Review: The Devil on the Road by Robert Westall

The Devil on the Road by Robert Westall was published in 1977 and recommended by my husband. Apparently, according to my husband, was a title on a reading list at school and he read it back in the early 1980s. I had never heard of this book before, but as he had very fond memories of it, and as parts of it were set in the seventeenth century, I was happy to read it. This is a time travel book that goes back from East Anglia in the 1970s to the 1640s. Having read so many sometimes-mind-numbingly verbose academic texts over the years, it was a delight to take a break from that to read this.

The story, written in first person, follows nineteen-year-old UCL-student John Webster (yeah, I immediately thought of the playwright) who loves his motorbike – affectionately referred to throughout the book as the Cub – and decides to go to the beach at Clacton. On his way, he stops to see a reenactment of a battle from the English Civil Wars – the character’s opinions on reenacting (a pastime in which I’ve enjoyed participating) made me laugh:

I’d heard about the Sealed Knot. Guys who spend their spare time poncing round in Cavalier gear, losing the Civil War all over again. Suppose they need a Roundhead Association like Liverpool need Everton.

John finds himself in a strange town where people start to behave and talk to him in a bizarre fashion. He finds weird carvings on wood, townsfolk keep giving him gifts, and the couple who have hired him are a bit dodgy. He finds weird carvings on wood, townsfolk keep giving him gifts, and the couple who have hired him are a bit dodgy.

The story is filled with little (and big) nods to the seventeenth century, and it was clear that Westall had done his research. I never stopped to think, “No, that’s blatantly wrong”, and I thought his depiction of Hopkins quite chilling. I enjoyed how Westall included a cat named “News” (a nod to this frontispiece, of course):

John, through a series of strange events, meets a mysterious young woman named Johanna, and comes face to face with Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witchfinder-General”. Witch trials and interrogations ensue and it’s up to John to be able to save the day.

This book was so much fun. I was cracking up a lot in the beginning because it’s my kind of humour [be warned, it’s not politically correct and you *may* be offended if you’re that way inclined (i.e comments about bosoms, etc) but I found it in the vein of the Carry On films]. Things got suspenseful halfway through, and even a little disturbing at times. Yeah, it’s a bit dated now, to be sure, but that didn’t stop it from being a cracking good read! I think I’ll let my husband recommend more books to me in future ?


Hear ye! 3 thoughts — so far — on “Review: The Devil on the Road by Robert Westall”:

  1. Chris Alchin

    So glad you liked the book! I read it in the late 1970s and thoroughly enjoyed it too. The ‘Cub’ is actually a 200cc Triumph Tiger Cub motorcycle and would have been a popular learner bike in the mid 60s-70s. The attention to motorcycling detail in the book is very accurate by the way!

  2. paul smith

    Hi Andrea. It is nice to hear about you and your husband’s appreciation for Robert Westall. Two of my fave books of all time are The Devil on the Road and Machine Gunners. Being a life long motorcycle enthusiast, reading The Devil on the Road at school also, left a big impression.

  3. John

    Read it as a 13 year old. Cub is a Tiger Cub Motorbike.
    Named My cat Newes when I was 15 – it lived until I was 32
    I took up motorcycling because of this book.
    Strange that a film has never been made .

    Best Book ever.!!


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