CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE SOUNDTRACK OF THE NOVEL
Welcome to Penknife
ABOUT THE BOOK
It is May 1984 and the time of the miners’ strike. Jarrod Brook, a rebel without a cause, returns to Brightlingsea, Essex, after being expelled from a state boarding school, to find that his mum has given his bedroom to a striking miner.
Along with his best mate, Colin, over a long, eventful summer Jarrod is drawn into petty criminality while also trying to impress Verity, an outspoken young feminist.
Then the repercussions of a drunken night out conspire to test the limits of friendship and to show how a well-meaning and quite innocent young man can end up behind bars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Westover was born in Kent in 1968 and grew up in Brightlingsea, Essex. He left school with one O-level and fell into labouring work, including a year spent renovating old farm buildings in France.
He later moved to London to study journalism and publishing. Around this time, he dabbled in poetry, and one of his poems won a BBC Reggae Writing Competition.
He also wrote lyrics, and performed regularly with Colchester art punks, Maniac Squat.
While working the nightshift at a media monitoring company writing summaries of newspaper articles, he took an MA in Fiction at Middlesex University.
He currently lives with his partner in Bethnal Green, East London.
Penknife is his first novel.
"Seen through the perspective of a young man full of both good intentions and weaknesses, Penknife is a highly readable book, gritty, poignant, funny, at times tragic,
It may be Westover’s first novel, but I predict it won’t be his last. A good read."
Morning Star review
We’d come off the A12 and joined the long tailback of traffic on the approach to Colchester. The danger was almost over, cos the Colne High kids would soon be back in their classrooms and the hard nuts would’ve drifted away, to do whatever they did for the rest of the day. I unclipped my seatbelt so I could loosen the strap, then stretched out my legs and began to relax. Well, sort of. Mum switched on Radio 4, and they were reporting on the miners’ strike. Talks had broken down because officials from the Coal Board had refused to discuss pit closures. Some of the kids at school had assumed they were striking over money, but I’d tried to put them right. Thatcher planned to close a load of pits cos she said they were uneconomic. What she really wanted, Mum had told me, was to destroy the miners’ union in revenge for the strikes the Tories had lost in the seventies. If I tried to start a conversation about the strike, I’d be able to gauge whether Mum was willing to talk about anything else yet, apart from me being expelled. She surprised me by mentioning it first. ‘They’ve been bringing coal in through Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea. Did I tell you?’ ‘No. Bringing it in from where?’ She turned down the radio and explained that scab coal was being sneaked into small ports from Eastern Europe to boost stocks and undermine the strike. Some miners from Kent found out what was happening and had come to picket locally. Mum told me she was on the committee of the Miners Support Group in Brightlingsea. ‘We’re organising places for them to stay.’ ‘That’s brilliant, Mum.’ It sounded like socialism in action - backing each other up. Solidarity. My favourite group, the Style Council, were already playing benefit gigs for the miners; I’d read about it in the NME. Sharply dressed socialist, and poetic and political lyricist, Paul Weller was everything I wanted to be. But I didn’t have a group, or any money. Or even a decent haircut. For the first, and perhaps last time that day, Mum smiled at me. ‘I’m glad you approve, Jarrod, because Tony has been sleeping in your room and I don’t think it’s fair to ask him to move, just because you’ve been kicked out of school.’ ‘Who the hell’s Tony when he’s at home?’ ‘A striking miner, from Kent. He’s going to be staying with us during the picketing at Wivenhoe.’ ‘You could have given me a bit more warning, Mum!’ Then I remembered that I wasn’t even supposed to be back for another six weeks. We were already in the shadow of the overhanging trees next to the old church on the way into Brightlingsea. As we came round the tight bend and back into blazing sunshine, the only sound I could hear was the car engine. And the scene was so still and familiar; it felt like we were bursting through the middle of a painting.
