To Walsall in the wet to hear Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera talk about his debut novel Marriage Material – set in Wolverhampton and the Black Country.
Its all somewhat surreal as a woman on the 529 bus from Wolverhampton to Walsall sits cuddling a piglet called Elmo but the talk at Walsall Central Library is well attended.
The book, Sathnam tells us, is inspired by Arnold Bennett’s classic 1908 novel The Old Wives Tale.
This was set in a drapers’ shop in Burslem, in what is now the city of Stoke-on-Trent, and tells the tale of two sisters from their days as youngsters in the shop with one staying put and the other eloping to a new life in Paris – but eventually coming back.
Marriage Material is also set in a shop – this time a Wolverhampton corner shop – and this time it is the story of the experiences of three generations of a family, their Bains Stores and the trials and tribulations that beset them – especially after Arjan Banga’s father dies suddenly in initially suspicious circumstances.
Bennett’s store is run by the Baines family and concern for the fate of small shops, so apparent today with Mary Queen of Shops Portas and her project to save them, is also a concern of Bennett – he feared that the advent of electric trams in the Potteries would herald the death of the small shop.
Ironically or even surrealistically I was back in Burslem, the town where I grew up, the day before where the Totally Local Burslem campaign was in full throttle to infuse life back into the shops and businesses hit by the collapse of the Pottery, coal and steel industries in earlier years and the kicking handed out by the finance sector induced bubble collapse from 2008.
Sathnam reflects back on the riots which hit Wolverhampton and other urban areas in 2011 and the tensions many years before after Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham and the campaign for Sikhs to be able to wear turbans while working on the bus services in 1968.
He told us: “All this material was in my head and I thought it would be good to link to it.
“The book deals with three generations of a family and particularly with a graphic designer who goes back to Wolverhampton.”
Although he claimed to have failed his own audition for his own audiobook, Sathnam read very well from the opening section of the book.
Here he deals with the most irritating questions facing the shopkeeper such as “Are you on the phone?” and “Do you have any bags?” And “Where are the eggs?” And “Why are you always on the phone?” And ‘Could I have a bag for the eggs when you’re of the phone?”
But there is one query that come up more often than any other: ‘Are you open?’ A pet irritation for may shop owners given that they probably wouldn’t choose to wake up at 4 a.m. seven days a week to stand in front of a fag stand unless they were actually trading.”
In the same way Bennett sets his novel in Bursley (a thin disguise for Burslem), Sathnam sets his novel in the Blakenfields (an amalgam of Blakenhall, Parkfields, Penn Fields) area of Wolverhampton and it is here that the father arrives in 1955.
“The small shop has been a symbol of Britain with Napoleon calling it a nation of small shopkeepers. Now it is a symbol of multi-culturalism,” he said. “But there have also been negative connotations with jokes such as the one about why Asians can’t play football – because every time they go to take a corner they want to open up a shop.”
Sathnam’s biography The Boy With The Topknot, A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton was a huge hit but he says he wrote the novel “to change the subject.”
“I am the narrator but it is fiction based on the Arnold Bennett book. The title came partly based on another book based in a drapers’ shop.”
He said that journalism was about asking questions but the best books “get you to think about life.”
“I did want to write about Wolverhampton and Enoch Powell and these issues. White people don’t like to talk about Enoch Powell but it is good to discuss these issues although he was incendiary and his speech was taken up by racists,” he added.
“Asians have developed the same prejudices as the resident population about Iraqis and East Europeans.”
Talking about his visits to India he said” “Indians used to be obsessed with the West but people in Mumbai are not interested any more. They are on their way to being the biggest city in the world.”
He says he did a lot of shop work to get an understanding of what the book is about and does not think the small shop will die – pointing out that this is the area most of the big supermarkets are now starting to work in.
The book is being transformed into a TV play but Sathnam says he is quite happy doing journalism – although he does have an idea about a book about a taxi driver.
He comes back quite often and says being based in London helped him see things as they are – perhaps in the same way Bennett writing about the Potteries from Paris or Geneva may have done.
“If you leave your home town and you see your friends at home you think about what would have happened if you had stayed,” he added.
Sathnam feels uneasy at being bracketed as an Asian writer rather than a Midlands writer and does not like the British Asian tag – to the point of saying he may not do Asian book panels any more because: “it can work against you or for you.”
It is a similar point made by Wolverhampton musician Tijinder Singh of – ironically – Cornershop, the indie rock band best known for their 1998 hit Brimful of Asha.
Cornershop are still going strong but he feels they were labelled and channelled with the advent of bespoke Asian radio stations and no longer thought of as mainstream or a band in the same way Sathnam is first and foremost a writer.
His journey to writing, he tells us, started after he was really good at maths wanted to be an accountant.
However, as a young Michael Jackson fan he was persuaded to enter a Radio 1 competition writing about saving the world with the prize being to go with Radio 1 to see Michael Jackson at the Superbowl.
He won and on his return was asked to write an article for the Wolverhampton Express & Star on the trip. That took him down the road to journalism and on.
Marriage Material was actually published days before my eldest daughter’s wedding and that and the aftermath have meant that I have not had the time to do anything about it. However, I was able to buy it at the event, signed as well, so now its just a matter of reading it.