and the Transporter Bridge. The steelworks are an unsettling spectre looming over Teesside as many steelworkers lost their jobs in 2015 when the majority of the steelworks closed down. Ironopolis spans over fifty years yet the threat of the closure of the steelworks is always present:
What ‘trade’ is there? Since I was a lass, the forges have been privatised, consolidated, chopped up, sold off. Why make steel here if it’s cheaper to ship from China? Everybody is being made redundant – tens of thousands of people. Whole communities. Ironopolis is falling. (pp.32-33)
Eventually, Ironopolis did fall. Knowing the fate of the steelworks makes for a difficult read as you know many of these characters will inevitably receive the same fate many people I know did in 2015.
The renovation of the estate and shops closing down is also a reality that many Teessiders have faced or witnessed. Every time I return to Middlesbrough something else has disappeared and not been replaced. Houses are demolished, families are forced to relocate and to sell their houses at a lesser price than what it is valued for. Businesses are lost. Communities are broken up. This is seen in so many areas of Middlesbrough (and across the country) and it is such an important issue to address in fiction. This is not made up to create a narrative; this is a harsh reality many people are forced to live with.
I read this with a pencil poised in my hand ready to highlight sentences. So much of this novel spoke to me and really got under my skin. I saw myself in Una when she said, ‘People think I’m the weird one for seeing this place for what it is’ (p.54) and how I was so desperate to leave. Most of all, I saw a mindset that I think really embodies Middlesbrough culture and it unsettled me. Early in the novel, Jean writes in a letter: ‘I dread he forgets there are other ways to view the world, so thinks the world around him is the only one there is’ (p.33). I have moved several times and I feel like I have grown as a person yet I return to Middlesbrough and I feel like nothing has changed. People get their haircut at the same place they have been going for twenty years, eat the same meals, watch the same TV shows. It feels very ritualistic. There may be some comfort in this but it also highlights how the town can feel like a bubble. This bubble is something that should be challenged as there is life beyond your front doorstep.
This review feels very self-centred; however, this book got such a personal response from me and moved me and that’s what I think great literature should do. This is a phenomenal piece of literature and is represents working-class communities so well. I was worried this would either be poverty porn or romanticise Middlesbrough in a way I think would not benefit the town. It did neither of those things. Ironopolis is raw, it is truthful, it perfectly captures community in Teesside and the power of it (both the good and the bad). This text should be celebrated for what it is doing for Middlesbrough in literature. Much like The Mighty Redcar, which broadcasted in 2018, Ironopolis is rewriting Middlesbrough’s legacy in the media. Forget being the worst place to live in 2008, or the worst place to be a girl in 2016, or being made fun of that one time Top Gear visited, lift up works like Ironopolis which represents the complex nature of Teesside and how it strives to rise from the ashes.
Up the Boro and all that.