And Miss Carter Wore Pink: Scenes From an Edwardian Childhood (1971) Miss Carter Came with Us (1973) 'In the Beginning,' Said Great-Aunt Jane (1975)
Welcome to the Edwardian age, but as you've probably never seen it before. This is distinctively Northern (and Lancastrian) Edwardiana, a world of miners, small hilltop villages and civic parades. Helen Bradley's naive paintings are like those of a well-adjusted Lowry. Less stick figures than elegant paper dolls, her women (and occasional men) move serenely through landscapes that are sometimes industrial but usually prettily rural, or interact in numerous cosy interiors. While her pictures are popular amongst collectors, the charming books in which she recorded her childhood memoirs to accompany them are now sadly out of print, which perhaps reflects the general cultural preference for the 'Grim up North' stereotype. The books are irresistible, somehow managing to avoid the trap of kitsch though often wandering perilously near it. Even the reclusive John Fowles was charmed by them, calling And Miss Carter Wore Pink "The best Christmas card of the decade." The painting that adorns its jacket perfectly captures Bradley's light-heartedness: mill stacks are visible, but instead of hurrying factory workers, in the foreground there is an icy pond covered with a flock of well-to-do skaters, gregarious ducks, and barky little dogs. To the modern eye, the scene presents a troubling contrast between high spirits and misery.
As a social record the paintings are surprisingly rich, crammed with half-forgotten shop and brand names of the Edwardian era. The books offers insight into middle-class customs of that time and place: buying new clothes for Whitsuntide and showing them off on the Whit Walks, the spring flower-laying at the cemetery ("we all walked round the paths, meeting friends"), the 'Saturday Evenings' when everyone sang in the parlour, and the yearly trips to Blackpool -accompanied by the dogs and cats -to see Grandpa. Bradley depicts a small, tightly-knit community defined by incessant sociability: the handful of characters are always either receiving or paying visits. There are also vivid folk culture vignettes. Travellers hold their Pot Market in Lees while some May Queens wander across the square, and Bradley mentions "the Fair at Daisy Nook, held every Whit Saturday." All the books breathe placid contentment. Occasionally a sensation interrupts the peacefulness of life (some bulls escape and spoil the parade in aid of the New Royal Infirmary), and there are also childish horrors, such as the Baycow, thought to inhabit the moors near Harts Head Pike: "It was a dreadful Thing and it bit people". On the whole, however, cosiness is the dominant note, at odds with the books' semi-industrial setting. The cotton mills of Oldham are a backdrop to the stories, but the narrative never permits them to be anything more than that. The same ingenuous, childlike voice persists in the narration, whether it is describing tragedies (a mill fire, the death of a servant girl in childbirth) or the church fete. This is a world of smoking chimneys and solid middle-class verities, unpretentious comfort and family affection: typical Edwardiana, despite its atypical setting. As usual, the reader has no inkling of the various crises that currently beset the government. There is an attempt at a suffragettes' march, but it is portrayed as farce, only getting as far as Lees Brook. Edwardiana always prompts the question whether life could ever have been this idyllic, but from this side of the Great War, it is impossible not to feel tenderness towards these little Edwardians as, agog, they watch the seaside pierrots singing, in a picture that calls to mind Robert Doisneau's magical photograph of an end-of-pier performer entertaining one small boy and dog (Solitary Castaway, Chalkwell Beach Theatre, England).
Bradley's masterpiece is undoubtedly the final book, 'In the Beginning,' Said Great-Aunt Jane, which represents a definite artistic advance on the previous two volumes. The figures are more natural and the settings are very detailed, notably a hauntingly surrealistic parlour tableau in which the people are certainly flesh and blood, but the furniture, wallpaper and floor are ghostly white outlines in a dark blue-green wash, with wildflowers continually falling from ceiling to floor. The picture hints at themes of memory and transience, as Great-Aunt Jane explains to the children that God made the earth because he needed a home for all the flowers that he had created. Bradley's manipulation of light and shade is also improved in these paintings, which capture the smog of the mills and the faint light of Northern winters perfectly. The text is surprisingly mystical, in contrast to the down-to-earth cheerfulness of the two earlier books. Blakeian religious fantasy is domesticated for the coffee table (or nursery): "Grandma said, 'Come, we will sit here and Great-Aunt Jane and I will tell you stories for, alas, I'm afraid this is the morning of the Day of Judgment.'" This mysticism is interwoven with the humour of the Variety stage: "God....was dismayed at the dullness of the Sun. So he got up very early, hooked it out of the sky with a safety-pin on the end of a piece of string, and gave it a good polish with Brasso." The Queen of Sheba, on visiting Solomon, remarks that his palace is just like Manchester Town Hall. This playfully unorthodox transposition of the Biblical to the local evokes not just the literal-mindedness of childhood, but also the individualism of Northern nonconformity. The books express a perhaps uniquely Northern combination of pragmatism, mysticism and humour, and provide a snapshot of a pre-War world in which children could believe the good news related at Great-Aunt Jane's birthday party: "God has come to live in a shed not far from Harts Head Pike."--Isabel Taylor
Punch Goes to War 1939-1945, edited by Helen Walasek
Hot off the press, this compilation of Punch cartoons and writing edited by Helen Walasek has been published to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz. It is commonly believed that Churchill gave Punch an extra paper allowance to support its important contribution to wartime morale, a story to which Walasek adverts in her introduction. Astoundingly, many Punch contributors managed to combine active service with cartooning.
