Yes this post comes a day late. This is because I was so exhausted by last week that I spent the whole of yesterday in bed, mostly asleep.
Sunday’s walking book club was wonderful – a great discussion about The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, newly and smartly republished by Persephone Books. The Heath was resplendent in the sunshine and there was plenty of cake and much enthusiasm. And yet it had been a long week, and the walk followed by a full and busy day in the bookshop was perhaps a little much for three weeks before due date.
I realised quite how tired I was when squeezing myself onto a train that evening at London Bridge, heading down for Sunday supper with the in-laws. The train was packed. I pushed my way in and searched for a seat. All those who were seated studiously looked down. I spied an empty place halfway along the carriage and navigated my way along – no mean feat with such a sizeable bump. When I reached said place I saw it was not in fact empty but occupied by the remains of a Burger King. I asked the man sitting next to it if he’d mind moving his rubbish so that I could sit down. He looked back at me and said blankly, it’s not mine.
This is when I knew how tired I was because instead of being able to come up with some brilliant line or shout at him, poisonous being that he was, I had to bite my lip in order to stop myself from bursting into tears. Thanks, I muttered shaking with this peculiarly tearful rage, that’s so kind of you to help a pregnant woman, and I moved it all onto the bag rack above his head, hoping that it might drip grease onto his foul balding head. He watched me struggle to balance my bags, book, specs, and the rubbish, shrugged and said, it’s still not mine. I sat next to him, seething, but luckily managed not to cry until I told the husband about it when I got off that hateful train.
So, you terrible man, I hope you rot in a special hell filled with greasy remains of Burger King which drip on you in a horrid variation of Chinese water torture.
In any case, it was deemed that I must spend the whole of yesterday in bed in order to stop bursting into tears quite so easily (this was actually the fourth time I’d started crying that weekend – other instances being provoked by nothing more than some beautiful music, or a first aid video) and to be able to survive my final week in the bookshop before maternity leave begins.
It was heaven. In the moments when I wasn’t sleeping, I read the whole of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. It’s a short book and terribly engrossing so really this is not such an achievement, more a recommendation for anyone who finds they have a spare couple of hours on their hands.
I’ve been meaning to pick it up since March, when Maggie O’Farrell talked about it rather brilliantly at the Daunt Books Festival, and I was given another prompt when Alice over at ofBooks, who – similarly inspired – wrote about it very keenly. It almost seemed as though this book might almost have been written especially for me, given that our heroine first lives on Haverstock Hill (where my bookshop is), and then moves around various North London haunts, including St John’s Wood, where I grew up, and – moreover – she is terrifically fond of her pet newt Great Warty, which isn’t such a leap from my own affection for Daphne, my darling pet tortoise.
(Incidentally, I wonder if there might be something in a study of literary newt lovers? There is of course PG Wodehouse’s glorious Gussy Finknottle … can anyone think of any others?)
Sophia – our heroine – may well be a North London eccentric, but she is not just charmingly dotty, she is tough and brilliant and gets through a hellish time.
It is the 1930s and these North London haunts are charmingly Bohemian. I knew I was going to love the book when on page three we get this completely bonkers description of renting a flat on Haverstock Hill. Sophia and her fiancé are sent upstairs to meet the landlady’s sister:
… so we went upstairs and met the sister, who had even more fuzzy hair, but it was fair, and her eyes were round and blue and her face like a melting strawberry ice cream, rather a cheap one, and I expect her body was like that, too, only it was mostly covered in mauve velvet. She spoke to us a little and said we were little love-birds looking for a nest. She made us feel all awful inside. Then she suddenly went into a trance. We thought she was dying, but her sister explained she was a medium and governed by a Chinese spirit called Mr Hi Wu. Then Mr Hi Wu spoke to us in very broken English and told us we were so lucky to be offered such a beautiful flat for only twenty-five shillings a week; it was worth at least thirty-five.
If only such things happened with today’s Belsize Park estate agents.
Sophia marries Charles Fairclough, a young artist, with whom it is hard not to feel thoroughly annoyed. While Sophia works terribly hard to earn money, at a studio and then sitting as a model – even though she has her own aspirations as an artist – Charles makes no effort to support them and devotes himself entirely to his own painting. He does occasionally sell a picture, or does something nice like cook Sophia dinner, but he is a very arrogant, self-centred men. His family are all pretty poisonous too and view him as something of a genius, which doesn’t help.
While Sophia and Charles are terribly poor, this at first is more of a challenge to be creatively overcome, than something too awful. It all changes, however, when Sophia gets pregnant. Charles, on being told the good news, says:
Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram!
When Sophia starts crying, he reassures her by telling her she might have a miscarriage.
And it was very interesting to read about Sophia’s experience of pregnancy – and what a terrible struggle it was to have a baby in the days before the NHS if you hadn’t any money. It is ghastly, and only gets worse … but, and here is where Comyns’ genius lies: she tells her story with this special lightness of touch, dotting the awfulness with funny moments.
The novel is written as though Sophia is telling a friend about this tough time of her life eight years later, when she is ‘so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true’, and Comyns captures that feeling and tone of telling a friend about something that happened a while ago that’s so dreadful, all you can do is laugh about it.
For instance, when Sophia first goes to hospital:
It was very depressing and dreary sitting in that passage. One of the women fainted. I noticed some of them were carrying glasses of what I thought was lemonade, so I asked where I could go to get some, but they all shrieked with laughter at me, so I didn’t dare to speak again.
There’s the mixture of the grimness of the hospital – not just ‘depressing and dreary’ but so oppressive that someone actually faints, followed immediately by this silly and funny mistake of thinking their samples were glasses of lemonade. Somehow Comyns also conveys the feeling of loneliness and not fitting in, the horror of being silenced by other people laughing at you at such a nervewracking time. All of this is written in the same simple, matter-of-fact tone, which completely wrongfoots you. Is it funny? Is it tragic? It is everything at once.
Sophia has her baby. Their poverty becomes acute. And so it continues: Charles becomes worse; poverty becomes worse; there is an affair which goes sour, and another pregnancy … and I’m not going to continue as really you ought to discover the rest yourself when you read it.
It is a grim tale and would be unbearable to read if it were told with po-faced earnestness. As it is, Comyns’ mixture of light and dark act as great foils to each other and it is a strangely unnerving experience to be jostled between finding it terribly sad and terrifically enjoyable. You can’t believe the awfulness of what Sophia endures and then find yourself laughing aloud at some dotty anecdote; or you are busy smiling at the madness of her Bohemian life and then find yourself caught off guard and slack-jawed with horror at something unbelievably grim.
Thank god there is a very happy ending. Admittedly it comes about somewhat improbably, but I forgave it this because I was so relieved and grateful that Sophia ended up happy, having endured such hell. (This isn’t a spoiler as we are told this is the case right at the beginning.)
Even if you have no connection with Haverstock Hill, newts or pregnancy … this is a brilliant book. Charming and yet hard-hitting, and so cleverly and lightly done. What is perhaps most impressive is that it is so easy to read – as I said, I raced through it in a couple of hours, while semi-delirious with sleep. Not only has Comyns achieved so much, but she makes it all seem so effortless. And it is this great simplicity that lets the twin horror and comedy shine through to such great effect.
Two further things to note:
1. When Sophia packs her hospital bag, she is instructed to take ‘some night-dresses and toilet things, and a teapot and bed jacket’. How peculiar to think of bringing your own teapot as top priority! How can this be more essential than, for instance, nappies?!
And 2. Woolworths and spoons barely feature.