They Do Things Differently There

Letter from Jan Mark, 26 May, 1993

You wouldn’t recognize this place. The house looks much as usual but a wet autumn followed by a wet spring has turned the garden into a lush shrubbery. The view from your room across the allotments is unbelievably rural. Of course I want to be out in it all the day long, but the current book was badly timed. It’s all in typescript at the moment. If I were still on the first draft I could be handwriting it on the lawn, as we call that small patch of grass past the evergreens. It is lawn as opposed to concrete, if we must be purists.

It is (the book) a series of stories about an agonizingly respectable new town, peopled by a couple of bored school girls, by such grotesques as Lord Tod the corpse collector, Dagobert the fishmonger poet, Sister Orthodontia of the Combat Sisters (also Nightgown, Sister Orthodontia’s destrier), St Hugh the Bleeder of Bruges and Dr Nostril the plant psychologist. It is of course based on a real town, the identity of which shall remain a secret, since I’ve worked there. I shall make the usual disclaimers, about the rest, regarding their resemblance to any persons living or dead.

Letter from Jan Mark, 15 April 1994

The book which was provisionally called ‘Oxford Gothic’ is due out next month. It is now called They Do Things Differently There, is no longer set in Oxford or anywhere like it and probably differs in many respects from what I had in mind at the time.* I don’t think I had then conceived of the Auger Scale of Tedium, the man who took his onions to a psychologist, the Blackmail Co-operative and the political party that gave the vote to trees. It is a fairly scurrilous piece of work and may even attract accusations of blasphemy as God lives at 15 Goats Lea, the archangel Gabriel rides a 3-speed Raleigh and Heaven is Stansted Airport.

* Christmas ‘92

They Do Things Differently There was published in trade paperback by The Bodley Head in 1994, then in mass market paperback by Red Fox in 1996, with a new Definitions edition appearing in 2001. It’s one of three books which Jan felt was a ‘forgotten favourite’, misread by reviewers, along with Enough Is Too Much Already and The Hillingdon Fox (Writers Uncovered: Jan Mark by Vic Parker, Heinemann Library, 2006).

Award-winning author Christopher Edge included the book in his ‘Top 10 parallel worlds in fiction’ in the Guardian:

‘Beneath the bland exterior of new town Compton Rosehay, Charlotte and Elaine discover the parallel world of Stalemate, a strange town filled with blackmailers, Martians and a mermaid factory. Equal parts Grange Hill, Twin Peaks and Heavenly Creatures, They Do Things Differently There is a very funny and original tale of teenage friendship from a much-missed children’s author.’

Adèle Geras, judging the 2004 Whitbread Children’s Book Award – for which the book was shortlisted – wrote, ‘They Do Things Differently There [is] one of those rare books which make you look at the world with new eyes. It is funny, clever and beautifully surreal.’

A brilliant fan response by Amy Groening appeared on the Fictorians website in 2014:

Jane Sherman, a childhood friend of Jan’s, offered her own illuminating response to the novel on her reading in 2009: