John Summers


The Rag Parade

2004 Review taken from the website Trash Fiction

John Summers’ third novel is yet another wonderful piece of work to rank alongside The Disaster and Dylan. Both those books covered a lot of ground, in terms of both time and geography, but this one is even broader, even more epic in its scope. We start at a Welsh university in the pre-rock & roll Fifties with an English Society Dinner and follow four of the students into their post-college life. Their stories take us to apartheid South Africa, to Toronto, to the Middle East during the Suez crisis and to Fleet Street in a series of superbly observed sketches, before bringing the four back together again in Ted Heath-era London.

Of the various threads, perhaps the most vivid (for me, at least) is the excursion to South Africa, where one of the characters finds himself the guest of a family of European Jews and then of Boer farmers. Mr Summers spent some time in the country as a journalist and his depiction of the mind-set of white South Africans is entirely convincing and thoroughly depressing. If you ever wanted to know how Nazism or apartheid or any other evil is accepted in this world, the psychology is here laid bare: on the one side, those who are too afraid to put their heads over the parapet, terrified to draw attention to themselves; on the other, those who revel in the opportunity to practise casual brutality and to exercise power of - literally - life and death over human beings designated by the state as legitimate targets. These are people whose lives and humanity have been distorted and stunted by their acquiescence in racial oppression, who live in a state of fear and loathing, knowing just what it is that they have sown and certain that one day the reaper will come calling. So intense is the brutality of the frontier farm that the arrival of the representatives of the apartheid police state comes almost as a welcome relief from the horror: the impersonal forces of the system are easier to comprehend and accept than the perverted parodies of people we’ve been spending our time with.

Equally distressing is the experience of the character whose National Service takes him to the Middle East and thence to the psychiatric ward of an Army hospital. The destruction of a decent man by a regimented power structure, and by an ill-advised colonial adventure, has sufficient detail and depth to warrant a novel in itself. So too does the story of the man travelling to Canada to work as a missionary, intending to bring Christianity to the Inuit, but ending up instead stranded without money in the itinerant Toronto underclass, homeless in the freezing streets as winter begins to bite. Meanwhile, the ‘success’ story of the quartet, the writer who becomes assistant editor of a popular newspaper, finds his literary aspirations destroyed by the lure of careerist ambition.

As a series of interlocking tales exploring the individual lost, powerless in a seemingly hostile world, this could have been a thoroughly negative book. Such is the beauty of Summers’ writing, however, and so strong his commitment to honesty, that you emerge feeling positive, with a redeeming assertion of humanity. There are also satirical jokes to keep you going, my own favourite being a modern composition heard on the Third Programme, titled Parodia No. 3 by MacAuley Entwhistle, which comprises ‘sudden leaps on frantic piano keyboards and the distant foghorning of bassoons’ (p.70). If I didn’t know it was fictional, I’d swear I had a tape of that from the good old days of Radio Three’s Music In Our Time.

As with John Summers’ other books, this comes hugely recommended. His ability to see and record precise detail and to capture the essence of what he’s seeing is second-to-none, while his radical social instincts are never far from his depictions of a human society that’s losing its way.

Finally, since I know I get a lot of nostalgics visit this site, here’s a description of British provincial life in the mid-Fifties. See if you recognize this:

In the city centre crowds teenagers were wearing ducktail growths of backhair greased over velveteen collars of rock ‘n’ roll jackets that were fire-engine red, Mississippi steamboat gambler style, down below the knees, to go with their thick-platformed crepesole shoes. In the shops a heavy hairy tweed sports-coat cost you just 48/9d from Weaver to Wearer or you could get a barathea college blazer like the one Gerry Manning was wearing for only 97/6d.: Four Square cigarettes cost three shillings for 20, Mario Lanza was starring and singing in Toast of New Orleans over in the Gaumont, and Marlon Brando was in On The Waterfront (with Kon Tiki as support item) at the Odeon. The newspapers said the French High Command was predicting confident and easy victory at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. There was talk of ‘General China’ and Mau Mau in Kenya. Headlines were still reverberating from things like ‘Churchill and Ike in touch in H-Bomb crisis’ and a ‘pop’ concert mean Joe Loss and the Showband. Shoes had laces. Roland La Starza and Don Cockell were brawling at Earl’s Court with dangerous talk of the winner going on to face Rocky Marciano. In Britain, we were still hanging women, like grandmother Styllon Christofi (in Holloway for strangling her daughter-in-law), Gina Lollobrigida was on at the Classic in Bread, Love and Dreams. Dylan Thomas hadn’t all that long been buried. Dance-bands were being fronted by Geraldo and Billy Ternent, and everybody played like Glen Miller; Stalin wasn’t long dead either, and John Foster Dulles was still busy keeping the Cold War going by attending NATO meetings in Europe.

Alwyn W Turner

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