… let good books help you.
“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”
So begins this highly entertaining memoir about a rich and eccentric Sydney family in the 1920s and 1930s. The author’s many older relatives tend to die in unusual ways: Aunt Juliet’s husband was killed when he fell through the dining room floor and broke his neck; Uncle Spot fell off a ladder while attempting to change a light bulb; Uncle Luke tumbled backwards off his office chair; Aunt Eva ate too many green apples; Aunt Jan died “from blowing up a balloon”. Even a visiting plumber dies of a heart attack after catching sight of the author’s ravishing mother, who’d “emerged naked from her dressing room en route to take a bath”.
There are also a number of unbalanced servants, pets and permanent house-guests, as well as an interfering grandmother who lives downstairs with batty Aunt Juliet (before Juliet gets run over by the bus) and a doctor father with a gambling habit who manages to shoot his own knee off (by accident, in his consulting rooms, while seeing a patient). The author claims “it was the clash and mingling of the Irish [on her father’s side] and Jewish [on her mother’s side] temperaments which provided this climate of high dramatic comedy. The fact that the doors were open and everybody joined in was pure Australian.”
Aunts Up The Cross was first published in 1965, long after the author had moved to London, and it shows (the author is particularly scathing about Australian architecture and the state of Australian theatre). The edition I read, however, was the 2001 Penguin re-release, which includes dozens of fascinating photographs of the various aunts and uncles and grandparents, the author’s extremely good-looking parents and the author herself as a pretty and indulged only child. There are also photos of the family mansion in Kings Cross, which burned down during the Second World War and is now the site of Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain.
My only criticism would be that this book is so short, a mere two hundred pages. I’d have liked to have learned more about the author herself, who went to a day school with the Governor’s daughter, then a posh country boarding school before working for the U.S. Army office in Sydney during the war and getting engaged multiple times. However the author, now ninety-six, has a new memoir out entitled One Leg Over, apparently about the many men who fell in love with her over her long and eventful life, so I have that to look forward to.
… I think of Winston Churchill after the war:
Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean ‘the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.’
I really enjoyed Mad World by Paula Byrne, which is an engrossing account of the people who inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novels – specifically, the troubled Lygon family of Madresfield Court, so similar to the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited.
The true story of the Lygons turns out to be even more dramatic and tragic than that of their fictional counterparts. Lord Beauchamp, a very grand earl, didn’t merely choose to live away from England with his lover because he disliked his pious wife – he was forced into permanent exile in 1931 to evade arrest for “committing acts of gross homosexual indecency” with his servants. While aristocratic men of the time often got away with flouting this law, Lord Beauchamp had been flagrant in his disregard for social and legal conventions. This became a problem when it appeared one of his daughters, Lady Mary, might marry Prince George. The King took action and recruited Beauchamp’s brother-in-law, Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, who’d long resented Beauchamp:
“It seemed grotesquely unfair that his brother-in-law should have three sons, a loyal wife, a string of homosexual lovers, a glittering career and great standing in politics, while he himself had got through three wives without producing a single male heir … Bendor set about his task with great relish and ruthless dispatch.”
The Lygon family was torn apart, with most of the children taking their father’s side and refusing to forgive their mother for divorcing him. The girls, previously the most eligible debutantes of their time, were unable to make ‘good’ marriages, due to the scandal. Lady Mary, the most beautiful, eventually married a philandering Russian aristocrat, who left her penniless and battling mental illness, alcoholism and loneliness. The heir, Lord Elmley, married a much older woman and had no children; Hugh, the model for Sebastian Flyte, quickly lost his good looks and his money and spent the remainder of his short life in a drunken stupor, trying to block out the guilt and shame of his own homosexuality; only Lady Dorothy, portrayed as Cordelia Flyte, seemed to live a relatively happy and productive life, although she had her own brief and disastrous marriage.
The author says that she wrote this book because she believed “that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” However, I finished this book disliking Waugh, as a person, even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible. He was a snob. He spent his life attaching himself to a series of rich, aristocratic families, happy to be their court jester if he got to stay in grand country houses for extended periods at their expense, especially if it also provided him with good writing fodder. From his earliest years, he was spiteful and nasty, bullying anyone he regarded as his inferior in either social status or intelligence. He may have possessed wit and humour, but it always had a sharp edge. There is a lot of description of his idiotic drunken escapades with friends, which we are meant to admire:
“…to an outsider, the banter and play that characterised Mad World [that is, life at Madresfield Court with the Lygon siblings] appear frivolous and jejune, but in reality the comedy was a means of survival and a manifestation of love.”
Hmm. Waugh at least had some self-awareness and admitted, when proposing to the woman who would become his second wife, “I am restless and moody and misanthropic and lazy and have no money…” (It reminded me of Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm trying to appear more interesting to Flora by hinting at his dark depths.) Perhaps the poor woman thought he was joking, but she agreed to marry him and then spent years living in the country, perpetually pregnant, looking after their huge brood of children while he caroused around London. Despite his fervent Roman Catholicism, he had no moral qualms about buying the services of prostitutes, including “little Arab girls of fifteen and sixteen, for ten francs each” in Morocco. Even his brief military service during the war was marked by impropriety, when he falsified the official record of his battalion’s withdrawal from Crete in 1941. He told his friend Nancy Mitford that his behaviour would have been even worse if he hadn’t been under the moral influence of the Church. The mind boggles.
Paula Byrne provides an interesting analysis of most of Waugh’s books, including Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I found her detailed chapter on Brideshead Revisited the most fascinating. She examines his descriptions of Oxford, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and aristocratic life, linking the major characters in the novel to their real-life counterparts. I think readers who love Waugh’s writing will find this book rewarding – but don’t expect to feel very fond of Waugh by the end of it.
I have not been reading much fiction lately as I’ve been distracted by ALL THE POLITICS, but two novels I recently read did provide some insight into race and immigration, which seems highly relevant to current events.
The first was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a hugely ambitious, sprawling novel about the experiences of African immigrants, “none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty”. The author’s observations on race felt true-to-life and were often quite funny, and it was particularly interesting to read her thoughts on the vast differences between ‘African-Americans’ (that is, the descendants of the African slaves sent to America many years ago) and ‘American-Africans’ (people from Nigeria and other African countries who have recently migrated to the United States). I also loved the sections set in Nigeria, which were beautifully described.
However, I had two problems with this novel. Firstly, it was not really a novel. Structurally, it was a mess – although perhaps this was meant to reflect the chaos of modern-day Nigerian life? It is supposedly the story of two lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who are cruelly torn apart by circumstances, except the narrative quickly wanders off in a variety of competing directions and so I lost all interest in the love story (which is abruptly and implausibly resolved in the final chapters). There is a cast of hundreds of characters, most of whom are introduced and then quickly disappear, never to be seen again. There are long sections in which nothing much happens. There are a lot of blog posts, written by Ifemelu, which say the same things the characters have already said. The whole book is unashamedly didactic, which makes me think it might have worked better as a memoir or a collection of essays.
A greater problem for me, though, was Ifemelu, who narrates most of the book. Ifemelu is the biggest Mary Sue I’ve encountered since Bella in Twilight. Ifemelu – or, as I came to think of her, ★ IFEMELU ★ – is perfect. She is beautiful (but naturally beautiful, not like those vain girls who straighten their hair and fuss over their clothes to attract men). She is smarter and wiser and has better taste than anyone else. She wins scholarships and fellowships and everything she attempts is a great success. She starts a blog about race and not only does it quickly become famous, she makes so much money from it that she’s able to buy a condo. Everyone adores her, especially rich men and small children, even though she never seems to do anything to help anyone else. Her rich boyfriends fall over themselves to shower her with whatever she desires – jobs, money, expensive clothes, overseas holidays. Not that she asks for those things, not like those other girls do, which again shows how much integrity she has! (In fact, she gets bored when her boyfriends are too nice to her, so she cheats on them or dumps them without a word of explanation, no doubt to teach them a valuable life lesson.) ★ IFEMELU ★ is also the best at pointing out other people’s flaws. She despises well-meaning white liberal Americans for being ignorant, African-Americans for not understanding how privileged their lives are compared to Africans, and Nigerians for being lazy and corrupt. All of this would be bearable if Ifemelu ever showed any self-awareness or made any attempt to change, but that never happens. The author has said that Ifemelu is autobiographical and suggests her flaws are meant to be endearing. I was not endeared and would much rather have spent more time with some of the other characters – Obinze, for example, who becomes an ‘undocumented’ immigrant in Britain, or Aunty Uju, who has much less luck than Ifemelu when it comes to choosing male partners, or Dike, the depressed teenager caught between two cultures in America. Despite these reservations, I did find the book interesting and it would be a great choice for a book club because there’s just so much to discuss.
