‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Three

Each chapter of Growing Up Gracefully has a short introduction by Noel Streatfeild and her introduction to ‘Manners Abroad’ contains the following sage advice for those travelling to Australia:

“I remember being surprised when, on my arrival at Menzies Hotel in Melbourne, the lift-boy took my book from under my arm, read the title, and said casually, ‘I’ll have a read of that when you’re through.’ But a very short time spent in Australia showed me his were not bad manners, as I had first supposed, but merely new manners with which I was not familiar. The boy was asserting in a friendly way that he might be a lift-boy, and I a guest in the hotel, but we had tastes in common.”

Miss Streatfeild also experienced some differences between British and American manners:

“One of the freedoms on which Americans most pride themselves, for which, in fact, many of their forebears left the lands of their birth to become Americans, is the right to speak their minds on any and every subject … We may sometimes think more guarded speech would be better manners, but Americans do not feel like that. They believe speaking out is good manners, and keeping your thoughts to yourself hypocrisy. Maybe they are right. But right or wrong, what we consider good manners when abroad remains unchanged, so whatever we may think of foreigners and their countries we must Keep Our Thoughts To Ourselves.”

'Manners Abroad', illustration by John Dugan

Miss Virginia Graham then provides lots of useful hints for travelling abroad, which can often be challenging:

“A lot of irritating things will happen to you when you are overseas, and you will feel rather superior and will long to say to somebody that at home we manage these things much better…”

However, you must remember that foreigners don’t like hearing their countries criticised and can often understand English:

“So accept your sausageless continental breakfast with a smile, enquire, more as if you were seeking information than complaining, why it is that when you pull the plug nothing happens, tip with grace, wait quietly for those trains which never come.”

She explains how to manage tipping and taxis, how to clean your clothes and order breakfast in a hotel, how to manage cutlery in France and cheese in Holland and bathrooms in Italy, and how to avoid dropped bricks (“Although you are probably too young to remember much about the last war, it is quite a good thing to know which side the country you are in was on …”).

After that comes Mr Sidney Form’s ‘Guests and Hosts’. In her introduction, Miss Streatfeild takes a moment to rejoice in the evolution of manners since the war:

“A mother, as it might be your own, calling on a friend’s mother in calling-card days, had to leave three cards – one of her own and two of her husband’s. If it happened that the called-on was a widow, she only left two cards, one of her own and one of her husband’s. In any case, however many cards she left, she had to turn down the right-hand corners inwards, to show she had delivered the cards herself and not sent a servant with them. This turning down corners ritual went on even though the people on whom the mother called knew perfectly well there was either no servant, or the one that existed had far better things to do than going round delivering calling-cards…”

However, there are still difficulties to be overcome when hosting parties, says Mr Form. He thinks big parties are easier, because you can hold them outside your home, invite everyone you know, and let the caterers deal with the food, drink and clean-up. Small parties require skill when selecting the guest list (he advises you to find a celebrity and “implore him or her to attend”) and you might need to make it a cocktail or sherry party (if you have a lot of drab guests with nothing much in common, “clearly they won’t be an easy lot to get going at square-dancing”).

There are also challenges when guests stay overnight in your home, beginning with the state of your guest room (“where no member of the family has slept in them they do not know its horrors”). Then when the guests arrive, they will need to be entertained. Some hosts declare, ‘You must take us as you find us’, which is fine as long as the regular household routine is sufficiently organised and amusing. Others set up a strict and stressful activity schedule. Mr Fine believes that “perfect hosts are those who entertain tactfully, but not too much.” He also provides advice for house guests, including how to escape when necessary (fake an illness or arrange for a friend to telephone about an ‘emergency’).

'Take Us As You Find Us', illustration by John Dugan

Miss Marghanita Laski then discusses ‘How Eccentric May I Be?’

“By the time you come to read this book, the question is probably settled; you’re either going to accept the world as you find it or else to reject it – perhaps to make a better one and perhaps not. Both rebels and conformers are necessary. Both can be the salt of the earth, and both can be the most intolerable nuisances and bores.”

Rebellion is the natural state of young people, she believes, although she distinguishes between rebellion against the previous generation’s rules and true eccentricity, which is rare:

“A real eccentric is a person so much divorced from the social life around him or her that the opinion of others doesn’t matter at all. He directs his life entirely by his own thoughts and wishes which seldom happen in any way to coincide with the thoughts and wishes of other people. By the lights of the world, he is almost certainly a madman. He may be a mad genius, like Blake, or he may just be mad. It is to the highest degree improbable that this is the kind of eccentric you are.”

