Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones

Heaven and hell on wheels for a child of his time

Pilcrow is an archaism, dating from 1440. It denotes a paragraph mark of the kind most commonly encountered in religious texts, such as prayer books and hymnals. John Cromer, the principal character in Adam Mars-Jones's novel, regards it as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Does the boy know that the word is an abbreviation of "pilled" and "crow", suggestive of a black bird bereft of feathers? He probably does, though he neglects to disarm readers with this one example of pedantry.

John appropriates "pilcrow" because language and literature can do without it, as they have for centuries. It is a symbol, perhaps, for his own disability. John is born in autumn 1950, a seemingly healthy baby. A childhood illness is wrongly diagnosed as rheumatic fever, and the doctor recommends bed rest. It transpires that he has Still's disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis. The limbs he should have exercised are paralysed as a result of this simple medical oversight.

The prospect before John Cromer, from the age of five, is a life of beds and wheelchairs. Pilcrow, the first volume of a trilogy, takes the physically confined but mentally agile narrator to his adolescent years. In the closing pages, he is staking his claim to be an independent spirit. University is beckoning, with the promise of new adventures, scholastic and sexual.

The narrative technique Mars-Jones has employed to convey John's myriad frustrations and occasional triumphs is anecdotal and episodic. John tells stories as they occur to him, to an audience he hopes will be as captive as he is to immediate experience. Many anecdotes are to do with the childish concerns of 50-odd years ago: the radio ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews; the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton; the dulcet tones of Daphne Oxenford on Listen With Mother; the pop and "novelty" songs of the period. There is a surfeit of this dated trivia.

The novel has three main settings: the suburban home in which John is first raised; then the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital in Taplow, where his true education in the malign ways of the world really begins, and finally a progressive grammar school, Vulcan. In this pioneering establishment, the relatively healthy boys, the Able Bodied or ABs, are trained to assist their incapacitated fellow pupils. It is at Vulcan that John at last takes wing. So, it has to be said, does the book. In the dormitory, after lights out, John is the leading performer in a smutty entertainment involving randy cowboys, buxom wenches, astonished virgins and other disreputable characters. John is at his most adept with female voices, delighting his chums with gasps of pleasure and surprised gratification.

John is already a confirmed homosexual, and at Vulcan he finds the opportunities – brilliantly described in humiliating and inventive detail – to give expression to his needs. He is at his happiest attempting to seduce Julian Robinson, the school's master spy (James Bond novels are the preferred reading), though two sessions with the school tart, Luke Squires, a blond beauty of unusual sexual sophistication, are more easily accomplished. Luke is a professional charmer, a Steerforth on wheels, and like every literary school tart before him, he is fated to get the authorial heave-ho.

The portraits of John's parents – Dad with his RAF lingo and Mum with her homely concerns – rarely stray from convention, while his maternal grandmother, a frightful old snob, is sketched with the catty gleefulness one associates with Angus Wilson. We have to take John's word for it where adults are concerned, and his vision is limited. People here tend to be nice or nasty, as in a fairy tale.

It is to Mars-Jones's credit that John is not especially likeable – he is frequently petulant and selfish. The tone is never sentimental, and when I say that the book's tenderest and most moving passages are to do with the progress of a budgerigar named Charlie, abandoned by its mother, I could be accused of contradicting myself. But Charlie is a benign presence as he warms the hardened heart of Sister Heel at Taplow or flies around John's bedroom, pecking at the little boy's face and fingers. Charlie, weaned and nursed by Mrs Cromer, survives with his blue feathers intact.

Paul Bailey's 'Uncle Rudolf' is published by Fourth Estate

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