The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

1981 HB, art by Gavin Rowe

Six years after the death of his father, 13-year-old Simon Wood (“Awkward age”, as one character puts it) learns his mother is to remarry. Simon pretty much worships his father, a major in the army who was killed in Aden in circumstances that hint he may have been acting a little more imperialistically than he should have. His mother’s new man, Joe Moreton, is his father’s opposite: “pacifist, ban-the-bomb”, an artist no less (a newspaper cartoonist and painter), a man who rose to success from a working class background, with the result that he has, to Simon’s mind, “too much money and no sense of how things were done”. Simon — who comes across as a bit of a snob, for instance in the way he’s ashamed of his school’s plastic guttering — finds him “animal and yobbish”.

Worse, Simon learns what’s going on not from his mother, but through an overheard conversation at the art gallery where she works. They’re having a show of Joe Moreton’s paintings and cartoons, and Simon, bored, drinks a few complimentary glasses of wine before hiding away behind some decorations. From there, he hears a couple of snide, gossipy patrons talking about Joe Moreton and “the brigadier’s daughter”. “Hot little lady, that one,” one says, before Simon realises they’re talking about his mother. I love how Westall describes the moment Simon is found and confronts his mother and Joe:

“Then suddenly, without a thing being said, everybody knew that everybody knew.”

PB, art by Alun Hood

The next thing, Simon’s mother is informing him they’re selling the family home in Croydon and she and Simon’s young sister Jane are moving up to Joe’s house in the village of Gorsley in Cheshire. Simon at first refuses to go with them. He’s a boarder at a private school, and is going to spend some of his holidays at an army camp. But when that’s finished, he relents and hitchhikes up to join them. (So we now have drinking alcohol and hitchhiking unaccompanied, both at age 13. There’s worse to come.) But he takes one look at how close his mother, sister, and Joe have already become — loving and playful, warm and far more domestic than his own father ever was — and just has to run away from it. Taking refuge in an abandoned mill in the next field, he spins a fantasy around three old coats hanging on the wall, of:

“…a mum who stayed home and was always there when you needed her; a father around who you could help and ask questions.”

But when he finds a starving cat and her kittens near the mill, he goes back to his mother so they can help the kittens. He can show a fierce, almost angry protectiveness for this helpless animal family, but can’t show affection for his own human one. He agrees to move in with his mother, sister, and step-father, but is constantly finding himself driven to destructive attacks against Joe and his mother. (As he owns his father’s army kit — his most precious possession — he at one point ends up with a loaded revolver. At age 13.) And this is where the supernatural starts to find its way in.

Puffin PB

Simon sees three scarecrows in the field by the old mill. They weren’t there before. He feels there’s something familiar about them, and finds himself constantly watching them. When he finally connects them with a story he’s heard about the mill — a love-triangle that turned murderous — and connects that with how he feels about his mother and her new husband, he starts to grow afraid. And each day, the scarecrows get closer. Even if Simon knocks them down, the next day they’re up on their stilts again, heading for him.

Simon obviously has “issues”. He has sudden, uncontrollable bursts of anger he calls his “devils”. The only emotion he’s been taught to process is fear, and that by his father, whose advice was to turn towards what you fear and deal with it in the most confrontational way — which may be what finished him off. This is why Simon’s grief for his father is so unacknowledged and unprocessed, until it becomes so strong it can only be dealt with as anger. And how does he deal with the many complex emotions brought up by his mother’s remarriage? Anger. And one of the first things we learn about Simon is that his anger, his “devils”, have left him “very frightened of himself”. So, if his only way of processing fear is through anger, and that anger makes him afraid of himself, it’s no wonder he’s messed up.

The scarecrows, seemingly driven to relive a past event through Simon’s pent-up emotion (a situation that recalls Alan Garner’s Owl Service and Penelope Lively’s Astercote) are themselves things of unresolved, frustrated anger:

“They had lived on their own hate for thirty years, and it was a thin, bitter, unsatisfying thing.”

US cover

Reading The Scarecrows is like being jostled between Simon’s increasingly unpleasant outbursts (calling his mother a whore, waving a loaded revolver) and how poorly he is dealt with by his mother and step-father. It’s evident nobody has helped him process the death of his father — he has been stuck away in a private school most of the time, with fellow pupils as likely to bully him as befriend him. While his sister has had plenty of time to get to know Joe Moreton as a person, and so love him as a stepfather, it’s a done deal by the time Simon gets to know him. And while his mother, thanks to Joe, is only now learning how unloving her first husband was, how self-destructive and ultimately afraid of the human part of life — “afraid of going grey, getting old, coming home every night and letting the kids jump all over him while he was watching the telly” — she doesn’t give any thought to how having such a father must have affected Simon, how it must have taught him all the wrong ideas about what it was to be a man. “I never knew what love was, till I met you,” she tells Joe, but doesn’t seem capable of passing the lesson on to her much-in-need-of-it son. It’s a situation of emotional blindness in one generation inculcating it in the next, and so perpetuating the misery.

The Scarecrows was first published in 1981, and won the Carnegie Medal (making Westall the first person to win it twice). Published for the first time today, I think any review would likely bring up the term “toxic masculinity”. For here we get a look at its origins in the ways some families deal — or don’t — with that “awkward age”, and with such supposedly un-masculine emotions as grief and vulnerability. Troubled boys, forced to act like little soldiers, become hounded by devils, and end up acting like them.

Penguin 2016 cover

The Scarecrows doesn’t spell this out, but leaves it to the reader to judge both Simon and his situation, which seems to be another characteristic of the more powerful YA novels of that era — an often unflinching harshness of material, dealt with in a very matter-of-fact style, and no explicit authorial judgement. In this way it reminds me of Alan Garner’s Red Shift and William Rayner’s Stag Boy. But also of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, proving it’s not just a thing of that era, after all.

I didn’t feel The Scarecrows had quite the cathartic resolution it needed — I’ve no sense that anything is definitely going to change for Simon, though it’s certainly not as bleak as Garner’s Red Shift — but it’s a powerful novel all the same, and certainly makes me want to read more from Westall.

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The Chocky Trilogy

I always felt John Wyndham was something of a presiding spirit over the culture of the 1970s and early 80s, because the two genre tropes I most associate with him — “cosy” catastrophes, and mind powers (especially in kids) — achieved something of a peak at this time (thanks to SF-tinged shows like Survivors and Doomwatch for the catastrophes, and The Omega Factor and The Mind Beyond for the mind powers, as well as YA fiction such as H M Hoover’s Morrow series). Hard evidence didn’t arrive till the 80s, though, when proper Wyndham adaptations hit the screens. First there was the BBC’s Day of the Triffids in 1981, then Thames TV’s Chocky in 1984. The Wyndham estate were so pleased with the latter, they allowed its adapter, Anthony Read (who’d been script editor for Doctor Who in 1978, as well as writing for shows like The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel), to follow it up with a couple of sequels.

Chocky must surely have been commissioned on the back of the success of Spielberg’s ET, which came out in the UK in December 1982, but the show itself has a bleaker air, in part thanks to the rather melancholy, Eno-esque theme music (which no longer matched the show’s feel by its third series). Aside from a few 80s updates — a Rubik’s cube, Space Invaders on a home console, a Rodney Matthews poster on Matthew’s bedroom wall, and the way he does some Uri Geller-style spoon-bending early on — the adaptation’s pretty faithful to the book. Perhaps too faithful, as the book itself is quite episodic. The dramatic highpoint, Matthew’s kidnapping, takes place within about ten minutes of the final episode and gets a fairly limp resolution, and surely it, with its hints of ill-defined but oppressive government/corporate forces taking an interest, deserved to be brought more to the fore in a kids’ TV show. On the other hand, it’s nice that the low-key family-drama elements were given so much room to breathe.

Matthew (Andrew Ellams) chats with Chocky, from the first series

Chocky’s Children, from 1985, is perhaps a bit more satisfying purely as TV, even if, to be so, it has to drop the more atmospheric elements of the first series. Matthew, now Chocky-free but missing that sense of inner connection, goes to stay with his arty Aunt Cissie while his parents jet off on a business-and-pleasure trip to Hong Kong. (The little sister, meanwhile, gets left with the neighbours!) Following his post-Chocky interest in art, Matthew has been drawing various scenes from around the world — in surprising detail, considering he’s never been to them — one of which is a windmill. When he finds the actual mill in a field near his aunt’s house, he also meets Albertine, a young maths prodigy whose grumpy, over-protective father (who once had a stand-off with the police over his refusal to let his daughter be educated by anyone but him) is preparing her for an early entrance to Cambridge. The story comes to be about the relationship between these two sensitive, talented children, both of whom have been — knowingly or unknowingly — touched by Chocky’s influence. The oppressive government/corporate interest — now firmly corporate — is there from the start, and given the whole six-episode run to build more satisfyingly into a much more active kidnap-and-rescue than the first series.

Matthew and Albertine (Anabel Worrell), from Chocky’s Children

One thing that’s interesting about the way Anthony Read took his Chocky sequels, is how they seemed to naturally fall into line with other Wyndham novels. Matthew meeting up with, and finding he has a telepathic link to, another of Chocky’s protégés in Chocky’s Children brings in the secret, shared telepathic connection of The Chrysalids and the gestalt power of minds-combined from The Midwich Cuckoos. The next instalment, Chocky’s Challenge (broadcast in 1986), with its gathering of Chocky-influenced children from across the world, even starts to recall that other Wyndham sequel, Children of the Damned (the 1964 sequel to the Midwich film, Village of the Damned), but it’s the polar opposite of it in feel. With so many kids with even more explicit mind-powers (not just telepathy, but telekinesis and mind-projection to the stars), and a lot more appearances from Chocky (who even drops in to back up Albertine in her application for a research grant), the supernatural/spooky elements are no longer spooky or even unusual, and the more psychological elements — Matthew’s inner-world development from the first series, the relationship between him and Albertine in the second — are dropped entirely.

