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Featured Spotlight for Andy Brown's The Midnight Mechanic

A boy drowns in the sewers of Victorian London...

His death leads to the orphaning of his surviving brothers, Arthur and Silas, in a grim Dickensian underworld. Overcoming the odds, the brothers' fates shift from grinding poverty to reversals of fortune that play out in conflicting and emotional ways. Which of them will make the right decision for their future, and at what cost?

Painting vivid images of destitution, family ties, the dignity of work, and social responsibility,

The Midnight Mechanic  explores a man's relentless pursuit to better himself, to escape the muck and make amends, while raising pressing environmental issues that are still pertinent today. 

 Brown has created a weird, dirty, wild world —Rob Magnuson Smith

About the Author

Picture of Andy Brown

Andy Brown has published numerous short stories in international journals. The Midnight Mechanic is his second novel, his first being Apples & Prayers (Dean Street Press, 2015), a novel of Tudor rebellion. The author of over twenty acclaimed books of poetry, he also co-edited the major medical poetry anthology, A Body of Work (2016) for Bloomsbury, and other critical works. Bloomsbury recently published The Tree Climbing Cure, a pioneering study of the relationship between tree climbing and wellbeing. A former Centre Director for the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton, Devon, he is now Professor of Creative & Critical Writing at Exeter University.  

Author Interview

The Midnight Mechanic is set in Victorian London. How did you approach the research for the story? What sources did you find most valuable?

I did a LOT of research for this novel! I was working on a wider academic project about ‘Water, Waste and Disease’ at Exeter University, and spent five years in archives researching the literature of Victorian cholera – a huge number of poems, novels and non-fiction books – and discussing this work with colleagues in the UK, India, and China. It ranged from historical research, to environmental and scientific work, sociology and, of course, a lot of poetry and novel reading. 

I love doing the research, but the trick is, of course, to wear it lightly, and in service of the story. I particularly enjoyed reading diaries and personal accounts of the time, and the accounts of working people. The Midnight Mechanic is about Victorian sanitation, yes, but it is also about the dignity of work, social responsibility, moral choices, the bonds of family… that stuff also needs researching, perhaps in a more ‘lived’ and embodied way than the more traditional idea of ‘book research’. Ultimately, in a novel like this, it’s the human story that counts in the foreground – the contextual research blocks in the background shapes and details.

Was the story inspired by any specific historical events, figures, or anecdotes?

The inciting incident was something I actually experienced. When I was a primary school teacher, many years ago, I was playing a ‘wide game’ with the kids. We were in a field, trying to outwit each other to get into each other’s camps. One girl made a break for it and dashed across the open field. And suddenly she just vanished as she was halfway across! We all rushed to where she had vanished, and found that she had fallen right through the roof of the septic tank of the hostel where we were staying! We pulled her out quickly, showered her down and she went straight to hospital. Poor girl, it was utterly horrendous for her. I never forgot it, as I’m sure she never has. When I was researching Victorian sanitation, this story just wouldn’t let me go. I turned her into one of my three brothers, placed her in Victorian London, and voila! the story of The Midnight Mechanic was born. I just followed the energy and implications of that incident and went from there.

There is a great deal of leaning on real people, events, and historical facts in the novel, yes, but I didn’t want to be tied to literal representations of those – that’s not much fun for a reader! In Victorian London, Sir Joseph Bazalgette was rebuilding London’s sewers in the 1850s – the old ways of clearing the middens by ‘midnight mechanics’ was being replaced by the flush toilet. And, at the same time, new fertilisers were being imported in the form of Pacific guano. The nightsoil men were forced out of business by these changes. Inevitably. I wanted to explore this historical moment, by inventing sympathetic characters who worked in those industries. But I wanted the potential of the story to guide me, not the historical events per se. As such, I invented some dramatic scenes that (I don’t think) happened in reality – sabotage, trials, a riot – which are true to the spirit of the history, if not the minute details of what we actually know happened. That freedom is one of the joys of writing historical fiction, as opposed to ‘history’.

Were you influenced by Charles Dickens in your character development, descriptions of the city, and the highlighting of the era’s social injustices?

I had an old colleague, the novelist Philip Hensher, who always quoted from Dickens when we were teaching classes together. He was appalled when I told him I’d only read a couple of the novels. So appalled, in fact, that I immediately set myself the task of reading ALL of Dickens. Which I have now done, he may be mildly pleased to know. Of course, I fell in love with it all. How could you not! 

Perhaps more so even than his characters and stories, however, I love the rhetorical shapes and patterns of language that Dickens uses to give his stories texture. He gets into a paragraph so well, and develops the flow of language in mesmerising ways. I couldn’t get away from that influence. But one cannot write like Dickens anymore for today’s readers. So there are, instead, little homages to Dickens in the textures of my own work but, hopefully, the writing feels very much like my own. 

As to the city, I wanted it to be a living, breathing thing… a character in itself… and while I steer away from specifically naming and locating particular streets, areas and landmarks of London, I have tried to stay true to the Dickensian manner of describing place in such an active, living way, that it imbues the story with its pyschological energy. 

In terms of the subject matter, ‘Dickensian’ is a common shorthand for anything to do with poverty, inequality and injustice, and so it’s inevitable that people will think The Midnight Mechanic is ‘Dickensian’, since my book is very much about poverty and the struggle to overcome it; about inequality and injustice; and about the crushing of forces of change in the environment. What’s really important for me, is I wanted to write a book with a strong moral compass – with a sense of people striving to do what is right, despite appalling odds, and in the face of really pressing environmental concerns. Those pressures were very real in C19th London, just as they are today around the world. As a writer, reader, and in daily life, I try to stay true to my commitment to social and environmental justice. Historical fiction represents the past, yes, but it talks to us about our own pressing concerns in an age when poverty, inequality and environmental pressures are still very much present. 

Pollution is a major theme in the story. Can you discuss its relevance in Victorian London and its relevance today?

Choking smog. Sulphurous air. Suffocating slums, Polluted water. Cholera in infected water supplies. Piles of dust and refuse. These are commonly understood markers of Victorian London, and other cities in the time period. The industrial revolution released poisons everywhere – in the environment, in the home, in domestic products even. But these conditions persist today. When I was writing the novel, I spent some time teaching in Shanghai, and holding talks in Delhi. Those two cities still suffer from extreme environmental pollution that we might think of as ‘Victorian’. But it is not. It is here and now. 

And in the UK, while natural beauty and open ‘pastoral’ space are celebrated in our national parks and along our coastlines, we are at record levels of unauthorised sewage discharges into our water bodies. Fiction cannot solve these problems, but it can draw our attention towards them, in lively, humane, thought-provoking ways. I hope The Midnight Mechanic entertains as much as it might make you cry; but I also hope it inspires readers to think about what it is that we are releasing into our environments – after COVID-19 our biosecurity has become of central international concern. Pollution isn’t just factories and cars, smoke and smog, we understand: it also comprises chemicals, medicines, hormones, viruses and bacteria in our water supplies, and so on.

What insight do you hope your readers take away from The Midnight Mechanic?

I hope readers enjoy the immersive energy of the book. I hope they are drawn into the story and can’t put it down. That they want to be rooting for Silas and Arthur, for Mary and Nellie, through all the difficulty and adversity, right to the very end. I want readers to find empathy, and understand that certain fundamental things connect us all – our environments, our water, and our waste, which we all produce. ‘What do we DO with it?’ is a very unifying human question across time and geography. We ALL have to answer it. 

The Victorians implemented massive infrastructural programmes to ameliorate squalor and disease in their burgeoning cities. That came at some considerable cost, financial and human. Today, London is doing the same – rebuilding its wastewater management with a £4.9 billion ‘Super Sewer’, fit for the C21st and onwards. In our age of mass urbanisation, we are still very much faced with the homogenising human question: what do we do with the waste? As the Victorians found to their cost, you cannot just throw it away – there is no ‘away’ anyhow. Everything is connected. How we live together in cities, how we care for resources and deal with out waste, is a major question. If fiction can enter into that debate and enliven the discussion in creative, thoughtful, provocative, humane ways, then I shall be very pleased to have been part of that.

