Back to Unkant
Get You Back Home
Published: Sep 2015, 524pp
This ‘sorterbiography’—a word coined by Ivy Litvinov to mean memoirs which are a mixture of fact and fiction—is dedicated to the following: my son Mark; my daughters Georgina, Adelaide and Esther and their children; and in memory of the Our Lady’s Convent Hostel at 97 Attimore Close, Welwyn Garden City during World War Two: I always promised to write a book and dedicate it to the children with whom I had lived for two years!
Sheila Lahr, Preface
A Yealm of long straw is normally reckoned to be approximately sixteen or seventeen inches wide and about five inches thick. This treatment is known as ‘yealming’ and the tight wet bundles of straw, when they are gathered together for thatching, are known as ‘yealms’. the ends of the individual straws in the yealms are made as level as possible.
Michael Billett, Thatching and Thatched Buildings
Chronos was the god of time of ancient Greeks; a god devoted to devouring his own children, as he multiplied them from the future and swallowed them into the past. A fable of time. A fabulous creature of change.
Dr. R.L. Worrall, Time and Lifetime
Ian Patterson, Foreword
Anybody might be troubled by wondering what their life is for, what its purpose might be, or might have been. Anybody might wonder how to make sense of it, as I do as I look at the triumph of the rapacity, greed, selfishness and cruelty of those with power and capital here in the UK and all over the world. In recent years there has been a spate of autobiographies and autobiographical fictions retelling often in meticulous detail the small and not so small events of personal lives, but in most cases they don’t manage to make much of a connection to the world beyond the personal context. The personal may theoretically be the political, but it isn’t if there isn’t any politics.
Sheila Lahr’s memoir is different. As I read it I experienced the narrative, perhaps oddly now I come to write it down, as a sort of figure of eight, shifting all the time under the pressure of time and history, but at the same time resilient enough to resist buckling under its weight. Here’s a flavour of what I mean—early on in the book we read this: “And so I am born into a world of cruelty, compromise, murder, mayhem, megalomania, paranoia, politics as power, tactics as betrayal. But the dustbins of history are not yet full and may yet be emptied and scattered, for as Walter Benjamin writes, revolution interrupts and breaks up the heap, providing for humankind a new beginning.” But such direct commentary is not the only way history provides a backdrop for this story of a child growing towards womanhood in the 1930s and 40s, though the occasional reminders of national and world events that are woven into it provide a kind of extra dimension. “In spite of ourselves we pass through time, or time passes through us, and the events recorded in this book for the most part took place fifty years ago and more.” The past is shadowed by its future, the present by both. The dramatic present of the narrative is full of the moment, of course, but also shaped by pasts and pregnant with futures, as another passage from the book makes clear. No. 41 Wilton Road is about to be bombed, and four of its occupants to die, buried under earth in the Anderson shelter in their garden, but we don’t know that yet: “At No. 41, in the upstairs flat, live the Pearces, husband and wife. That is the old No. 41, not the postwar house which replaced it. And sometimes I wonder whether the present residents feel the presence of the former home, the rooms at times seeming to take on different sizes and altered shapes. Do they lose their way down a passage, or find themselves in the wrong room? Or conversely, had the old No. 41 ever felt insubstantial to the Pearces, the new house shaking it apart as it grew up in its midst? Or had Mrs. Pearce ever sensed the children of later generations making their home in the space of her flat—the children longed for by her, but denied?” This sense of the whole of time in the present moment is what gives Yealm its extraordinary quality. It is a wonderfully full and detailed account of a childhood and adolescence, like an old-fashioned novel, in which a cast of hundreds is brought to life and lost again. Some of the characters are well-known, at least to a 1930s literary nerd like me: Sheila’s unlucky father Charlie Lahr, James Hanley (who had an affair with her mother), Rhys Davies, Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and plenty of others. But they come and go, according to the ways they impinge on Sheila’s life and consciousness. And the reason it works is because of her consciousness, which is both created with hindsight and recreated with complete presentness. The two books which it calls to my mind are in many ways quite different, being written with a profoundly literary sense of form and shaped into artifice in order to get at their truth: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Edward Upward’s The Spiral Ascent. But Yealm has a comparable fluency, evocativeness, detail and reflectiveness. And it’s very well-written and a real pleasure to read. The world it portrays is one familiar to me at one remove, as it’s close to the world my mother (born eight years before Sheila) grew up in, but which I never knew. The personal becomes generalisable. People’s lives and their often brief intersections with other lives create the fabric of another role history plays in the book, which I haven’t mentioned so far. It’s hardly there but it’s felt throughout and becomes briefly explicit near the end. By this time we’ve read so much about Sheila and her family, her fears and her troubles, about the house in Muswell Hill, and the aspirations and limitations of friends, acquaintances, neighbours, enemies, teachers and the like that we have a deep and nuanced sense of a community and the limits placed on its freedom. We cheer, therefore, with Sheila, when the liberating effect of the war gives this community real importance, and when that sense of importance is made tangible in the election of a Labour government in 1945, even though the founding pillars of the welfare state are shadowed by the attack that is to be launched on them seventy years later by a resentful Tory government. As she says, “Radio, newspapers and government all tell us what wonderful people we are, us, the British working class. How will we be pictured once the war is ended?” Not often enough like this, is my answer. If you want to know not just about one set of individual lives, not just about the local history of part of North London, not just about the awfulness of education, or the intransigence of bureaucracy, or even coming of age during the war, but if you want to get a sense of what it all might actually mean, to us as readers, as inheritors, as future components of the dustbin of history, then this book that you’re holding in your hands is one of the things you should read. I’ve just finished it and I want to read it again.
