Another book I am very late getting to, but possibly that's because I have made Emma Smith's The Great Western Beach - A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood Between the Wars last for many months.
Emma Smith (Elspeth Hallsmith) a writer I first met via her novel The Far Cry and now that I've read this memoir there is much to revisit in that book and perhaps see with fresh eyes. I clearly remember young Teresa whisked on board ship to India by a distant father she barely knows, all to avoid the clutches of her mother and now I suspect Emma Smith's portrayal of Teresa may reflect some of those childhood anxieties recounted in The Great Western Beach.
Born in Newquay in 1923, Elspeth is the third child of Guthrie and Janet Hallsmith, whose lives must already have been tested to the limits with the arrival of twins, Pam and Jim. Guthrie is a distinguished and decorated Great War veteran whose status has slipped considerably with his return to civilian life and a lowly banking job. This dent to his pride and the emotional damage of the war (my assumption because this is never clearly stated and he may have been obnoxious even without a war) leave wife Janet with little choice but to do her absolute placatory best to keep the peace and to keep Guth's unpredictable mood swings under control. Largely this is all to no avail and it is in this world of fear and anxiety, a life ruled by a bad-tempered man with a slick line in emotional and physical abuse, that the family try and live as normal a life as possible. Dictates of social class prevail, the family have a loyal housemaid Lucy, and there is much to mystify young Elspeth as she grows up along with the ultimate fear of the strap.
It is the strap, and the fact that is regularly used on her siblings but not on her, that keeps young Elspeth in a permanent state of anxiety as she tries constantly to be good and to endear herself to her father at all times. The eventual discovery that she has only ever pretended to love him came as no surprise as I read and makes the choice of a father-daughter relationship in her novel The Far Cry an interesting one. I shall reread and be searching, though probably misguidedly, for an author subliminally re-imagining a different sort of childhood for herself.
'The policy I adopted thereafter of unquestioning obedience has enabled me to evade the punishment I live still, perpetually in fear of evoking. For I have seen and heard what can happen - what does happen sometimes to the Twins.'
Whilst Pam emerges defiant and fiesty from the encounter, poor Jim is cowed and timorous and I can only begin to imagine what baggage the Hallsmith children may have carried into adulthood as a result of this fear.
But thankfully there is a shining beacon of joy in the life of the Hallsmith family; their location and the idyllic days spent picnicking and playing on the Great Western Beach, swimming in the sea and generally, but for their overbearing father, this would have been a truly perfect childhood.
Newquay, a Cornish town now sadly in the headlines daily down here for its rather family-unfriendly nightlife and vast quantities of alcohol-induced mayhem, but 'twas not ever thus; we regularly holidayed there in the 1960s and there was no mayhem that I can recall.
Life in 1920's Newquay was ordered,calm and pleasurable. There were social events, visiting and the tennis club to be enjoyed, dance classes and daily lessons with a local teacher, friendships to be forged amongst the children, a life by the sea to be enjoyed. Despite the fact that Guthrie forbade the girls to have dolls or books, refused to allow them to believe in Father Christmas and generally prided himself on bursting every bubble of happiness that may appear, young Elspeth takes it all in her stride and stores up much in her imagination and her memory, finding pleasure and mystery in equal measure in her day to day life.
'Nevertheless, I intend, if possible, to stay clear of all this unhappiness at home, my mother's weeping and my father's black moods. I don't want to be sad myself. I want to be happy; and today I am. Today, therefore, is a day I mean to remember, to hang on to as tightly as I'm hanging on to Robert's arm, so that it will last, and the memory be like an illustration, a picture in a book, of what happiness feels like, of what it is.'
I want to say all good things must come to an end, except there is much that is not good in Elspeth's young life, but the Great Western Beach has provided security and comfort through very difficult times and to a child who knows no different this will all feel normal, yet it is with a heavy heart that a twelve-year old Elspeth must leave the place of her childhood. Guth's promotion in the Bank takes them off to live in an unnamed village on the edge of Dartmoor, some ten miles from Plymouth (where I wonder, though I'm not sure ever a Cathedral city as cited in the book, unless the Blitz flattened something I don't know about.)
'I am collecting a place, attempting by concentration of memory, to capture somewhere I love - Porth - and so to preserve it inside my head forever.'
And how remarkably Emma Smith has done that, retrieving those memories over seventy years later as if yesterday. It has to be a huge achievement to write a child's voice memoir like this, without investing it with the wisdom and hindsight of adulthood. Even better not a hint of sliding down that slippery slope into Misery Memoir , which incidentally I see Waterstone's has now rechristened Painful Lives.
Emma Smith has written the most remarkable book indeed and how sorry I was to eventually turn that final page and when I read the Afterword, well I felt so attached to Family Hallsmith I could have wept for them...
'O my parents, my poor tragic parents - my good and beautiful, brave, dramatic, unperceptive mother; my disappointed, embittered, angry, lonely, talented father...'