|Stig of the Dump |
by Clive King
Stig and Barney
This piece was written for the Hay Festival 'Puffin of Puffins' challenge in which six writers championed a favourtie Puffin from the past seven decades. I didn't win, but this is why I chose Stig of the Dump
I am indebted to Puffin for allowing me this opportunity to champion the only great book that Puffin has ever published. Perhaps such a broad statement needs greater explanation. I am a writer and we are constantly influenced by outside sources - the zeitgeist, popular books, the News Quiz, or what we are currently reading. In my case it is a book about Karl Rove, the White House Political Strategist, and let me tell you I've learned a thing or two about negative campaigning in elections.
For instance, far be it for me to throw scorn on any of my worthy competition, but I can't help observing that The Family From One End Street was published in 1937 and thus falls outside the criteria for best book of the 40's. It has also come to my attention that in Charlotte's Web, Wilbur the pig called Mrs Arable 'That bigoted women' when still on mike, the 100 MPH dog was only officially clocked at 98.72 MPH, and that Grandpa Joe Bucket's silver star, awarded when commanding a swift boat in Vietnam, has once more been called into question.
I jest, naturally. The book I am here to champion is Clive King's Stig of the Dump, which is the only right and true contender for the title of Puffin of Puffins.
Stig of the Dump was first published in 1963 and has not been out of print since. The story revolves around a lonely boy named Barney who for reasons never fully explained spends his holidays with his grandparents in Kent. He is eight years old, has no friends, so is delighted to discover - as would we all - that there is a real caveman living in the rubbish-filled chalk-pit at the end of his grandparent's garden.
We never find out the caveman's real name as he speaks no English, but Barney dubs him 'Stig' after one of the guttural noises that Stig makes. The adventures that follow loosely follow about eight months in Barney and Stig's friendship, and finish on a magical midsummer's night.
Barney is an ordinary boy, much like the reader reading him, but Stig is no ordinary caveman. Aside from the usual hunting and gathering that he is by character inclined to do, Stig is also highly ingenious, and enjoys finding new uses for the rubbish that is discarded near his home. He can use an old umbrella as a cooking spit, connect tin cans together to make a chimney, and mike a lantern out of an old teapot and some animal fat.
Like Barney, Stig is also lonely, but not through a domestic situation. Stig is marooned thousands of years out of his own time, and finds Barney as odd as Barney finds him. But there is a strong common bond between them, and despite their obvious differences swiftly become strong and loyal friends.
The only other leading characters apart from the Snargets - more of which later - is Lou, Barney's elder sister, who is refreshingly spared the ignominy of being a whiny elder sister, and is actually very supportive, amusing, and very close to Barney, presumably by virtue of the unspoken problem that keeps them living with their grandparents.
The pony Flash plays a small part - mostly for atmosphere - as does Dinah the dog. The only other characters are the grown-ups who, by long tradition are far too involved with their own grown-up matters of consequence to warrant much of a mention, unless to be mildly lampooned, to get things wrong, or turn up at the end of a chapter to safely close the proceedings.
In short order we introduce the friends, tackle the tricky technique of chalk-digging, chopping down trees, deal with thieves, go hunting, tackle an escaped Puma and spend a dream-like night assisting Stig's tribe to build the final part of a megalith.
It is a story primarily about friendship of an unusual fashion, and the fish-out-of-water element of Stig, who despite speaking no English can communicate with Barney by signs, grins and noises, whether it is about trading marbles, danger or hunting.
The most exciting aspect of Stig's existence is that he is utterly free. He wears no uniform, has no mealtimes, bath-times, schoolwork or bedtime, and is as far removed from the stultifying dull world of grownups as it is possible to be. Stig forages in the Dump for what he needs, hunts with flint-tipped arrows, and skins and cooks animals for food and warmth.
But Stig is no savage. He is kind, empathetic, and when danger comes calling - as it most surely does - he will happily stand beside Barney, as Barney will stand beside him.
The prose is strong yet simple, and scampers along at a goodly pace, peppered with descriptions of the scenery and time of year that reveals the author's great affection of the locality. It is no surprise that we learn the setting for Stig of the Dump is the area in which Mr King grew up, near Sevenoaks in Kent, and also no surprise to learn that Clive King, who these days still lives and writes in Norfolk, remains a keen DIYer.
The final two chapters in the book, which describes life in a Stone-age village and the raising of a megalith by muscle power, levers, ropes and a lot of singing is a masterful piece off descriptive prose that is at all times exciting, suspenseful and truly atmospheric.
