Monday, February 13, 2017

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“SKELLIG” (first published 1998); “THE FIRE EATERS” (first published 2005); “CLAY” (first published 2011). All by David Almond

            Some years ago on this blog, I wrote a general comment on what are now called YA (Young Adult) books – in other words books for older children and younger teenagers, between the ages of about 8 and 15. My contention was that even the most highly-praised of such books, regardless of their quality, never really match the subtlety and worth of truly adult literature. I made this argument after having read much-lauded examples of the genre and finding them simplistic, often sentimental, and certainly preachy, with their “messages” sticking out a mile. My conclusion was that YA books are absolutely fine for their intended audience, but that the only adults who read them regularly should be their authors and publishers, and teachers (or parents) trying to find something suitable for the kids. Any adult who told me that he or she had been genuinely inspired or enlightened by a YA book would always, to me, be somebody who had a very limited knowledge of grown-up literature.
As you can see, this was robust and provocative stuff, and it triggered a number of lengthy and angry responses. I was accused of profound ignorance of the best examples of YA, and many titles were suggested to me for my reading list. I followed some of them up and – sorry – they did not change my perspective.
If I meet a very good YA book I say “Yes, that’s a very good book… for kids.”
Where is all this going?” you now ask with mounting impatience.
Recently I was in the North of England for a bit over a week. I did not want to buy any more books, as my bags were already full (I’m ever mindful of airport weigh-ins). So I asked my good host if he had on his shelves something that I could read easily and give back to him before I left. He produced a copy of David Almond’s Clay, with a strong recommendation, he having shared it with his children. It was a YA book. I read it with pleasure, and before I left, I read two others by David Almond, which were also on my host’s shelves.
David Almond (born 1951) hails from Newcastle on Tyne in England’s north.
He began as a writer of novels and short stories for adults, and has written five plays, but he turned to YA fiction with Skellig, in 1998. It won many prestigious awards and was a great hit. Since then, Almond has produced a further sixteen YA books. Many of them have won literary prizes, he is highly-regarded by critics of children’s fiction and (oh dear!) quite a number of his books apparently appear on junior-school reading lists in England. At the very least, I hope you can see that Almond is considered to be in the top rank of YA writers. So judging the best YA work by his books is a fair test. I am not dealing with a bumbler in the game.
            I’ll deal with the books in the order in which Almond wrote them, rather than the order in which I read them.
Skellig (1998) is a fantasy with a very realistic setting. It is narrated by an almost-pubescent boy called Michael. Michael and his Mum and Dad have moved into a new neighbourhood. Their home is semi-derelict, and Dad is trying to renovate it. Michael has a baby sister and Michael is very worried because the baby sister is seriously ill. One day, while he is poking about in the rickety, cobweb-filled, junk-filled, smelly garage, Michael discovers an odd and sick little creature called Skellig – a diminutive manikin who is crippled and racked with arthritis. With his embryonic wings, could Skellig be some sort of angel? Could he help cure the baby sister? That is Michael’s guess. But Michael has made friends with a girl called Mina, who is clearly more middle-class and posh than Michael’s family. Mina is home-schooled, likes spouting William Blake, and has a thing about science. Her guess is that Skellig is some sort of freak of evolution.
To adult readers, Skellig serves as some sort of personification of the boy’s becoming used to the strangeness and complexity of the world that is not within his parents’ control – that strange and wilful world in which the life of a baby girl can be threatened with sickness.
In its plot, this plays out like a dialogue between faith and science, with the author not fully committing to either side. Michael gets to learn about evolution at school and Mina’s view seems to hold sway. But then there is something ambiguous about Mina. Though she is a source of knowledge to Michael, her middle-class manners make her rather patronising towards the working-class lads with whom Michael also likes mucking around. She is a pal, but she is not entirely a source of light.
There are no indications that Skellig is set in any times other than the decade in which it was written (the 1990s). The other two David Almond books I read very clearly indicate their setting as being the early 1960s – that is, when David Almond himself would have been on the verge of adolescence.
The Fire Eaters (2003) is set in Almond’s hometown of Newcastle in 1962. Again, it has a boy as first-person narrator, Robert (Bobby) Burns. Bobby and his best mate Joe Connor mooch about having rough fun. They live their lives in the shadow of The Bomb, as 1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and World War III seems a possibility. A crazy contortionist, fakir and fire-eater called McNulty comes to town. He does public shows in which he performs such stunts as pushing skewers through his cheeks. To Bobby Burns, McNulty is a fascinating but also a rather scary figure. But Bobby’s father tells him that he knew McNulty when they were both serving soldiers in Burma during the war; and McNulty was one of those soldiers who was driven crazy by war. The central symbols of the story, then, are The Bomb and a war-crazed ex-soldier – the scary things from the adult world that can hang over a growing boy.
There are a couple of interesting things about this YA novel.
First, Bobby’s family is clearly Catholic (as was David Almond’s) and the Catholic references are quite overt, although Bobby has a Protestant “girlfriend”, Ailsa, who believes in miracles. Bobby has passed his eleven-plus exam (the old system England used to have, to sort out those children who went to grammar schools and those who went to secondary moderns). But going to a Catholic grammar school is likely to separate him from his less academic mate Joe Connor.
There is the strong sense that the old Northern proletarian ship-building culture is just beginning to pass away. This is especially true when Bobby makes friends with a clearly middle-class classmate, a Southerner, Daniel, whose Dad lectures at a university and is in the throes of producing a photographic book chronicling the lives of primitive working-class Northerners, as if they are an alien species. Bobby gets some pointers about life from an art teacher at school and Bobby and Daniel join forces in opposing corporal punishment.
However, The Fire-Eaters does become very preachy in its later stages, with reflections on how the common and humble folk will endure and war is bad and one day horrible things like corporal punishment will be banned.
Which brings me to the most recent of these three YA book, Clay (2005). Once again a first-person narration by a boy on the verge of adolescence, and once again the working class setting in the North of England in the 1960s. Given that the young narrator has the same name as the author – Davie – it’s hard not to think that the non-fantastic parts are partly autobiographical.
Davie and Geordie are Catholic altar boys, but slightly naughty. They drink altar wine and smoke Capstans stolen from Dad. Being Catholic, they sometimes fight with gangs of Proddies, but this is purely territorial. The Proddies have on their side a ferocious giant “Mouldy” (Martin Mould) of whom Davie and Geordie are scared.
Enter Stephen Rose, who was in the junior seminary but who was expelled for some unspecified reason. Stephen lives with Crazy Mary, a harmless religious nutter, because his mother is dying. Stephen has extraordinary artistic powers, and moulds figures of saints and angels from the clay the boys bring him. But he is a malign and sinister character, apparently bent on controlling others, apparently wanting to accomplish some ill-defined revenge, apparently having hypnotic powers. At least he is able to make Davie see what he wants him to see. The priest whom the altar boys serve, Father O’Mahoney, is a genial fellow who comes across as a voice of reason and moderation. But sinister Stephen Rose is a demonic figure, like all that is alien and fearsome in religion as seen by adolescents.
There is some obvious symbolism in Clay, just as there is in The Fire-Eaters. Classroom scenes have an art teacher talking about the body and the soul; common clay and the immortal spirit, linking with Stephen Rose’s activities and Davie’s fearful puzzlement.
I will not destroy the plot of this YA novel by pursuing it to its conclusion. Let’s just say that a literal monster is made (“Clay”) and there are dire consequences.
The novel works because it taps into a moment in early adolescence where parents’ values and accepted values (whatever they may be) are being questioned; yet the adolescent has nothing but scepticism to put in their place. For Davie, confronting Stephen Rose’s palpable evil, the choice is between God or “nowt”. It’s a great merit that David Almond can convey this dilemma in a credibly young adolescent voice and mainly in short declarative sentences.
And yet, after reading these three YA novels one after the other, I saw a formula emerging. In each there is a male adolescent narrator. In each there is a family crisis going on in the background to the narrator’s adventures. In each the narrator has a sensible “girlfriend” in tension with the narrator’s continuing desire to muck around with his coarser mates. In each there is some class feeling as the narrator’s basically working-class background comes up against bearers of middle-lass refinement. In each there are scenes in the schoolroom where lessons can point neatly to some of the themes of the book (art, evolution etc.). And – most obviously – in each the central action is triggered by the intrusion into a closed community of an extraordinary outsider, fantastic (Skellig), scary (McNulty) or demonically malign (Stephen Rose).
I enjoyed all these books and certainly think they are just right for young adolescents – particularly young adolescent males. But they are the YA world where all things are signalled and conclusions are clear, reassuring and final.

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