CHARLIE CONNELLY reviews Graham Swift’s latest novel, a touching evocation of the end of an epoch
Brighton was characteristically busy during the summer season of 1959. As well as the ice creams, deck chairs and dodgems there was a huge choice of entertainment to while away the hours not spent dozing behind windbreaks or paddling in the sea, from brass bands parping away on bandstands to Harry Secombe and Harry Worth goofing around in the revue Large as Life at the Hippodrome.
On the Palace Pier you could dance in the open air to Burt Green and his Orchestra then catch comedy troupe the Fol-de-Rols, trapeze artistes Elaine and Rodolph, and singing, dancing acrobats the Three Romanos. Alternatively you could just promenade the day away eating hot chips out of newspaper and feeding ha’pennies into one-armed bandits.
It was about as traditional an English summer scene as you could imagine. Fourteen years after the end of the war and five years after the end of rationing British people could finally start to relax properly.
A combination of more leisure time and more disposable income after the end of post-war austerity had seen the seaside resorts flourish, keeping coastal economies buoyant and providing seasonal work for the nation’s entertainers from hoofers to comics to crooners.
Change was on the way however. The Beatles would form the following year, the Rolling Stones two years later (the musical entertainment aimed at ‘the youngsters’ in Brighton that summer was a New Orleans jazz band) and the growth of the package holiday would soon be sending British families to the Costa del Sol rather than the Costa del Sussex. Britain’s resorts didn’t see what was coming and would suffer accordingly: in hindsight that summer of 1959 was a turning point, a sun-dozed, sand-in-the-sandwiches watershed.
This also meant change was coming for Britain’s jobbing entertainers too. Some would adapt and go on to great things, others would slip quietly from the playbills, sequins stowed, as Britain turned increasingly towards the talking box of moving pictures that more people could afford to rent or buy. There’s no trace of the Three Romanos after 1960. In 1959 they’d been on the same West End bill as Tommy Cooper.
Graham Swift is a master chronicler of shifting epochs. Whether it’s a moment that changes an individual life, like that at the heart of his last novel Mothering Sunday, or the nation as a whole as he does in his new novel Here We Are, his intimate, quietly subversive fiction is perfectly tuned, making him one of the most perceptive chroniclers of England and the English writing today.
A Booker Prize winner in 1996 and one of Granta’s now legendary 1983 Best of Young British Novelists, Swift has been around for a good while, living and working as quietly as his narrative voice, charting the changes in lives and society from the perspective of the forgotten and overlooked.
His books slip almost imperceptibly into the world, small slices of stillness and introspection among the blockbusters. Here We Are has arrived in just such a way, shyly piled on shop tables or slid almost surreptitiously onto shelves, waiting for even the most ardent Swiftian to notice its arrival.
Swift’s books have never been about the crash-bang-wallop but his recent work has grown even more meditative. In Here We Are he turns his attention to the lot of the end-of-the-pier entertainer during that Brighton summer of 1959 when evenings were beginning to draw in on the year and a particular branch of showbusiness.
Here We Are focuses on Ronnie Deane, a former evacuee turned stage magician embarking on his first summer season as a full-time entertainer. It’s an engagement secured through his friend Jack Robbins who, as Jack Robinson (‘before you can say…’) is the pier theatre’s master of ceremonies, closing every show with a rousing, singalong When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along.
Jack advises Ronnie to take on an assistant for his magic act and that spring he finds Evie White, 17 years old and already an experienced chorus-line dancer, who fits the bill.
Not only that, after a whirlwind romance the pair soon become engaged. On stage they are an instant hit, rising up the bill as the summer progresses until they are the star turn, filling the theatre at the end of the pier.
Swift sends us backwards and forwards 50 years between 1959 and 2009, when Evie is the only one left and preparing to mark the first anniversary of Jack’s death.
It’s clear much has changed since the height of that Brighton summer and the hints become heavier that something significant happened that year to shift the dynamic between the three of them in a manner still tangible half a century later.
Ronnie grew up in Bethnal Green, east London, with his mother Agnes in a terraced house with ‘a tiny backyard that contained a necessary outhouse, an ever-diminishing heap of coal and, propped against the outside wall, a tin tub which was the only means of general ablution’.
His father Sid was a merchant seaman and away most of the time. Ronnie’s strongest memories of his father during brief periods of home leave are of noisy arguments with his mother and the parrot called Pablo he once brought home from a voyage and presented to his son, a bird his mother immediately sold to a pet shop once Sid had returned to sea.
