Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence, the writers of the rather wonderful Scarred For Life book, have a pet theory. Essentially: if our 1970s childhood fears were instigated by the ghosts, folklore and all-round strangeness of the era’s typically otherworldly TV serials, then the 1980s was the decade when – to put it bluntly – shit got real. Set aside those creepy stone circles and haunted vicarages, kids… it’s time to worry about AIDS, nuclear armageddon and the spectre of long-term unemployment.
In the early part of the decade, this latter concern in particular seemed to create almost a new sub-genre of realist entertainment for older children and teenagers. It’s “Fatcher’s Britain” as seen through the eyes of a very specific strata of working class, post-punk youth; the Adidas-sporting school-leavers of the Job Centre generation. A Britain of snaking dole queues and Space Invader machines, of urban wasteland, simmering racial tension, glue-sniffing and football terrace kickings. Already politically-charged screenwriters clambered to depict this new disaffection in a cavalcade of powerfully affecting TV series: the nascent Channel 4 screened One Summer, written by Willy Russell and broadcast almost concurrently with the big-screen release of his Educating Rita film adaptation. And then there was Scully, whose writer Alan Bleasdale had already pretty much defined the “adult” end of the genre with the extraordinary Boys From The Blackstuff.
Meanwhile, over on the BBC, there was Nigel Williams’s bleakly existential Johnny Jarvis and – perhaps the most overlooked and underrated of them all – Tucker’s Luck.
It was certainly no surprise that Grange Hill‘s Tucker Jenkins was afforded his own dedicated spin-off show. Since debuting in February 1978, Phil Redmond’s teatime depiction of inner city comprehensive school strife had become a TV institution, groundbreaking and controversial in equal measure, and Todd Carty’s portrayal of the impudent but lovable leather-jacketed Jenkins had become the show’s cheeky calling card. Everyone knew Tucker. Tucker’s Luck was first broadcast on BBC2 in March 1983… exactly five weeks after the British unemployment statistic had reached an all-time record high of 3,224,715. Its depiction of a downtrodden, 16-year-old Jenkins being reluctantly shunted between dole queue, Job Centre and prospect-free, cash-in-hand labour couldn’t have been more apposite.
Robert Leeson‘s book is, perhaps surprisingly, not an adaption of the TV series. That book exists, was written by Jan Needle, and published in 1984. Forty Days of Tucker J. acts as a precursor to the events of Tucker’s Luck, kicking off on 6th September (presumably 1982 – overly-diligent research reveals that date was, appropriate to the book’s events, a Monday), a day that officially marks the end of the school summer holidays, and the beginning of Jenkins’ new life as an unemployed school-leaver. Living with his parents in a bedroom filled with spare motorbike parts, and drifting into a torpor of late-morning sleeping and creeping depression, he is given an ultimatum by his father. Tucker must prove, within the next six weeks, that he is capable of earning an independent living… or his parents will insist he return to Grange Hill after the October half-term to study for further qualifications.
Determined to avoid the horrors of the latter option, Tucker – accompanied, as in the TV series, by lovelorn pessimist Alan Humphries and sex-obsessed lounge lizard Tommy Watson – embarks on a frequently dispiriting quest to amass, in the titular forty days, the depressingly modest £25 capital that will keep his father satisfied. The book ticks off the days one-by-one in diary form, detailing the trio’s frustrations in compulsively low-octane fashion, and summing up with beautiful concision the mire of tangled bureaucracy faced by the teenage jobless. “I’ve been up the Labour three times, the Social Security twice, the Job Centre three times and the Careers Office twice,” grumbles Tucker, already a beaten figure by Day Seven. “I’m sick of the sight of the bleeding places.”
He takes a succession of unenviable, short-term jobs; “shovelling pig shit” among the “grey, oblong blocks” of a dismally industrial farm complex, and whitewashing, for £1.50 an hour, the racist and obscene graffiti (“Dogger has a ten-inch…”) daubed along a dank underpass with an “all-over aroma of damp and cat piss.” Tellingly, the trio’s sole encounter with upwardly-mobile Thatcherite entrepreneurship, the offer of a door-to-door job selling soft drinks on behalf of the sharp-suited, cut-glass accented Charles Barraclough, transpires to be an elaborate con trick. It is Day Thirteen, appropriately, when their paltry savings from a fortnight’s worth of casual labour and signing-on are all but wiped out by the smoke-and-mirrors illusion of a commission-only fortune.
Tucker finds temporary respite in the company of his old Grange Hill nemesis Trisha Yates, now working part-time in a pub while attempting to study: a combination that, ultimately, leads to her own entanglement in “screaming at the walls” red tape. But ultimately salvation comes in the unlikely form of those scattered motorbike parts: Tucker is offered £25 for the painstaking, two-week job of clearing “two inches of shit” from a Yamaha XJ650 belonging to a friend of his older brother. And also – on a test ride of his own spluttering bike around an abandoned, padlocked yard – stumbles upon a respray business operated by a gang of local black kids, facing both idle harassment from the local police and brutal racist violence from unreformed Grange Hill boot boy Booga Benson. Among their number is another former schoolmate, Hughes, who persuades gang leader Roller to offer Tucker a loose alliance as their resident motorbike mechanic.
I actually first read this book in 1983, as a ten-year-old, and felt like I’d taken a bold step into a very adult world. It was probably the first novel I’d read that seemed to inhabit the same Britain as my own struggling family, battling to stay afloat in the unemployment wastelands of the North-East, and as such it perfectly epitomised that early 1980s rites-of-passage graduation from “ghost and goblins” fantasy to brutal, “shit got real” reality. I’m still unsure whether that transition was a genuine cultural shift, or merely the perception of one from a generation of children reaching adolescence at the same time, but either way both Tucker’s Luck and Forty Days of Tucker J. evoke it perfectly, and Leeson – whose 1975 novel The Third Class Genie was a previous Musty Book – deserves far more credit as a writer of brilliantly downbeat and socially realistic fiction for young people.
Mustiness Report: An an entirely appropriate 8/10. After kicking aimelessly around countless bookshelves since I paid £1 for it from the Middlesbrough branch of WH Smiths in late 1983, it now has pages the exact colour of an early 1980s Job Centre frontage.