Westwood begins with Margaret Steggles walking on the Heath in September. So really, what with timing and location, I couldn’t be reading anything more appropriate. Bye bye Gerald Brenan and your hot Andalucian scrub, hello the Heath, ‘all gorgeous in deep colours softened by the mist’.
I have to say from the outset that this book is a sheer delight. It is rather quaint, very old-fashioned, terribly English, and marvellously funny. I began it on a train, when I managed to thoroughly irritate the fiancé with my frequent badly-stifled chortles.
‘But just listen to this,’ I said, continuing before he had time to protest…
Before the Second World War Lukeborough had a population of some seventy thousand, being smaller than Northampton and larger than Luton, its nearest comparable neighbours to the north and south. Evacuees from London and war-workers drafted into its new factories from the Midlands and the North had increased its numbers to nearly eighty thousand by the fourth year of the War, and its natural ugliness and dullness were enhanced by overcrowding in its streets and shops and cinemas, and a chronic shortage of those small delicacies that make life in war-time a little brighter.
‘Don’t you think it’s brilliant?’ I asked, as the fiancé stared blankly back at me.
‘Not particularly. Now shut up.’
Harrumph, I thought. I’d even picked a bit that was vaguely about architecture in the hope that that might engage him.
I find Gibbons’s description of Lukeborough very funny, and quite typical of her style. She is utterly dead-pan. Perfectly understated. Lukeborough’s ‘natural ugliness and dullness’. That is just the way it is. It is similar to her portrayal of the main character, Margaret Steggles (who is rather wonderfully misnomered by others among the cast of characters as ‘Struggles’ and ‘Mutt’). She is plain and bookish and she must simply make the best of it. I suppose in that respect Gibbons’s writing is quite like Jane Gardam’s, that other heroine of mine.
Gibbons’s language is full of words like ‘dismal’, ‘goody’, ‘shriek’ and ‘frightful’. They are woven together to create something along the lines of: ‘Oh goody,’ she shrieked. ‘With such dismal weather, we’re bound to get frightful colds.’ Terrific!
Westwood follows Margaret Steggles as she and her unhappily-married parents move from the dismal Lukeborough to Highgate, towards the end of the Second World War. Margaret happens upon a dropped ration book on Hampstead Heath and returns it to its owner, a certain Mrs Hebe Niland, wife of a famous artist, who lives in Hampstead, and daughter of a posh playwright, who lives in a big grand house – Westwood – in Highgate. Margaret manages to entwine herself in the lives of the households, befriending the German refugee maid Zita, obsessing over the posh playwright and hatefully envying Hebe Niland. But the plot is, of course, thicker than this, and there are subplots involving a lonely older man, American army officers, a kind wise lady, a school, the pretty jolly-hockey-sticks Hilda, and so on. I don’t want to give too much of it away.
One of the particularly clever things about Westwood is how Gibbons writes about the War. The War is very much part of the scenery, from the opening description of war-time London – a surprisingly cheerful city of ruins – to the frequent mentions of blackout and air-raid sirens, to the characters such as the American officers and Zita, the German refugee. But while the War is undoubtedly going on, the characters’ lives refuse to be dominated by it.
The artist Alexander Niland, for instance, spends the air-raids up on the roof, ‘wrapped up in an airman’s kit which belonged to a friend who would fly no more’ making sketches for a painting:
The noise was unpleasant and he did not like it when large pieces of shrapnel fell on the roof, but it was not possible to make satisfactory sketches of the night sky during an air-raid without such events. Hebe, who had never been afraid of anything in her life, found his new experiment as amusing as it was natural.
The air-raids have become a form of artistic inspiration for Alexander and a source of mild entertainment for his wife. For most characters they are more an inconvenience than anything else, somewhat tiresome interruptions to normal life that must be tolerated.
So the War isn’t ignored in the book, rather it is confined to the margins. None of the characters lets it creep too far into the page. This is not the War of dramas and tragedies and terror. This is a War that is annoying because of the limitations of one’s sweet ration, and the inconvenient risk of one’s torch battery dying during the blackout. There seems something peculiarly British about it.
And in her refusing to give too much attention or drama to the War, Gibbons reminds me of the poet Edward Thomas. Yes, different wars, I know, but there’s something about the way his poetry studiously ignores the trenches in favour of train stations, fields and flowers, that seems similar in its obstinacy. For Gibbons too writes about nature. There are the many beautiful descriptions of the Heath, Hampstead and Highgate, and also of the countryside, such as this scene when Margaret has to wait by a railway station – that might as well be called Adlestrop:
She crossed the road and sat down on the heavenly bank, where there were moon-daisies and buttercups growing in the long grass and a mosaic of yet flowerless green plants, ivy and ragged robin and goose-grass and many others, growing in the hedge; the main body of it appeared to be hawthorn, for there was white may-blossom showing among the rest and that faint scent, too fairylike to be completely pleasant, mingled with the scents breathed out by the other flowers and plants and just traced upon the warm air.
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry …
They’re not so different are they?
For all this nature, this green and pleasant land, is, after all, what is being fought for.
So, going back to that early description of ghastly Lukeborough, with its ‘natural ugliness and dullness’, perhaps there is a fondness there for such a shabby town, not so much in spite of its shortcomings but because of them. It may be a horrid town, but it is a very English one, with its Corn Exchange and grey skies, and one that is placed firmly in Bedfordshire. Perhaps Britain needs her Lukeboroughs; for every Lukeborough, there is a ‘heavenly bank’. Just as for every plain, bookish, earnest Margaret there is a pretty, happy, jolly Hilda.
Each character is ever so different from the next, and each one is portrayed sympathetically and with a little mischievous humour that prevents one from taking any of them too seriously. And as with each character, so with each place.
What this book does as well as the best of them is portray a loving and cheerful view of war-time Britain. It is hard to read it without feeling a wistful longing for a faded world. I, for one, am going to increase my use of the word ‘goody’, try to replace the lost apostrophe in front of ’phone and indulge in that great British predilection for afternoon tea. I can only urge you to read it and do the same.