‘Rooney’ by Catherine Cookson (1956)

This book belongs to my boyfriend, who was given it as a present because he’s a Manchester United fan.  It’s been sitting in the toilet for a good few years, but just recently I was bored and looking for something to read, so picked it up.  He then asked me to review it for his Manchester United fansite, which I did.

I really enjoyed writing it (and reading it!) and it kind of gave me the impetus to start this whole blog thing, so thank you Catherine, and thank you Rooney.

Not what I exactly envisaged for my first essay – but, here it is – I give you ‘Rooney’ by Catherine Cookson.

‘Rooney was a simple man … in a complex situation’ reads the tag line for this novel and Rooney is, essentially, a love story.  At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to the protagonist of the title as a staid and unambitious individual who, by the end of novel and after overcoming various obstacles and challenges, is reborn through the transformative power of love.

Cookson’s novel opens by referring to the eponymous hero as a Muck Pusher.  However – despite the novel being set in the north of England – rather than aiming some kind of future homophobic insult at the yet-to-be-born Wazza, Cookson is merely employing 1950s slang for a bin man.  It is, in part, Rooney’s muck pushing which forms the central theme of the novel and characterises the protagonist by placing him firmly in the strict social stratification of South Shields in the 1950s.  This class structure gives Rooney his identity and he is happy to operate within it and even embraces the security that the resultant stasis gives him.  This all changes though when the central plot device of the novel kicks in, that is when he meets ‘the little one’.

Until this point Rooney is a confirmed bachelor, happy with his weekly trip to the dogs, his three pints (and no more) down The Anchor, or his evenings in with his cowboy novels.  His friends at the Corporation all agree he is ‘too cute to be caught’ and we learn that ‘with skill and surprising determination he [has] evaded four widows and two spinsters during the past ten years.’  He is also an orphan, a fact which the reader is encouraged to imbue with meaning as regards his suspect attitude towards marriage.

Rooney’s safe and routine existence, devoid of attachment, begins to unravel when he moves into a room at Ma Howlett’s place.  Here the main tenets on which he has built his life thus far: his class and his deliberate emotional isolation, begin to bifurcate.  Firstly, Ma Howlett lives on Filbert Terrace, a street considered a cut above the usual terraces resided in by dockers and miners, where Rooney took rooms previously.  Rooney describes the difference on his first visit to meet Ma:

‘… even the darkness could not hide the difference of this terrace from its immediate neighbours, for jutting from the foot of each tall house was an iron railing encircling a square of ground inside of which could be sensed rather than seen patches of green, broken some places by crazy paving, and even bird baths.’

When moving in with his few treasured possessions, Rooney is immediately reminded of his lowly class ranking and is made to feel inferior by Ma Howlett’s aspirational daughter.  She complains to her mother on seeing his furniture:

‘Old rubbish!  That awful bed.  And the whole street watching.  And my wedding so near … If you had to let, why take him?’

Secondly, although Rooney doesn’t realise it himself until quite a lot later in the novel, the reader knows it is love at first sight when he claps eyes on Nellie (who he christens ‘the little one’), who also lives in a room at Ma Howlett’s:

‘Rooney … found his gaze remaining on her as it had done on Ma.  But it wasn’t her hair that drew him, but her eyes, large brown eyes … He had never seen such large eyes in a woman.’

Rooney becomes increasingly drawn into Ma Howlett’s strange world and by association the plight of the little one, who – it transpires – in a Cinderella-esque pastiche, is a long-term victim of Ma’s (her aunt) bullying.  The problems caused by the sudden social mobility resultant of his taking rooms at Ma, together with the difficulties of the little one, serve to feed into each other as the events escalate.  The final result being that Nellie is arrested for suspected theft of an expensive necklace.

Rooney, although still not understanding why himself, has been drawn into wanting to help Nellie, but until the point of her arrest has been unable to, as she has managed to fight her own battles with Ma, leaving Rooney feeling useless and emasculated.  The opportunity arises when he has the chance to save her from prison and – you might guess, they all live happily ever after.

Rooney is a must for all joint fans of pulp fiction romances, vague MUFC puns, 1950s class battles and inherent sexism and racism, of which there must at least 5 of you out there.  Buy it now for 90p, or in ‘new money’ £89.99.

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