A book with a curious title, and one taken from a relatively minor plot point in this 1972 hardback adaptation of a little-remembered BBC1 children’s series. In a nutshell: a family dog, Radnor, becomes the physical host for the mind of Justin, one of a group of revolutionaries who time-travel to 1970s Southampton from a dystopian Britain, 600 years in the future.
Hiding out beneath a nest of abandoned cars in a local scrapyard, “The Group” – as they are handily nicknamed throughout – are on the run from the 26th century secret police, “The Galas”. Here, I got a little lost in time myself: The Group – a team of scientists reluctantly working for a futuristic, totalitarian British government – appear to have travelled to 1972 specifically to spend a quiet fortnight in Southampton secretly perfecting a replacement time-travel device. Which will then “transmit” them straight back to the 26th century. Which begs the question – why did they bother in the first place? Perhaps the opportunity to see Mick Channon’s trademark windmill goal celebration in the flesh was just too tempting to resist.
Their plans are uncovered by three local children: Kate, her older brother Duncan, and her best friend Samantha “Sammy” Morris. And Sammy’s dog Radnor, of course, whose temporary mind-swap with The Group’s office junior Justin is the latter’s punishment for having followed his futuristic freedom-fighter friends to 1972, when his agreed job description was actually to stay behind in the 26th century and destroy their initial time machine before it fell into government hands. What none of them realise, of course, is that The Galas have also travelled to 1970s Hampshire, and are occupying the nearby flat of the girls’ schoolfriend, Mary Ndola.
What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable collision of 1970s kitchen-sink kids’ drama and downbeat science-fiction grittiness. Radnor the dog provides the comic relief, digging up next door’s sweet peas and developing – as his mind-swap incumbent Justin adjusts to 1970s life – a penchant for fried breakfasts that has Sammy’s parents swiftly tutting and muttering about the housekeeping. And there is an interesting dynamic between the girls: Kate is a wheelchair-user, frustrated with her mobility in the disability-unfriendly 1970s, but she is much more adept at her schoolwork than best friend Sammy, and there are subtle suggestions that each girl quietly craves the others’ advantages.
Meanwhile, Duncan is the textbook 1970s older teenage brother; awkwardly fancying Sammy (“a super girl”), and taking on odd jobs around town (at the book’s opening, he’s redecorating an entirely pink houseboat) to fill the aimless hinterland between school and full-time work. There is a lovely sequence in which he uses his apprenticeship as a TV repairman to infiltrate the Ndola household and “repair” a deliberately sabotaged TV… with the blessing of the occupying Gala forces, who are presumably keen not to miss a single episode of the Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks. A serial broadcast concurrently with the TV version of Mandog, and with a plotline also centered around a small group of futuristic revolutionaries travelling back in time to 1970s England. I’d love to read the BBC memos that flew around when that unfortunate scheduling clash became apparent.
As ever, it’s the intrusion of the otherworldly into ordinary 1970s life that appeals to me, and the prospect of rival futuristic factions let loose amidst the suburbs, schools and scrapyards of working class Southampton is a delicious one. Peter Dickinson had already made his name with his late 1960s novels The Weathermonger, Heartsease and The Devil’s Children, a trilogy he later adapted into the BBC’s acclaimed 1975 “series for slightly older children”, The Changes. As far as I can see from the book itself – and contrary to the show’s Wikipedia entry – Mandog was an original TV script by Dickinson then adapted into book form by Lois Lamplugh, but – as ever – I’m open to correction on that front.
POINT OF ORDER: Sammy’s mother, in the TV series, was played by a (just) pre-Slocombe Mollie Sugden.
MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy has a mild musty smell, a subtle 4/10. It has an inscription, too: it was once owned by Debbie Wilson, who wrote her address in Radcliffe, Lancashire on the back of the cover in black biro, along with the date… 18th October 1977, although she initially wrote this as 1976 before correcting it. October seems late in the year for this kind of confusion, so maybe Debbie too was involved in a bit of minor time-travelling? I’m certainly assuming she left Radcliffe at some later stage, as her entire address has since been crossed out in blue felt-tip.
UPDATE: I bought my copy of Mandog in The Book Emporium in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, in February 2020. I wrote the above review at the end of that month, and – as mentioned – noticed that Debbie Wilson, a girl from Radcliffe in Lancashire, had written her full name and address on the inside cover in October 1977.
In July 2020, I received an e-mail via this website… from one Debbie Wilson, who grew up in Radcliffe in the 1970s, and was interested to know if the book might have once belonged to her! “I presume the address is Heber Street?” she asked… and indeed:
I can’t say how thrilled I was. For me, finding names, addresses, dedications and messages from previous owners are a huge part of the joy of collecting used books. These little snippets of lost family history echo through the decades, resounding from bookstall to jumble sale to charity shop, sometimes even hidden on dusty shelves for years, unnoticed. The thought of reuniting Debbie with her childhood book seemed such a touching idea, especially as – in subsequent e-mails – she told me that most her collection had been given away over the years. “Nice to hear at least one still survives,” she said. “I wish I’d kept some of them…”
We continued e-mailing, and Debbie told me that she was intending to travel to North Yorkshire in the near future to visit family. So, on 19th July 2020, I met Debbie and her sister Lesley outside Northallerton Town Hall… and returned my copy of Mandog to its original owner, 43 years after she’d written her name and childhood address on the inside cover.
We went for a coffee, and – inevitably – I couldn’t resist asking for a little chat for the website:
Bob: So tell us… how did you come to realise that I had your old childhood book?
Debbie: It was a Saturday, late at night, and I was bored – I’d just come back from furlough and there was nothing on the telly! So I’d been on my iPhone all evening, and just looked for my name, and my home town. And then I saw: “Debbie Wilson, Musty Books”. I clicked on it, saw the picture of Mandog and thought “You know what, I think I used to have that book…”
I read the review, and down at the bottom you’d mentioned Debbie Wilson and Radcliffe and the date… and I thought “Oh, my God”. [Laughs]. I didn’t know whether to own up to it or not! Did I reply straight away? It was really late on a Saturday night…
You did… at 2am! So how old were you in 1977, when you wrote your name and address on the cover?
I was thirteen.
(Debbie in 1977 – on the far right, with two of her sisters)
I loved the fact that you’d written 1976 originally, then crossed it out…
Yeah, 1977 must have been a better year!
So do you have any memories of actually buying Mandog?
I remember having it, but I can’t remember reading it. I don’t know where I got it from, but I wouldn’t have bought it. I wasn’t a science fiction fan. I think I must have been given it somewhere along the line, but not for a birthday or Christmas, anything like that. Although I remember it being in really good condition. It was a new book.
And did you write your name or address in all of your books?
After a certain age, I think I did – when I could spell it properly! It was either that, or that rhyme: “If this book should dare to roam, box its ears and send it home”.
So were you a big reader as a kid? You were telling me in an e-mail that you used to carry the shopping for an elderly neighbour, and that helped…
Yes… when I was at primary school, I used to walk down the old Coal Lane to get this lady’s shopping, then walk back to the village, and she’d give me one of the old sixpences. So then I’d walk back down to Radcliffe market, which at the time was really good, and really busy. And I’d go to the bookstall and buy Enid Blyton books: The Mystery Five, The Famous Five… The Secret Seven I wasn’t so interested in, but I still got them! And then Malory Towers as well. She must have been rubbing her hands together on that bookstall every time she saw me.
So any idea how it came to be in a used bookshop on the other side of the country? Do you know how it left your possession?
I think it probably got thrown out when I moved out, in 1984. I left a lot of books behind. And my brothers and sisters wanted the room, and they weren’t big readers.
And no idea where it would have gone from there? In my head, it just worked its way across the Pennines, through a string of used bookshops, each one just a bit further east…
I think my Mum might have taken it to a charity shop… she did work for one for a while, the Oxfam shop in Radcliffe. I wonder how many people have actually read it? I’ll read it again, and see if I suddenly start remembering it all, halfway through.
Honestly, I’m so delighted to return it to you. How does it feel to see your handwriting from when you were thirteen?
Isn’t it neat? I must have been trying my hardest! Now, it would just be a scribble. It’s a shame that people don’t do that any more, books don’t have any history to them. Thanks so much for letting me have it back… I did think you might think I was a bit strange if I replied to you!
Not at all, Debbie. Thanks so much for getting in touch – it’s been a genuine delight. And, indeed, huge thanks for donating a couple more Musty Books to my collection! I’ll keep reporting names, addresses and dedications that I find in any of the books that I’m reviewing, and if you think one of them may be yours… please get in touch.