This week I read David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, set in Northumberland. Here’s what I thought:

“The Fire Eaters”, David Almond

I first came across David Almond when I was 11 or 12, when my English lessons involved taking turns to read parts of Skellig aloud to the rest of the class. I loved it and so, although he is technically a children’s writer, I leapt at the chance to read another of his novels when someone suggested it to me for this challenge.

So what claims does this book have to that county? We are told that the young protagonist, Bobby, lives in a northern, “coaly” (37) town called Keely Bay that is on the North Sea coast, only a bus ride from Newcastle (which was part of Northumberland when this book was set) and less than 90 miles from the Scottish border. If we were left in any doubt, the very first page is devoted to Almond’s own personal ties to Northumberland, where he lives with his family.

I am pleased to say that, as expected, there is nothing childish about this book; its characters – both young and old – are complex and emotional, reflecting the complex political and social context of the setting, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The fear of impending doom permeates people and places; Bobby senses all around him that “the tide was turning and the centre was all eddies and swirls and agitation” (10). The once-comforting routine of his home life in Keely Bay – represented by the toing and froing of “the sea coalers and their ponies” and the endless circles of the lighthouse light “that swept the sea, the land and then the sea again” (16-17) – now makes Bobby restless as he becomes more aware of the world outside, where the USSR and the USA compete for dominance with nuclear weapons. They live in constant fear of “the drone of engines” (38) from above.

April 1962, London CND March

Despite this frustration and restlessness, and with the destruction of all he knows seeming a real threat, Bobby is also desperate to strengthen his connection to his “home beside the sea” (1) and become one with his surroundings: he thinks his blood tastes like the sea’s salt; he gives off a smell, McNulty notices, of fish and salt that is unique and distinct from Newcastle’s “sour smell of the river” (5); he wants “to be the sea, the sky, a stone, the lighthouse light” (139) in order to regain, internally, the peace and innocence he associates with Keely Bay. Indeed, perhaps the most striking moment of the whole book is one which highlights how connected Bobby and his friend Joseph are to their hometown, without necessarily realising it: the two boys are spying on “the new kid’s house” at night, from the beach, and each time “the light” (25) swings round from the lighthouse they know instinctively to duck from it so as not to be seen. Not only does this scene show how sensitive they are to intrusion from outside the town’s tight circle (the new boy, Daniel, and his family, is from Kent, raising the age-old issue of the English North-South divide) but it also demonstrates how much understanding the boys have for the needs and ways of Keely Bay, something the new family – shut away in their fancy, new house that sports “a huge window at the front facing out across the sea” and which will, the boys know, only seem foolish when the winds begin to lash and the waves “crash within yards of it” (66) – so far fails in.

The North-South divide is a key theme of Almond’s novel and, distanced physically from the decision-making centre that is London, the community from Keely Bay is left feeling powerless and insignificant. London, with its dramatic CND protests, is depicted in the same exotic and far-away terms as Cuba and the USA. Bobby’s friends have plenty to say about the new “nancy boys” (26) and “ponces from the South” (212), but the really cutting judgement is shown by Almond to swoop in the other direction. New boy Daniel compares Ailsa and her sea-coaling family to “ancient devils…like something from ancient tales. Half human” (115) and typical of “the North” (66). The townspeople are dismissed repeatedly by Daniel’s family, the ‘local’ council (headed by Westminster, in the south), and the teachers of the nearby public school (also from London and the Home Counties) as “common folk” (133) who do nothing but “scrap and fight like animals” (117) and who “must be taught to conform” (92). These judgements soon affect the boys’ self-esteem; they begin to dismiss their own Keely Bay as “bliddy derelict” (37) and their families as “pale ghosts” (114) or “half-human thing[s]” (117). Thus, anyone who intrudes on the small community is deemed a threat to its well-being and its survival, a danger that is reflected in the way the boys call each newbie an “incomer” (154) which sounds similar to how one would describe an approaching weapon.

Coal Sands in Northumberland

Throughout the majority of the novel Almond presents us with a view of England that is extremely divided, not only along the mythical North-South line but also along the Scottish border, represented by the controversial character of McNulty on whom I wish I had more time to focus. This sense of difference is made all the more apparent by Almond’s use of language. By using “mam” instead of the ‘Standard English’ spelling of ‘mum’, as well as other alternatives such as “nowt”, “howay”, “aye” and “lugs” that are stereotypically associated with northern English, Almond seems to blur, purposefully, some readers’ understanding of certain quips and observations in a way that shows the North-South divide exists just as much in 2003, when this book was first published, as it did in Almond’s portrayal of 1962.

