The Northern Elements

The Northern Elements

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 35 reviews)

Set in Lancashire, in 1890 and 1960, the novel involves two gangs of small boys and their adventures, seventy years apart.

The Northern Elements

The Northern Elements

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 35 reviews)

“The story grows in the mind and stays with you. The structure is masterly.”

The Northern Elements is so called because the ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water are thematic threads woven into the story. Set in Lancashire, in 1890 and 1960, the novel involves two gangs of small boys and their adventures, seventy years apart.

The tragic secret that links the the two gangs only emerges in the second part of the book, which is set in the present day.

Thomson explores aspects of identity which are the product of a specific time, and elements which can be said to be universal in our nature. He writes with characteristic wit and sharpness of observation about the world as seen by boys on the brink of adolescence, in a rapidly changing cotton town in the North of England.

An Excerpt from The Northern Elements:


Five boys met under the gas lamp at the corner of River Street and Higher Audley Street at ten o’clock, as arranged. It had been raining for days but that was nothing new in Blackburn. The damp air was good for the cotton, they said, and anyway, the boys had never known anything different.

They all wore cloth caps and mufflers. Two of them wore clogs and three were barefoot despite the cold and wet. You got used to it. There was Daniel Lyon, the leader of the gang; Richard Clayton, the brightest; Robert Catlow, the biggest, and James Bibby, the practical one. Little George Pickford was late.

‘He’ll mar everything if he doesn’t show up soon,’ Danny said.

‘Let’s go without him,’ said Richard. ‘Wherever it is we’re going. What’s it all about, Danny?’

‘You’ll see,’ Danny said. ‘It’s James’s idea really. But we have to wait for Georgie. We need him.’

After a minute or two, Robert shouted: ‘Here he is!’ – and sure enough, George came hurtling round the corner of Withers Street, passing through the patches of pale light which hung in a damp aura around each gas lamp and through which thin rain continued to fall. In the darkness between two gas lamps, he slipped and fell in a puddle but soon recovered.

‘I’m sorry, Danny,’ he blurted out when he reached them. ‘I accidentally let the sneck of the door go with a clack and I thought me dad were moving about, but it’s all right now.’

‘Are you sure?’ Danny said.

‘Aye, he’ll have got up for a pee and gone back to bed. He’s not bothered about me any road. He couldn’t care less.’

Though none of them was older than ten, they had had little trouble getting out at this hour of the night. All of their parents worked at River Street Mill, apart from Richard’s dad, who was a clerk at the Gas Board. The others used to try teasing him about it, claiming that it made him ‘posh’, but he wouldn’t rise to it. All of their parents were dirt poor, worked extremely hard, and went to bed early, exhausted. In any case, they couldn’t afford to spend money on candles and lamp oil after eight o’clock at night. The knocker-up would be rattling on their windows with his long pole at five the next morning. They needed all the sleep they could get. Besides, sleep was a blessed relief from labour.

The exception was Danny’s father. Danny had lost his mother in an accident at the mill two years ago and since then his dad had been on the sauce. He’d be in The Wellington or the Cicely Hole Hotel until chucking out time, which would be soon.

‘Now then lads, we need to get our skates on,’ Danny said, ‘We don’t want to bump into my dad. He’s been dead mardy lately.’

‘Right,’ said Richard. ‘Georgie’s here now. What’s going on?’

‘You hungry?’ Danny asked.

‘Course we’re hungry. We’re always bloody hungry,’ Richard snapped. It was no fun standing about in the rain.  ‘What are you on about?’

Richard was getting frustrated with Danny’s air of mystery. Though the two of them were close pals, there was sometimes friction between them.

‘All right, don’t get your knickers in a twist,’ said Danny. ‘What we’re going to do is this. We’re going to do Hargreave’s Bakery on Eanam. You’re going to go to bed with full bellies tonight lads, and there’ll be some left over. Come on, let’s get a move on. We’ll get down to the tram shelter at Foundry Hill and I’ll tell you the plan.’

They set off, close together, half-walking, half-running until they reached the railway bridge on Cicely Lane where, rain or no rain, they stopped to look down the line at Blackburn Railway Station. Rob Catlow had to lift Georgie up so that he could see.

There was a passenger train in the station where the engine was taking on water. From here on the bridge, they could hear a kind of panting and then, from time to time, a thud and a great hissing exhalation of steam, rising up the sides of the engine and closing over the top. In the dark, they could see the faint and fuzzy points of the gas lamps on the platforms, seeming to converge only to disappear in the rainy murk. Much brighter was the red glow from the firebox of the engine, leaking out on either side of the black monster.

