In my block of flats, near the entrance, there is a little table that may once have been inhabited by a porter or receptionist in more affluent days. Now it’s just a place where residents can leave things they don’t want that they think other residents may want. Some of these things are useful (my gratitude goes to the person who left behind an electric pump, complete with huge, expensive, working batteries that enabled me to blow up many a festival airbed with ease), and some of them not so useful (I’m not entirely sure how many people are likely to be interested in a pile of ancient, dog-eared TV-listings magazines). Anyway, this little table is where I came across Catherine O’Flynn’s News Where You Are so thank you, kind stranger, for that.
In News Where You Are, Costa award-winning novelist Catherine O’Flynn follows local newsreader Frank Allcroft through his humdrum middle age as he battles with his stubbornly miserable elderly mother and the not-entirely-affectionate scorn of his younger, more dynamic colleagues in the newsroom.
Frank is one of those people, we are told, who cares about the things that nobody cares about. When he has to present a story about a an old man who died alone in his flat with no ties and no mourners, it affects him, and his bemused wife Andrea constantly finds him chasing these stories up – researching the lonely people that no one remembers. Suddenly though, Frank hits on a story that he just can’t drop. There is some connection between the suspicious death of his colleague and friend, Phil Smethway, and that of Michael Church, a man who died in his flat alone and unremarked upon. Frank can’t help but go digging…but will he be able to stomach what he finds?
Catherine O’Flynn hails from Birmingham – an unloved city if ever there was one – and Birmingham is the setting for News Where You are. The name of the city conjures up images of eyesore shopping centres, shabby ringroads and run-down streets. Whose fault is all this? The protagonist’s father, according to this book. Yes, newsreader Frank Allcroft’s father, Douglas Allcroft, who is loosely based on local architect John Madin, was once Birmingham’s premier brutalist architect and, when we meet Frank, the last of his father’s public buildings is about to be torn down. These buildings are eyesores to the people of Birmingham and, especially, to the rest of the world, but to Frank they are memories, important blueprints to the past. They matter to him so keenly precisely because they matter to no one else. Yes, Frank is the eager curator of everything that is thrown on the scrapheap….just like O’Flynn really.
O’Flynn takes on Birmingham, brutalism and regional news and venerates them quietly when no one else does. In an interview with the Guardian, she agrees that, “Birmingham does have this complicated relationship with its past, where it’s always trying to burn photos of itself.” It seems, then, that O’Flynn’s own job is similar to Frank’s. She busies herself rescuing old photos, however ugly, from the bonfire. It’s a tough job but, I agree, someone’s got to do it. The result? It’s a great little book. Readable with likeable characters and a very natural, conversational style. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the author in future.