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