At first, this feels like a curious slice of whimsy from a writer I associate with grittier fayre: Robert Leeson’s series of Grange Hill spin-off novels from the late 1970s and early 1980s perfectly captured the ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ grimness of the TV series. And his 1983 sequel Forty Days of Tucker J was a pivotal part of my pre-adolescent reading, with the eponymous Jenkins given the titular deadline by his impatient father: forty days to prove he can escape the spiralling dole queues before being forcibly marched back to school to gain further qualifications.
The Third Class Genie opens with a lighter touch. The hero is skinny, hangdog schoolboy Alec Bowden, who keeps a constant running score of the disasters and triumphs that mark his days in Bugletown, a fictional suburb of Manchester. Here, he lives in a crowded family terraced house between the railway line and the allotments (poor Granddad is even relegated to a caravan in the back yard), and spends his schooldays avoiding the attention of resident bully Ginger Wallace. Wallace, we learn, lives on nearby Boner’s Street (settle down at the back, there) and – as the story begins – is forbidding Alec from taking his usual shortcut home past the Wallace household, or “you’ll get a thump.”
Alec’s fortunes change when he discovers, in the grounds of derelict local factory “The Tank”, an abandoned beer can that plays host to the 975-year-old Abu Salem, “Genie of the Third Order of rank and merit in the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo”. Initially, typical Genie-based hilarity ensues: Alec exploits a seemingly endless supply of wishes with flawed attempts to gain new plimsolls, clean schoolbooks and even an extension to the family home. But as the story progresses, Leeson’s clear interest in contemporary 1970s social issues comes more and more to the fore.
Events turn with Abu Salem’s desire to aid Alec’s school project on the Crusades, encouraging him to document a perspective on these historical events that has previously been eschewed by his school textbooks. A perspective from which King Richard I is seen as “chief of the Frankish bandits”, the leader of foreign “barbarians” who came to slaughter. This approach earns him a rebuke from traditional schoolmaster “Tweedy” Harris, but praise from schoolroom pin-up Miss Welch… inevitably nicknamed “Raquel” by her students.
And then the crux of the book is revealed: Ginger Wallace is part of a West Indian community on Boner Street, a community under threat from eviction by a racist coalition of local councillors keen to redevelop the area. There are bigoted slurs and misinformation being spread around the neighbourhood, including ludicrous rumours of poor hygiene (“they keep their coal in the bath”) and a fictional illness “brought into the area, perhaps by an illegal immigrant.” And when Abu Salem – previously a disembodied voice inside the beer can – assumes physical form, he is revealed to be a black African slave, in danger himself of being branded a dangerous outsider in a town where tensions are clearly running high.
At this point, Leeson – a Cheshire man himself, with a background in left-wing politics – shifts the book into a higher gear, and it becomes complex, thought-provoking and remarkably progressive for an era when the politics of race were frequently exploited for comic effect. Schoolyard differences are set aside, and the battle becomes convincingly real. As a white North-Easterner, I perhaps feel a little self-conscious commenting on the accuracy of the depiction of black communities in the North-West of England, but the story felt both heartwarming and well-intentioned to me, and I enjoyed it enormously.
MUSTINESS REPORT: A disappointingly fresh 1/10. Barely any must at all to disclose, although my copy appears to be a 1987 reprint, so perhaps another ten years of solid, damp neglect are required for the book’s full musty potential to be fulfilled. No properietorial names or addresses inscribed on the inner pages either; 1980s children were a trusting bunch.