Writing about Indian Magic recently reminded me of another book set in the 1960s, one I read a while ago and wanted to write about, but never got around to.
That book is The Pimlico Kid by Barry Walsh, a beautifully written tale about a dramatic childhood summer in 1960s London. Billy Driscoll starts the summer as a boy, peeping over a neighbour’s garden wall with his friend Rooksy, watching the beautiful Madge Smith hang out her washing. By the end of the summer, he’s experienced love, excitement, danger, a couple of different but equally devastating kinds of loss, and he’ll never be the same again.
There’s nothing new about a coming-of-age novel, of course, but then most things have been done before in some form. The process of a boy learning to become a man is a popular fictional subject for a very good reason. It’s a dramatic process, often painful, often poignant. There’s that wonderful combination of the wonder of childhood and the emotional complexity of adulthood. There’s often a clash with authority, a questioning of conventions, and an energy and keenness of feeling that can dissipate with age.
And, in the 1960s at least, there was also a vibrant street life, full of interesting characters and adventures. Much of that has gone now, not just in the gentrified neighbourhood of Pimlico but also in pretty much any part of Britain, where kids are now kept within sight of a responsible adult at all times for their own protection, and of course have so many more indoor gadgets with which to entertain themselves anyway.
Billy and Rooksy enjoy a freedom that today’s children could only dream of. They roam around London, chasing girls, fighting boys, running races, and fending off the local bully. It’s a rough-and-tumble way of learning to be an adult. They have to negotiate some very “adult” issues like domestic violence, crime, love, and sexual identity, and they don’t always make the best decisions. They muddle through as best they can, and some of the scrapes along the way end up leaving scars.
Things come to a head when they all go on an outing to the country with the girl Billy has fallen for, Sarah Richards, and her friend Josie. The revelations will change their lives profoundly—it’s difficult to say more than that without giving too much away, so I apologise for sounding like a book blurb. It’s one of those books where the order in which things are revealed is very important to your enjoyment, so I don’t want to spoil things if you do end up reading the book.
And I hope you do end up reading it. I’d recommend it as simply a very good story, very well told. The author, Barry Walsh, grew up in the same part of London at about the same time, and he clearly draws on his memories to create a rich, convincing and beautifully drawn world. You feel part of it, as if you’re standing in the crowd at the summer street fair, and walking behind Billy and Rooksy down the sun-baked, dogshit-strewn pavements. And you feel the excitement and pain of adolescent loves and losses as well.