In fact, a lot of ‘rebellious’ teenagers are simply copying each other (‘Teddie-boys’ are again used as an example). But if you come into conflict with your parents about say, your religious or political opinions, she advises that you first determine whether you know you are absolutely right in your beliefs. If so, then it’s up to you to decide:

“Will you save your own conscience at the cost of outraging theirs, even if it’s only outraging some purely social value that they believe to be a matter of conscience? Or will you decide to conform outwardly rather than upset them, in which case your own conscience is in no danger at all, and you’re undoubtedly an unusually kind and mature young person?”

Often parents are concerned about your choice of friends, or your clothes, or whether you drink or swear or read certain books, because they worry it will lead you to become an unhappy adult, rejected by society as “immoral or criminal or grossly irresponsible”. Perhaps you are right or perhaps they are. Perhaps they refuse to compromise. Regardless, you have a right to your own views, but also a duty to ensure they are thoughtful views of your own, not copied from those you admire or put on to outrage those you dislike. Miss Laski concludes with her answer to the question of how eccentric you may be:

“As eccentric as you can reasonably manage without permanently damaging yourself or gratuitously hurting other people.”

As for the practicalities of this, perhaps they are dealt with in the next section, which includes a chapter on ‘When and When Not to Make a Fuss’.

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Two

In ‘Correct Dress’, Mr James Leasor explains how much “good manners in dress” have changed since the war. Wartime clothes rationing meant most people had to ‘make do and mend’; nighttime bombing raids popularised utilitarian garments such as the siren suit; coal rationing led to theatre-goers and diners wrapping themselves in rugs and blankets to keep warm. Still, some things remain the same:

“What, in today’s world, is correct dress? Though no one now dresses up for every occasion, the rule about dressing is unchanged. You wear as nearly as possible what is being worn by the rest of the party you are with.”

So, it is “atrocious manners” to, say, visit a foreign church wearing shorts, a strapless dress or no hat. It is also bad manners to wear slacks and a jersey to dinner at a friend’s house, unless you know your host will be wearing the same – just as it is bad manners to put on an evening frock if no one else is wearing one. The only time you can dress as “gaudy and grand as you like” is at a wedding. Young men should wear morning suits and grey top hats, while for women, “no hat is too gay or too amusing”.

Mr Leaver also makes the important point that your clothes should suit your personality. If you hate drawing attention to yourself, don’t wear outrageous clothes. In general, “wearing clothes as an attempt to look conspicuous is nearly always a sign of an inferiority complex” and he gives the example of gangs of Teddy boys and girls, who “dress up to try and kid themselves that they are braver than, in fact, they are.” However, he makes an exception for artists, who tend to wear extraordinary outfits – that’s simply how the creative temperament expresses itself. He gives the example of two art students he recently saw at an exhibition:

“He wore an orange pullover over velvet trousers, and he had a beard; she wore tartan trousers, and a short sheepskin coat.”

'Artistic Dress' illustration by John Dugan

And they didn’t even realise what a sensation they were causing among onlookers! It all comes down to self-confidence:

“I sometimes think that the superb sang froid of a cat is due to its fur. Of course other animals have fur, but few wear it with such an air as does a cat. It is soft, usually a beautiful colour, and always a divine fit. All cats feel, I think, slightly superior to humans, and this may be based on the certainty that they are always perfectly turned out for every occasion.”

I thought Growing Up Gracefully had already covered polite conversation, but Miss Emily Hahn now contributes a chapter called ‘Conversations’, all about how young people can manage when they’re forced to talk to boring grown-ups. She reminds the young that older people are often not as confident as they seem and can be very sensitive. So don’t, for example, discuss their age or weight: “A remark like ‘I saw a woman yesterday who was even fatter than you’ does not go down well.” Try not to look at your watch or the door when they reminisce about the olden days. If stuck for conversational topics, talk about sport, the weather or the family. And remember, “truth isn’t always the first consideration in social intercourse.”

