Piecing Together Cormoran Strike’s Childhood: Could Rokeby be the Snape of the Series?

We know Cormoran Strike had a nomadic childhood, being dragged to squats and other less-than-desireable homes by his free-spirit mother, alternating with more stable periods with his Cornish aunt and uncle when his mother fell too far off the wagon. He can remember attending seventeen different schools; and thinks that may be an underestimate of the total. So far, most of the details we have been provided are from around the ages of 8 to 9.  As I have re-read and re-listened to the series, a couple of questions have popped up:

  1. What happened at the Norfolk commune that made it the worst place Leda had ever taken him?

2. How did the itinerant and poverty-stricken Strike wind up at the same school as Charlie Bristow, son of a “Sir” and a “Lady?”

Reconstructing Strike’s childhood involves piecing together items from multiple books, and, just for fun, I’ll throw in some hints from the TV series as well. I’ll also assume the author is being careful with her dates, which is by no means a given. Adding a generous dose of my own speculations leads me to rethink what role Jonny Rokeby might eventually play in the series. 

Let’s start with the dates we can pin down:

  1. November 23, 1974:  Cormoran Blue Strike born.
  2. April 4th, 1983: Charlie Bristow, age 9, dies in quarry.

We’ll begin with the circumstances under which Charlie and Cormoran became friends: (points of emphasis are mine.)

A magnetic, wild and reckless boy, pack leader of the coolest gang at Strike’s new school in London, Charlie had taken one look at the enormous new boy with the thick Cornish accent and appointed him his best friend and lieutenant. Two giddy months of bosom friendship and bad behavior had followed. (CC)

This puts Cormoron’s arrival at the “new London” school in early February, 1983, two months before John Bristow commits fratricide. Note that, while Charlie is 9, Cormoron is still 8, since his birthday is not until November.

We also know that Cormoran and Lucy were taken to the “quasi-mystical” Norfolk commune “when they were 8 and 6 respectively,” so, that situation was close to the prep-school time.  The only things, so far, we know about the commune are 1) it was the worst place Leda ever took them, 2) that they had slept in a “dank dormitory” (CC) and 3) Cormoran witnessed a teenager being whipped  there (LW).  Because the work “dank” implies that the dormitory was cold, I am going to guess that Cormoran was there in winter, rather than moving there after Charlie’s death in April.  This puts the family at the commune sometime between November 1982 (Cormoran’s 8th birthday) and February 1983. Fortunately, it seems that their stay there was relatively brief.

So, Cormoran, at age 8, experienced both a horrible, abusive commune and a London school affluent enough for the Bristows, and probably transitioned from the first directly to the second. One possibility is that this was a public school (and by public, I mean in the American, not British sense: a government-run neighborhood school that is open to all). This implies that either Leda managed to find housing in an upscale neighborhood, or her children benefited a housing project that was zoned into a mostly-rich school, like Krystal Whedon of A Casual Vacancy. It seems more likely, however, that Sir and Lady Bristow would have chosen a private day school for their young children. We know, from the picture by Lady Bristow’s deathbed, that the boys’ school uniforms included a collared shirt and a tie. If so, who was paying Cormoran’s tuition? (More on this, later).

We know one more incident from Cormoran’s childhood: there was a 2 month period of homeschooling, at the behest of one of Leda’s cannabis-addled boyfriends, who convinced her to withdraw Cormoran and Lucy from traditional schooling and move them to a squat in Brixton, where they would be home-educated, presumably in the virtues of pot as well as other Rastafarian spiritual teachings. 

He did not include the brief period of supposed homeschooling which had taken place during the two months he had lived with his mother and half-sister in a squat in Atlantic Road in Brixton. His mother’s then boyfriend, a white Rastafarian who had re-christened himself Shumba, felt that the school system reinforced patriarchal and materialistic values with which his common-law stepchildren ought not to be tainted. (CC)

This interlude ended when Uncle Ted and Aunt Joan arrived to whisk them back to Cornwall.

Strike had never discovered how Uncle Ted found out where they were living; all he knew was that he and Lucy let themselves into the squat one day to find their mother’s enormous brother standing in the middle of the room, threatening Shumba with a bloody nose. Within two days, he and Lucy were back in St. Mawes. (CC)

Lucy was said to be 7 years old at the time they were taken from Brixton to Cornwall, making Cormoran about 9. Thus, the Shumba era followed the Charlie Bristow era. Given that Charlie’s elite school sounds especially patriarchal and materialistic, I am going to speculate that it was this specific school from which Shumba insisted he be removed.  Thus, the two months in Brixton may have happened in late spring 1983 or fall 1983, shortly before Cormoran turned 9.

As I indicated in a previous post, there is one other hint that comes from the Career of Evil TV series.  Cormoran has a series of three flashbacks to a memory of his mother telling him she loves him, and that someday he will feel that way about someone. The last scene makes it clear this happened at night, while the two of them were watching a scene with a bunch of sirens and flashing lights, presumably from police, fireman or rescue squads. We don’t know when this happened, but the young boy in the clip could easily be 8 or 9. I think it likely that Rowling included this scene because it sets up some future plot point. It makes sense, then, that this incident would be related to other parts of Cormoran’s childhood described in the books.

Now we dive even deeper into, as Dumbledore would say “the realms of guesswork and speculation.”

First of all, what type of commune was this? Given the physical abuse Cormoran witnessed there, I don’t think it was the type of hippie, permissive, granola-crunching society one often associates with “communes.” I am going to instead take a leap and guess it was an religious cult of some sort, possibly a distorted version of Christianity. Such groups are typically led by an authoritarian leader, who proclaims himself a modern-day prophet or messiah, demands obedience from his followers and often preaches that the apocalypse is at hand. Super-groupie Leda, who seems quite prone to hero-worship, would have been easy prey to such an individual. In Lethal White, Cormoran, who is unlikely to have attended Sunday School unless his aunt and uncle took him, knows enough about the Revelation According to John to correct Robin in the fact that Death rides a pale, rather than a white horse —and this from the guy who scoffs at the nuances of horse coat color names.  But, he would likely have heard that Biblical text often in an end-times cult, and we know how good his memory is, especially for literature.

While I don’t think JKR intends to write specifically about an existing religious group, if this “worst place” is indeed a cult, she may have a real-life model in mind, much like Jonny Rokeby appears to be modeled on Mick Jagger.  One candidate is The Children of God, now known as The Family International. Founded in the US in 1968, it had spread world-wide, including to the UK, by the early 70’s. For a time, this group practiced “Flirty Fishing”, using sexual seduction to win converts. It was joined by a number of prominent musicians, including Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of Fleetwood Mac. A connection to the music scene would have been a tempting entry point for Leda.

Allegations of child abuse also followed the cult for decades. Authorities have periodically raided group compounds and removed the children, although one of the most famous cases, in Australia in 1992, failed to find evidence of abuse and resulted in the children being returned and a hefty settlement. About that same time, there was a well-publicized British case of a grandmother seeking custody of a child whose mother was raising him in the cult. The resulting investigation found that, although the group has a history of physically and sexually abusing children, its practices had reformed by 1994, and the child was allowed to remain with his mother.

So, I am going to take an even bigger leap now, with an much more off-the-wall prediction.  The flashback scene was a raid of the commune, in late 1982 or early 1983.  Leda’s “I love you” message was delivered right before the authorities took custody of her children, along with the other children of the cult, who were suspected of being horrifically abused. Leda was identified as the notorious super-groupie, and the authorities contacted the children’s fathers:  the very famous Rokeby, and the sorta-famous Rick Fantoni, Lucy’s father. Like in the real-life Family International raid, the allegations could not be substantiated, and Leda quickly got her kids back. But now both of the fathers know what circumstances the kids have been living in, and one or both decides changes must be made—perhaps out of concern for the kids (Fantoni) or to avoid bad publicity (Rokeby).  This results in Leda being either convinced or pressured to leave the cult and relocate to London. As part of the deal, she is provided with decent housing and perhaps private school tuition. Cormoran winds up Charlie Bristow’s schoolmate by February 1983.

Leda is still a drug-and-party girl, though. Having been forcibly removed from a religious leader she was enthralled with, begins seeking other sources of spiritual solace. Enter Shumba, who is easily draws her into his lifestyle with charisma and pot. He convinces her to dump the prep school and return to her itinerant lifestyle, and they drag the kids off to the Brixton squat. However, as Rokeby’s son, Cormoran is very much on the school’s radar, and Rokeby, who is paying the tuition bills, is informed that his son has disappeared. One or both musician fathers again feel need to intervene, and Rokeby bankrolls a PI to find them. After two months, the effort is successful, and, because Rokeby does not want custody or publicity himself, he notifies Uncle Ted. That’s how Ted found out where the family was living, and showed up to retrieve the kids.

This would create yet another ring reflection, with Rokeby paying for a PI to find Strike as a kid, then offering to pay for him to become a PI as an adult. It also turns Rokeby, not into the Voldemort (or drug lord, Leda-killer, attempted Strike-bomber or not-really-his-father) of the series, but into the Snape–  the distant and secret protector that doesn’t actually like the kid he’s protecting that much, but does it anyway. It does, however, fit in with our Headmaster’s suggestion that Rokeby’s connections helped get Strike into Oxford.

I’m sure Serious Strikers will quickly find holes in this hypothesis, but that’s part of the fun.

Fire away!

Comments

  1. I think this notion of Rokeby-as-Snape is fascinating and am impressed with your literary sleuthing, Louise!

  2. I think your predictions are fascinating. I appreciate these ideas to mull over as we await #5.

    I’ll just add…I’ve always wondered when DNA testing was undertaken to prove Rokeby is Cormorsn’s father and what the circumstances of that might have been. I suppose maybe at a time when Child Protective Services might have been involved. Along the same lines, I wonder about the circumstances surrounding the two times Cormoran met Rokeby. I think it’s been mentioned more than once that they’ve met exactly twice. And I wonder if Rokeby paid child support after the results of the DNA test. I don’t know how it is in Britain, but in similar circumstances in the US, it would be a legal imperative.

    Again, I greatly appreciate your ideas giving me new perspectives to ponder!

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Jill, thanks for your comments! I blogged before about the DNA test and the problems with it, namely, that the world seemed to know little Cormoran as Rokeby’s son before the DNA testing technology was available. http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/science-in-cormoran-strike-narrative-misdirection-or-plain-old-error-part-i-dna-and-paternity-testing/

    If I had to place my bets, I’d guess they met once when Cormoran was 5 or so and had blood drawn for an HLA test, and once at 8 when he was rescued from the commune.

  4. I just found this discussion and think all the ideas about Cormoran’s schooling make sense. In Cuckoos Calling, Strike mentions he was at Charlie Bristow’s school until Leda ran out of money. Maybe Rokeby gave Leda a cash settlement. In Lethal White, he mentions Rokeby paying child support. I do agree with Louise that Rokeby contacted Uncle Ted and asked him to get the children out of the Shumba environment. I think that Strike got into Oxford on his own. In Lethal White, he mentions Whitaker scoffing at him for studying for his A levels. But, if Rokeby was keeping an eye Strike, he could have paid the Oxford fees in the form of an anonymous scholarship.

  5. Louise Freeman says

    It would be interesting, given the recent college admissions scandal in the US (is that making news in the UK?) how a revelation that Rokeby pulled strings to get CB admitted to Oxford would play out. It would have a very different flavor than it would have had even a few weeks ago.

    Maybe he was a fake equestrian team recruit? 🙂

  6. Joanne Gray says

    Great insights as always, Louise!
    I don’t know if the admission process to Oxford University has changed over the last 18 years or not, but I have looked online at their current admission’s process and it did seem to have at least a couple of steps that would have posed a problem for Cormoran’s chances of being accepted. One is, of course, his very erratic quality of education–Oxford needs a perspective student to provide a list of schools attended (to judge how they rank in the list of acceptable educational institutions). Another part that could have proved difficult for Cormoran would be submitting the required letters of recommendation from past teachers. This would seem to be especially hard since he attended many of his early schools for very limited spans of time–not to mention remembering the names of his teachers–although, his wonderful gift to recall names would help in this regard.

    I also believe that Cormoran had someone who helped him get into Oxford–since it’s hard even without his financial handicap–but I also find it hard to believe that since he was 18 and already had a naturally inquisitive mind (not to mention suspicious) when he was accepted into Oxford–it seems logical that he would have been at least curious to know who was footing the bill? If it was a secret–then maybe he preferred not to know?

    It does seem that if Rokeby was footing the bill for Cormoran to go to Oxford–or even if Cormoran just suspected that Rokeby was responsible for making Oxford possible for him, then he should have been less hostile to Rokeby in Cuckoo’s Calling. Although Cormoran’s pride is also mixed in with this, and adding pride into the equation, always makes a person’s reactions more difficult to predict.

    That isn’t to say that Rokeby wasn’t Cormoran’s ‘secret santa,’ so to speak, and was doing this good deed in secret. Even though he wasn’t secret while loaning the money for Strike’s business start up (which Strike put down to Rokeby doing it for good publicity). Of course, just because he could have been secret about giving money one time doesn’t mean he couldn’t have gone public about it at another time. As with everything else, all these many discrepancies in the back story make a person second guess everything and wonder if they are on the right track.

    As much as I love the idea of Rokeby being a Snape type character, I would also be a bit disappointed since Rokeby has always been kept so far outside the story’s orbit that the reader really has no emotional connection with him, especially compared to the one HP readers had with Snape (even as bad as it usually was). Although, it is also true that he is the only real candidate at this time to play ‘secret santa’.

    I was hoping we wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the year when they film the fourth book, Lethal White, before we hear any update on the progress of the fifth book, but it’s starting to look like that might be the case. (I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong in that pessimistic prediction.)

  7. Louise Freeman says

    It looks like college would have been free at the time Strike attended (pre-1998) and living costs covered by low-interest loans. So Rokeby would not have needed to foot the bill. Pull strings on admission? Possibly….

    https://www.brookings.edu/research/lessons-from-the-end-of-free-college-in-england/

  8. Joanne Gray says

    Thank you Louise–I confess that since higher education is so expensive in the US–it didn’t cross my mind that Oxford would ever be free! Less expensive than today but never imagined it was ever free (although I know last century California actually had free college–for awhile). Thanks again–I should know better than assume.

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