‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

'On Writing' by Stephen King

I loved On Writing, a very entertaining and informative book about being a writer. It’s part memoir, part conventional fiction-writing guide, written in an amusing, self-deprecating style. For example, here’s Stephen King describing his first ‘best-seller’, a novelisation of one of his favourite horror films, self-published when he was at high school:

“Working with the care and deliberation for which I would later be critically acclaimed, I turned out my novel version of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in two days … blissfully unaware that I was in violation of every plagiarism and copyright statute in the history of the world.”

He sold out his entire print run to his fellow students, making an enormous profit, although his principal later made him refund the money and told him to stop wasting his time writing “junk”. King received advice that was far more useful from the editor of his town’s newspaper, where King had a part-time job writing sports reports:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story … When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

King goes on to describe his development as a writer – studying literature and creative writing at college, writing stories for magazines, then working on his early novels while supporting his young family by teaching high school. His wife fished the opening chapters of Carrie out of his wastebasket and convinced him to keep going with it. Carrie ended up being his first published book, made him a fortune, and set him off on his career as a best-selling author of horror and speculative fiction. It wasn’t all smooth sailing after that, though, and he writes eloquently about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, and then about his physical rehabilitation after he was nearly killed in a horrific traffic accident.

The second half of the book provides a lot of practical, well-organised advice about writing fiction, although King cautions:

“…no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”

He divides writers into a pyramid, with a lot of bad writers on the base, some competent writers above them, a few “really good” writers above them, and at the apex, the geniuses – “the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.” He believes it’s impossible to make a bad writer into a competent one, or a good writer into a great one, but that “it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”. He also believes that stories are like fossils, “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world”, excavated from the ground using a writer’s box of tools.

His advice includes:

– Read a lot and write a lot. He provides a list of his favourite books (his favourite writers include Pat Barker, Bill Bryson, Annie Proulx, J.K. Rowling, Donna Tartt, Anne Tyler and Evelyn Waugh) and he says that watching television is a waste of time.

– Write quickly, work every day to a schedule, and don’t stop until you’ve finished a draft. He thinks a first draft should take no longer than three months and claims he wrote the first draft of The Running Man in a week. However, he does acknowledge that The Stand took sixteen months and (probably not coincidentally) is his fans’ favourite book.

– Don’t ever plot, because “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible”.

– “Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”

– Similarly, symbolism will only become evident once you’ve excavated your story: “If it is there, and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it till it shines.”

– “Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others”, which is why H.P. Lovecraft, a painfully shy snob, wrote such terrible, stilted dialogue.

– When revising, remember this important formula: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”

And if you get stuck, remember, “Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam.”

I can’t say I agreed with all of it (personally, I find plotting essential, and while I’d love to be able to finish a first draft of a novel in three months, I can’t imagine that will ever happen) and some of his advice about finding a publisher is a little dated, because the book was written fifteen years ago. But I found all of it fascinating and I’d recommend this to anyone interested in writing as a craft or as a career.

‘The Meaning of Treason’ by Rebecca West

The Meaning of Treason is a fascinating, if somewhat biased, discussion about what ‘treason’ means in the modern world and although it was first published in 1949, I found it highly relevant to current political events. The author, Dame Rebecca West, reported on the post-war trials of the British traitors William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) and John Amery for The New Yorker, then decided the topic was interesting enough to explore at greater length. She revised the book in the 1960s to include a number of Cold War spy scandals, and the edition that I read included a new introduction, written by her in 1982.

'The Meaning of Treason' by Rebecca West

Revised edition of ‘The Meaning of Treason’, with a cover image of creepy Oswald Mosley and some of his fellow Fascists, including William Joyce (pictured, ironically, to the far left of Mosley)

In Britain, the “root of the law against treason” dated back to 1351, when Edward III declared that “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”, that man was guilty of treason. So, how did that apply to the strange case of William Joyce? He’d been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, then he moved to Nazi Germany as soon as war was declared, became a German citizen and spent the war years broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the British public – for instance, he’d gloat over the radio about the damage that German bombs were inflicting on English cities and encourage the British to surrender to Hitler. Obviously, British people weren’t very impressed with Joyce at the time, although most came to regard the broadcasts, and Joyce, as a big joke. At the end of the war, Joyce was captured by the Allies and then put on trial in London, charged with ‘high treason’. Still, he’d been a German citizen at the time of the broadcasts, working loyally for his own country, not even engaged in anything that might be termed a ‘war crime’, so how could he be put on trial for being a British traitor? Well, it turns out “a British subject is forbidden by law to become the naturalized subject of an enemy country in wartime”, so he’d broken the law by moving to Germany and becoming a German. Except it turned out Joyce was actually an American citizen, born in the United States, with an Irish father who’d become a naturalized American years earlier. Joyce’s family moved to England when the boy was two, and he’d never applied for British citizenship, although as an adult, he fraudulently applied for (and received) a British passport to travel to Germany. The prosecution argued he’d been under the protection of the British Crown due to his passport, so he owed the Crown his allegiance, and after several trials and appeals, Joyce was found guilty and hanged. There were other British men tried for treason after the war, including John Amery (the son of Conservative Minister Leo Amery), who pleaded guilty and was also hanged, as well as a number of men who’d been taken prisoner by the Germans and were enticed to join the ‘British Free Corps’ and fight with the Nazis against the Soviets. West has some sympathy for these men, who were often young, uneducated and in terrifying situations (or, in the case of Amery, were mentally unstable).

