[After Fire and Hemlock] I then started, immediately, to write Archer’s Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter’s night and discovered a baby. It is all very well my books coming true on me—it is a risk I take—but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke.Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’
Most if not all authors include bits of themselves, their lives, their family and friends in their novels, and that’s what often adds authenticity to their narratives and a sense of verisimilitude. That applies as much—if not more so—to fantasy as to contemporary fiction, but if authors find true life imitating fiction it can be disconcerting, to say the least.
Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Archer’s Goon (1984) has so much busy-ness about it that, outside a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps a discussion of its physical setting would be a good starting point, because after that the characters and the themes can be placed like pieces and moves on a gameboard.
The author spent a good many decades in the English town of Bristol until her death in 2011 and this novel, like a few other novels of hers — such as Deep Secret (1997), The Homeward Bounders (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985) — features aspect of Bristol in its topography and placenames. As it happens, she has borrowed a good many street names for her unnamed town which, as an ex-Bristolian myself, I have walked and know well. So the first part of this spoiler-filled post will start with places, and then I shall go on to discuss a little (or maybe a lot) about people and themes. The curious names encountered — Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus — refer to seven sibling magicians whose names will crop up later in the discussion. I shall also be mentioning Howard Sykes and his sister Awful — real name Anthea — who play central roles in most of the action when drawn into conflict with the enchanters.
The Sykes family live at No 10 Upper Park Street. There is actually a Park Street in Bristol, leading up from the Centre to the famous University Tower, but no Upper Park Street, so I have made the assumption that Jones means Park Row, which runs eastwards from the University at the top of Park Street. No 10 Park Row is currently (2021) a restaurant providing Asian cuisine, in a building sandwiched between two larger premises. We may, if we wish, imagine the Sykes household happily crammed into premises such as this, until Archer’s Goon — the ‘urban gorilla’ envisaged by the author — becomes an uninvited guest, and road works begin to make all their lives a misery.
At the bottom of Park Street is College Green, which must be the Park in the novel (though Park Street is actually named from Tyndalls Park, the area surrounding the University at the top of the hill). The Cathedral is adjacent to the Park, which once had a maze of lanes around it. West of the cathedral is the Central Library, here as in the novel, and we can assume the museum is somewhere along here even though there’s no equivalent building. The choristers who feature in the novel will of course attend the cathedral school.
Immediately to the east will be the “old abbey”, which I guess will have been the bombed St Augustine the Less, sited where the extension to the Royal Hotel has since been built. Southeast of the Cathedral was land reclaimed in the Middle Ages and called Canon’s Marsh, long a derelict area of workshops, warehouses and car parks, now an area of prestige real estate facing the Floating Harbour. The 1980s version appears to be Shine Town (a pun on China Town?) where the magician known as Shine has her base of criminal operations.
North of College Green on Unity Street stands the neogothic redbrick block which was formerly part of Bristol Polytechnic and now is another prestige housing development; this is the stand-in for the Poly where Quentin Sykes lectures on English literature. A hop and a skip away from the Poly, Trenchard Street is where the brutalist Locarno complex was built in the 1960s, incorporating licensed bars, an ice rink, bowling lanes, casino, night club, cinema and ballroom. Part of this pretentious carbuncle of a structure was subsequently redeveloped and is now a music venue, but as a model for the novel’s new Poly building (in reality, Venturus’s futuristic Egyptian temple to house an interstellar rocket) it’s as good as any.
Somewhere to the north off the map is Woodland Terrace where Maisie Potter lives. The fictional street’s real equivalent is just off Bristol’s Whiteladies Road, just around the corner from where I once shared a flat in Hampton Park; it’s a listed late Georgian terrace faced in Bath stone, reached after one has walked a fair distance uphill towards the Bristol Downs from Park Street. Howard and Awful Sykes, with Fifi and Maisie, later trudge up to the top Pleasant Hill Road (Blackboy Hill?) where they find the posh villa owned by the enchanter Dillian.
To head downhill from their home in Upper Park Street (Park Row) Howard and Awful often take a short walk eastwards before turning down Zed Alley. This unusual name is attached to a Bristol lane running from Lower Park Row to the Centre. It consists of two flights of steps interrupted by Host Street.
Originally these flights would have led down to the wharves north of the River Frome, where sailing ships loaded and unloaded their cargo until the course of the river was covered over to form the traffic islands in the last decade of the nineteeth century.
Nowadays they’re the haunt of graffiti tag artists, fictional child heroes, and the odd (and I do mean odd) character who goes in search of literary reference points.
The alley’s name is commemorated in a live music club and bar on Host Street, outside which swings a sign displaying the letter Z. After the first flight emerges between the former warehouse and a Georgian façade it descends between bland 20th-century buildings down to what is now St Augustines Parade in the City Centre.
However, in the novel, when Howard holds off a gang of ruffians to let Awful escape she is noted as going round corners. I suspect the author may have purloined an alley to the north called Johnny Ball Lane which does in fact describe a Z shape as it descends towards the centre. This is an even less salubrious thoroughfare with hidden corners where one might fear footpads in any century.
Between Johnny Ball Lane and Zed Alley is the shop-lined Christmas Steps, originally named Queen Street in honour of Elizabeth I, but which I don’t think is intended by Jones to depict Zed Alley.
