Book Review

Drunken Baker by Barney Farmer

the bottle salves but doesn't heal

I have been to Liverpool three times in my life. Once was in the Winter of 2014 (during what I suppose would count as my previous “happiest” phase); the second time was in the Summer of 2017 (when too depressed to really do or enjoy anything); and the third time was last week.

The first occasion I arrived in Liverpool I walked in, rather than arrive by train. I had hiked there over two days along the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, exploring post-industrial England and bonding with my friend Darren J. Coles, who is half of a comedy sketch group who have been on the radio and is also Welsh. Darren and I had a lovely time, sleeping for a night in Warrington and exploring the museums, bars and sights of Liverpool the day after we finished our botched attempt at psychogeography: “botched” because if you don’t make “art” about it – we didn’t – it’s just a walk.

My second visit to Liverpool was pretty much the first time I spent unsupervised after my suicidal mental collapse last Summer. I was there for an event I had been excited about for months, in the rare moments back then when I felt like it was ever worth me being excited about anything. It was an academic conference about the work of Malcolm Lowry hosted by Liverpool John Moores University and the Bluecoat contemporary art gallery, and on the free evening I had the night before the conference began I serendipitously found Barney Farmer doing a live event. I attended and enjoyed it (as much as I could enjoy anything at that time), and started following Farmer on Twitter, which was how I heard about his book and where it was being sold irl.

Last week I was in Liverpool visiting some friends, but I went out of my way to buy a copy of Barney Farmer’s new novel, Drunken Baker, in the trendy little record shop that’s attached to the Bluecoat. I bought it, I read it, I thought about it, I wrote the following while on the train home:

I like a drink. I like a drink maybe a bit too much, but maybe not quite as much as I used to worry that I maybe do. I don’t drink every day and I don’t pass out every time I drink, not any more. But this novel about alcoholism and loneliness definitely resonated with me in a way I didn’t like.

For those of you not familiar with the British humour magazine Viz, Drunken Bakers is a long-running comic strip about the bleak lives of two destructively alcoholic bakers, for which Barney Farmer is the lead writer. Farmer began publishing blog posts as prose explorations of one of his cartoon bakers a couple of years ago, and Drunken Baker (notice the dropped “s”) is the result of his experiments with this more traditional literary form. His prose, however, isn’t traditionally realist, but certainly owes a bit to modernism, and in some ways the language and structure of this stream of consciousness novel almost reads like poetry on the page. There are many short paragraphs and unexpected line breaks, occasional rhyming couplets and shifts and slips in time that convey, quite accurately (in my experience) the psychological blanks, rapid circling loss of immediate memory and morose nostalgia (though is not all nostalgia morose?) common to the over alcoholed brain.

The “plot” of the novel is uncomplex, but the portrait of a life and, really, a town, is sketched appropriately and engagingly. The baker wakes up in the dark, wanders to work, he and his colleague get steadily drunker, egging each other on through mutual addictive need, they attempt to make bread and cakes using their traditional recipes, but fight against their own intoxication and the crumbling state of their business – broken fridge, broken equipment, stopped clocks, no stock – and end up with failed products almost (but not quite) every time.

The baker remembers his failed marriage, how the baking business thrived before local factories shut down and Greggs and budget supermarkets opened to cater for the needs of those who remained; he thinks about his child, who he hasn’t seen in decades; he recalls Alice and “the gaffer”, the couple who ran the bakery before he bought them out and failed to keep it running properly.

He and his business partner – mostly referred to as “the cunt” – swap memories and recipes, compare opinions on super strong booze and which black market moonshine or booze cruise bargains they can get hold of. They discuss – on the one day Drunken Baker is set (like its fellow modernist masterpieces Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses) – pubs that have closed down, family members who have died, businesses and friendships that no longer exist, illness and physical, industrial and emotional decline.

The world depicted in this novel is very much ours, postindustrial like the vacant ship canal and depressive like much of my life. With nothing to look forward to, the bottle salves, but doesn’t heal. Even though there is much puerile, dark humour, this is a mature text about community and personal erasure following the deindustrialisation of the UK, and it is rare to find such a bleak exploration of suicidal, alcoholic, middle aged working class England that doesn’t resort to lazy stereotyping, i.e. a lack of sympathy. These people with nothing are destroying only themselves, the anger and hatred is turned inwards, not outwards, and that quiet internal hole of horror is self-perpetuating. To repeat: Alcohol salves, but it doesn’t heal. This isn’t a text about right wing radicalisation or about blaming the elites or denying the autonomy of an individual in their own decline. Yes, forces outside of the baker’s control have destroyed the local economy, but he was drinking before that happened anyway.

Farmer’s novel is descriptive and poetic and unjudgmental, it explores a sad existence within a crumbling society, and I suppose ultimately that is what societal collapse is, innit, millions and millions of tiny sad lives getting smaller and smaller and more and more alone.

Very much worth a read, if you’re at all intrigued.

Drunken Baker is published by Wrecking Ball Press, buy direct via this link.


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3 comments on “Drunken Baker by Barney Farmer

  1. Pingback: The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Triumph of the Now

  2. It sounds right up my street

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Scott Manley Hadley’s More Triumphant 2018 – Triumph Of The Now

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