The Jonah

The Jonah

This was the first James Herbert book I turned to when forced to re-examine the role his books played in my youth when I heard the news of the author’s death. (See my post : ‘R.I.P The Death of James Herbert and My Childhood’ 26th March)

I chose this as it was the one out of his early novels that I recalled the least of, and so in a sense it was like reading it for the first time. To further wallow in nostalgia, this cover here is the one that I owned way back when it came out in 1981.

The Jonah is more supernatural than horror, which was regarded as his forte at that point, and it points the way towards the way his later books would go.

The main character Kelso is a man whose whole life has been punctuated by tragedy, which is told at intervals in the form  of flashbacks. Sent to a small, sleepy coastal town to investigate suspicions of drug smuggling, he ends up getting in above his head, and finally finds out why he is a ‘jonah’, and the reason behind the many tragic episodes, all in an apocalyptic finale.

Enjoyed it, will re-visit some of the other early Herbert books.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog

Neither Wolf Nor Dog


Subtitled ‘On Forgotten Roads With An Indian Elder,’ it is the story of the author’s acceptance of an invitation to put in print the thoughts of a seventy eight year old Lakota elder, Dan,  and the journey they take through the haunted landscape of the Western Dakotas, along with Dan’s sidekick Grover and the dog Fatback.

Dan reveals his anger at the treatment, then and now, of his people, and of the ongoing perceptions white men have of his race. He resents the hippies who ‘try to be Indian’ with their jewellery, ponytails, feathers, and constant talk of the Great Spirit. And also of the caricatures that his people have been portrayed as- either  the savage, the drunk, or the romanticised noble wise man. It is the latter Dan comes over as, in his insights and his indictments, albeit as a cantankerous one, as he explains  the ways of his people and how they came into conflict with what the white men perceived as their own more  ‘civilised’ ways.

Even the ‘Native American’ name his race are known as does not escape his scrutiny- ‘It is an okay name; it’s more dignified than ‘Indians.’ But it’s no more real than Indians, because to us this isn’t even America. The word America came from some Italian who came over here after Columbus. Why should we care if we’re called Native Americans when the name is from some Italian?’ He points out they have their own names in their own languages-names that usually mean ‘first people.’  ‘It’s what we put up with every day-people calling us a bunch of names that aren’t even real and aren’t even in our own language.’

He also points out the injustices of the historical record, for instance how any defeat of the white men by the Indians are described as massacres, whereas defeats of the Indians are described as great victories.

Throughout the journey Dan speaks for all Indians, as for him the author Kent represents all white men. We eavesdrop on their conversations and are forced to examine our own standpoints and prejudices along the way, as he rails against the continued disenfranchisement of his people in white America.

I have always felt a sense of envy of those who lived a spiritual life close to the earth and the elements, be it the old Celtic Saints of the land I live in, or  the Native American across the Atlantic.  (As I write these words on my pc to post onto my blog, my Sky tv on standby in the corner and my ipod on shuffle, the irony is not lost.)

And I realise that I too am falling for the caricature.

For all the pluses of civilisation, have we nevertheless lost something culturally? Maybe a sense of who we are, where we have come from. An awareness of the rhythm of the earth and the seasons, and particularly a sense of the sacredness of all life.

It is a great read, of a journey that evokes images of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance,and the suffering of a people in a trek where we encounter characters like Jumbo, the 400- pound mechanic, and Annie, an eighty year old Lakota woman living in a log cabin with no running water.

The title of the book comes from a quote from Sitting Bull:

“I do not wish to be shut up in a corral. All agency Indians I have seen are worthless. They are neither red warriors nor white farmers. They are neither wolf nor dog.”

Dan tells Kent:

“That’s what happened to us. We listened to the white man. Now we’re neither wolf nor dog. Sitting Bull was right.”

Loved this book, and the examinations it provoked. Aim to read the follow up: The Wolf at Twilight.


Well today is Good Friday.

I am called to be St.Peter.


Big sandals to fill. Although personally I think the pressure is on Jesus.

Have you ever read Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis? Well the role of Judas has not been cast yet. (An uneasy shuffling in the pews.) The community of Langley prepares to select this year’s social outcast.

It’s all gonna end in tears.

The Gangs of Manchester

gangs mancs

The first book that I have read since starting City Jackdaw. Which is fitting as it was from  this book that I got the title of my Blog. My initial interest was the Manchester connection: it is where I live, it is where my ancestors lived. One of the great appeals was that I am familiar with the areas and streets where these gangs roamed and in most cases got their names from. For example the memorable Bengal Tigers (Bengal Street, Ancoats) and the Clock Alley Lads, a few minutes walk from Victoria station. But this local knowledge is not essential for reading the book.

Scuttlers. The name of these brawling tribes of youths who fought turf wars against each other in the slums of Victorian industrial Manchester, who out of the depravity and squalor forged fearsome reputations and a notoriety. It was in this coming together that the first youth cult emerged- young people bonding together and wearing a recognisable ‘uniform’ that announced to all that they were members of a particular gang, in a phenomenon of violence that swept throughout the city.

It is hard not to read of the exploits of these lads (mostly lads, although there were girls involved too) and think of today’s youth, who are often castigated for loutish behaviour. Back in 19th Century Manchester they would attack innocent passersby, damage property, and often turn on beleaguered police officers trying to arrest one of the gang members. But what surprised me was the sheer numbers involved. Pitched battles would be fought between hundreds of stone throwing, knife wielding, belt swinging youths, with just a handful of police employed to try and bring order to the crime ridden streets. I think of the Manchester riot of 2011 and it pales in comparison as a one off event. Scuttling was no flash in the pan of disaffected young men- the gangs ran amok for three decades.

Another surprise was the lack of an honour code- although members of the same gang were bound together by loyalty and pride, they would confront other gangs, displaying all the bravado and willingness to maim their opponent, but as soon as they came off worse and were carted off to be stitched up at the infirmary they would name their attackers to the police, allowing the law to dispense their revenge.  No scruples about grassing in the Victorian era it seems. (Although a factor could be that the police officers weren’t governed by the kind of restraining rules they are now and were, perhaps, a little more persuasive.)

And in regard to the youth issues of today-how did the scuttling come to an end?  There were calls for flogging to be used, and long sentences were handed down in the days when prison, here the local Strangeways prison, was no cushy number. (There is a comical part where the mother of a lad, appearing in court, made such a commotion she was invited into the witness box to plead for the character of her son who was, she said, a good  boy at heart. The judge asked whether she realised,  though, that these were serious crimes which he had committed?  Maybe he was about to  be swayed towards leniency until a police officer pointed out that the mother had recently been brought to court for running a brothel. “Hes going to the house of correction!”)

Instead of these strict measures though, it seems the end of scuttling came about with the introduction of working lads’ clubs which offered sporting pursuits which channeled the energy and frustration of these young men and gave them something other to do,under the Christian ideal, with weekend camps at the coast or countryside a big draw for boys who lived in slum housing with no chance of holidays. And also that great British pastime -football. Teams were formed and venues agreed to hold matches instead of ‘scuttles.’ There was still that sense of belonging and competitiveness, but now it was on behalf of a club or a team, and didn’t result with a belt buckle wrapped around the head. Mostly.

This bodes well for the countless volunteers and youth workers who strive today to get our young people off the streets and engaged in something worthwhile. The blueprint worked!

My only disappointment? I never recognised a single, scowling ancestral scuttler within the covers of this book. If I continue with my family history research perhaps I will uncover a saint or great reformer. To begin with though, I think I had better give the prison records a try.

R.I.P The Death of James Herbert and My Childhood

James Herbert

I was so saddened to hear of the death of James Herbert on the 20th of March. Why? I never knew him. I never even met him. The closest I came to contact with him was an autographed leaflet advertising his new book, obtained by my mother, thirty years ago, who worked with his cousin.

The sadness arises from the passing of another link with my childhood. Perhaps its a turning forty thing. When I drank alcohol I could wallow in my beer. Now I cry into my coffee. Kicking off my slippers in frustration.

