When my grandson was staying with us last summer, six-year-old Jack spotted The Bears of Cold, Cruel England and asked me to read to him from it. He perched on the arm of my chair, eyes glazed as he listened, transfixed: he was both entranced and appalled.
The first story suggests a vaguely medieval period, set “in the days before electric light and oil lamps’, when ‘the night imposed its own abysmal tyranny, and daylight’s surrender was measured out in strict division”. It was a time when malevolent nocturnal demons were believed to haunt the woods. It was in the form of bears that such spirits were thought to find their most common incarnation.
This style is Victorian-archaic. It’s hard to imagine many children today finding such language congenial; the book has been described as a “crossover”, appealing as much to adults as to kids.
Jack was intrigued by the drawings that liberally adorn the pages, by David Roberts. The bears are elongated and slightly anthropomorphised, with viciously long claws, lugubrious faces and sad, sometimes menacing eyes. They endorse and intensify the macabre tone of many of the stories, adding a frisson that’s more scary than whimsical, but also occasionally humorous.
The eight stories tell of the supposedly unwritten history of bears in England: the Sin-eating bears of the era of “Early English Man”; the cruelly treated Bears in Chains, suffering savagely inhumane treatment at the hands of humans.
The Circus Bears were also humiliated and abused, trained to perform tricks for a paying audience. One group manages to escape, and uses tightrope-walking skills to cross the cables of the unfinished Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The Sewer Bears are said to have been employed like prisoners to clean the filthy drains beneath the streets of London. Civilian Bears were rumoured to have lived among us like humans, working for a living by carrying “sides of beef on their shoulder around Smithfield Market”, or as an assistant in “a hardware shop in Rishton, Lancashire”. Henry Huxley was a deep-sea diving bear.
The stories have bizarre charm, and are narrated with deadpan crispness that manages to offset the tendency towards tweeness. When at the end of the book there’s a great bear exodus, and a muster on the Somerset Levels, there’s a sense of pleasure in their deliverance, and we rejoice in the anarchy that the London bears were able to create briefly in London, when for three days, in an Ursine Spring uprising, they turned the tables on their cruel human persecutors.
These tales resemble fables; the reversal of fortunes. If there is a moral, it would appear to be the message – we are invited to feel shame for the misery imposed on bears throughout our mutual history. But I don’t think Jack was particularly interested in that; he’s just worried about the claws reaching out to grab his ankles when he walks over a drain in the street…