Northern Flames - Ian Thomson

Northern Flames

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 14 reviews)

How can the fortunes of two boys, whose start in life is near identical, diverge so dramatically? Will their bond survive?

Northern Flames - Ian Thomson

Northern Flames

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 14 reviews)

BEN AND I HAD BEEN FRIENDS for as long as I could remember.

‘They’re like twins, them two,’ my mother would say to her friends in the Co-op.
‘Siamese twins more like,’ Mrs Haydock from the top end would say.
‘Joined at the hip,’ Mum would say. ‘Inseparable like. Mind you, they’re allus up to mischief.’
‘But they’re not bad kids, though, are they?’ Mrs Kenyon would chime in. ‘See them together and you really would think they were twin brothers.’
‘Like two peas in a pod,’ Mrs Haydock would say.

How can the fortunes of two boys, whose start in life is near identical, diverge so dramatically? Will their bond survive?

Thomson explores their complex relationship with deft plotting and nimble prose. Even at the darkest moments, there is a rich comic vein.

Northern Flames is a companion volume to The Northern Elements, winner of a Chill with a Book Premier Award, 2019.

Cover Illustration with permission from The Lancashire Telegraph.

‘The evocation of time and place is compelling. This is accomplished writing. Thomson’s craftsmanship surprises the reader at every turn.’

An extract from Northern Flames

I can’t remember if there was a fight. I doubt it. We bantered and bickered all the time and there had been clumsy wrestling play fights when we were younger but I don’t remember a proper scrap – not one where blows were landed. He was still my best mate and no doubt we took the rap together.

But the drifting apart continued and Ben was going cheerfully off the rails. This was not something I remember thinking about consciously. Just as our childhood intimacy was an unreflective thing so our estrangement was imperceptible until it was complete.
‘Like two peas in a pod,’ Mrs Haydock had said in the Co-op.
That was hardly true any more. Ben wore his bright blond hair in a Beatles’ mop, while mine had darkened several shades and I wore it rather shorter in conformity with school rules. I was taller than him by now, by an inch or so, I reckon.
His voice broke before mine and he decided to leave the choir at St John’s. Mr Butterfield had wanted him to join the men in due course but Ben said it was no good: one minute he would be talking in a bass voice and then there would be a squeak or a croak. Ben said he’d forgotten how to sing and Mr B said his voice would soon settle. Ben shook his head glumly and said it was no good. In private he told me that he’d enjoyed being out of the ordinary as a treble but saw no future in being a mediocre bass.
He left the scouts soon after that.
‘Why?’ I asked him.
‘It’s for kids,’ he said.
‘You don’t believe that,’ I said.
‘Yeah I do,’ he said, ‘all that tying knots and saluting flags and playing at soldiers. And all that ‘lads together’ crap. It’s unnatural.’
‘Don’t give me that. You love it,’ I said. ‘You like the competition. You thrive on it. You crave it.’
‘Not with you around, I don’t.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, you’re not talking about the chicken shed business, are you?’
‘If the woggle fits,’ he said.

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Reviews for Northern Flames

Northern Flames

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Friday, 4 August, 2023

If you’re from up north, a certain age and era, it’ll be right up your street! Funny, poignant, memorable if you like that sort of thing, local author ✍️ fabulous read 👍🏻



Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 11 January, 2022

A wonderful nostalgic story of youngsters growing up and losing their friendship. Loved the humour. A great story

Chill with a Book Reader

Page Turner

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 11 January, 2022

This is not fast-paced, but it is a page turner and a wonderful story. Northern Flames follows the life of two young boys in the 1960s as they mature to manhood. The author takes the reader down the road of how life was for young people during that decade; boy scouts, choir practice, days out, school outside adventures and more. It vividly shows how life used to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would have no hesitation recommending. In the meantime, I look forward to more like this one from Mr Thomson.

Chill with a Book Reader

As vivid as a film

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Friday, 19 November, 2021

The writing in this clever and really enjoyable book is so vivid that reading it is like watching a film. I’ve just finished it and these are some of the scenes that stick in my mind’s eye: the Jack Russell running of with Scarlet Ken’s underpants on Blackpool sands; the upside-down house on the Pleasure Beach; the Mighty Bumblaster’s pyrotechnic feats in the graveyard; after school chores and Sandra’s revenge on Ben with washing-up water; Ben bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box as Stuart is convalescing; Ben trying to make Stuart laugh by gurning at a funeral; Clarence the earwig in Stuart’s tent at scout camp; the demolition of the market hall clock tower; Friday nights and Stuart and Ben pub crawling and clubbing; a prison visit; Stuart and his French fiancée viewing the town from the Cannons in Corporation Park – any more and I’d be in spoiler territory.



Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 18 November, 2021

This beguiling novel is a fitting sequel to The Northern Elements. It is set again in Blackburn, mostly in the sixties, but reaches forward over several decades. It could, however, have been set in any poor working community in the United Kingdom.

It charts the diverging lives of two boys born into near identical circumstances. As they grow up so the face of the town changes, not always for the better. The book asks how it can be that the lives of these two lads, with such similar beginnings, can follow such different trajectories with such different outcomes.

What is beguiling is the development of their friendship over time. It seems deceptively simple, as Thomson lures us in with banter and mischief, which is often very funny indeed. Thomson has an excellent ear and the dialogue is authentic and often witty. As Stuart’s life begins to brighten with opportunities, Ben’s begins to follow a more treacherous path. The humour is still there but it is darker.