She has far less sympathy for the next set of traitors, the nuclear scientists who’d signed agreements to keep information secret, then gave away these scientific secrets to the Soviet Union. In fact, she is deeply suspicious of scientists in general. Scientists, she says, are arrogant and clannish, placing scientific comradeship above national loyalty and believing themselves to be always rational, always right and incapable of doing harm. She uses as evidence the cases of Alan Nunn May, Klaus Emil Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo. Dr Fuchs is particularly interesting. He was born in Germany to a Quaker family who courageously opposed the Nazis when they came to power. His father, a church leader, was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but young Klaus, by then a member of the Communist Party, escaped to Britain, where he completed his doctorate studies in physics. When war broke out, the British imprisoned him because he was a German, then exiled him (along with many other scientists, including Max Perutz) to the wastelands of Canada. Eventually, the British worked out that all those imprisoned anti-Nazi German scientists could be helping the Allies win the war, so they brought them back, made Dr Fuchs a British subject, sent him to America to work on the Atomic Project for three years, then, after the war, employed him as head of the physics department at the Atomic Energy Establishment – until 1950, when they discovered he’d been sharing scientific information with the Soviet Union for eight years. He was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act and pleaded guilty, but explained that most of the offences had been carried out while the Soviet Union was a wartime ally of Britain, so he hadn’t been ‘aiding the enemy’. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and his British citizenship was revoked, although he protested against the latter, pointing out that he’d pleaded guilty, cooperated fully with the authorities and anyway, “the British Nationality Act of 1948 excluded punishment as reason for revoking a certificate of naturalization”. Isn’t that interesting, that Britain couldn’t take away citizenship as punishment for a crime, even a ‘traitorous’ crime? In fact, West explains that if a traitor’s citizenship was revoked, he would become “a stateless person and could not have been deported” – that is, taking away someone’s citizenship meant he’d be forced to remain in the country.1 In the end, Fuchs was released from prison and moved to East Germany, where he became an East German citizen and resumed his career in nuclear physics.

West goes on to discuss the cases of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (British diplomatic staff who turned out to be Soviet agents) and their friend Kim Philby (MI6 operative, also a Soviet agent), as well as William Marshall, George Blake, William Vassall and the Portland Five. She acknowledges that many of these spies could have been detected far earlier if British security services had been more competent, but she also seems to share the paranoid belief of Peter Wright that the Soviet Union was far more powerful and efficient than it actually was. Whenever a Soviet spy is caught, she’s convinced that the USSR deliberately allowed the spy to be discovered, in order to further its fiendish Communist plans (that is, to make British security services look foolish, encourage the British public to lose confidence in their government, and cause the Americans to regard the British with distrust). She insists, for instance, that William Vassall was a professional Communist spy, rather than a bumbling amateur who was blackmailed into handing over information to the Soviets after they took compromising photos of him during a drunken homosexual orgy (she says the party may have taken place but it was “probably engineered so that Vassall might refer to it, should his treachery ever be discovered”). And when Burgess and Maclean defected and the British government initially denied the men were Communist spies, this wasn’t a government trying to cover up its own incompetence but a sign of secret Communist conspiracies in the highest echelons of power. And so on.

I kept noticing the parallels with modern politics. West describes the experiences of Westerners imprisoned during the Korean War and subjected to Communist “brainwashing” before being sent home, then worries that future British fighters in “peripheral wars” could return home and spread false ideas “that their countries’ enemies were in the right”. Then there’s Harold Macmillan, responding to demands that security legislation be tightened in the wake of the Burgess and Maclean scandal: “It would be a tragedy if we destroyed freedom in the effort to preserve it.” But apart from having lots of interesting things to say about current events, this book was also beautifully written, full of thoughtful observations and a lot of droll humour and motivated by a genuine interest in the well-being of society. The Meaning of Treason is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic of treason, but particularly those interested in the Cold War.

