Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Bears of England - Mick Jackson

This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris where I write a guest review on the first wednesday of every month.

Read: September 2009

Bears of England in one Tweet-sized chunk:
Bears of England is a feast of fabricated mythology, 8 quirky tales of England and the maligned bears who lived alongside (and sometimes underneath) it.

“In the days before electric light and oil lamps the night imposed its own abysmal tyranny, and daylight’s surrender was measured out in strict division. Sunset gave way to Twilight, just as Evening preceded Candle-Time. Bedtime was hope’s last bastion. Beyond that, there was nothing but Dead of Night…

Filled to the brim with every sort of ignorance and superstition, no Englishman would dare venture out at Dead of Night, for fear of being swallowed up by it. Every door was locked and bolted, and remained so right through those awful hours, until deliverance finally arrived at first cock-crow. Prior to that, every scratch and scrape, every rattle of leaf was thought to be the work of some demon, some twisted malevolence out among the trees. And in the villagers’ imagination that evil found its more common incarnation in the form of Spirit Bears.”

Bears of England is a veritable feast of fabricated mythological history. It is about the England we all imagine to have once existed, (full of warm ale pubs and windy moors, mysterious happenings and small village communities) and the maligned beasts who lived along-side – and sometimes underneath – it. The relationship begins with the Spirit Bears of the above passage, whose nocturnal escapades so terrify villagers that they resort to offering a living sacrifice to placate them. And in subsequent chapters this fear leads to short lived idolisation, followed swiftly by vilification, mistreatment, persecution, and slavery. There are the Sin Eating Bears of Early English life who “partake of bread and ale before a house in mourning, and in so doing, take on the sins of the departed prior to their Judgement Day.” Then we have the baited bears and circus bears kept hostage and forced to perform for the enjoyment of their human masters; the Civilian Bears who manage to live unnoticed alongside us; the Sewer Bears imprisoned under Victorian London to keep the excrement flowing out into the Thames. It is no wonder that one by one they escape the drudgery for years of deep hibernation. And then the rousing finale…which you will have to read for yourself!

Indeed, rather than read what I think of this wonderfully strange imaginary bestiary, why not make up your own mind instead? You can listen to Mick Jackson reading from the second chapter, Sin Eating Bears, at Guardian Books. ( It’s a far better use of the next fifteen minutes than reading my prattle.

(But for those who have already listened to it, I will continue…)

I first came across Mick Jackson about eighteen months ago, and he has since become one of my very favourite authors. His debut novel, Underground Man ranks right up there with Waterland by Graham Swift in the pantheon of great short-listed titles not to have gone on to win the Booker Prize. It is a charmingly eccentric tale of an ageing English aristocrat obsessed with his own mortality and his slow slide into madness. Subsequent novel, Five Boys, and collection of short stories, Ten Sorry Tales, have confirmed his cult status as the most enjoyably peculiar writers around.

Bears of England is no different. It is a veritable cornucopia of delightful one-liners and playfully dark imagery. Reading it is like looking at life in a cracked mirror: everything is there but nothing feels quite real. It is familiar though, as though these are half forgotten folk tales passed down through the ages. They have the essence of Victorian ghost stories read around a fire in a cold living room in the depths of winter. You know it is all fictional yet cannot help believing every word.

This is partly due to the beautiful illustrations by David Roberts which really bring the stories to life. His bears are giant beasts with long sharp claws and small uncertain eyes which seem to remember all that has happened before and await with resignation whatever is to come next. There is a fabulous two page spread towards the end, which sees hundreds of these bears crossing the landscape in the dead of night. It is really quite beautiful.

The only possible criticism that can be levelled at is is that Bears of England is a little too short. It is the canapĂ© of the literary world: very enjoyable, very moreish, but you can’t help wish there was a little more of it. Just five or six more stories to flesh it out, so that you could enjoy reading a little longer. £12.99 is quite expensive too, for so short a book.

Yet it is equally possible that it is this brevity which makes Bears of England so enjoyable. The fact that you can read one or two of the stories on a twenty minute bus ride and still have time to look out of the window is refreshing. They are snippets, little more than quirky anecdotes really. Yet they are rewarding and enjoyable to read. Enticing even. I spent months eagerly awaiting its release, and a further month while Amazon traced my lost shipment, but when finally it arrived, it lived up to all my expectations. I love Mick Jackson, I loved this book, and I’m sure you will too.

7.5 out of 10

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