There are quite unexpected shocks and surprises for the reader, but the plot is tightly controlled. The settings will ring true for any Blackburnian, but the descriptions of the ‘modernisation’ of the centre will have its echoes for anyone who had a childhood in any sizeable northern town – or in the Midlands, the East End of London, or South Wales for that matter.

Mr Pertinax


Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 9 November, 2021

I haven’t finished it yet, but there is so much about childhood that resonates with me. Funny, tender, reflective, it is a shrewd evocation of a northern childhood.


Some more thoughts

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Monday, 18 October, 2021

Hi Ian I hope you are well! I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading “Northern Flames”. I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I tend to read in bed just before I go to sleep and each night I couldn’t wait to read more of this wonderful book which brought back boyhood memories of Blackpool and Blackburn. Your descriptions transported me back in time and images were conjured up through your wonderfully descriptive writing. Northern and particularly Blackburn expressions and sayings made me smile as I could hear in my head my grandfather and my mum, both Blackburn born and bred saying the very same words. I will be ordering more of your books Ian and wish you every success on their popularity.

I have told several Blackburn contacts I have about the two Northern books.

Gordon Walker

Another cracking good read

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 14 October, 2021

I loved Northern Elements and the much anticipated Northern Flames has proved to be every bit as good. The story is simultaneously gripping, heart warming, funny and sad and stirred my old Blackburnian heart with long forgotten memories and feelings. Read it over two nights as I couldn’t wait to find out what happens and felt bereft when it ended. Richly satisfying for anyone who has had a childhood, not just us northerners. Can’t wait for the next one.

Linda Purcell

Flaming Brilliant! As we say up North

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 12 October, 2021

Thoroughly enjoyed this tale of two lads growing up in the North with very similar backgrounds and how their lives took vastly different paths as they grew into manhood.


We wove a web in childhood: Northern Flames by Ian Thomson

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 9 October, 2021

There are a number of good reasons to want to write about one’s past, albeit, a past veiled in fiction. One is to record thoughts and memories about a specific place and a way of life that no longer exists. Another is to help the process of making sense of one’s life and those of one’s friends.

Keeping these memories clear and free from sentimentality and the golden glow that settles like dust on temps perdu is no mean feat, especially when there is a great deal of affection associated with them.

Northern Fires escapes these pitfalls. Indeed, it never gets near them.

The book follows the lives of two boys, Stuart (Stewpot) and Ben, from their school days in Blackburn in the 1960s and charts the events that caused their paths to diverge.

The detail is rich, but never tedious, and the descriptions of the boys on an outing to Blackpool, at Scout camp and other youthful escapades, are not only very amusing, but ring true – even the ones involving fireworks.

The structure is deceptively simple: the story is told chronologically with only the odd, short flash-forward to provide a retrospective comment, in just the way someone would tell a story to a group of friends. The early section of the book has rich dialogue, sixties’ expressions, smart remarks and references to the Beano, while the latter part of the book is more reflective, bringing readers up to date about career moves, romances, and visits back to Blackburn – none of which is tedious or slows the progression of the book. Indeed, there is sage advice to teachers and a horrific first lesson that many will recognise.

As well as a reflection on a special friendship, the novel is also a consideration about what has been lost in one’s hometown and the paucity of value in what has replaced it.

I was surprised by how many of Stewpot’s experiences of growing up in Blackburn, and his sadness at the loss of familiar places and buildings, resonated with my own, considering I grew up on the other side of the Atlantic.

My hometown of Rustbelt, Massachusetts, underwent a similar evisceration. I actually attended the ground breaking for the major development that had flattened dozens of acres in the downtown area, demolishing houses, factories, machine shops, churches, hotels and myriad specialty shops that had evolved over a hundred fifty years.

At the ceremony, a helicopter hovered at the height of the planned twenty-storey building and lowered a silver-plated shovel so the mayor could take the first spadeful to launch the redevelopment.

To add insult to injury, just as in Blackburn, many of those “new” buildings are now gone, along with much of the town’s history.

As we watch – with sympathy – Ben’s life take its downward turn, we also see Stewpot feeling helpless to aid his friend. Only in later life does Stewpot realise that at while he possessed some maturity, he was still too innocent to be fully aware of what was going on.

Thomson avoids the temptation to indulge in the psychoanalysis of his characters and allows them to speak for themselves. While the delineation of the disintegration of Ben’s family might cause some to treat Ben as a victim, Thomson, through Stewpot, suggests that the fault is not in his stars but in himself – though there is an ironic hint of the hand of fate.

Yet, for all Ben’s failings, Stewpot never ceases to consider him a friend – which makes Ben’s biggest failing the failure to recognise this, and perhaps, find some solace, if not redemption. It’s a hard lesson for Stewpot that you cannot help someone who does not want to be helped.

Simplicity is possibly the hardest trick to pull off. We are too used to underlying meanings, clever academic allusions, misleading clues and other diversions that lead us to fail to see what is right in front of us.

There is no trickery here and few surprises. There is only extraordinary writing that is a joy to read. It is a book about friendship and loyalty, about time, place and tradition – familiar themes for Thomson, but each differently explored. The artistry is in the prose, the vocabulary, syntax, wit and wordplay.

The clarity of the scenes is such that readers will feel they accompanied Ben and Stewpot in their graveyard antics, school classes, shared tea, filed papers at the North West Electricity Board, danced at The Cavendish Club, drank too much on the Barbary Coast, and share the vision of the Blackburn they grew up in.

P Michael

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