‘The Complexity of Being Earnest: a Review of Kate Tempest’s “The Bricks that Built the Houses”’, by Carody Culver


Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers videos on YouTube. “People all over the world are starvin’ just for affection,” Jonathan sings plaintively in a live recording of the 1979 song ‘Affection’. “Well, there’s telephones, televisions and cars, yes, there’s records and books and magazines for you. But poor affection sits there standing in the corner, saying to itself, ‘I wish someone would give me something to do.’”

Jonathan’s all puppy-dog eyes and tousled chestnut waves, with an ill-fitting striped shirt and a facial expression that makes him seem lost, worried, and impassioned all at once. I don’t like this song very much, but I do like Jonathan Richman and his ingénue brand of earnest social commentary. When I hear him singing about the plight of affection, I find myself silently agreeing and wanting to give him a hug and a cup of tea and possibly a pat on the back.

The first time I watched the ‘Affection’ video, something about the lyrics—their heartfelt, what-are-we-going-to-do portrait of The World Today—reminded me of Kate Tempest. Kate Tempest is not a fluffy-haired, wide-eyed, proto-punk legend, but a London poet, playwright, rapper, and spoken word artist who loves William Blake and makes hip-hop music. Many Australians seemed to catch Tempest Fever recently when she appeared on Q&A and performed a spoken word piece called ‘Progress’, a scathing but lyrical indictment of contemporary Western life that lined up all the usual culprits against a wall of rhythm and rhyme: class prejudice, sexism, body image, religion, consumerism, the scourge of 21st-century capitalism.

It was a far cry from Jonathan Richman (although Kate’s hair is quite fluffy) – an altogether angrier and more righteous form of earnest artistic expression. If you ask Kate Tempest, affection is the least of our concerns in 2016.

Actually, Tempest wasn’t in the country to tell us what’s wrong with it, but to promote her debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, a tale of three young South-East Londoners—Harry, her business partner Leon, and their friend Becky—on the run from the dangers and disappointments of the place they call home. Ambitious, sprawling, and propelled by poetic urgency, the book is part story, part manifesto, the bones of its plot locked somewhat awkwardly together with impassioned socio-political commentary about the state of the UK today.

But Bricks isn’t just about the UK. In conversation at Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookshop the week after her Q&A appearance, Tempest expressed the view that the more specific a work is in terms of its time and place, the more broadly applicable it can be. On Q&A, she argued, “This whole society, this whole web of the acceptable diabolical regime which is swallowing the globe, eating up resources, it’s making people ill with anxieties and there is an awful, awful kind of interplay here between what we think of as an acceptable evil and a kind of non-acceptable evil. We are in the middle of a barbarous time and greed is at the root of it.” These ideas inform Tempest’s entire body of work: two poetry collections, two plays, a Mercury Music Prize-nominated album, and now, of course, a novel.

When Bricks opens, Harry, Leon, and Becky are speeding away from London in a Ford Cortina with a suitcase full of money – and “if someone is coming after them, there isn’t much they can do but keep going”. Then we’re thrust back in time one year, moving gradually back to the beginning again via a sprawling narrative that embraces the chaos of contemporary urban living: class politics, gender expectations, cross-generational conflict, and a drug dealing operation turned sour, all against a backdrop of South-East London with its grey dawns and glottal stops.

In a sense, Bricks is an experimental novel, but less so than I was expecting. It’s more linear than Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, more lyrically arresting than Zadie Smith’s NW. Tempest’s plot is skeleton-fragile, and in a way, this doesn’t matter as much as it should – her words are so compelling, so able to conjure imagery that’s both apt and surprising, that you can forgive the narrative walking with a limp. A man in the jobcentre has scars that “mess his skin up like piss lines in a sandpit”; Becky’s boyfriend Pete “had his heart broken the year before and he’s still not managed to fix it. It sits there in its chest with its arms crossed, livid.” There’s a visceral undercurrent racing through every page, and Tempest is fond of describing her characters’ responses and emotions with vivid metaphors that conjure raw physicality: Becky’s stomach “pushed itself out of her bellybutton and sprinted for the door”, her heart “punches itself from her chest”, her liver pulses, her body is “a frequency, a low rumble without shape”.

It’s clear that Tempest has, shall we say, affection for her protagonists – so why don’t they feel real? Becky is especially problematic: a dancer in her late twenties who can’t seem to get the career break she so desperately wants, she’s often described in relation to her physical beauty, particularly her enviable body. Pete’s a jealous boyfriend because he believes Becky’s the girl everyone wants, “every single person in the world is a threat”. Nearly every single person in the world has also read a female character like this before: gender cliché masquerading as a person.

Harry and Pete are more convincing, but they soon become lost in the novel’s thicket of unnecessary detail. We know what people eat, what they wear, who their parents were; bar and café interiors are wrought in precise detail, from the shape of the chairs to the décor on the tables. Each time a character is introduced, we’re given pages of their backstory, from Miriam the butcher’s daughter to Leon who grew up in a block of flats near Harry’s house to Pico the “flamboyant Peruvian man” with “a penchant for butterfly collecting”. It’s an admirably thorough portrait of contemporary South-East London, but it also feels contrived, like the rich tapestry of inner-city living—and all its attendant social issues—is being spelled out to us. The novel’s main story grows sluggish beneath the weight of all these other, less important stories, which reach in all directions at once – and in concert with Tempest’s poetic prose, it makes characters feel emblematic instead of believable, acting in service of a greater truth for at least 200 pages too many. Yes, Tempest is making a point about the world today, but is she saying anything we haven’t heard before? And is she saying it at the expense of a well-crafted novel?

That’s not to say it isn’t worth saying – I share much of Tempest’s politics, her belief that we risk sacrificing our integrity to the false gods of consumerism, racial intolerance, religious prejudice, gender discrimination, and simple greed. If she shares one thing in common with Jonathan Richman (aside from the fluffy hair), it’s her earnestness. But while Richman was wide-eyed and whimsical in his message to the world, Tempest is righteous, and she lays it on too thick, stripping her début novel of the nuance that its narrative so sorely needs.

Tempest clearly believes in what she has to say, but she also gives the impression of thinking that she’s the first person to say it. “In some ways we’re more connected than ever before, we have this incredible revolution in communication, in other ways we’re more isolated than we’ve ever been”, she told a rapt crowd at Avid; in her Sydney Writers’ Festival opening address, she observed the “damaging and dangerous racism at root in this country”. These observations will not come as news to anyone who isn’t voting LNP on 2nd July.

“Alright now we say bye bye old world, gotta help the new world,” Richman sings on the 1976 track ‘Old World’. The words still ring true forty years later. But maybe our new world—a world bracing itself for the odious possibility of Donald Trump; an Australia with scant regard for the arts, for asylum seekers, for Safe Schools, for anyone earning less than six figures—needs more than affection. If Tempest’s work isn’t saying anything new, at least it’s saying something true – but it’s what we do with the truth that counts.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Daily Life, frankie, The Toast, Kill Your Darlings, Peppermint, Broadsheet, Archer, Junkee, and Books and Publishing.