Summertime Blues takes the reader back to the 1950’s, the age of winklepickers, frothy coffee and jukeboxes, when the first teenagers took centre stage in post-war Britain. But this story is more than nostalgia for a lost age. Barry is a master creator of characters, as those of the Grange Hill/Tucker’s Luck generation will remember.
Summertime Blues brings the universal truths of adolescence sharply back into focus. The gauche awkwardness, the mistrust in one’s own identity and the confusion that is central to the teenage experience all ring true. And the truth is the real strength in this narrative. For me at times it was a truth uncomfortably close to personal reality. For example, at one point our ‘hero’ Jimmy drinks a cup of coffee laced with salt. I myself as a teen was taken out for a cup of tea by a respected ‘adult’ and poured what I thought was brown sugar, from a large glass shaker (very bistro 1980’s), into my cup (two large heaped spoons). After confidently stirring it well in, the first sip revealed that it was brown pepper. In order not to look foolish I drank the whole cup.(By the way, I’ve never shared this story before). While I managed to hold my stomach contents longer than Jimmy, I’ve never been able to stand the taste of pepper since, and I don’t drink tea unless I have to. I’m sure many other readers will find their own moments of ‘reality’ in the novel, be that in the context of boxing, kissing or inappropriate footwear.
It is the feeling that one is not alone in Summertime Blues which, for me, is its greatest charm. I remember being an adolescent. I remember feeling like Jimmy and I expect we were all going around feeling similar to him… if only we’d known. For all his gauchness and isolated inexperience, Jimmy Shine shows some moments of poignant self-awareness. His heartfelt revelation to his pal Alan that ‘I’m 15 and a butchers boy’ illustrates his understanding and acceptance of his lot. He knows he’s immature. He knows that can’t last. He knows that by 25 he’ll have had to ‘grow up’ and be an ‘adult’, but he’s going to live life to the full while he can. This includes ridiculous hairstyles, ridiculous clothing and a healthy disrespect for anything staid and respectable. And it’s what makes me love Jimmy Shine.
It’s not all frothy coffee for Jimmy though and there’s a poignant sadness to his life experience, especially in his relationship with his mother. There are layers in this story which add to its obvious charm.
Purchese explores the experience of first love: it was that moment when you discovered that someone of the opposite sex was as inadequate a person as you were – wasn’t it? And when the object of one’s affection was prepared to let their guard down and share their insecurities with you. But of course, first love never lasts and the reality of the ‘dumping’ is also addressed in this novel.
How the ‘young adult’ of today for whom this book is targeted will take it, I don’t know. I’ve long since left teenage/ young adulthood behind. In the ‘modern’ world where the teenager has been superceded by the kidult, it seems that the brief shining, angst ridden Camelot of the 1950’s teenager has been extended by the young well into the age when folks like me were considering having their first mid-life crisis. On reflection I think everyone, no matter what their age, can appreciate the pangs of first love and so will gain pleasure and some squirming pain out of Summertime Blues. I certainly did.
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
Summertime Blues is available in Kindle format
Find out more about Barry Purchese