My Top Five Favourite Comic Books, an Also-Ran: Joff Winterhart’s ‘Days of the Bagnold Summer’

ImageFifteen-year-old Daniel’s trip to Florida to visit his absent father and the stepmother who ‘would rather be seen as a friend’ is cancelled owing to the latter’s advanced pregnancy, and as a result Daniel and his mum Sue face a long six weeks together over the school summer holidays. Days of the Bagnold Summer is a narrative structured by the weeks of that summer, one week per chapter. Each page features a subtitle or heading which provides a theme for the panels to follow, some themes more abstract than others, and the drawings are mostly of human figures executed in a pencil and ink wash. A narrator is ever-present in the often lengthy captions, providing the reader with an omniscient insight into the minds of mother and son as the long weeks pass slowly by.

The six-week block of time that is the Bagnold summer is framed by a forthcoming wedding and the need to buy Daniel some black shoes to look smart for it. The story opens with yet another failed shopping expedition and ends with Sue and Daniel walking into the distance, growing smaller and smaller inside successive frames as they make their way towards the wedding venue. Daniel wears black trainers instead of shoes, having finally worn Sue down.

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As far as the actual story goes, that’s pretty much it. But any idea of ‘plot’ is, of course, beside the point. The focus of Winterhart’s narrative is the relationship between Daniel and Sue, the relentless tedium of the summer holidays when one is young, how dreadful it is to be a teenager and how difficult to be the single parent of a teenager. Winterhart’s achievement is to generate an equal amount of sympathy in the reader for both Sue and Daniel without tipping over into sentimentality; even the repulsive Ky, Daniel’s bullying best friend, is temporarily the object of the reader’s pity when he responds badly to Daniel’s having been accepted into a local band. Ky is momentarily wrong-footed and we get a glimpse of his fragility in his short-lived ‘muted reaction’.

Sue battles to understand her teenage son and tries to establish a connection with him by mentally recreating her own teenage years. She remembers those years as ‘an incredibly difficult and lonely time’. Daniel himself is a typical fifteen-year-old boy: he listens to heavy metal and fantasises about being the lead singer in a metal band; he enjoys drawing, but his taste is limited to pictures of axes, corpses and skulls. He is revolting in the way that teenage boys are: he is scruffy, he never washes his hair, he drinks barbecue sauce straight from the bottle when Sue isn’t around. He is also inconsiderate and lazy, but only in an average-teenager kind of way and the reader knows that Daniel will improve with age. And Daniel’s thoughtless selfishness is matched by Sue’s ability to come up with excruciatingly embarrassing comments (‘Aftershave…make you smell a bit sexy for the girls’). The relationship between mother and son at this most difficult time of Daniel’s development is characterised by a tension which increases until it explodes into the inevitable row – pretty normal teenager-parent stuff. The most touching moments in the narrative are those infrequent times when Sue and Daniel actively understand each other, such as when Sue describes Ky’s mother as being a bit ‘much’, to which Daniel responds positively, actually looking at his mother for once and agreeing with a little smile and a ‘Yeah’.

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Parallels between mother and son are drawn throughout – a disinclination to wear anything other than a black hoodie or a shapeless sweater, a desire to be admired as a musician, an innate inability to join in, a bully for a best friend – and the reader is left with a keen awareness of inherited traits travelling down through generations. Family history is invoked through the use of photographs and other memorabilia. Absent fathers provide another point of connection between the various characters: Sue’s father was a GI who left his wife and daughter to return to the country of his birth; Daniel’s father left his mother to set up home with another in the US; Ky’s likeable but flaky mother, like Sue, is struggling to bring up a teenage son on her own.

A gentle humour pervades the book which relieves the sadness of it and Winterhart almost never allows the narrative to become mawkish: the only false note is the overly-melodramatic story of Sue’s short-lived relationship with a strange, troubled boy when she herself was Daniel’s age. This implausible episode in Sue’s past of armed robbery and subsequent suicide feels out of place in an otherwise humdrum event-free world. Nevertheless, I like this book very much. And with every re-reading, it never fails to make me extremely glad that my teenage years are now a long, long way behind me.

