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David Pownall Biography

london produced faber lancaster

Nationality: British. Born: Liverpool, 1938. Education: Lord Wandsworth College, Long Sutton, Hampshire, 1949-56; University of Keele, Staffordshire, 1956-60, B.A. (honors) 1960. Career: Personnel officer, Ford Motor Co., Dagenham, Essex, 1960-63; personnel manager, Anglo-American, Zambia, 1963-69; resident writer, Century Theatre touring group, 1970-72, and Duke's Playhouse, Lancaster, 1972-75; founder and resident writer, Paines Plough Theatre, Coventry, 1975-80. Awards: John Whiting award, for drama, 1982, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1976. Agent: Andrew Hewson, John Johnson Ltd., 45-47 Clerkenwell Green, Clerkenwell House, London EC1R 0HT, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Raining Tree War. London, Faber, 1974.

African Horse. London, Faber, 1975.

God Perkins. London, Faber, 1977.

Light on a Honeycomb. London, Faber, 1978.

Beloved Latitudes. London, Gollancz, 1981.

The White Cutter. London, Gollancz, 1988; New York, Viking, 1989.

The Gardener. London, Gollancz, 1990.

Stagg and His Mother. London, Gollancz, 1991.

The Sphinx and the Sybarites. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993.

Short Stories

My Organic Uncle and Other Stories. London, Faber, 1976.

The Composers Plays. London, Oberon Books, 1994.

Plays

As We Lie (produced Cheltenham, 1973). Zambia, Nkana-Kitwe, 1969.

How Does the Cuckoo Learn to Fly? (produced on tour, 1970).

How to Grow a Guerrilla (produced Preston, Lancashire, 1971).

All the World Should Be Taxed (produced Lancaster, 1971).

The Last of the Wizards (for children; produced Windermere, Cumbria, and London, 1972).

Gaunt (produced Lancaster, 1973).

Lions and Lambs (produced on Lancashire tour, 1973).

The Dream of Chief Crazy Horse (for children; produced Fleetwood, Lancashire, 1973). London, Faber, 1975.

Beauty and the Beast, music by Stephen Boxer (produced Lancaster, 1973).

The Human Cartoon Show (produced Lancaster, 1974).

Crates on Barrels (produced on Lancashire tour, 1974; London, 1984).

The Pro (produced London, 1975).

Lile Jimmy Williamson (produced Lancaster, 1975).

Buck Ruxton (produced Lancaster, 1975).

Ladybird, Ladybird (produced Edinburgh and London, 1976).

Music to Murder By (produced Canterbury, 1976; Miami, 1984).London, Faber, 1978.

A Tale of Two Town Halls (produced Lancaster, 1976).

Motocar, and Richard III, Part Two, music by Stephen Boxer (produced Edinburgh and London, 1977). London, Faber, 1979.

An Audience Called Edouard (produced London, 1978). London, Faber, 1979.

Seconds at the Fight for Madrid (produced Bristol, 1978).

Livingstone and Sechele (produced Edinburgh, 1978; London, 1980;New York, 1982).

Barricade (produced on tour, 1979).

Later (produced London, 1979).

The Hot Hello (produced Edinburgh, 1981).

Beef (produced London, 1981; New York, 1986). Published in Best Radio Plays of 1981, London, Methuen, 1982.

Master Class (produced Leicester, 1983; London and Washington, D.C., 1984; New York, 1986). London, Faber, 1983.

Pride and Prejudice, adaptation of the novel by Jane Austen (produced Leicester, 1983; New Haven, Connecticut, 1985; London, 1986).

Ploughboy Monday (broadcast 1985). Published in Best Radio Plays of 1985, London, Methuen, 1986.

The Viewing (produced London, 1987).

Black Star (produced Bolton, Lancashire, 1987).

The Edge (produced London, 1987).

King John's Jewel (produced Birmingham, 1987).

Rousseau's Tale (produced London, 1991).

My Father's House (1991).

Elgar's Rondo (1993).

Dreams and Censorship (1993).

Radio Plays:

Free Ferry, 1972; Free House, 1973; A Place in the Country, 1974; An Old New Year, 1974; Fences, 1976; Under the Wool, 1976; Back Stop, 1977; Butterfingers, 1981; The Mist People, 1981; Flos, 1982; Ploughboy Monday, 1985; Beloved Latitudes, from his own novel, 1986; The Bridge at Orbigo, 1987; A Matter of Style, 1988; Plato Not Nato, 1990; The Glossomaniacs, 1990; Bringing Up Nero, 1991.

Television Plays:

High Tides, 1976; Mackerel Sky, 1976; Return Fare, 1978; Follow the River Down, 1979; Room for an Inward Light, 1980; The Sack Judies, 1981; Love's Labour (Maybury series), 1983; The Great White Mountain (Mountain Men series), 1987; Something to Remember You By, 1991.

Poetry

An Eagle Each: Poems of the Lakes and Elsewhere, with Jack Hill. Carlisle, Cumbria, Arena, 1972.

Another Country. Liskeard, Cornwall, Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, 1978.

Other

Between Ribble and Lune: Scenes from the North-West, photographs by Arthur Thompson. London, Gollancz, 1980.

The Bunch from Bananas (for children). London, Gollancz, 1980;New York, Macmillan, 1981.

Nijinsky: Death of a Faun. London, Oberon Books, 1997.

Editor, with Gareth Pownall, The Fisherman's Bedside Book. London, Windward, 1980.

