Reviews of Taking Doreen out of the Sky.
Nicholas Royle, Time Out, October 8-15th, 1997.
Published by the Birmingham based writers group of which he is a member, Alan Beard's first collection of stories is superb and, with no disrespect to TSFG, deserves to sail under the flag of, say, Faber, Picador or Quartet. Beard's documents of working-class mores and ordinary people's lives are as absorbing and insightful as those of Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow. Which is not to suggest he's old-fashioned; his approach combines an often startling desire for stylistic experimentation with an honest commitment to the issues of the day - dependence on drugs or booze is examined with the same unsentimental eye he turns on a weakness for incest or adultery. Typically, Beard's protagonist or narrator has just taken up smoking again and is cheating on someone or being turned over himself.
Most of the stories previously appeared in literary magazines. Interestingly, however, some of the best work is original to the collection, for example 'Cheer Up Lucky Lips Forever', a wonderfully authentic account of a train diversion which takes a bored narrator past the cutting where he and his mates used to smoke roll-ups, look at dirty pictures and torment a local girl, Blob, who was in love with the narrator.
Beard's feelings towards Birmingham seem similar to those of fellow group member Joel Lane, another emiinence grise of that greyly eminent city - a beguiling mixture of baffling affection and entirely reasonable despair. Any decent bookshop will be able to order you a copy if they don't already stock it.
Harry Ritchie, The Times, October 4th, 1997
One of a dozen writers who meet in a school in Tindal Street in Balsall Heath, Alan Beard proves to be an accomplished and deft practitioner who creates vignettes rather than traditional short stories, but these are vignettes rich in detail and implication. Most of Beard's characters and scenarios belong to the Midlands and mid-life - a gay son attending his ageing mother's grim second wedding, a divorcee reflecting on his first love, a computer programmer indulging in a selfish, doomed affair. Beard's style is mostly simple and controlled but regularly enlivened by inspired touches - a young salesman is said to have his future 'planned like a picnic', a view of countryside through a five-bar gate is 'like opening an Enid Blyton'. This is a truly fine collection.
Mike Parker, What's On, October 4-17th, 1997
It's hard to describe the effect of reading these short stories by Birmingham-based Beard. They are deceptive in their simplicity, the ordinariness of both language and subject, deceptive in their unassuming power. This power creeps up on the reader unannounced, seizing the head and heart in a cumulative effect as you progress.
It's the stuff of everyday that Beard illuminates so sharply. His backdrop is the West Midlands in all its contradictory, post-industrial, shambolic facets. His protagonists largely inhabit the post-war estates tacked on to fields at the city's edge or imposed on the old industrial core. Their quest is for stolen snatches of happiness or, failing that, enough drink, dope, glue or sex to dissipate the unbearable heaviness of time drifting aimlessly by. If this makes it sound unremittingly bleak, then think again, for Beard accentuates the punchy humour, the ingenuity and the comradeship of those increasingly abandoned in our ragged, post-modern landscape. Ambition looms large in many of the tales, but it's an ambition to escape the dull clutches of poverty any which way, none more so than in the electrifying title story which refers to the aspiration of moving back to the ground, reacquainting with the earth from being up with the birds in a sixties tower block.
The understatedness of Beard's language and narrative technique perfectly complement his subject matter. It's like having a low, insistent voice at your ear, that never slips into melodrama or hyperbole, and which consequently makes its point so much more thoroughly. It's a very Brummie way of expression: laconic, low-key and laced with good-natured irony. Few writers have managed to convey this city both in subject and language with any great measure of success. Beard is doing just that, and it's to be hoped that there's more - a novel perhaps - to come.
Chris Morgan, Raw Edge Magazine, Autumn/Winter 1997-98
This first collection by one of Birmingham's best writers of short fiction is a major event. Beard writes mainly about Birmingham in the 80s and 90s, setting his slices of life amongst working class characters with universal problems. These are literary stories. full of wonderful insights and familiar details; none are highly plotted with neatly tied-up endings. As a reader you get the feeling that these are all episodes from some great saga of real life, which keeps on going down the years. But Beard never does return to his characters: after ten or twenty pages of illuminating their crises and mistakes - the worker made redundant, the teenager sniffing glue, the young husband having an affair - he stops and moves on to other characters. leaving you caring sufficiently about them to want to know how things turn out.
In the award winning title story, the protagonist is made redundant without notice when a factory closes. He makes his way home slowly with this news, his dreams of getting his wife and young son out of their high rise flat and into a house with a garden evaporating. It's a simple and fairly common situation, sensitively handled, with no quick-fix solutions.
