As Green As Grass by Emma Smith: A dazzling evocation of what it is like to be young

A memoir which reveals the writer to have had the rare gift of being both susceptible to experience and clearsighted.

As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War
Emma Smith
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)

The second volume of Emma Smith's memoirs begins with a move to Devon. Photo: Getty

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser