Review by Sylvia D: Philip Gibbs’ The Amazing Summer (1941) is a good example of his journalistic novel-writing, set as it is against a backdrop of the hot and sunny summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain and the early months of the Blitz. It has resonances with Elizabeth Goudge’s The Castle on the Hill (1941) and Norah C James’ Enduring Adventure (1944). All three novels, written at a time when the authors had no idea how the War would turn out or even whether England would be invaded, take Dunkirk as their starting point.The Amazing Summer also has resonances with Storm Jameson’s fine Cloudless May (1943) as the first sixty pages cover the adventures of RAF reconnaissance pilot, Guy Moreton, who has bailed out over France just as the Germans are invading. As Guy, disguised as a French peasant, tries to make his way to the French coast, he is given shelter in a small chateau whose owner, Bertrand Blanchard, an escaped prisoner of war, is also trying to evade the Germans. They have lengthy discussions as to why France has capitulated so easily and come to very much the same conclusions as are suggested in Cloudless May: incompetent and corrupt military leaders and politicians, over-reliance on the Maginot line, an unwillingness on the part of the French to get embroiled in another war and, as far as Bertrand is concerned, the failure of the British to give enough military support.
The narrative then switches from Guy and a group of French intellectuals hoping to join the Free French, afloat in a small fishing ketch off the coast of Dieppe and caught in the searchlight of a German gun emplacement, to London where Guy’s sister, Anthea, runs a popular café called The Brown Jug with her gregarious cousin, Julia. Various characters come and go from the café: Guy, himself, although there is no explanation as to how he has escaped the German guns, Gillian, whom he loves, Bertrand who has himself managed to escape from France, Gerald Clayton, a BBC man who is vying for Gillian’s affections, Rosenbaum, a refugee who had been a sculptor in Vienna. When not in London, the narrative unfolds in Guy’s parents’ home in Surrey and his father, Henry, who is too old to contribute to the war effort and had been in favour of appeasement, provides the reader with a kind of commentary through his private thoughts on events and his consideration of the morality of war.
Through the cast of characters he has assembled Gibbs addresses many contemporary issues: the political mistakes made after the First World War, appeasement, pacifism, Nazi treatment of the Jews, internment, what might happen to England if Hitler invades, whether De Gaulle is the right person to lead the Free French. His journalism training shines through in that he gives both sides of an argument and usually leaves the reader and history to judge for themselves although I get the feeling he had little time for conscientious objectors.
His writing, again probably due to his journalism background, is often understated. Guy Moreton’s mother, for instance, ‘was not enjoying the war’ – this about a woman who had two sons (Guy has a younger brother, David, who is a bomber pilot) in the RAF and a daughter living through the blitz in London! However, Gibbs does then develop this into her condemnation of those who have got the country into this situation, ‘We might have done something about it before it happened – to prevent it happening. Now David and Guy and all the others will have to be the victims of those silly old men who made every mistake possible and now come to the wireless to talk heroics.’
The characterisation is very weak. On three occasions Guy narrowly escapes the Germans. They mainly speak with guttural voices and have square heads with close cropped hair except for one officer eating on his own in an inn who speaks ‘very perfect’ English, had been educated at Harrow and had ‘a soft spot in (his) heart for England’! The French are formal, very thoughtful and passionate. Mrs Moreton prunes her roses, looks sad and does the Times crossword. Gillian is a tennis playing Home Counties girl with long, sun-tanned legs.
The prose can be quite flowery and sometimes religious in tone although not nearly to the extent of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Castle on the Hill. When Henry is discussing pacifism and non-resistance with a dinner guest when London is again being bombed, he argues that surrender would be
Rank cowardice . . . We shall have to kill the old dragon. I hate this war as much as you, but I see it as a crusade against the powers of darkness. “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” This is a defence of the human soul against those who would destroy it.
The book ends on a very bleak note. David, ‘a young knight-errant against the powers of evil’, is dead; Gillian is dead, killed when the Brown Jug took a direct hit; the blitz is far from over; the threat of invasion still hangs over everyone. However, the over-riding message is that, come what may, England will win through. It helps to know that at the time of writing Gibbs was working for the Ministry of Information. He praises the boys of the RAF – the ‘so few against so many’ – he applauds the spirit of Londoners under attack, he invokes the resolution of the English at Agincourt and Crécy, under Wellington and Marlborough and at the time of the Armada, he overplays the mingling of classes and the breaking down of social barriers. He seeks to boost morale through his jingoism and flag-waving, ‘By standing up to Hitler and all the powers of darkness, this folk had raised themselves high and the world did homage to them.’ This novel is of its time.
Gibbs had already written another Second World War book, Sons of the Others, which was published in 1940 and covers the period from 1939 to Dunkirk. He went on to write four more: The Long Alert (1941) about a Canadian in England during the blitz, The Interpreter (1943) about America and the War, The Battle Within about England during the War (1944) and Through the Storm (1945) which covers the period between the fall of France and D-Day.