Lodestone – the work of Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers is a writer whose time has come. Recent winner of the Walter Scott Prize for his stunning The Gallows Pole, Myers has been a prolific voice of the English North for several years, and his wider renown is thoroughly deserved. It also comes at a fertile time for writing from the North of England. Writers such as Jon McGregor, Fiona Mozley and Andrew Michael Hurley have also recently published critically-acclaimed works which explore a sense of place and identity during this (to put it mildly) interesting time for England.

I want to look at his most recent works: The Gallows Pole, which resurrects the tale of the Cragg Vale coiners in 18th century Yorkshire; and Under the Rock, which details Myers’s own experience of settling into a home in the shadow of the brooding Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd: a town whose name immediately sparks thoughts of another writer intimately associated with deep Yorkshire: Ted Hughes.

The Gallows Pole tells of the rise and fall of a gang of coiners under the rule of “King” David Hartley. For 3 years, from 1767 to 1770 his fiefdom provided a kind of socialism or, if that’s too much of a stretch, a welfare sub-state for the poor of the Calder valley. In so doing his forged coins devalued the official currency of England, something the authorities were not going to overlook. Myers’s story, then, is a tale of power and authority and identity, what creates them and what happens when they are challenged.

Myers writes thickly layered prose; the world is invoked by dense clods of language and his David Hartley is an elemental figure subject to visions, in stark contrast to the “genteel”, smartly-dressed figures of authority who live in town: “David Hartley appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills”. Town and country are pitted against one another. Men “whose family names were as much a part of the terrain as the boundary marker stones that mapped the moors and fractioned their tight territories” do not exist in an urban environment. Yet urbanity, too, has its depths: “It seemed to him to be two places, Halifax. A town of two faces. One of sunlight and another of shadows”: both exist and both are true.

To the coiners, town represents officialdom and “England”, a notion which means little; an idea too big and too distant to matter. “Jorvikshire” is the limit of their focus and ambition: they make no reference to England and cannot conceive of a wider polity than their own county. “England” exists only for the rich: when the Prime Minister’s name is invoked, one of the coiners retorts “I’ve never heard of him”. Hartley’s brothers style themselves the “Duke of Edinburgh” and “Duke of York” in a (partly) ironic assumption of nobility. They are questioning what nobility means: they are, after all, acting for the benefit of their people, even if the nobility of their actions is a side-effect of their accumulation of specious wealth. But England contains Yorkshire within it, and their power and independence is ultimately shown up for the circumscribed game that it is.

When removed from their environment, the gang members are bereft: turncoat James Broadbent looks around him in the home of one of these authority figures, hoping to trade his knowledge for cash and immunity. But his identity is fractured by the multiplicity of things, of reflective surfaces: “Furnished textiles. A pewter platter. A tea service. A decanter. Mirrors. Many mirrors reflecting James Broadbent’s eyes as they dart around the room and struggled to take everything in…a world unimaginable.” The difference between assumed power and established power is revealed.

And yet, for all the power of the establishment, to what end is it being put? To maintain itself, of course. The coiners offer a vision of something better, a localism opposed to the nationalism of England. “The starving of Calder Valley…had been clothed and fed and given hope, and that was more than any landowner or dignitary or law-maker…had done. It was more than the King of England himself had offered.”

Of course, an existential threat such as is posed by the coiners cannot be accommodated and must be purged. “The Crown doesn’t need proof…when the man decides it’s you, then it’s you that will be swinging”. The lawmen’s betrayal of Broadbent is no surprise: “this was about pragmatism and trust in a system. The English way.” Pragmatism is that default setting of the English establishment, historically adept at justifying the means to an end. For all their culture and manners, the Law and “England” are as morally skewed as the coiners, who are at least true to their word.

The Gallows Pole is a brutal work (not least for the few stoic females that haunt its pages), but utterly gripping and convincing in every aspect.

Staying in the Calder Valley, Under the Rock sees Myers explore his new home. It’s a piece of landscape writing which is parochial in the best sense: in not showing how small a locality is in the wider world, but showing how large a world exists in that locality.

The double meaning of the title can of course refer to the poetry written about and around a place (by Ted Hughes, Glyn Hughes and Simon Armitage, for instance), and also the innate meanings and resonances, shapes, forms and moods, that a place can have. Elmet is the title of one of Ted Hughes’s finest collections, where his poems are paired with photos by Fay Godwin: wonderfully evocative monochrome scenes of post-industrial decline and savage moorland in which even the brightest sunlight sends a shiver down the spine.

“Elmet was the ancient Brittonic kingdom of the native Celts that covered much of the West Riding between the fifth and early 7th centuries and part of the larger Yr Hen Ogledd – The Old North – region that incorporated numerous minor kingdoms from Southern Scotland down through the Borders, Cumbria and Yorkshire.”

