British Story

Author: Michael Nath

British Story

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‘Characters are like a scent bottle. To meet them is to lift the stopper; to get to know them, never to put it back; then the scent, it spreads around the world.’

What’s haunting Kennedy? He believes that literary characters exist just like you or me, but he’s getting nowhere trying to prove it. His Falstaff project is an embarrassment; Barbara’s wanting a baby; there’s that trouble from last autumn; he can’t even tell a story.

His fortunes change when he’s befriended by Arthur Mountain, a larger-than-life Welshman with a peculiar take on history and a grand distaste for the modern world. Together with his trainspotting wife, snooty secretary and trusty machete, Arthur opens Kennedy’s soul.

Philosophical, frightening and hilarious, British Story is an adventure in imagination and a rallying cry for wonder. With this witty and critical examination of contemporary life, Michael Nath has called up the lost spirit of resistance. The stoplines are operational!

Hardback edition

Morning Star, Book of the Year

British Story doles out the kisses and the coshes in equal measure. Fittingly for a book obsessed by the importance of character in literature, Michael Nath’s second novel can best be summed up as a swaggering and beer-bellied roar of anger, tenderness, reflection and resistance. I loved it. Nath takes the reader on an almost encyclopaedic tour of the often violent and always edgy relationships between the English, Welsh and Scottish nations. He is equally adept at providing satellite views of events such as the country’s railway network or the tactics of football hooliganism as he is in zooming down to specific and little-known details. A loud and extraordinarily compelling novel, tussling with the big issues of life and death.

Kirkus Reviews

A British academic finds his theory on fictional characters intersecting with the narratives of several eccentrics. Kennedy is a literature professor who worries a lot: about problems with his Falstaff project, his wife’s desire to conceive, a student’s plagiarism that’s linked to a dalliance he fears will surface, and his theory that literary characters are as real as nonfictional humans. Then he meets Arthur Mountain, a Falstaffian Welshman who sounds like a fictional character: the strident nationalist Citizen in Joyce’s Ulysses. Arthur, who has his own project involving mysterious 'stoplines', brings adventure to Kennedy’s life, breaking his routines with excursions, a picnic and a long story by his wife, Natalie. It tells of a simple man who attends a soccer match and gets caught up in awful violence with 'the worst man there is'. Kennedy listens, 'as absorbed as a boy at the end of day in the appetising mellowness of chalk'. Things get more than a little meta when characters in the inner tale turn out to be real and everyone seems to be connected—as one might expect in a Dickensian novel, certainly one more conventional than this. Nath includes nods to Shakespeare and Joyce and Tristram Shandy, references enough playing with modernism and literary style to offer an unorthodox survey course with this as the one required text—maybe held in classrooms suffused with the 'mellowness of chalk'. The novel has a gem of a minithriller in Natalie’s tale and an overall brain-tickling web of delights and surprises.

Manchester Review of Books

When I came across Michael Nath’s novel, British Story, at a book fair last month, I was hesitant to buy. It seemed like an interesting story, published by the small press Route, who I trust. My worry was more that, since 2016, anything with 'British' or 'English' or 'England' in the title means Brexit. And it doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a Guardian reader’s Brexit. Veering wildly from sneering at the proles to trembling at jackboots within the space of moments. Brexit hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already ruined literature. Which is why I was so pleased to discover in Nath’s novel an antidote to all of the post-Brexit ugliness. Where other novelists promised to find the 'real Britain', and 'capture the spirit of a troubled nation', only to end up embarrassing themselves, Nath has managed to say something meaningful … British Story is a novel for our time. Michael Nath knows how to write real literature, stuff with heart and character. He isn’t afraid to look life in the eye, despite all of its jagged edges and contradictions, and he knows how to take this and turn it into a story. A British story at that.

Times Literary Supplement

A wonderful exercise in novelistic virtuosity, strange and beautiful.