However, using the setting of the Cuban Missile Crisis also allows Almond to portray North-South relations on the cusp of possible change; Bobby feels that “if we could just get through these days and nights of dread a time of great excitement might be waiting for us all” (242), an opportunity to do away with social prejudices and share in a new closeness that is not influenced by physical distance from anyone or anything. Simply replace the Cuban Missile Crisis with the fear of other terrorist atrocities today and the novel’s message still resonates. It is Almond who chooses to present a hopeful outlook on the possibility of national unity, but it is a children’s book, after all…

The novel does not end with this big unanswered question of North-South or global relations, however. Rather, it returns ultimately to the local, without succumbing to that feeling of powerlessness presented in the beginning. Bobby recovers from his fear of destruction and reconciles himself to life in Keely Bay, “beside the lighthouse, near to everything” (222) he loves. He is filled with awe for the little things around him – his home, his family, his friends, his school life – which all add up to the “hugeness” (249) of the land’s importance. He no longer feels abandoned or insignificant in a corner of England, but chooses instead to “[sweep] his map away” (230) and focus his efforts on looking inwardly and standing up for what matters to him. Almond thereby gives Keely Bay its own intense power, independent from its geographical location.

Almond’s novel is an ideal choice for this challenge, offering a surprisingly complex insight into relationships between people and places and investigating the social importance of developing – and being allowed to develop – a sense of belonging. Its additional themes of war, self-harm and other personal turmoil seem to advance far beyond what I normally expect from this type of literature, making it a highly insightful and enjoyable read for any age group. Overall, I give it 4/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece for Cumbria. Join me!

ALMOND, David. The Fire Eaters. London: Hodder, 2009.


The Cornish Question


I’ve had some great feedback from all corners about this challenge recently – kicking off from a discussion about Cornwall – that has really got my head spinning. To make some sense of it, I thought I’d jot down a few notes in answer to some questions I’ve been asking myself for a while, and that some of you have also iterated.

Firstly, I openly apologise for my relative ignorance on the subject of the distinct Cornish identity – and indeed other regional/historical/personal identities that exist within the diverse area that is officially labelled ‘England’. Obviously, this literary venture aims to go some way to combat my lack of knowledge; I do not, and will never presume myself to be an expert on anyone’s identity. I struggle enough to understand how I might define my own.

Of course, it is not only me who is plagued with this kind of ignorance. That is one of the many problems with the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ and even smaller designations such as by region (‘North-East’), county (‘Cornwall’) and city (‘London’). Not only do these homogenising labels fail to represent a heck of a lot, but they are often applied to individuals and areas that do not want to be represented by them. As these false representations become more widely accepted at face value, so ignorance of the complexities and disagreements beneath expands, across all aspects of society. I’m just starting to understand how important it is to critique these labels.

  • So why have I chosen to divide the country by its (ceremonial) counties, which are labels in themselves?

This is something I struggled to decide upon for a long time: if ‘England’ is meaningless, surely all its official subdivisions are too. Instead of by its counties, I debated dividing the country by rural vs. urban areas, by trends in landscape, even by motorway routes. Ultimately, however, each of these ideas is as arbitrary as the next.

My final decision was made precisely because the official county designations are so problematic and enforced by the state on people. For example, as has been pointed out to me this week, calling Cornwall a ‘county’ is itself an offence, as it belittles its extensive Celtic history and linguistic uniqueness that gives the region its own sense of distinct nationhood.

I want to investigate the inadequacy of dissecting England’s area in this way: what happens when people don’t consider themselves part of any English county?; might there be similarities and differences between people’s attitudes that have nothing to do with county borders?; how else might people define themselves if not by county?; is there any sign of a discernible national spirit?

  • Isn’t listing authors under these counties a bit hypocritical, being tantamount to assigning them identities that they may not consider accurate?

In actual fact, it’s not where the authors come from that determines where they are positioned on my list, but rather where their books are set geographically. But in short, yes, it is horribly difficult to justify. Who am I to say that the author Alan M Kent is writing about the county of Cornwall, when he considers himself fully Cornish and not part of English administrative or cultural society at all? I did try to get around this and other difficulties by referring, in my plan, to “England-based” rather than simply “English” authors, but obviously this hasn’t been completely successful.

At present, to continue with Alan M Kent as an example, he is listed under ‘Cornwall’ simply because of the arbitrary fact that his Cornish novel shares some of the coordinates of that English county. Some of the other books on the list do not name their settings at all; it is mere critical speculation that has attached them to a certain county and could be utterly incorrect. Regardless, with all the novels on my journey I aim to analyse the representations of place, whatever and wherever those places are considered to be, whether they are clear or blurry, accurate or subjective. The whole point of this challenge is to learn about different points of view; that is also why I’m choosing to blog about it!

  • Why have I chosen to analyse these representations of place through literature, instead of tackling the politics of Englishness head-on?