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  1. For the benefit of non-Australians, I should explain that the current Australian government is trying to pass legislation that would revoke the citizenship of Australians accused of terrorism, regardless of whether or not these people had been convicted of terrorist offences, or indeed, if there was any firm evidence they’d committed any crime at all. Among the options being discussed were that such people could have their Australian citizenship revoked: if they had dual citizenship, even if their other country of citizenship refused to allow the person to enter that country; or if they were citizens only of Australia but had parents or grandparents who’d been citizens of other countries – that is, the legislation would potentially leave people stateless. Also, this would be decided by the Minister for Immigration, not by a court of law or an independent commission. Not surprisingly, when the draft of this legislation was shown to legal experts, they said (and I paraphrase), “This is illegal, unconstitutional and makes no sense whatsoever.”

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is excellent at writing family sagas and A Spool of Blue Thread is a wonderful example of her craft, even if many of the themes and plot lines will be familiar to her fans. Her twentieth novel is about three generations of Whitshanks, who live in a beautiful house that was built in a well-to-do Baltimore suburb by Junior, the ambitious Whitshank patriarch. The Whitshanks endlessly retell stories about themselves (and their house) to convince themselves of how special they are, but inconvenient historical truths and the harsh realities of ageing and death threaten the family’s complacency.

'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne TylerEchoes of her previous novels did occasionally distract me from the story. For instance, at one point, Abby Whitshank muses, “The trouble with dying … is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending,” just as Pearl in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant told herself that “dying, you don’t get to see how it all turns out.” Abby’s daughter, clearing out the house after a sudden death in the family, wonders “why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end”, just as Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet, cleaning out Mrs Alford’s house, said, “I suddenly understood that you really, truly can’t take it with you.” Abby’s determination to look on the bright side of life, wilfully ignoring the facts, is reminiscent of Maggie in Breathing Lessons; Abby’s wayward son is a current-day version of Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet; even the Whitshank house, with its wide front porch and porch swing, brings to mind the Bedloe house in Saint Maybe. And, just as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, characters who initially seem unlikeable, even despicable, are gradually revealed to have complex reasons for their behaviour, which provides some excuse and attracts some sympathy (not for Junior, though, who remained despicable to me).

If you aren’t familiar with Anne Tyler’s work, you won’t notice the reworking of previous themes, and if you do love her work, you probably won’t mind it too much. I really did enjoy the humour in this book (there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments for me) and the clever observations, delivered in her characteristically sharp prose (for instance, when a family member attempts to make polite conversation with a visitor determined to be offended, the visitor “slammed each question to the ground and let it lie there like a dead shuttlecock”). The only reasons this book doesn’t make it into my Top Five Anne Tyler Novels list are that: a) it doesn’t contain any characters as vivid and lovable as Agatha in Saint Maybe or Maryam in Digging To America, and b) the meandering non-conclusion, while consistent with this novel’s themes, isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the conclusion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or A Patchwork Planet or The Accidental Tourist. I still think this is a great read and I highly recommend it. There’s also a terrific interview with the author here at The Guardian, in which she discusses, among other things, her friendship with John Waters (“I don’t go to biker bars with him. Once a year, he comes to mine for dinner and once a year I go to his. He’s a very sweet man”).

You might also be interested in reading:

Anne Tyler and Her Novels

The Years of Grace : Careers

The fifth and final section of The Years of Grace provides advice for girls about careers, although Noel Streatfeild emphasises in her introduction that “the best career for every woman is, of course, taking care of her husband and home”. (Noel, you big hypocrite. As if you ever got married or did any housekeeping.) But before I describe the careers open to Fifties Girl, I’d just like to point out that this book was first published in 1950, a mere five years after the end of the Second World War. During the war, young English women were conscripted into the army, navy or air force if they weren’t already doing vital war work. Women were welding armaments in factories, driving ambulances through the Blitz, putting out fires started by incendiary bombs, shooting down enemy bombers, taking new planes on test flights, driving supply lorries, plotting ship convoys, decoding enemy messages at Bletchley Park, and being parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to help the Resistance.

But that had all changed by 1950. According to The Years of Grace, girls could aspire to be nurses but not doctors; air stewardesses but not pilots or aeronautical engineers; school teachers but not university professors; secretaries but not managers.

Of the thirteen chapters, a significant number are devoted to destroying any illusions the teenage reader might have about ‘glamorous’ careers. The girl who dreams of being a prima ballerina, film star, famous singer or ice-skating star is firmly told that her chances of making it to the top are infinitesimal – even if she happened to have the requisite talent, it would require an enormous amount of time, money, luck and sheer, backbreaking effort to get anywhere near stardom. I was interested to see that an entire chapter was devoted to ice-skating, of all things, as a career. Apparently, most towns in 1950s England had ice rinks that employed skating coaches and hosted professional ice shows, each show needing a large number of “chorus skaters” (producers looked for girls with “personality, a good figure, a pretty face and well-shaped legs”). However, only a lucky few of these chorus girls would reach the exciting heights of understudy to the solo skater, and only if they had unusual skills (“for example, should you be able to skate indifferently with a live cobra, you are more likely to impress the management than if you skate superbly with a man”).