Hughes had previously written a collection called Remains of Elmet, but edited and supplemented this in the revealing light of Godwin’s work.

Remains are thick on the ground anywhere in Britain, and come in many forms: “what I particularly like are the industrial remains: the old mills and mill ponds, the buried pieces of machinery, forgotten things half hidden beneath the undergrowth.” Even since the late 70s of Hughes’s poems and Godwin’s photos, the landscape has changed. In trying to find the spot from which a particular photo – featuring the dark sentinel of Scout Rock – was taken, Myers realises that it too has gone; has been built over, redeveloped. The site of those lost visions of Hughes’s 1930s childhood are themselves lost; a double-burial.

Myers’s writing is refreshing in that his eye misses nothing; its view is not selective: beauty can exist anywhere, in unexpected forms. “The sun’s rays reach Burnley road to flood the industrial units and workshops and bacon-packing factory with light, and fill the stagnant canal with honey, making even the dumped BMXs and deep-green swirls of goose shit look golden”. This is nature writing that acknowledges the pictureskew, that does not hide from the acts of violence done to and within a landscape:

“Recent years have seen our bookshops swell with works that consider the rural landscapes of Britain. Often their authors are people like me, blindly staggering around trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. But so many of these accounts veer towards the romantic. They are escapist representations…one step removed from the reality. Few seem prepared to tackle the more insidious side of the landscape – the blood and guts of it, and also the actions of those individuals whose negative influence can define a place for decades of centuries”

Myers may have had one eye on the Cragg Vale coiners as he wrote that, but the other was fixed on the unholy local trinity of Peter Sutcliffe – the Yorkshire Ripper – his friend, Jimmy Savile (whose life and fame only becomes more strange and unpleasant the more you read of it), and mass-murdering GP Harold Shipman. In this region of uncompromising landscapes, the world of Heathcliff and Ted Hughes, he asks “can the contours of a county determine the actions of its residents?”

Yet Scout Rock, whose “dark mythology” overhangs the book in every sense, offers Myers both stability and hope in a time of financial hardship and emotional difficulty. This may be from study of the fauna: “most are weeds and viewed as invasive or poisonous or ugly, yet I find them fascinating and beautiful, each as valuable as a wild orchid, if not as rarely seen”, from the persistence of nature in reclaiming humankind’s efforts to subdue it: “I have seen true rewilding at work at a microcosmic level, and barely a stone’s throw from schools and houses, pubs and petrol stations. It has been completely accidental, and has happened despite, rather than because of, humans…the rewilding of Scout Rock is born out of neglect, and is nature’s fight-back against the centuries of industrialisation,” or from the hypnotic consolations of putting one foot in front of the other:

“Walking is writing with your feet. When we walk our footprints mark the soil like the crudest of hieroglyphics, and our minds take fanciful turns. Over long, solitary miles abstract or disconnected thoughts can often find purposes in words which then link to form cogent sentences. Writing and walking are co-dependent…Writing is a form of alchemy. It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.. But it is archaeological too, an act of digging and looking. Writing is an attempt to tap into narratives, and to look in either direction along the timeline.”

As a coda, Myers journeys to Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber, into which the Calder flows: that river’s “true conclusion”. He despairs – as he has throughout the book – of the “downward ecological spiral” our culture has produced for itself. At this outermost point of Yorkshire he sees the curious juxtaposition of plastic junk washed down rivers or cast up by the waves, piling up on a steadily eroding coastline. When he says “we are a shrinking island” he speaks metaphorically as well as literally. “Water is only ever passing through”: it is “not self-contained…[and] lead[s] elsewhere…I must remind myself that there is a world beyond.”

The obvious, looming narrative that writing taps into at this point in time is Brexit. In common with both fiction and non-fiction currently exploring the idea of “place”, these works are  – perhaps inadvertently – a reaction against the narratives that have brought us to the brink of Brexit; a reaction against the insular visions of Britain (Greater England) that have poisoned the public sphere and made the current political mess possible. They are works that aim to reclaim the local – explored in explicit, even forensic, detail – in deliberate contrast to the vague, platitudinous ideas of the nation that decorate tabloid front pages.

I may be stretching here, but this wave of New North writing reminds me of the brief mid-90s fashion for Scottish literature (fashionable among London press and publishers, that is: it wasn’t “fashion” up here, it was just “literature”). It’s widely accepted that this resurgence, which started in the 1980s with writers like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, helped fashion the new sense of national identity (crucially, from a left-wing perspective) that made devolution possible (and independence likely).

