Musty Books: “Forty Days of Tucker J.” by Robert Leeson (1983)

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.

Musty Books: “The Third Class Genie” by Robert Leeson (1975)

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 names or addresses inscribed on the inner pages either; 1980s children were a trusting bunch.