Perched atop a bar stool, olive-hued wall of Five Leaves bookshop in the background, writer Lee Stuart Evans introduced his Monday-night audience to his debut novel, Words Best Sung. The book launch commenced with a selection of songs from the 1960s played to the audience, who were enthusiastic and evidently familiar with the decades’ hits. The tuneful opening experience further acquainted us with the period of time on which Evans focused for his tale of love, trains, rhythm & blues.
The novel, a gentle take on sex, drugs & rock n roll, Evans explained, was partially a result of his freelance schedule. Used to ‘making hay while the sun shines’, the prolific comedy writer explained how he maintained the writing of material even on his days off, penning topical monologues everyday for ten years. Words Best Sung, the author told, is a result of a defeated sitcom idea and a sanity-saving switch in written matter. The audience learned that Evans, inspired by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, envisioned a man reflecting on his working days on the railway. When the narrative manifested, Evans recalls that his wife expressed her preference for the flashbacks of the protagonist’s youth. The destiny of the novel, it seems, was decided in this moment.
As the evening progressed, the humble and charmingly self-conscious author gently divulged the novel’s premise, and the real inspiration behind it, with two events seemingly acting as determining factors. Evan’s parents divorced when he was a young child, which resulted in a significant time spent with his Uncle John, a sort of ‘mad older brother’ figure, who took the young Lee on many an adventure, revealing his fondness for a past spent on the railways. It’s revealed that this particular uncle’s recent passing acted as a catalyst for the novel, which speaks of main character Alistair and his dreams of working on the railway and marrying the girl next door. Naivety seems to be a common thread in the tale, where the age of steam is coming to an end, lust for new girl Mary is confused by nostalgic feelings for childhood sweetheart Charlotte, and a musical encounter leads to new thrills and perhaps an uncertain future.
The first reading at the event gave an immersive insight into the characters that populate Words Best Sung. Realism pulses through the speech and depiction of the Nottinghamshire cast, as Evans naturally embraced a number of authentic Midlands dialects and their associated enthusiasm. Through this first window into the novel, we meet teenage protagonist Alistair, his docile father, and his demanding fussy mother. It became obvious that many members of the audience had already read, and love, the novel, and they were vocal with their praise for authentic Nottinghamshire dialect and dialogue, as well as the convincing teenage thought process.
The second reading from Evans showcased one of the novel’s first scenes of railway life. It’s a sobering instance, where we hear of the young, enthusiastic dreamer protagonist interacting with a veteran of railway work — a character no doubt shaped by a younger Evans’ seven years experience in a garage. The final reading of the night details Alistair’s receipt of a letter from childhood love Charlotte, who has left her native Nottinghamshire for the bright lights of city life in 1960s London. Alistair is seemingly firmly rooted in his hometown, while Charlotte is unfolding her wings in the capital — a juxtaposition that is mirrored in the author’s anecdotes of being a Nottinghamshire transplant in London, as a successful comedy writer. The novel may have been written while Evans was elsewhere in the country, but Words Best Sung is truly evocative of a specific time and place. In fact, during the course of the evening, members of the audience commented that the characters and setting are so convincing, it's like Evans never left the area.
On a few instances, Evans vocalized a desire to showcase working class people and fairly represent people he grew up with, understandably unsatisfied with stereotypes in the media that paint working class people as criminals and addicts. The book, and the process of writing these complex and well-received characters, was an acknowledgement and acceptance of the authors’ background. Writing the book made Evans realise how content and proud he was of being raised by a single mother on a council estate in Nottingham, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, contrary to what his contemporaries in London may think. The various readings and contextual insights from the author elicited many eager questions from a captivated audience, ranging from the novel’s characters to Lee Stuart Evans’ day job, and the personalities he encounters on a day-to-day basis (the likes of Sean Lock and Dawn French featuring prominently). From the readings that night, it was clear that the characters who inhabit the world of Words Best Sung employ all the idiosyncrasies and nuances of these real life public figures, but with added small town, Midlands charm.
Everyone in attendance could see that Words Best Sung was inspired by a beloved, one-of-a-kind uncle, who measured train journeys by the time it took to drink a can of Stella and surprised a young Evans with weekends of trainspotting and rail journeys, which occasionally culminated in sleepovers on the station platform of Edinburgh’s Waverly Station. With all the necessary nods to fashion and aesthetics, Evan’s debut piece may be a striking, nostalgic homage to the 1960s, but there’s no mistaking that it’s primarily love letter to Nottinghamshire. At the beginning of the evening, the humble author makes it clear that he finds it ‘especially special’ to be in Nottingham for the book’s launch event. I believe Evans was entirely genuine when he expressed that, more than anything else, he wants people from Nottinghamshire to like to the book. To me, from my seat in Fives Leaves bookshop, there was no mistaking that they do.