James Sale

British Story is Michael Nath’s second novel, and what an extraordinary and powerful novel it is too. To sum up the plot briefly, one might say a failed and failing academic meets a larger-than-life Welshman who vaguely resembles Falstaff; but then not everything is what it seems to be. This Falstaff produces – in our hero, our prince – a cataclysmic change for the better, although the ending leaves the question undecided (in my view unsatisfactorily, although artistically this may have merit). Perhaps what is most remarkable about Michael Nath’s narrative skills is first and foremost his linguistic ability: the language of the story is rich, dense, allusive, elliptic, strange and wonderful; it draws on the full range of English language’s possibilities and capabilities, and indeed I would say it is almost poetry. It is therefore no surprise at the end Nath profusely thanks writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Spenser and WB Yeats! A couple of examples of arresting sentences must suffice: 'Lost be they who are unamazed' and I love: 'Ever a portly man, he once kept a pub in Neath. On Spring Bank Holiday ’72, a Hell’s Angels stuck a sheath knife in Fat Parry’s belly. Vibrating, it lodged there till Fats twanged it out, cast it to the floor and said, "Should have used a fucking harpoon, mun!" Then picked up the chair and cracked the Angel’s skull with it.' At first I found it difficult to discern what the plot was about. We have an overload, almost, of information about Kennedy and Arthur Mountain and the plot seems lost in a swamp of inconsequential details about them and their lives. However, this all becomes very necessary and the characters are about a plot that dovetails neatly and brilliantly together by the time we are two thirds of the way through; so for those who like their plots (real plots – and I am one) you have to wait, Nath teases you, but like a master craftsman, he delivers. And as different as this is from a favourite plot of mine – Lord of the Rings – it does have one character element in common: we do know so much about Kennedy and Mountain, the heroes if you will, for whom we are rooting. But the villain, if villain he be (interpretation questions going on here: let’s hope Nath is not trying to do a James Joyce and setting academics arguing for centuries about exactly what he meant), the cockney, Voight, is much more shadowy and indeterminate, like the Dark Lord himself. The fact that you never really meet the Dark Lord in the novel makes his evil even more sinister; your imagination has to conjure him up. So with Micky Voight. Quite masterful how this is done, and the final confrontation is genius writing, except for Kennedy stepping …Ah! Enough. I strongly recommend this novel. Michael Nath is a major writer – few I think possess his literary skills, imagination, and in-depth ability to recreate a world from the odds and ends of Wales, London, Scotland, Shakespeare, Spenser and the lesser lights (Yorkshire et al!! LOL). Buy it and give him a review – he deserves it.

Times Higher Education Supplement

This frequently surreal tale follows an academic’s entanglement with an oddball group, led by the Falstaffian Arthur Mountain, who share a strange extended tale stretching back to wartime Swansea via Doncaster and Edinburgh. Reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, this is a really engaging and entertaining yarn with plenty of knowing literary allusions.

Sophie Dyer, Whooper

A rich, captivating novel. Nath has a wonderful ability as an omniscient narrator, plunging the reader down and then drawing them back up when he wants to. You cannot help but be fascinated, sucked into a world of wild stories punctuated with the odd expletive or wild, roaming tangent. I couldn’t recommend British Story enough.

New Welsh Review

Nath’s layering of gritty, earthy imagery and philosophical observation lends a unique form to his writing. British Story offers a fond and meticulous account of character, both in its personae and spirit.

Fred Ings

For all you DIY incompetents - you know who you are - please read and squirm at the chapter charting the saga of the broken fridge. What are you supposed to do as a bloke when another bloke, a proper bloke, comes to fix something in your house? Make him tea? Hover around nervously or just hide in the toilet? Michael Nath's novel brilliant captures the plight of the modern emasculated man.

Ben McKay

The great obsession British Story is the subject of character and identity. And yet it’s funny. Often belly-achingly so. Nath’s plot leaves us with questions, a reminder that questions with answers slow to come by are really the stuff of great literature.

The Last of Britain

The Last of Britain

Nick Groom and Michael Nath give readings on Britishness, before engaging in a conversation about Br...