After that I read something very different, but also about cultural clashes – Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. This is a small, perfectly formed novel about the conflict between British colonials and Indians working and studying at an agricultural college in Bengal. The author drew strongly on her own life experiences and her view of Indian society is both compassionate and clear-eyed. The descriptions of places and people are wonderful. She’s particularly good at portraying sensitive, awkward, plain girls on the verge of adolescence – in this novel, it’s twelve-year-old Emily, whose feuding parents have been forced to re-unite due to the war in Europe. When Emily’s little dog appears to contract rabies, it sets off a chain of disasters that ends up involving the whole town. The plotting is very skillfully done and the conclusion is deeply satisfying. And considering this was written by a white British woman in the 1940s, it’s commendable for its lack of racism. What did make me wince was the depiction of domestic violence and marital rape. At one stage, the most sympathetic character is indignant that anyone should judge him harshly for smashing up his house and assaulting his wife – after all, both were his property to do what he liked with and anyway, she provoked him by being annoying. Of course, this is what most people believed at the time (and unfortunately, how some people still think), so it’s entirely plausible – just unpleasant to read. However, on the whole, this is a beautiful piece of writing and highly recommended for Rumer Godden fans. A good companion read would be Anne Chisholm’s excellent biography of Rumer Godden, so that you can see the parts of the novel that were inspired by real events in the author’s life.
I’ve just started a new day job, plus I’ve returned to college to update my qualifications, so when I’m not working or studying or despairing at the current state of the world, I’m looking for reading matter that is undemanding and entertaining. You’d think a pile of recent bestselling novels would do the trick, wouldn’t you? And keep in mind I only picked up books that I thought I’d enjoy – mostly YA and what is classified as ‘chick lit’ and a couple of thrillers. Of my selection, two books fell into the “Okay, but instantly forgettable” category, most made me think “Really? This book sold a million copies? That many people liked this book?” and a couple were “How did a manuscript this bad actually manage to find a publisher?”
So, thank heavens for Ben Aaronovitch. I am continuing to devour his Peter Grant novels, which began with Rivers of London. In the second book, Moon Over Soho, London’s jazz musicians are dropping dead of seemingly natural causes at an alarming rate; meanwhile, several gory murders around the country have been linked to a strange creature with superhuman powers. With both Peter’s boss and his best friend out of action due to injuries, it’s up to Peter to save the day. And what does he do? He begins a torrid affair with the mysterious girlfriend of one of the dead men and he convinces his jazz musician dad to come out of retirement. This works out about as well as you’d expect. Fortunately Stephanopoulos, the “terrifying lesbian” in charge of Belgravia’s Murder Squad, is there to sort out the mess, with the help of Somali Ninja Girl, who pairs her leather biker jacket with a black silk hijab. There’s plenty of humour and lots of fascinating London history, but also some really nasty violence as the villain is revealed to be truly evil. Or is there more than one evil wizard…?
