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