As much as I hope this journey can stand as a critique of how dangerous and ridiculous it is for anyone – the government, institutions, even little old me – to assign labels of identity to others, it is also a personal journey. As such, I’m undertaking it through the medium of what I have always loved, studied and learnt about the world from: literature. Novels. Fiction. Of course it has struck me that reading ‘one book from every county’ will not teach me all I need to know about life in that part of England; it will teach me one person’s views, and maybe not even that if I get the wrong end of the stick. In a way, I’m just excited to find new things to read.

So the way I’m carrying out this challenge isn’t perfect, it won’t give me answers set in stone…but then again, I wouldn’t expect to find those anywhere.

In fact, I’m not really looking for answers. I’d rather just learn how to ask the right questions.

Your comments this week have helped massively in that, so keep them coming!

With special thanks to the cornish republican for some great links and info

People who live in glass houses…

Well, the time has come for the Placing Myself reading challenge to officially begin!

To kick off, I’ll be reading David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, which is said to be set in Keely Bay, Northumberland. I’ll be looking to find out what Almond has to say, if anything, about living in Northumberland and in England in the modern world. Find out why I chose this book and what I thought of it next week; in the meantime, get reading with me!

For today, I thought a review of Harry Mount’s How England Made the English would be a good starting point, and a reminder of all those English stereotypes that this quest is trying to dissect.

All in all, I value it at 3/5 stars. Not perfect but a worthwhile read nonetheless.

MOUNT, Harry. How England Made the English. London: Penguin, 2013.

I began this book expecting a plethora of wild generalisations and unsatisfactory southern subjectivity on the topic of what it means to be English. I was especially sceptical when I read in Mount’s introduction that, for him, to “spot […] Englishness, wherever you are in the country” (xviii), is incredibly simple. Is it? I thought. I wouldn’t know what I was supposed to be ‘spotting’.

As it turns out, Mount defines Englishness on very tangible (if not wholly fulfilling) foundations: granite kerbstones, traditional red-brick housing materials and hedge-lined gardens are what catch his eye from a plane or train window. His argument is that from mild English environs – made up of a unique combination of geography, geology, history and weather – springs a national character that values domesticity, practicality and a lack of ostentation, which in turn influences how the English treat their environs…

Despite Mount’s title, and his aim, his book is more a scientific study of England than it is about the English in anthropological terms. For a start, his chapter on weather details several factors that distinguish England from the rest of the world in a convincing way: England’s northerliness, for example, makes it colder than much of Continental Europe, but it is the mild Gulf Stream that flows from Mexico across the Atlantic Ocean to touch England’s shores that gives the country a less extreme climate than other areas in the same latitude, such as parts of Russia or Canada. Less reliable is his statement that the drizzly, lacklustre skies lead to a nation of antisocial people who “simply don’t get out as much as southern Europeans” and are plagued by “gloom” and an “inability to work up much excitement over anything” (4). This seems to me to be little more than a token attempt to comment on national character; he selects a stereotype at random, without much attempt to dissect it, and slots it in wherever it is convenient.

Despite my hesitations, I did enjoy reading this book for its sheer factual compendiousness; Mount is clearly a talented and engaging writer if he has the ability to interest me in weather, rocks, soil and flora. Particularly enjoyable and remarkable were his paragraphs that ran all the way from a discussion of England’s specific geography, geology and weather into how these factors allowed specific industries to develop, to how this might influence people’s regional or national behaviour. To answer the question of why, statistically, the Midlands’ favourite foods are curry and naan bread, Mount reminds readers of the Asian population present in that part of the country, drawn there in the 1950s and ‘60s as the burgeoning car-making industry chimed with their migration; an industry that came to life because of historic early industrialisation in that region, itself brought about because of the Midlands’ prime coal-rich location since practically the dawn of time.

Harmondsworth Barn

Moreover, if you want to track what was considered culturally important and valuable in England over the centuries, Mount points out that you need only observe the country’s architecture. Gothic cathedrals have always been crucial buildings for purposes of religion, status and money, but they are not the only erections built to grand, exacting standards. Ironically, farmyard barns – “the backbone of the English economy before the industrial revolution” – were constructed along the same elaborate lines: they were often tall, supported by arches and columns along a wide central passage and built with extreme care by skilled workmen in order to protect the farm’s “treasury” (133). Later, as industrialisation became England’s pride and glory, the same design went into impressive railway stations such as Liverpool Street and St Pancras. These days, it is most common to find household conservatories sharing the pattern, influenced by the 1851 Crystal Palace. Since the Victorian era, then, it seems domesticity and the cultivation of one’s home has taken over the country’s mind – part of the “English cult of property ownership” (101) that is not seen elsewhere in Europe, where renting is much more common.

I could go on for pages detailing the various facts that Mount got across in his book. I definitely learnt a lot about English history, legislation and industrialisation, but I remain completely clueless about what ‘Englishness’ might be when it refers to a nation of people who may or may not have anything in common.

So onto next week’s adventure! Novel #1 here I come.

Featured picture: Crystal Palace