Category Archives: New books

Screaming and swearing all the way to the book shop

Swear Down“Scream If You Want To Go Faster” was Russ Litten’s first novel, and maybe that’s what I should have done. It took me ages to read, and then far too long again to write a review.

Which isn’t to say there’s a problem with the book. It’s a belter. But real life gets in the way. Necessity dictated reading a bit, putting it down, going back again and eventually wrapping it up after about four months.

You can get away with dipping in and out of a book every now and then for a few months if it’s a dictionary, immaculately organised, everything precisely where it should be and the only surprises the handful of new words from the ever-evolving teenage and techno lexicons.

But where the dictionary is the walking bus to school, hop on and off wherever you fancy and you’ll still get there in the end, pausing Litten’s work is like trying a handbrake turn on a bullet train. It’s a lightning bolt, a riot, closer to Guy Fawkes Night than to the Hull Fair setting which provides the backdrop. A hand grenade tossed carelessly – or, more probably, deliberately – into a box of sparklers.

The shifts between characters and locations provide a real test of concentration as Litten leaps from fairground bust-ups, to gripping urban taxi rides and the eerie activities of a manipulative and cynical clairvoyant.

It’s like extreme jigsaw puzzle-making, but not all of the pictures are pretty and you soon find yourself wondering whether all the bits will be there in the end. The pace is such that “Scream” is best read in one session, and that was the challenge I set myself with his latest work, “Swear Down.”

It took two sessions, which I count as a huge success and as a promise kept to the author. I found the same, page-turning qualities as “Scream”, story lines which are cleaner and easier to follow, enough profanities to remove it from grandma’s Christmas list options and to perhaps prompt a rethink of the title to “Swear Loads”, but that merely reflects the subject and the setting. Yet the author reveals that swearing is actually down compared with his previous work.

Having written “Scream” about an environment, population and culture which he knows so well, Litten has ventured further afield for a second novel which is unconnected with the first in any meaningful way.

Hull was at the heart of “Scream”, the place, the people and the folklore, from Hull Fair lighting up the cityscape to the floods of 2007, their inclusion in Litten’s book and thereby in the art and culture portfolio further cementing their place in history.

In “Swear Down” Hull is something of a sub-plot, a bolt-hole for the two murder suspects. London coppers would never dream of looking for them in unfashionable Hull.

Litten knows the bars and back streets of Hull with the familiarity of someone who was born and brought up here but who has also explored the place with the excited enthusiasm of a tourist and the determination and attention to detail of a tax man.

While London’s sprawling, menacing tower block estates may be a different world, his scene-setting is strong enough to suggest similarly copious research into locations and lifestyles, citizens and stereotypes, distant dreams and brutal realities.

“Swear Down” feels for all the world like a four-part pilot to launch the career of a new TV detective whose style, manner, challenges and techniques not to mention his relationships in and out of work are an easy fit for prime time.

But I need to read it again because while this is more of a “Who Didn’t Do It?” than “Whodunnit?” in reality there’s little difference; within a couple of days I honestly couldn’t remember who had struck the fatal blow.

Not that it matters a great deal because both suspects clearly wished they had killed the small-time gangster who was terrorising the community. Both had motive and opportunity, and the lack of real hope for the future that fuels a disregard for the consequences of their actions.

There’s the young lad from London who is bright, respectable and has a plan to escape from the local gangland and join his dad in the Caribbean. And the old boy from Hull who has been there, done it, sailed round the world, survived countless scrapes, offered more dubious advice than the young man could ever be interested in. Or maybe all both of them ever had were dreams.

“Swear Down” is a compelling story, building tension and unleashing terror in action-packed but also occasionally hilarious fashion – a no-holds-barred scrap in the kitchen of an East London diner unfolds in the comedic style of Minder, Only Fools and Horses, Pulp Fiction.

But the undercurrent is one of unease as Litten looks into the perceived worthlessness of young life and the desperation of people to cling to dreams of a distant wonderland rather than face up to the distressing downward spiral of the here and now reality.