What’s telling now is that this New North writing is a specifically English – as distinct from British – thing. The fact that many of these works are from independent (northern) publishers also shows that the movement (to call it such) is an organic thing, and not driven by London taste. I know that Yorkshire in particular sees itself as a separate country (as does Cornwall) and that it has a far greater sense of identity than, say, Northamptonshire or West Sussex. One of the many interesting things about the insane state we find ourselves in as Brexit looms is the struggle for a specifically English identity to emerge from the unravelling fabric of “Britain”. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have long had a sense of themselves as entities; England, as the major partner in the United Kingdom, has not; and as the ties of that Union fray, England is an uncertain and fearful thing. It needs more works of literature like these, which examine the country, its people and its places, and the relationship between them. It may be a dark and painful process but it’s a necessary one.

 

Sources:

Myers, Benjamin: The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose)

Myers, Benjamin: Under the Rock (Elliott & Thompson)

Myers, Benjamin: These Darkening Days (Mayfly)

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Where have all the words gone?

It isn’t writer’s block.

Stephen King once wrote about a story “being dead even as the words continue to march across the page”, and I hope it isn’t that, either.

I think all that’s happened is a loss of momentum. I’ve stalled.

The folk-horror work was going well, until I went on holiday. But the momentum was lost, and I can’t get it back. That isn’t to say I’ve written nothing since June: I have, several pages (and several entries on this blog). But they’ve been sporadic. And one of the chapters – indeed a whole subplot – I decided to scrap, because it was making the story lopsided. But then the decision to scrap the subplot showed holes in the main story that hadn’t been visible before. Structural holes. Holes that, if left unattended, cold bring the whole edifice down.

It isn’t terminal, I’m sure. But it’s a pain in the arse. Because this story felt truer, more natural and, because set around (a thinly fictionalised version of) the town in which I live, more relevant than some other things I’ve written.

I don’t generally get writer’s block. Walking and thinking means that when I come to sit down to write, the words are just waiting to be spilled onto the page.

No, I think this is laziness. Because it had been going so well, so smoothly, I hadn’t had to work hard at it. And I tend to laziness. But now I need to work at it.

What I need to do is think at the macro level, not the micro. For some writers I expect that’s easy but I’ve always been a details, close-to-the-action writer, rather than a step-back-and-tell-a-grand-narrative writer, which is why the vast majority of my writing is in short form. Even the Robin Hood novel (serialisation coming soon, folks!) I wrote was stitched together from individual legends.

I was speaking to a friend about this yesterday and she suggested that I write a character piece: something about one of the characters, which would not be part of the story but a free-form chance to explore their motivations, and which in turn would tell me what choices or decisions the character would make. I tend to make my characters fit a situation, rather than have their actions drive a story. This isn’t necessarily the wrong way around, but in a novel it will be magnified, and appear far more contrived than in a short story.

I believe in this story; I think there’s a good concept behind it which I perhaps just need to iron out a little better. Maybe I started it too soon, without considering the rises and falls and arcs of all the characters.

I just need to think it out.

It isn’t writer’s block.

A Clive Barker Top 10

I compiled a China Mieville Top Ten a few months ago to mark the TV adaptation of The City and The City. Barker these days is a far less prolific author than Mieville (or even his younger self), so there’s no new work appearing to prompt this. It is, however, his birthday on October 5th so to celebrate that, here’s my utterly subjective ranking of his adult novels. His children’s works (The Thief of Always and the Abarat series) are not, therefore, in this list but are well worth seeking out.

Contains plot spoilers.

  1. Weaveworld (1987)

My favourite book. Barker’s breakthrough second novel saw him do the rounds of TV chat shows (including a hilariously awkward Halloween Wogan alongside James Herbert). First time I read it I didn’t like it, to the astonishment of friends who raved about it. I loved the horror of Books of Blood and wonder now if Weaveworld‘s dark fantasy put me off. I liked the concept (and the cover, below), and something must have told me it was worth another go. A second reading made me realise my error. I’ve since bought a hardback copy to protect my signed paperback from further damage.

weaveworld1

Weaveworld is the story of a realm – The Fugue – concealed from its enemies by being woven into the fabric of a carpet. Unravelled in contemporary Liverpool, it’s up to Cal Mooney and Suzanne Parrish to safeguard the world and its inhabitants – The Seerkind – from those who would destroy them: the “eternal virgin” Immacolata and her sisters, with their sidekick Shadwell, a salesman with an enchanted coat. No synopsis quite does it justice: hugely influential in opening up the genre of “dark fantasy” (Herbert’s Creed (1990) shows its influence in places and you think: “no, Jim, just stick to the gore”) and demonstrated that Barker was ambitious, and capable of fulfilling that ambition.

