Book Review

Never Seen The Sea by Holly Watson

i experience the plot of keep the aspidistra flying while reading and in retrospect for my childhood

cw: classism

Have you – I’m sure you have, but if you haven’t by now (2023 CE) don’t bother – read Eton toff and police informer George Orwell’s best novel, Keep The Aspidistra Flying?

Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise, right?

Using the now widely understood idea of “class” meaning “culture” (rather than “class” meaning “material economic position within a capitalistic society“), Orwell’s novel is about a lower middle class guy who, bored of his tiresome life of behaving responsibly, saving money, budgeting, reading books, keeping his aspidistras (aspidistre?) flying, decides to embrace this Etonian police informer’s idea of “working class” culture, i.e. actually doing things that are fun and are enjoyable sometimes, instead of, always, 24/7, “doing the right thing”.

Although Orwell’s novel is in many ways pretty dated – and it was written by an Etonian police informer so doesn’t need to remain in print because cunts already get the money and the power, they shouldn’t get the canon, too – there remains in it something familiar and resonant to English people and our unnuanced experiences of class, in that it remains a stereotype that “lower middle class” people embrace misery, while “working class people”, even with the same amount of money – or sometimes, often (?), more (which is right as skilled physical labour fucking should be more remunerated than skilless acts of admin) – seek pleasure in everything they do, raging against material constraints with an earthier, mellorsier, baser physicality.

I grew up where there was no money, but there was also no fun. No hedonism, no decadence, no affairs, no drunkenness, no package holidays, no cigarettes, no discos: to repeat, no fun.

Reading Never Seen The Sea by Holly Watson (who previously, I believe, published as The Coventry Conch) is like taking a trip through that same journey Orwell fantasises about in that novel, but for my own childhood.

I grew up around 15 miles away from where Never Seen The Sea is set, and at exactly the same time.

The pop culture references, the small businesses, the big new buildings, the structure of time and society was the same as I lived through. Watson looks back on that (the narrator is called Holly but, again, on we do not presume a book is autobiographical unless it explicitly says it is (now, apparently)) time with nostalgia, while I look back on it not at all.

The adults that populate Watson’s version of the West Midlands are doing far more living than the ones I encountered during my own woefully under-misspent childhood: people fuck, people do stupid things, people get wasted and people embarrass themselves. People don’t go around trying to seem “respectable” and thus end up not seeming like – and, I’d argue, not actually being – people at all.

Watson’s novelette is about school discos and school crushes, about meeting Goths and about being sick because you drank too many sugary drinks, about not understanding jokes adults make, about fancy dress (costume parties) and about the whole world seeming to exist even in one of the smallest, most provincial bits.

I escaped middle England scarred for life by its lovelessness, its bigotry, its schadenfreude, its cruelty, its tedium and its proud small-mindedness. Watson’s experience was very different to mine, which is weightily underscored by the author bio on the rear of the book stating that Watson now lives in Essex (!?), one of the few places even more English than the West Midlands.

The book is funny, full of warmth and affection, but warmth and affection towards and about a place and a time where I lived, very much without both.

I think it’s good, it’s certainly evocative and engaging and gag-packed, but, yeah-

Very much a bit of a journey through the “looking glass” (that’s Southern for “mirror”) for me, so it’s quite melancholic to be reminded that it was possible to be poor and provincial in the nineties and still have a good time!

Then again, maybe if I’d enjoyed the West Midlands back then I’d be living in Essex now, so it’s swings and roundabouts really, innit? We all must bear the scars of the way we lived before.

Order Never Seen The Sea direct from Open Pen.

Nb: for transparency, yes, I do have a long-running relationship with Open Pen, but I don’t personally know Holly Watson. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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