Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Duck Everyone, Play Dead"

I acquired a few books on my visit to mum and dad, some from their shelves and some from a charity shop trawl in Newton Abbott (an excellent place for charity shops if you are ever down that way). There were a couple, like Golden Notebook and Cold Comfort Farm from my 101 books challenge list that I knew mum would have, though she announced that she dislikes Doris Lessing despite having most of her books. I am most pleased with Fried Green Tomatoes that I found for 99p.

On the journey down to Devon I consumed with relish 'Man at the Helm' by Nina Stibbe. I started it a week or so ago over breakfast and was laughing out loud, and continued to do so on the train. It is narrated by ten-year-old Lizzy who gives us the tale of her and her sister's attempts to find a new man for their mother after the breakup of her marriage leaves them in somewhat reduced circumstances and she takes to consuming pills and hiding in bed. I liked the nostalgia trip because it is set in the 70's so many of the experiences she relates were very familiar. ("My sister and I started going to London on our own on the train, with a bit of cash and a Whizzer and Chips for me, and whatever book my sister was reading at the time" (p.63)).

Quite how they get away with writing letters on their mother's behalf I'm not sure but they manage to conspire to get various men into the house so that they can be charmed by her youth and beauty (she is, fortunately, young and beautiful). However most of them are already married. In the meantime they have to contend with a hostile village community and a lack of their former housekeeper Mrs Lunt, their mother being constitutionally unsuited to housework means that the domestic neglect quickly becomes dire. To make herself feel better their mother vents her anger at their father, and the world in general by writing plays that they then act out for her; they become an ongoing and significant feature of the story:

"To begin with, after the split, I thought I was quite glad to be rid of him. But actually, I missed him - his dinnertime appearances being better than nothing and his mild disapproval suddenly seemed quite important. And hearing about his love affair - which we did via a short play-act our mother wrote recalling her discovery of it - my opinion of him changed. It was exciting and unexpected. He was flesh and blood all of a sudden, whereas before he'd seemed like a dusty old statue, to be driven around and avoided." (p.7-8)

"Sometimes the play writing would ward of misery and she'd bounce around with staging ideas and on those days we hated the play because it was those days she'd beg us to enact it when we'd rather be watching Dick Emery. Other times, she didn't have the energy to write (usually because she'd not started early enough and was too drunk) and on these days we longed for the play." (p.29)

"We followed our mother downstairs and huddled together on the chesterfield at the chilly end of the kitchen and discussed the parade and the fancy dress competition. Our mother wasn't going out after all: she was writing a one-act play called The Female Vixen about the wife of a huntsman who tames a wild fox just to prove she can and is then stuck with a tame fox that can't ever be returned to the wild and gets addicted to Shredded Wheat. Which sounded quite exciting." (p.35-6)

I loved the very matter of fact style, which did come across very effectively as the voice of a slightly precocious child. It is partly the way that children do not have artificial politeness or avoid subjects that adults would, she just tells it like it is. The portrait of conservative village life is just wonderful, witty and captures the attitudes of the time so well. This is a nice one, when the local funfair has been cancelled due to a domestic dispute and attempted suicide (I like the way 'the village' becomes like a character itself):

"That was the things about this village: you couldn't do anything without a whole bunch of people knowing about it. You couldn't even jump into a canal to drown yourself without people queuing up to jump in and drag you out. The village was furious about the shooting, not only because of the cancellation of the fair but because it ended up on the Nine O'Clock News read by Richard Baker and put the village in a bad light. The village blamed the wife for being provocative and wanting too many material things when the poor husband was only on an overlocker's wage in spite of living on a farm." (p.112)

Things go from bad to worse as their mother hides from the financial problems (created mainly I felt by owning four ponies, but exacerbated by her naivety and an exploitative boyfriend) and they end up moving house to the new estate outside the village and their mother gives in and gets a job. It turns out to be the making of her. Even though the premise seems a bit suspicious, the idea that she is 'disapproved of' by the village for being a divorcee and that only having a husband will make them socially acceptable (I guess reflecting the attitude of the time) but she makes the point at the end that it's not about not needing a man at the helm but that coping alone is hard and having someone to worry about you and help and support you makes life better. As much as it is about their mother's struggles it is also about Lizzy and her growing up, so one last one that summed up for me something I certainly experienced at that age, and to some extend continue to find about being a woman. Her friend Melody starts carrying around a handbag (an item that I hold in deep contempt):

"It was because she couldn't perform any two-handed task while holding it, due to the hoops being too small in circumference to be slipped onto the shoulder. So, time after time, I'd be left holding it while she fiddled with her shoelace or gate latch. It wasn't as if the bag ever had anything worth carrying in it either, such as a Wagon Wheel or a penknife. I could tell this by the weight - it was, for all its stupid bucket-size, light as a feather. It was, like so many women's things, like a clumsy prop for a fancy-dress costume.
It sounds harsh, I know, but I had just realised that opting for anything sensible in the way of bags, shoes, trousers (even books and hobbies) marked you out as a tomboy (even if you weren't a tomboy as such), and although being a tomboy was thought by adults to be marvellous, it was a problem when it came to other children. Other tomboys might admire you but would often want to compete in tomboyishness, and that meant possibly having to fight them or having to jump off a roof or watch them dissect a wasp without minding.
Non-tomboys would not admire you - they'd think you were heading in the wrong direction and were either a lesbian in the making, which seemed a bad choice, or too lazy to make the effort for womanhood. I suppose they had to think these things in order to justify their own inconveniences and encumbrances. But back then it felt like a trap." (p.292-3)

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