The other chapters give practical advice about more achievable careers. For example, Mary Field provides a lot of useful information about various behind-the-scenes jobs in the film industry (prop buying, set designing, wig-making, editing, publicity) and gives a frank assessment of women’s prospects:

“As the film production business is a fairly new one – only just over fifty years old – there has not been time for much sex discrimination to grow up and workers get the ‘rate for the job’ without reference to their sex. This is good in one way, because so many jobs may be open to a girl-worker, but it means also that a girl has got to be better than her men competitors to get and keep a position.”

Then there are chapters about the realities of nursing, school-teaching and agricultural jobs, each one emphasising that the rewards of such jobs are emotional, rather than financial. And even nursing requires that a girl be glamorous:

“A good nurse should look as pretty as possible, her shoes should always be polished, her fingernails carefully manicured, her hair done neatly but in a way that suits her. She should somehow manage to look – and smell – as fresh as a daisy, no matter how tired she is – and her nose shouldn’t shine!”

Girls wanting to earn a decent salary are encouraged to think about retail jobs or the Civil Service. Marjorie Linstead claims “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women” and that “the civil service, as a career has been, and is being, combined with marriage and a home by some women”. (The author does not seem aware of the fact that married women were barred from working at the Foreign Office, a situation that continued until 1972.) There’s also secretarial work in private businesses, which requires a girl to be well-groomed (of course), dignified, have a good memory, be excellent at typing and shorthand and adding numbers, and most importantly, to be devoted to her (male) employer and to ensure he never, ever feels he’s incompetent, even when he is, as illustrated in this extract from a hypothetical secretary’s diary:

“2:30 pm – Board meeting–took minutes and rushed a copy into Smithy immediately afterwards, so he could see what had been said, as he was half-asleep during best part of Board. Worked on Fuller accounts for rest of afternoon–felt sure that something was wrong somewhere, but S. said, ‘No, impossible.’ Turned out I was right, but with S. in that mood had to persuade him that the idea of a possible error had been his from the very beginning. Eventually he beamed all over and said, ‘Sue, I had an instinct about that!’”

'Above the clouds' by Alice Bush, in 'The Years of Grace'Then there’s the most lucrative career of all for a girl – being an air stewardess. Women could earn up to nine pounds a week, plus a flying allowance and an overseas allowance and free world travel and free hotel stays, and they were provided with a stylish uniform. Of the four thousand applications, only about forty lucky girls were offered a job with B.O.A.C. each year. Such a girl had to be between 21 and 28 years old, have a “good private school background”, speak at least one foreign language, have nursing or catering experience, be charming and beautiful, and be willing to submit to a “thorough checkup” by airline doctors every couple of months. Also, she had to be able to stay smiling during non-stop twelve-hour shifts, in which she was expected to serve food and drinks, calm nervous flyers, cure travel sickness, amuse fretful children, change nappies and “delicately snub the wolf” (it is not clear whether the sexual harrassers were passengers or pilots, or both). But it’s okay, she’d probably manage to snare a husband pretty quickly:

“There is a retiring age in B.O.A.C., it is fifty-five, but no stewardess has yet come within smelling distance of retiring. After all, they are hand-picked young women, with character, charm and pleasing looks. It will not surprise you, therefore, to learn that 95 per cent marry, and their usual length of service with the corporation is only two years.”

You know what? None of the above career options sound very appealing to me! I think I’d like to write books. Fortunately, Noel Streatfeild knows all about that:

“You can’t, of course, learn to be an author. An author is born to write, just as a singer is born to sing … They may write masterpieces or they may write what is rudely known as pulp, but they have qualities which make them writers … amongst them you will find a blotting-paper memory which has soaked in everything seen and heard. Often a faultless ear for dialogue, so that it is impossible for any person to say something which belongs to another person. A vivid imagination. Usually ruthless individualism. And of course, an ear for cadences, a love of words, and, in the case of the novelist and biographer, a vast interest in human beings.”

But don’t forget about a day job:

“Wolves do not just sit on the doorsteps of young artists taking a casual lick at the paintwork, they come inside and sit on the hearth-rug, taking all the warmth from the fire. You may think now that you won’t mind being poor if only you can give your talent full scope. Maybe, but all the same, before developing your talent, find a nice humdrum job that will support you in hard times and keep the wolf, not only off the hearth-rug, but possibly several streets away.”

Very wise words, Noel. Some of this book’s advice might be a little out of date, but The Years of Grace contains a few timeless truths.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

The Years of Grace : Sport

Each section of The Years of Grace begins with some verse, and the introduction to ‘Sport’ is the worst by far:

'Sport' by Anna Zinkeisen from 'The Years of Grace'

Every girl ought
To love sport
But if she wants to be wise and adorable
and completely feminine
She will let meniwin
ALWAYS

Apparently Fifties Man was so fragile that if he was ever Beaten By A Girl, he’d crumple into a heap.