2. Cabal (1988)

Short and sharp, in stark contrast to Weaveworld, and published just a year later. Another “hidden tribe” story, this time telling of Aaron Boone, a misfit who has been led to believe that he’s a killer, and so sets off in search of the legendary sanctuary of Midian, where monsters can take refuge from the world. Only it turns out the monsters are actual, literal monsters. Yet as they’re pursued by the forces of law and order, who is truly monstrous?

It’s very short, characters are sketchy to the point of being thumbnails, and you can rattle through it in a few hours. Barker later filmed this as Nightbreed, and I have written about both works elsewhere. I love that it hints at, rather than shows, the wondrous terrors (or terrifying wonders) of Midian.

3. Imajica (1991)

Huge (so huge, in America it appears in two volumes) and hugely inventive. Where Weaveworld was the Garden of Eden, this is the life of Christ (Christian imagery has always played an important role in Barker’s fiction, yet seems rarely to have been commented on in studies of his work).

This world is one of Five Dominions, sundered from the other four for millenia. The messiah tasked with reconciling them, John Furie Zachariah, aka Gentle, is a dissolute mess, pissing away his talent and doomed to have his memory wiped every few decades. He must assemble his helpers and travel through the worlds, with the forces of reaction on his heels, in order to reveal the true shape of the Imajica.

4. The Great and Secret Show (1989)

I probably prefer this to Imajica, truth be told, but Imajica is arguably the better work (partly because it’s self contained, whereas this is the first of an as-yet-incomplete series). The first of Barker’s novels to be set in America, where he moved to permanently in 1990.

It tells us of the battle for Quiddity, the dream-sea that humankind swims in no more than three times in each life. Arch-enemies Fletcher and The Jaff wage a war for the secrets of the dream-sea and knowledge of “The Art” through their children, except those children fall in love. Conflicting loyalties – oh, and Armageddon – then threaten a Californian town with buried secrets.

5. Sacrament (1996)

Barker coming out as gay in the early 90s was a brave decision, and his publishers were nervous about this novel having a gay central character. Will Rabjohns is a wildlife photographer whose life changes after a near-death experience. He is flung back to visions of his childhood and time spent with two mysterious, seemingly immortal travellers, themselves bent on witnessing the deaths of the last representatives of animal species. A powerful, visionary, fever-dream work echoing millenial (and post-millenial) fears of environmental collapse, it sold well beyond the fears of his publishers, proving that who a character chooses to sleep with really doesn’t matter. One of his lesser-known works, but one of his best.

6. The Hellbound Heart (1986)

You know Hellraiser already: this is the novella that birthed it. Frank Cotton uses a magical box to unlock the doors of a world of unknown pleasures. Except that domain’s definition of pleasure isn’t necessarily the same as ours. A highly original take on the Faust legend (see below), the Cenobites were a new breed of monsters that tapped into a late 80s S&M zeitgeist. Pinhead (never named as such), great a character as he is, suffers by over-exposure in the film’s many sequels. Here, and in the original film – like the xenomorph in Alien – less is more. You could read this in a rainy afternoon, and you should.

7. Coldheart Canyon (2001)

This is good fun, and perhaps languishes so low in this list because I came to it late. Fading actor Todd Pickett emerges from plastic surgery to find devastating results, and takes refuge from the world’s media in a mansion in the eponymous canyon. The mansion, though, has secrets. Once the home of a silent movie heroine with bizarre tastes, it contains a room whose tiles – from roof to floor – depict a savage medieval hunt. Is that a trick of the light, or do the pictures move?

8. The Damnation Game (1985)

Barker’s first novel, speed-written to capitalise on the unexpected success of the Books of Blood. A re-telling of Faust, Marty Strauss is released from prison into the employ of Joseph Whitehead, a wealthy industrialist whose deal was with an all-too-human devil. Time to repay the debt, but Whitehead is not willing.

Probably the most dated of Barker’s work, and much more of a thriller than either his previous horror or later dark fantasy. It tries to be all three and doesn’t quite manage, but is perfectly readable nonetheless.

9. Everville (1994)

Or, “The Second Book of the Art”, i.e. the sequel to The Great and Secret Show. Quiddity is still threatened, and the veil between our world and that one is thin. Everville is another town with secrets, a crossroads of America at which opposing forces will meet.

Although it has flashes of brilliance and some truly memorable characters, for me it fails to do what The Empire Strikes Back did in making the dark midpoint of a trilogy be the strongest part (though this particular trilogy is still unfinished). Barker was brave with some of the decisions he makes in this book: who lives and who dies, and how happy-ever-after are happy-ever-afters? But, equally, some parts are unconvincing. The shores of Quiddity in particular seem much more drab and mundane than any wonders we’d been promised and make you wonder if the battle is worth it in the end.