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Filed under By Phil Ascough, Drama, Hull, New books, Uncategorized

Kissing The Badge – a story of passion beyond the Premier League

Originally published on skillful, stylish, likes-a-pint football website The Two Unfortunates

As pointed out by Lanterne Rouge in his fine and much appreciated review – http://bit.ly/vvOMvT – of my book, Kissing The Badge, there are enough former Premier League clubs currently scattered around the Football League to give the competition – and my publication – wider relevance.

That was certainly part of my thinking as I pitched the idea to the publisher. There are 20 clubs in the Premier League and 25 former members at various levels of the three lower divisions – or 26 given the origins of MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon.

So while it’s a celebration of the Premier League as we approach the 20th season, Kissing The Badge also recognises that some of the most interesting stories are around clubs who haven’t been at the top for years, and will probably never return.

It covers some of the magical moments of the last 19 seasons but also pauses for reflection on some of the excesses. I still believe that every fan wants to see their team make it to the Premier League, if only because that is the logical conclusion of wanting your team to win every game they play.

But at the same time I believe those fans who would celebrate the ultimate promotion in the wildest fashion also take a more measured view – that if they have to stay a bit longer in the Championship at least the club may be more financially secure.

That was the view last season among many of my fellow Hull City supporters. They wouldn’t swap the memories of a Wembley win and two Premier League seasons for anything, but they had no qualms about missing out on the play-offs if a period of consolidation would allow time to put the finances in order.

The worry now though is that the money madness is spreading, with the sort of imbalance previously confined to the Premier League now seeping into the Championship.

In theory that might not be a bad thing if Championship teams are better able to challenge those relegated from the top flight, but ultimately if we find ourselves with 30 or so well-funded clubs someone will come along with a plan for Premier Two, and where will that leave the Scunthorpes and Peterboroughs?

This appreciation of the need for football to provide a route to stardom for so-called unfashionable clubs was part of the project’s appeal when it came to putting together Kissing The Badge – written by a Hull City fan, published by a Watford fan, illustrated by a Cambridge United fan.

I can’t speak for my colleagues on the project but I’m only too aware that during the club’s recent history Hull City have had more in common with the likes of York City and Mansfield Town than with Arsenal and Chelsea. Or even Bolton and Fulham.

Another relegation – which was very much on the cards for the first two months of last season – would take City another step closer to the level at which they suffered humbling home defeats against the likes of Luton Town and Lincoln City.

So it was a pleasure to look once again at the dizzying achievements of Swindon Town, promoted into the second Premier League season, Oldham Athletic, defying gravity at the end of the first season, and Bradford City, final day survivors in their first season. And a few more. The Premier League – and Kissing The Badge – would be poorer without them.

And it threw the interviewer in a recent chat on Radio London. Asked which Premier League players I thought might make the grade as managers I had to reply that I didn’t really know because I’d spent most of the last 20 years watching Hull City.

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Filed under By Phil Ascough, Football, Football League, Hull, Media, New books, Premier League, Two Unfortunates, Uncategorized

Litten’s disturbing debut is something to shout about at Humber Mouth festival

Russ Litten at work.

