Casting a bleak shadow over Stevan Alcock’s coming of age tale set in the late 1970s about a teenage boy named Rick, are listings of The Yorkshire Ripper’s victims. Peter Sutcliffe murdered thirteen women and attempted to murder several others. Each chapter in “Blood Relatives” is titled with the name of one of Sutcliffe’s victims. This causes the reader to feel the fear which filled the public consciousness over the five years during which these attacks and murders took place in the Yorkshire area. Adding to this understanding of Rick’s milieu is the language of his voice which recreates the regional dialect of Leeds. This makes for a fantastically evocative narrative about Rick’s development as a man who engages with the punk and gay movements of the time.
Rick works with his friend Eric on a truck that delivers soft drinks to eccentric locals. He spends time talking with these colourful characters receiving bits of local gossip and even psychic predictions about who the Ripper will strike next. He has a special affinity to the prostitutes they visit and humorously remarks at one point “I asked Eric why all our breaks were wi’ prozzies. He said prozzies make better tea.” Rick feels an affinity to the prostitutes because they are outsiders from mainstream society which is how he feels in part because of his homosexuality. He senses that they are equally vulnerable remarking “The distance between t’ prozzies and us gays didn’t seem to be much greater than between two gateposts; if it worn’t prozzies that some maniac wor killing it could just as easily be gay men, and the public reaction would be t’ same – they got what wor coming to them.”
It’s unusual and refreshing to read about a gay character that is so forthright and unequivocal about his sexuality. Even if Rick can’t bring himself to come out to his mother, he boldly tries to find a place for himself within the gay community. Later on Rick reflects that “For me… I thought, ‘Brilliant, I’m different. Special.’ I thought, ‘Yeah – this is all right, really.’” There are endearing and relatable scenes where Rick seeks out gay pubs/meetings and takes on lovers. He quickly finds how fickle men can be once their lust is satiated; his unrequited romantic yearnings harden him and contribute to him creating a punk persona. He frequents clubs and a squat that includes many more vibrant and outrageous characters. Through these encounters he even uncovers a deeper understanding about the past and hidden facts about his own identity.
Inextricably intertwined with the manner of speech used in this novel are notions of the battling ideologies and commonplace racism/misogyny/homophobia of the time. Here’s an example of the language in this narrative: “She wor wearing a trowel-load of slap over t’thin vaneer of abuse doled out by hubby Don, and a pong so raking I thought I’d gag if I so much as flared a nostril.” In addition to the horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by Sutcliffe, Alcock suggests there are untold amounts of violence against women happening behind closed doors. There are also references in the story about discrimination against people of colour in the community. Asian men are seen as segregated even within the queer social groups. A gay man from Iran is shunned by his family and the English with ultimately tragic consequences. It’s remarked that “Black guys wor always getting stopped even though t’Ripper wor plainly a white man.” Rick himself experiences instances of homophobia and near violence because of his sexuality. Yet, he is also (in smaller ways) a perpetrator who attacks a man he hooks up with and when speaking with “respectable” women about prostitutes he feels “It didn’t seem like owt that a woman should know.” This all adds up to a sober understanding that Sutcliffe’s actions weren’t an anomaly, but an extreme consequence of the pervading attitudes of this time and place.
“Blood Relatives” is an extremely endearing and sensitively written story of a young man’s development. More than that it’s an intelligent dramatization that exposes the narrow-minded attitudes of a particular time and place. By evoking such a distinctive voice the reader is drawn into what it really felt like to be in Leeds during the late 70s and experience this period of rapid social change in Britain.