A Scruffian Survival Guide – Hal Duncan

A Scruffian Survival Guide

Hal Duncan

Lule, 118 pages

Reviewed by Steve Ironside


Language is a marvel. The formality of words and structure, the ends to which it can be put – poetry, technical description, the odd bawdy chat down the pub; allowing communication in ways both broad and narrow. And yet, it remains very personal, with dialects, accents and colloquialisms meaning that there are as many ways of using it as there are stars in the sky. As Stephen Fry once put it, “There is no right language or wrong language any more than there are right or wrong clothes.”. Mixing up your own palette of language then, is something that should be applauded and explored – which is what Hal Duncan has done with A Scruffian Survival Guide.

The book is an anthology of tales, which draws a picture of a hidden community of children (the “Scruffians” of the title) who have survived in the shadows since the Crusades, having been “Fixed” – that is, had their ageing halted through the use of a mystical Stamp. This process renders them truly immortal – they can be mutilated, killed, starved – it makes no difference as they will spring back the next day in exactly the same state they were in when they were Fixed.

It goes without saying that adults – “groanhuffs” – abuse them terribly as a result. Fixing them at different ages for different purposes, from scamps used as drummer boys, to rakes who are nearly too old (and have too much wilfulness) for use as soldiers. A slave race, with no need to be fed, no repercussions if killed, and as a result thoroughly ground under the heel of their masters. It appears that resistance would be impossible.

Except that it’s not. The Scruffians have managed to throw off their oppressors, have stolen back the Stamp that created them, and learned how to get the most out of their state of being. Those lessons are then passed along using an oral tradition with stories – “fabbles” – told by the longest-lived Scruffians to the youngest. A mix of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and retellings of heroic adventures. A Scruffian Survival Guide is (effectively) a transcript of the telling of some of these fabbles to a group of new recruits, clueing them in on what they need to know to get by.

I’d probably have failed that particular test, as for me this was a tough book to crack. Our storyteller (let’s call him “Jack” as other unnamed Scruffians are) is a centuries-old lad, with a very thick Coc-ker-nee accent and a chatty style of speaking. He’s also not averse to chatting with some of his friends at the same time as telling a story to the assembled scamps, or dealing with their heckling and interruption. Mixing this in with the way that fabbles are told, switching back and forth from tale to rhyme, and the liberal smattering of Scruffian-specific dialect, I found that following the thread of what was going on could get challenging – this is not, after all, a physical conversation where there are lots of non-verbal cues to help you track the focus of the speaker. Also, unlike (for example) the use of NADSAT in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, there’s no handy glossary of terms at the back of the book to help you refresh yourself with the meaning of bits of the lingo, and I found myself flipping backwards and forwards between reading sessions to reference some terms that hadn’t quite cemented themselves in my head. As a result, this wasn’t a book I felt that I could dip in and out of – I had to commit to finding space to sit down and read, for fear of losing track of what it was trying to show me.

I also didn’t find myself drawn in to the individual stories– because the fabbles are either historical reference or purely allegorical, I didn’t really care about the characters in them. I felt like I probably should – some of the uses to which a virtually indestructible child can be put are harrowing when described, but when there’s just a name and no depth of character, it’s harder to empathise. After all, the point is not to care about Aesop’s  Tortoise or Hare; the importance is in the lesson that fable teaches. In A Scruffian Guide to Survival, it feels like the purpose of a fabble is to learn about the world – a travelogue in first person.

And yet what a place to visit! Scruffians learning how to Tweak their Stamps to unexpected and sometimes comic effect; how one can get Scoured out of existence, and the creation of a new generation of Scruffians. Then there are the battles with Hellions, and the links between major world events and these secretive immortal urchins – you do feel that the stories presented here only scratch the surface of what is going on in the author’s mind.

There are other books which are set in the Scruffian universe, and although I haven’t read them, I wonder if this in some way acts as a companion volume to them – filling in details about this hidden culture. There are definitely some fantastic ideas behind this setting – the notion that there are Scruffians hiding between the cracks of modern society is very appealing – but the challenges I faced in getting to grips with Duncan’s writing means that I probably won’t seek out his other books to see just how much broader this canvas grows. However, if you can get into the rhythm of the narrative and the approach to the telling of the stories then I don’t doubt that this universe can offer hours of entertainment.

On language, Mr. Fry has also said, “The English language is an arsenal of weapons. If you are going to brandish them without checking to see whether or not they are loaded, you must expect to have them explode in your face from time to time.”. I’m sure that Hal Duncan used his arsenal well – on this occasion though, I just wasn’t wearing enough armour.