10. Mister B. Gone (2007)

I like the idea of this: that there’s an actual devil hidden inside the pages and the binding and the words of the book in your hands. Jakabok, the devil in the detail, is a nasty little bastard but one who spins a good yarn. Perhaps this needs a re-reading; I was disappointed in it at the time and have felt no compulsion to revisit. Unlike any of his other novels, it feels inconsequential.

What it shares with The Scarlet Gospels, and which for me is a problem with both books, is a literal depiction of a Christian Hell. I have no problem with the idea of Hell; I love Dante’s Inferno, medieval depictions of its terrors and denizens, and look forward to the forthcoming Penguin Book of Hell. Indeed, one of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2‘s good points was it’s depiction of Hell as a set of endless corridors. Hell is a fascinating concept but one that, as the location or source of ultimate suffering, should almost be ineffable, or at best rendered in the abstract. In neither this nor The Scarlet Gospels does Barker manage to make it seem anything but grey and – at worst – merely unpleasant, rather than truly Hellish.

***

“But wait”, I hear you cry. Where the hell are the Books of Blood? Well, they’re short story collections not novels, and ranking them individually would edge many of these novels out of this chart. Critical opinion seems to favour volumes 4 to 6 but I love them all.

So what didn’t make the cut?

Galilee (1998)

Along with Mister B. Gone, the only one here I’ve not read more than once and which retains only the barest imprint on my memory. Barker’s most un-usual (or rather, atypical) work, subtitled “A Romance”, Galilee is a dynastic epic, telling of the ongoing feud between two powerful families: the Gearys and the para-human Barbarossas.

And that’s about all I recall, other than some (typically) bizarre sex.

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed what is hopefully not going to become a pattern: Barker’s most recent novel is not in the top 10.

The Scarlet Gospels (2015)

This had a long and troubled gestation; seemingly editor Mark Miller trimmed its length considerably prior to publication. It has a few great set-pieces: the introduction, in a crypt in Germany where Hellraiser’s lead Cenobite (called Pinhead in print for the first time) appears, is stunning. Harry d’Amour (previously seen in The Last Illusion1 and Everville) is a likeable hero, and Barker’s prose is as elegant and rhythmic as ever. But there is so much wrong with this novel. As above, the depiction of Hell seems curiously under-imagined. The characters wisecrack like a poor Hollywood movie, and make cringeworthy (and un-Barker-like) double entendres. There is also the trope of the Magical Negro in the blind medium Norma. I got the feeling that Barker had lost his way, and was relying on outside assistance to help him envision a novel for the late 2010s. Some of this may be down to the horrific health problems he’s suffered in recent years (and thankfully appears to have overcome).

Nonetheless, I retain high hopes for the Third Book of the Art (firstly that it will ever appear, secondly that it’ll be good); for the remaining volumes of Abarat; and for any of the works in the “Upcoming” section of his website.

 

1 Filmed by Barker himself in 1995 as Lord of Illusions with a charismatic portrayal of d’Amour by Quantum Leap‘s Scott Bakula.

Here Comes A’body

Visitors flocking to the sleek new V&A in Dundee who opt to explore the city further may, depending on the childhood they had, be bemused by the statues in the city centre. A stout cowboy, striding along the Nethergate and hauling a recalcitrant bulldog, is about to be ambushed by a catapult-wielding adolescent girl. A few streets away, and therefore needing further exploration to find, a schoolboy sits on a wall near the city’s High School, an upturned bucket by his side.

Desperate Dan, figurehead of The Dandy, and Minnie the Minx of The Beano are probably better-known to the wider UK audience than Oor Wullie, the boy with the bucket. All are products of DC Thomson publishers, whose impressive red sandstone building dominates the city centre skyline as their comics once dominated the kids’ market. Home of the obstinately old-fashioned People’s Friend (your granny reads it) and Scots Magazine, Thomson also publish The Courier, one of the biggest-selling local newspapers in Britain1.

While The Dandy went digital-only a few years ago, The Beano is still published, selling just shy of 40,000 copies every week: half of what it sold in 2006, but an improvement on the early years of this decade, no doubt aided by various TV incarnations of Dennis the Menace. Oor Wullie and his stablemates The Broons, although they appear in The Sunday Post each week2, are generally associated with Christmas, when the annuals still appear under the tree of thousands of kids across Scotland and beyond.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Caledonian cultural artefact, Oor Wullie (“our William”) is a black & white comic strip, of roughly 20 panels across 5 rows. Wullie is a cheeky and imaginative ten-year-old boy who always wears dungarees and boots, and sports spiky blonde hair. Each strip starts with him sitting on his trademark bucket, excited at the onset of the school holidays (or conversely, miserable about their end), looking forward to snowy weather, or simply coming up with a ploy for his own amusement or financial gain3.

wullie2

The final panel usually shows him either well satisfied with the day’s adventure, or else bitterly regretting it’s failure. In the 20th century, it was typical to see him sitting with cushions on his bucket to protect his backside, which had been liberally skelped by his father’s slipper for some misdemeanour. The corporal punishment, as in Dennis the Menace, has long been phased out.

His constant companions are Fat Boab, Soapy Souter and Wee Eck. Typically for kids, although the best of friends (for over 80 years), they fall out regularly. Wullie also has a mouse – Jeemy – and more recently a West Highland Terrier, Harry. His parents (Ma and Pa) and local policeman PC Murdoch are the only other longstanding figures, though recurring character Primrose Paterson (a smart girl whose romantic overtures to Wullie may well just be a calculated wind-up) has in recent years become a regular, in order to deliver some overdue gender balance. Periodically, members of The Broons may also feature (and vice-versa).

The characters speak in (a sentimental and – certainly in older strips – inauthentic version of) Scots, though middle- and upper-class characters – and, interestingly, Primrose – tend to speak with Received Pronunciation, thus placing Wullie in a traditional Scottish working class. The location of Wullie’s home town (only in recent years named Auchenshoogle) is never specified: the geography is wonderfully flexible; lochs and braes are within easy reach. As a Fifer, I always had him pegged as coming from the east coast (mindful of the strip’s Dundee origins). But nothing really ties him to any locality: he’s just universally (or generically) Scottish.

The strips have no title, only a couthy rhyming couplet at the top. Each adventure is self-contained; there are no two-parters or story arcs. Everything is reset at the first panel. The Broons follows similar rules, and that strip’s conservatism is obvious in its plots: any attempt by a family member to better themselves will end in shame and/or disaster. That’s one of the strip’s two storylines, of which there have been eight decades of variations on a theme. The other, brilliantly spoofed by Viz’s note-perfect The McBroons, is where a family member is overheard, and the entire clan rushes to prevent shame and/or disaster, only for it to transpire that they’d been misheard in the first place.

In Oor Wullie, for me, the formal conservatism is part of the attraction. Yes, he breaks the fourth wall at least twice in each strip, but there is no attempt, ever, to change the structure. I’m reminded, oddly, of Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig’s comment on Kraftwerk, a major influence on him: “they were so stiff they were funky”. Oor Wullie is so structurally consistent it’s hypnotic. Although his asides to readers, and the meta- and inter-textual references (see below) are oh-so-postmodern, critical theory was probably not in the mind of his legendary creator, cartoonist Dudley D Watkins. We should see such traits instead as an example of parallel evolution.

Celebrities have occasionally turned up: Ewan Macgregor on a motorbike, and in a unique instance of colour (the blue of the saltire plays a role in the story), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in a 2015 strip. These imply that Wullie is known about, that his fame is implicit in his escapades, which adds a metatextual level that it would be interesting to play with5. One strip even has him hide a severe haircut under a wig which had been used as a prop in a play about his own adventures. I had visions of him eternally frozen at ten years old, with his family and friends in some kind of bubble, sealed off from time while the rest of Auchenshoogle moves on around them. Think Peter Pan meets the Truman Show, and the whole thing becomes infinitely sadder.

Though token mentions are made of phones and devices and other 21st century paraphernalia, the relationships and activities are far closer to the 1950s, yet were probably as much of a fantasy then as now: how many kids in urban Scotland spend as much time as Wullie and his pals do outside, or have that level of recognition among the locals?

As I mentioned above he was created and drawn for thirty years by Dudley D Watkins, a one-man comic factory within DC Thomson. Upon his death (at his desk) in 1969, the publishers rotated his old strips for a full seven years before engaging a new artist. Several (Ken H Harrison, Tom Morton, Peter Davidson) have had a spell in the role, and for all the consistency the different eras are recognisable. There was a particularly poor period (I forget under whose stewardship, and don’t have a representative annual to hand) in which the panel count was almost half what it was under Watkins, the scripts basic and the artwork uninspired: Wullie had a round face and huge chin, and the pencilling line was finer than normal; the strip lost its essential roughness.

In 2004 Wullie was voted “Scotland’s favourite son”, ahead of Sean Connery himshelf. What does this scamp tell us about how we see ourselves? Wullie is no hero: no Dan Dare or even Roy of the Rovers, though he’s handy with a football. Indeed he’s (to use a west coast word) gallus, in the way we once liked our footballers. He’s not a troublemaker in the mold of Dennis or Minnie. Anne Hoyer, in Cultural Specifics of a Scottish Comic, sees him as an exemplar of the “Improvising Scot”: a cultural stereotype whose resourcefulness “in direct contrast to England’s wealth” is a response to “the scarcity of Scottish resources”. For far too long, Scots’ self-perception was entirely negative: we were whatever we judged the English not to be. That attitude, thanks in part to devolution, is on the wane. Oor Wullie though, is not, and as long as he reflects back to us an idea of who we think we are, we’ll always find him on his bucket, ready for whatever the day throws at him.

