Nowhere Near An Angel by Mark Morris
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
PS Publishing, Hornsea, 2005, 367pp, £25.00, h/b, ISBN 1-902880-99-4
This is Rob Swann's autobiography. More than just being a first person narrative the story plays out in the amiable, rambling manner of a bloke in a pub unspooling his life over a tape recorder and a pint. The memories are vivid but never before vocalised; instead they are examined as they spoken, leading Swann off down new paths: "But there I go again, veering off at a tangent, or even several. I ought to stick to straight lines, but the problem is, life isn't lived in straight lines." (p22)
Whilst Swann's delivery is amiable, his story is decidedly less so. The tone is set early on when he outlines a particularly vile episode of abuse meted out to him as a child by his father. By the time he has left school—thrown on the mid-Seventies unemployment scrap heap—he is on the verge of suicide. In an act of intervention that for Swann is semi-divine, the sound of The Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK' on the John Peel Show at the very instant he is about to kill himself stops him in his tracks. Suddenly his life is given purpose. He gets the first train to London.
What happens next is the best section of the novel. Morris perfectly captures a character caught between youth and adulthood, afraid of being rejected by the sub-culture he wishes to join. When Swann enters the 100 Club for the first time he is "fully expecting to be sent packing with my tail between my legs, accompanied by the contemptuous laughter of those around" (p70). In a brilliant detail he orders bitter at the bar because he is too embarrassed to order the coke he would prefer. However the punk section doesn't last too long before it morphs into something rather more unusual. This is a bit of a problem for the book: Swann's life is far too interesting. For punk to literarily save your life and for you to then be on the scene for its defining moments is one thing. To do this, then become drugged and enslaved by a bunch of psychosexual proto-goths before becoming a gangland enforcer is quite another. This is without even mentioning the complex revenge scheme that takes up the present day portion of the story. It's a risky business but what stops the book from becoming preposterous is Morris's firm grasp of Swann's voice.
There's another problem, though not one with the book itself. PS Publishing has a remit covering sf, fantasy, horror and crime/suspense; Vector does not. Nowhere Near An Angel is a dark thriller in the vein of Iain Banks' Complicity. In his introduction to the book Stephen Gallagher says "This book isn't, by any obvious definition, a horror novel, but I'd be willing to contend that it's the kind of novel only a born horror writer could have produced." That's debateable but it is certainly true that no definition used by the BSFA would encompass it. Still if a book like A Thread Of Grace by Mary Doria Russell can get reviewed in these pages then there is definitely room for Nowhere Near An Angel. Anyway, enough of this fretting about categorisation.*
Morris tries to introduce a vein of ambiguity towards the end of his story; is Swann the person he believes himself to be? It is not really successful and nor is it necessary as there is already enough ambiguity in his actions. Swann is sinner and sinned against. He is a man with both the capacity for violence and the self-awareness to reject it. The idea of violence—as well as the actuality—figures prominently in the book and the fetishistic way it is treated by several characters is the closest link to the horror genre. Books by men about violent but sympathetic men are not exactly rare, they almost constitute a subgenre of their own, but Morris has crafted a particularly good example.
By the time we meet Swann he hopes this violence is behind him; he is content in his conventionality, understandably so given the excess of his early life. The fact that he remains something of an everyman with a taste for simple pleasures suggests an ability to internalise and compartmentalise. Indeed almost the final words of the book are "the past is the past" (p367). A seemingly contradictory thought for a character who has just given us their life story but perhaps it indicates the past can only be put away once it has been documented. I'm glad this past has.
This article first appeared in Vector 246. Back issues of Vector are available from