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Michael Nath Interview – British Story

Michael Nath Interview – British Story

Michael Nath talks to Seki Lynch about British Story.

At the Cricket With Arthur Mountain

In this extract from British Story, Lecturer Kennedy is summoned to a day at the cricket with  Arthur Mountain, who informs him that university life has made Kennedy timid, bourgeois and he should learn from the example of the Plebs' League.

At 8am a knock at the front door had been answered by Kennedy half-dressed. A hooded youth was there with a request from Arthur Mountain (verbal, not written) saying please to join the latter and his secretary to watch cricket today in Oxfordshire, if Dr Kennedy wasn’t too busy. Kennedy said thanks very much, found a two pound coin in his trousers for a tip, and closed the door before Barbara had time to witness the messenger.

He didn’t even enjoy this form of the game. Like many cricket followers, Dr Kennedy was interested only in international contests. The attraction of watching Oxford University playing Glamorgan CCC in weather like this was so weak, you had to wonder what he was doing here at all.

Maybe he felt obliged because Arthur Mountain now had something of a hold on him, knowing the story of his trouble. But wasn’t Mountain far too noble even to consider exploiting this knowledge? Indeed, he’d come along with some hope that the Welshman might continue putting his mind at rest about the Maida Vale incident. Perhaps Natalie’d be there too and she and Arthur would do that dance again (last night’s performance had given Kennedy sweeter dreams than he was used to). He was falling for this character, who showed new sides at each encounter. Must be why he’d come. He was being charmed. Something else as well: the promise of the company of Arthur’s secretary. Kennedy was curious about these ‘stoplines’ which Johnny boy’d been meant to be taking notes on last night, when he failed to show up. Perhaps he’d get the full story today was Kennedy’s thinking, as he sat on the train.

‘Oh, played!’ Ever so politely, Arthur Mountain clapped his hands. He was wearing a black coat of thick leather that reminded Kennedy of a war film his old man took him to on his fourteenth, and a white panama trilby. Not for the first time, the ensemble was daring you to challenge it. Kennedy hadn’t received the warmest welcome when he arrived by taxi at The Parks. Seated on his own (without Natalie, Kennedy was saddened to notice) in front of the pavilion of red brick, Arthur merely said, ‘Oh there you are!’, as if Kennedy lived somewhere in the ground, rather than having travelled 70 miles or whatever it was at his beck and call – and then began nagging him to say spells. The cause of the guvnor’s displeasure this morning was, as a matter of fact, Johnny boy, who, it now turned out, had been at a dinner at his old college the night before and was still AWOL.

‘But you were expecting him in The Inventors’ Arms,’ Kennedy recalled.

‘Natalie forgot to tell me where he was.’

Bothered by a feeling of coincidence that would not unfold into accident, Kennedy looked at his shoes.

‘Is he an Oxford graduate then?’

‘Yes,’ Arthur replied shortly, adding after a while, ‘His old man’s a cheesemaker. That’s how they got the brass to send him, like. Invented a new strength cheddar.’

‘What strength?’ Kennedy was interested.

‘Strength 18 for all I fucking know!’ Arthur suggested rudely. ‘Only took him on in the first place I did because he was at the Welsh college.’

‘Is that Jesus?’ Kennedy said.

‘Yes. Jesus College. Daresay he’s hungover, little tramp. Tchah!’

A fielder turned, Arthur Mountain waved. ‘Hungover or he’s romping – sorry, butt!’

‘Is he Welsh then, Johnny boy?’ Kennedy asked.

Welsh!’ roared Mountain. ‘I’ll give you Welsh! He’s not anything! A hole, that’s what he is! A fucking Corinthian.’

‘OK,’ Kennedy said. No doubt Arthur’d have been cursing him, if he hadn’t turned up.

‘Call it a university! You’d get more education from a ten-minute conversation with a hot cross bun than you’ll have in three years at this twatheap!’ Arthur Mountain exclaimed.

‘Well I wasn’t at Oxford myself,’ Kennedy said crossly.

