This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
Casting my mind back to my childhood days when Enid Blyton ruled the waves, I used to look forward to my weekly visit to the library – and at the age of about 8, having read everything on offer in the children’s section, I was granted the very great privilege of being allowed to choose books from the adult section. Mind you; I had already crept in to choose two “cowboy” reads each week for my Dad.
Moving on, I was a totally voracious reader, devouring novels as fast as I could bring them home until my parents moved to London’s West End, and I used to spend my Saturday mornings browsing the book stores in Oxford Street – alas, now all disappeared. There was also a chain of second-hand book shops known as “Popular” book shops that I used to haunt. And in fact, on a visit to Phoenix to stay with my sister, I discovered a second-hand department book store and actually had to buy another suitcase to bring back all the books I’d bought. Poor husband, he was the one who had to lug it home.
So today, I’d like to either remind you or to introduce you to a couple of retro novels that are on my “desert island” booklist (to be fair, though, I’d probably need a cruise liner to encompass all the books I’d want to take with me) plus one recently published book for my three book reviews for this month.
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow, one of the “Angry Young Men” of the publishing world. Published in 1960, this hard-hitting novel features Vic Brown as a young man moving on up in the world into a white-collar job as a Draughtsman but still not wanting to lose the working-class mining roots of his parents – a stay at home Mum and a coal miner in Cressley. The story opens on Boxing Day when Vic’s sister is marrying a middle-class English teacher – very definitely a step up for the family. After the wedding, Vic sneaks away to go to a dance in the town where he hopes to spot Ingrid, the girl he’s been mooning over, who is a typist at his Works.
Of course, fate conspires when Vic forgets his bus fare and has to blushingly ask Ingrid to lend him the fare. And that’s all the introduction our hero needed, to haltingly ask her out. It turns out that Ingrid was mooning over him as well, and with birth control being of the “something for the weekend” variety, the inevitable happens. Of course, 60s morals meant Vic does the “decent thing” and marries her, moving in with her parents. Unfortunately, Ingrid’s Mum is a snob to end all snobs, her husband works away, and Vic’s working-class modes do not go down very well. He is totally trapped. Friction ensues, and Ingrid loses the baby and loses her husband.
A Kind of Loving was made into both a film and a television series, and as a look back at how life was in the late 50s, it’s such a spotlight on how morals, clothes and attitudes have so completely changed. There are plenty of second-hand copies to be found online at prices between £5 and £15, and I’ve read and re-read this a dozen times.
Diamond by Brian Glanville
The second novel is Diamond by Brian Glanville. Brian Glanville, the son of a Jewish dentist, has long been known as one of the greatest football writers and, now 89, at the age of 84, he was still filing a football column for the Sunday Times. His footballing novels are legendary, but he is also well known for the “Jewish” novels. My favourite of these is Diamond. Set in the late 1920s after WW1, Dolly Rubans lives with her mother and siblings in London’s East End and is engaged to Jack Diamond, an Irish Doctor who now lives in North London. The Rubans own a shop, and Dolly is excused “shop duties” because she is busy shopping for her new home. However, Diamond is totally besotted with her and will give her whatever she wants, with the result that Dolly morphs into a selfish and demanding woman who feels entitled to have the best of everything whilst Diamond works harder and hard to look after his fee-paying patients and looks for sidelines to earn more money to keep Dolly happy. Mind you, Diamond is his own worse enemy, refusing to believe that the naïve young girl he married is now a demanding woman rationalising it as “why shouldn’t Dolly have pleasure in life”.
Eventually, Diamond, who was full of happy marriage dreams, finds his friends disappearing out of his life as Dolly dismisses them as not worthy of her attention, and their marriage becomes peopled with strident and boastful acquaintances, all of whom demand his attention and make him feel unworthy. Their two children Michael and Gillian, are paraded by their mother as trophies to be shown off.
We move through WW2 and evacuation, anti-Semitism, a new home, the start of the NHS, and finally into calmer waters as the children leave home for good.
It’s a wonderful evocation of life for Jewish families during these years and brings back my childhood so vividly. I suppose it’s understandable for the immigrant children of Eastern Europeans forced to flee their native countries to want the best of everything, and I knew many Dolly’s as I was growing up. Once again, copies are available online. I’m so lucky that I have a treasured first edition signed by the author himself, whom I interviewed many years ago.
8½ Stone by Liz Jones
If, like me, the first thing you turn to in YOU magazine’s award-winning freebie from the Mail on Sunday is the Liz Jones column, you’ll be delighted to learn that her first novel, 8½ Stone is now available.
Liz, a former Editor of Marie Claire magazine, a former fashion editor at the Mail and now an award-winning columnist, has always detailed a no holds account of the trials, tribulations and traumas in her life surrounding her ex-husband, current dinner dates, her numerous dogs and horses, her money-eating country cottage, and anything else that really takes her fancy.
Eight and a half stone details the life of Big Pam, whose life would be perfect if “she could shop in Topshop”,” go swimming without displacing the water “and all those other expressions “larger” ladies use as they constantly self depreciate everything so self-conscious are they about the extra weight they are carrying. And of course, everything relates to their weight – job promotion, getting a boyfriend, anything really to avoid the real truth.
So, of course, they are constantly striving to achieve the perfect weight – eight and a half stone – so that they can have a perfect life. Does she achieve it?
It’s obviously taken from her columns – Big Pam must be Liz herself whilst other familiar characters make an appearance. I enjoyed it, but If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer her columns.