Reach for the Dead: Tessa McWatt’s London

higheredLast October Amelia Gentleman wrote a long Guardian piece about an unexpected twist in our troubled economy: the rise of funeral poverty. With crema costs rising and funeral benefits flatlined, increasingly people find that they don’t enough money to give their loved ones a reasonable internment. Gentleman speaks to a woman who was quoted £2,300 by the Co-Op and ‘chose instead to buy a shroud online (£180) and arranged a transit van to take the body from the hospice to the crematorium.’ An ex railwayman only avoided the nine o’clock trot because ‘when he died, social workers found he was carrying his life savings of £500, which were used to pay for the more desirable slot.’

I thought of this piece when I read Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed. It’s a London novel, and kind of a campus novel in a way, one with hardly any students in it. Higher Ed has a decent range of characters and a multiplex narrative: there’s some real insight, and the backdrop of city problems is reasonably evoked. But McWatt has a tendency to frontload. Her first chapter introduces us to Francine, a university QA professional in her early fifties. Francine barely gets a line of dialogue out before the interior monologue takes over and we get the full character backstory: US transplant, demonstrations at Penn State, disastrous relationship with an unreliable male. Higher Ed has many memorable moments but an air of frantic vagueness characterises its prose.

Except when it comes to death. Driving home from work Francine witnesses a man being struck and killed. Francine is haunted by the young man’s death and the prospect that someone else could be imprisoned for a tragedy she herself might have caused. Law student Olivia tracks down her lost father, who happens to be barely holding together a disintegrating council department responsible for interring the growing numbers of London’s unremarked dead – homeless, bankrupts, suicides, illegals, those for one reason or another are forgotten before they die. McWatt’s characters are preoccupied with restructures and downsizing: HR culture permeates everything and the threat of unemployment is never far from the surface. Higher Ed is brilliant on the bureaucratisation of work and life. England is full of people churning out action plans, person specs and five-year strategies but we can’t even bury our dead. ‘Not everything is measurable,’ protests a lecturer, fighting for his job. McWatt’s novel is a good attempt at quantifying these unmeasurables – even though few of us might be listening.

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