'Cheer Up Lucky Lips Forever' is a clever piece of nostalgia. A businessman's train is held up close to where he lived as a boy, forcing him to recall flashes of his childhood - friends, gangs, a first sex experience. With scenes of then and now, twenty years apart, sharply intercut, this is the only one of the thirteen stories not previously published.
Not only are parts of Birmingham reflected in these stories, but the period is caught and pinned through popular music and political events. Nowhere is this more effectively done than in 'Dad, Mum, Paula and Tom', which covers ten years of Thatcher and Major governments and protest marches, all briefly encapsulated to counterpoint the disintegration of a family.
While Beard finds plenty of original metaphors and similies with which to season his writing, he seems to be striving for a colloquial style. This is partly for reasons of verisimilitude, because all except two of these stories are told in the first person, but it also seems to be Beard's own voice, an anti-literary approach. The gritty realism and anti-melodramatic stance are helped along by his laid back sentence structure, in which he eschews colons and semi-colons (even when they would aid syntax and understanding) but slips in all sorts of fascinating details between pairs of commas.
So these are entertaining chronicles of working class tribulations, with some dry humour, each story cut back to the bare minimum of words necesarry to make its point. What a shame Beard is such a confirmed miniaturist; a novel or TV play based on one of these families might well bring his name to the attention of a wider public, as he deserves.
Times Literary Supplement, 14th November 1997
When Raymond Carver was starting out as a writer, he had a moment of revelation. It happened - this being Carver - in a laundromat in Iowa City. He was waiting for a tumble dryer to finish its cycle. When it did, the woman whose clothes were in it discovered they were not yet dry and inserted two more dimes: 'I realised then my life was always going to be a small change thing', wrote Carver, ' Far removed from the lives of writers I admired.' Alan Beard - whose flat cadences and barely recognisable ironies owe something to Carver - has also, it seems, come to that conclusion. And. like the American writer, he is attempting to do a difficult thing: take the mundane detail of ordinary life in a contemporary city and invest it with universal currency. For the most part, in Taking Doreen Out of the Sky, his first collection of stories. he succeeds. Beard's subject is Birmingham. His protagonists are the Denises and Doreens, Brians and Barrys who inhabit the second city's cul-de-sacs and closes; their concerns are the neighbours and the kids, the job and the football. Unlike many fictional accounts of modern urban life, Beard's stories avoid cartoon terrors and verbal trickery, and instead rely for their effects on honest observation and sharp declarative sentences. By these means, in the best of them - Come See About Me, in which the middle aged narrator's two stolen kisses with his friend's sister come to seem the one moment of happiness in his life, or in the title story, a tentative meditation on job loss and marital security - he achieves a startling poignancy. This sense is heightened by the author's understanding of the peculiar insecurity of Brummie life: it's patient, heartfelt belief in its own insignificance. In Saturday in the Sac, a story about a riot among the pebble-dash semis, Beard captures this sentiment exactly: '"Look, " I say to Denise. I'm seeing what I never thought I would see. Live TV pictures from our corner.'
Trevor Lewis, Sunday Times, November 16th 1997
.....equally luminous is Alan Beard's Taking Doreen Out of the Sky, a portrait of the Black Country. Working-class subsistence is viewed in all its Formica-clad ordinariness, an overcast but brightly evocative milieu of dilapidated council estates, boil-in-the-bag curries and monotonous evenings spent watching television. Down the social club, girls dance 'on chip-fed legs', depressingly cheap drugs make the hours go quicker, cheaply depressing sex is over in a flash. Violence, too, looms large, edged with vicious comedy. A man is mugged by two men called Fred and Barney. 'Yabadabadoo', says Fred, before putting the boot in. The vision is as pungent as they come and Beard's words, scoured of sentimentality, and spat as often as they are spoken, create a terse immediacy.
