The Works and Life of John Summers
by Alwyn W Turner
In the manner of the preachers that John Summers grew up listening to, let’s start with a text.
As he packed, the hearty fish-and-chippy smell of Swansea was coming on the evening wind over the sea, and the sound of the Mumbles train loudening coming back to the Pierhead, Swansea, and he would miss it so much. But never mind. He’d travel, and see the world, and then he’d be able to write. Because then he’d have something to say.
That paragraph from the 1970 novel Dylan encapsulates so much of what was special and wondrous about the writing of John Summers.
There are, to start with, the very specific sensory observations – the emphasis on smell and sound – that perfectly evoke a place and moment. Time and again in John’s work, he finds the precise details that take a reader into a scene. And given that his fiction ranges from South Wales to South Africa, from the Indian Ocean to the world of provincial newspapers, and that his travel writing broadens the range still further to take in the likes of Australia and Kazakhstan, the sheer consistency of his descriptive powers is hugely impressive. Seldom does one find a writer who can be relied upon so absolutely.
And seldom does one find such absolute self-confidence. In his first novel, Edge of Violence, John – despite being aware, as a writer of his generation couldn’t fail to be aware, of the legacy of Hemmingway – already felt assured enough to turn his hand to an account of a Spanish bullfight, in a passage sadly lost in the paperback reprint (The Disaster), and still found a voice of his own:
I’d taken my seat in the crowds up on the cheap sol side seats and minutes before the bullfight was to start, swarms of sparrows had flung themselves shrieking in swarms across the canyon of blue sky over the blood-red bricks of the Plaza Madrid bullring.
Then there is, in that short paragraph from Dylan, evidence of John’s masterly manipulation of language – always creative, always accessible. The conversion of ‘fish-and-chips’ into the adjectival ‘fish-and-chippy’. The unusual use of the word ‘loudening’. The fluidity of that first sentence, in which the subject is never quite settled, followed by the casually colloquial: ‘But never mind.’
Again that self-confidence. John was sufficiently comfortable with his writing that he could afford to ignore accepted stylistic wisdom, even to bend grammar and punctuation. This is a character from The Raging Summer: ‘In school there was still Jackie O’Halloran. That big bull-necked lazy slow-moving bully.’ The verb-less, comma-less second sentence, with its heap of adjectives, nails the lumpen adolescent perfectly; you know instantly the person he’s talking about.
Beyond the writing style, the themes articulated in that paragraph also recur throughout John’s work. The desire to escape the geographical confines of one’s birthplace, to discover what the wider world has to offer, was an idea to which he returned on a regular basis.
The biographical note on the fly-leaf of Edge of Violence says that he ‘noticed that all the best writers fit themselves for authorship by years of tough living. He therefore decided to get the whole thing over in one wild rush and set out – with twenty pounds – to see the world.’ That lengthy journey, literally around the world (in an eastwards direction), which he started in 1947, was to provide much of the raw material for the novels Edge of Violence, Dylan and The Rag Parade, as well as for his first published book, Road to Andamooka.
And that’s another distinguishing mark of John’s work: the way that he fictionalised his own experience of life. In the mid-1960s he had to leave South Africa hurriedly after writing an article critical of apartheid, and so too did his character Kevin Miller in The Rag Parade; he spent a winter homeless on the streets of Toronto, and so too did Stuart Hannan in the same novel.
John always cited as his greatest literary influence Henry Williamson, whose relentless self-examination lay at the heart of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight sequence of novels. From Williamson he learned the central importance of the writer’s notebook, of re-working his own direct knowledge of life, as well as the trick of changing names, so that – in Edge of Violence, for example – Julian Cayo-Evans and Dennis Coslett of the Free Wales Army are depicted as Guto Owen Tudor and Idris Ap Idris, while Evelyn Waugh appears as Jocelyn Gould.
And the very structure of that novel, with the story of Aberfan filtered through a writer’s consciousness, is clearly influenced by Williamson.
It also illustrated his belief in the sacred duty of the writer – standing outside, perhaps even slightly above, the daily hustle, observing, commenting and connecting, acting as the conscience of society. He cherished his friendships with other writers and, in his journalistic career, specialized in interviews with the likes of JB Priestley, Angus Wilson and Kingsley Amis.
Those pieces mostly date from the mid-1960s, when he was still finding his own distinctive style. In a 1965 interview with Howard Spring, author of Fame Is the Spur, he commented: ‘Everybody knows that the bars of Fleet Street’s pubs are awash with journalists threatening to quit their jobs tomorrow to sit down and write their own big best-seller.’
