At the start of William Rayner’s 1974 YA novel Big Mister, its protagonist Simon has just returned to his mother’s Lancashire hometown after living with his parents in Africa. His father, an anthropologist who sees the African people not as people but merely something to study, has decided his son needs to be educated in England (partly because Simon has been having fainting fits), so sends him back to live with his cousin Anne. While in Africa, Simon had dreams of a man standing on a tall rock, stretching out his arms towards him. The family’s African cook, Jonas, took him to a local nganga, or diviner, who interpreted this to mean a “Big Mister” or ancestral spirit was calling to Simon. He gave him a shell ndoro necklace to wear as a token of acceptance of this call, and to protect him from muroi (witches). Afterwards, the fainting fits stopped.
Being shown around the Lancashire town by his cousin Anne, Simon sees the rock from his dreams. It’s known locally as the Owdstane, and is scrawled with graffiti from both modern and olden times. He senses the Big Mister reaching out of the past for him, but is brought back to the real world by Anne. A few moments later, though, both he and Anne suddenly find themselves snatched into the past — to 1823, to be precise — but not by Simon’s Big Mister. They’ve been conjured into this former age by a man called Earl Sylvester, part stage magician, part sorcerer, with “a voice of almost stealthy charm, gliding along the branches of the language like a serpent.” He wants Simon and Anne to take part in a scheme he’s been hired for by a local cotton manufacturer, Mr Hoylake: the murder of Samuel Barraclough, an “agitator” (though when we meet him it’s obvious he’s just a compassionate soul with a belief in the rights of workers in this Hellish world of the early Industrial Revolution).
The magic comes thick and fast. Sylvester hypnotises the two teens so as to use them to get at Barraclough. Anne is taken on a strange journey into a world inside a tapestry by Sylvester’s witch-friend Lady Rose, while Simon gets transformed for a short while into a pig. He also witnesses the first stirrings-to-life of Grimalkin, a magical automaton Sylvester is going to use to deliver the final blow to Barraclough.
This is a far different book from Rayner’s previous YA novel, Stag Boy, which mixed dreamlike, shamanistic magic with everyday realities, and addressed some tricky issues of masculinity and teenage sexuality head-on. With Big Mister, I felt the author might well have been having more fun, indulging himself with a cast of eloquent, colourful characters and some outright magical adventures, but it doesn’t feel as raw and desperate as Stag Boy, nor is the story quite as compelling. For a long time, Simon and Anne are passive observers, getting to see too large a number of characters and situations before we understand what’s going on, and the action only kicks in at about the two-thirds point. Having Simon and Anne hypnotised (or pretending to be) for so much of the novel, and stuck in the past, makes it all seem so much less immediate. One (quite major) point I don’t remember being answered is why Earl Sylvester felt the need to snatch two kids from the future at all. As they were only there to be hypnotised automatons, surely kids from Sylvester’s time would have done just as well?
Whereas the themes of Stag Boy are strong from the start, and are inseparable from the fantastic elements, Rayner’s theme in Big Mister has to be more explicitly spelled out (which it is, in one particular chapter, where Simon gets a lecture from Sylvester’s rat-familiar), and so ends up feeling a little more theoretical than the previous book’s visceral adolescent angst. Dr Flack, an “economist and philosopher” who spends his days justifying manufacturer Hoylake’s inhuman treatment of his workforce (“I am able to prove conclusively that it is impossible for an employer to injure his workman…”, and “…it is cruel, yes, cruel to the workman to try to alleviate his lot”), is obviously no better, in Rayner’s eyes, than the “infernal conjuror” Earl Sylvester. Simon and Anne’s enslavement through hypnotism is a fantasy parallel to the work-enslavement of the poor of 1823, but it doesn’t feel as powerful an enactment of theme as Jim Hooper’s union with the stag in Stag Boy. Towards the end of the book, Simon is treated to a brief sample of what life was like for poor working children, and it’s a nightmare of narrow chimneys, claustrophobic pit-work, and flagrant abuse. It’s obvious Rayner could have written a far more hard-hitting time-travel novel if he’d wanted. (And he’s keen to point out that, though we might think things have improved in the present, that’s only because we’ve pushed the poverty overseas and out of sight.)
Barraclough, meanwhile, preaches an almost Blakeian message to the town’s workers:
“I see you with the eye of the imagination, and I say that each of you is a precious gem. When I look at you, I do not see ‘labour’. I do not see ‘hands’. I see the myriads of eternity, but I see them in chains.”
When I reviewed Stag Boy, I hadn’t been able to find much about William Rayner, but I’ve since located him in a couple of reference books (and created a Wikipedia page for him). He was born in Barnsley in 1929, and became a teacher and lecturer, working in what was then called Rhodesia for the second half of the 1950s. He had a couple of adult novels published at the start of the 1960s, as well as a nonfiction book about the African people (The Tribe and Its Successors: An Account of African Traditional Life and European Settlement in Southern Rhodesia, 1962), which included a chapter on the nganga. More adult novels followed at the end of the 60s, then he tried his hand at YA with Stag Boy and Big Mister. After that, he returned to adult novels, most of which were historical, and quite often set in the American West. (The Trail to Bear Paw Mountain, for instance, follows the Victorian explorer Richard Burton on a trip to the western United States in search of gold.) 1979 and 1980 saw the first two novels of a proposed trilogy set in the same period that Big Mister’s Simon and Anne visit, the early Industrial Revolution, but no third novel seems to have been published. And, as far as I can tell, Rayner hasn’t had anything published since, though he lived till 2006.
It would be interesting to know why Rayner left off writing for young adults. Stag Boy feels like it fits in with other YA books of its time, including those by Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, William Mayne, and the Penelopes Lively and Farmer. Big Mister fits too, with its mix of kitchen sink concerns — mostly class and racism, here — with folkish-feeling magic, though it’s less successful as a novel, particularly one for younger readers who might feel the first half kept introducing more and more colourful characters without establishing a solid plot. It seems to have had no paperback edition, so perhaps it didn’t sell well enough to encourage its author (or his publishers), though he obviously had a flair for pushing the boundaries of teen fiction. And why did he later stop publishing altogether, halfway through a trilogy? That, surely, can’t have been lack of success, as the 1970s saw him publishing ten books, many of them in both the UK and US. Hard to know how I might find out, but it would be interesting to learn more about this author.