What on earth could the link be between childhood and books of gratuitous horror and sex? Perhaps  the answer is found within the question. But I began reading Herbert’s books when in my last year of primary school, aged around 11-12. Maybe not ideal fodder for a young mind-others were taking in Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. The author of the Bobby Brewster range even paid us a visit. But I was reading above my age, and my interest was horror. Bloodthirsty kid that I was.

‘To Andrew, glad you like the books so much. Best Wishes James Herbert.’ I’ve still got it. There was no postscript suggesting I seek a counsellor. Or take part in a NSPCC therapy session. Or a recommendation that my folks attend a parenting class. If they had them then.

We were on a coach one day travelling back to school from a trip to Jodrell Bank, our necks still stiff from gazing heavenwards in the darkness of the Planetarium, when I heard my teacher, talking to some girls a few rows behind, mention my name. She saw me turn and explained “I just said ‘even I don’t read the books that Andrew Murray reads!'”

It didn’t bode well for parents evening.

My Mum returned, and among the usual platitudes said “She was a bit concerned about the types of books you read.”

“Why?” I feigned innocence.

She suddenly developed a stammer that had never been evident before: “She wants to know what you do abb..bout the when you get the ..erm. ”

“The sex bits!” my Dad interjected helpfully.

Innocent schoolboy lover of just the horror parts,of course, I answered ” I skip those.” My mum latched onto that in an instant, “That’s what I said.”

“You can’t bleedin’ skip them,” my Dad added with more authority than I thought usual.

But James Herbert’s books are what my early diet consisted of. Midway through my last year at that primary school a new girl started who also read James Herbert. A girl too! How cool was she?

Anyway, I got older, I moved on (in schools and books.) From Herbert I moved to King, and then out into the wider world of literature.  James Herbert’s books moved on too-from the more traditional horror fayre to a more supernatural style, which I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. But I think back to those early ones-The Rats, The Fog, The Dark, The Survivor, books I loved in a period of my life that I loved. I would lend them to my uncle who took them with him when he worked the night-shift (he is no longer with us.) I lent them to my mum (she has moved onto Catherine Cookson.)

So, for the part he played in my childhood, and into my early teens, I felt that sense of loss when hearing of his death. A sense of losing something from my past. I have experienced that unexpected reaction before.

Bill Bixby. I can recall the Saturday teatimes spent sat eating my ravioli, wearing my Six Million Dollar Man t shirt (please-someone give me some good news about Lee Majors) and watching the Incredible Hulk. I loved that programme, and was gutted when he died.

Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Peter Cushing-from the Hammer Horror films. Told you I was a blood thirsty kid.

George Harrison-I was a Beatles fan from being twelve, three years after Lennon died. I recall how I discovered about Harrison’s demise. It was my day off from work (I was a postman) and my partner at the time and I went into the local Global video store to get a couple of films. As she took them to the counter, I continued to browse, and one of my colleagues came in with the post for the store. He too was a Beatles fan. He greeted me, then “Hey-what about George?” With some trepidation, I replied “What about him?”

“He’s died.” I shouted across the store “Put those videos back-George Harrison has died!” It was a day of watching MTV instead.

Aww and recently Elizabeth Sladen-my Sarah Jane Smith. (The wife rolls her eyes.)

Each time one of these figures die, along with what to me they represent, it is like a fragment falls away. Another signpost removed.

Perhaps it is a morose, turning-forty-thing. The lot of the moribund.

Perhaps I am being overly sentimental.

But I have heard among the many tributes countless similar tales, of how Herbert’s books was a visual soundtrack to the teenage years of so many. Of course, many remained fans throughout without falling away.

It is a little disingenuous of me to refer to him merely as a stepping stone to Stephen King. I think I may revisit some of those early books from an adult perspective, albeit awash with nostalgia. I think back to my old primary school teacher. I like to think that curiosity got the better of her and she dipped her toe in and became a fan. Perhaps he was a stepping stone for her too.

Perhaps somewhere out there she is turning off her lamp, with the ubiquitous Mr Grey on her bedside table.

James Herbert R.I.P