Low Life - Mike Duff

Low Life looks at one low down and sleazy day in the life of Ronald "Rooftop" Rafferty, North Mancunian. Rafferty got his nickname not for his contributions to architecture but for one example of his many, constant and varied forays into the world of two-bit desperate criminality. Rooftop is a 100% proof scally, born into industrial level and industrial style shit with a mouth and mind as dirty as his surroundings. We find him as he goes of for a day's "kiting"; low level credit card fraud aimed at screwing the chain stores.

Pisshead Rafferty is not without brains but largely without morals; a bad friend, bad husband, and such a bad father he's taken his 2-year old son out with him for today's spot of thievery in Bolton. He's not even a very good criminal, and that might be where he comes unstuck....

This brief book is a first person stream-of-consciousness account of Rafferty's day laced through with flashbacks as to why he is who he is. It is done, as seems legally required with this sort of thing these days, without speech marks. This is the language of a rough man in a rougher world, clever enough to know how desperate he is, but not enough to escape.

Sweet as a fucking nut. The cunt serving you is on 2% commission and a shit wage so he doesn't want the deal to go down on him any more than you want him to go down on your little sister.

A very typical passage from the book in style, form and content; foul-mouthed, nasty and matter-of-fact. There's a morbid wit at work, enough to make you half smile through all the grime, but not quite laugh. That Rafferty is only half witty, fairly bright stops the prose from shining and the book from singing, but in a way that only adds to its woeful realism, shows there is an admirable lack of contrivance at work here.

In keeping with this unwillingness to glamorise, Rafferty and his pals aren't gangsters or football hooligans (those de-facto aristocrats of the contemporary fictional working-class world) just half-arsed burglars. The violence here has no thrills or frills, just the odd punch up and the vile wife-battery of his psychopathic mate Bernie. Rafferty's disgust at Bernie is one of the few times a dim afterglow of compassion shines through, noticeable mainly because of the murk surrounding it.

Rooftop rarely follows through with his pangs of conscience however, and then only with a deeply perverse logic, such as during his period working at the DSS nicking the dole cheques he's supposed to send out.

I always zoomed in on the ones under twenty pounds for two reasons -easier to cash, in those days post offices weren't stipulated and secondly, I didn't like to think of a family going without food. Anything under twenty was for a single person and the cunt should've been working anyway.

It goes without saying of course that Rooftop himself has never done more than a month's honest work straight at a time, he's too busy being sacked for his swindles. There's a lot of gallows humour in his feral charge through life, particularly during one particularly evil moment when his mates calmly rob a hopelessly naive saleswoman's van full of karaoke equipment while she thinks she's selling it to him inside a pub. She bursts into tears, her life's savings gone, uninsured. Rooftop's level of sympathy?

She won't be venturing north of Didsbury again in a hurry.

It has to be said some knowledge of Manchester's geography, people, language and culture definitely adds massively to the enjoyment of this book. Blunt prose comes more to life when it's describing the very humdrum streets and environment you recognise.

We laugh at Rafferty's carefree amorality, but is it born purely from his stagnant surroundings? His ex-best friend Sellotape thinks not. When Rafferty leaves him to take the rap for a burglary they both committed his more sensitive accomplice informs him through a letter that gabby gobshite he is "a massive publicity machine who only represents himself" cutting through the artifice to the ugly self-interest that informs his whole life. "Fuck it" is his response. Empty, and he knows it.

This is a funny, cutting read, light on pages and theorising if not on subject matter. It is flawed however. At times its very lack of artifice becomes a kind of conceit in itself. Sometimes it seems as though boxes are being ticked off to make Rafferty and the gang as "authentic" as possible. Yet at the same time our anti-hero has just enough free-thinking tendencies and literary aspirations to make him just that little bit more palatable of an ignoble savage for the book's more middle-class readers.

Oh yes, and this lovable roguish fuck up's got one sensitive mate (who he double crosses), one psychopathic mate, one mate who's better at crime than he is........sound familiar? These echoes, coupled with a lack of standout moments or language sometimes just leave you wondering when the day will come that an English novel of lumpen-proletarian disaffection will come within a country mile of its Scottish cousins.

But hold on. Holding a tiny slice of life like this up against modern masterpieces isn't really fair. Low Life is a perfectly (in)decent northern debut. If you liked the TV show Shameless, you'll like this too, the tone is quite markedly similar. It's a good reminder of the side of Britain no mainstream political party gives too stray shits about anymore. It's a quite detailed and worrying insight on the myriad different ways your wallet can get nicked. It's an unpretentious reminder of the humanity of everyone. And it's a laugh, a bitter laugh. Its nearly four years since Duff won the Crocus North West Novel competition with this book now, and still no follow up. Why are we waiting?

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2004] Back