Rook, and the sense of place by Anthony McGowan

I like to think that if the world were destroyed in some apocalypse, and a future race – perhaps descended from ants or koala bears or mung beans – tried to rebuild our world from literary sources, my books Brock, Pike, and Rook would enable a pretty accurate recreation of the Yorkshire village of Sherburn in Elmet.

Although, in writing for young adults, I’ve invested most of my energies into characterisation and narrative, I’ve always known exactly where my books were set. It’s almost always been a version of my old school – Corpus Christi, in Leeds. The stained concrete and glass of the building, the polluted beck running past it, the tussocky field beyond where travellers would come and go in mysterious patterns, the surrounding Halton Moor council estate – these were where my characters worked through the dangers and joys of teenage life.

Although I went to school in Leeds, I was actually brought up ten miles outside, in Sherburn. It’s an odd sort of place – once split between farming and mining – with the old village centre topped and tailed by large council estates, but now swollen with private housing, serving commuters to Leeds and York. As kids, it was glorious. The countryside was a short bike-ride away, and the building sites for the new estates were the perfect playground, in those pre-health and safety days. We built elaborate dens and fought huge wars against rival gangs of urchins. We played football all Winter, and cricket all Summer.

It’s a place I can still see clearly, whenever I close my eyes. The high street with its four pubs, ranging from rough to dead rough. The Spa. The Co-op. Two fish and chip shops. There’s a joke about a Jewish man who washes up on a desert island. The first thing he does is to build two synagogues – the one he goes to and the one he wouldn’t be seen dead in. It was like that with the fish and chip shops. We went to Kirkgate, but wouldn’t dream of getting our chips from Huggan’s. The beautiful old church on the hill. The Methodist chapel down in the village. The old cinema converted into a Catholic church, where I served as an altar boy all through my childhood. Then, just out of the village, the Bacon factory – a huge meat processing plant. And next to it, the Bacon pond, where monstrous pike lurked, fattened, we were told, on rotten meat from the factory.

I populated this remembered microverse with kids I knew or half knew. Nicky and Kenny live up on the Highfields council estate. At the beginning of the series, their world was falling apart, their family split, money short, hope all but gone. What saves them is love: the love of Nicky for his older but simpler brother, Kenny. Kenny’s own wide-beam love, which encompasses not only his family, but anything helpless and vulnerable they encounter. And so, over the first two books, things get better. Their dad begins to sort out his life. They move on.

In Rook, the last (I think …) in the series, their problems change. Rather than survival, the issues are more typical teenage ones. Kenny has made new friends – one of who appears to be Doctor Who – and Nicky no longer feels quite so needed, quite so central to his brother’s being. And he’s fallen for a pretty girl at school, with the horrible complication that her brother is a vicious bully. There are twists, which follow, I trust, the organic patterns of life, rather than the artificial needs of plot. In the end things work out … OK.

But I hope that I’ve been true both to my characters, and to that place – that particular small town in North Yorkshire, typical, and yet unique, seemingly ordinary, and yet overflowing with stories, with eccentrics, with danger and joy, with life.

BrockPike and Rook are published by Barrington-Stoke and are available now

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