‘Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’ – Henry James
Summer of ‘76
It’s the start of one of the hottest summers on record with soaring temperatures and weeks without rain; the summer of Abba, T-Rex, David Bowie and Demis Roussos; of Martinis, cheesecake and chicken chasseur; of the Montreal Olympics and the Notting Hill riots – the summer Big Ben stopped dead. For 17-year-old Luke Wolff, life will never be the same again.
It was several years ago that I first began to obsess over memories of 1976, when I started writing in earnest, having given up my career to study English and Creative Writing as a mature student. Images and senses of summer seemed to play a strong role in my writing – the heat-baked scent of drying lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt – and my recollections were repeatedly drawn back to that heatwave summer, when I was turning six. Why should that summer have cast such a powerful imprint in my memory bank? It seems I am not alone. Nearly 40 years on, ask anyone old enough what they were doing during the drought-paralysed summer of ’76, and they’ll be able to tell you without pause. "Getting a decent tan," many of them will wistfully reply
Summer of '76 opens not in 1976, but several years earlier, at a New Year’s party. Young Luke, then just twelve, is tucked up in bed several miles away. The party is attended by his parents, hosted at the seafront home of their respectable friends John and Marie, where the champagne flows and the firelight reflects in the glass of the balcony windows:
Joanna understands how this night will play out, Marie explained it to her carefully at the start of the evening; when midnight has rolled by – when only the steadfast revellers remain – it’s the women who will pick the keys from the bowl. It couldn’t be simpler.
Fast-forward to May 1976, and we meet 17-year-old Luke on the brink of life’s sunny great adventure. With college and independence on the horizon, he has everything to look forward to, until revelations about his parents’ social life start to emerge, and Luke’s view of the world is about to change forever.
Instructions for a Heatwave
Of course, I’m not the first writer to draw on the oppressive heat of summer in fiction; In 1978 Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden was published, telling the story of four abruptly orphaned children, who in the blistering heat of summer attempt to fend for themselves. More than two decades later, Kitty Aldridge released her debut Pop set in the yet-to-be-trumped heatwave of 1975, when 13-year-old Maggie goes to live with her grandfather, Pop, following the death of her mother.
And more recently, Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel Instructions for a Heatwave opens in July 1976 as Robert Riordan tells his wife that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper, and doesn’t return.
All tell stories of loss – whether through trauma or scandal or grief – of characters forced out into the bright glare of revelation, painted all the more vivid under the scorching heat of a ceaseless British summer.
In Summer of ‘76, Luke’s is the loss of certainty, as he slowly comes to realise that life – his family, his community, his self-image – is ever-shifting, ambiguous, and at times, alarming. And in fiction, perhaps that’s what these extreme summers do for us; boiling down our characters’ lives and stripping them bare, as we hold them towards the dazzling sunlight in search of some kind of truth.
‘When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.’ – Nelson Mandela
Summer of '76 by Isabel Ashdown is published by Myriad Editions.