As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £16.99
There is something both poignant and exhilarating about the late flowering of creativity that invigorates the careers of a few very good female writers. Molly Keane, Mary Wesley, Penelope Fitzgerald and Emma Smith have nothing particular in common besides their sex, their longevity and, possibly, a habit of making unobtrusively devastating observations, acquired over decades of living. Yet each produced a masterwork in her eighth decade – or, in Emma Smith’s case, her ninth.
Smith’s remarkable childhood memoir The Great Western Beach, published in 2008, was not her first taste of literary success. Her debut novel, Maidens’ Trip, which appeared in 1948 when she was 25, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and her second, The Far Cry, published a year later, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Both novels were semi-autobiographical. For Maidens’ Trip, Smith drew on her wartime experience of working on canal barges; The Far Cry was inspired by a trip she made to India in 1946 with a film crew.
After her marriage in 1951 and subsequent early widowhood, Smith moved with her two young children to Wales, where she wrote children’s books and, in 1978, a third novel, The Opportunity of a Lifetime. Yet it was the reissue in 2002 of The Far Cry, followed by the publication of The Great Western Beach, that relaunched her writing career. On finishing The Great Western Beach, with its distinctive, artfully artless style, the reader longed to know what happened next. As Green As Grass takes up where that memoir left off, with the departure of the Hallsmith family (Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith) from their beloved home in Newquay, Cornwall, to the village of Crapstone in Devon. The reason for the move was Smith’s father’s promotion from the Newquay branch of the Midland Bank to a larger branch in Plymouth. A sense of unease pervades the opening pages. Elspeth and her elder sister, Pam, were to attend school for the first time; the chosen establishment was Moorfields, whose “particular purpose is to educate the daughters of officers and gentlemen. Our father . . . is merely a clerk in a bank. But we Hallsmith children have had it impressed upon us most forcibly all our lives by Daddy that in spite of his lowly employment he is – and we must never forget it – a gentleman.”
He was also a decorated war hero. Smith’s memoir is haunted by the intimation that whatever desperate action had earned him his Distinguished Service Order left an indelible mark on his peacetime existence. In Newquay, the Hallsmith children – the twins Jim and Pam, Elspeth and her younger brother, Harvey – had been able to escape the ominous atmosphere of home by retreating to the beach. In Crapstone, that was impossible. The simmering unhappiness of her parents’ marriage reached a violent climax when her father attempted to strangle her mother, after which he was sectioned and left the family home for good.
“There is no denying that life at home, in the absence of our father, has changed completely,” Smith writes. “The whole atmosphere has lightened and brightened . . .” By then in her teens, Emma began to fall in love alternately with books and with boys. Having left school in the summer of 1939, she found herself unoccupied. After secretarial training in London, she went to work for the War Office in Oxford. Soon afterwards, she began the canal-barge adventure that inspired Maidens’ Trip.
The war over, she felt in need of a change: “What sort of a change it may turn out to be I can’t imagine. I’m able to visualise only a blank horizon.” Over that blank horizon appeared the raffish figure of Ralph “Bunny” Keene, a film-maker who offered her a job and became her guide to a bohemian world populated by figures such as Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis and Philip Toynbee.
Smith seems to have had the rare gift of being both susceptible to experience and clearsighted. After a series of exactly the kinds of character-forming adventures that one should have in one’s twenties – a relationship with an older man, a trip to India, a summer love affair in France – she began to publish short stories, was taken up by a publisher and, after the success of her first novel, decamped to a hotel in Paris to write her second – where Robert Doisneau took the ravishing photograph of her, barefoot by the Seine, typewriter on her knee, that provides the cover image of her latest memoir.
Returning to England with a fierce case of writer’s block, she went reluctantly to a party on New Year’s Eve in 1950, met a man, fell in love and – in the space of four weeks – married him. “So that’s all right!” she writes, in the final sentence of her entrancing memoir, a dazzling evocation of what it is like to be young, quick-witted, hopeful and very slightly silly. It is much more than all right. And now, please, for the next volume.
Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)