David Ramshaw's novel is set in the Carlisle of the 1820's. The city was developing rapidly. The textile mills were booming. Irish immigrants and others were flooding in. The Caldewgate area, particulary, was expanding rapidly. People lived in cramped conditions, many in slums. The 18th-century city had broken out of the ancient confining walls and was spreading. The Raffles area was still largely farmland, a place for courting couples to walk past Parham Beck.
This is a Carlisle that David Ramshaw knows well. His earlier book on the building of the Carlisle Canal in the 1820's describes the impact it made on the rapidly industrialising city.
In this, his first novel, David sets his major scenes in Caldewgate during all the bustle and excitement of the canal building. He begins, however, 15 years earlier in 1805, two weeks before Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. The midwife, Maggie Gray, 42 years old and unmarried, is hurrying out of John Street to the Fox and Grapes in Shaddongate. Sarah, the wife of the landlord Josh Stamper is about to give birth to her first child. It is a false alarm and the boy, Victor, is born without the midwife's assistance, a few hours later.
Victor grows up in the pub at the heart of the developing community. Life is rough but there is a strong sense of neighbourliness, though the Irish families are difficult. A childhood incident sets the plot in motion. Victor, now aged 15, and his friend John McGregor, son of the undertaker in John Street, are sitting on the wall of Donald's millrace, near the junction of the Caldew with the Eden. They are fishing for young eels when two girls walk past. For Jack, the impulse to chase one of them, Alice, and put a wet, squirming eel down her dress is irresistable. She runs, falls in the river and Victor rescues her. Holding Alice in his arms, Victor feels the stirrings of teenage romance. The novel is the story of their troubled years. It is full of incident. Teenage rivalries lead to brutal adult quarrels and fearful injuries.David is knowledgeable about the medical practice of the time and the Dispensary in Paternoster Row features in several incidents.
There is a Chartist meeting, reflecting the discontent of the mill workers at Coal Fell Hill in Belle Vue and a double hanging outside Carlisle Gaol of Townshend and Gale from Maryport. Victor works with his father on the repair of Caldew Bridge and the digging of the canal. Alice is employed by Mrs Hodgson in her dress shop in St. Albans Row. But life does not flow smoothly for the young couple. The novel broadens its canvas as Alice journeys by stagecoach to Kendal and Victor sails the Solway between Annan and Whitehaven. They are separated when Victor sails into cold northern seas, and Alice faces trials of her own.
The novel is built around a vividly portrayed Carlisle and many historical incidents lend verisimilitude to the story. Actual adverts from newspapers of the time prompt incidents in the story such as the purchase of the sloop, Robert Burns, in Annan, or Alice's engagement at Hodgson's, and the public houses, such as the Bricklayers Arms.
David Ramshaw has packed his novel with incident, often violent and brutal, and the book moves at a cracking pace. His characters seem modern in their attitude and language. Nevertheless, it is a good way to learn something about the Carlisle of 200 years ago.
Steve Matthews in the Cumberland News 23 December 2005
ISBN 0 9547739-2-6 (£10) Now reduced to £6 or available on Kindle at £4 + vat - Click here
115mm x 180mm portrait format, 360 pages, 15 illustrations, softback, sewn
Price in UK £6 Online order: post and packing £3.00 (first class packet)