Saturday 8 August 2015

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

I was first attracted to this novel by a review which described the setting; a British seaside holiday camp in the early 1970s. I have no personal experience of staying in one of these but they were very much part of the popular culture when I was growing up, with Butlins and Pontins the two leading organisations, managing resorts dotted around the British coastline. For the uninitiated, they consisted (and still consist) of closed camps where holidaymakers (typically families) stayed in basic chalets and enjoyed the free use of various facilities such as restaurants and swimming pools plus a constant round of entertainment for all ages organised by the camp staff, who usually wore distinctive clothing (the Butlins "Redcoats" being famous). Such summer holidays were popular with people who just wanted to relax in a secure environment and have their children taken off their hands. They were a bit like modern, family-orientated cruise ships except that there was more space and the scenery didn't move.

Holiday camps, like the economies of the traditional seaside resort towns they were normally situated close to, were badly hit by the advent of cheap flights to cheap hotels in warmer and sunnier climes for no more money than a domestic holiday. The ever-helpful internet tells me that in their peak in 1962 camps provided 30% of the domestic holiday accommodation, but by 1980 this had declined to 7.5%. In the 1980s, when "Hi-de-Hi", a popular TV series, lampooned such holiday camps and the relentless, cheerful optimism of their staff, they had declined so much that there was an element of nostalgia in the comedy. I was somewhat surprised to discover that Butlins and Pontins still survive, albeit on a much reduced scale, joined by more upmarket companies such as Centre Parcs.

However, that's enough social history for one week. The point of it is to explain the nostalgic appeal of the setting to readers of my generation. In Graham Joyce's story David, a college student, has taken a summer holiday job as an organiser in an unnamed camp by the well-known resort town of Skegness. He has an ulterior motive for his choice: his natural father disappeared in Skegness when David was a very young child, and his mother refused to discuss what had happened. At the camp he discovers a motley collection of staff particularly including the ferocious Colin and his terrified wife Terri, and Nikki, one of the dancers in the evening entertainment programme. As he tries to fit in to the camp life, David begins to be haunted by visions of a small boy with a man in a blue suit, who seem to be watching him from a distance but suddenly disappear every time he tries to approach them. Other visions begin to affect his mental stability as he struggles to discover what is going on.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is a refreshingly different story, a mystery laced with gentle humour contrasting with some tense relationships among the staff, and a journey of apparently supernatural discovery for the principal character. It reminds me of the "slipstream" stories which were very much in vogue a few years ago; not conventional fantasies but not quite of this world either.  This won't be for everyone, but I enjoyed the trip.

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