“If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough. Everybody had told him. His grandmother, every time she came to stay with him. His sister, every time she wasn’t telling him something else. Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way. But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen…”
These were the words greeting me on the first page of Stig of the Dump by Clive King, which I consider to be the first proper book I ever read. I would’ve been seven years old at the time and though before then I’d read school reading books, picture books and collections of fairy tales, Stig struck me as being the real deal as far as books were concerned. It was 158 pages long, its pages were packed with text and the pictures were sparse – just some simple but strangely evocative black-and-white line drawings by Edward Ardizzone – and it told a proper, continuous story, albeit an episodic one with each chapter chronicling a different adventure experienced by its protagonists.
I came across it in my primary school’s library and it was recommended to me by an older boy who assured me that it was ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’. Because this older boy was the sort who’d more customarily be administering arm-twistings, Chinese burns and dead legs to me, as opposed to informing me of his literary opinions, I decided it was prudent to be seen to follow his advice. So I borrowed the book and started reading it.
With 158 whole pages ahead of me, my seven-year-old self imagined that reading it was going to be an epic chore. But I persevered and a week or two later I felt massively proud of myself when I reached the final page. What surprised me, though, was that the experience hadn’t felt like a test of endurance. I’d actually enjoyed reading the book. I’d loved it, in fact. So Stig of the Dump taught me the important lesson that reading could be a lot of fun.
As you will no doubt guess from those opening sentences, Barney ignores his family’s warnings and ventures to the very edge of the chalk pit, which gives way and drops him into the abyss below. This proves to be the titular dump – “Anything people didn’t want they threw into the bottom of the pit” – and it contains “strange bits of wreckage among the moss and elder bushes and nettles.” It also contains Stig, a cave-boy with “a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes”, who apparently has come through a time-warp from the Stone Age.
Stig has made the modern-day dump his home and fashioned a den for himself consisting of “stones and bones, fossils and bottles, skins and tins, stacks of sticks and hanks of string… motor-car tyres and hats from old scarecrows, nuts and bolts and bobbles from brass bedsteads… a coal scuttle full of dead electric light bulbs and a basin with rusty screws and nails in it…” and “a pile of bracken and newspapers that looked as if it were used for a bed.” Barney reacts to Stig’s home by saying, “I wish I lived here.” Which was exactly what I was thinking too.
A friendship forms between the 20th-century boy and the prehistoric one and the following chapters detail their escapades together. These include having to deal with a leopard that’s escaped from a circus and turned up at a children’s fancy-dress party and getting involved in a foxhunt where they turn the tables on the horsebound toffs. (“Stig doesn’t hunt foxes because they taste nasty,” Barney tells his disbelieving sister, “so we let the fox go… And then Stig bit the dog and started hunting the horses. It was jolly funny.”) They also encounter some kids from a local problem family called the Snargets, who turn out to be not “as black as they were painted” and become their mates, despite Stig’s habit of eating their cigarettes. And there’s a phantasmagorical final chapter involving a stone circle that provides some insight into where Stig has come from.
The book has been on my mind recently for two reasons. Firstly, a few weeks ago, I discovered and bought a copy of it at a clearance sale organised by a library here in Colombo – the copy’s pictured above.
Secondly, I’ve just read that its author Clive King passed away on July 10th at the age of 94. To be honest, I hadn’t known that he was still alive. In fact, I’d thought he’d been dead for a long time already because I’d assumed the book had been published many years before it was really published, which was in 1963. Maybe it’s the asceticism of Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations, which suggest the hard, economic times of the 1930s or Britain’s austerity years immediately after World War II rather than the 1960s.
But whatever its publication date, the late Clive King’s Stig of the Dump has both a charming simplicity and an irresistible universality – what boy from any place, era or background wouldn’t love to have a pal like Stig? – that make it as timeless as its shaggy dishevelled, dump-living hero.