A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Summer People’

The Summer People is the fourth and last of this short series revisiting my memories of reading John Rowe Townsend in the early Seventies. It was published in 1972, his ninth novel, making it the latest in his career I’ve re-read, and it is, fittingly, the most mature, complex and atmospheric of this group. Indeed, were it not that the story is almost entirely about teenagers, I’d be rolling up my sleeves and preparing to argue that this is not a children’s book at all.
At first, when I was selecting books to re-experience, I did not think of The Summer People. There were The Intruder and the two Hallersage books only. But there was another book of which I remembered only one moment, and nothing else. Titles in his bibliography meant little or nothing to me. It had to be an early one. I tried to find out about some of his books through Goodreads and the moment I read the least bit about The Summer People, I knew I had solved my memory problem. So here we are.
The book begins with a short letter addressed to Stephen and Carolyn, whoever they may be. It is a covering letter for a mass of paper written by Philip Martin, our narrator for these events. Philip will tell his story of a summer in the first person and the present tense, bringing events of a quarter-century to life in his own eyes and mind by the primitive ritual of re-experiencing them as if they were still happening.
Who Stephen and Carolyn are we won’t learn until the closing page, though Philip drops out of his account a couple of times to address them directly. They are the coincidence that drives Philip to his memories, to explain something that happened, and to resist strenuously glossing over his own less-than-stellar part in what came about.
The Summer People are three families, friends and business partners. Each family owns a beach bungalow at Linley Bottom, an east coast fishing village and miniature resort in Yorkshire. Traditionally, the families – the Martins, the Pillings and the Foxes – holiday together, five adults (Mrs Pilling is a widow) and seven children, all but one of them aged between fifteen and eighteen. This will be the last such holiday: the ‘children’ are growing out of the kind of childish holiday they’ve always enjoyed, Linley Bottom is slowly dying, both economically and physically, as the waves eat away at the land. And there is another reason why this will be the last holiday. This is August 1939.
Philip is aged 16. He is the middle child in the Martin family, the only boy. His sisters Paula and Alissa are 18 and 7 respectively. Sylvia Pilling is his exact contemporary, born the same day. They have been lifelong friends and confidants. All three families regard them as a ‘suitable’ match and are happy to let them go off together all alone all the time. But Philip and Sylvia know each other too well for any romantic or even erotic frisson to exist. Sylvia’s brother, Brian, is 15. As for the Foxes, there is Rodney, aged 18, very intelligent, thoughtful and quiet, his eye attuned to the news headlines, as convinced that War is nigh as his vulgar father is that it will never happen, and the buxom Brenda, aged 15, who’s definitely feeling her budding sexuality.
The threat of War hangs over this latest holiday, which the adults trying to pretend their removal from it. The Martin-Pilling small clothing company is in danger of collapse. Early on, Philip taunts his father and hurts him deeply over how a war would be the business’s saving. It’s adolescent awkwardness, and cruelty, but by the time War comes about, his father admits the firm should have closed a year ago and he had kept it going so long out of desperate hope that this might happen.
But this is not the foundation of the story. That is Sylvia’s wish that she and Philip go off together, away from the family, every day, not out of a yearning for his company, but because she has fallen for Harold Ericcson, a young Scandinavian God of a fisherman. Harold has to be kept a secret: her mother would throw a fit: the difference in social class…
Philip agrees to provide his friend with a cover, but on the first day the arrangement becomes real for him as well. Exploring the cliffs, he decides to try to get into the furthest of a trio of cottages now abandoned to the crumbling cliff-edge. This is where he finds Ann.
Philip draws an immediate contrast between Sylvia, blonde, beautiful and, it is heavily implied, with a seriously hot figure, and Ann, dark-haired, pale, not pretty, flat-chested. Ann, whose surname is Tarrant, lives with her mother, receptionist at the Imperial Hotel. She’s recuperating from time spent in a sanatorium, which automatically leads everyone to think of tuberculosis, deadly and contagious. But Ann is recovering from pleurisy, getting her strength back. Not only is she skinny and under-developed but she is physically weak: she is not allowed to swim, and long walks exhaust her.
Philip isn’t even attracted to her, curious as she looks. The pair are awkward with each other, only able to converse with any natural fluidity when they hide behind nineteenth century formal language, which becomes both a private language as well as a screen for them. There are so many reasons for Philip not to be interested in her, and he is conscious of all of them, not least the fact that the class barrier operates between the two of them.
