In a remote Welsh farming community, a young outsider boy finds himself unexpectedly empowered by a the arrival of a sensationally talented stray dog, and the subsequent chain reaction of events that threatens to plunge him and his friends into tragedy. That’s the crux of this starkly affecting debut novel, but the joy is in the detail: and the details of life in the hills and farmland around the hamlet of Llandewi-fach are depicted with unflinching bleakness.
This is not the idealised 1970s childhood of spacehoppers and endless summers. This is the dark flipside of the 1970 childhood: tumbledown housing, drowned litters and aimless kickabouts in ankle-deep mud. The latter occurrence is the grim sporting occasion that opens the book, introducing us to narrator Jimmy Price, friend Pete and brothers Tom and Gary as they hammer a leaden ball around a molehill-strewn field on rain-swept local farmland. Characteristically watching from the sidelines is the vaguely unwelcome figure of “Fish”, a recent “townie” arrival in the village, and a boy initially treated with suspicion by this close-knit group of friends.
The son of almost equally disinterested parents (although his birth mother, we learn, “just went off with someone else” and “couldn’t be bothered” to take him with her), Fish nevertheless begins to attract attention from adults and children alike when, on the way back from the match, he is followed by a curious-looking and very friendly stray dog (“A leggy, mongrelly sort of animal” according to Jimmy) that – by means of a whopping, bare-faced lie to his father – he is allowed to keep in a shed. Named Floss, the dog transpires to be a talented and intelligent animal that will perform tricks and run errands, even fetching Fish’s favourite comic from the local newsagents. Tickled by this novelty, Jimmy begins to forge an unlikely friendship with Fish.
Events spiral out of control, however, after a bizarrely thoughtless prank by Pete and Tom. Their moving of the reflector plates on a dangerous corner of a remote local road leads to a serious accident with a visiting grocer’s van. Local policeman Sam Morgan, suspecting the duo from the off, issues an ultimatum to a gathering of the local lads: if the reflector plates are put back in their original positions by the following evening, then he will exercise discreet leniency. Largely, it is implied, because Pete is Sam’s nephew, and Tom is the son of a County Councillor. Provincial political skulduggery feeling like another typical trope of the bleaker side of 1970s British life.
Pete and Tom, unconvinced that they can sneak away from their homes during the hours of darkness, beg for help. Fish, still desperate for further acceptance, offers to do the job, accompanied by Jimmy and – of course – Floss. In a wonderfully tense and atmospheric sequence, the trio slip from their homes at midnight and travel the lonely roads, screwdriver in hand, amid an increasingly dangerous snowstorm. PC Morgan, of course, has set a trap and is on his way too, leading to a desperate escape attempt through pitch-black woodland, and – critically – the temporary loss of Floss.
The dog’s absence coincides with the killing of moorland sheep – not the first time that such slaughter has occurred when Floss’s whereabouts have been unaccounted for. Drawing the obvious conclusion, amid a family argument that spirals into never-shredding anger and grim helplessness, Fish’s father instructs his son to take the dog himself to be euthanased. At which point, both Fish and Floss go missing completely – and the ensuing investigations result in Fish’s father being questioned on suspicion of murder.
Steering clear of the details of the novel’s touching conclusion, I’ll offer merely the insight that the climax of the story was the book’s highlight for me: a genuine celebration of friendship and of young people overcoming extraordinary odds to fight for what they believe to be right in the face of adult hostility. Fish’s faith in Floss sends him to extremes, as does Jimmy’s freshly-nurtured friendship with Fish. Both are driven by intense adversity to find literal respite from the cruelties and injustices of an adult world that, again, is depicted in uncompromising detail – and yet, ultimately, is tempered by their plight.
And, crucially, there’s another huge snowstorm. And I love a book with a really good snowstorm.
POINT OF ORDER: In January 1973, a four-part adapation of Fish was broadcast on BBC1 in the post-Blue Peter 5.15pm slot. Unfortunately, I can’t find a single trace of it anywhere. Can anyone help… or confirm that it even exists in the archives? I’d also be interested in finding out more about Alison Morgan, as – muddying the waters – there appear to be a number of writers with the same name. This forum post has a list of her books, and suggests she turned 80 in 2010. Can anyone shed any more light on her work?
MUSTINESS REPORT: A satisfying 7/10. Mine is a 1971 paperback edition with pages the colour of Butterscotch Angel Delight.