I’ve been on something of an Emma Smith binge this week, in part because tomorrow I am going to meet her for tea. Tea with Emma Smith! It is too thrilling! I wonder, will there be ‘strawberry jam sandwiches and sultana scones’, as she wrote in her first volume of memoir, The Great Western Beach, or are these only for beach picnics?
I wrote here about Emma Smith’s superb novel The Far Cry – long-lost, then wonderfully recovered thanks to Susan Hill and Persephone Books. I hadn’t realised that Bloomsbury were just about to publish her second volume of memoir, As Green As Grass. What perfect timing. Having recently emerged from the colourful world of 1940s India captured within Persephone’s signature grey covers, I could swiftly immerse myself in more of Smith’s lush prose, but this time of the England of her youth – as she puts it, ‘before, during and after the Second World War’.
It is a real delight to read about the life of an author you greatly admire. The Far Cry is beautifully written, and offers one of the most startling and distressing characters in literature, but it is also about an intriguing subject – life on an Indian tea plantation in the 1940s. In her Preface to the novel, Smith writes tantalisingly about the basis for the novel – her trip to India after the Second World War, to make a documentary about the tea plantations. Who was with her on the trip? None other than Laurie Lee!
So I began As Green as Grass feeling rather impatient to get to the India bit. I wanted to read about her glamorous life with Laurie Lee in literary London, and then her escapades in India. But I soon became so engrossed in the memoir, that I’d as good as forgotten about the Indian antics that were to come.
The book is divided up into three sections – Before, During and After, all in relation to the Second World War. Before is growing up in Devon, with a father suffering from the legacy of the First World War. He is unable to reconcile his days as a war hero with his job as a humble bank clerk and is prone to violent eruptions of anger, which eventually get him sectioned. Her mother explains:
Poor Daddy is ill, she says to us children, but with care and the right sort of nursing he will soon get better. She doesn’t ever use the word which looms inside my own head so menacingly: mad!
It is so exactly what it’s like to be a child suddenly caught up in something adult. The grown-ups tell you soothing half-truths, when in your head you can’t escape the menacing melodramatic reality – words which you’ve only ever overheard or read, but now they apply to your family. I remember feeling exactly the same when various scary adult things happened when I was growing up – there was such menace in words like ‘divorce’ and ‘rehab’ when applied to your own family, and yet those words were so rarely said directly to you. You’d overhear them and vaguely know of them, and of course those words would be all you could think about, while the adults were busy coddling the truth in the softness of words like ‘gone away’ and ‘ill’.
The years during the War are particularly poignant. Smith describes going out for lunch with her sister Pam and a young fighter-pilot:
As soon as we’ve met and greeted each other, Ricky holds out Pam’s left hand in order to show me the ring on her engagement finger.
‘Goodness gracious,’ I say, amazed and delighted, ‘ – you’re engaged, you and Pam! You’re going to be – are you? – actually going to be married?’
‘We sure are,’ says Ricky, smiling broadly. ‘Isn’t that right, Pam?’
I’ve met Ricky before. He’s a fighter pilot on the same station as Pam’s young and handsome: a dear. How romantic!
But when I glance up and see the expression on my sister’s face, I’m startled. It’s the fond amused look of an adult indulging the passing whim of a small boy; as though, I think, the pearl-and-sapphire ring, and what it signifies – marriage – is merely part of a game she’s playing to please this nice young man.
Later, we learn:
Ricky, the Canadian boy I met in London, was one of those fighter-pilots who flew off and didn’t come back. I remember him showing me, proudly, the ring he had put on my sister’s engagement finger, and I remember being startled by the glimpse I caught of her unguarded expression: she knew!
Somehow the knowing – the complete destruction of any innocence, hope or optimism in favour of this necessary cynicism – is almost more terrible than the death.
There is tremendous energy in Emma Smith’s prose, you feel as though she is taking great pleasure in looking back at her youth and telling us all about it. It is written in the present tense, so you are right there, bang in the middle of things. We whizz through the pages and the years skip by, taking us to a smart typing school, then to the ‘innumerable flimsy huts that have sprung up, like a toy town’ in the grounds of Blenheim Palace to house the War Office, to gruelling cold work on wartime canals, to Bohemian Chelsea, to India, to France…
I was struck, of course, by the many differences between now and then – a time when women make friends with each other by leaving calling cards and Rupert Brooke is a heartthrob – but these differences never obstruct the great empathy Smith inspires. Beneath these surface differences, there is much that has stayed exactly the same. Her fizzing prose tells of problems and experiences that we all face – falling in love, having one’s heart broken, struggling to find what to do with one’s life, falling ill, feeling appallingly stupid for making mistakes in a new job, running out of money, and – particularly inspiring for me – having the courage, persistence and determination to keep on writing.
I can’t wait for tea!