Any Grandmother waving off her teenage grand-daughter this summer, on a month's inter-railing around Europe might do so with some trepidation after reading this book. A rite of passage for generations of students now, Valerie could be regarded as somewhat of a pioneer at the time, though of course the desire does have its precedents in the Grand Tour. In the reading of this book I was reminded of the character of The Fool from the Tarot Deck in her freshness and zest, a naive spirit venturing out in to the world, a sort of Jungian archetype if you will, on tour that is circular in that it leads ultimately back to Britain triumphant, impervious to the perils and pitfalls encountered on the way.
As with many travelogues, the narrative of events is linear and the book loses momentum in places where there is no dramatic tension with the characters she meets, but this is common too much travel writing. I felt the chapters showing conflict with Renate and the Spanish family flowed best for this reason. I went inter-railing over 20 years ago and it was amusing to read that many of the phenomena I encountered then: bumping in to the same people in different Capitals, unwanted male attention; the discomforting propositioning of budding White Slavers happened then and will do probably so evermore.
Yet is also a period piece, revealing not only in the description of societal change in a bombed out Europe as one would expect, but also in the little details such as the scene described of being one of a party lugging plates and tablecloths to a historical site on a boiling hot day, now one would just take a baguette. Valerie is terribly British in that she tries to always do the right thing whilst trying not to reveal her gaucheness on the Rive Gauche. I feel this is a very endearing trait.
The Summer When .. immediately takes the reader back to a simpler, more innocent time. In the 1950s, without mobile phones or facebook to keep us in touch with home, travelling was far more of an adventure than today. Valerie Thornhill beautifully captures the thoughts of a young woman abroad in the fifties and keeps a nice balance between humour and tension. She was far braver than I was at her age - the most I managed was a school exchange visit to Germany. A highly recommended read.
In the summer of 1955, Cambridge student Valerie Thornhill, set out for a trip across Europe. She was nineteen, eager to record her thoughts and feelings and to experience as much of life as she could. Her parents were suffering financial hardship at the time and she was determined not to worry them, so, although she had little in the way of funds, she had made arrangements to stay with people she knew, teach English to a young Spanish girl, and to make her way as independently as possible through France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Her parents had always moved home frequently and her sister was also in Europe that summer, but still, despite her relative independence, 1955 was a totally different era from today. It was difficult to keep in touch with friends and family and it was soon obvious that, despite her resentment at adult intrusion, many did view her as a young girl who needed to be protected. In some ways they were correct, as Valerie does suffer from the unwanted attentions of men throughout her travels - often shockingly so. However, this is a fascinating account of both a personal trip and also a portrait of another era - when Europe was "shaking off the war years."
During her European travels, she stays with a professor of hers in Paris, a Spanish family in Andalucía, a friend in Genoa and visits the war scarred city of Hamburg. Along the way she meets Simone de Beauvoir, attends a bullfight, is forced to question what happened in the war - a subject her parents have largely protected her from - acts as a chaperone and advisor, takes a temporary job as a childminder and heads back to Cambridge with a summer (and a lifetime) full of memories. I found this a delightful read and am grateful the author shared her memories with us.
I received a copy of this book, for review, from the publisher.
Valerie Thornhill has written an astonishingly vivid account of her three month journey through France, Spain and Italy in the Summer of 1955. Released from Cambridge for the long University vacation she sets out to improve her knowledge of French and Spanish, adds Italian to her repertoire, and in the process receives an education n the School of Life. How that education is received is wittily and, at times, hilariously related. There is the episode of the Descent of the Knickers whilst on a cultural stroll through Paris in the company of a French aristocrat. This in the wake of an attempted seduction by Madame, her hostess and tutor. Shaking off pursuing males she arrives in Spain and perhaps it is here that she writes some of her most lyrically descriptive passages: the green and gold sky of Cordoba, the voices of children in the twilight, the shimmering heat, the bejewelled and mantilla-bedecked ladies attending the corrida. But this Spanish episode is much more than lyricism: with her great powers of observation she lifts an engaging account of a student life/travel adventure to that of a valuable record of a vanished world. Today the traveller can stay in a "boutique" hotel and get a sanitised taste of staying in a "historic hostelry". Valerie stayed in the real thing: an "alhondiga" in Granada where the mules were quartered on the lower level and the traders on the upper floor and where you had to pay for the second bed in your room to ensure that it was not occupied by a second guest on your return from a night out with the gypsies. Valerie's night out with the gypsies is a splendid evocation of flamenco dancing where you can practically hear the castanets, the swish of the flounced skirts and the drumming of the feet.
Having spent time as a chaperone, confidante and English teacher in Spain, Valerie departs to Italy where, en route, after confusion about a train ticket, she is arrested by an amorous policeman named Hyacinth. That little difficulty resolved she proceeds on her latter day Grand Tour: money is short, a job must be found and sanctuary seems to be offered in Genoa by a family who needs help with the children and the housework. But all is not as it seems ..... and she realises she still has a lot to learn about the world. So, with a vengeance, back to her Life Studies she goes, more picaresque adventures ensue and, of course, romance. As Summer comes to an end, Valerie starts to make her way home slowly by bus and train, spending time in bomb-scarrd Hamburg and Munich, where all her belongings, her passport and her journal are stolen. In spite of the loss of the original journal, "The Summer When...." has all the freshness and vivacity of having been written only yesterday. It captures that youthful wonder when the world is new and exciting and waiting to be discovered. In the poignant Epilogue Valerie returns, decades later, to Scarperia in Tuscany, one of the scenes of her early life in Italy. Ugly suburbs now smother the fields of clover and the ox yokes and painted carts now lie silent in the museum. A vanished world, but this gem of a book brings that world back to life through the adventures and acute observations of its remarkable teenage traveller and present day narrator.
Valerie Thornhill's candid book recounts the six-week holiday of a nineteen-year old Cambridge student, travelling alone through France, Spain and Italy, determined to make her trip a memorable one. Set out to write a novel, we follow as the protagonist throws herself at every given opportunity and experience. Her fearlessness is astonishing in this era where young, female, solo travellers were highly uncommon.
As a twenty-year-old female student who is just about to set off on my year abroad myself, I found the book compelling but also relevant. The account describes thoughts and reactions which are sometimes entirely familiar, such as Valerie's attention to her figure (nothing much has changed on that front since 1955 apparently!). At other times her reactions are astonishing, such as her unshaken, life-goes-on attitude when she experiences unwanted kinds of adult attention- attention which could certainly have serious consequences in today's society.
In many ways, her refusal to feel vulnerable makes her invulnerable; Valerie's striking attitude shapes her experiences of the trip rather than the other way around. I would highly recommend this book to anybody about to go out and travel, who would like their own trip to be just as memorable!
It is July 1955 and a young Cambridge undergraduate is crossing the channel to spend the summer months improving her languages on the Continent. She is clever, attractive and intrepid, and has contact addresses in her bag - what could possibly go wrong? Valerie Thornhill relates the story of her travels and misadventures with disarming candour. Eager to absorb culture and languages, she encounters Parisian intellectuals, the Spanish middle class and Italian poor, and as a feminist finds herself at odds with the mores of these foreign cultures (making a scene at a bullfight by cheering on the bull, wearing a bikini on an Italian beach, urging women to go to university). Meanwhile the local menfolk are fascinated by her independence and frequently make approaches, sometimes alarmingly. She falls in with other travellers, ditches them when they become a burden, and falls prey to a conman who robs her of everything. This is a really good read and a reminder of how much has changed since the fifties. Highly recommended.