This section is the shortest in the book, partly because Noel Streatfeild admits she was always “the lowest-class rabbit at games”, but mostly because there are only three sports in which Fifties Girl is allowed to participate: lawn tennis, horse riding and swimming. There’s also golf, but “in many parts of the British Isles it is such an expensive game that few can afford it”, so I guess it’s fair enough that Noel chose to omit it from the book. Of course, there’s also ‘Watching Sport With Your Brother And His Friends’. Watching sport played by men, naturally. I spent the entire section desperately wanting to watch Fifties Man getting trounced by Serena Williams at Wimbledon.

The next and final section of The Years of Grace is ‘Careers’. But what possible career could Fifties Girl be qualified to do, given that she spent her school years concentrating on being “well-groomed” and is forbidden from ever competing with a man? Chapter titles such as ‘You Might Be A Secretary’ and ‘Shop-Keeping’ give some indication, although ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ looks intriguing. The Foreign Office? MI5? I will report back.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

The Years of Grace : Leisure

I meant to post this earlier, but have been experiencing major technological difficulties1. Sorry about that. Anyway, according to The Years of Grace, Fifties Girl had many different options when it came to her leisure hours. She could go to the pictures and sigh over Stewart Granger (although Virginia Graham cautions her to pay careful attention to the film’s production values, if only to be able to say, “Look how beautifully he acted, in spite of that appalling script”). She could listen to records on her gramophone (Christopher Stone recommends Elgar, Sibelius and Szymanowski, but warns her to “always test a new record in the shop before taking it home”). She could watch the ballet (Rumer Godden provides useful tips) or go to the theatre (in her best “party frock”) or listen to a concert (provided it featured “good music” by Beethoven or Mendelssohn, and not any of that terrible “jazz or light music”). Even reading was expected to be an exercise in self-improvement, with Howard Spring recommending that girls read “classics”:

“… it will sometimes happen, when you come to read them, that they seem a little difficult, their meaning is not on the surface, and you wonder why other people think them supreme. Now please have the grace to wait a little, to believe that you are not seeing them aright because your own vision is not yet clear. Go on reading them, and, as life itself teaches you what living means, the day will come when you will suddenly see what it is all about: the book will become an eye-opener, and you will cry with Job: ‘Now mine eye seeth Thee.'”

Fortunately, Noel Streatfeild provides some comfort to girls who like pulp fiction and jazz:

“Never care what any kind of art snob says or looks. If you like a book, like it and say so. If you like a certain sort of music, own up to it, don’t pretend you only enjoy something that actually bores you stiff.”

Mind you, even Noel is wary of some modern developments in popular culture:

“Wireless and television are scientific marvels, but like many other marvels they want careful handling. Television can be a joy, but, my goodness, it can be a horror. America, where of course all programmes over the air are paid for by manufacturers, nearly put me off television for good.”

Still, leisure isn’t just about watching others being creative. Kitty Barne has a great chapter on ‘Producing a Play’ and Cora Gordon almost inspired me to take up ‘Sketching’, with both writers providing lots of practical tips and emphasising how fun these activities can be. John Pudney also contributes an entertaining chapter on summer holidays, which can range from camping in the back garden and exploring old Roman roads in the local area, to boating on the Thames and drawing a map of your adventures (“There is a special mark, of course, for the spot where Father fell in”). However, he hopes he is not being unpatriotic when he declares that “holidays abroad with or without parents are the best holidays of all”. He gives examples of his own family trips to Ireland, featuring airsick passengers (“Half-way over the Irish Channel, Elizabeth, our youngest, said in a loud voice to the stewardess, who was bringing round lunch: ‘If that lady over there is too sick to eat her dinner, can I have hers too?'”) and in France, involving adventures with Customs officials (“Anne was so excited by it all, I remember, that she infuriated us by insisting that the nice man should examine her bags”).

Another illustration by Anna Zinkeisen from 'The Years of Grace'

One of these girls slouches, dresses in a slovenly manner and reads trashy books. The other learns tap dancing, so she has Poise.

And Marguerite Vacani (yes, the Miss Vacani who taught Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – and Sophie FitzOsborne – how to dance) describes how enjoyable ballroom dancing can be:

“I have taught a baby of two a polka in the morning, and finished the day by teaching her grandparents the samba, and all three enjoyed themselves equally.”

