This enchanting story for younger children follows a gang of boys who befriend and rescue a Welsh dragon trapped deep underground in the Forest of Dean. The young boys are iron miners, and as the author points out in his introduction, children were still employed in mines in the nineteenth century despite legislation passed in 1842 banning boys under 10yrs of age from working underground (it outlawed women and girls of any age working underground). Author Keith Thomas explains how he was inspired to write the book by an artefact on display at Clearwell Caves:
“I was a close friend of Ray Wright who was the owner the caves and opened them up to visitors. In one of the display cases there are the remains of a pair of tiny children's shoes found during explorations of the deep underground iron mine levels. These would have belonged to one of the children working there. I pictured the children who had to work in such terrible conditions and it saddened me to think of their lives.”
Despite the real-life background to the story and its setting which is almost entirely underground, it is a million miles from the type of gritty ‘misery lit’ genre more often associated with Victorian working lives. It is instead a lovely story of friendship and adventure as ‘billy boys’ Tom and Matty, and their gang of juvenile workmates struggle to work out how they can get their new-found friend Bodkyn out of the mine.
The style of writing Keith has used is well suited to any newly-independent readers, and there are illustrations throughout. Equally it works as a bedtime story for parents/carers to read to young ones – and despite its underground setting there’s little that should prompt any nightmares! Apart from a few Welsh turns of phrase from dragon Bodkyn the boys speak in standard English, no doubt to aid the text’s readability. That said specialist mining and other local terms do crop up – such as ‘nellie’ and ‘scowles’ – and Keith has helpfully listed all of them with clear explanations at the front of the book.
Published originally in 2008, in the intervening years Bodkyn and friends has reached readers as far away as Australia with Keith himself giving talks in schools on the book and the real history behind it in both Perth and Sydney.
Keith is now about to publish a book very much aimed at adults, based on nearly thirty years of in-depth research on the life of Robert Mushet. It was Keith that designed and manufactured the wrought-iron Mushet Walk Archway in Coleford that commemorates the lives of David and Robert Mushet' and the huge contribution they made to the Iron and steel industries. We’ve heard rumours that Keith’s new book has prompted interest from a production company looking to turn it into a television documentary. We’ll keep you posted on that of course!
In the meantime, if you want to pick up a copy of ‘Bodkyn and the Dragon Gang’ (a Christmas present perhaps?) it can be purchased through the usual online retailers, is also available to loan from Coleford Library.
The Forest of Dean writer whose work has been seen by the most people by some way, with audiences in the millions, must surely be Dennis Potter. The Singing Detective is back on TV, launching with a triple bill last night on BBC Four. If you missed it you can still watch on iPlayer – but it’s for a limited period only (29 days from today - 1st Dec) so don’t leave it too long! It’s being shown again as part of the British Film Institute’s 100 BBC TV Gamechangers, and how fitting that it should be one of Potter’s dramas in which the Forest played a crucial part. As the afflicted author Phillip Marlow lies in a hospital bed, memories of his Forest of Dean childhood intermingle with the plot and characters of his hard-boiled detective fiction. Marlow suffers from the same dreadful chronic condition that Potter did - psoriatic arthropathy – and there are many other elements of the story that are drawn from the author’s life. But, as Potter pointed out, incidents in the author’s life are the raw materials on which he draws, and we should not draw too many conclusions from what appears. Local extras featured as well as local locations and you can hear Forest location scout, ex-teacher John Belcher talking about that here:
The current screening marking 100 years of the BBC was preceded with actor Alison Steadman reflecting on her experience of filming, and, as she points out weeks of rehearsal prior to filming – a luxury rarely afforded TV actors today. Like many of the programmes from the past that make up the Gamechangers list, there are moments in The Singing Detective that may well jar with contemporary viewers, but worth remembering this is television from another time, depicting the attitudes of society at the time – and indeed in this case is arguably a critiquing of them. As Steadman points out, television was made differently then too, longer in the marking, as well as the work itself taking its time to portray characters and scenes, and tell its story. So, if you’ve not seen it, or it’s been a while, block out some time, sit back and enjoy a true masterpiece – from the pen of one of the Forest of Dean’s finest and most important authors.