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The Summerland Disaster on the Isle of Man: Background information when reading Someday, Maybe

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Someday, Maybe

A Novel

by Onyi Nwabineli

Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli X
Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2022, 352 pages

    Feb 2024, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

The Summerland Disaster on the Isle of Man

This article relates to Someday, Maybe

Print Review

Photograph taken from a distance of the burnt-out remains of the Summerland complex, after it was destroyed by a fire in August 1973 In the novel Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli, photographer Quentin Morrow was scheduled to go on a photography retreat on the Isle of Man before his death. In the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is an island with its own parliament, customs, history and a population of over 80,000. While technically a Crown Dependency (owned by the British Crown), it is a self-governing territory and not part of the United Kingdom. Approximately equidistant from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England, its 221 square miles include mountains, grasslands, farmlands and rugged coastline. When Quentin's wife Eve attends the retreat on the island in his absence, she reminisces about visiting a favorite spot called Summerland, and recalls learning about a tragic event there: "When we were here before, Q listened raptly as our tour guide spoke about the fire of '73, which ripped the old leisure center to pieces and claimed the lives of fifty people. It had been rebuilt and the adjoining aquadrome saved, but it was ultimately demolished in 2006, one wall left behind to preserve the cliffs."

Summerland, an entertainment complex and a summer holiday destination, opened in the town of Douglas in 1971. It could accommodate over 10,000 tourists. There were restaurants, bars, a skating rink, swimming pools, Turkish baths, an underground disco, a children's theater, an artificial sunshine zone and cascading waterfalls. The transparent roof was made of acrylic bronze-tinted sheets so the natural light filtering in would give the impression of golden rays. But this material was highly flammable.

The disaster started around 7:30 pm on August 2, 1973. Three boys from Liverpool, two of them 12 and one 14 years old, later admitted that they had been smoking near the miniature golf course and accidentally set fire to a kiosk. The fire spread quickly, with 3,000 people inside the complex. Fire services were not called for 20 minutes; the initial call didn't originate from Summerland but from a taxi driver who saw the flames. Eighty people were seriously injured and a further 50 died, many not from the fire itself but in the stampede as panicked guests tried to get out of the building. Among those that died, 11 were under the age of 20. The Liverpool boys were fined and ordered to pay compensation costs for damage they had caused in entering the kiosk, but no one was blamed for the disaster, though the building construction and lack of fire emergency preparation have since been criticized.

Some residents believe the victims were not given justice. "I believe there is a conscious decision to keep quiet about Summerland - we should bring our schoolchildren down here to learn about what happened," Tina Brennan, a Douglas resident, told the BBC. "But we don't do anything like that, it's just been shoved to the background - I think that is because there is a feeling of shame among the island's older generation."

Freelance journalist Terry Cringle offered a similar perspective, noting, "The media coverage from outside of the island soon fastened on to the fact that Summerland could never have been built under the planning laws in the United Kingdom - the hint being that everyone wanted this project so much that a few corners were cut."

Dr. Ian Phillips of the University of Birmingham added, "Despite the large-scale loss of life in the Isle of Man fire, the Summerland disaster is one of the most forgotten and trivialised news stories in the post-war history of the British Isles. For instance, fewer than 50% of books that claim to list major stories involving Britons mention the Summerland disaster."

The burnt-out remains of the Summerland complex a month after the fire in August of 1973. Photo by Stuart Taylor (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Valerie Morales

This "beyond the book article" relates to Someday, Maybe. It originally ran in January 2023 and has been updated for the February 2024 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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