Of course, dancing is not merely about enjoyment. It gives a girl “that most useful quality – poise” and furthermore, if a girl is “not naturally well made”, it will improve her shape. Also, dancing improves the complexion, eradicates shyness and gives one’s face “a contented look”. Tap dancing is especially good, because men love “the gayness and fascinating timing”. Well, if tap dancing can do all that, imagine how much good sport would do to Fifties Girl. Accordingly, the next section in The Years of Grace is Sport.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

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  1. Did Fifties Girl ever have to face a WordPress admin screen on which most of the buttons had suddenly decided to stop functioning for no apparent reason? No, I don’t believe she did. Readers, if you’ve tried to comment on this blog in the past two weeks, I’m very sorry, but your comment has been lost in the ether. However, commenting is back to normal now. I hope.

The Years of Grace : Your Home

In my previous discussion of the opening section of The Years of Grace, I neglected the fabulous illustrations, so I’ll make sure to include some here. Each section of this book has an introduction by Noel Streatfeild, and in this second section, ‘Your Home’, she admits that she was a “menace” as a teenager, “scowling round the house, saying ‘Why should I?’ about everything I was asked to do” and bringing home an unsuitably un-English friend called Consuelo (“Girls from Latin countries grow up faster than girls from cold countries. Consuelo probably held the record for fast growing-up even in a Latin country.”).

The first chapter, by Margaret Kennedy, discusses the difficulties of sharing a house with parents and siblings:

John Verney illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“The mother must manage to make room for her daughter’s wider life without letting the others feel that the whole house now belongs to an ENORMOUS GIRL who seems to be everywhere at once – locked in the bathroom when her brother wants to shave, telephoning in the hall at the top of her voice, pressing a dress on the kitchen table and dancing to the radio in the sitting-room.”

(By the way, I thought that illustration’s dense cross-hatched style seemed familiar and it turned out to be the work of John Verney, author of Friday’s Tunnel.)

Margaret Kennedy provides some sensible advice about reaching compromises with parents, including the need to be nice to your parents’ dull old friends (“It is highly mortifying for a mother if the refreshments at her bridge party are brought in by a daughter who looks as though she were dispensing alms to a colony of lepers”) and having to explain your own friends to them (“Parents do not always understand their daughters’ friendships or see where the attraction lies”). This is further explored in an article by Richmal Crompton, who gives useful tips for being a good friend (you need tact, generosity, lack of possessiveness, common but not identical interests, and a shared sense of humour).

Next comes Magdalen King-Hall with a chapter about community service and social justice, even if she doesn’t call it that. Although the examples she provides are a little dated (Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale), the message is still relevant today:

“We are linked together, not only with the other people in our own country, but with all the other people in the world. It is like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples spread out in widening circles – you, your family, your school, your community, your country, your world. This feeling of world citizenship is only in its infancy, but it has been born, and two devastating world wars have not destroyed it.”

She even mentions The League of Nations. Veronica FitzOsborne would approve. But Veronica probably wouldn’t think much of Mary Dunn’s article, ‘The Queen Was in the Kitchen’. Mrs Dunn explains that men reserve their greatest admiration for a girl who can cook:

Anna Zinkeisen illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“Pretty, helpless women are very nice in the fiancée stage, to take to the pictures and to dance with, but after marriage, unless a girl is feminine in the right way, not just to look at but a homemaker, there is going to be trouble. Of course, after he has married her a man still wants a girl to look pretty and to have time to do things with him, but he wants as well to be quite certain that she looks after him better than the wives of all the other chaps in the street, and that he can brag that he is the best-fed man he knows.”

Mrs Dunn despairs because British housewives are letting down the side, compared to their glamorous counterparts in France, Scandinavia and especially the United States. You might think those Hollywood films depicting pretty housewives creating beautiful meals in dazzling kitchens are just Hollywood fantasies. But you would be wrong:

“Most American kitchens are like that and nearly all American girls really are splendid cooks, and really do whisk up superb meals and appear five minutes later in their living rooms looking too glamorous to be true. This business of looking smart when doing housework or cooking is something that we in this country really ought to turn our attention to … I feel sorry for tradesmen; how depressing when they call, to be greeted by a bedraggled object …”

Fortunately, the next article, by Janet Farwell, involved a vet talking to a family about the advantages and disadvantages of various pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, tortoises, fish, hamsters, budgies, silkworms) and included some adorable puppy illustrations, so my blood pressure returned to normal.

Finally, Elizabeth Cadell gave a lot of practical advice on hosting teenage parties, including hints on venues (turn your bedroom into “a very attractive bed-sitting room” by scattering cushions on the floor and covering the dressing table with a tablecloth), refreshments (sausage rolls, trifle, ice-cream, cider cup and “in cold weather, provide Bovril”) and games (cards, Tiddlywinks, charades). Which leads nicely to the next section of The Years of Grace: Leisure.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s, Part Two

My copy of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties was finally delivered and proved to be interesting, although not terribly useful for my research purposes and possibly not worth the three-month wait. I am far more excited by the arrival of this book:

'The Years of Grace', edited by Noel Streatfeild

The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild, was recommended to me by Penni and is a marvellous guide to 1950s Girl Life. As the jacket proclaims,

The Years of Grace is a book for growing-up girls who are too old for children’s books and are just beginning to read adult literature. It is a difficult age – difficult for parents and friends, but more difficult for the girls themselves. What are they going to do when they leave school? How should they dress? What is a good hobby? How can they make the right sort of friends? The problems are endless, and here in The Years of Grace is to be found the wisdom of many of our greatest writers and most distinguished people of our time.”