‘You went to a modern university didn’t you? Marks you for life it does, mun. Academic catalogue I happened to be looking at while Natalie was shopping, you’ve got an advert for a five-volume study of “public drinking in the early modern world.” Five volume? Full fathom five you pippins lie! What do you know? Tell me!

‘What does your academic know about drinkers? Tell me! What d’you know about the hours they put in? The imagination, the self-deception, the acid-stomach – what d’you know about it? Hey? The practical drinkers – what do you know of em? The wise talk and tall talk, the lies and false friendship; the laughter, jokes, late nights; the torn-up marriages and fucked-up livers, the knifings, phantoms, DTs – what do you know? What about the experience? What does your academic know about the experience? Tell me! You’ve never had the experience. That’s why you are what you are. That’s why you are where you are. “So far public drinking has only been represented anecdotally and has not figured in the academic consciousness.” That’s a quote, right? Now why’s your bourgeois academic so fucking down on anecdotes, hey? Why d’you get so bloody excited about studies and stats and methodology and discourses? Anything remotely to do with the fact your bourgeois academic couldn’t tell an anecdote if you gave him a silver sixpence and a two-inch dick extension? Why do you need theory? Why do you love fucking theory? What’s the big deal with conceptualisation? What are you scared of? Shit on your fingers? Bite on the nose? Bum-boils? Death?’

‘I may be no good at anecdotes,’ admitted Kennedy, wondering what happened to Mountain’s nocturnal enthusiasm for his tale of trouble; ‘but I don’t like theory! That’s the truth. And I’m a laughing stock professionally because of it.’

‘Who says I was talking about you?’ Arthur Mountain suggested. ‘But like it or not, you went to university. And if you don’t mind my saying so, it has made you timid, made you bourgeois. Isn’t that really your trouble, Ken?’

‘I was timid before I ever went to university,’ Kennedy said. ‘And that’s the truth.’ But when had Mountain read that catalogue? Had he been going through Kennedy’s pigeon-hole? Checking his mail? Yet it had been sealed in its plastic wrapper, only yesterday afternoon when Kennedy found it …

The Welshman hummed and lit a cigarette in the wind, mood changing. ‘But you had a big idea once. I can see you did. Probably just a boy you were. And you’ve let a life at the university persuade you it’s just one idea among many and not even a very clever one. Am I right?’ Here Arthur called out a joke to a skinny red-haired fielder, murmuring to Kennedy, ‘Biggest shagger in the side he is! Wouldn’t think it to look at him would you? – What I mean is, Ken, has the university been the right sort of place for a man like yourself?’

‘I don’t know,’ Kennedy said. ‘Maybe not.’

‘Then why the hell have you given it the best years of your life, mun? Tell me. You’re almost finished – by your own reckoning. And all you’ve done is hang round in universities.’

Sad and rather impressed, Kennedy thought about this while Arthur filled him in on the whole of the Glamorgan fielding side: shagger, tightwad, alky, psycho; and the one who wrote poetry, who looked as unlike a poet as the red-haired whippet a stud. Arthur Mountain knew them all, knew their stats as well. Knew all about them.

‘I couldn’t see another way,’ Kennedy said at last. ‘And I don’t think I had the nerve.’

‘Who’s Justice Shallow? You said last night you were recreating him in Maida Vale.’

‘Shallow’s an old fool who boasts about his adventures with Falstaff in a brothel.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘The Windmill. Falstaff tells the audience the whores laughed themselves silly when Shallow stripped off.’

‘You should do more classes like that, mun.’

‘And ruin myself professionally? Once is bad enough!’

‘C’mon!’ Arthur urged. ‘Set up your own university and do nude Shakespeare sketches. I’ll pay for it! I’ll help too. Always fancied the academic life myself.’

‘You?’ Kennedy was astounded. Would this character ever show some constancy damn him?

‘The Plebs’ League was the thing you see.’ Arthur pointed at Kennedy. ‘Might have suited a man like you.’

‘What was it?’ Kennedy asked.

