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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As we reach the 50th anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution, are we seeing echoes of Mao?

With the official verdict being that Mao was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, his legacy is never far from the mind of today's politicians.

The Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing is normally the scene for formal occasions, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. In early May, however, it resonated with singing by a group of young women, 56 Flowers, at a concert staged by an organisation calling itself the “Propaganda Department Office of Socialist Core-Value Propaganda and Education”. Tickets sold for up to £200.

The repertoire of the singing group was of a kind heard only rarely in China today. It consisted mainly of anthems from the Mao Zedong era, among them “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”, which compares the chairman’s thinking to “the sun that never sets”. The maverick politician Bo Xilai used such songs in his campaign to challenge the central leadership earlier this decade but he is now in prison, serving a life sentence for corruption.

The singers, who describe themselves as “the socialist band fallen from heaven”, wear the sort of scarves worn by Young Pioneers in the Cultural Revolution that Mao launched, 50 years ago this month, to shake up China and assert his leadership.

Some other songs praised the current leader, Xi Jinping, but the event was determinedly retro, demonstrating nostalgia for the era before China embarked on its race for economic growth and before society modernised. In a country where the leaders shape history to their purpose, this was a distinct political statement, and that the performance was permitted at all raised eyebrows among China-watchers. There was even more puzzlement when the organisation that put its name to the show turned out not to exist. Speculation spread that the whole thing had been staged by opponents of the current leadership in an attempt to embarrass it.

While Mao remains the biggest figure in the narrative of the People’s Republic, his three decades in power were marked by killings on a huge scale and the repeated use of terror, ending with the ten-year disaster of the Cultural Revolution. His heritage poses a problem in a country with a vastly changed society that has little affinity with the rampaging Red Guards. The Communist Party-run state needs the Great Helmsman at the centre of its history and its conquest of power. But the kind of nostalgia peddled by 56 Flowers has little relevance in China today, where materialism is more important than Maoist Marxism and where the pressing issues are how to deal with a mountain of debt and reduce excess industrial capacity.

In an unprecedented move in mid-May, the party newspaper People’s Daily ran a severe condemnation of the Cultural Revolution as a grave mistake. However, Mao’s body still lies embalmed in Tiananmen Square, his head is on the banknotes and the official verdict is that he was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”.

Mao launched the movement that convulsed his country after a politburo meeting on 16 May 1966, which identified “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” but were merely “a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists”, aiming to instal “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

The man who had led the Chinese communists to power in 1949 had been feeling disgruntled. He had been marginalised by his lieutenants Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping following the collapse of his attempt to industrialise the country in the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and the ensuing famine, which some estimate to have killed more than 40 million people. Mao was nearly 73 but he was not yet ready to be kicked upstairs into a ceremonial post.

Rousing himself for a final power play, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to assert himself, to destroy the Communist Party’s “bourgeois” bureaucracy and to give China a shake-up as he led the nation’s young people on a crusade to “destroy the old”. Once more, he ruthlessly turned Chinese against Chinese to consolidate his power and to pursue a supposedly revolutionary adventure.

The effects were, as with earlier initiatives, catastrophic – politically, economically and socially – above all, for the many millions who suffered death, injury, torture and deprivations. The party, the army, schools, universities and practically all other institutions were caught up in the maelstrom.

The wrecking of the regime’s control mechanisms cleared the way to the economic reform that was officially approved by Deng after Mao’s death in 1976, as Frank Dikötter shows in his magisterial new book, The Cultural Revolution: a People’s History, 1962-76. But loosening control is the last thing that Xi Jinping has in mind. Since taking power in November 2012, he has pursued a crackdown on dissent and is centralising authority in a way not seen since Mao. At the same time, and in the lead-up to a crucial party congress at the end of 2017, he is trying to use his campaign against corruption to root out opponents and change the way that China works.

Some commentators have described it as a new Cultural Revolution, even though the attempt to impose draconian control from the centre under Xi hardly chimes with the Red Guards’ invocation to “storm the fortress” and destroy the centres of authority. Still, there are echoes of 50 years ago. In a speech published this month, the president denounced “careerists and conspirators” who were undermining party governance.

“We . . . must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations,” Xi added, in a tone that Chairman Mao might have used. The context changes but China’s leaders have always been adept at finding adversaries to be used to advance their own ends – though what happened under Mao should stand as a warning of where witch-hunting can lead.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad