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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage