Pullman, Laurel and Hardy are not three bedfellows I would have put happily together until recently. But a re-issue of a pre-Northern Lights book by Pullman, The Adventures of the New Cut Gang has changed all that for me. Whilst I’ll still love Pullman for his mythic storytelling that makes me reflect on my world and my beliefs, I now also enjoy him as a writer of great japes, of slapstick comedy à la Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
The Adventures of the New Cut Gang contains two short stories about a group of school-aged friends in late Victorian London. They get up to rascally adventures of the innocent sort that you can’t imagine children doing today, but which struck a chord with me as they sounded very much like the stories from my Grandfather’s and Great-grandfather’s youth at the turn of the century and in 1920s London, where highlights of a day could include watching crumpets being cooked on open braziers, avoiding the local bobby when you played Knock Down Ginger, and the thrill of spending hours riding the omnibus.
Pullman’s two stories are pacey, witty and although the focus is on action occasionally a beautiful description will stop you in your tracks, such as “Mrs Malone bore down the the policeman like a force of nature. Lightning seemed to play around her head.” Pullman’s cast of characters are beguiling lot: Here’s the author himself talking about the children who feature in The Adventures of the New Cut Gang:
Pullman’s Victorian London is depicted as something of a melting pot of nationalities and groups, with Italians, Irish and Jews amongst others rubbing shoulders as the stories progress. I enjoyed the different colours and flavours this brought to the community but some readers might find the verbal characteristics to be rather cheap stereotyping (“They get in a trouble, I cut a their troats” [sic]). I also felt that the crucial final twist, the arrival of a very special guest, in the second story to be too far fetched even for these larger-than-life stories so the great romp which had me laughing quite literally out loud every few pages ended falling disappointingly flat.
This new edition has illustrations by Martin Brown best known for his illustrations in the Horrible Histories series. I hope that fans of the latter will be drawn to this new book, but for me Brown’s illustrations didn’t work at all. I found the written characterization much more interesting and believable than the visual ones; the characters’ bulging eyes and clean lines jarred with the otherwise very convincing Victorian London setting.
These capers are deftly executed; great escapism that will bring a smile to your face, but not for those readers who want meatier, more thought-provoking, resonating stories, the type of which avid fans of the Northern Lights might be hoping for.
The Adventures of the New Cut Gang is due to be published in the US in May 2012 under the title Two Crafty Criminals!: and how they were Captured by the Daring Detectives of the New Cut Gang.
Disclosure: I received my copy of The Adventures of the New Cut Gang from the publisher. This has not influence the content of my review.