Something rotten

Jan Mark: Heathrow Nights
Heinemann New Windmills 2002 (2000)

Three teenage tearaways from Hertfordshire, Adam, Curtis and the narrator Russell, disgrace themselves on an outing to see a performance of Hamlet and as a result are banned from a school trip to Cumbria. Rather than confess to their parents — and having intercepted letters from school — they arrange to spend the week in London. Alas, things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves in limbo wandering around the terminals of Heathrow Airport.

While they do so Russell is able to meditate more fully on his situation: his father having suddenly died, his mother hasn’t taken long to get remarried, to the person who was with his father when the latter unexpectedly passed away on a plane.

His resentment at a changing situation over which he has no control causes him to see parallels between himself and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the prince learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by his uncle Claudius and that his mother Gertrude rushed to wed his uncle.

But is the comparison exact? Are there also parallels between other characters and the people he knows? And what will happen when his week in limbo comes to an end?

The late Jan Mark put together a believable scenario here, one in which teenage angst is combined with devil-may-care attitudes, unrealistic expectations and a swilling together, like oil and water, of worldliness and woeful ignorance. Curtis is a pothead, Adam argumentative, and Russell filled with dark thoughts. As a team their success in avoiding consequences dimishes by the day, if not by the hour.

Using the concourses, travellators and cafés of Heathrow’s terminals the author creates a modern Elsinore, one in which suspicion, anxiety and rash decisions may well lead to tragedy. When Russell goes to Blewburton Hill, where his father’s ashes were scattered, he finds no ghostly revelations, meaning he has to find his own answers. Yet this is no modern retelling of Hamlet — for a start there is no high body count, just the death of the trio’s hopes of getting away with their subterfuge.

The story’s the thing in which we’ll engage with Russell’s conscience, of course, but the author subtly (and without being didactic) includes a commentary on the play, particularly on character motivations, as the lad tries to work out his feelings and how much they arise out of his perceptions and maybe misconceptions.

Along the way we contemplate the loneliness, isolation, even desolation of homelessness; when Russell sees this on the streets of London he knows he himself is in danger of becoming another statistic. He also knows Heathrow won’t do as a refuge — too expensive, for a start — though, as the author said in an interview, there’s “something intriguingly improbable about it, a landlocked island, an area the size of a small town, where no one lives.”

But, to quote one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, no man is an island: we read on in hopes that Russell will reconnect with other humans and understand that, in order to realise dreams, he has to have them in the first place.

‘Contemporary’ novels for young adults can fall prey when the language and aspirations no longer reflect the obsessions of later generations. Apart from one or two words — does anyone talk of ‘mobes’ these days when referring to smartphones? — not much has fallen out of date in the two decades since this was published, meaning that this is a novel that should continue to speak to its intended readership for quite some time yet.


Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, while March is Women’s History Month. I’m aiming to post a review of a recent Edith Nesbit biography to mark the latter celebration — best known as a writer of children’s fiction, Nesbit was also a founder member of the Fabian Society, part of the socialist movement, and was actively involved in improving the lives of schoolchildren in South London.

6 thoughts on “Something rotten

  1. Sounds like an interesting take on the teenage experience, Chris. I like that idea of setting a novel in somewhere as odd as Heathrow. As your quote says, a town-sized hub without a single resident. And the echoes with Hamlet sound interesting too. Great review

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    1. Thanks, Lynn. The author is so good at both male and female points of view (perhaps unsurprising given her teaching experience): I found her portrayals of the trio convincing, and even those of the supporting cast. And I like the idea that it’s possible to break out of the script that you’ve created for yourself, even one as iconic as that written for the tragic prince.

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    1. It’s quite a profound novella about absent fathers which I found resonated with me because for the first dozen or so years of my life my own father, being a ship’s engineer, was away at sea for months at a time. When he came home for keeps I was about thirteen and felt he’d usurped my position as man of the house, and I suspect this was part of the issue Russell had in the story. Heathrow as Elsinore was an inspired concept here!

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      1. At thirteen, when you were already half-formed and a teenager with the problems of coming into adulthood, I imagine it must have been difficult to have your world rearranged once more. It’s not easy for teenagers to find their footing and negotiate their changing position with at-home dads, let alone the absent and returning ones!

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        1. There was also a cultural divide: my father’s life experience was mostly in India and Hong Kong, whereas I’d already had three years of acclimatising to UK cultural expectations. Unsettling is how I’d describe the situation, and we only had a decade of an uneasy truce before his death at the very early age of 51.

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