Miss Caroline Ball then provides advice on ‘Manners at Work’, beginning with how to apply to a job. A good letter of application is vital:

“Some employers judge candidates on their handwriting, style of letter, notepaper and neatness of folding it, quite as much as they do on scholastic achievements … Avoid scented notepaper … If you send a typewritten application, it is a good idea to enclose a specimen of your handwriting. It can take the form of a postscript to the effect: ‘I am adding this so that you may see what my handwriting is like.’ Stamps should be stuck on straight … Special note to girl applicants: don’t leave lipstick on the back of the envelope when you lick the flap!”

Miss Ball then gives detailed advice for the job interview – for example, “don’t even think of lighting a cigarette or producing a powder-puff.” Of course, clothes require careful consideration. Girls should avoid huge earrings and gaudy make-up; boys should resist the urge to wear “loud check sports jackets, flashy pullovers, wild ties and even wilder socks!” Instead, Miss Ball recommends the three Ns: “Nice. Natural. Neat.”

This is followed by hints for starting your first job, such as being pleasant and responsive, turning up on time, not resenting chores such as “carrying round teacups”, and not “sitting with your eyes riveted to the clock from five o’clock onwards”.

Presumably once the young person has been employed for a while, they will be able to afford to travel. Then they should consult the next section, which includes advice on ‘Manners Abroad.’

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part One

'Growing up Gracefully', edited by Noel Streatfeild

Memoranda readers may recall The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, a fascinating (and often unintentionally hilarious) collection of wise advice edited by Noel Streatfeild. She must have realised there was a lucrative market for this sort of thing because in 1955, just a few years later, she produced Growing Up Gracefully, a guide to good manners for young people. Of course, I had to read it. And with chapters such as ‘Manners Abroad’, ‘When and When Not To Make A Fuss’ and ‘Don’t Drop That Brick or The Gentle Art of Avoiding Solecisms’, I’m sure I will find this book highly relevant to modern life. Perhaps I can send a copy to some of the people currently filling up newspapers with reports of their bad behaviour.

However, I have to admit that the book doesn’t get off to a good start. Mr Gilbert Harding, the author of ‘Manners’, is an old grump who thinks young people should only “speak when spoken to”. He spends most of his chapter disapproving of “the excessive party-giving which seems to me to be one of the scourges of modern life.” If you absolutely must host or attend a party, he huffs, well, just pretend to enjoy it, although “this can be a difficult impersonation and may call for practice in private.”

'Graceful Dining', illustration by John DuganMiss Nancy Spain is far more entertaining regarding ‘Eating for England’, providing a lot of useful information for young people facing the terrors of an English dinner party. She explains how to drink soup and eat a bread roll gracefully, then tackles really tricky dishes such as asparagus and artichokes (eaten with fingers) and corn on the cob (impale on fork and nibble daintily). I was especially interested to read how to eat an “avocado pear” (which “should be eaten with a teaspoon as though you were scooping the ice-cream out of a carton”, rather than, say, smashing it onto toast). There’s also advice on how to use a finger bowl and fish knives (this includes a nice little dig at Nancy Mitford’s snobbery), what to do if you drop your fork or start to choke, and how to deal with fresh fruit (“I never touch grapes and advise you to make the same rule, there’s a right way to eat them, but I know few who have mastered it”). Also, never drink gin and tonic with oysters, because “gin turns oysters into little lumps of indigestible indiarubber”. Also, apparently the port after dinner needs “to be passed from your right hand to your left and it has to be kept moving” because if it settles for even a second, it’s “far worse luck than walking under a ladder.” (Unless you’re a girl, in which case you’ll have had your eye caught by the hostess at the appropriate time and will have withdrawn to the drawing room to wait for the gentleman. Now I’m wondering how Miss Spain found out about the mysterious rituals of port-passing. Maybe she has a spy on the inside.)

Miss Spain also gives handy hints for young people without their own “establishments”, who wish to entertain their friends in a restaurant. Obviously, most won’t be able to afford a famous restaurant (which “will cost you at least £1, 10s. a head”) so she recommends a “good but cheap restaurant” and helpfully explains how to deal with intimidating waiters, menus written in French, wine ordering and bill paying. She concedes that by now, the reader may have begun to think that:

“…Table Manners are a bit of a bore. Well, if you do, just try to imagine the banquet of mediaeval times. Everyone blind drunk, everyone pushing and shoving and dipping their knives in the salt cellar like mad things. Imagine trying to get pork fat off your best jerkin sleeves afterwards (no dry cleaners, remember). Then I think you will bless, with me, the invention of Table Manners.”