Digby Durrant, London Magazine, February/March 1998
Alan Beard’s first collection of stories is set in Birmingham during the hard days of the eighties when its disillusioned citizens, once proud of the Rotunda and the Bull Ring, had come to hate the buildings for reminding them of better days before the message ‘You Are Now Entering a Job Free Zone’ greeted them at the local railway station. The men drink, smoke, grab a bit of skirt at the back of pubs among the drains and dustbins and the wife of one speaks for many when she calls her husband ‘a dust-collecting object.’ The kids sniff glue while their parents try for more babies to force the council to move them from the hell of
a high-rise building. The book’s title story, Taking Doreen Out of the Sky, first published by the L.M. in 1985, is about a man whose earnings will soon be enough for him to move his wife and family out of one of these cells when he’s sacked without warning. A sad ending to a small ambition but even so the title strikes a bouyant note which marks all these stories of people trapped in poverty and idleness who refuse to give way to despair, making the most of the few pleasures and events that come their way. In Saturday in the Sac a couple celebrate the absence of their children by having a lazy breakfast of coffee and cigarettes in bed. ‘I’ll bring the ashtray up’ shouts the man as if he were clutching a bottle of champagne. They lie there delightedly blowing smoke, talking about their childhoods, making love, while outside kids start to dismantle a deserted house. Later a bonfire is built with bits torn from the house and as the flames leap higher the crowd cheer and laugh as if they are at a fireworks party. A helicopter whirls above, police and firemen swarm, cameras roll. A man turns from his front door and points to his television. ‘Look.’ I’m seeing what I never thought I would see. Live TV pictures from our corner.’
All but two of these stories are written in the first person which adds to their immediacy and vividness with moments caught on the wing and pinned down in fresh and original images ‘ …her legs flashed like skinned sticks in the forest of the muffled up crowd,’ ‘the scene’s as bright as a cornflake ad, and I turn to nibble at your cheek like fish against glass,’ ‘disappointment… like tea leaves on the tongue.’ Beard has discovered through reliving his experiences in his writing how simply to look about you is one of life’s most pleasurable consolations.
In 1983 Beard along with five other men and six women founded the Tindal Street Fiction Group who, helped by the Arts Council and the lottery, are to be congratulated for publishing these stories which, surprisingly, had not been collected before by a perceptive publisher.
Katy Ross, Literary Review, February 1998.
Alan Beard’s stories conjure up a disturbing world of sex, drugs and violence. They are interspersed with moments of humour and compassion in what would otherwise be an unremittingly bleak background: that of factories, pubs and council flats of the West Midlands. It is a world of shattered dreams where the only entertainment is football, sex and cheap drugs. The characters struggle to come to terms with each new setback: redundancy, the breakdown of a marriage, the loss of a loved one. The lives are fragmented with tragedy and yet they survive with a surprising resilience to offer a poignant and unsettling vision of life in the back streets of Birmingham.
In 1999 the Picador edition of 'Doreen' came out and there were several new reviews:
A Picador leaflet given out for National Book Day 1999.
My book 'Taking Doreen out of the Sky' was one of twenty given to librarians who read and commented: 'Each story is a little gem, I carried the book around intending to read a story over a cup of tea or in a five minute break - but it was impossible to stop at just one. "King" is perhaps one of the most moving pieces of fiction I've read and conveys more in 6 pages than many novels.' another: 'The stories were all so different - but all were funny, sharp and deeply affecting.' and 'Downbeat but not depressing'.
Sunday Times (a second ST review. Reviewer: JB)
There is little that can help Doreen now that her husband has lost his job in a factory. She was hoping to escape the area but without the money he was earning the couple and their child can go nowhere. Their lives are as unpredictable as those of the rest of the cast of characters Beard brings to life in his assortment of short stories that combine to make a compelling read. The choice of setting may appear dull - a West Midlands factory, even a Post Office sorting room - but mundane tales they are not. Beard has an artist's eye and an original turn of phrase.
Independent, 13th March 1999
A WRITER of the kind of short stories tailor-made for Radio 4: Alan Beard's tales of West Midland folk are comic, sad and quietly downbeat. Hedged in by boring jobs and tatty homes, his characters take refuge in nostalgia and sex, and, failing that, the odd urban riot. Particularly good on worn-out marriages, Beard's best stories include "Dad, Mum, Paula and Tom", about a son who catches his dad sleeping with his brother's girlfriend (while his mum explores the Internet), and "Country Life", in which an expectant father takes refuge from reality in the arms of a blonde from work.
Metro (London) 29th March 1999
These bittersweet stories of affairs going wrong, bad drugs and fathers getting old have not an ounce of sentiment in them. Beard's hard edged prose is viciously simple in its description of the chaos lurking behind every net curtain. His work has been broadcast on Radio 4 and appeared in numerous magazines. Like the best dirty realism, the dramas here lie not in big things but in little ones; these are black and white snapshots of suburban lives silently breaking up.
The Big Issue
AB's collection reads like a photo album; a collection of snatched moments from ordinary lives. By picking unusual moments Beard shows the ordinariness of his characters lives: aimless but happy, and entirely self contained. The worker at the closed down factory who is asked by his wife why he has lost his job and replies, "What's it say in the paper?" or the father who skirts a riot only to see 'live TV pictures from our corner'. Passive participants, yet fascinating.