This beautiful, wrenching and highly-assured debut marks the arrival of a dazzling new talent with a rare ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of childhood and the poignancy of family relationships. Charming and devastating by turns, it narrates the experiences of two delightful twin Londoners, very like girls we all know.
Evans is a masterful prose stylist, lightening the book's overall dark tone with patches of whimsical humour and bravura passages of shimmering prose. The lyrical grace of her writing sometimes provokes mental comparisons with the prose works of Laurie Lee or Dylan Thomas. Her descriptions are clear, limpid, arresting in their original use of metaphors but shorn of pretension, favouring the directness of colloquial speech over overblown literariness. She also possesses keen psychological insight, capturing both the immediacy of the child's world, and its heartbreaking fragility. Evans evokes the oddness of adults as seen from a very young child's perspective, the extreme importance that small girls attach to things like watering the roses, the depth and quirkiness of children's observations about the world ("[Wednesday] was the being in the middle of the beginning and the end when things tumbled, things tossed. The day was reluctant and didn't know what to wear. It dreamed and reached out for dusk but people carried on as it was Tuesday, or Friday, as if time's moods didn't matter."). The author is especially adept at evoking a sense of place, both of Neasden, the London suburb that the twins inhabit (in a memorable comparison with the high heel of Italy, it is portrayed as "what the city stepped on to be sexy") and Nigeria, a section in which Evans' descriptive powers really soar. She captures with uncanny accuracy the rhythms of Derbyshire and Estuary speech, and the diverse hum of contemporary London, portraying the twins' schoolmates with humour and understanding.
Evans' greatest strength is her ability to characterise: more than in any other recent novel, the characters walk off the page and demand the reader's empathy. There is Aubrey, the twin's Derbyshire father, fussy, hardworking and insecure, who secretly adores his daughters and nurtures a longing for travel and excitement, and Ida, their Nigerian mother, gentle and melancholy, passively (or, on one occasion, viscerally and violently) at loggerheads with Aubrey. She "gave the impression -the quietness, the sideways look—of someone who was always leaving and had never fully arrived.....There was red dust still in her eyes." The narrator's omniscient perspective on this couple gives the reader a glimpse of a relationship dogged by mutual, baffled antagonism, but ultimately sustained by a kind of devotion. The portrayals of the twins' precocious little sister Kemy and capable, kind and wise older sister Bel are also very convincing.
It is the twins themselves, however, who captivate us. Quiet, imaginative Georgia enjoys imaginary tea and sympathy with an elderly Gladstone (the former Prime Minister had once lived in Neasden). Up until the last few pages, although both of them engage the reader, Georgia monopolises our emotions: her loss of childhood innocence on a family trip to Nigeria colours her whole subsequent existence, leading inexorably to the tragic ending. Sparky, confident Bessi, a natural optimist, is Georgia's other half, and remains her untroubled refuge for most of the story. Together they experience the ordinary but irrecoverable joys and traumas of childhood and adolescence -keeping a hamster, trying to start up a flapjack business, family tensions, being caught stealing sweets from Woolworths, and relationships with boys. The loft that they share as children becomes a symbol of their closeness.
The extraordinary sadness of the ending is, of course, a measure of Evans' success in making the reader identify with the characters. If there is a criticism to be made of this nearly faultless novel, it concerns this tragic side: the darkness which overwhelms the narrative seems at odds with the book's delicately charming passages, particularly the description of the twins' early childhoods, although there are hints throughout this section of the tragedy to come. But, given that the book is partially autobiographical, such a criticism would be churlish and nonsensical, indicative of the lack of realism that we have come to expect from many novels. The story's apparent lack of balance is a harsh reminder that real life often lacks sense and symmetry, and loveable people can come to grief.
This book is a number of things: a masterful study in character, a searing exposition of the psychological damage inflicted by child abuse, and an evocation of a perfectly ordinary time and place, a London suburb in the eighties and nineties, made extraordinary by sensuous attention to detail. It is an astonishingly brilliant, and very sobering, first novel.--Isabel Taylor
Billy Bragg's The Progressive Patriot Review The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging Billy Bragg (Bantam Press, 2006)
In this blend of polemic and memoir, Billy Bragg, long-time antifascist campaigner, punk rocker and all-around unique bloke, offers a defiantly working-class and left-leaning take on questions of identity and belonging, in a blunt commentary that is lightened by realistic optimism. Like George Orwell, another down-to-earth Englishman whom he greatly admires, Bragg never takes the reader's knowledge of any given topic for granted, but also never talks down.
