Cain’s Clan

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Derek was the kind of boy we small, bookish pupils liked to have around. He spent every untimetabled minute of the day reading history. He would read standing up, his prematurely tall body hooked over the book, like a timorous question mark. No one was going to pick on us while someone was publicly reading about the Thirty Years War for fun.

He was also mean. At lunchtimes and rainy day play-times, the grandly named school bookshop opened. It was a wooden case that folded out into a book display. Every break-time Derek picked up Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War; but he refused to buy it. He was reading their only copy from start to finish. Well, not quite. When he was one lunch hour away from finishing it, someone else bought it. The smug boy running the bookshop relished his revenge: ‘Can’t tell you who it was, client confidentiality and all that!’

On these same shelves I saw the Penguin Classics version of Beowulf. It cost me 3s 6d and, many years later, a dig in the ribs from a friend called Richard Baxter with whom I was watching a Woody Allen film. Woody is advising a friend to try evening classes as a way of distracting herself from the long wait for life and love. He counsels, ‘Take any course where they don’t make you read Beowulf!’ At the time, I was structuring my first and, it has to be said, still unsold novel around Beowulf. ‘Unfair!’ I argued all the way home. But Beowulf reeks of chalk and mortar boards. It’s easy to get a laugh at the expense of its admirers (‘fans’ seems far too enthusiastic a word), but stay with me. In one sense only I agree with Woody; don’t study it, read it as a thumping good yarn that takes a warrior from the ruthless world of the Viking age and answers the question that great art from all eras addresses: what does it take to be a man?

I didn’t know any of this when I carried off my investment from the school bookshop. The fact that I bou

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About the contributor

John Harrison’s travel book, Where the Earth Ends, about South America and Antarctica, is thriving in paperback. His novel based on Beowulf will appear one day, rising horribly from the marshes and laying waste Waterstone’s.

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