An Excerpt from The Midnight Mechanic

A moment later the three of them were squatting on the metal roof. Silas looked over his shoulder down the alley. ‘I think we finally lost ’em.’

‘C’mon,’ said Arthur, ‘let’s get across. And home.’

‘I don’t want to,’ said George, dropping his sleeve from his mouth to cross his arms on his chest once more.

‘You’ll bloody do as you’re told,’ said Silas, looming over him. The youngest boy flinched.

‘Just a hop across the roofs and we’re done,’ said Arthur, stepping between the two of them. He threw a glance at Silas. ‘Don’t spook him now,’ he whispered. Silas stared hard at his brother and then turned away.

‘I don’t want to run across the roofs,’ said George. ‘They won’t hold us…’

‘Course they will,’ Arthur said. ‘We’ll go one by one.’

‘But there’s all that… stuff… underneath.’

‘And there’s them dogs coming up behind us.’ Silas’s eyes flickered.

‘It’ll be alright, George. Just dash across and wait over there.’ Arthur pointed to the haven of a low chimney on the other side, where the boys could gather. He looked down at George, but the lad still needed convincing. ‘I’ll go first then, deal?’

George hesitated, then nodded. Arthur needed no prompting. He dipped his shoulder, tensed his calves and set off quickly across the sheeted roofs. Behind him, Silas watched his dark figure glide across the roof. He could hear his brother’s footfalls and, every now and then the vibrations of the metal sheets as they flexed and boomed beneath his weight.

‘See, George,’ he said. ‘Safe as houses.’ 

The smallest boy nodded his head reluctantly. When he looked up, Arthur had made it to the chimneystack and was now crouching down in the shadows at its base. 

It was a good fifty yards across the span. To the other side Arthur was beckoning.

‘Go on, Georgie, you next,’ Silas said. 

The little boy stood and stared his brother in the face. ‘It’s George,’ he said. ‘I ain’t little Georgie no more!’

‘Alright,’ said Silas. ‘No need to get narkey.’

‘You said Honour Bright,’ George said.

‘I’m sorry, alright?’ said Silas.

‘I hate your bloody stupid plan, Silas. I shoulda stayed at home with ma.’

‘And how would that have worked out, George, when she asked you where we were? Think about it.’

‘I hate your plan,’ the younger boy repeated.

‘Just run will you George, for Christ’s sake!’ Silas span his brother around by the shoulders and pushed him forwards.

George’s first steps were cautious as he grew used to the flex of the tin beneath his feet. The roof panels were tarnished and, in places, slippery with mist. Every few steps he could see the gaps between the rickety panels and the shapeless mass of muck beneath him. Each footfall made the metal bend then rise a little, so the smell of muck wafted up in reeking clouds. As his stomach heaved, he lifted his sleeve once more to his mouth and ran on.

To the rear, Silas watched. Arthur was at the chimneystack, urging George on. The kid’s arm was moving vigorously at his side like a miniature piston. 

Above them, the moon disappeared behind a high bank of cloud and the whole scene darkened. 

‘Go on George,’ Silas whispered. He’d thought about running across with him, but Arthur had been right – the tin sheets wouldn’t bear more than one at a time. The moon reappeared. George was halfway over. Silas waited, crouched low to the gables, clutching his wounded shoulder, pressing hard to numb the pain. He’d wait until George was done, then go himself.

Once more the moon disappeared behind a heavy bank of cloud and Silas felt himself shrouded in darkness. It was as if all the streetlamps in London had suddenly been blown out with one godlike puff. ‘Good lad,’ he sighed. ‘You done it.’

Above them the moon reappeared. The darkness lifted and the rooftops were cast in bright silver light. Silas looked across the roof towards Arthur, and Arthur looked back towards his brother. But George was no longer there.

Silas stood up, staring into the emptiness. ‘George?’ 

Across the roof he saw Arthur stand and also heard him call George’s name. Their voices travelled across the span of the roofs and collided with each other. 

George had vanished. It was as if the moon had cast some charm and, in that dark window of time, magicked their brother away.

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