The kids from Chocky’s Challenge.

The story follows Albertine, now a (still very young) Cambridge graduate, wanting to bring Chocky’s gift of free-and-plentiful cosmic energy to the world. To do this, she applies for a research grant, wins the only one remaining, and assembles her team of Chocky-chosen kids from around the world (or the USA and Hong Kong, anyway). There’s no room, really, for character drama — except for a brief subplot with one boy’s search for his mother — and the feel is more along the lines of, say, The Tomorrow People, in that it’s an adventure story first and foremost. Only, where the threat in The Tomorrow People would be something strange or alien, here the main focus of the drama is… research funding. With the kids essentially super-powered, and guided by a highly intelligent mind from the stars, the only limiting factor is how they get the money to pay for the equipment and materials they need. (Nobody suggests asking Chocky for some cheap-and-easy invention they can flog for a quick cash boost.) For a while, the main villain is a rival astronomer who loses her grant to Albertine, and does her best to win it back. Meanwhile, the military only gain a hold on the kids because they can promise unlimited funds. Lessons the kids ought to be learning — such as Albertine’s very thoughtless ruining of Dr Liddle’s astronomical experiment, or the kids’ being too immature to handle the inevitable disappointments when their experiments don’t all go right on the first try — don’t get learned, and there’s a feeling that the kids are in the right simply because they’re telepathic kids, so they must be right. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. But even so, I think the third Chocky series took the show too far from its more emotional/spooky roots. John Wyndham’s novel is, really, about how something special and unique in a child can get crushed by the forces of commercialism and social propriety; the third Chocky TV series was basically about the kids crushing all those forces thanks to their super-powered (but still morally and emotionally immature) minds. Fun all the same, though.

Reaching out to the stars… From Chocky’s Challenge.

The Chocky trilogy began with the feeling that it had one foot firmly planted in 70s kids’ telefantasy. The Chocky sound effect recalled the weird electronic sounds of The Changes, and it had enough environmental concern (the need for a new source of energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels) to feel it was still waving the flag brandished by The Changes, Raven and Sky. But by the end, it had lost those elements, and so, perhaps, had the culture as a whole. There were a couple of New Zealand kids’ shows mixing alien influences, telepathy, and environmental concerns at the same time — Under the Mountain (1981) and Children of the Dog Star (1984) — but to my mind, kids-with-psychic-powers stories seemed to give way, as the 80s went on, to adaptations of fantasy classics, often based in the past (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, Moondial), often better made, but perhaps less connected to the pressing issues of the day. Or it may be that, having grown up myself by then, I simply saw fewer of them. (There’s a psychic-twins TV series, The Gemini Factor, from 1987, that I’ll have to check out, for instance.)

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but as the idea of kids-with-psychic-powers is so closely tied to the notion of a new stage in human evolution — Bowie’s “homo superior” — it came with a feeling that, even without super-powers, kids had the potential of bringing something new into a world very much in need of fresh ideas and un-cynical outlooks. Part of me wonders if something of that empowering influence might have been lost when kids’ TV fantasy switched to classic adaptations (with The Box of Delights the first to be deliberately developed as an internationally marketable commodity), and the revolutionary ideals of the late 60s, which were so evident in those 70s shows, gave way to the more money-minded 80s. But even if so, it wasn’t permanent. The current generation, raised on tales of teens standing up to dystopian governments, has certainly been making itself felt, and rightly so. Now, if only some of them had super-powers…

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Camelot 3000

Camelot 3000 issue 1, art by Brian Bolland

I remember this series feeling really special when it came out in the early 1980s. But it was meant to feel special. Camelot 3000 was DC Comics’ first “maxi-series”, a 12-issue story printed on higher-than-normal quality “Baxter” paper (which also resulted in stronger colours, I seem to recall), intended to be sold solely through specialist comic shops. This last point meant it wasn’t subject to the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval, so could contain, as writer Mike W Barr says in his introduction to the Deluxe Edition, “a transsexual knight, lesbianism, incest and various other Code-breaking plot points” — though nothing as graphic as that might make it sound to modern ears.

