A review of How I Left the National Grid, by Guy Mankowski
When Robert Wardner disappeared, he left rumours swirling in his wake. Some said the frontman of 1980s post-punk band The National Grid was killed by a deranged fan, others claimed that he himself had murdered someone and vanished to avoid arrest.
But journalist Sam always believed the singer was alive. A fan of the band since their early days, it was Sam who helped bring them into the public eye. So when he is commissioned to track down his idol and interview him for a biography, it is his chance to prove himself and save his failed career.
As finding Wardner becomes an obsession, Sam finds himself in an increasingly dangerous situation, with his relationship about to crumble around him.
Author Guy Mankowski wrote How I Left the National Grid – his third book – as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Northumbria University. While carrying out his research, he interviewed a number of post-punk singers who inspired the character of Robert Wardner, an angry young rocker from Manchester desperate to make something of his band and fulfil his creative aspirations.
One of the singers who apparently influenced the fictional Wardner is Kingsley Chapman, formerly of Teesside band The Chapman Family and now fronting cabaret death songsters Kingsley Chapman and The Murder. The latter performed at Manlowski’s book launch at Newcastle’s The Cluny, and as a fan of his music I was intrigued to read the novel.
The story is told in alternating chapters, flicking between The National Grid’s rise to fame, Wardner’s increasing dissatisfaction with the confines of his record deal versus his musical vision, and Sam’s reckless journey into the singer’s lost years.
It’s a tale of obsession and mythology: Sam’s obsession with finding out what happened to the man he so admired; Wardner’s obsession with his own artistry and capturing the essence of something bigger than himself in his music, thus cementing his legend.
Mankowski captures the visceral thrill of Wardner’s live performances and the audience’s reaction to his raging, all-encompassing songs.
“I tore into the song. I had laboured over every line, every last vowel and consonant, and I wanted to mainline it straight into every living room in the country. When it came to the bridge, where the band suddenly sped up, something took over my arms and I felt possessed by the need to make the band create a sound so huge and overpowering that the audience were permanently altered.”
His self-destruction is convincing and painful to read, if perhaps a bit thinner than it could be. At times, the book skims over certain elements of the story without providing full explanations for them, but a kind of answer is hinted at towards the end of the novel.
It feels appropriate to read a novel about post-punk revolution in a time of social dissatisfaction and political anger. The furious music that reflected the landscape of the UK in the 1980s is once again meaningful, as we seek to understand the world around us and stand against an oppressive system.
How I Left the National Grid is an intriguing and passionate novel, although it doesn’t always feel fully realised. But perhaps that’s the point: that a story about a man who strives to produce meaning through his music but can’t quite grasp the emotional soundscape he craves should be reflected in a book that doesn’t quite reach the intensity it aspires to.
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