The last Lightning

Nine Lightning F1 of No 74 Squadron RAF display at the 1961 SBAC show, Farnborough. Photo credit: TSRL

Thunder and Lightnings
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jim Russell.
Puffin Books 1978 (1976).

‘I wonder if that was the last Lightning of all,’ said Andrew.
‘Well, if that wasn’t, that ought to have been. What a way to go out, eh?’

Chapter 17

This is a tale of oddballs, obsessions and, to some extent, opposites. It is also a well observed sketch of friendship, of the inevitability of change, and of being comfortable with being who you are.

Two schoolboys in 1980s Norfolk are thrown together with nothing to suggest they have anything in common except being outsiders in their school, Andrew whose family are incomers and Victor who would be possibly be identified now as having learning difficulties.

And yet there is more to either than appears on the surface, and they will have more in common than their social backgrounds and familial aspirations would suggest, bonded at first by Victor’s obsession with English Electric Lightning warplanes and then by a comfortable companionship. And yet that easy companionship may be tested by matters outside their control.

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Jan Mark’s debut novel, honed by writing short stories, has an assurance which instantly engages as we meet the bright middle-class Andrew whose father’s job takes his laid-back family to a more rural location, and Victor who, playing up to a reputation for being academically backward at school, is patently dyslexic and would probably be diagnosed today as on the autism spectrum. Being close neighbours in the village means that, when the summer holidays arrive, they spend time together, and Thunder and Lightnings is mostly an account of those few weeks when a friendship is established, only to be threatened by an immanent change.

That change comes about when it becomes clear that the objects of Victor’s passion, the magnificent arrowhead jets that roar across the Norfolk landscape from a nearby RAF airfield, may be withdrawn from service. Their regular bike rides to observe take-offs and landings are now threatened, and also the familiarity they have built up involving a younger brother, shopping trips, and hamsters.

The way the author subtly maintains a mix of technical aircraft terms, contrast between the two families, the distinctive Norfolk dialect, the minutiae of daily life, and the unspoken nuances of the boys’ conversations — all credibly held in balance — is impressive. I admit my eyes were slightly damp by the last page in recognition of the kind of easy companionship I’d always longed for as a schoolboy myself but never achieved.

For that alone I appreciate my finally coming round to this story if it wasn’t also for the enthusiasm Victor displayed and the sensitive reflections Andrew has on what has been said or done. The reputation that preceded Thunder and Lightnings whenever this was recommended to me is thoroughly well deserved.

Read for JanMARKuary to commemorate Jan Mark, who died 16th January, 2006

5 thoughts on “The last Lightning

  1. I’m catching up with blogposts that I’ve missed and am glad I made time to read this one, Chris. I read Thunder and Lightnings for the first time recently as part of a Twitter read along and think you have conveyed its heart so well. The author’s observation is accurate and realistic, and the boys’ conversation is so skilfully written isn’t it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought so too, Anne, it felt completely natural; and, while narratively speaking we pretty much saw things from Andrew’s point of view, I felt I got to understand Victor’s thought processes and emotions as much as his friend’s, an indication of Mark’s consummate writing skills.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. From my limited familiarity with the author’s work I would say that she never falls into the trap of saccharine sentimentality. Victor’s family, for example, contrast with Andrew’s laid-back parents by being not only cold and distant but also, on occasion, abusive — Mark, while telling tales of positivity, is never unrealistic when dealing with social settings.


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