In the next chapter, Miss Lorna Lewis explains how to introduce people to one another. Luckily, most young people won’t need to concern themselves with the Order of Precedence (“you probably won’t have to know whether a bishop’s widow ranks higher than an admiral’s wife”), but she does think it vital to introduce Inferior to Superior (“a child rates lower than a grown-up, a man is Inferior to a woman, juniors in a profession must always be introduced to their seniors…”). It’s also useful to provide some information to get the conversation started. So, for example:

“Carola, this is my grandfather’s friend, Colonel Stump. Mrs Jack Sprigg. Carola and I were at school together, Colonel. Just imagine, Carola, Colonel Stump rode me on his knee when I was small, so I think you should know each other.”

The correct response to an introduction is to say ‘How d’you do?’ or smile. You must NEVER, EVER say ‘Pleased to meet you’ or ‘Hello’. (Really, ‘hello’ is forbidden? And what if you are pleased to meet them?) There’s also advice on shaking hands (“shake it with a firm grip; and by firm I do not mean “Try Your Strength”), dealing with boring people (don’t look over their shoulder for an escape route) and meeting Royalty (men should “bow slightly” and women should “drop a little curtsey”, although if you’re attending Court, you need to do a deep curtsey and “must go seriously into practice”).

Miss Norah Lofts then advises on ‘Don’t Drop That Brick’ – that is, don’t be accidentally rude (here she notes the old saying, ‘A gentleman is never rude unintentionally’). Don’t mention Religion, Politics or Money in general conversation, she stresses, because people tend to have strong feelings about these issues:

“…when we find ourselves in company we are dangerously ready to think and assume that we are all of one mind … This apparent, and deceptive, likeness amongst a gathering of civilised people is due to the fact that the well-behaved do not flaunt their prejudices and preferences in serious things and this makes it dangerously easy for the careless talker, at the beginning of his social career, to give offence.”

Avoid making slighting remarks about any “type, class, trade or profession”, don’t make fun of local accents, don’t correct others’ pronunciation mistakes, and consider whom you might be offending before you embark on a ‘funny story’, especially if it involves sex. This is very sensible advice. A lot of people on Twitter and Facebook would benefit from reading this. Miss Lofts even forestalls those who might complain about Political Correctness:

“It may now seem that if so strict a watch must be kept on one’s tongue, easy and natural conversation will be impossible and there will be nothing left to say. This is a groundless fear – for two reasons. First, because everything pleasant and agreeable is left to be said; the kindly, tolerant, amiable remark never comes amiss. Closely analysed, most dropped bricks show something critical, and either consciously or unconsciously, superior in the attitude of the speaker. The person who believes in the equality of men is never in any danger of rapping out the word ’nigger’ whether the nearest coloured person is in the next chair or a hundred miles away. Secondly, because after a very few times of being consciously extended, those sensitive feelers will reach out automatically and take charge of any conversation. Then their happy owner gains the enviable reputation of ‘never putting a foot wrong’…”

This doesn’t mean you need to be a jellyfish – sometimes you will need to speak out or disagree with others and you might find yourself in a minority of one. However, your reputation for “amiability and social poise” will mean “your disagreement will carry far more weight than it otherwise would” and others will be far more likely to consider your thoughts carefully.

Well, I now feel capable of meeting people at a dinner party and having a polite conversation with them. But what should I wear? Fortunately, the next section includes advice on ‘Correct Dress’.

You may also be interested in:

Growing Up Gracefully, Part Two
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Three
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Four
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Five

‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

What I’ve Been Reading: Some Really, Really Annoying Books, Plus One Enjoyable Book

'Black Swan Green' by David MitchellI’m not going to write about the really, really annoying books I’ve just read (even though I have many thoughts about them) because those authors don’t deserve any more publicity. However, I did enjoy Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. This novel, apparently semi-autobiographical, describes a year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason, who lives in a small village in Worcestershire, England in 1982. As Margaret Thatcher revels in the carnage of the Falklands War, Jason concentrates on his own struggle for survival. At home, his father is angry and often absent, his mother is lonely and frustrated, and his sister Julia, an inconstant ally, is about to leave for university. At school, Jason is bullied for being clever, sensitive and worst of all, a stammerer. He spends a great deal of time and energy hiding his true self, engaging in stupid and self-destructive stunts in (mostly futile) attempts to show how “hard” he is. There are innumerable ridiculous rules about how boys in his community need to behave in order to avoid that dreaded label, “gay”. Pretty much anything Jason enjoys in life, including being friends with girls, is “gay” and is punished with social exclusion and outright violence. Even some of his teachers join in with the harassment. Fortunately, Jason is resourceful, gathers up some courage and a few supporters, and manages to engineer some sort of victory by the end.