Bragg wants to show working-class readers that there is a left-leaning brand of patriotism, infused with egalitarianism, that historically found its expression in heroic moral struggles in which working-class people played a decisive role: the political agitation of the Levellers and Diggers during the English civil war, the Chartists' battle over enfranchisement in the Victorian age, and the mammoth social revolution achieved by the post-war founding of the Welfare State. He implies that this underground passion for fairness and the principle of collective provision is still there, and could once again be tapped to meet the challenges of today.
His outline of the English radical tradition is, of course, a godsend for those who are trying to marry a positive view of English identity to an anti-racist, socially-conscious outlook, and his emphasis on the centrality of the working-class within this tradition might do much to nurture a healthy working-class pride. However, it must— regrettably—be said that Bragg's version of English history is sometimes a bit too dominated by his class perspective. For example, his remarks about the Tory party seem to suggest that it has always been Thatcherite in its attitude towards the vulnerable; that its true nature is callousness. Although he does at one point make a fleeting remark about the post-war consensus, many readers will not know that here he is referring to the post-war agreement between the Labour and Conservative parties that there is not only such a thing as society, but that it has a duty to ensure the well-being of all its members. Paternalistic conservatism, personified by Harold Macmillan, made a substantial contribution to the building of the Welfare State, and endured quite well until the Thatcherite revolution. Nor was this display of social conscience necessarily out of character for the Tories. Paternalistic conservatism arguably has roots before the twentieth century, such as in the social reform work of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who campaigned tirelessly for reform of child labour laws. (Some classical Tories might locate its source even further back, in the feudal principle of noblesse oblige, but this is bit extreme). This type of Conservatism undoubtedly had its condescending side—few self-respecting people like to be told by their social superiors "we are doing what we judge to be best for you, and we hope you realise that you have never had it so good"—but this is certainly preferable to a political philosophy which largely disregards the interests of the working-class. This distortion of political history is a serious flaw in a book that, if it is to succeed, must strive to be fair throughout. His argument for a democratically-developed, written constitution as a means of both guaranteeing our rights and bringing our fractured communities together seems naive, when we examine the histories of other countries —such as France and the United States—that have such constitutions (and nevertheless have a record of serious racial divisions and abuses of executive power).
These caveats aside, however, Bragg's logic and insight are keen overall. He is particularly clear-sighted in his identification of a crisis of confidence as the source of much post-colonial nostalgia, and in his sketch of the vicious triangle between the attempts of those who wish to foster only national pride through the teaching of British history, the mindless 'pride' of the two-world-wars-and-one-World-Cup variety of football fan, and the alienating effect that football hooliganism has on tolerant people, who naturally shrink away from the idea of patriotism in any form. He entertainingly critiques the Jeremiahs who churn out books on the theme that the country is going to the dogs, making the intriguing suggestion that snobbery underlies their detestation of sixties culture (a culture largely fuelled, as he points out, by a newly-educated working-class).
He provides a clear exposition of the diverse ethnic origins of the English nation, and gives a much-needed reappraisal of the Second World War. Here he seeks to leaven the pride that most people take in Britain's defiance during World War Two with recognition of the contribution made by people from the Empire and Commonwealth to the fight against Hitler (for example, he shows that some of the Windrush passengers had served with the RAF, of their own volition, during the war) and an appreciation of the collectivist spirit and mutual caring that constituted the true "Blitz spirit."
The book is full of many entertaining and thought-provoking digressions, mainly intended to explain how Bragg evolved his perspective on politics and national identity. He recounts his family history, the serendipitous route that he took to English folk music (via American folk stars who had derived inspiration from English folk), and his experiences during the beginnings of Rock against Racism, a formative influence on his radicalism. Along the way, the reader learns about the political significance of the Clash, is made to understand the complexity of George Orwell's vision of Englishness, and is introduced to the wonderful wartime films of Humphrey Jennings. This is not just a political tract, but a treasure-chest of non-elitist cultural fodder that many readers will not have encountered before.
Bragg is a real writer, combining clarity with a poetic turn of phrase that sometimes strikes a deep chord. This is particularly true of his moving chapter "The Old Country," which describes his parents' experience of the war: "The old country that my parents came from was called the Second World War....The War poked out from old suitcases tucked under beds and rattled around in the back of sideboard drawers." Bragg's inner poet emerges again in his meditations on the persistence of the pastoral idyll, echoing Churchill to describe a picture in Simon Schama's History of Britain: "it is the sheer ordinariness of the scene, the lack of breathtaking features, the regularity of the pasture, and the comforting domed crowns and spreading branches of the deciduous trees that mark it out as the broad, sunlit uplands of Eternal England."