This collection is even better than Walasek's previous volume The Best of Punch Cartoons, with a tighter focus and a narrative sweep that the other collection necessarily lacks. It is superbly varied, with black and white and full colour cartoons and plenty of the political Big Cuts, as well as contemporary advertisements and appeals (such as for Mr Punch's Hospital Comforts Fund), humorous writing, Parliamentary Impressions and film reviews. There are cartoons on all sorts of wartime topics: the ARP, the Home Guard, the Land Girls, the Blitz, Yanks, the Brains Trust, and so on.
The cartoons and writing are revealing, not just of the war's actual events, but also of the psychological tensions of total war and the mood of the times. It is interesting how the war brought out Punch's social conscience. A Big Cut shows Beveridge banishing the spectre of Want, and in the post-war section of the book Punch takes aim at the dreadful prefabs that were built to solve the housing crisis. (Some of the post-war cartoons are acidly revealing: a campaigner tells a working-class mother, "Now if my party got in it would mean that a poor little undersized brat like this would have some sort of chance in life.") There is a tension between the anticipated post-war equality and the continuity on which Punch focussed as a source of comfort, in cartoons such as Noise in 1841 and Noise in 1941, as well as the drawing of a Home Guard sentry haunted by memories of the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, nostalgia for the squirearchy is a surprisingly obsessive theme during a time of tremendous social change, as shown by the frequent appearance of John Bull in the more patriotic cartoons.
As for the cartoonists, it is very hard to pick favourites. Emett was, as always, brilliantly surrealistic, as in the unforgettable English Pastorale, while Anton applied her wicked wit to the officer class and such problems as clothing rations. The great Fougasse was on top form throughout the war, particularly in his hilarious continuum cartoons, which show subtle changes in body language in response to the stresses of war situations. His study of "War's Humanizing Influence" is both funny and touching in its depiction of proximity leading to familiarity. The venerable E. H. Shephard also produced brilliant work, political, humorous, and sometimes whimsical. He unforgettably memorialised the end of the coalition government in a cartoon showing Labour and Conservative crocodiles weeping as they bid each other a sentimental farewell.
This is not just a collection of cartoons but also of the famous Big Cuts, including Shephard's The Fates Decide, and Bernard Partridge's lion springing into action. There are also full-colour political cartoons: Leslie Illingworth's awe-inspiring The Combat gives the modern-day reader a vivid sense of how people in England, especially on the South-East Coast, felt during the Battle of Britain. The monster of the Luftwaffe lunges westward, overshadowing France and crumbling its coastal towns with a clawlike hand, confronted by a small RAF plane labelled 'Freedom' whose pilot appears to be wearing a halo. It is by no means great art, but it is an extraordinary evocation of the apocalyptic psychology of 1940. Of course, most of the political content focusses on the national predicament, but there are some sketches about the Continental situation. The most poignant of these is a drawing of a Jewish refugee facing a barbed-wire fence, with the caption Homeless: A Problem for Europe.
The inclusion of Punch writing is particularly welcome. Charivaria, the collection of snippets, wordplay and witticisms, is reliably sardonic and entertaining: "The War Office has idiotically declined our suggestion of a baboon barrage over Regent's Park on the grounds that it would only be suitable for gorilla warfare." The Impressions of Parliament are fascinating in their immediacy, particularly the recollections of D Day and V E Day as they were experienced by the House of Commons. On V E Day MPs were tearful and skittishly elated by turns, jumping on the benches and cheering wildly at Churchill's entrance, while the description of D Day likewise crackles with excitement: "Mr Eden sprinted across the floor and sat on the steps by the side of Mr Lloyd George, who had had to make so many historic pronouncements when he led the nation in that other war which now seems so long ago...Suddenly the door swung open and into the Chamber walked a familiar figure, three typewritten sheets in his hands." There are also contemporary, non-humorous film reviews, notably a sympathetic treatment of the Archers' brilliant The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp which ignores the contemporary controversy over the film's sympathetic German. As for the humorous writing, some of the pieces are very surprising: for example, Molesworth made an appearance in 1942, complaining about the domestic problem. Those who love The Diary of a Provincial Lady will be thrilled to see the initials E.M.D. lurking at the end of one piece, "Little Fiddle-on-the-Green Still Smiling," and there is a delightful parody of fighter-pilot technical jargon, "Parrots and the R. A. F.," by Anthony Armstrong. However, in view of his wartime record, it is somewhat less amusing to find P G Wodehouse's humorous account of a meeting between Hitler and his top aides, which suggests that silliness can sometimes amount to a moral failure.
Perhaps the heady levity conveyed by this collection is explained by the exhilaration of feeling that everyone, for the first time, was taking part in a common effort: for example, an elegant lady leans languidly on a countertop and remarks, "I feel sure we could drive a fire-engine." Whatever the reason, the book demonstrates an occasionally manic inventiveness in finding humour in the midst of horror. Punch contributors joked about anything and everything: the gas mask and blackout jokes in particular are legion. The contrast between all the hilarity and the actual grimness of the war is startling, and it brings out the cathartic benefits of humour as a way of coping with hardships and frustrations, especially those inflicted by bureaucracy. The cartoons celebrate the wartime nation in all its doggedness, irritation and occasional irrationality ("None of your gas-masks for me. If I'm gassed I'm gassed. D'you get me argument?") Yet sadness could not be submerged altogether, and the loss of family life is a major theme: a mother neurotically knits woollens for a son who has been posted abroad, and child evacuees return from the countryside with a strange man to whom they have become attached. While all the gallant wit cannot hide the tragedy of war, it makes the reader respect that sacrifice even more.--Isabel Taylor