I think Whispers Under Ground, the third book, is my favourite so far. Lesley gets to play a greater role in the action as Peter, Nightingale, the Murder Squad and an unwanted FBI agent investigate the death of an American art student in London. Of course, the good guys are still trying to catch what Nightingale refers to as the “black magicians” and Peter insists on calling “Ethically Challenged Magical Practitioners”. There are some great action scenes set in the tunnels beneath London (although I could have done without the scene in which Peter and friends nearly drown in raw sewage) and there’s an awesome bit of fantasy world-building. Also, some terrific new characters! Jaget Kumar, who, when not policing the London Underground system, enjoys exploring uncharted cave systems in India! And Abigail, juvenile delinquent daughter of Peter’s mum’s neighbour, to whom Peter accidentally reveals a bit too much about magic. (Nightingale’s horrified reaction to Peter and Abigail: “What are you proposing? A Girl Guide troop?”). Also, there’s more Stephanopoulos, always a good thing.
In the fourth book, Broken Homes, a stolen German grimoire, a murdered safe-breaker and a suspicious ‘suicide’ lead Peter and Nightingale to Skygarden, a horrible 1960s multistorey housing block that may possibly have been designed for mysterious magical purposes. This allows Peter to ramble on about architecture and town planning and London history in lengthy passages that may not be totally relevant to the plot, but are usually entertaining to read. For example,
“In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the city of London burnt down. In the immediate aftermath John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and all the rest of the King’s Men descended with cries of glee upon the ruined city. They had such high hopes, such plans to sweep away the twisted donkey tracks that constituted London’s streets and replace them with boulevards and road grids as formal and controlled as the garden of a country estate. The city would be made a fit place for the gentlemen of the Enlightenment, those tradesmen they required to sustain them, and the servants needed to minister to them. Everyone else was expected to wander off and do whatever it is unwanted poor people were expected to do in the seventeenth century – die presumably.”
(Peter goes on to refer to Charles II as “the king of bling”, suggesting that Peter is a Horrible Histories fan, in addition to being very familiar with Doctor Who, Tolkien, Blade Runner, Terry Pratchett and various other geeky fandoms. Peter also drives Nightingale around the bend by insisting on referring to Nightingale’s old school as ‘Hogwarts’.)
Although the middle half of this book is fairly slow, it ends with some spectacular fight scenes, in which Nightingale finally shows why he’s in charge of the good guys and then Peter and the villain engage in a James Bond-style showdown on top of a skyscraper. But just as you think it’s all over – well, let’s just say my jaw literally dropped. It’s a huge emotional wallop for both Peter and any reader who’s been caught up in the series.1 WHAT AN ENDING. WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Well, what happens next is Foxglove Summer. Peter, still a mess after the traumatic conclusion to Broken Homes even though he’s pretending he’s fine, is sent off to the countryside to help with an unsolved case in which two children have gone missing from an idyllic village. There’s probably not even any magic involved! What could possibly go wrong? There’s some enjoyment in seeing Peter, the quintessential Londoner, struggling with smelly sheep, recalcitrant farm gates and a lack of mobile phone coverage and there’s the customary action-packed conclusion in which, I’m pleased to say, the whole Heroic Man Saving Damsel in Distress thing is turned on its head (although Peter does do something very heroic in this book, bless him). We also get to find out more about the mysterious WWII battle that wiped out most of Britain’s wizards. However, I’ve just finished this book and still don’t completely understand why the children were taken or the significance of the foxgloves, so I think I’m going to reread it (which is no great hardship, because these books are just so much fun). I may have been distracted by my library copy, in which a previous reader had decided to cross out most of the swear words and ‘correct’ the narrator’s grammar, with ‘helpful’ comments added in the margins. Unfortunately, Library Editor seemed confused about modal verbs and failed to realise that a sentence containing the verb phrase “could have been” is a perfectly valid sentence. Also, I’m not sure why Library Editor decided to read all the way through to the fifth book in a series that’s narrated by a character who delights in not speaking the Queen’s English. In fairness to Library Editor, the UK editions of this series do have a bothersome number of typographical errors. Get your act together, Gollancz. These books deserve better. Also, I’d like the sixth book, The Hanging Tree, RIGHT NOW, PLEASE. Alas, it appears we’ll have to wait till June, 2016. In the meantime, enjoy the official Rivers of London rap.
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.
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.
- 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.” ↩
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!’”
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.
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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.” Fair 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.
