Saturday, 25 December 2021

David Almond's "A kind of heaven" and "1982"

"A kind of heaven" and "1982", the stories that start and finish David Almond's story collection "A kind of heaven" (Iron Press, 1997), share many features -

  • The Point-of-View (PoV) is of a pre-pubescent boy, Tom (with a friend Askew), whose mother isn't well. The parents seem to love each other and the boy, though the whole family isn't often together. The boy has dreams.
  • There's a mentally scarred war veteran who the father has sympathies with.
  • The setting is in NE England by the sea, with coal gatherers on the beach. The boy goes with his father by bus to nearby Newcastle. On a bridge the mother yells to the boy "Race/Beat you to the other side!"
  • The father has been to Egypt and had promised the mother trips overseas
  • The cold war and the threat of war are backdrops.

There are significant differences too

A kind of heaven1982
3rd person1st person
The noisy showman veteran Harris, long known to the father, specialises in self-harmThe quiet, begging veteran, appeared only after the mother was hospitalised - representing rotting Nature?
The veteran fancies the motherThe veteran is thought to fancy the boy's friend
The boy and his father seek the veteran to help himThe boy and his friend seek the veteran wanting to get rid of him
The boy repeatedly visits the city with a parent. He sees crowdsThe boy repeatedly goes to the dunes with friends
The mother isn't visibly ill yetThe mother is in hospital
At the end he pricks himself with a needle, whispers "I feel nothing. I'm fine"Near the end he scares the veteran away and tells his father that mother will be fine
The boy ends in his room, aloneThe boy ends on the beach with a friend, being called away by his father

I don't think that the second story is sequel to the first. Perhaps the two stories should be read as if they're a single piece, one story informing the other.

Shared symbolism

Both stories mention sea (as an opportunity to escape) and stars (always there in the darkness). The two main symbols are -

  • The war veteran - In "A kind of Heaven" when his father sees the veteran, the father whispers "Jesus. Jesus Christ". In "1982" when the boy asks father who the stranger was, he says "Jesus Christ, Tom!". Here's an example of where having 2 stories helps - one "Jesus Christ" exclamation might be chance, but not 2. The veterans have taken on the burden of mankind's suffering maybe. In "1982" perhaps Askew is projecting his homosexuality onto the veteran, making him suffer.
  • The cold war - In "A kind of Heaven" the coldness matters. The boy's father suggests that the current friction is a "my bomb is bigger than your bomb" flare-up in a war that never ends. In "1982" the boy's friend Dan takes the threat of war seriously. There are tank-traps on the beach, but they won't keep the guided missiles out.

A kind of heaven

There are some first times -

  • It begins with "Why had he been so scared? She seemed well, ... the day he encountered Harris for the first time" (linking her health and the veteran)
  • Later, hearing his parents talk about their past, "for the first time Tom understood his isolation, his exclusion from them. The heaven they described was theirs, and could only be in memory, in the years between the war's end and his birth" (helping explain his private experiments with pain)

The boy is curious about pain. It's a connection between his mother and the veteran. He's experimented by getting his friend Askew to prick him in various places with a needle. He pricks himself. When he overhears his parents making love "He heard what sounded like her cry of pain"

The father has shown the boy a constellation called "The archer". It's usually known as Saggitarius. The boy shows it to her mother who says she can see it but he doesn't think she can - it takes time, though once you've seen it, it's easy to see again. It reappears at the end of the story - a random alignment that at any time might lurch into action - like war, like her illness.

At the end, in his bedroom that night he looks out - 'How long would it be until the stars dispersed, until the arrow was released? .... He whispered "When will it begin?"'. As he turns to be bed, the lost needle pricks him. 'Would her pain be similar to this ... What would happen when she could not calm it, when there was no peace? ... Would her fear be similar to this? ... "I feel nothing," he whispered'.

So impending pain/war is a theme, along with cold/warm - cold outside is contrasted with cosy warmth inside. He ends in denial, a loner.


There's a sex triangle that's absent from the other story - friend Askew dislikes "nancy boy" Dan, the boy's other friend. His plan to get rid of the veteran is to use Dan as sex bait then act as witness to get the veteran convicted. Once, on the beach, the boy said of Ashew that "I saw he was burning with desire". Later "Askew embraces the boy", saying "You're bloody beautiful". Later, Dan reassuringly puts his arms around the boy. Dan's worried about war. The boy's anxious about his mother's return from hospital. In one dream the boy helps his mother give birth to a baby - herself.

The beach is where there was another revelation - "We were on the beach together, my mother and I, when [her illness] first showed itself"

The father had carried a photo of his wife to Egypt. It got him through the fighting. The boy steals the photo from his mother's purse having saved it from the sea - it comforts him.

At the end, when offered the boy, the veteran "stared down at us, as if willing us to see the true depths of his exhaustion. Then he turned his face towards the empty sky, opened the red gash of his mouth, and truly like an animal began to howl". This relates to -

  • earlier, when the father had described politicians as "animals, howling for blood"
  • an early passage from "A kind of heaven" when the colours in the sky "made the emptiness above them bleed". In the next paragraph it's written that there's "No time since men were exhausted or made mad" by war.

I presume that the veteran never approached the boy.

As in the other story, impending war and his mother's illness are related themes. In this story, the boy's more pro-active, maybe older than the boy in the other story. He starts to dominate his father


In a book about Almond by Don Latham, "David Almond: Memory and Magic" it says that "Almond was born in 1951 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a former coal-mining town in northwest England. He had a large, extended, and very close-knit family growing up. ... When he was eight, his younger sister, Barbara, died. And when Almond was fifteen, his father died. In addition, his mother suffered from a progressive and debilitating form of arthritis.. There was a Roman Catholic influence to his upbringing too. Some of these autobiographical elements inform the stories.

Especially when symbolism is used, several questions can be asked of stories.

  • What/Who changes in the course of the story? Where is the crisis/resolution? - I guess one boy decides to stay inside - warm and alone. The other decides to go out to see friends, no longer walking with his father
  • Are there tell-tale sentences (signalled by a break in the PoV strategy) where the author tell us what the message is? - "The archer" seems rather contrived to me, and in "1982" the final description of the veteran sounds forced.
  • When do symbols meet? - both stories pile symbolism into the final paragraph or so, adding to the worries about the mother's illness.

No comments:

Post a Comment