The next day at twelve, they were at the door. I led them into the front room, where I now slept, and Dennis quickly spread out across the middle of the settee, with his legs wide apart and his arm around his girlfriend, Sian. He wanted to know who else lived here. Whose is that suitcase? And where’s your old dear? He asked these questions in a friendly tone, but I still felt like I was being unsettled in my own home. It was almost like the years had disappeared, and we were back in the playground at juniors. Almost. But Dennis wasn’t the only one who weren’t like he used to be. This was going to be a new start for me in Brightlingsea. I wasn’t so naïve that I’d believe Dennis didn’t still flip, but if he flipped on me, I swore he would only do it once cos this time I wouldn’t be coming back for more. Sian’s friend, Verity, was sat on one of the flowery armchairs next to me. I reckon we were one of the only families in the town that didn’t have a matching three-piece suite. There was a Tupperware container open on her knees; she said she hoped I didn’t mind but she was really hungry. Then she took a bite from her cheese and tomato sarnie. She had pale skin, thick blonde hair, and a couple of zits on her chin. There was a grey canvas bag at her feet with pin badges on it. Sian asked me why we had a rug on the wall. I didn’t know. Why did we have to have a rug hanging on the wall? Why couldn’t we be more normal? I wondered if they thought this was a hippy house, with the flowery armchairs and all those books, and the Russian dolls and joss stick holder on the mantelpiece. In Brightlingsea, a hippy was one of the worst things you could be. Mum got called a hippy cos she had a 2CV – you could get away with that in Paris, but not in Brightlingsea. And it had a Nuclear Power – No Thanks sticker in the back window. So that was two marks on her card in the spot-the-hippy bingo. Still, they never said it to her face though. I’d tried to make the front room more my own by putting a Style Council poster above the stereo, and a Victory to the Miners one next to the wall-mounted bronze plate with the French writing on it. I’d also put away Mum’s hippy and classical LPs and displayed mine more prominently. Colin was knelt in front of the breeze block fireplace, flicking through my records on the shelf. He didn’t have any records of his own anymore, not since we went through our heavy rocker phase when we were twelve and thirteen. He relied on the radio and chucked his money in fruit machines. He put on one of my UB40 LPs, Labour of Love. Dennis sat forward to get down to business. He had broad shoulders that were fit for a hod and a flash haircut, which was long at the back, shaved at the sides and spiky on top. From the neck up, I reckon he could have been on Top of the Pops. I liked the tattoo of a tiger on his upper right arm, which had a banner with Dennis underneath, but I was less keen on the scrappy green ones on his hands and wrists. He lit a Benson and slurped his tea, and said he’d had a word with the head farmhand, Wurzel, and he could get me on the firm if I still wanted to be. If I did, I’d have to give him a fiver as a finder’s fee, but that could wait ‘til I got my first wage packet. He was squinting and shielding his eyes as he spoke, cos the sun was pouring in through the windows behind me. Mum didn’t believe in net curtains. I said, ‘I know its potato picking, but what do I have to do?’ I glanced at Verity, cos her quietness intrigued me, and I didn’t want to give her the impression I was slow on the uptake. But Verity didn’t seem to be listening to the conversation, she was gazing up at the bookshelves. Dennis said I didn’t need to worry; the job was a piece of piss. ‘Are you up for it, Bogue, or what?’ I said I was, cos he clearly weren’t going to hang around for a decision, and I couldn’t afford to be picky about the ins and outs of potato picking or even who I’d be picking with. Dennis rubbed his palms together, as he always used to do when he got excited. ‘That’s it then, Col. We’ve got our little spudding crew sorted.’
Colin was switching between the sink and sideboard singing ‘Like a Virgin’ as he made us tea and cheese on toast. He was cutting and slicing, washing and wiping, with exaggerated commitment, like he was the star of a cookery programme. Colin’s ambition was to run his own caff, and sometimes he acted like he did already, and it was always busy, and he had a dozen hungry punters to serve after me. I was sat at the light blue Formica table in his kitchen, smoking a Benson and flicking my ash into his wonky art-class ashtray. Behind me was the old twin-tub, which had been gurgling away when I came round for the first time all those years ago; above it a mounted plate with a ring of painted flowers encircling the words, Home Sweet Home. Colin’s mum left when he was three. I remembered him telling me there was only a couple of things he could remember about her. One was that she used to take him to the phone box when his old man was on nights and make him wait outside while she spoke to the bloke she ran away with. The other memory, which still made him angry, was that she would dip his thumb into a pot of mustard if she caught him sucking it. He didn’t often mention her, but when he did, he always said she was sick in the head. I was never sure if he meant this literally, like she was mentally ill, or she had to be sick to have treated him like that. His dad still worked nightshifts at the same warehouse and was hardly ever about. But he did provide the basics: teabags, milk, cheese and bread, biscuits. I caught a strong waft of melting cheddar; I was salivating with anticipation and gasping for a cuppa, but it always took a while cos Colin was a perfectionist, even with tea; if you made him one, he claimed to be able to tell by the colour exactly what it would taste like, and therefore whether he was going to enjoy it or not. I tried to take my mind off the wait by thinking about Verity. I’d waited two evenings after our first kiss before calling her, then I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Did she want to help deliver a batch of the Miners Support Group letters on Sunday morning? We went to the Manor Estate, a maze of privately-owned modern houses on the other side of the small woods opposite mine. Verity took to the task diligently; she was determined that we didn’t miss out anybody. But this wasn’t easy, cos many of those Crescents and Closes and Ways all looked the same. And the residents were all doing similar Sunday morning activities: washing their newish motors on their drives; gliding their Flymos over already trim lawns; knocking up family fry-ups. I bet they all had matching three-piece suites in their lounges. If anybody asked me, I told them politely and lightly that the letters were about the strike, like I was talking about something nice, like the Regatta. This was conservative country with a small and probably mostly big C. I was surprised to see even two houses with posters up supporting the miners, though this time I didn’t shout out to express my solidarity. We stopped twice, to get a can of drink from the Mace, and the other time for a fag in a shaded alley, which smelled of freshly cut grass. After our Bensons, we swirled our smoky tongues around in each other’s mouths. It was delicious, but it left me hungry for more. Once all the letters were gone, Verity needed to go and practise her mandolin. I didn’t have anything pressing, so I offered to walk her home. We kissed again, next to her front gate, but out of sight of the front room window. Afterwards, she said, ‘I’m not going to go out with you, Jarrod.’ What was all that about then? ‘It’s not you. I don’t want to be anybody’s bird. That’s how I am and I ain’t going to pretend for anyone.’ ‘It doesn’t have to be like that.’ ‘Sorry if I’ve disappointed you.’ I licked the underneath of my top lip. There was a swelling there where she’d bitten me. ‘I’d be disappointed if we couldn’t do that again.’ She laughed, but it didn’t tell me anything.