‘Oh it was big in Wales, last century. Education for workers, sort of anti-university, university in reverse. They wouldn’t have it with bourgeoisification in the Plebs’ League, I can tell you. Wouldn’t have it with “academic consciousness” either. Any of that, you’ll have your academic bollocks up for auction at the offal butcher; what’s more, you’ll be bambasted, intellectually humiliated. They could do that to you in the PL, if you were so unwise as to theorise about what the students knew bloody well in practice. What you have to remember, Dr K, is how much the Plebs’ League student knew already. And this is because they were in industry. So you are careful how you theorise about what they know already. Cos when the miner puts his tools on the bar and goes home for a wash-down prior to attending his lecture, he’s not just a cog or a operative. He’s a craftsman. Swears by his tools. Locks em down when his shift’s done. No one else better touch those tools. He is a craftsman, he is a geologist. Architect as well, with the judgement of a sculptor. So if you’re a tutor, better think twice before you tell him he’s alienated. Better be on your mettle if you’re teaching him he’s sold his soul to the company store. What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ Kennedy said.

‘Yes there is! Saw doubt in your soul, like a pond in the instant it begins to freeze – or a woman pulling the curtain.’

Christ! Did this green-eyed bastard miss nothing? Better tell – he’s killed a man.

‘Well the miner doesn’t sell the coal he’s dug does he?’

‘You’re quite right to object!’ Arthur called out. The spectators were applauding. ‘Respect you for that. My point here is about manners, tact. If the academic dun’t recognise the skill of the miner, then it’s the academic who’s doing the alienating the exact moment he tells him he’s alienated. It’s like your wife telling you you dunno how to make it with her when you’ve been doing it very well for the last ten years – or whatever. Get me?’

Kennedy nodded.

‘Cos you can alienate a man by not knowing his skill – as well as pinching his surplus value. Take the tinmen. Bampa was a tinman. There was no micrometer invented could gauge a layer of plate like he could with his thumb. He could see numbers, and he could see ratios. Studied applied maths and pure in the League, Bamps did. The world to him was figures, metal and figures. Figures were his dreams. He had thumbs like this from where they were smashed by steel bar. Look, Ken! No wonder he could peel an orange in two turns. But figures were his freedom.
‘So if you’re a Plebs’ League tutor you’re on your fucking manners when these men and women – and don’t forget how many young women you had in the tinworks – when they come down the co-op or church hall to listen to you talk. You think to yourself, Maybe it’s them who should be doing the talking. Maybe I should shut up and listen. Cos it is possible that in a practical manner, they know more about Karl Marx, Engels, Michelson, Morley, Einstein, Caldecott, Shaddock, McTaggart, Freud, Niedrich Frietzsche, Shaximilian Meler, Harry Bhattacharya, Jan Van Derpant …’

‘Who’s that?’ Kennedy enquired.

‘Never heard of Jan Van Derpant?’

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘Meant to be learned, aren’t you?’ While Kennedy was considering his answer to this taunt, Arthur shouted, ‘Excellent!

‘Made him up. You avoided the bourgeois gesture of nodding like you knew all the big names because it was part of your cultural inheritance, regardless of whether you have fucking read em or not! All at it aren’t they? Waving their hands on the Culture Show. Why can’t they fucking sit still? Cos they’re pretending they’ve read books. What mortal twats they are, what scabs, what berks! Not you. We’ll have you for the Plebs’ League yet. I loves you!’ With this he kissed Kennedy on the cheek, who sat in the wind feeling flustered and proud, hoping to God no one’s seen that. ‘Wipe it off if you like!’ Arthur murmured, making with his elephant look.

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Michael Nath

Michael Nath was brought up in South Wales and Lincolnshire. He is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Westminster. His major teaching and research interests are in Creative Writing and Modernism, as well as in Shakespearean Drama. His first novel, La Rochelle, was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, his second British Story was the Morning Star Book of the Year. His 3rd novel The Treatment was published in 2020.

Books: La Rochelle, British Story

Michael's website:

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