At the outbreak of war Ronnie is evacuated to a kindly, childless couple in Oxfordshire called Eric and Penny Lawrence. He spends an idyllic war at their house, Evergrene, drinking ginger beer and being doted on in a way his real parents never had.
Early in the war his father is posted missing, presumed dead, when his ship is torpedoed and sunk somewhere in the Atlantic. Shortly after this Eric reveals to Ronnie that he is a magician, occasionally performing as ‘Lorenzo’, and begins to teach Ronnie the essentials of the craft.
Ronnie proves highly gifted at the sleight of hand and, when he makes a vase of flowers materialise on a card table, the applause and wide-eyed amazement it induces in Eric and Penny confirms his desire to make a career on the stage.
He takes Pablo as his stage name – as well as the parrot that had briefly brought a riot of colour into the world of a poverty-stricken small boy it’s also the Hispanicised version of his middle name – embarks on his national service and meets Jack Robbins.
Swift’s Brighton, where Ronnie, Jack and Evie make their temporary home, revolves almost entirely around the theatre at the end of the pier with occasional excursions to the pub up one of the side streets leading away from the sea front where the ‘turns’ go to unwind.
Jack’s there with whichever chorus girl he’s taken up with that week while Evie’s engagement ring glints in the smoky rays of light coming through the window. The Walpole Arms is where Ronnie and Jack’s differing views of their showbusiness lives is most clearly expressed.
‘Don’t you think, Evie, that all this stuff, the pier, the show, the whole bag of tricks, has had its day?’ he asks. For Ronnie, for whom it’s been a way out of a life of relentless hardship, even the end of the pier theatre with its threadbare seats is a place deserving of respect for both performer and audience where the highest standards are essential.
‘Illusions should always be done in good clear light,’ he insists, ‘otherwise people might suspect it was all just – trickery.’
Yet of the three it’s Jack who makes something of his career, turning into a national treasure thanks to a leading role in a long-running sitcom and even treading the boards in productions of Shakespeare.
Ronnie’s fate is quite different, and when he introduces a new stage illusion – beautifully evoked by Swift – it becomes the key moment that changes the lives of all three characters, the kind of twist on which Swift’s work thrives.
His novels cover a range of topics and periods, from London in the 1990s in his Booker-winning Last Orders to the 18th century fenland in Waterland but what they all have in common is a deep sense of yearning. Whether it’s a yearning for truth, for the chance to right a wrong or for an opportunity missed, it’s a sense that even in books of quiet contemplation there’s the key to the human condition and the very soul of England itself in retrospective regret and self-examination.
In Here We Are we learn that everything is an act, a façade, even an illusion, and Swift’s performers are performing both on the stage and off it. Every aspect of their lives that summer requires a leap of faith, from Ronnie and Evie’s engagement to the very theatre in which they perform, stuck out there over the sea on a mesh of ironwork, effectively suspended in the air.
Even names themselves become important: on stage Ronnie becomes Pablo and then, as the act rises up the billing, The Great Pablo. The cynical Jack Robbins becomes Jack Robinson, the quipping crooner holding the audience in the palm of his hand, a transformation that takes place in the few seconds every night it takes him to conquer his stage fright and walk out smiling into the lights.
Even in his later years when critics praise his performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he is quick to point out the proper name of his character is Robin Goodfellow. When you’re creating illusions, transporting an audience from their flea-ridden seats to a magical world of fun and possibility, you have to transport yourself with them and you can’t do that as Jack Robbins and Ronnie Deane.
Evie, however, becomes just Eve. A minor change, just a tinker, but she has the least to invest into performance, knowing she’s only there for decoration, to be released smiling from a sword-pierced box or sawn in half and reassembled, still smiling, always smiling. She’s not even curious about how Ronnie achieves the illusion he develops towards the end of that showbiz summer at the end of the pier at what turns out to be the end of an era in ‘that happy ribbon of land set aside for holidays and fun’.
Brighton has two piers today. The Palace Pier thrives, capitalising on tradition and retaining its ghost train, shooting galleries, candy floss stalls and rock shops. The West Pier alongside, meanwhile, is storm ravaged and reduced to its bare iron structure, its promenade long collapsed into the sea, but the end of the pier theatre still visible in skeletal form. It’s like a huge, rusty birthday cake, a ghost of joyful celebration with nothing but seagulls and air where once performers like the Great Pablo and the Three Romanos would have transported audiences rosy with salt and sun to a magical blue sky world of illusion and joy, just for a little while, just long enough to ignore clouds gathering on the horizon.
Here We Are by Graham Swift is published by Scribner UK, price £14.99