These tender, gently-delivered annals of teenage life with all its hesitancy, petulance and bubbling sexuality constitute one of the genuinely unexpected pleasures of perusing the Library of Wales series. Add to that the fact that it is one of very few fictions that take Llandudno as its backdrop and the case for its inclusion in the series is well nigh complete.
It’s little wonder then that this novel, first published in 1960, is novelist Lloyd Jones’s favourite in the series, and that the historian Merfyn Jones supplies a paean of praise by way of preface. For it is a little wonder, full of delicate insight and shot through with the optimism and hormones of life on the cusp of adulthood, which will come all too soon for the young characters who populate its pages because of the war and its recruitments.
Jeremy Brooks moved to this Queen of Resorts when his family was evacuated there during the Second World War. The novel draws on that experience and there is the very genuine sense of a place being explored, of things discovered and tentative roots being put down. The geography, dominated by the twin humps of the Great Orme and the Little Orme, is ever present as a backdrop and alert attention is paid to street names and to the glories of the town’s hinterlands; from the booming bitterns of the Conwy marshes, to the little beach at Pigeon’s Cove, or the bright stream at Dwygyfylchi.
The central character, Bernard, defines himself by the groups he joins and uses his friends as yardsticks, as tests of his own nascent and uncertain character. Over the course of long summers he discovers girls and gains a reputation as a bit of a flighty flirt, although in truth he remains naive, while his heart belongs to just one young woman, Kathy, although he is at pains, or finds it too painful, to tell her just that.
It is a book of sunshine and shadows, the latter cast by war.The dunes around Llandudno are busy with the building of pill-boxes, and the city of Liverpool, strafed by the Luftwaffe, sometimes burns, quite literally, on the horizon. The young men ask themselves what the beaches hereabouts would look like if ‘suddenly hundreds of enormous U-boats surfaced offshore and started to disgorge thousands of Jerry soldiers?’ The answer lies in setting up themselves as a Resistance group, armed with weapons purloined from their parents and prepared with adequate provisions. Some aren’t so certain that this is the right answer and one of the gang, Epsom, plumps for pacifism, and tries to express his views even as he joins the Navy.
But if war is a constant, threatening presence, then love, with its redemptions and urgencies, is the central touchstone of this delicate novel; not least in the last quarter of the book, when Bernard and Kathy finally get together and the world is utterly transformed even as they find themselves at its very centre:
The world was all ours, for us; the snow fell for us, drifted into exquisite forms for us, enamelled the hills and fields for us; curious people walked abroad for us, beautiful and ugly; boats rode on water for us, bitterns boomed for us, teacakes smelled uniquely delicious for us, queues formed their mysterious entities for us, buses created their private enclosed civilizations for us….
And just as love transforms the young couple, and the world changes terribly because of Hitler and Rommel, so too does Bernard change. He goes through his own rites of passage, not least in a bitterly painful sexual encounter with Kathy, and bids goodbye to the long, dizzying summer of youth. He thus enters a time of illumination when ‘the air was brilliant, fed with light from above and below.’
And in that new and brilliant light Bernard can see himself, as if for the first time, not fully formed, but forming, as an adult taking hesitant steps into a world of routine, of responsibility, where the machinery of marriage grinds and the possibility of children forms with some inevitability. For that is the way the world turns, and Bernard, unshackled from the self-centred preoccupations of teenager angst – when he no longer has angst in his pants, as it were – can finally see how and where the world really pivots.