You would have to search far and wide to find any other mass-market book that contains a reprint of the Petition of Right of 1628, or one in which such a disparate array of cultural figures rub shoulders. Although somewhat blinkered by class feeling and an overweening admiration for the American way, this is a wonderfully shrewd, generous, and ultimately hopeful work, without any of the hysteria that often surfaces in current debates surrounding nationality and citizenship. Bragg's hope for a progressive patriotism that can include everyone, and show respect for other countries, is comforting in today's climate of crabbed suspicion. The Progressive Patriot will appeal to the many who have been searching for a book on national identity that has something to say to the vast majority of English people whose ancestors were not middle or upper class. This is a book to buy, to read, to ponder, and, most importantly, to discuss with others. --Isabel Taylor
Francis Meynell's The Week-End Book Review
The Week-End Book Francis Meynell (Duckworth, 2005)
This miscellany is a complete and unadulterated delight, and is an ideal present for practically anyone with discerning taste and a lively mind. First published in 1929, the brainchild of the poet Francis Meynell and his wife Vera, The Week-End Book was an institution, particularly between the wars, when, as John Julius Norwich explains in his nostalgic introduction, it was a feature of many middle-class weekend breaks in the countryside. This 2005 edition, which we have chosen to review rather than The Week-End Book of entirely new material that was published last year, is assembled from the thirty-four previous editions, up until 1955, when the publisher stopped producing it.
While all of it is entertaining, some sections are particularly enjoyable. The "Kalendar of Wild Flowers" discusses, in mannered but delightful prose, the various flowers associated with each month of the English year (its line drawings will probably make the fingers of small children itch to attack then with coloured pencils, so the book should be kept out of their reach unless you want your copy decorated). "Bird Song at Morning" provides the notation for various bird-songs, to be tried out on whatever musical instrument you happen to possess, instructs the reader on How to Watch Birds, What to Watch For and Where to Watch. It gives a list of common English birds and their (sometimes unbelievable) alternative names, and reproduces the famous engravings of birds by Thomas Bewick. The section on travel contains much practical information, especially to do with camping: various tent knots are explained, as well as the way to make a paper cup, which most of us have long forgotten since childhood, if we ever knew it at all. Any advice in the "First Aid" section, however, should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly the suggestion to inhale turpentine vapours as a cure for nosebleed.
The compilation of Games (contributed, incidentally, by the children's writer Eleanor Farjeon) contains various outdoor and indoor sports, including the peculiarly-named Tishy-Toshy, and some parlour games which often sound rather more interesting than the usual suspects, though these are also included. Those with a penchant for astronomy will appreciate the star charts in "Starshine at Night," and the section on architecture is a superbly clear and straightforward guide to the various styles of English buildings, paying particular attention to the different types of pubs. The "Rounds and Songs" chapter, however, really shows its age: it is hard to imagine any gathering these days choosing to sing "She was poor but she was honest," and many of the other choices -such as "Shenandoah" and "Frère Jacques"—are rather too obvious. This defect is, happily, more than compensated for by the poetry anthology at the back, which displays the expertise of the book's compiler. Although some of the offerings are banal, there is a wide range of whimsical or poignant poems here, some of which will be new to even the best-read poetry addict. "The Law and How to Break It" provides some startling insights into law in the first half of the twentieth century. In some ways not much has changed (in "Of Railways" we are informed that "The purchase of the ticket does not guarantee the purchaser a seat in the train. A timetable is not a guarantee that a train will run"), but one wonders whether the fines for swearing, exacted on a sliding scale based on the miscreant's social standing, are still on the books ("Indulgence in profanity by soldiers, sailors and navvies is punishable by a fine of one shilling; for other proletarians the fine is two shillings; but for gentlemen and those of higher station the scale is five shillings.")
The book is a reminder that some people in the past were every bit as enlightened and sensitive as we like to think ourselves, and perhaps more so; the section on etiquette is enormously interesting, not least because it allows us to compare the -in some ways perhaps more civilised—manners of the past with those of today. Alongside a touching and amusing exchange between a husband away at war in 1762 and his disconsolate wife (the complaint "Dread and Despair agitate continually my dejected Mind" is met by the irritated response "The Enemy does not give me half the Uneasiness you do, Madam!") and frivolous examples of how to write scornful letters to creditors, we find the stern nineteenth-century reminder that in conversation "he who presumes to censure me for my religious belief, or want of belief...is guilty of rudeness and insult."
This gentle and inoffensive book would give pleasure to anyone not too jaded by the modern age to enjoy simple diversions (or in some cases not-so-simple ones: trying to walk along a straight line while staring at one's feet through the wrong end of a pair of opera glasses, as suggested in the Games section, sounds positively hair-raising). It is not only a window into an earlier age; it is, quite simply, great fun.--Isabel Taylor