‘That is so beautiful,’ said James Bibby dreamily. He was obsessed with trains.

‘Where’s it going?’ asked George.

‘That one will be going to Glasgow,’ James said, ‘via Hellifield and Carlisle.’

‘Where’s Glasgow?’ George said.

‘It’s in Scotland,’ said James. ‘That’s another country, Georgie.’

‘How will it get across the sea?’ George asked.

‘Magic,’ said James.

Just then, steam issued from behind the wheels, smoke billowed from the funnel, and the train began to chug towards them. In a few moments, they were enveloped in smoke that smelled like coal. They rushed to the other side of the bridge and the white smoke began to stream over their heads. They could see the rain as if it were suspended in the smoke. The passenger coaches passed beneath them, throwing light from their windows onto the stones of the cutting on either side. Sparks flashed on the gravel and there was a squealing noise. At last, only the red lamp at the back of the guard’s van was visible, rapidly dwindling to a point. A melancholy whistle announced that the train was taking the bend at Daisyfield and the excitement was over. There was only the cold and the rain.

The Northern Elements

“It gets more and more compelling as it goes on and the last few chapters are stunning”

Cover image (copyright pending) with thanks to
Blackburn with Darwen Library & Information Service.

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Reviews for The Northern Elements

Loved it

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 19 September, 2023

Loved all 3 of this series hoping for a 4th

Margaret Thomson

A Good Read

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Wednesday, 19 May, 2021

Really enjoyed the book. Loved the parallels and counterpoints between the two groups of children, and the depiction of a bygone age. The ending, was very moving.

N.G. Riches

This is not the gentle read you may initially think it is...

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Sunday, 21 June, 2020

My copy of “The Northern Elements” arrived yesterday afternoon and less than 24 hours later I have read it. At some 200 pages it is not a particularly long book, however, that aside, I enjoyed it so much that I kept on turning the pages. The reader is thrust into a world now gone – absent are the hovering parents of today shuttling their children from activity to activity – to one of outdoor play with friends with no questions asked, so long as “you are back by tea time”.

Themes are artfully developed by the author, but the reader could be forgiven for thinking that this is a book targeted at a teenage audience – that is, until Part Two. The second section will have particular resonance with those retired and in the autumn of their life, however, it is also certain to have wider appeal.

A very engaging and quite different yarn which will satisfy and although conclusive, in many ways will leave the reader wanting more.


Authentic depiction of boys growing up in an industrial town

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 12 March, 2020

I was made aware of this novel by a friend who grew up in Blackburn, and I suspect that many of its readers will buy it for the local atmosphere, but for someone like me who grew up in an industrial town in south Wales, the author evokes the emotions and adventures that we experienced growing up in the 1950s. It is rare to read such an authentic account of the dynamics of the gangs in which we spent the free time of our pre-adolescent lives. The book also brings to light how adventurous we were; our parents generous with the freedom they gave us, without the restrictions imposed by later generations of more cautious parents. But the tragic consequences of such freedom are not avoided. For a reader like me who is impatient with much fiction and needs to be gripped from the start, I found the initial pace to be a little slow, but the ending made it all worthwhile. Overall an excellent read that needs to be better known, and yes, as another reviewer has suggested, it would make an interesting basis for an original film.

Philip John

Childhood Memories Revisited

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 6 February, 2020

This book is extremely well written and is partly set in an area of Blackburn I grew up in. The chapters alternate between a group of boys growing up in the 1890’s and a group growing up in the 1960’s. The book is in two parts and near the end of the book there is a surprise to the reader. The descriptions of 1960’s Blackburn and the area of Little Harwood brought back my own experiences as a child, the things that we did, the things that we said were so accurate it transported me back in time. The 1890’s accounts were also fascinating. I cannot wait for Ian Thomson’s next book which he is writing, again to be set in Blackburn, where he lived for a time as a child. If you have read “The Road to Nab End” and “Beyond Nab End you will love this book. I recommended ” The Northern Elements” to a great friend from my childhood in the 60’s who lived next door to me and he was also fascinated and enthralled with this book. I couldn’t put it down.

Gordon Walker

Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Thank you so much for this kind review, Gordon. Glad to take stroll with you down Memory Lane (and Brookhouse Lane, and Whalley Old Road, and Eanam, etc!)

