Rob Lloyd Jones joins us today to share the inspiration behind the fairground setting of his middle grade book, Wild Boy. London, 1841
A boy covered in hair, raised as a monster, condemned to life in a travelling freak show.
A boy with extraordinary powers of observation and detection.
A boy accused of murder; on the run; hungry for the truth.
BEHOLD THE SAVAGE SPECTACLE OF WILD BOY!!
Ladies and Gentlemen, take your seats. The show is about to begin.
Hello, and thanks for having me on Big Book Little Book!
So, fairgrounds eh? Whirling rides, whoops of laughter, nostrils flaring at the sickly sweet aroma of candyfloss. We all love them, right?
Not me. Not anymore.
I always wanted to write a mystery set around a fairground. I knew the hero would be a performer in a freak show; a boy covered in hair and confined to a showman’s caravan. He would dream of being different, sneaking through the fairground to spy on people he considered ‘normal’. But he would be tough, his character forged from years of standing up to bullies. That meant his world – the fairground – had to be a tough place too. Well, I thought, I could make that bit up. It’s a story after all.
Then I read Seventy Years a Showman – the memoirs of legendary Victorian showman Lord George Sanger – and I thought, ‘Yikes! I’m going to have to tone this down a little’.
Sanger’s tales of life on a travelling fair hold no punches. In fact they are filled with punches, and whippings and knife fights and scams and swindles. His was a mud-splattered world of rickety caravans and saggy-roofed tents, where ruffians marauded along paths picking fights, and cutthroats lurked in the shadows.
Sanger (who wasn’t a real lord, he just gave himself that title) packs his account with astonishing, gasp-inducing tales such as his run-in with a body snatcher, or the unbelievably rough justice – Showman’s Law – dealt to a gang of roughs that attacked the fairground. My favourite story, though, is the ‘Battle of Oxford Road’ – a bust up between rival fairs in which, “Even the freaks took part. The Fat Man made for the Living Skeleton with a door hook; the Living Skeleton battered at the Fat Man with a peg mallet.”
The more I read about Victorian fairgrounds the more I realised just how tough my hero – Wild Boy – had to be to survive, especially after he’s framed for murder. But I was determined that he would survive, and prove his innocence. It wouldn’t be easy – stalked by bounty hunters, a hooded killer, and a secret society with a sinister machine. But he wouldn’t face the terrors alone. He has a friend, a circus star called Clarissa, who’s as tough and foul-mouthed as anyone at the fair. And all those hours that Wild Boy spent spying on people at the fair, reading them for clues to their lives, also taught him a particular skill.
He is the greatest detective of his time. Post by Robb Lloyd Jones
Wild Boy will be published on the 4th of April by Walker Books