It’s set in a technologically advanced future which has recovered from nuclear war to, somehow, return to pretty much the 1980s’ version of world political power-balance, with a communist China and Russia in uneasy relations with a caricature cowboy President of the USA, and a psychopath dictator in charge of the African country of Rakmaburg. Aliens from the tenth planet are invading Earth, and have taken over England, while the rest of the world struggles to work out what to do. Tom Prentice, an archaeological student working at Glastonbury, accidentally reawakens the Once and Future King whilst fleeing aliens, and Arthur immediately grasps the situation: England, and the world, need him once more.

His first step is to free a grumpy Merlin (the series’ best character) from Stonehenge, then recover Excalibur (whose lake resting place is currently inside a nuclear power plant). Merlin then awakens six of Arthur’s knights from their current reincarnations: Sir Lancelot is Jules Futrelle, the world’s richest man (who has a handy castle-like home in orbit round Earth, all ready to become this future’s new Camelot); Guinevere is Commander Joan Acton, head of the Earth’s defence forces; Sir Kay is a minor criminal; Sir Galahad a dishonoured samurai; Sir Gawain a black South African family man; Sir Tristan, meanwhile, has been reincarnated as a woman, Amber March, and is awakened to her/his true identity just before she’s about to be married; finally, Sir Percival is reawakened the moment before he’s turned into a “Neo-Man”, a super-strong, near-invincible dumb giant, used by this future’s governments for law enforcement, created from criminals as a punishment for their crimes.

When it’s revealed, later in the series, that one of the crimes that can get you turned into a Neo-Man is “dissent”, it underlines how generic this book’s vision of the year 3000 is. It’s presented as a future version of the 1980s, but it’s also post-nuclear, technologically advanced, and overpopulated, and it’s also, evidently, from this need to punish “dissenters”, dystopian, though it’s never made clear how or why it is dystopian, aside from the selfishness of its leaders. The future, in Camelot 3000, has laser guns and flying cars, a hint of dystopia, a hint of post-nuclear holocaust, a hint of looming population crisis, a hint of satire, as well as a lack of the sort of technology that would actually help the characters (Tom Prentice’s laser burns can only be healed by the Holy Grail, Sir Tristan’s desire to be turned into a man can only be achieved through sorcery, not surgery). All in all, this future feels a little bit like the sort you’d find in 2000A.D., though more Mega-City Lite than the full Dredd.

The setting, though, isn’t the point. This generic future is there to be a background against which we see a sword-wielding King Arthur and his reincarnated knights fight insectoid aliens and a vengeful Morgan Le Fay. One of the things I remember liking most about the series was the knights’ individual struggles between their current incarnations and their mythic “real” identities. (In this way it could be said to tie in, though very lightly, with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.) Writer Mike W Barr updates some aspects of the original Arthurian myths with modern, or futuristic, equivalents. For instance, Tristan and Isolde’s love in the original is frustrated by the fact that Isolde is promised to another man and Tristan has been charged on his knightly honour to bring her to him; in Camelot 3000 that frustration comes from Tristan’s being a woman. (And many modern reviews pat the series condescendingly on the head in a “nice try” manner for addressing such outside-the-gender-norm issues without today’s nuances, but I remember this being a really surprising and original-feeling plotline at the time.) Meanwhile, Sir Percival was, in the original myths, the most perfect and innocent of Arthur’s knights; in Camelot 3000, he’s perfect and innocent because he’s been turned into a dumb, giant Neo-Man.

Some things, though, don’t change, and everyone has a doomed acceptance of the inevitable adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere, though it nearly tears New Camelot apart before it can face the alien threat. But ultimately, Camelot 3000 isn’t about the constrictive patterns of myth (as with The Owl Service), it’s about King Arthur and his knights being a symbol of hope in a future very much in need of it. So, the reliving of past mistakes provides interesting storylines, but ultimately the series is about our heroes’ triumphs despite their flaws, not the dark undertow of a bleak mythic destiny.

Camelot 3000 was intended to come out monthly, and did, for the first nine issues, after which it slowed down. In his introduction, Mike Barr says he warned DC they should stockpile issues before launching the series, knowing penciller Brian Bolland wouldn’t be able to stick to a monthly schedule, but they ignored him. As a result, although the first issue came out in December 1982, the last (with almost a year between it and issue 11) came out in April 1985.

It’s a fun series, feeling a little 2000AD-ish in places with its touches of anarchic satire, but no way near as dark as 1980s comics would become. Brian Bolland’s art remains one of the main selling points, though he’s not inking his own work, and it looks a little cruder than we tend to get from him now (particularly in the last issue, making me wonder if it was perhaps a little squeezed in between other projects). And I like the idea of how King Arthur’s return is handled. According to Barr, this was the first story to address the actual return of the Once and Future King — though Merlin pops up all the time in 1970s and 1980s UK kids’ TV; and one series at least, Raven (1977), is about a reincarnation of King Arthur, though not of the swords-versus-aliens type.

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