Well, he exaggerated a little. Not everyone knew that, by any means, but John certainly did. He’d come to Fleet Street late, when he was already in his 30s, and he was already committed to moving beyond the confines of journalism, to creating his own work free from the demands of editors and proprietors. When he sat down to write Edge of Violence, he typed the letters ‘WH’ at the top of every page – they stood for ‘Without Hope (of publication)’ and were intended to act as a constant reminder to him that he should write with absolute honesty and freedom; with no expectation of ever being published, he felt that he liberated himself from the need for compromise.
Similarly, his passionate defence of the Soviet Union was based on his conviction that the country was built on ‘a writers revolution’, that this was the one country that hadn’t fallen for the shallowness of the mass media, that still venerated literature.
He was not, however, a member of the Communist Party or of any other political organization. But he was, in the words of the Daily Telegraph obituary, ‘an instinctive supporter of the underdog’. His fierce socialist principles essentially derived from this as much as from any doctrine or theory, and it encompassed a wide and idiosyncratic range of causes.
Most famously he fought for the rights of the families of Aberfan in their struggle against the abuse of the relief fund. But John’s commitment on behalf of those treated unjustly also extended, for example, to defending the reputation of Henry Williamson, when that writer’s stock was low, refusing to see his tentative and temporary embrace of fascism in simplistic black-and-white terms.
And then, of course, there was his complex relationship with Wales.
To begin with, he didn’t necessarily regard himself as being Welsh, arguing that the Summers family originated in the West Country (he claimed kinship with the eccentric occult writer Montague Summers of Bristol). Nonetheless he was born and brought up in Rhymni and, although he never wrote in the language, he was a Welsh speaker. Indeed Wales was never far from his work – all four of his published novels are set, or at least rooted, there, and even on his travels in the Soviet Union he can’t help but compare the living condition of miners in Donetsk to those in the valleys.
But even before his own travails with the local council and with corrupt solicitors, he was to be found railing against the limited horizons of the South Wales professional classes:
It is by their delight in double-barrelled names you mark them best. By their delectable taste for, their worship of, the double-barrelled name. The names you saw on brass nameplates up and down the Welsh valleys: outside dentists, solicitors, commissioners for oaths. The mark of the ‘professional man’ that indicates the essential inferiority-complex of all the Welsh.
That passage is from Edge of Violence. In The Rag Parade a character goes further, coining the word ‘Wanglish’ to describe:
the Welsh-English who seemed to gravitate like carpetbaggers from South Wales to the corridors of power in London and reappeared in high office making round pronouncements on television in that peculiarly singular London-Welshman accent of the briefcase bosses of Whitehall; there seemed to be so many of them, those bloody Wanglish … Wangling their way via Cardiff on the whiskywarm firstclass corridor trains from Wales to the wonders of Whitehall.
And he doesn’t spare even the sainted Nye Bevan from his attack.
Yet that instinctive support for the underdog cannot be silent on the position of Wales. John was all too conscious of the suffering of mining communities in the Depression years (‘I remembered that time as a time of soup made from a single slice of bacon and water and salt and an onion,’ he wrote in Edge of Violence), and saw it as symptomatic both of the inhumanity of capitalism and of the third-class treatment of the Welsh by London-based politicians and industrialists.
His fury was primarily reserved for what he saw as the collaborators in the Labour Party-dominated establishment of South Wales, those who were prepared to abandon the fight for decency in exchange for a handful of crumbs from the English high table. And while he denounced the corruption of the spirit that he saw as being endemic in Cardiff and Swansea, he always exempted from his criticism his own world of Rhymni and Merthyr Tydfil (‘my beloved Merthyr’, as he used to call it).
And while John had little sympathy with the struggle for independence, seeing it as being of secondary importance and probably a hopeless cause, his gut feelings weren’t far removed from those who took a stand on the issue. In the campaign for the Aberfan families, John found allies in the Free Wales Army – at a time when Labour MP George Thomas was conniving at the Welsh Office to take Ł150,000 from the relief fund to clear the remnants of the tips over Aberfan, it was the FWA who were prepared to fight the bureaucrats in Westminster.
Above all, it was the narrow expectations that he detested most. ‘They don’t like artists in Wales,’ he claimed in 1970, when he was trying to buy the boathouse at Laugharne formerly owned by Dylan Thomas. ‘There’s been no Welsh literature for 500 years; that’s why I want to use Dylan’s house as a cell for the resurgence of Welsh writing.’ The need for a cultural revolution to overthrow what he saw as a serf mentality was, he believed, more pressing than the structural formality of independence.
John’s ambivalent attitude to Wales can no doubt be attributed in part to his unhappy relationship with his father, and to his own travels around the world. In his later years he would frequently express regret that he and Sonya had moved from North London to Swansea, and yet there was too a certain appropriateness that he should die in Wales. His request to be buried in the family plot at Rhymni was characteristic.
Because even when he left Wales far behind in 1947, there was still that longing articulated by his character Dylan Morgan in our opening text: ‘he would miss it so much.’
Alwyn W Turner
30 August 2008