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In Review: Abide With Me

Filed: Sunday, 17th June 2012
By: Staff Writer

Ian Ayris
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"But there's other things what happen, other things you don't never wanna remember, cos they hurt. And when you close your eyes it's them things what come shoutin and screamin and crawlin out the mist in your head. Every f*ckin time..."

When the fabled Dick Whittington spoke of the streets of London being paved with gold, there's little doubt that it wasn't the eastern region of the City that he had in mind. An area that has been the first port of call for immigrants and ruralites alike for several centuries, the East End has rarely been what estate agents might refer to as a 'desirable area'.

Once upon a time it was the French Huguenots and the Eastern European Jews forced to seek shelter as a result of economic hardship and persecution who breathed new life into the region. In more recent times, former inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and the Communist Bloc have served to enrich and further diversify its population.

For those who seek to better themselves - in financial terms, at least - London's East End has long been considered a stepping stone, a transitionary home. Additionally, the last 40 years has seen many families with generations of East Enders before them move out to the home counties, to places such as Hertfordshire, Kent and Essex, in what has been described as the UK's very own version of 'White Flight'.

As a result, this quite unique part of London has long been associated with squalor, decay and abject poverty - whilst its streets were more likely to be paved with (the almost legendary) white dog shit than Whittington's gold. This was never more so than in the 1970s, a time of economic hardship, recession and strikes - and it is against this backdrop that Ian Ayris' first novel, 'Abide With Me', is set.

The story centres around a young West Ham supporter named Johnny Sissons - whose family, all Hammers (bar his Spurs-supporting Uncle Derek) are bona fide East Enders - and his class mate Kenny. John, a street-wise yet warm-hearted boy befriends his new neighbour despite the latter being ridiculed by his peers due to his complete inability to interact - a by-product of what are almost certainly autistic traits, although this is never clearly defined.

'Abide With Me' follows the two youngsters throughout their formative years although for reasons best discovered by reading the book, Kenny is largely absent for the middle third of the tale leaving Johnny to take centre stage and become its main protagonist. Their two existences, brilliantly detailed with John's close-knit family upbringing beautifully juxtaposed by Kenny's violent and hellish existence provide the basis for a story that twists and turns until it reaches its crushing, explosive finale.

Telling a story in first-person narrative, as 'Abide With Me' does - think 'The Shawshank Redemption' or more recently (and more on-topic) Julian Gilbey's 'Rise of the Footsoldier' - is always a hard trick to pull off. However Ayris has managed to accomplish this with surprising ease for a comparative newcomer, although he does has several years' experience as a writer of short stories (one of which, 'The Rise and Demise of Fat Kenny', was the inspiration for 'Abide With Me').

The author's upbringing - Ayris is a Dagenham & Redbridge fan who grew up just outside the M25 and has lived in the area all his life - has clearly influenced Sissons' character - he admitted as much in a recent KUMB.com Q&A - and it is perhaps this honesty and experience that brings the main character to life. However all of the story's participants are wholly believable and anyone who grew up in or around the East End will recognise something in most, if not all of them.

The fortunes of West Ham United FC are heavily featured throughout the book - hence 'AWM's' inclusion here in KUMB's review section - and much of the first half of it revolves around the 1975 and 1980 FA Cup Finals - with the latter providing an unexpectedly poignant conclusion.

A tale of friendship, family, hope and heartbreak, 'Abide With Me' has been likened to the works of Mike Leigh ('Life Is Sweet', 'Secrets & Lies') and Alan Sillitoe ('Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'). Like the works of both, it could easily make the transition to the big screen and at times almost seems written for it.

One thing's for sure however: whilst the streets of London may not be paved with gold, the future is certainly bright for Ayris who has provided us with an unforgettable first outing into the world of fiction.

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