‘This is a story about politics,’ writes Philip Hensher near the beginning of his engaging eleventh novel, ‘and how some people are drawn to the political life.’ The political awakening of his narrator, sixteen-year-old Spike, happens in 1982, at a comprehensive school in a northern provincial city (the city is never named, though from the clues provided we can deduce that it is Sheffield, where Hensher grew up). Fellow pupil Percy Ogden stands up in assembly and asks a visiting army major some awkward questions about the value of the military. Spike, impressed by this challenging of the Establishment, joins Ogden’s gang of outcasts, which includes James Frinton, ‘the boy no one would sit with because of his dirt’.
They are a ragtag bunch whose beliefs, though hard to pin down, are very much on the left of the political spectrum. One calls himself a ‘classical Marxist’ whereas others are ‘anarcho-syndicalists’. Hensher brilliantly captures the mix of naivety, earnestness and pretentiousness of teenagers struggling to form identities. Their