Don’t you just love the cover of this book? Having just finished reading it, I love it even more, as it encapsulates the kingdom within its pages perfectly. I can identify its buildings including ‘The Cake’ – the dome-topped concert hall (middle left) and the post office (middle bottom). The cover also has a cuckoo clock, which makes one think of Switzerland, but that’s landlocked, and there is an anchor and sea at the bottom left. What you can’t see is the railway line that snakes its way from the inside covers onto the back with its choo-choo puffing off into the distance, which will have deep resonance in this fable.
After a while, I realised that the world of Greater Fallowfields in Magnus Mills’s new novel is actually more like Port Meirion in Wales. This Italianate village (below) was built from 1925 onwards, on the Welsh coast in Caernarvonshire.Port Meirion famously featured in the cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner; the themes in that series do bear a slight similarity to those of this novel – individuals versus the collective and all that. There are also echoes of the community in the out of season Lake District villages that featured in my favourite of Mills’s books, All Quiet on the Orient Express. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me tell you a little about the plot of this delightfully dark and quirky novel.
The Emperor of Greater Fallowfields has gone AWOL, and a new cabinet is meeting in his absence. The story is told by the new Principal Composer to the Imperial Court – in typical Mills fashion we never learn his name! He joins the Librarian in Chief, the Postmaster General, Astronomer Royal and Pellitory-of-the-Wall amongst others to discuss issues like setting the clocks so one can always have tea at sundown.
I must digress for a moment to tell you that we never really find out what Wryneck, the holder of the title Pellitory-of-the-Wall does, but I did look that up in case any aspect of this job title was real. Turns out that PotW is the name of a plant also known as lichwort and is related to nettles. Its main medicinal use is as a diuretic – so I think Mills is taking the piss with this one!
Back to these court officers, this group of ‘Pooh-Bahs’; they are all totally new to their jobs. Arguably, if they had done some swaps of office, they could have created a cabinet that had half a chance of knowing what was what. Instead, they are determined to muddle through and learn on the job. The Astronomer Royal has never used a telescope for instance which is just as well, for the one on the top of the Observatory is operated by sixpences. As for our narrator, the Principal composer, he discovers that he has a ninety piece orchestra led by a composer who could have been really famous if he’d not been a serf. Greylag is a musical genius, but all opuses are credited to the Principal Composer who cannot play a note on any instrument.
As our officers are finding their feet in their new positions, there are plenty of gentle digs about status and roles within dictatorships. This being a Magnus Mills novel – jobsworths too; the officers find it very difficult to spend their stipendiary sixpences. Our narrator tries to buy some sweets for his orchestra…
‘Some lions and tigers,’ I continued. ‘Also, some rhubarb-and-custard, some heart-of-violet, some liquorice comfits and some peppermint creams.’
Again he tipped out the required sweets.
‘How much does that all come to?’ I asked.
He placed a weight on the opposite scale. Then he added another. ‘It comes to fivepence, sir.’
‘Ah, good,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll just have some of your dolly mixture to round it up to sixpence.’
‘Round it up, sir?’ said the shopkeeper.
‘But you’re only allowed a pennyworth.’
‘It’s an imperial decree, sir, to stop people from being greedy.’
‘But they’re not for me,’ I protested.
‘Ho, ho,’ answered the shopkeeper. ‘That’s what they all say.’
‘No, really,’ I said. ‘I’m Principal Composer to the Imperial Court.’
‘I know exactly who you are sir.’
‘The sweets are for my musicians,’ I explained. ‘They’ve been working very hard lately and I want to reward them with a treat.’
The shopkeeper frowned.
‘Well, sir,’ he said. ‘if you don’t mind my saying so, I think that’s a big mistake. Oh, I know you’re only trying to be nice to them, but what you regard as an act of kindness they’re sure to interpret as a sign of weakness. Believe me; I know what these serfs can be like.’
The shopkeeper stood with his hands flat on the counter and a broad smile on his face. He was clearly very pleased with himself.
‘All right then,’ I said, after giving the situation a moment’s thought. ‘I’ll just have a pennyworth.’ I put my hand in my pocket and produced my stipendiary sixpence.
He shook his head.
‘I’m very sorry, sir, but I can’t take that.’
‘Why not?’ I queried. ‘Haven’t you got any change?’
‘Yes, I have,’ he said, ‘but I can’t just go dishing out pennies willy-nilly. Pennies are for commoners.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I see.’
I stood there clutching my sixpence in the palm of my hand. It was all I had, but I was quite unable to spend it.
‘Tell you what, sir,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘how about a toffee apple on the house?’
Similarly, the narrator and his fellow officers fail to procure beers in the pub too, until the arrival of the ‘player king’ and his theatre troupe. Things go a bit Shakespearean for a while with liberal references to Hamlet and Macbeth, although more in the mould of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the behind the scenes view of Hamlet.
One thing missing from this entire story, is female characters. Mills’s novels are always strictly about men. The only women in A Cruel Bird… are some fabled dancing girls who never actually appear! Despite featuring no girls, this novel is not lacking in inventive quirkiness and black humour. It does take a very dark turn in the last quarter, which had me worried for a while, the story manages to turn in circles of all dimensions. Incidentally if you enjoy these kind of wacky circular tales, you should watch the Coen brothers’ rather underrated film Burn After Reading, my review here.
I loved the strangeness of the familiar in this tale, which gave this sort of Ruritanian fantasy a strongly wistful feel for me, even though I chuckled my way through it. It’s definitely one of his strongest novels. If you need convincing, read John Self’s review here, but I loved it. (10/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in by Magnus Mills, hardback, pub Bloomsbury Sept 2011, 288 pages.
All Quiet on the Orient Express
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [DVD] Play by Tom Stoppard, the film stars Gary Oldman & Tim Roth
Burn After Reading [DVD], written and directed by the Coen Brothers.