Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2020

Here We Are, by Graham Swift

I think it’s hard for Australians to understand the English affection for the seaside resort of Brighton.  Here in Australia our beaches have soft golden sands, and if we wear anything on our feet it’s thongs, not ‘beach shoes’ to protect feet from the stony shore. The idea of a ‘holiday season’ is bizarre to us, because even in the coldest states, we visit our beaches all year round.  Even in the depths of winter, there are surfers doing their thing at Bells Beach and all along the surf coast in Victoria. A Melbourne club jocularly called The Icebergs swims every day all year round, but not with icebergs.  It might be a bit brisk, but there aren’t any icebergs until you’re within cooee of Antarctica.

Brighton Pier at dusk (Wikipedia)

Of course there are tourist attractions at many Australian resorts, but they’re not essential and there are many glorious stretches of pristine beach where there is not a theme park to be seen.  They’re mostly not needed.  Not like they are in Brighton UK where they are essential to amuse tourists during the foul weather for which England is famous. Australian tourist attractions along the coast are just the icing on the cake, not the substance.  When we take a beach holiday, we’re on the beach, not inside.

But Brighton UK is renowned for its entertainments, and Graham Swift’s new novel is about a trio of entertainers in the late 1950s.  Most of us have seen film footage of the variety shows that were a staple of Brighton life in those days, but as depicted in Swift’s novella, this form of entertainment was on the way out.  It wasn’t just because TV was on the way in, it was because the variety shows on TV made it harder for live performers to offer something new and original.  Here We Are brings the reader to a story of betrayal in a time of transition.

The main character is Ronnie, a talented magician who, with his decorative partner Evie, became the star of the show, eclipsing the popularity of other acts with his innovative illusions.  The man who is his friend and then his rival is Jack Robinson, the MC, who (as the blurb says) is a born entertainer, holding the whole show together.  Jack is more entrepreneurial than Ronnie, and he makes a very successful (and profitable) transition to the emerging entertainment landscape.

Ronnie OTOH displays an early capacity for adaptability when he becomes an evacuee during the Blitz.  He makes a new home at Evergrene in Oxfordshire with Eric and Penelope Lawrence, and discovers a life entirely different to the privations he suffered at home in London with his unloving mother.

This great exodus of children had many consequences, not all benign.  There would be horror stories.  Some went to dreadful encampments.  Some went to so-called ‘good homes’ to be imprisoned, enslaved—worse.  Some would even feel compelled to escape from their sanctuaries, slinking back, like aliens in their own country, to take their chances with the bombs.
But Ronnie was to arrive at a house in the depths of the countryside—he had never known countryside before—where, except for the blackout curtains and a few other minor privations and inconveniences, you might never have known that a war was going on. (p.30)

Ronnie begins to wish that he might never have to go home.  What is significant about Ronnie, is the way he adapts to a new way of life instead of feeling alienated by the change:

Evergrene was unlike any house in his experience.  For just two people it was enormous.  It had separate rooms for doing different things in.  It had a dining room for dining in.  What was dining?  It had a bathroom with a huge white tub in it.  It had a sitting room—a room just for sitting in. (p.31)

He is entranced by the garden with its separate bits: a vegetable patch, a lawn, flower beds, a greenhouse and a cold frame.  What was a cold frame?  And there is a car, that (although rarely used because of petrol rationing) he gets a chance to ride in.

But the most special thing of all is that Eric Lawrence is a magician, and when he is sure that he can trust Ronnie not to share his secrets, he teaches Ronnie how to be a magician too.

I loved this part of the story, and for all Ronnie’s good fortune in being sent to a family that loved him, I found myself feeling compassion for the way his identity was shifting so that he no belonged where his roots were, and felt guilt about that.  Swift has constructed the narrative so that readers feel initially puzzled, and then disconcerted when it becomes clear that the two people with whom he had made his adult life have betrayed him.  It is then that Eric Lawrence’s words have a resonance that may have passed by the reader.  Swift never wastes a word:

Eric Lawrence had said it would be tough.  Was Ronnie ready?  He’d said, and had smiled at his own doubletalk, ‘There are no magic wands, Ronnie.  There are magic wands, but there are no magic wands.  Do you understand me?’

I suspect that most readers will wish that Ronnie did have a magic wand…

Image credit: By hozinja – Brighton Pier at dusk, UK, Uploaded by BaldBoris, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16976613

Author: Graham Swift
Title: Here We Are
Publisher: Scribner, 2020
ISBN: 9781471188930, hbk, 195 pages
Design by S&S Art Dept., cover image John James Audubon – Birds of America (1827-38) Carolina Parrots
Purchased from Benn’s Book Bentleigh


Responses

  1. TBH it sounds like the book could have been set in *any* UK seaside resort – Blackpool would have been the perfect northern equivalent! :D

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    • Could be too… I’ve been to Brighton (and loved the Brighton Pavillion) but I’ve never been to Blackpool, though I think I’ve seen it in film. I do have experience of those stony beaches, from when I lived in Cornwall.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds really interesting. It’s a way of life that really changed – families in the 1960s stopped holidaying in Britain and got cheap package holidays to Europe. There’s been a resurgence in ‘staycations’ with environmental awareness but what Swift depicts has gone forever.

