Puffin's 75th Birthday
'Stig of the Dump'
The original Stig of the dump cover known to millions
I was invited to write a piece on my favourite Puffin book to coincide with their 75th birthday in 2015. This was my choice - how could I make any other?
The book I am here to champion is Clive King's Stig of the Dump, which is the only right and true contender for the title of Puffin of Puffins.
Stig of the Dump was first published in 1963 and has not been out of print since. The story revolves around a lonely boy named Barney who for reasons never fully explained spends his holidays with his grandparents in Kent. He is eight years old, has no friends, so is delighted to discover - as would we all - that there is a real caveman living in the rubbish-filled chalk-pit at the end of his grandparent's garden.
Like Barney, Stig is also lonely, but not through a domestic situation. Stig is marooned thousands of years out of his own time, and finds Barney as odd as Barney finds him. But there is a strong common bond between them, and despite their obvious differences swiftly become strong and loyal friends.
Barney soon finds that Stig is no ordinary caveman. Aside from the usual hunting and gathering that he is by character inclined to do, Stig is also highly ingenious, and enjoys finding new uses for the rubbish that is discarded near his home. He can use an old umbrella as a cooking spit, connect tin cans together to make a chimney, and mike a lantern out of an old teapot and some animal fat.
In short order we introduce the friends, tackle the tricky technique of chalk-digging, chopping down trees, deal with thieves, go hunting, tackle an escaped Puma and spend a dream-like night assisting Stig's tribe to build the final part of a megalith.
The most exciting aspect of Stig's existence is that he is utterly free. He wears no uniform, has no mealtimes, bath-times, schoolwork or bedtime, and is as far removed from the stultifying dull world of grownups as it is possible to be. Stig forages in the Dump for what he needs, hunts with flint-tipped arrows, and skins and cooks animals for food and warmth.
But Stig is no savage. He is kind, empathetic, and when danger comes calling - as it most surely does - he will happily stand beside Barney, as Barney will stand beside him.
The prose is strong yet simple, and scampers along at a goodly pace, peppered with descriptions of the scenery and time of year that reveals the author's great affection of the locality.
The final two chapters in the book, which describes life in a Stone-age village and the raising of a megalith by muscle power, levers, ropes and a lot of singing is a masterful piece off descriptive prose that is at all times exciting, suspenseful and truly atmospheric.
Here's a confession: I have read Stig in the Dump only twice. Once in 1969, and again, last Tuesday. When I was invited to partake in this gladiatorial debate, there were still several choices open to me. After hearing Stig was available, I didn't need to hear the rest.
I didn't know what it was that beckoned to me across forty-one years, but no sooner had I opened the book, I realised what it was. With the first line it suddenly felt as though opening a long forgotten toy-box in the dusty attic I call my head.
"If you went too near the edge of the chalk pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough."
With the opening line we are straight into the story with a masterful piece of foreshadowing. As I read through the book, more and more became familiar. Words, phrases, the adventures themselves. These were old friends, and despite the sometimes jaundiced eye of a professional writer, I knew I was in very good hands. The story is simple, yet compelling; outwardly uncomplicated but inwardly frothing with the one of the major strengths of childhood: companionship. Barney and Stig were as real to me last Tuesday as they were in 1969.
As I read the increasingly familiar prose and soaked in Edward Ardizzone's arresting illustrations, I found not only memories of the book, but from my own life - the delight of making shelters and dens in the woods, the search for adventure or even the secret delight of personal ingenuity, while mending the guttering on my house, or some advanced-grade bodgery on my increasingly vintage car.
But most of all I remember the joy of rummaging through dumps for valuables that others have thrown away.
Naturally, my rummaging has been curtailed these days due to a certain degree of reluctantly enforced adult dignity and the fortuitous advent of eBay, but I remember when a teenager always searching the dump beyond the playing fields at school, and once found a radio I got to work, half a set of Encyclopaedia Britannic - I'm still not good at facts beyond the letter S - and the beginning of a set of ceramic electrical insulators, which I still like to collect to this day - despite the howls of derision from my children.
The point is this: If you were lucky enough to have read Stig of the Dump when young, then a piece of Stig always remains with you. And I can think of no greater accolade to any book.
I should also mention that I spoke collectively to the author when I was eight. We were reading Stig of the Dump at school and the class wrote a letter to Mr King imploring him to pen a sequel. We received a polite reply almost by return of post in which he thanked us for our praise and explained that he had no plans to write a sequel. Well, we tried.
So in finishing, The books that we read when young are the ones that stay with us. I was in the first flush of my reading career when Barney and Stig stepped into my imagination, and I don't think they have really been away since. They have settled into the comfy armchairs in the museum of my mind, along with such luminaries as the Cheshire Cat, Reepicheep, Charles Pooter and Simpkin.
I found that now, as I did then, Stig of the Dump is tremendously appealing - of two lonely people thousands of years apart who could not understand one other, but spoke a common language of shared friendship.
Clive King's Stig of the Dump.