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The Custard Boys

This is the story of a group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys living out the war in a remote corner of the English countryside. Middle class evacuees or farmers’ sons, their one aim is to use the time well until they will be old enough to fight. The year is 1942 and even in this quiet corner of Norfolk the second-hand excitement of war reaches them through the cinema, the newspapers and the ‘jingoistic’ talk of the adults. Stimulated by this, they play war games and live by a harsh military code.

At their school a new boy arrives; he is the son of a new master, Jewish-Austrian and a refugee from Nazi persecution. Because he is a stranger he is put under the charge of John Curlew, one of the gang. A friendship ripens between Curlew and the Jewish boy, Mark. Grudgingly the other boys accept him into the gang.

Into this situation comes the news that one of the local boys has won the Victoria Cross for bravery in the field. The news gives impetus to the gang’s need to prove that they too have courage. They challenge the group of working class village boys to fight. When the time comes Mark runs away in the face of the enemy.

To the rest of the gang he is a coward and must be punished; cowardice is the one thing that they have been taught to despise. Only when their plan to punish Mark goes tragically wrong does his friend John Curlew begin to realise that the standards he has accepted so eagerly are in fact rotten.


‘John Rae’s The Custard Boys is his first novel, but it has the economy of effort, balance of mood and action, and accuracy of aim that one might look for in the work of a thoroughly experienced novelist. It would be difficult to praise too highly this short, tight, absorbing novel, whose unequivocal message is qualified only by the true novelist’s knowledge of human imperfection.’

Manchester Guardian

‘Mr John Rae writes with the greatest sensitivity and his novel is poignant, aware and, in its implications, tragic.’


‘Arresting first novel, rough and rowdy as a street fight, about a gang of hard-bitten grammar school roustabouts and the tragedy they project upon a Jewish-Austrian refugee boy.’

Daily Mail

‘Bitter and alive, coarse and real, The Custard Boys is extremely readable. Mr Rae is a powerful writer.’

Sunday Times

“The language and prose is so beautiful that it shadows the sense of foreboding that is present throughout the book and you forget the darkness of the subject of the story. This makes for a very interesting, thought-provoking read. It reminded me of ‘The Lord of the Flies’.”

Reading by the Fire

Buy John Rae