The Way You Tell Them is subtitled A Yarn for the Nineties, and there you have it: this is a futuristic novel (poet Alan Brownjohn’s first) about alternative comedy. It is nice to know that everybody worries about global warming, or whether Gorby can hang on, or the prospect of a fourth term for Mrs Thatcher; and though Brownjohn’s choice of subject matter might strike you as marginal, at least you must admit that nobody has beaten him to it.
This book is set at the end of our new decade, in a gloomy and ruinous London reminiscent of the city Ian McEwan described in A Child In Time. Brownjohn, in fact, wears the same clothes for this novel that McEwan put on for his, a sci-fi writer’s hat and sensible shoes. Nobody zips around in hoverbubbles or talks Esperanto; instead, Brownjohn takes some of the more unfortunate aspects of modern London-beggars, traffic jams, satellite TV stations – and exaggerates them slightly so that we are shown a city which is at once recognisable and alien. The author is also at pains to point out that everyone is wearing a Walkman, indicative, I fear, of the Soullessness etc of Modern Life. Why have portable stereos become such a central feature in the demonology of the literati? The implication seems to be that before their invention, the tube train was a kind of mobile forum for debate and the exchange of ideas, but that’s certainly not the way I remember the Piccadilly Line.