C for Cottrell or B for Boyce? Good question (especially if you’re looking in the library), and after years of admiring such shelving difficulties as Lynne Reid Banks, Kevin Crossley Holland, Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones, all I can say is: try both. (Although for now and in this case, I’ll go with Westminster libraries and say B for Boyce.)
Most successful screenwriters (24 Hour Party People, Slumdog Millionaire) and fathers of six would be happy to put their pen down and their feet up from time to time, especially if there was a chance that they might then land the job of scripting the Olympics opening ceremony (yes indeed, that’s why the name sounds familiar). Luckily, Frank Cottrell Boyce has energy and imagination to spare, and has managed to turn his hand to some perfectly-pitched, tragi-comic, surreally-true gems in the meantime.
The first chapter of Millions made me laugh so much, I thought I’d wake the husband and get a proper telling-off. It’s to do with FCB’s pitch-perfect ear for voices, whether it’s young narrator Damien and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the saints (useful in surprising ways), his brother Anthony who’s more at home with real estate values, their hapless dad or the other heroes and villains – often confused – who surround them. Above all, it’s about the possibilities and dilemmas that unfold when a sack of money, not millions but quite a lot of thousands, falls out of the sky and needs to be put to use quickly because (don’t laugh), Britain is about to join the euro and all those pounds will turn to scrap paper in a matter of days. What will Damien do? What would you do?
Framed seems almost more unlikely, although it has its basis in fact: the National Gallery really did evacuate its paintings to a Welsh slate mine during the Second World War. Imagining catastrophic city floods in the present day, FCB does the same, bringing intrigue and turmoil to the sleepy fictional village of Manod, famous for its low crime rate and appalling weather. At the same time, narrator Dylan is doing his best to keep the family garage business afloat, worrying about his missing Dad, and (owing to a Ninja Turtles mix-up) wondering how to keep up the pretence that he really does know about art – and perhaps even take advantage to save the business and restore his family too.
FCB understands that comedy burns more brightly if there’s a shadow behind it. Damian and Anthony cling to their certainties in Millions, and know just when to mention that their mum is dead (“People give you stuff,” Anthony observes pragmatically), without admitting – mostly – the real ache of loss. In Framed, Dylan remains stoically convinced that his dad has gone to London to work on the Thames Barrier rather than walk out on his family and failing business. It takes a while to find the true shadow in Cosmic; the shadow-shadow, as it were, is what it’s like to be a prodigiously tall twelve-year-old (with the beginnings of a beard) and constantly mistaken for a grown-up. Which has its upsides, as when Porsche salesmen mistake your school friend for your daughter and urge you to take test drives (until your actual dad shows up in the nick of time), or multinational mobile phone companies select you as competition winners and fly you to theme parks in China… and possibly beyond. Suddenly, the real grown-ups don’t look so reliable any more, and some very frightened children have a chance to show real spirit, courage and understanding.
The shadow is unknown but always near in The Unforgotten Coat. Telling the story in flashback is kind, down-to-earth Julie from Year Six. Michael Morpurgo is the acknowledged master of the flashback-story, but I do like FCB/Julie’s pithy asides about her classmates (“He’s married now, inexplicably.”) New to Year Six are the Mongolian brothers, Chingis and Nergui, although Nergui isn’t his real name and he doesn’t really belong in Year Six but is allowed to stay until no-one remembers he shouldn’t be. By mutual agreement, Julie becomes their Good Guide, as puzzled by the boys’ ears and rituals and references as they are by the spoken and unspoken rules of an English primary school and community. Gradually, Julie and Chingis and Nergui begin to understand each other – but will it be too late for Julie to tell myth from real, and what is meant by home? This is one of FCB’s shortest books, and the words almost read themselves off the page, the voice is so fresh and vivid; but to call it an easy read is to diminish the emotional charge and great warm heart of the book.
Here’s hoping – and believing – Mr Boyce or Mr Cottrell Boyce has many more great warm-hearted books in store for us yet.