 

 

1 For a company whose conservatism is practically a founding principle, perhaps recognising that Dundee was one of only four council areas in Scotland to record a majority vote for independence in 2014, The Courier tries very hard to be neutral on the issue, unlike most of the Scottish media.

2 “Couthy, conservative, and sentimental” in Iain Macwhirter’s description. Tom Nairn memorably declared that “Scotland will never be free until the last kirk minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.”

3 Wullie is neither avaricious nor aspirational: enough cash to keep him in fish suppers and sweets is all he asks.

4 It’ll never happen. I seem to recall the annual Macallan/Scotsman short story competition having a winner in the late 90s which DC Thomson took extreme offence at, and it was never published. Featured a thinly-disguised Wullie in later life having gone off the rails. Trainspotting-style. The internet is silent on this. Does anyone else remember?

 

Sources:

  • Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, Gideon Haberkorn (Editors), McFarland
  • Oor Wullie (various editions), DC Thomson

All images absolutely and completely copyright DC Thomson, make no mistake.

Other people’s nostalgia

If I could visit any place and time in history, among my choices would be Paris around 1960. It was a time of great societal tension, with events in colonial Algeria at the forefront of events. But it was the time of the nouvelle vague, the nouveau roman and jazz music, and it was a golden era for cycle racing.

I have a copy of Pilote magazine from April 1961, and a copy of Look-In from June 1981. 20 years and La Manche separate these publications, and while there are similarities, the differences are interesting.

The two magazines are not, it becomes clear, doing exactly the same thing, so this cannot be a direct comparison. Look-In was marketed specifically as the “Junior TV Times“, and to that end its features, weekly TV listings and (often superb) comic strips are ITV-centric, though with strong features on pop music and topical sporting events it was more than just a listings magazine. But as the product of a commercial broadcaster, at root it’s selling things.

Pilote is a more educational publication, a mash-up of Look-In‘s strips and World of Knowledge or Look and Learn‘s historical and scientific features, and is therefore far more Reithian (or whatever the French equivalent is) in it’s outlook. It reflects the post-war optimism: many of the features are on expanding horizons (the space race1, futuristic car designs, the spread of the American railroad in the 1860s). There’s a two-page illustrated retelling of the death of Charles the Bold (Charles le Téméraire), and a colour spread across the centre pages detailing the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918. Outside the femmes fatale or damsels in distress of the comic strips, I’m not sure there are any females, though.

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The adverts are by and large for edifying things such as Caran d’Ache pencils2; stamps; a map of Europe with stick-on flags; cameras and watches. There’s a puzzle page with chess problems and spot-the-difference. But to leaven this somewhat worthy mixture there are comics, as only continental Europe can do them.

For, if Pilote is known outwith the Francophone world, it’s as the birthplace of Asterix the Gaul. I love Asterix: I did when I was a kid, and now my son reads the books I enjoy them all over again, getting so many jokes and references that went over my 10-year-old head. They’re funny and clever and beautifully drawn.

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Not Asterix

Alas, the creative team of Goscinny and Uderzo were between adventures in my copy. Their other contribution – Jehan Soupolet (also known as Jehan Pistolet) a pirate story whose Uderzo artwork is far sparser and rougher than his lovingly detailed work for Asterix – is some consolation, but evidently behind the scenes they were working on Asterix and the Goths, serialisation of which would begin the following month. Goscinny also illustrates Tanguy et Laverdure, an (I assume) exciting air force pilot adventure series.

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Away from comic strips, Goscinny’s droll Petit Nicolas stories (with thumbnails by Sempé), whose translations into English I enjoyed as a child, is one of the serialised stories along with “Alamo”, a cowboy tale: cowboys were hugely popular in the 50s and 60s, in France no less than the Anglophone world. But that was before we realised that the Indians were not, perhaps, the baddies after all…

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Asterix wasn’t the reason I bought this issue, though: the cover star Rik Van Looy was.

Who? Why?

Another love of mine is the cycling culture of Belgium. Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part) is obsessed with bikes and bike racing. The greatest cyclist ever is a Belgian, Eddy Merckx3. But before Merckx, one of the sport’s biggest stars was another Belgian, Van Looy: “The Emperor of Herentals”. I saw this copy on ebay and wanted to a taste of the contemporary coverage of Van Looy’s career; a period artefact.

Van Looy, a stocky sprinter who therefore lacked the physiology that would allow him to compete with the best in the high mountains, never won the Tour de France but, crucially, is still the only man to have won every major one-day “classic” race. He was world champion three times, and the Pilote cover shows him resplendent in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. It was the photo that attracted me: the faded colour and the texture of the image so evocative of the early 1960s.

The photo is slightly misleading, though: I expected a major interview with the Emperor, but instead there’s a report on his recent Paris-Roubaix victory and a quick recap of his career. With a reference which dates the magazine perfectly, Van Looy is described as “the H-bomb of cycling”. The sport was a big draw in France at the time4, and at least two other Pilote covers from 1961 show famous cyclists, so his appearance on the cover was clearly a big draw. Presciently, another Belgian is the other feature on the sports page, where a long international career is (correctly) predicted for the 17-year-old footballer Paul Van Himst, who would play for the Red Devils until 1974.

There are no doubt dozens of references that fly over my head because of cultural differences (and my limited French). I’m sure Pilote triggers all sorts of nostalgic memories in a certain demographic of French baby-boomers, in the way Look-In does for me, as I’ve mentioned before. Nostalgia is fed by the recovered memory of ephemera such as these magazines.

This particular copy of Look-In is from June 1981. Technological advances are no doubt partly responsible for the greater use of colour and higher production values than Pilote (though the paper Look-In is printed on is flimsier).

Despite this, the headline sounds a weary note – “James Bond is back – again!” – as if pitying poor old Roger Moore having to creak his eyebrow into gear once more in For Your Eyes Only. The promised “colour feature” amounts to an extended promo piece, with some photos and a list of all the previous Bond films to date. A cut-out-and-blu-tac-to-your-wall (and I did) “Collect-a-Page” later in the issue has Moore as its focus, and I remember being stunned at the time to learn that he was 52.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of comic strips. First up is The Elvis Story, mercifully only a page long and while beautifully illustrated, as I mentioned here, quite how much the King would resonate with a readership keen for Toyah, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet is unclear. Worzel Gummidge’s hapless adventures get a two-page b&w spread, as does the period drama Smuggler, in which buckles are swashed and swash is buckled.

CHiPS and (my favourite) Buck Rogers both get the colour treatment. Surely IPC or whoever owns the rights could release a compendium of these strips: the old Daily Express James Bond, Modesty Blaise, etc. have all been compiled, and The Beatles Story from Look-In was itself smartly repackaged recently (see link above). Some of the strips lasted only a few months and so probably don’t merit a stand-alone volume each, but a Look-In comic compilation would certainly sell to a certain demographic (me).

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There are competitions – conspicuous by their absence from Pilote, and no doubt reflecting the commercial background of Look-In – and reader celebrity photos, fan club information, factoids and quizzes. There’s even a recipe for scones. The feel is a snappier publication geared to shorter attention spans than Pilote. Pilote‘s age target was 10-15, and I suspect Look-In‘s was slightly younger (I was 7 in 1981 but I suspect it was aimed at 9-13 or so).

As for sport, Wimbledon gets the 4-page centre feature, with a hero/villain piece about John McEnroe and a brief history of the tournament. I remember a copy which previewed the Milk Race, which would have been my first exposure to cycle racing. It would have appeared as a one-off, as neither editors nor readers would likely have had the knowledge of the sport that a continental reader would have possessed.

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The closest to Europe Look-In comes is in a feature about – and two-page strip featuring – those little blue Belgians, the Smurfs, though any hint of their Euro-ness is absent. And I think that’s the interesting thing about the difference between these publications. Look-In, for all the fond recollections I have of it, is a strikingly parochial magazine; entirely anglocentric, yes, and as an ITV publication it doesn’t even mention TV coverage of Wimbledon (which would, of course, have been on BBC). Look-In contains no news – even in a safe, kid-friendly form – other than whatever is current in pop and TV. Pilote, by comparison, is a publication that looks beyond the hexagon of France to other countries and, indeed, space (a realm which, after the end of the Apollo program, was largely left to space opera rather than as a destination for mankind’s future).

I admitted earlier that I’m comparing apples et des oranges, and I know I’m stretching a point, but it’s telling that French kids (albeit of an earlier generation – what Pilote was like in 1981 I don’t know) were absorbing developments from across the world, while in the ever-insular UK we were – pardon the pun – just being fed Bucks Fizz.

 

1 Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok flight took place the week before and features as news on page 2.

2 Amusingly, the advert for this shows a cross-hatched map of Europe which misses the UK entirely.

3 Merckx has a cameo in Asterix in Belgium, though it was 20 years before I realised: my interest in Asterix probably waned a little before I discovered the Tour de France.

4 Despite the popularity of the Tour, it’s decades since the sport in general was held in such high regard in France.