It is a fearsome tale. A man is killed- lightly. Learoyd is a dead-end kid- an Asbo kid with a fighting dog at his heel- who has wound up in a dead-end job. But just for a short while- on the brink of manhood- he might have gone a different route- a route that was blocked by the cussedness of things in general. An atmosphere of elegy- of that which could never have been- broods over past and present- and yet everywhere there are prickles- flashes, intuitions- of natural beauty and human grace.
Greenhow Hill is a real place. I've been there. Kipling understood- as Auden was later to write- that "place-names are an sich poetic". I'd go further; any place that people have named is, by virtue of its naming, holy. Put a real place-name in your book and its ghosts will lend their shoulders to your wheel. I'd reckon I'd like Hardy's novels better if The Mayor of Casterbridge were named- as it ought to be- The Mayor of Dorchester. And I've little doubt that Hard Times would be a better book if Dickens had taken his courage in both hands and engaged with real geography and called his industrial town Preston or Manchester instead of the generic Coketown. Kipling's work is full of real place names. He loves them. "Rumbold's Moor stand up ower Skipton town, an' Greenhow Hill stands up ower Pately Brig" says Learoyd- and the roll of names is an incantation that brings the dead to life.