Books to be Scene: John King's WHITE TRASH

If Dawes represented the past then these thugs standing in front of Mr Jeffreys were the present. Their offspring would embody the future. A cultureless rabble who consumed with no regard for their fellow citizens. They had never had it so good yet still fought pitched battles. They used illegal drugs and battered defenceless women to a pulp. This was the direct result of years of undisciplined liberalism. These were the sort of mindless hooligans who would have knocked Mr Dawes off the pavement and into the gutter. They would not notice his pain, the fact that he was alone and unloved. What sort of life was that?

Mr Jeffrey's remit did not of course stretch to the running of society at large, but as an individual he held certain views. His interest lay in improving the quality of hospital treatment. Meaningless confrontations such as this one cost the hospital dear. It was wastage pure and simple. If only they could control themselves.

Is that a placard behind your back? Are you about to get political?


Maybe? Possibly? ...kind of? Okay, bear with me: the film-as-corrective for some weary injustice never really goes out of style, and right now in Britain we've got a lot of weary injustices going on. This is 'weary' as in they convey the sense something terrible is about to happen through sheer inaction on the part of the little guy, whether that's down to simple bloody-minded laziness or just the general inability to make a difference.

Our national seat of power is little more the prize in a tug-of-war between a painfully earnest variety act and an old boy's club who make a hell of a show of wanting to favour public opinion, but who come across as painfully out of touch with the reality of our everyday lives. And between them they're pulling the fabric of the country - institutions, laws, systems of government - to pieces out of blinkered pride without a word of apology.

What next, the sky is falling?

Melodramatic, sure; look, I'm not good at this stuff, but you still get the sense that a lot of things hover on the brink in 2012, Mayan calendar notwithstanding. Politicians are so caught up with trying to ensure the country's place in a world that could hardly care less about it at this point that they just wave away the angry voices pointing out everything going wrong. Never mind that our hospitals are falling apart or our economy is increasingly dependent on the whims of corporations skimming off the top; we're British, remember? Keep calm and carry on.

Time was our filmmakers got a lot more vocal about this sort of thing, but of late the old guard like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh seem to have gone the Ingmar Bergman route. They still care as much as they ever did, but they work their frustrations out not so much in polemic but more mercilessly incisive character studies, or dragging neglected pieces of history out from the dark corners of the public consciousness.

So what's your rejoinder?

There is one book that does a phenomenal job of distilling British class consciousness and a simmering anger at being told what to think by people in charge, in writing so furiously potent it could make Daily Mail readers spontaneously combust at twenty paces, but in the ten years it's been on the shelves no-one seems to have tried particularly hard - or at all - to bring it to the big screen.

Jon King's White Trash tells the story of a young nurse at the hospital in an unnamed new town somewhere in the UK, an urban development at the forefront of a bold new Britain. Ruby is a relatively average working-class young woman, a cheery optimist who tries to see the best in everyone, despite an ailing mother and a brutally punishing schedule dealing with the constant stream of patients through the hospital's doors.

If she's the have-nots, who speaks for the haves?

The novel's antagonist is Mr. Jeffreys, a high-powered executive responsible for administration at the same hospital. King doesn't even bother to conceal that this is a man disturbingly dedicated to his job - in love with the idea of rounding numbers down, never mind the people they represent. But it slowly becomes apparent Jeffreys is one desperately sick individual, and when he comes into conflict with Ruby's unflagging positivity their clash of personalities puts her in terrible danger.

King described White Trash as a defence of Britain's National Health Service, and it is that - a battle hymn for the men and women who run themselves ragged taking care of all us gutless commie scroungers leeching off other people's hard-earned taxes whenever we get sick. Sorry, came over all Romney there - but seriously, even the most hard-line Republican ought to be able to see there's so much more to the book than that.

Like?

If you've ever crossed the street to avoid the guy coming at you solely because the colour of his skin made you uncomfortable, or his haircut, or his clothes, or the way he was walking then White Trash is a bucket of cold water in the face; its dissection of Jeffreys' knee-jerk, sociopathic reaction to every patient draining hospital resources to no purpose is as savage a critique as it gets of an upper class who neither understand us nor try to, as well as a lesson in why you should never, ever judge someone with a single glance.

I mean obviously they're human beings, yes, good Lord, and still... a skinhead is obviously a savage thug who'd beat the nearest old lady's face into the pavement given half a chance; an HIV patient is a filthy poofter who's caught the AIDs because of all those men he sleeps with; an old man is used up, tired of life, wasting other, more vital people's oxygen - Jeffrey's fevered rants are "I'm not racist, but" rendered as darkly terrible bar-room poetry.

So it's a soapbox of a book, then?

Yes, but White Trash is also more than polemic, however artfully it rants. It's a surprisingly effective thriller for a book that reveals the bad guy in short order, and shows us the depth of his depravity soon after that - King gets a lot of mileage out of having us guess precisely how and when his highfalutin' villain and chirpy heroine will collide. But it's a cinematic book in that King is another author whose prose flies off the page in a torrent of imagery that reaffirms print can be a visual medium, if you want it to be.

King renders his different plot strands in wildly distinct narrative styles; Ruby's chapters are a flood of sensation, of life being lived in the moment as she wanders through a night on the town, or shares a pint and a spliff with her mates, or takes comfort in the company of like-minded people trying to put a brave face on curing the sick, patching up the wounded and comforting the dying.

How about the rest of it?

Jeffreys is all short, clipped sentences, exposition whittled down to the bare bones, then spiralling off into flights of fantasy trying to justify his warped outlook on balancing the books. And the last reminiscences of the terminal patients Ruby looks after are each a giant, rambling run-on sentence in the cadence of a dream. The book runs the gamut from rose-tinted period nostalgia to a Brit-punk take on American Psycho; you could have four, five, six directors working on this and not run out of ways to picture King's writing.

Any screenplay would need some judicious tweaks to the core text. King's shock tactics occasionally veer dangerously close to camp; his ending wraps things up a little hurriedly, and he's not pitching an argument so much as preaching to the choir. There are moments White Trash comes off as the salt of the earth versus the men in the ivory towers, and yet whatever King's intentions any script that went for that angle would be doing the story a disservice.

Careful with the speeches, check. What else?

It's a bleak book in places, too, and any writer would need a careful hand to avoid playing up the horror of an implacable bureaucracy out for blood. The nastiness is key to the overall effect but you want to keep the positivity; Ruby is an angel, but a desperately fragile one, and still she keeps going; not so much calm, but definitely carrying on regardless of whatever life throws at her.

Even now we still get Brit films trying to convince us they're "the new Trainspotting", while totally missing much of what Danny Boyle's take on Irvine Welsh's novel represented. It got the zeitgeist, yes, but it was also the sense this was a face of this grey, rain-soaked little island we hadn't seen. And it was the realisation that for all that Welsh's hero ultimately decided to put grinding poverty, booze and cheap skag behind him, he and his friends were still people, not statistics or campaign slogans.

But Boyle made his point.

He did, but it's a point worth repeating, and for all White Trash has dated the book still makes it with phenomenal force. If there's any upstart young Turk director who wants to put Brit-punk back on the map they could do a lot worse than a book that says hey, perhaps if we're just excellent to each other we might get through this, no matter how grim things get - and that practically forces you to picture these words as joyful, lunatic, kinetic cinema.

White Trash, by John King, published by Vintage, is currently available as an ebook. Earlier physical editions are available second-hand.

Header image assembled from photographer Tiane Doan na Champassak's collection Looters.
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