Surprisingly - and delightfully, to accomplish the time change there is no clunky time-slip device, no portal, no knock on the head. Flash the pony leaps a fence with Barney and Lou and there they are. It is not explained, nor does it need to be. It simply is.
And what's more, there is no painful explanation at the end to spoil it. No waking up after a dream, no 'Stig was imaginary after all'. Stig and Barney's world is a world in which wonderful and unexpected things happen, the world to which you would like to belong when you grow up. If storytelling is about transporting the reader to another place, Stig of the Dump has it in spades.
Here's a confession: I have read Stig in the Dump only twice. Once in 1969, and again, last Tuesday. When I was invited to partake in this gladiatorial debate, there were still several choices open to me. After hearing Stig was available, I didn't need to hear the rest.
What was it about Barney and Stig that beckoned to me across forty-one years? Before I attempted a reread I tried to see what I could remember. Stig, sure, Barney, no problem - the Snargets - pretty much. Barney's sister? What was her name again? Don't know. The adventures? Not a clue.
But then I opened the book and with the first line it suddenly felt as though opening a long forgotten toy-box in the dusty attic I call my head.
"If you went too near the edge of the chalk pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough."
With the opening line we are straight into the story with a masterful piece of foreshadowing. As I read through the book, more and more became familiar. Words, phrases, the adventures themselves. These were old friends, and despite the sometimes jaundiced eye of a professional writer, I knew I was in very good hands. The story is simple, yet compelling; outwardly uncomplicated but inwardly frothing with the one major strength of childhood: companionship. Barney and Stig were as real to me last Tuesday as they were in 1969.
In my own cynical way I tried to find something in the book that didn't ring true, but it was hard. Even with the introduction of the Snargets, three working class characters 'from the wrong end of the village', I thought I might have found a whiff of snobbery. But no, despite first appearances, the Snargets could and would become friends and allies, the differences between then, like Barney and Stig, merely on the surface.
Indeed, I did not have to wait long before the scales swung the other way with the introduction of the slightly ridiculous Mrs Fawkham-Greene and her shiny black car, big house and patronising yet kindly attitude to Barney and Lou. Unlike the Snargets she didn't change; I suspect she is still insisting that eight-year-olds dance the 'Roger de Cloverly' with the girls leading the boys, and her playing the pianoforte.
As I read the increasingly familiar prose and soaked in Edward Ardizzone's arresting illustrations, I found not only memories of the book, but from my own life - the delight of making shelters and dens in the woods, the search for adventure or even the secret delight of personal ingenuity, while mending the guttering on my house, or some advanced-grade bodgery on my vintage car.
But most of all I remember the joy of rummaging through dumps for valuables that others have thrown away.
Naturally, my rummaging has been curtailed these days due to a certain degree of reluctantly enforced adult dignity and the fortuitous advent of eBay, but I remember when a teenager always searching the dump beyond the playing fields at school, and once found a radio I got to work, half a set of Encyclopaedia Britannic - I'm still not good at facts beyond the letter S - and the beginning of a set of ceramic electrical insulators, which I still like to collect to this day - despite the howls of derision from my children.
The point is this: If you were lucky enough to have read Stig of the Dump when young, then a piece of Stig always remains with you. And I can think of no greater accolade to any book.
I should also mention that I spoke collectively to the author when I was eight. We were reading Stig of the Dump at school and the class wrote a letter to Mr King imploring him to pen a sequel. We received a polite reply almost by return of post in which he thanked us for our praise and explained that he had no plans to write a sequel. Well, we tried.
Where are they now? Well, Barney is a married father of four. He is the senior partner in a firm of Solicitors in Deal. Stig, after a brief stint as a drummer with the Bay City Rollers, now lives in his own quarry in Hampshire with his large extended family. He augments his trapping and poaching with a modest career as an after dinner non-speaker.
So in finishing, The books that we read when young are the ones that stay with us. I was in the first flush of my reading career when Barney and Stig stepped into my imagination, and I don't think they have really been away since. They have settled into the comfy armchairs in the museum of my mind, along with such luminaries as the Cheshire Cat, Reepicheep, Charles Pooter and Simpkin. I found Stig of the Dump tremendously appealing - of two lonely people thousands of years apart who could not understand one other, but spoke a common language of friendship. And so, I suspect, shall you.
Written for the Hay Literary Festival, May 2010
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