A walk across the Centre (while dodging the traffic) would eventually lead the pedestrian to Corn Street, a road which is referenced a couple of times in Archer’s Goon. Archer’s bank is situated somewhere in this area which was known for its commercial and mercantile affairs until recent years. At the crossroads the way ahead leads to Wine Street, while to the right lies High Street, also referenced. I think, however, that Jones has deliberately conflated High Street and Broad Street running to the left from Corn Street: here lies the former Guildhall which, I think, stands in the stead of the novel’s Town Hall.
Later in the novel Howard has to take a bus travelling from the east of the city, eventually crawling along Corn Street because of heavy traffic—in reality this is only a few minutes walk from the novel’s “Old Castle” where the sewage works are located. I suspect that, along with time, Jones has deliberately expanded space here: the former Bristol Castle, whose Norman keep was once one of the largest in England before demolition by Oliver Cromwell, is now represented by a few dwarf walls in Castle Park. This leisure space, for so long an eyesore after the Blitz, served as a car park for shoppers in nearby Broadmead until greened over in 1978. It’s here at what’s called a ‘sewage farm’ that Howard, his father and sister are rescued from underground imprisonment by a former enemy.
It’s way past time to consider people and themes—and now there will be spoilers galore. First let’s look at the Sykes household: Quentin the stubborn author and lecturer with writer’s block; Catriona, the mostly unflappable schools music adviser; their children Howard (who was adopted when he was found near the Poly in the snow) and the younger Anthea (who’s known as Awful for reasons which are very soon clear); plus there’s Fifi the student lodger (who’s named after Fiona, the novel’s dedicatee). There will be bonds of love or friendship or respect which will link some of them to individuals outside their circle, but at the start they appear to rub along reasonably well. That the household echoed the author’s own family set up—Diana was the author (thankfully with no writer’s block!) married to literature professor the late John Burrows, plus their three sons Colin, Michael and Richard—may be no more than coincidence.
However, after the Goon invades the Sykes household we learn that there are seven magician siblings who between them run the city, though we’re never told their precise status. From oldest to youngest they are Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus. A couple of names have Scottish origins (Erskine means something like ‘high hill’, Torquil means “Thor’s cauldron”); Dillian is Old English for an idol or god; Venturus is Latin for “what’s about to come” (used for example in the Latin hymn Dies Irae in the phrase “when the judge is imminent”). Hathaway is of course Shakespeare’s wife’s surname, a sobriquet which literally suggests a sense of agency: has-a-way.
What may the other names signify? Archer, for example, could carry echoes of King Arthur—for we know that the author recycled the Arthurian legends in many of her novels—but I don’t think that’s the source here. Archer’s love of indiscriminate pyrotechnics when he’s angered might suggest an eldest sibling determined to get his way, but I’m also reminded of the zodiacal archer Sagittarius who’s both centaur and bowman, and the fact that he ends up on a one-way trip to Alpha Centauri is surely another clue to his psychological make-up.
The next two siblings after Archer are the sisters Shine and Dillian. At one point in the text Archer, Shine and Dillian are juxtaposed with a phrase referring to sun, moon and star, so I do believe that we’re meant to unconsciously link the trio with these astrological signs for planets; whether corpulent Shine or virginal Dillian is either moon or evening star is hard to tell, however, so I shan’t insist on any particular connotations.
This then leads us on the consider the function of the remaining four siblings, and to wonder whether they match up with the remaining planets (Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Torquil is the most mercurial, while Erskine (which is the Goon’s actual name) is quite aggressive and so perhaps makes him the martial one. That leaves jovial and saturnine qualities to share between Hathaway and Venturus (this latter in reality turns out to be the orphan Howard); for in this case the jury’s still out.
One final issue to think about before we leave astrological matters: the seven siblings plus five humans—Quentin (“the fifth”), Catriona, Awful, Fifi, and the turncoat Ginger Hinds—might at a push correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac. If Archer is Sagittarius for example, Erskine may be the proverbial Taurus in the china shop and Dillian an ice maiden Virgo but, as elsewhere, I doubt Jones ever intended to follow all the possible correspondences all the way through.
I’ve touched on various themes and motifs and we’ve almost reached the moment to wrap up the
waffle discussion. Let me conclude with a few words on absent or distant parents. We’ve heard a lot about the seven siblings, their existence a common folkloric trope of course, but we hear precious little about the seven’s parents. It’s as though they’ve all been abandoned, much as Diana and her sisters Ursula and Isobel were largely left to their own devices when growing up in Essex in the 1930s and 40s. While Quentin and Catriona Sykes as parents are definitely in evidence, the fact that they both work away from home (in the Poly or for the schools music service) might suggest that their charges Howard and Awful have had little in the way of a structured childhood.
This urban fantasy is predicated on the seeming power of words to effect change, in magical ways as well as in daily reality: Quentin’s two thousand words which he has to produce for every quarter day — 25th March (Lady Day), 24th June (Midsummer Day), 29th September (Michaelmas) and 25th December (Christmas Day) — are sought by the enchanters because of their supposed efficacy. That they lead to an internecine conflict set in motion by the Goon is inevitable given that Diana Wynne Jones was much taken by the cheesy combination of two words:
I often find my books are founded on a saying or proverb. The maddest is Archer’s Goon, which is founded on a dire pun: “urban gorilla.”Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey’
- Diana Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2000.
- Diana Wynne Jones, Reflections on the Magic of Writing. Greenwillow Books, 2012: 89, 158.