There are sections on ‘You’, ‘Your Home’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Careers’, all beautifully illustrated. I’ve only read the first section, but can already tell I’m going to find this book highly entertaining. The first chapter of ‘You’, for instance, is written by “a Woman Doctor” who has chosen the interesting pseudonym of ‘Cannula’. She begins by stating,

“When I become Prime Minister, I shall introduce a law: the study of glamour will become a compulsory subject for all girls at school. Science and algebra are all very well, but they will not be much use to you in life unless you also know all about glamour … I declare firmly that you will do much better if you have glamour without learning than if you have learning without glamour.”

The rest of her chapter consists of stern advice on posture (“no girl who holds herself badly can look really smart”) and grooming (make sure you change your knickers “two or three times a week at least” and use deodorant once a week).

This is followed by an amusing chapter by Marguerite Steen, mostly about the history of undergarments, although she does have some advice on modern-day underwear:

“Nothing on earth looks more sluttish than mended nylons (unless they are invisibly mended) with darns down the ladders. The ‘next worst’ is moth-eaten suspenders, a single glimpse of which is quite enough to ruin the effect of your handsomest hand-knitted sports stockings.”

Also, make sure you’re wearing nice underwear, in case you get run over by a bus:

“I remember being told by a friend of mine, who was in an accident, that the fact of having on her best pin-spot chiffon step-ins went quite a long way to offsetting the pain of her fractured thigh when they were taking her away in the ambulance!”

Then comes James Laver on the history of women’s hairstyles and Elizabeth Arden on ‘The Care of the Skin and Hair’ (strangely enough, this requires a lot of cleansing creams, skin tonics, foundation creams, face powders and outfit-coordinated lipsticks, all no doubt available at the nearest Elizabeth Arden counter). Digby Morton’s contribution is ‘Pretty Girls All in a Row’, full of words of wisdom on fashion (for instance, “school is a place where your reputation is built, a place to look trim and well-groomed always” and “the wisest thing a girl can do is to take a dress-making and millinery course”). He also wishes to be Prime Minister, so he could “make it compulsory for every girl to have a grey flannel suit”. (These writers seem to have a peculiar view of the role of the British Prime Minister.) But as much as I want to make fun of Digby Morton, I have to admit he provides some very good advice on colours, fabrics and styles, and a fifties girl who followed his advice on building a wardrobe would look quite fabulous. And Alison Settle’s ‘Making the Best of Yourself’ is a terrific, timeless article on teenage anxieties regarding emotions, making and keeping friends, falling in love, dealing with annoying siblings and managing parents. I am very much looking forward to the remaining sections of this book – if anyone’s interested, I’ll post my thoughts about them here.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve mostly been reading British fiction written during or about the 1960s, but as I tend to blog only about books I like, I won’t be writing about them.1 However, I did enjoy the third volume of Noel Streatfeild‘s autobiography, Beyond the Vicarage, first published in 1971. She wrote the books from the perspective of a character called ‘Victoria Strangeway’, explaining, “I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.” 'Beyond the Vicarage' by Noel StreatfeildFair enough, but it does lead to phrases like “Victoria seemed to think that …” and “Victoria must have forgotten that …”, which is a bit odd when she’s writing about herself. Anyway, this book is about how Victoria/Noel decides to stop being a successful actress touring the world and become a writer. She sails back from Australia via Siam (as it was then called), where her brother works, and eventually arrives in England to look after her recently-widowed mother. Although Victoria’s father had been a bishop from a well-off family, the family is now in ‘reduced circumstances’ and Victoria’s mother is the sort of helpless genteel lady who has never had to look after herself, so living in lodgings does not go well. After employing a series of disastrous companions, her mother is finally settled in her own new home with appropriate help and Victoria, breathing a huge sigh of relief, moves back to London to write her first novel. Despite the distractions of her busy social life (she eventually resorts to writing in bed in her pyjamas so she won’t be tempted to go out), she quickly writes the manuscript, immediately finds a publisher and is instantly making a comfortable living as a novelist. Her publisher even pays her a weekly wage when she complains the system of advances and royalties is too complex for her to deal with. The only complaint her publisher has is that “you make everyone too loveable. I doubt you could write about a bitch if you tried.” (Victoria then vows to write “the bitchiest bitch you ever read about” and writes It Pays To Be Good.) Then another publisher, aware of Victoria’s theatrical background, asks her to write a children’s book about child actors, so Victoria, “cross at herself for agreeing to something she was convinced she could not write”, produces Ballet Shoes, which is an instant bestseller, and the rest is history. Although she ended up writing a few more novels for adults, she gave up on them in the early 1960s, telling herself,

“If, for some reason, the public are either off novels or like such peculiar ones you couldn’t and wouldn’t write them, why go on trying? Let’s face it, you never had more than what Noel Coward’s song called ‘a talent to amuse’. You never belonged to the great. So give up writing [adult] novels here and now.”