But Ann draws him, in part against his will. She is dependant upon him and his company, the only one she has. Gradually, the pair settle into a relationship. Ann tells Philip she loves him and in turn he says the same to her. The pair hug frequently. They even kiss, but never more, not that it stops Mrs Tarrant giving him a warning about not getting too excited about Ann that exactly parallels the warning he gets from Mrs Pilling about Sylvia.
There’s a strange intensity to the relationship that, without ever conforming to the usual development of a boy-girl interest in each other, goes far beyond it. But Ann is the more committed of the two, and Philip, aware on a number of levels of the impossibility of things continuing, disturbed in his emotions, acts abominably towards Ann on several occasions, creating a shame he admits outside his narrative, directly to Steven and Carolyn.
Things come to a head as they must. Harold’s enlisted in the Navy and is going off early to see a pal in Newcastle, good pals being more important than girls. This comes on top of Sylvia and Philip’s subterfuge being exposed by Paula Martin, a thoroughgoing dissatisfied, nasty-minded bitch. Everything explodes. The War arrives. The holiday breaks up. And so do Philip and Ann.
Philip has been honest enough throughout this account to expose all his faults and failings with regard to Ann. One is the moment I remembered before I remembered the book: the youngsters go off for a picnic on the sands, like they used to, a last and forlorn gesture to the past they’re all leaving rapidly, on different courses. In the car on the way back, busty Brenda pulls Philip’s face down to hers and they snog. It’s a betrayal, and Philip knows its a betrayal. But still he snogs Brenda. Not because he wants to but because it’s easy to do and not have to think about, unlike Ann.
But things have not yet ended. Philip promises to see Ann on Tuesday, but delays and delays. Even though he’s drunk, he keeps his promise, arriving at the abandoned cottage at 11.30pm. Ann’s there, in bed, planning to sleep overnight. With borrowed and oversized pyjamas, Philip joins her. No, they don’t. But they hold and they talk and they breathe each other’s breath, content and trusting in each other. It’s the zenith, the apotheosis. In the morning, the Martins urgently return to London. Philip and Ann don’t say goodbye, at least they don’t use the word. They never see each other again.
Philip brings his account to an end by summarising what followed, over the years. Everyone in the three families prospered, had great success in life and business. Ann never replied to Philip’s letters, if she ever got them, but by chance he learned she had become a Librarian, emigrated to Australia and married, only to die early, in a road accident. Her daughter is Carolyn. She is at a university in America, and is a couple with Steven. Steven is Philip’s son. His mother is Sylvia. Philip’s story is of a great coincidence that only became a coincidence because of a second, later coincidence.
That ending set the seal on the book for me. It is an excellent story, written carefully and clearly. Townsend creates the atmosphere of the time, of that febrile, never-to-be-completed summer with a concise skill that brings it to life. Linley Bottom, with its ongoing decay, as much physical as it is economic, is both setting and symbol for a tale of disintegration. I reached the end, in the sense of the separation of Philip from Anne, both disliking of his betrayal of what was real between them, and clearly with the capacity to be important beyond measure, and yet sympathetic to his confusion, his ultimately inability to escape the expectations of his family, but most of all his underlying fear of the responsibility being asked of him, for Anne and her feelings and her needs, far greater as far more important than those of the ‘suitable’ Sylvia.
Yet that smug synopsis, that recounting of the fortunes of the three families, their middle-class entitlement, made me hate him and them. Mr Martin openly admits that he’s kept the firm open this long in the desperate hope of a War to save its prospects, and it is the company’s success, in war and after, that is, that is the building block for a host of good lives, successful lives, sweeping all before them lives. Lordships and Headmistressships and War Heroes and Members of Parliament, successes in business, prestigious marriages. Even the most eminently suitable marriage between Philip and Sylvia, in defiance of genuine feelings.
And Anne, the one real individual amongst them, the outsider, left to live a pallid, uneventful, quiet life, to die early from the irony of an accident and no fault of her fragility. But Anne’s fragility was more than in body and the Summer People left her behind.
No, this is a most powerful book, and I am so glad to have rediscovered it, but I cannot say that I have come out of it admiring and respecting its narrator or any of his families.

Except in the way that most children’s authors retain a fandom long after their death, even as their books disappear, John Rowe Townsend is now forgotten. Not for him the aura of a Ransome or a Garner. But I would rate The Summer People as worthy of the same immortality that belongs to Swallows and Amazons or The Owl Service.
I am profoundly grateful that I remembered it in time.

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