An Enduring Solidarity

Naomi Ishiguro, Common Ground

Tinder Press, 432pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781472273291

reviewed by Leon Craig

Naomi Ishiguro’s assured, sensitive debut novel, Common Ground follows the intertwined lives of Stan and Charlie, who meet as teenagers on the common in Newford and reunite by chance as adults in London. Thirteen-year-old Stan is bookish, small for his age, and being bullied by bigger, posher boys at school. His father has recently died and he doesn’t feel he can talk to his busy, emotionally-distant mother about his troubles. In other words, he is desperately in need of a friend. The charismatic, daring Charlie not only fixes Stan’s broken bicycle chain on their first meeting, but challenges him to think differently about his provincial surroundings. There is history everywhere if you know where to look for it and a world beyond the town where they live. Charlie is used to looking at things with the eyes of an outsider, because he and his family are Romany Travellers who frequently have to move up and down the country as their camps are shut down by the authorities or targeted for violence by bigoted locals. ‘He was always being shifted, told to move on — told that everyone else was more important and that whatever space there was in the world was for them to take up, and not him.’ He encourages Stan to take revenge against his worst bully in a grand gesture of vandalism intended to show them all that Stan is not be trifled with. When their plans go seriously awry, Stan’s mother feels that her prejudices have been affirmed and bans the boys from seeing one another again.

When the two meet again at a house party in London a decade later, Stan has a fledgling career as a journalist and a budding romance with his university friend Flo while Charlie is miserable working in an exploitative Amazon-style depot and his relationship with his wife is in dire straits. He has challenged the man who called his disabled brother a ‘waste of space cripple’ to a bare-knuckle boxing match for which he is in no fit state and recently discovered that he is being underpaid in comparison to his non-Traveller co-workers. Ishiguro is too self-aware to serve up a straightforward saviour narrative, instead ironising Stan’s eagerness to jump in and expose Charlie’s corrupt boss in the pages of his newspaper, only to discover that his own boss doesn’t care to run the story. Charlie is frustrated by Stan’s dogged belief than he can help: ‘He just didn’t understand how fucked up the world was, that was his problem. He’d expected it, thoughtlessly, to be better, more easily fixed.’ As the story continues, we also gain a more nuanced understanding of Charlie’s situation when his wife reveals how much he has let her down, and are confronted with the limits of Stan’s willingness to show up when he is actually needed. No character in Common Ground is straightforwardly a saint. Instead, the characters are all trying to stay afloat in a fast-paced, hostile and ever more unaffordable London while balancing their need for self-preservation against what they believe to be right. What Stan and Charlie have to offer one another is not immature dreams of salvation, but rather an enduring solidarity.

Naomi Ishiguro has a particular gift for creating microcosms which reveal a greater truth about how Londoners live, as shown by many of the deft stories in her debut collection Escape Routes. The course of Stan and Charlie’s friendship dramatises the eruption of ugly prejudices which, the novel suggests, had always been simmering under the surface of English society and which, over the last decade of Conservative rule, many more people have become emboldened to speak aloud and act upon. Charlie’s family have a learned distrust of outsiders, which is often borne out over the course of the novel as we see the adult Charlie traumatised by his community’s eviction from Hollytree, the Amersham campground which was their home for many years.

Their situation echoes the real-world case of Dale Farm which was one of the biggest Traveller sites in England and from which families were forcibly evicted by the police and bailiffs in 2011. Since then, the Conservative government have proposed a bill that strengthens police powers against unauthorised encampments, which will permit them to move people on from common land and repossess their caravan homes as punishment for trespassing, which has especially frightening implications for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups. At the time of writing, the bill has just passed its second reading. Only this year, it was revealed that Pontins campground maintained a list of Traveller surnames banning certain families from their sites. The question of who is welcomed and who is excluded is central to Common Ground: the boys’ friendship begins on a common, a space nobody owns where they can meet as equals. In the latter half of the novel, they learn that a neo-fascist group called England’s Shield has attacked Charlie’s relative Martin and the pervasive hatred towards Travellers is once again made personal. The group have been gathering online and in Stan and Charlie’s old local pub and it falls to the friends to challenge their presence there. As the barman points out, ‘some other poor bastard will get them next time. Someone who doesn’t know who to look for yet’; the point has been made that the group cannot expect to remain unchallenged.

Common Ground is both fierce and gentle, a highly contemporary political novel about the small yet decisive moments that make up our lives and the unexpected power of the friendships that define us. Questions of empathy and inter-cultural understanding loom large, given that the author is writing on subjects beyond her own immediate personal experience, but in a British context which she knows. Ishiguro handles these deftly, using a third-person narrative style with a point of view situated outside of both characters’ perspectives, even as we are privy to some of their thoughts and feelings in the moment. When Stan suggests that Charlie should be the one to cover the confrontation with England’s Shield in the Newford Echo instead of him, the novel avoids reproducing his article in full so as not to ventriloquise Charlie’s account of his own experience. Rather than attempting to tell Charlie or Stan’s story from inside, the novel utilises conversations between them to convey the importance of the friends’ bond. ‘

‘Alright, mate,’ Charlie said. ‘Started to think you weren’t coming.’ ‘Course,’ said Stan. ‘I – Charlie. Of course I came.’

Their gruff, naturalistic exchanges are the beating heart of the novel and although the two don’t always agree, their dialogue is a stark contrast to Stan’s confrontation with his racist mother, who refuses to engage with him in any meaningful way about Charlie. When Stan points out that ‘he hasn’t ruined my life yet’ all Helen will say is ‘give him time’ before entirely shutting down. It is through our personal relationships that we first learn other people’s differences do not mean they intend us harm and, hopefully, from those first experiences, understand the importance of solidarity.

The refrain of ‘Nae Pasaran’ repeated by Charlie and Stan throughout the novel alludes to a shared struggle spanning decades, personal differences and national borders. The phrase ‘no pasarán’ conjures up the Spanish resistance to Fascism and the Battle of Cable Street, though the phrase originated in the trenches of the First World War, and the Scots adaptation used in Common Ground alludes to striking factory workers in Glasgow who refused to repair the engines of fighter jets they discovered were being used by Pinochet in Chile. The main messages of the novel are that it is only by listening to what the people around us have to say that we can learn how to offer them useful support, and that one group’s oppression should in fact concern us all.

Leon Craig 's writing has appeared in The London Magazine, 3:AM Magazine and the TLS among others. Her short story collection, Parallel Hells, is forthcoming from Sceptre Books in 2022, and she is now working on her debut novel.