Diary of a Somebody
Brian Bilston
Picador, £14.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

Following in the footsteps of Sue Townsend, whose “enduring genius” he credits as one of his greatest inspirations, poet Brian Bilston makes his fiction debut with a comic novel that takes the form of a diary. The diarist, confusingly also named Brian Bilston, resolves to write a poem a day for a year, beginning on 1 January with “My Resolution Will Not Be Televised” (or Facebooked or Instagrammed or Tweeted), which is ironic as the fictional Brian is rather sensitive about his paltry number of online followers while the real-life Brian, with over 100,000, has been dubbed the Poet Laureate of Twitter.

Fictional Brian’s conspicuous lack of success forces him to work in a beige, joyless place that’s more than a cubicle but less than an office, where he’s “laid siege to by flipcharts and pivot tables” and assailed by business jargon at every turn. He’s separated from his partner, Sophie, who hands their son over to him at weekends with wordless glowers. Sophie has a new boyfriend, the Maserati-driving motivational speaker and “serial over-achiever” Stuart, whose presence in her life makes the hapless Brian feel more ineffectual than ever. He wouldn’t like to admit it, but anyone reduced to rearranging their books by ISBN number must have issues.

Even his poetry group doesn’t bring Brian much comfort. His speciality is light poems on such topics as “Piers Morgan, bus journeys and the seasonal migrations of ice-cream vans”, sneered at by the group’s resident poundshop Pound, Toby Salt, who believes his pompous, impenetrable free verse is destined for far greater things. The trouble is, Toby appears to be right. When he’s picked up by a publisher, the resulting book is the biggest thing to emerge from British poetry for years. But Brian isn’t going to take this lying down. With his redundancy money, he’s going to buy a shed, equip it with all the right accoutrements (like a fancy satinwood desk, a wood-burning stove and an antique globe mini-bar) and show his two nemeses, Stuart and Toby, that he can earn a living from writing. If he can drag himself away from Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple for long enough.

Noticeably, most of the poems from the early part of Brian’s year are pastiches, humorous resettings of originals by the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Joyce Kilmer, William Carlos Williams and Dylan Thomas. But as the months go by Brian steadily finds his own voice and, though the plot may be slight and over-extended, this fun, charming novel is a fine showcase for Bilston’s irrepressible creativity. Unable resist an inventive pun or linguistic joke, he can draw inspiration from the most banal sources, presenting poems as multiple choice questions and Venn diagrams and, in one instance, even getting the publisher to replicate the effect of a printer cartridge running out of ink. It’s all done with wit, playfulness and a sense of amused wonder at the possibilities and idiosyncrasies of the English language, with the occasional groanworthy pun seeming like a price well worth paying.