She took great care with the research for her books – for example, she travelled with a circus when writing about child circus performers, visited Hollywood when writing about a child star, and spent “a lot of time in [Buckingham] Palace hanging about for news from the Lady-in-Waiting” when writing about Princess Margaret for Growing Up Gracefully. But the most interesting part of the book involves her experiences during the Second World War, when she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service. She ran mobile canteens in Blitz-battered London, arranged housing for bombed-out Londoners, put out fires set off by incendiary bombs and then, after the war, organised entertainment for newly-returned residents of the Channel Islands, gave lectures in Holland and spent her own money turning a London bombsite into a flower garden. (What a contrast with Dodie Smith, who spent the entire war living in luxury in America.) The war stories are a mixture of humour and heartbreak – a monkey rescued from the rubble of a bombed pub gratefully accepts a cup of hot milk, then turns around and bites his rescuer; a woman dying of cancer survives two bombing raids that kill the rest of her family. There is also personal anguish for Victoria, with her brother and his young family interned as prisoners of the Japanese, her own flat and most of her belongings destroyed in the Blitz, and her publisher’s warehouse, containing all unsold copies of her books, all the plates to reprint them and the entire first printing of her new book, getting “bombed to pieces”. While she skims over a lot of potentially interesting events and the book is essentially a series of unrelated anecdotes, Victoria/Noel comes across as a lovely person – energetic, funny, honest, devoted to helping others and endlessly curious about life.

'Quiet' by Susan CainTaking a break from post-war England, I then read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by US writer, Susan Cain. It came out a couple of years ago but there was a long queue for it at my library (I know, library patrons being deeply interested in a book about introverts, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT). This was an easy-to-read, well-researched account of the difficulties introverts face in the extroverted culture of modern-day America. There was a clear overview of the strengths of both introverts and extroverts, as well as a good discussion of the overlap between ‘high sensitivity’ or reactivity (or neuroticism) and introversion. The author also explains that many introverts are very successful at faking extroversion when highly motivated to do so (for example, because their job requires it or they’re promoting a cause they’re passionate about), although they need ‘restorative niches’ of solitude to recharge their energy. Most of this information was familiar to me, although I was interested to read about research into introversion/extroversion in various animal species. For example, some species have about 20% ‘shy’ individuals and 80% ‘bold’ individuals, with the bold ones doing better in hard times because they’re willing to take the risk of being eaten in order to find food (the shy ones starve to death in harsh conditions, but thrive in good conditions as they’re better at evading predators). My only criticism of this book would be the very narrow focus – while the author (a Harvard-educated lawyer) claims the book is about American society in general, it’s really about rich white Americans and rich Asian-Americans (and all ‘Asians’, from Indians to the Japanese, are treated as having similar cultures and lifestyles, which is just not true). Still, it’s a good read and its bestseller status indicates there are a lot of Americans who agree that introverts are under-appreciated in their society. Also, I was interested to read the author’s note that “You wouldn’t be reading this book if I hadn’t convinced my publisher that I was enough of a pseudo-extrovert to promote it.” Sad, but true. Ah, for the good old days when authors were able to sit at home writing their books in introverted bliss, without having to worry about promoting themselves …

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  1. Although if you’re interested in finding out just how sexist, racist and homophobic 1960s England was, hey, have I got some book recommendations for you!

Nancy Pearl Discusses ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’

A Brief History of MontmarayNancy Pearl talked about A Brief History of Montmaray this week in her regular book spot on KUOW-FM, a Seattle radio station. I am very chuffed about this – not only to hear someone on the other side of the world recommending my book, but also because this was NANCY PEARL. The most famous librarian in the world! Probably the only librarian to have her own action figure1 and trading cards and to have a tribute bluegrass band named in her honour!

The interview with Marcie Sillman includes some discussion about what distinguishes Young Adult fiction from adult fiction (“Marketing,” Nancy Pearl astutely observes) and the role of history in historical fiction. You can listen to more book recommendations at the KUOW website. Thank you, Nancy Pearl. Thank you, KUOW. And thank you, book people of Seattle.

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  1. The company responsible for the Nancy Pearl librarian action figure (with push-button finger-to-lips shushing action) also sells Edgar Allan Poe lunchboxes, Jane Austen tattoos and “Shakespearean Insult Bandages”. Just in case you’re interested.