Ian Patterson Queen’s College, Cambridge 2015-vii-14
Sharon Borthwick on Yealm
Why do people trace back their family trees? I think it’s because such research personalises history—something too often deemed the preserve of academics and pundits. Four years ago, Unkant published Ray Challinor’s book about the Second World War, The Struggle for Hearts and Minds. In this volume, a Trotskyist historian contested what we’re told about the conflict at school (and in countless magazine articles and TV documentaries). Here, Sheila Lahr—in the late 1940s a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Trotskyist split from the Communist Party of Great Britain—contests ruling-class narratives by setting down her own memories as a child in pre-war London, then as an evacuee and finally as shorthand typist in London during the war years.
We are often told that Marxists and Trotskyists, in trying to understand global issues, cauterise immediate sympathies and become heartless ‘politicos’. Sheila’s account defies such slurs. She makes history reachable to us: its smells, its tastes, its quaint phrases. She does this through her own very personal—and very brave —account of the pains and joys of growing up. In writing Yealm she used her own diaries of the time, whilst also looking back with adult eyes, reconsidering what was motivating the grown-ups. Her mother sent her to a Roman Catholic boarding school run by martinet nuns, and you can still feel the hurt and indignation of a child facing cruelty and dogma. However, she now writes about her mother’s fears of a Nazi victory against the Allies, how she thought she was hiding her Jewish daughter in a safe place.
Sheila’s mother, Esther, is tiny of frame and indomitable in personality. She is fighting stupid times. Married to a German emigré, she laughs at her husband’s retort to being handed a white feather (message: “Join the army, you coward”): “They won’t let me join the British army, I’m German”. Esther is well read, political, but being a girl was denied further education: “You can start at the factory for making cigarettes” she was told aged thirteen. My own mother, born in 1935, begged her father to stay on at school after the age of fourteen, but was disallowed as a female. The brothers made good. So Yealm is necessarily a feminist book: women, the stupid and ignorant as well as the inspiring, wonderful ones, have the major roles. Esther, although more competent than her husband at running their bookshop, is assigned to the domestic sphere. Charlie is spending too much time in the pub, and the shop has gone to pot. It is Esther who digs them out of their financial woes.
Sheila, away at school, notices boys. They seem so exciting, allowed to be physical and boisterous, climbing trees. Sheila, by comparison, when unexpectedly slipping out a fart in chapel is humiliated and punished by being forced to eat alone. These nuns are the very worst of the women in Yealm: ignorant and cruel, forcing a little girl to eat spinach till she is sick, suspicious of small children going to the toilet in pairs. What a contrast to these warped, shut-in minds was a figure like Valentine Ackland: a writer friend of her mother’s, decked out in a man’s suit, collar and tie, with cropped hair and in a long-term relationship with Sylvia Townsend Warner. Of course, these women were well-off. Away from long shifts in factories and launderettes, it’s much easier to live ‘experimental’ life styles.
Sheila looks in on a home economics lesson: “girls industriously plying irons back and forth”. If these girls deck themselves in lipstick and rouge, they are sluts. If they are careless enough to have an accident with menstrual blood, as did Eileen Martinelli, they’re told: “Men despise women like that”. While experimenting with make-up, Sheila is admonished by a censorious boy: “You’ll go downhill”. It is 1932, and capitalism has yet again proved a failed and useless method. The National Unemployed Workers Movement march from all over the country to Trafalgar Square: “WE REFUSE TO STARVE IN SILENCE”. The times change and they don’t. The protestors are charged by police on horses and beaten with batons, bundled into Black Marias and given prison sentences. Maybe that will ring a bell with anyone who was a student in the UK in December 2010. Incarceration and restrictions on living are an abiding theme in Yealm: from being told how to dress, how to behave, that you must marry, have babies, not go out to work, be clean demure and pretty… all the way to Sheila’s father, Charlie Lahr, being expelled from the Communist Party for ‘levity’ (asked by a fellow member what an abstract painting on the bookshop wall ‘meant’, he shot back: “It’s the comrades on the barricades… all six of them.”). Then there was cousin Cecil, locked up in Friern Barnet lunatic asylum, there’s the Jews in the death camps, and Jews escaping the Nazis in Germany only to be locked up by the British as ‘aliens’. Charlie, despite 35 years in England, is deemed an alien, and locked up on the Isle of Man: “In Britain you have to realise every German is an agent. All of them have both the duty and the means to communicate information to Berlin,” pronounced the Daily Mail (the times change and they don’t). Esther is married to an alien, so at 6:00am the knock on the door comes for her, and she is locked up too. Her two daughters accompany her to the police station. Witnesses to her despairing tears, the pair do a daft song and dance routine to cheer her up; the only power they have left.