Taking 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 …
- 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! ↩
I feel slightly foolish rhapsodising about this novel. It’s rather like saying, “I saw this great play last night! You should see it! It’s called Hamlet!” because apparently, The Leopard (or Il Gattopardo, the Italian title) is one of the most famous novels ever published in Italy. However, as I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago, when I read a reference to it in a travel article1 about Sicily, then I’m guessing at least some of you may not be familiar with it, either, and you ought to know about it because it’s WONDERFUL.
The ‘Leopard’ is Don Fabrizio, the head of an ancient noble family of Sicily in 1860, which is not a very good time to be a Sicilian prince. Should Don Fabrizio continue to prop up the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or should he support Garibaldi and his Red Shirts as the rebels attempt to unify Italy? Don Fabrizio’s handsome, charming nephew, Tancredi, has no doubts. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” declares Tancredi. Then he rushes off to join the Red Shirts, gains a heroic (but not very serious) wound, and swaggers back to the family’s country estate, where he falls in love with the mayor’s beautiful daughter, to his cousin Concetta’s dismay. A further dilemma for Don Fabrizio! Should he permit, even encourage, this marriage? The mayor, Don Calogero, is vulgar, devious and violent, the very opposite of a nobleman, but he’s rich and powerful and the marriage would allow ambitious Tancredi to prosper in this new regime. But what about poor Concetta’s broken heart? Will she continue to spurn Tancredi’s friend, the shy but devoted Count? Will the hapless family priest, Father Pirrone, ever manage to convince Don Fabrizio to take religion seriously? Will Paolo, Don Fabrizio’s useless son, ever turn into a worthy heir? And will Bendicò, Don Fabrizio’s affectionate but destructive Great Dane, ever stop digging up the flower beds?
The plot provides no great surprises, but the delight of this novel lies in the rich descriptions of characters and settings and particularly, in Don Fabrizio’s droll, sardonic reflections on life and the decline of the aristocracy. Imagine if Anthony Trollope had written a Sicilian version of Brideshead Revisited and you’ll get some idea of the tone of the novel. Don Fabrizio observes the rebels with mild interest, too intelligent and cynical to believe they will benefit Sicily, but too fatalistic (and lazy) to try to stop them. When they offer him a post as senator in the new government, he turns it down, saying, “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all”, going on to claim that “Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery”. He winces at Don Calogero’s vulgarity but reluctantly comes to admire the mayor’s ability to solve problems, “free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners”.
I loved Don Fabrizio’s descriptions of the stark, arid Sicilian countryside where he spends summers at one of his immense, deteriorating palaces, Donnafugata, in which there are “apartments and corners not even Don Fabrizio had ever set foot – a cause of great satisfaction to him, for he used to say that a house of which one knew every room wasn’t worth living in”. There are also gorgeous descriptions of his palace near Palermo and of a grand ball at a friend’s mansion, at which Tancredi anxiously introduces his future wife and father-in-law to Society.
The Leopard seems such a glorious nineteenth-century kind of novel that it comes as a shock to read that the grand ballroom, with its ceiling painted with “eternal” gods, is destined to be destroyed by “a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn” in 1943. The author, the last Prince of Lampedusa, wrote this in the 1950s, after his own palace had been destroyed in the war2. The character of Don Fabrizio is based on his own great-grandfather and the settings of the novel are so beautifully, authentically described because they were the author’s childhood homes. As David Gilmour writes in the introduction to the English translation3, “So much of Lampedusa’s life, his wisdom, his learning and his sensibility, were distilled in its pages that it is doubtful whether he could have written a second novel of similar quality and intensity. The Leopard is a masterpiece because its author waited so long before writing it.”
- In which, from memory, the travel writer stayed in a palace belonging to Lampedusa’s family and actually met his adopted son, who served as a model for Tancredi. ↩
- Lampedusa died before his novel found a publisher, so he didn’t ever see The Leopard become a bestseller, win the Strega Prize and become an acclaimed film. ↩
- I read the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, who seems to have done an excellent job, apart from a couple of jarring phrases coming from the mouths of peasants – but I expect it’s pretty difficult, translating Sicilian slang into English. ↩