* * *

David Pownall's vision reveals and satirizes a world in microcosm. The favored territory for his early novels is the crammed, seething canvas peopled with grotesques, whose collective idiocy he lampoons in a style at once comic and macabre. Several of his books have African locations, and it is here—where technology rubs shoulders uneasily with tribal magic—that he appears most at home. Pownall utilizes a variety of literary techniques, subordinating them to a single individual utterance. His wit is caustic and pitiless, sparing no one, yet at times he shows glimpses of a touching faith in humanity.

The Raining Tree War depicts a power struggle between the ruthless president Mulombe and the Muntu religious cult under their prophetess Maud, an archetypal Earth-mother figure who claims to be the "Wife of God." Maud embodies the strength of older African traditions, and constitutes a challenge to Mulombe's authority. Into their gradually intensifying conflict Pownall weaves the threads of other lives, following his eccentric characters through the turmoil of a comic-opera war. The ridiculous, mock-heroic climax of the government's attack on Maud's capital in the Bengweulu swamp is a tour de force, Pownall expertly juxtaposing the broadest slapstick with the most stygian of humor. In the aftermath of this lethal "main event," the novel's conclusion is strangely poignant and moving. The Raining Tree War is an excellent work, skillfully handled in its action sequences, the thumbnail character sketches capably achieved.

African Horse uses the same location and several characters from the previous novel, but the main plot is devoted to the Englishman Hurl Halfcock and his search for an imagined animal ancestor. Hurl's odyssey through the bars, brothels, and house parties of the newly independent Zonkendavo provides a mixture of picaresque adventure and potent symbolism which Pownall continually ridicules en route. Confrontations abound, whether Hurl's battle with an Afrikaner rugby fifteen, or the more deeply layered duel between a power shovel operator and a crocodile in a colliery sump, while Hurl's weird metamorphosis into his "animalself," for instance, is both absurd and convincing. African Horse amuses, but lacks the coherence of The Raining Tree War, which is the more satisfying novel of the two.

More impressive is Light on a Honeycomb, set in a fictional English town where for centuries insane people have been settled and rehabilitated, and which is now ruled by madmen. Pownall recreates the biblical concept of an upper and lower world, the "honeycomb" of limestone caverns with its shadowy dream-population of slaves, Irish laborers, and ancestral tribes overset by its modern counterpart run by lunatic businessmen and gangsters, typified by the spray-on carpet foam they use to hide the universe beneath their feet. The "light" is cast by Kevin, inmate of the mental hospital, who invokes the dormant ancestors to overthrow the world above as its rulers succumb to death and madness. Light on a Honeycomb is a striking success, Pownall's skills marshalled to full effect. Characterization is sure, with contrasting and symbolic portrayals, and the blending of scenes is ably rendered. The author's keen eye for the ridiculous touches coldly on landowners and ineffectual revolutionaries alike, both being shown as deluded simpletons unaware of the reality about to burst from the ground beneath them. Pownall compels the reader's attention, drawing him or her through a complex network of scenes to the light above, where a new world waits to be made. Perhaps the most controlled of his early works, Light on a Honeycomb must be ranked among his best.

Beloved Latitudes marks a departure for Pownall. Outwardly the most "serious" of his books, it also has the smallest cast. Presented in the form of a spoken autobiography, the story follows the career of an overthrown African dictator, recounted in prison to his English "advisor" and friend. Central to the novel is the close, lover-like relationship between the two men, and the tension of their conflicting personalities. Touches of humor brighten the work, but for once Pownall's mood is unusually sombre. Beloved Latitudes is a powerful, thought-provoking novel, whose visual strength is matched by the author's careful understatement.

The later novels show a startling advance on previous writings, Pownall revealing himself as a novelist of considerable depth and maturity, a world away from the barbed, satirical humor of his earlier fiction. The White Cutter, The Gardener, Stagg and His Mother, and The Sphinx and the Sybarites are epic and memorable creations which show a major fiction writer at the height of his powers. Complex, brooding works, they present a bleak, tragic vision while at the same time compelling the reader's attention with their subtlety and strength. Just as the early novels reveal their attraction to tribal societies, so the most impressive of the recent works are those set furthest back in historical time. The White Cutter explores the life of the great medieval builder Hedric Herbertson and his encounters with a world which defines itself as a constant struggle between Good and Evil spiritual forces. These manifest themselves in a variety of forms, notably the powerful ruling group of "The Four", whose actions determine much of Hedric's life, and whose mirror-image is found in a particularly dark, disturbing version of Robin Hood's Sherwood. Hedric, driven to crime and renunciation, is a brilliantly tragic figure, and his fate is echoed by that of the Greek diviner Kallias, who in The Sphinx and the Sybarites is called on to solve an apparent malaise at the heart of the rich city of Sybaris. Foreseeing the destruction of Sybaris in a nightmare vision, Kallias finds himself enmeshed in a merciless web of politics and warfare which ends in tragedy. Pownall's characters are unwilling pawns to gods and men, cynically manipulated and deceived as they progress painfully to a tragic resolution. The doomed love of Eric and Pauline in The Gardener and the fraught love-hate relationship of Stagg and His Mother, both dissolved by death, are further examples. Pownall's vision is unremittingly bleak, but his imaginative power and the skillful use of language compels the respect of the reader. These latest works establish him as not only an accomplished, but an important writer of fiction.

Geoff Sadler

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