How do you write a cave boy? How do you make him into a living, breathing character? Amanda Mitchison describes the dilemma that faced her when she started writing her latest book, Crog.
Choosing a name for the boy was the first challenge. It had to be something very simple. I scrabbled about for ages until I eventually I hit upon the Scottish Gaelic word ‘cròg’ (pronounced ‘crawg’) meaning a clenched or grasping hand. The word fitted my boy’s character and it sounded good and gutteral. I kept his name just as ‘Crog’ with no surname and no genealogy. After all, he was a nobody. And I wanted him to be lonely, and dispossessed – otherwise why would he come back to the present?
I felt a supernatural character should feel and look a little different – but not different to the point of freakishness where his strangeness would dominate the other interactions in the novel. And while Crog is about 16, he is also 3000 years old. So he had to look young and old. And, as he’d probably been in a bog for those 3000 years, he needed to seem pickled. But only lightly pickled –I didn’t want to produce a squished, kipper-faced Tollund Man.
So I gave Crog just a faint miasma of marsh. His complexion is swarthy and his face ageless – tight skinned but with two deep dog-lines running from his nostrils down to either side of his mouth. If you saw Crog in the street you could walk straight past thinking ‘slightly strange, weirdly dressed boy.’ Only on closer inspection would you spot his terrible teeth and the disintegrating fingertips and the terrible soggy rope still hanging round his neck.
Of course every aspect of modern life was going to astonish Crog: cars, trains, houses, electricity, television . . . But I didn’t want him endlessly wandering around wide eyed and asking for explanations – that would have been too tedious and clunky. Also, it wouldn’t fit with Crog’s character – he is too canny and far too proud to show his ignorance.
So I only let a few things get the better of him. He is mesmerised by flushing toilets – wouldn’t we all be if we came from the Bronze Age? And he is also very intrigued by what he calls ‘solid air’ and he keeps stroking panes of glass and staring at his own unlovely reflection.
He is dazzled by fridges too – as you would be if you’d been half starved all your life. Food, and the incredible abundance of it in modern life, is his weakness. He has a yen for deep fat fried food, especially chips. And he loves sweet, sharp flavours: ketchup, brown sauce, mustard and pickled eggs. Especially pickled eggs.
So all of this came relatively easily to me. I simply saw Crog’s hard little face. I immediately recognised his name when I came upon it. It was obvious that he would binge on junk food. And I knew he would find it impossible to walk through a crowded station (he keeps bumping into people), but that he’d immediately get the hang of credit cards. I knew also that he would have a good nose for the hollower elements of modern life – so when the children camp overnight in a ‘show home’ in a new-build estate, Crog knows he is somewhere fake. He hates the little vases of orchids. He curls his lip at the ‘real effect’ fire.
But what stumped me was Crog’s speech. How was he going to talk? I couldn’t be authentic – of course we have no idea how Bronze Age people spoke. I toyed with having him speak Scots. Lallands has lovely words in it: ’speirt’, ‘gowden’, ‘sleeket’ … But who on earth knows what ‘speirt’ means? I’d lose my readers in seconds. I had a go too with early English – that was even worse. And I even experimented with a cod ‘Ye Olde Englishe’ full of subject-verb inversions, but that just seemed corny.
Eventually I returned to Scottish Gaelic. In my grandmother’s village there used to be a man from the island of Uist who had only learned English later in life. Consequently he spoke a strange, slightly stilted English, with a grammar that was transposed from Gaelic. I tried out these speech patterns on Crog. It seemed to work and it gave my character’s speech a slightly contorted, archaic feel.
There was another aspect of Crog, which I only discovered as I wrote him: Crog has no small talk. He never chats. He makes the odd elliptical remark and very occasionally has flights of rare lyricism. But for the most part he stays schtum. And later this would prove more useful than I had anticipated.
So that is Crog for you – a sorry little caveman, a lover of chips and trans fats. As the story unfolds Crog remains slightly aloof, but not sphinx-like. He is likeable, up to a point. His fellow travellers Wilf and Ishbel soon think they have the measure of him. So too do the readers. But of course they don’t. And there is the rub.
Crog is published by Corgi, 978-0-552-5685, £6.99 pbk