samuel best shop front

There are those years when as a young person all you seem to do is go to your dead end job, visit the pub, and otherwise walk the streets of your depressing home town, cracking on about issues relevant and trivial with your best mates.

These are the years caught by Samuel Best in Shop Front, published by Fledgling Press

Aside from introducing the narrator as working in a shop, the title Shop Front evokes that final year at university when the students leave with their  CV and degree presented as their ‘shop front’ to prospective employers.  The title makes me think of visual merchandising: goods or services displayed to highlight their features and benefits.

Thus enter the damaged goods!  ‘Out of university and out of luck, Ben Hamilton moves back in with his parents to stack shelves at the local supermarket.’ 

Shop Front certainly describes a common experience: you leave university with no job, and mysteriously find yourself back at home and doing an applesauce / garbage job to get by.  The novel’s speciality is the way that it gazes at the stars, and although the characters seem to be aware that there is a better life out there somewhere, a place of promise, they are unsure where it may be.  Ah were that place Linlithgow.

Linlithgow is a town in West Lothian in Scotland and one that is very well known for its famous and ancient palace.  The relevant palace of the modern capitalist distater of depression and humiliation in Samuel Best's Shop Front is however the local Asda superstore — think WalMart in a depressed and grey setting — a long way from the birthplace of James V and Mary, Queen of Scots, Linlithgow Palace, which is probably Scotland's finest surviving late medieval secular building.  You have to enjoy this contradiction, and the fact that Shop Front veers between nightclubs, the local hospital in Livingstone and the store itself.  It’s no glamour tour.

The boy racers and checkout assistants, the thugs and bevvy merchants of Linlithgow and nearby towns don’t want it any other way, however.  Most of them consider Falkirk to be the very definition of a big night out and wouldn’t dream of going to Edinburgh or Glasgow, bound as they are by their hick mentality. 

A frequent refrain in Shop Front, this small town mentality is all-present, and the characters sometimes tend to apply to this to the entirety of Scotland.  It’s reminiscent in fact of the famous Scottish rant from Trainspotting, artfully delivered in the movie of the same name by Ewen McGregor.  What we have in Shop Front is that same feeling, that somehow Scotland is a great place, blighted by a lack of self-confidence and an unholy desire towards self-destruction.

Shop Front acknowledges this debt to the Gutter Goddaddy Welsh by having its four male leads trip to the cinema to see Trainspotting, although needless to say they don’t make it to the pictures and end up embarked on a night from hell, and one worthy of Irvine Welsh himself.  

A great deal of Shop Front has passed before surprises begin to fall into the reader’s lap.  What we predict we’ll get from the outset is delivered — scenes of shelf-stacking action in Asda — trips to the nightclubs local to Linlithgow — minor drunken escapades — and flashbacks to the alternate reality of studying English at Glasgow University.  Most of this passes fairly amiably, bolstered by the narrator’s friendship with an Asda colleague called Niall, who is experiencing an unwelcome cancer scare and needs a sympathetic friend as he loses his wits and slowly spins off the rails.  It’s character based storytelling so it works well.

Although it owes a debt to writers like Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett, Shop Front is not a clone.  For a start, Shop Front is low on descriptors (always a good thing) and strong on dialogue, external and internal.  It’s a talky, chatty book, candid and forthcoming.  It is also just as well that it is a book of youthful optimism, as its subject matters are the very atrocious stuffs of life, work, illness and having someone stamp on your hand.  Although the story traipses from one scene to the other in what seem to be a rolling selection of minor incidents this is a device, compiled to lure the reader into a sense of security, because when the surprise arrives, it is terrifying.  

It’s maybe the familiarity and fondness you feel for the characters from the off, and it’s maybe the mundane settings and small victories and defeats they achieve and suffer.  There is a sense that a mighty discussion of Scottishness is brewing throughout Shop Front but while the conversation threatens like an apparition about to engulf the action, the book avoids it and moves on.

Finally, setting Shop Front in Linlithgow is a coup.  Of course Shop Front could have been set in any hard-working, grey and rainy conurbation satellite, but as it goes Linlithgow is a historic place like few others in Scotland, and thus a good choice. 

In September 2007 — and this is a great example of the sheer pedigree of the place — a plaque was revealed which commemorated the fictional Star Trek character Scotty, the Enterprise's chief engineer, who will be born in Linlithgow in 2222.

Hence my alternate title for Shop Front would have to be — ‘Beat Me Up, Scotty’.

 

Outside there could possibly be a pack of wild animals, waiting to rip each of my stringy tendons cleanly from my bones.  At home there could possibly be a fire, hungrily eating the A4 piece of paper that tells everyone I have studied books for four years at the University of Glasgow.  But here, in this small, condensed version of a regular-sized Asda, there are definitely reminders that so far, my life amounted to slim wage slip at the end of the month and a green and white name badge, despite being promised otherwise by parents, school, university.