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    • Yes, I think, though I couldn’t tell you where I read or saw it, that there uses to be whole companies of variety performers doing a circuit – a bit like circus performers going on tour, perhaps.
      Our ABC used to broadcast the Royal Variety Performance each year but have stopped doing it, presumably because it didn’t rate very well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder what movie I watched with teddy boys on ‘hot’ motor scooters terrorising Brighton. But the greatest resonance ‘Brighton’ has to me is not the pier or the pebble beach but damp, dark boarding houses – something I read once I suppose.

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    • I couldn’t tell you, but when I Googled Brighton UK I found that it’s now a Gay destination, so maybe the bike parade was like our Dykes on Bikes atGay Pride or Sydney Mardi Gras events?
      My brain is rustier than usual at the moment, (not sleeping well, is anyone surprised?) but I think there was a movie, maybe The 39 Steps, set in Brighton… and it had a B&W seedy sort of atmosphere, what they call noir, I guess…

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      • Think you may be thinking of Graeme Greene’s Brighton Rock, which stars a very young Richard Attenborough.

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    • I think this was probably A Clockwork Orange

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      • I never saw that one…

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        • I have only ever seen snippets of it… Too violent for me.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t ever get to Brighton but I did stay in Bournemouth – and felt very sorry for the British people siting huddled in their deck chairs in the howling wind, on overcast days, on a beach of rocks!
    I always associate Brighton with Graeme Greene’s Brighton Rock of course!

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    • The Brits are nothing if not stoic…

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  5. That would be the John Buchan ( Governor of Canada) novel I think .Would have seen the film am sure.
    Brighton is memorable to me for met up with school mate from many moons past and we spent a couple of days there before moving on to Lewes and V. Woolf’s house in Rodmill. The Butlin’s Holiday Camps would have been an earner for those entertainers.
    It was a time when adults had a great deal of power and influence over vulnerable children. Much of it under the guise of benevolence, At least that subject has come into the public domain which can’t be a bed thing. Thanks to Julia Gillard.
    Hope the sleep problem is short term.

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    • Yes, John Buchan rings a bell too. It’s so annoying when you can see an image clearly in your head and can’t remember where it’s from!
      Re sleep: I am a professional insomniac, but I can have phases of good sleep. I muck up when I get out of routine, in this case the culprit is a book I recently read which wouldn’t let me sleep till I’d finished it. And then the next night my brain says, you stayed up till 4 o’clock last night, you can do that again tonight.
      My doctor gives me a short course of sleeping tablets to break the cycle when I come home with jet lag.

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  6. I’ve been to Brighton too, it has an outmoded charm.

    This book sounds great and reminds me of Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. The main character is from Blackpool and wants to be an entertainer. It’s set in the early 1960s and she starts a career in TV shows because that’s where things happen now.

    If you want to read how an Australian writer uses Brighton as a setting, there’s always The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave but I’m not sure it’s your kind of read.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Brighton has been a regular haunt for me. It’s the quickest beach to get to from London so whenever I was desperate to see the horizon it would be off to Brighton I’d go. It’s got a seedy seaside charm to it, but it’s less rundown than other coastal towns thanks to the pink pound and it effectively being a commuter town. It has some very good pubs / restaurants and thriving art/music scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And the Pavillion, don’t forget the Pavillion.
      (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Pavilion)
      I didn’t keep a travel blog on our visit to the UK in 2001, so I don’t have any pictures online, but although we’re not much interested in royal residences on account of being Bolshie republicans who would rather wait till the people own ’em before we visit) we loved it, especially the kitchen.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The English seaside resort is the setting for a finely observed novel by Stanley Middleton, aptly called Holiday. I posted on it a few years ago.

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    • I remember that… I don’t think I read the review because I’ve got the book in my Booker Prize collection and plan to read it one day…

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  9. I was surprised to see the stones on the beach when I got to Brighton. Blackpool was at least sandie, albeit dark sand!

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    • It makes you appreciate what we’ve got, doesn’t it?!

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  10. Great review, sounds like such an interesting read – I adore Brighton and loved your comparison to beaches in Aus (as much as I love my home country, I would definitely prefer some soft sand and warm weather!)

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    • Thanks, Ellie… right now it would be nice to go to any beach, I guess!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s a long time since I last read Swift but this sounds like the perfect one with which to reignite that acquaintance.
    Brighton has had a revival of its fortunes in recent years, becoming quite THE place to be but sadly most other British seaside resorts are slowly dying. The rise of cheap package holidays was their death knell. They just couldnt compete with the guaranteed sunshine of overseas destinations. I live a few miles from one that is struggling despite some beautiful sand and lovely coastal walks.

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    • I love a place where I can go for walks… we had a lovely time in Wales because it’s so beautiful.

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