Scott Manley Hadley Reviews
The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes (Dead Ink) by Harry Gallon
Arguably the most self-involved book review of all time.
This might be a long one. I feel ready to digress.
Harry Gallon’s The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is a novella, a gritty, earthy, boozy, druggy, sexy novella set all up and inside of Hackney in about 2014.
It’s all craft beer and cocaine and marijoowuanwua and sleeping on sofas and fucking with condoms and smartphones and Tinder and Twitter and pubs and bars and clubs and stubs and fags and cash and theft and middleclass, mid-20s angst about turning into an adult, the central conceit (theoretically) being that dull domesticity is brought about by dogs (all of who[m][i] are sentient) for the propagation and comfort of their own species. This idea, which flows in and out of the novel’s text like a hangover at a picnic, is not fully explained, and the phrase “The shapes of dogs’ eyes” recurs throughout, moving from an idea to an ideology to a presumed piece of prose – is the character within the novel writing the novel in our hands? Is this real life? Because it feels real, it feels like taking a short from where I live and it feels like many, many adventures I’ve had myself, because I too am an East London dickhead[ii], as every single character in the book is and – I’m afraid – there’s a pretty high likelihood you are too. Are you? Are you suuure you’re not?
I’ve lived in Gallon’s hipster bartender scene, so close that a friend of mine is listed in his acknowledgements. I messaged her and asked what the connection was, and she informed me that Harry Gallon is her boyfriend’s brother. This is even closer than I’d imagined. The only important difference is that his alcoholic interest is craft beer, and I’m more Cocktail.[iii] When I was a wannabe writer working in bars, I saw myself as this:
(That wasn’t what I looked like to outsiders, and that isn’t how that period of my life looks in hindsight.)
The difficultly I had with The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is that it felt like a terrifying flashback to my own past. I’ve been in most of the situations in the novel – I’ve worked in bars with cockroaches and broken equipment, I’ve gone from bar to bar to bar to party, I’ve passed out on strange sofas, I’ve coasted through months at a time doing nothing to develop my life, I’ve been to Pub Watch meetings, I’ve had conversations with chefs about GP[iv], I’ve been on holiday to Tuscany, I debated getting a dog for years whilst doing bar work, and now have a dog and am not doing bar work. The first change has been wonderful, the latter not so much.
Bar work is great. Like, I mean it, it’s the best job [I’ve ever had]. Gallon captures bar work excellently – the routine, the poor diet, the sleeping in, the constant drinking, the huge prevalence of theft[v], the normalisation of constant use of legal and illegal intoxicants[vi], the self-importance, the belief that knowledge about booze is the best kind of knowledge and a rising snobbishness that gets validated every shift by the shared snobbishness of your colleagues.
Eee Tee Cee.
And Gallon gets it. He’s clearly lived it, he imbues his scenes with a vivid, visceral, realness. There’s dirt and damp and insects, there’s drug use and fucking and dog turds under furniture[vii], there are all the right street names, all the right beers, all the right pubs and parks and fences, the managerial and compliance procedures he details are standard industry practice, and that’s all great for gritty social realism, but, and this is a big but for me: is it interesting?
Was I deadened to the excitement of The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes because it was all so familiar, because I know these places and these people[viii] and these lives? Would it be exciting for office drone 9-to-5ers in the same way I enjoy watching (though not reading, I’m almost 30) Game of Thrones? Because I cannot deny that it’s evocative, and a lifestyle different from the average UK experience, despite it being one I’ve known first-hand. Gallon’s writing is full of description and emotion and energy, and is often quite funny, quite witty.
BUT where that wit comes to the fore is in places quite traditionally middle class. There’s a good joke about it taking as long to get to Florence from London as it does to cross the city in rush hour. That’s not a bartender gag, that’s a middle class dinner party quip, and I felt in a few places that the novel missed a trick by the level of comfort the unnamed narrator seems used to. We meet his parents and they seem affluent. He sleeps on other people’s sofas, never paying rent, and no one ever questions him about this. Reminiscent of that line from Withnail & I:
In fact, the whole thing is reminiscent of Withnail & I, especially the idea of choice. All of the characters are living in squalor as a lifestyle decision. Let’s go to another pop culture reference and bang in Jarvis Cocker’s line “if you called your dad you could stop it all”. For all the Hackney hipsters in The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, comfort is available, is there, is at a reach. Tuscany is a common holiday destination, their parents live in nice houses in rural England if they wanna get out of the city. Domesticity as presented as an evil by Gallon’s narrator is very much a middle class domesticity. Getting a dog, the evil action that signals the end of youth[ix], is a middle class signifier, a pet is intrinsically a luxury, especially one that is a breed, not a mongrel, as every dog in the text is. Pedigree dogs aren’t cheap, I know because I’ve bought one[x], the idea of working in bars as a precursor to something more “serious” or “worthy” or “adult” is a little patronising to people who spend their whole careers in hospitality.
The narrator’s life is an adventure, he has parents and a home to go to, a girlfriend he can move in with and a dog-filled future ahead of him. He isn’t trapped in the city, homelessness and unemployment aren’t fearful things for him because there is always somewhere he can crash. So although I initially described this novella as “gritty”, it’s not, because there isn’t really any threat. The threat – if one exists – is in the narrator succumbing to a heteronormative nuclear family life, which he kinda does, happily. The idea of dogs controlling people is an entertaining metaphor, or a fun idea, but Gallon doesn’t hold onto it or go into it any deeper than that. The narrator has his suspicions about sentient dogs, he decides it’s correct, refers to it throughout, never expands.
If I sound overly critical, I apologise, but I’ve a) been asked for an honest opinion and b) I find it difficult to give praise without also giving criticism, and I’m about to get pretty praisy.
