John Summers


John Summers

by Alwyn W Turner, posted on the Omniana blog, 22 August 2008

Note: This piece was written in the immediate aftermath of hearing of John's death. It contains - I have since discovered - some factual inaccuracies, but I have refrained from changing my first response. (AWT, 30 August 2008)

It is with great regret and sorrow that I have to record the death of John Summers.

John was one of the finest writers of our time. Two of his novels, in particular – Edge of Violence (1969) and The Raging Summer (1972) – rank alongside the best literature written in the last fifty years. There’s a humanist passion that burns through his works, combined with a gift for description that is simply breathtaking.

I came to know John only recently, in 2003, when his attention was drawn to a review I’d written online, enthusing about one of his books. He became a substantial presence in my life, communicating regularly via phone (from a call-box, since he didn’t have a phone) and, even more often, via the post. Because John was a voluminous letter-writer; it wasn’t unusual to receive three or four letters in a day, all typed on manual typewriters that he’d buy from boot-sales and all contained in recycled envelopes.

It’s difficult to write about him at the moment, even though I feel the need to do so. I hope that I can do better justice to his memory later on, with greater reflection, but right now I want to say a few words.

He was an extraordinary man, and he had lived an extraordinary life. Running away to sea from his Welsh home at an early age, he’d worked his passage around the world before – in his late-20s – he decided to take up writing.

He became a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, and frequently insisted that it was his late arrival in Fleet Street that kept him so fiercely independent. Alongside him worked Paul Foot, to whom he was to dedicate his novel The Rag Parade (describing him as ‘a real journalist’).

In 1966 John was sent to cover the Aberfan disaster, when the criminal negligence of the National Coal Board resulted in the killing of 116 children and 28 adults. Refusing to accept the tragedy as simply a story, he became an active campaigner for the rights of the survivors and the bereaved, pursuing their case up to the high court as they tried to unlock the monies that had been received from around the world for a relief fund.

He wrote a series of articles in the Telegraph and in Queen magazine, and his first novel, Edge of Violence (retitled The Disaster for its paperback editions), was based on his experience, though for legal reasons the names were changed, so that Aberfan became Abertaf. The book launch was held at the House of Commons and was attended by many of the bereaved from the village.

The events – both the disaster itself, and the subsequent attempts by the establishment to protect its own – were a recurring theme in his letters. He saw Aberfan as symbolic of the human failings of capitalism.

The Edge of Violence was very successful, not least in the Soviet Union. John was invited to tour the country, from which came a fine volume of travel-writing, The Red and The Black. His respect for the achievements of Soviet communism was another common thread in his letters. He fell in love with Russia, a nation that he believed had a proper respect for literature.

There’s a certain irony that he should die so soon after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a writer for whom he had no time whatsoever. Nonetheless, there were points of comparison. There was a stubborn refusal to accept that this society was sufficient, an awkward determination to speak out, a horrified repudiation of herd-like consumerism.

A closer parallel, though, was name-checked in The Raging Summer, a book based on John’s own childhood in the Welsh valleys of the 1930s. Writing of his fictionalized hometown, he says: ‘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.’

But he was wrong, because this truly is the voice of the Welsh Sholokov: it’s a magnificent book, and its account of the horrors of the Depression are the best I’ve ever read.

That, though, makes it sound like a depressing read. And it’s not. Like all his work, there’s a joy in life itself that sweeps you away. At the risk of being self-indulgent, this is from my review of The Raging Summer:

‘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.’

The same was true of the John I knew in the last years of his life. By the time I came into contact with him, he’d already endured the series of misfortunes that increasingly caused him difficulties, but he continued to rail against the stupidities and evil he saw in the world. His book Dylan was a fictional account of a great Welsh writer clearly based on Dylan Thomas, and inevitably I’m reminded as I write this of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

He didn’t.

I learned a great deal from John. Apart from anything else, here was a man who’d been to parts of the world I shall never see, who’d met and interviewed everyone from Evelyn Waugh to Rocky Marciano, and who’d developed a beautiful, utterly distinctive prose-style:

‘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 secrete a few little gleaming gems of knowledge through the fine sieve of his newspaper’s editorial department.’

It was only five years that I knew John. But there was an intensity to the man that didn’t seem to be dependant on time or age. He could be challenging, provocative, annoying, even endearingly eccentric, but always passionate. He had an integrity that I’ve never met before.

He was a fascinating man. And a great, a truly great, writer.