The Daily Mail does its usual number on the oppressed and incarcerated: “Ooh, it’s luxury in there, they’re whooping it up, dining on the best fare, sunning themselves, while we are at war!”. During this time, Sheila and her sister Oonagh are living with foster parents, who if they don’t read the Daily Mail, certainly share its views. Sheila comes into her own at this point, gaining in confidence and answering back. Her foster-carers, Mr and Mrs Shillan, are ‘working class made good’. They are not accepted into the farmers’ club of their chosen village, but they fill up their house with objects they think they ought to own, including a great library full of books (“obviously bought by the yard” sniggers Sheila to herself). While Mrs Shillan contains their reading to fifteen minutes a day, their parents’ letters from the internment camp are restricted to 24 lines. Rationed reading, rationed writing… while the Nazis burn books outside the universities. Meanwhile, using all their ingenuity, refugee German artists ring fenced on the Isle of Man make art. For Kurt Schwitters, anything can be made of use: ink is made by mixing crushed graphite with margarine, paint brushes are constructed from the tough bristles of Samson Schames’ substantial beard.
Eventually the family is reunited. But Charlie Lahr’s movements are restricted and there’s a midnight curfew. Nazi bombs are dropping on London. Charlie Lahr bought and secured an Anderson Shelter in the family garden. It’s taken over by neighbours; but with his alien status he doesn’t dare make a fuss of the matter. Two bombs hit Wilton Road, their road! Sheila details a family’s tragedy and all its repercussions. Much writing reduces the world to the wants and needs of an individual; in contrast, Sheila Lahr’s sympathy for others extends the world, making us see it as it is, infinite. Sheila’s details make the times real for us. Like the horsemeat dyed green that the cat eats. Dyed green so you can tell it isn’t fit for human consumption. Sheila slings her gas mask over her chair before lessons. She fills us with the songs, the films, the slang, the brand names, the nursery rhymes of the time; but most of all with the people. And we meet so many who live again in the pages of Yealm: Pamela George; broken biscuits; Gracie James; Force Cornflakes; Sister St. Clare; coconut ‘tobacco’; Herman Nonnenmacher; potatoes, cabbages, beans; Pamela Davidson; Welwyn Garden City Stores; Father Brennan; Betty Devine; White Heather Café; pianola
Land of soup and water
Mother wash my feet
Father cut my toenails
Give them to baby to eat.
Sheila was born in 1927 and by the time the book ends is merely in her late teens. We have a special opportunity here of looking in, of actually living with Sheila through her growing-up years—she makes it so vivid you feel with her those times/her times. This isn’t history perfect, closed off, merely factual: in reopening the diaries she kept, Sheila relives the moments as she writes, but also applies the wisdom of age and of her later political education—filling us in on what other things were at large in the world. For instance, whilst she is ailing in bed as an infant, she acknowledges that other children were dying of starvation in China. She researches the histories of those places she was evacuated to, seeking out the stories behind what you observe on the surface.
Sheila is a child of World War Two. By the time ‘Victory’ comes for the Allies, she’s working in an office, dreary work only alleviated by dressing up and attending dances in the evenings. She notes how whole German cities are vengefully, or for show, annihilated: ‘collateral damage’, it’s called today, as adults, children, prisoners of war, talking, playing, going about their business, are blown up, or burnt up by incendiary bombs. Unlike Westminster, there are no monuments to Bomber Harris in Yealm.
Weeks after conceding defeat… Atom Bomb drops on Hiroshima… Cold War… Show… collateral damage… In Yealm, political imagination does not mean denying subjective experience, it means taking it seriously. Sheila’s scrupulous observation allows us to revisit our own childhoods. Affection is expressed for a particular tree she used to climb. Suddenly I remember my own favourite tree as a child. We both read books in their branches; different trees, different times, different getaways, but all so familiar. “It was a high day”, when Sheila was allowed to catch a bus on her own. And I remember my own struggle to let me be and do as I am. The powerlessness of childhood is so palpable in Yealm. We are, after all, born into a world indecipherable, set up by previous adults, so many of whom accept the previous set ups and do not think beyond. Oh, for more Sheilas who do.
Back to Unkant
Get You Back Home