Who’s pulling the strings?

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At the beginning of Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent, Fleur Talbot sits in a graveyard writing a poem. Critics have leapt on this with glee, crying out that that’s probably what Muriel Spark herself did! Well, possibly. Big deal. I mean, who hasn’t sat in a graveyard writing a tortured poem? That’s just what every teenager does, isn’t it? And twenty-odd years ago I’m afraid I did exactly this (although thankfully the poem is now lost) and I was listening to Toyah Willcox’s Anthem album as I did so.

I’ve had the idea for this post bubbling on the hob for a couple of weeks now, ever since I re-discovered that particular album on Spotify. I last saw Toyah on the telly lisping her way through a deodorant ad and I’d forgotten all about her, but having been reminded of that purple cassette tape I cherished all those years ago, I can see now, from a distance of more than two decades, exactly why it was that her music was so captivating to me as a moody Don’t-Know-Who-I-Want-To-Be teenager. Before going any further, I should point out that I’m writing as someone who knows very little about punk rock – if that is indeed what Toyah wrote – but I was very good at being a gauche and maladroit teenager and I think I might be onto something here.

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Leaving aside the more obvious appeal of sentiments such as ‘So what if I dye my hair? I’ve still got a brain, I’m there and I’m gonna be me’ from I Want To Be Free, Toyah’s lyrics often conjure up a nightmarish landscape of hostile bleakness, peopled with fantastic, monstrous creatures. And of course, this sort of landscape is exactly the kind of godforsaken place you inhabit in your mind as a teenager, for year after year after yet-another-wretched year. My favourite song was always Marionette, which tells of a land in which a marionette pulls the strings, rather than it being the other way around.

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Marionettes are creepy enough, frankly.

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See what I mean? And this particular marionette delights in the misery of her war-torn subjects. The lyrics couple images of subjection and pain with…well, images of coupling. The marionette is a queen bee, serviced by her knaves and pawns so she can bring forth hordes of offspring who sing in the cathedral beneath a swinging pendulum – most likely incense, but in context, I can’t help but think of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and The Pendulum. Of course, it’s probably all metaphorical anyway, but as a teenager, you’re far more likely to take everything literally and to imagine that the land really is ruled by a power-crazed, sex-obsessed puppet, bent on destroying your will and taking control of your life. Power and control are major themes in many of Toyah’s songs, and I enacted my own personal feeble rebellion at the injunction to be home in time for dinner by sitting in graveyards, writing rubbish poetry and listening to Marionette – the one who was once controlled is now the controller. Well, far better I suppose, to be the marionette than the reaper, who laughs before choking and crying.

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The Anthem album cover (below) depicts the teenage-psyche-nightmare-place with the central figure, Toyah herself, striding fearlessly across this inhospitable wasteland. She is distant, powerful, beautiful, and it looks as if she’s holding the head of someone who got on her nerves once too often:

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And of course, this is the figure you want to be. Toyah was wildly creative. She had massive hair. She used naughty words: ‘whore’ crops up quite a lot, and I can remember the thrill of hearing Toyah shout ‘Silence little bitch!’ in Elocution Lesson (you have to bear in mind that this was in the days when every other word in The Guardian wasn’t ‘fuck’ or ‘onanism’). And she’s only 11 years younger than my parents! – but I would never have believed that when I was 16. Toyah was everything I wanted to be and wasn’t. She’s even got wings in this picture here. But according to the extensive Wikipedia entry, Toyah was born something of a monster herself, ‘with a twisted spine, clawed feet, a clubbed right foot, one leg two inches shorter than the other and no hip sockets’, and of course, that lisp as well. Toyah went through a great deal of real physical suffering to become the astonishingly attractive person that she still is. She has never been particularly interested in either men or women as sexual partners, but she is married to a man whom she describes as her soulmate. She has been sterilised – pregnancy and childbirth would have been dangerous for her, given her past medical history. So Toyah has always been ‘outside’, in a sense, alien to everything, accountable to nothing, including her own biology. She really did cut all those strings.

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Toyah Willcox’s official website can be found here.