I don’t do the white-knuckle rides at Hull Fair. In the past because I’m a self-confessed wimp. Unashamed scaredy-cat. And from now on because I don’t need to. I’ve had that adrenaline rush courtesy of Russ Litten.
“Scream If You Want To Go Faster,” he urges. Er… no thanks. Litten’s pace is plenty.
In fact it’s too fast for me. Much as I love a good book, real-life gets in the way. Necessity dictated reading a bit, putting it down, going back again and eventually wrapping it up after about four months.
And that was a while back, because it’s also taken me too long to get round to writing Russ this oft-promised assessment. I make a special effort to do it now because there’s no football on telly and to mark the beginning of Humber Mouth, a literature festival that will hopefully encourage the emergence of a few more Russ Littens.
Robert Crampton, Hull-born columnist for The Times, touched on the problem when he spoke to launch Humber Mouth. His mates down south and elsewhere find it too easy to poke fun at Hull, mocking the city’s cultural status as being limited to a few sea shanties and the Beautiful South – although without quite grasping the deliberate irony in the band’s name.
And over the weekend the wife and kids did a car boot sale. All the books came back unsold. Even the ones with lots of pictures in.
But back to “Scream If You Want To Go Faster.” You can get away with dipping in and out of a book every now and then for a few months if it’s a dictionary, immaculately organised, everything precisely where it should be and the only surprises the handful of new words from the ever-evolving teenage and techno lexicons.
But where the dictionary is the walking bus to school, hop on and off wherever you fancy and you’ll still get there in the end, pausing Litten’s work is like trying a handbrake turn on a bullet train. It’s a lightning bolt, a riot, closer to Guy Fawkes Night than to the Hull Fair setting which provides the backdrop. A hand grenade tossed carelessly – or, more probably, deliberately – into a box of sparklers.
The pace is such that “Scream” is best read in one session. The shifts between characters and locations provide a real test of concentration as Litten leaps from fairground bust-ups, to gripping urban taxi rides and the eerie activities of a manipulative and cynical clairvoyant.
It’s like doing a jigsaw but not all of the pictures are pretty and you soon find yourself wondering whether all the bits will be there in the end.
Having lived in the Hull area for so long, come to know its people, places, qualities and quirks it’s hard for me to say whether familiarity makes understanding “Scream” any easier.
But I like to think that whether you come from Glasgow of Gloucester, Hull or Hemel Hempstead, the chances are there’s a place near you where people are enduring similar experiences.
The vulnerable widow tiptoeing through the process of rebuilding her life with online lonely hearts clubs, the warehouseman who gets into his glad rags and make-up for cross-dressing weekends on the town, the care worker haunted by the violent and mysterious holiday death of her sister, the supermarket bouncer at the end of his tether with thieving and abuse from scumbag customers.
And that’s just a snapshot of the people Litten has researched painstakingly, capturing the detail of lives, ambitions and self-esteem so limited as to be changed significantly, however temporarily, by a smile or a kind word, a shot of potent liquor or a stash of something stronger.
Litten knits their experiences together creatively. It’s not contrived because round here, as in other places, you suspect you’re only one or two people away from knowing everyone in town, like some huge real-life, warts and all Linked In.
And it makes a story because not enough folk are aware or honest enough about the challenges facing normal people, or even of the definition of normal people.
After “Scream,” you find yourself looking twice at people on the bus as you ride through Litten’s heartland, pondering what sort of emotional burden they might be carrying, hoping they’re having one of their good days and aren’t about to crack up under the strain of whatever dark secret sits on their shoulder.
“Scream” is written in the vernacular, which adds to its credibility by recreating the precise tone and the character of each person telling their individual story. For the same reason it is often grammatically wayward and packed with the language of the street and the factory floor. But that’s essential in a work that is part a product of Litten’s inspiration and imagination and part the outcome of his thorough research, part fiction but also close to a documentary about people who know they can have a better life but just don’t know how.
So “Scream” is contradictory, funny, tragic, vivid, dramatic, perceptive, disturbing, sinister. And that adds up to a lot of entertainment for a paperback priced at £11.99 that you can probably now pick up for rather less given how long it’s taken me to get round to writing this.
Russ Litten is currently working on his second novel. I have no idea what it’s about but I expect more of the same – a thrilling, fast-paced, under-the-skin account of something urban and earthy that he’s researched meticulously. I can’t wait, and when it comes out I promise to set aside some time to read it properly.
Meanwhile get hold of “Scream If You Want To Go Faster.”

Get it here: http://amzn.to/fqnkt0

And check out what Humber Mouth has to offer here: http://bit.ly/llZxoB

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Filed under By Phil Ascough, Hull, Humber Mouth, Literature, Media, New books, Uncategorized