There are moments of great joy and real emotional depth within The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes. In fact, there were a few sections I circled in my copy of the book that work as great little vignettes. This, looking back, was my favourite:
Evan came in looking jowly. He brought his short Scottish hair and black glasses with him, eyes you mistake for a frown but they’re smiling in faint autistic consternation. ‘5am Saint and a-’
‘Malbec?’ I can still finish his one sentence for him. Pint of ale and a Malbec for his wife. When I started there she had long blonde hair. By then she was bald. Chemotherapy, said Dee. Rumours of leukaemia, maybe, cap on, blue scarf. ‘5am Saint-’
‘And a Malbec?’ Of course I was already pouring it. Evan smiled. Pleasurable state of late night hesitancy. Glancing over at his wife perpetually. Did his eyes frown? Lips in a constant state of pursing. He’d hold her gaze across the room and hold her hands across their table.
This works on its own, and that last sentence, oof: a beautiful piece about love and mortality, capitalised Art’s two great themes. If Gallon can write so touchingly of love, it’s clear he doesn’t believe in romance as a horror, and this belief seeps into the text. A man railing against the end of his youth is a common theme, but the nameless narrator doesn’t really rail, he accepts it before he has to, it’s almost like he’s trying to persuade himself to feel an anger he doesn’t feel. The narrator is charmed by a life he claims to hate far too easily: he’s ready for it and he wants it: his interest in dogs’ eyes and their “power to control” never becomes fully formed because he doesn’t believe in it. The narrator wishes he didn’t have the small c conservative leanings that are inherent to him and his middle class peers: they all kinda want the nice, cushy, life their parents have, and for all of them it’s an option.
I enjoyed The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, I liked its dirt and its truth and its tone and its use of language.
If you want to experience East London hipster bartender life like it actually is, read this book. This is exactly it. If you want a portrait of working class London, you’re in the wrong place. This is the London of artsy, hipsterish, over-educated, self-important, middle-class wasters like myself. If you’re interested in that, Gallon gets it down as accurately as anyone could.
Gallon’s at his best when he writes about people and places and things. The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes succeeds when there is no pretence, just descriptions of life as lived. Gallon is a keen observer and expert chronicler of hipster East London. Whether that’s the “real” East London is someone else’s argument to have, and not one – rightly or wrongly – that the text engages with.
Buy it for your bartender housemate with three degrees, or your favourite middle class drug dealer.
An interesting read and definitely not boring.
I’m off to walk my dog and bang a negroni. Until later: keep reading, folks!
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About the dickhead who wrote this review
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and is currently writing a series of articles about being young and bald for Huffington Post.
[i] I don’t know how and when to use this form of who. I suppose I should, given that I have two English degrees. I’m gonna leave it like this and hope the guys at Open Pen make me look more literate than I am.
ED – Would then have to actually edit. Would also render this notation redundant, which would be a shame because I like it when you mention that you have two English degrees all the time. [It’s whom.]
[ii] I’ve recently received online abuse to this effect. Here I respond to someone trying to offend me by anonymously messaging me: “kill yourself, you hipster faggot”: https://triumphofthenow.com/2016/07/25/kill-yourself-you-hipster-faggot/
[iii] There’s one reference to negronis in the whole book, though, which either dates the text or shows that me and Gallon aren’t quite so similar after all…
[iv] Which means “Gross Profit”, though Gallon doesn’t say and doesn’t seem to acknowledge this might be something a reader wouldn’t know. Likewise, the afore-mentioned Pub Watch meetings. What are they? I reckon you could work it out from the context, but I didn’t have to, because I’ve been to several. I almost miss them, they evidenced that no one else working in hospitality in the area was half as tired, half as hungover or half as articulate as me. Created simultaneous senses of “I’m better than this” and “I’m not good enough for this”, which cancelled each other out and allowed an easy forgetfulness of my own stagnation. As did all the booze.
[v] I myself am honest to a fault, but am very good at thinking of ways to steal. I found a glitch in the till system in the last bar I worked in whereby it would’ve been possible to steal cash without leaving any trace (i.e. stock discrepancies), but rather than exploit that, I told the bosses like a good boy. What a man.
[vi] The main legal high I’m referring to here is caffeine. People who’ve never ridden the brown donkey don’t how deep you can go. When I used to do dull office work I figured out that the most wasted I could get at 9.30am (without suspicion or judgement) was to drink an entire, strong, cafetiere of Taylors of Harrogate’s ‘Hot Lava Java’. If you’ve never done that, you haven’t lived.
[vii] When my dog was a tiny puppy, he did a bit of diarrhoea in a hidden spot that I didn’t discover for months. I couldn’t clean it as it’s permanently fused to the exposed floorboards. Here’s a picture:
[viii] What the earlier-mentioned point about my friend living with Gallon’s brother means is that I know people who know Gallon, our degree of separation is one at best, in fact we may have even crossed paths or piss streams in a warehouse in Hackney at some point over the last few years. We may have made friends, we may have chatted, too intoxicated to remember, over a pile of books on a handmade coffee table. Gallon is so close to me it is genuinely possible that we have already touched. And that’s actually a bit creepy. The characters in his book are also based on people I may have met. The narrator – no name – has a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub [before his music career takes off]. I have a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub.
ED – And he writes too, of course, and he writes well.
[ix] I’ve had a dog since the winter and I am still as selfish and reckless as I ever was, I just have a furry bundle of fluff to cuddle as I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling, hungover, shaking, in the middle of the afternoon. Help me.
[x] Expensive, but worth every fucking penny. If I could, I’d buy one every week. Check out my Instagram feed for shitloads of pictures of my dog, plus loads of videos of me singing Tom Jones songs. @smanleyhadley