The novel is supposedly written by clueless thirteen-year-old Jason, although the insights revealed often sound more like an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. At times, I was also irritated by the author’s decision to use a combination of teenage-speak and a very obtrusive form of contractions:

“School corridors’re sort of sinister during classtime. The noisiest spaces’re now the silentest.”

Even worse was when Jason lapsed into poetry:

“Autumn’s fungussy, berries’re manky, leaves’re rusting, V’s of long-distance birds’re crossing the sky, evenings’re smoky, nights’re cold, autumn’s nearly dead.”

But I enjoyed Jason’s thoughts about his development as a writer (“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say ‘When you’re ready.’”). And readers who can remember the 1980s will enjoy all the pop culture references and the jokes (for instance, listening to “that ace song, ‘Olive’s Salami’ by Elvis Costello” and getting a Betamax video recorder because “VHS’s going extinct”). While the plot’s predictable for anyone who’s ever read any Young Adult fiction, Black Swan Green is an entertaining and often moving story – Adrian Mole rewritten as Serious Literature.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Or, A Collection of Book-Related Links That Caught My Attention But That I Never Got Around To Writing Blog Posts About.

– And yes, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition and started this sentence with a conjunction. At least I have a better understanding of punctuation than these cake decorators. Not all Cakes are Wrecks, though – look at these amazing book-related cakes.

– Here’s a fascinating (if you’re a traditionally-published author) post by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown about why they decided to self-publish the second book in their Change series, after Viking published the first book. It says so much about how the publishing industry works these days. (Incidentally, the manuscript of the first book in the series started off that GayYA thing.)

– And here’s an article by Sally Nicholls about why it isn’t always necessary to kill off the characters’ parents in children’s books. (It does make plotting exciting adventures much easier, though.)

– I have no interest in reading Go Set a Watchman, partly because I don’t feel the need to read the unedited first draft of a novel that I’ve already read and enjoyed, but also because I have doubts about whether Harper Lee has given her consent for it to be published. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

– Speaking of which, what is going on with the book bestseller lists at the moment? Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald’s top ten bestseller list consisted of the previously-mentioned unedited first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, four of the Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and FIVE colouring-in books! Now, I have nothing against Andy Griffiths – his books may not be my cup of tea, but he’s brought a lot of laughter and excitement to a lot of child readers. But colouring books? Why are they being counted?

– However, I do approve of this – a lot of people tweeting about what Young Adult books would look like if the books were Very Realistic.

– I also liked (possibly not the right word) this article by Annabel Crabb about a man who wrote her a detailed letter criticising her latest book, even though he hadn’t actually bothered to read the book. It reminded me of the time I was doing a book signing at an English teachers’ conference and two separate men came up to berate me for having the nerve to publish my book as a ‘Vintage Classic’, when my book was clearly not Classic Literature. Not that they’d read the book. (Not that I’d had any say in that book being republished under the Vintage Classics imprint, anyway.)

– Although if they had read my books, they probably would have objected to them anyway, because the books are full of princesses. Princesses doing girly, princessy things like buying ball gowns and learning how to curtsey and looking for a suitable husband, and also fighting Nazis, giving speeches at the League of Nations and writing newspaper articles about the plight of child refugees. There’s a good post about Princess Shaming over at Tea Cozy (the comments are interesting, too).

– And those men probably would have scoffed at the notion of a tiny island kingdom, as well. I guess they’re not aware of the “republican monarchy” of Atlantium here in Australia (“At 0.76 square kilometres we are counted among the world’s smallest states, which brings into play certain practical realities; we choose to deal with these in a pragmatic manner.”)

– I mean, those men probably don’t even believe in sea monsters!

'Colossal Octopus' by Pierre Denys de Montford, 1810
‘Colossal Octopus’ by Pierre Denys de Montford, 1810

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 sounds 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

_____

  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.