The Raging Summer
2004 Review taken from the website Trash Fiction
Regular visitors to this site will already be aware of John Summers and of the very high regard in which his novels are held round these parts, particularly his book about Aberfan, The Disaster. Part of the brilliance of that work was his refusal to see the catastrophe at Aberfan as being a one-off isolated incident, instead locating it firmly within an historical oppression - those horrific killings in 1966 were not simply a tabloid tragedy and can only be fully understood in the context of the cruelty of capitalism, so much of the book goes back way beyond Aberfan to the days of the great depression in the 1930s.
The Raging Summer is in many ways a companion piece to The Disaster, filling in the details and providing a full-scale portrait of that earlier era. ‘The time of The Raging Summer,’ explains the Introduction, ‘spans that period when the rumble of one world war had not long died away and when the South Wales valley streets still echoed with horsehooves and the clash of cavalry sabres as the troops drawn from London helped put down riots and gatherings of unemployed coalminers in the hungry thirties.’
Our principal focus is a small group of children growing up in Colliers’ Row, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a small canvas: the scope of the work is truly epic, drawing in characters and experiences from places as far afield as the Australia, the West Indies and Burma. The cast of characters is extensive, and each is beautifully drawn, tying together what is effectively a series of short stories into an interlocking narrative of community that I defy you to resist.
Amongst those whose tales are told is an Italian fascist who arrives accompanied by his two children, one a ‘hippy red-lipped girl of eighteen with a hot mouth and love-sleepy eyes’ instantly nicknamed the Rose of Tahiti by the locals. Then there’s the Bonesetter, who wrote a hymn in Welsh every day and whose ability to mend broken bodies ensured that the miners turned to him rather than to any doctor. And there’s the Welsh nationalist teacher, Tommi Tut, a small man with a temper so fierce that ‘he could actually faint with rage in front of you.’ He got his nickname from a verbal tic, because ‘the Welsh never miss a chance to label a personal eccentricity.’ Others include Le Vicomte de Tafarnaubach, Arthur Corkleg and the splendid Williams Williams Tin-Chapel. This latter preacher man stars in one of my favourite anecdotes:
When he went to the deathbed of one unbelieving old local colliery manager, Williams Williams, hovering over the dying man, demanded: ‘Are you ready to renounce the Devil and all his works?’ The agnostic answered him in strained tones: ‘I don’t feel I’m in a position, just at the moment, to be making any kind of enemies anywhere.’
And there are so many more: the book’s crammed full of extraordinary characters, any one of which would be the making of a standard novel. That’s part of the joy. So too is the delight in language, the Welsh rhythms of speech captured, enhanced and transformed by a great writer. And then, of course, there’s the pleasure of venturing into a fully realized world: by halfway through the first chapter, you’re transported completely, safe in the knowledge that there’s another three hundred pages to come.
But this isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. There’s too much horror and suffering to make it a lazy, cosy trip into the territory of times-were-hard-but-we-were-happy. Summers is too politically conscious for that. And - crucially - the political lessons aren’t confined to history: however distant this world may seem, the underlying reality of Britain and its power structure remains:
Here in Britain workers made threats while employers made offers, according to the newspapers... Examine every word carefully that you ever read in a newspaper. Find out who owns the paper and then wash the muck off each shovelful of words dumped down on your doorstep each day. Wash off the dross of muck on them and see if the wretched journalist who was paid to write them (poor man, he probably has a wife and a mortgage he has sold himself to a newspaper for) might have managed to secret a few little gleaming gems of knowledge through the fine sieve of his newspaper’s editorial department.
Towards the end of this autobiographical novel, the narrator stands on a mountain top, looking down on the valley and reflects on his calling as a writer:
There would be no Mikhail Sholokov born from here: no And Quiet Flows The Don. From a place like this there would only be something always slightly comic; no grandeur. A comical waste and a folly. No, no terrible beauty was here, or if it was coming, it was yet to be born.
For once, John Summers’ normally unerring eye was wrong. Sholokov was exactly who I was reminded of when reading the book. Because beyond the ‘comical waste and folly’ there is the essential human dignity of the struggle with avoidable adversity. There’s an engagement with life. Some of the characters find strength in nationalism or socialism, but even amongst those whose politics are inchoate at best, the assertion of individuality becomes itself an act of defiance. And, this being a great work of literature, the truth is undimmed by distance: their stories are still inspiring and instructive and utterly entrancing.
In short: a masterpiece.
Alwyn W Turner