70 years of how lads used to 'play out'

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Friday, 17 January, 2020

In general, a novel has to engage me rapidly. This means introducing at least some of the main characters quickly, alongside setting the scene with some irresistible temptations to continue. In Northern Elements, Ian Thomson succeeds admirably, even though he has to establish a set of characters in 18901891, on the one hand, and 1960/1961 on the other. There is some connection between the two groups, which needs to be grasped, and the scene is geographically the same, Blackburn in Lancashire, which is unambiguously identified in the first section (he doesn’t have Chapters) to deal with 1890, there being an alternation between the two periods throughout the novel. In both eras a group of 10/11 year old lads are ‘playing out’ as Lancashire folk used, and perhaps still do, say. The descriptive detail for 1960/61 is wonderfully presented, based on the author’s evidently impressive memory of his own life in those days. But for 1890/91 Ian Thomson is back extrapolating, based no doubt on research, yet the reader would be hard pressed to discern any discontinuity in ‘feel’. Thus for example, when he describes a tram ride to Wilpshire in 1890/91 the narrative is based on careful research; there was such a route at that time but it was abandoned before Ian Thomson was born. But the actual description of the journey and of Wilpshire at the time must be based on his imagination. One can throughout sense the ‘northern elemental’ connection between the two periods. The plot is developed by reference to daily adventures of the boys in the two periods and readily intrigues the reader as to where it is going, as one can almost envisage ‘playing out’ with the boys. To say much more would be giving the game away, but suffice it to say that a connection between the events of 1890/91 and 1960/61 develops, together with a final revelation of what really happened that emerged in later years. I am told that novels are harder to end than to begin; Ian Thomson develops a good ending which stretches the imagination only a little.

I confess that I read Northern Elements because through the sometimes random nature of Google searches, I came across the author and realised that he and I had been for several years been in the same form at secondary school, but without any contact for over 50 years. So Blackburn is well known to me. Although I came from a different part of town, the locations are all, to a greater or lesser extent, familiar. So the question I should pose is would I have enjoyed the Northern Elements had it been based in Burnley, the neighbouring town and big football rival? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ as the descriptions and story would have drawn me in. Had I originated ‘south of Watford Gap’ the story and writing would still have enthralled. Go on, try it; I would be surprised if you were disappointed!

Stuart Ferguson

Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Thank you for your kind review, Stuart. I never imagined whilst writing the novel that it would put me in touch with former classmates. Thanks too for pointing out that the word ‘elements’ in the title is meant to suggest that I wanted to foreground aspects of human nature that are elemental, irrespective of history or geography, so yes, I hoped that it would appeal to readers outside Blackburn – and indeed, it has sold in France, Spain, Germany and the US, as well as ‘south of the Watford Gap’. I hope to publish a second ‘Blackburn novel’ by the end of the year.

Exciting mix

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 17 December, 2019

Loved ‘The Northern Elements’. It was such an exciting mix: detective/time-shift/historical/social memoir…read it in a day! Surely a Netflix film on the horizon?

Sue Morley

Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Netflix? I wish. But thanks!

Like watching a film

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 3 December, 2019

The consequences of a childish prank gone wrong echo down the generations and their full significance is only brought to light seventy years later by a retired forensic scientist. The subtlety of the book’s complex plotting is understated because the clear prose makes for easy reading. The childhood scenes, from 1890 and 1960, run parallel and there are many delightful comparisons and contrasts between the lives of ten year old boys from these widely spaced decades. The scenes are as a vivid as if you were watching a film, touching, but also very funny until they are suddenly cut short by a completely unexpected tragedy. The unravelling that takes place in the second half of the book in our own time is masterly and the reflective final paragraphs are really moving. Despite the title, you don’t have to be Northern to enjoy it – (I’m not) – because the truths in this little volume are genuinely elemental.

Christine Seymour

Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Film or TV rights would be brilliant, Christine.

An enjoyable read

Rated 4.0 out of 5
Monday, 28 October, 2019

I’m just a few years older than the author and grew up in the same town. He paints an accurate picture of working class boys in Blackburn in the early post Second World War period – although with one or two inaccuracies. Little Harwood is north east of the town centre, not north west and King George’s Hall wasn’t around in 1890 (it opened 1921). A good plausible yarn and an easy read.


Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Thanks for the review. Glad you enjoyed it. I moved to Little Harwood in 1960 so I should have known better and, of course, Victoria was on the throne in 1890 so no public buildings commemorating George V! Will correct in any subsequent edition. Thank you.

I actually could not put it down, totally enthralled!

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Sunday, 20 October, 2019

My stomping ground having spent the first 18 yrs of my life on Whalley Range from 1952. St Michaels my first school and I used to cross the little bridge mentioned on my way to school every morning, both my parents at one time worked in Brookhouse Lane. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and hope there will be others. Thank you.

Elizabeth Harvey

Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Thank you! It looks like you lived just around the corner then.

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