Wine, Women and  Aerial Silk in Salento 

Salento Red by Stanley Sprocket

 

 

Stanley Sprocket is the pen name of the funambulist prince of the buskers, Scott Harrison. He dedicates his novel, Salento Red, (221 pages, 2020, ISBN 9781676659600) to his Sprocket partner, Izzy, Isabelle Feraud. No surprise that Stanley’s fiction takes to the highroad and high wire  being all about movement, shifting moods by alcohol and stepping on the gas. His hero, Simon Barker, will be transported, by the red wine of Apulia  and his TR6 1975 Triumph “in British racing green.”  But he moves too by Fiat Spider, veteran Maserati, 1948 Mercedes, occasional farmer’s three-wheel Ape or Fiat Panda, Seven-ton truck loaded with Primitivo, Trike cargo bike, unicycle, a rusty Transit van or his Brompton two-wheeler which he prefers to a purple Trek mountain bike. He also enjoys a spin in a 1950 grey Fiat 500, top speed 95 KPH. Ferry boats out of Portsmouth, he does not disdain and dreams of replacing his 50-foot-long double-width narrow houseboat, once of a Somerset canal, with a sailing boat, the Swan 43 “simple and elegant, perfect.”

 

The mobile Simon finally comes to rest in a retired Bristol double-decker bus fitted out like an apartment. Who can forget that the Sprockets have on record a fifteen-year continent-hopping journey in just such a UK mastodon. Such trips, even when long as a generation, begin somewhere and end somewhere else. Salento Red is very much a trajectory that strives for good living back and forth between Bath in Somerset and Salento, Italy’s lands-end.

 

We meet Simon on his return to Bath with a truckload of Salento wine to supply the small but perky business he  runs with a friend.  Likeable Simon elicits the sympathy we reserve for an adolescent at grips with riotous hormones.  He seems to fit snuggly into the community of old friends and family while going along with the remnants of punk and hippy subculture that have survived among the glorious 18th-century buildings of the city. Who hasn’t used the tumult of rock as a step to maturity? Then comes the shock. We learn on page 54 that the uncooked youth is in fact forty-three.

 

Our tolerance slips a good notch. The fellow has simply never grown up and had it coming to him when his fiancée whom everyone warned him against proves everyone right. How did the poor chump not see that she operated on a moral level well below his innocent airy one. When the truth hit him, it proved near fatal. A limp Sir Lancelot retreated to Italy while the Dragon Suzi told him to lick his wounds and stick with her through embarrassing thick and shameful thin.

 

Simon leaves the Bath of bohemian canal-boat living and rancid morals in his beloved Triumph. From here on we are in for an inventory that will thrill readers panting after vintage cars. While Simon’s reaction to sexual betrayal almost killed him, it did let him discover his truer self. He’s no punk suffering emotional constipation, nor is he so hip he can feel only his own style. He’s an old-fashioned romantic.  A stopover in Turin country, automobile land, shows us what he likes in women. They should be helpful, nurse-like, first class mechanics but also beautiful, stylish, full of class and sharing his interests in the good life behind the wheel.

 

And so, in the driver’s seat again, down Italy’s long leg  to Salento in the flat heel. Simon’s taste for life returns with his eye for pretty faces. Taking up his job of wine shipper again, he has business  near the Manifatture Knos at Lecce. He discovers a former factory area given over to community arts, among them a  workshop for circus acrobats.

 

 “They’re really a cool bunch at the Knos aren’t they. It’s a side of Lecce that’s really refreshing, I can’t quite put my finger on it,” says Simon on page 103.

 

So Simon falls into the triad that we suspect he shares with his author: Wine, women and aerial acrobatics. Does his fast driving and love of top brands make him a poor-man’s James Bond? Good question, as stumped politicians say on TV. He is hyper-alert to brand names and doesn't miss noticing Patek Philippe and Rollex watches. He likes a Zefal bike pump and an Opinel knife. For champers, he prefers Moët & Chandon bubbly, pink or white. However his want of dexterity and something else make him more of an anti-Bond.

 

“Clumsy, awkward even, but always honest,” his saviour Nancy says with her French sharpness on page 185.

 

Indeed Simon’s quest isn’t for women to conquerer but for the ideal female to be conquered by. Readers will discover she has a striking resemblance to the dedicatee of  Salento Red.

 

The novel is a playful and pacy introduction to the farthest south of Italy. It’s 2018. Simon becomes involved in the anti-TAP protest. Will the Trans Adriatic Pipeline destroy the pristine coast? Stanley Sprocket-Scott Harrison imagines a solution that saves both the countryside and Simon’s Bath wine commerce in its fight with the British supermarkets. It also lands him the energetic Nancy. But Scott has to admit that it’s all a fantasy and urges us on his final page to keep protesting as TAP may still be stopped.

 

Scott Harrison’s life has been so full of accomplishments as a performer that it may seem presumptuous to treat his as a first novel. But it does share traits with that genre. In a first novel a writer has a lifetime of experience to relate. All of it’s important to him and must be spoken. As a result he has too much material for a single novel. Cramming it all in means he has to move too quickly. Some of Scott’s transitions are confusingly brief. When he realises this, he adds  explanations that break the first rule of the novelist, which is to show, not explain.

 

But having too much to say, if a fault, is a generous one. Salento Red tells the story of Scott and Simon’s values. Scott has gone through the mill that Simon is now treading and has the scar tissue to prove it. Moreover, it’s also a breathless account of Salento life now, of its ways and excitement , and not only of its potent red wines that keep the citizens of Bath from depression.

 

Peter Byrne

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