Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2018

Common People – Alison Light

Non-Fiction
5*s

For those of us who have done some research into our family trees it is often harder if you are born into the more common class, that of the common people. Alison Light had little idea beyond a few stories passed down about her grandparents when she embarked on her own project which was initially to find the grave of her grandmother who had died when her father was just a small child. The search was prompted by her father’s ill health and this initial search led her to wonder about her ancestors and what place they had in the world.

The author, like the majority of us I suspect, had no nobility or infamous people to seek out. She had some tales which hinted at better things, but nothing concrete and of course some of the historical research she undertook disproved the little she thought she knew. What she did find was the dates and places for the key events in a life; birth marriage and death. The beauty being that as a historian those snapshots in addition to some census records, enabled her to delve into the life of people as wide ranging as a needle maker who worked from home and a kitchen assistant on a ship.

Alison Light does a fantastic job of illustrating just how precarious life was for those who were common people when the death of a man could mean absolute devastation for a wife with young children with no family to support her. Even those with family were not immune these people living hand to mouth anyway making a living from seasonal work as and when they could find it. Not so very different from the zero hours contracts that we hear so much about nowadays!

Not only does the author give us a good picture of the lifestyle of those working class men and women, she also gives us an insight into the areas they lived in and how this did influence the type of work they did, none more so than towards the end of the book when she describes Portsmouth from her own childhood back in time when this was an important port for both the Merchant and Military Navy. In turn the neighbourhood in the wider sense is altered due to the absence of all the men who worked at sea leaving more of the dockside jobs to the older men but on the whole leaving a neighbourhood dominated by the women except when the men returned from their voyages.

Alison Light’s paternal family were on the whole staunch Baptists and the link between this church and the politics of the working class is knowledgeably explained. I had no idea of quite how closely entwined the pairing of the non-conformists and politics were although I could see the appeal of being preached to by a man from within your own community rather than the educated churchmen who played the same role in the Church of England.

There are inevitably sad stories from times when poverty, not only individual, but of entire areas meant that death was far more part of daily life, the lack of clean water and so many families living on top of one another meant that diseases like Tuberculosis spread unfettered. One of the saddest tales was that of a woman born into the workhouse, orphaned soon afterwards and who died decades later in the local asylum. However, the author is quick to remind us that as tempting as it is as family historians to get fixate on the death of an ancestor, it is the life they lead between the certificates that is far more enlightening.

Common People is the type of history I most enjoy, brilliantly researched and informative touching on the social lives of many of our ancestors but also acknowledging how important tracing our own families are to make sense of our place in the world. This is a book jam-packed full of details which informs and entertains throughout.

Common People is the tenth book I’ve read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 having been purchased in August 2017 so I gain another third of a book token! That’s three and one third books earned!


 

First Published UK: 2017
Publisher: Penguin
No of Pages: 356
Genre: Non-Fiction
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Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, The Classic Club

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Classic
4*s

What a brilliant way to kick off my first read for The Classics Club with the voice of a young woman who tells her story as a young mother in 1930’s London. The poverty is almost overshadowed by this young woman’s grit and her conversational tone when underplaying with a light touch some equally delightful and heart-wrenching events. I couldn’t help feeling that she would be appalled by the social media age where every day occurrences seem to be blown into a major drama.

Here the part which is used for the title perfectly sums up the style used throughout the novel:

I had hoped they would give us a set of real silver teaspoons when we bought the wedding-ring, but the jeweller we went to wouldn’t, so our spoons came from Woolworths, too.

We start with the young, and she was very young only twenty-one, woman embarking on married life, against the wishes of practically everyone, to Charles who is an artist. Sophia is a commercial artist but of course Charles needs to concentrate on his art rather than actually find a job and bring some money into the household. That’s Sophie’s job which she does with good humour. In the early days their love gets them through but at a time when contraception is not discussed Sophia soon discovers she’s having a baby.

I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought this was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong.

The problem was that Charles did not want babies as they would disrupt his life and so Sophia is apologetic and fearful of how he will react.

As readers we know that this is a fictionalised autobiography of the author’s first marriage and that the events in chapters ten, eleven and twelve really happened. This covers the birth of Sophia’s son Sandro in a charity hospital in 1930’s London. It is horrific! Sophia is pulled from room to room having to lug her suitcase with her. Alone with the rude nurses she is as ever stoical about the experience which simply serves to make the revelations all the more horrifying from the perspective of eighty years later.

As the book goes on, the poverty bites and Sophia is in a constant battle between trying to keep Charles happy, to give Sandro what he needs and to keep the family’s head above water. Sometimes she is more successful than others. Inevitably the book takes a darker turn although the book’s tone never does as our protagonist continues to talk about events in an almost unnerving even voice.

There was no point being good or bad; everything was so dreadful in any case.

What a heart-breaking sentence! No major drama but those few words conjure up a whole level of misery that my longing was for someone to give this young woman some hope to keep her going. Of course all I could do was to keep reading and see where Sophia’s life led her…

I loved the book and I’m glad to say Sophia’s life does improve and we are reading about something she relayed to her friend Helen after the events.

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the morning her husband came to see me and bought some strawberries, he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is number 10 on The Classics Club list and the first one of my fifty reads that I’ve read and reviewed. A cracking start which had me riveted to this semi-biographical novel and one that makes me truly grateful that I was born when I was.

 

First Published UK: 1950
Publisher:Virago 
No of Pages: 209
Genre: Classic Fiction
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