The Rag Parade
New English Library, London, 1972
To Paul Foot - a real journalist
To Paul Foot - a real journalist
The blurb on the back:
The Rag Parade heralds the end of the students' salad days and the beginning of their way in the outside world. It centres around a group of students, graduates from Welsh university, who set out to become the people they'd always dreamed of being. In any way - and at any cost. Four young men, each with a vision of himself and each with a mask to conceal it are trapped by their aims and their desires. Journalist and writer John Summers is the best-selling author of The Disaster, concerned with the tragedy of Aberfan, and Dylan, a towering recreation of the myth of the poet as society's sacrificial victim.
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:
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5