Surviving the Sixties

Hilary Mantel

  • Shoe: The Odyssey of a Sixties Survivor by Jonathan Guinness
    Century Hutchinson, 233 pp, £14.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 09 173857 1
  • Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman by Peter Feibleman
    Chatto, 364 pp, £14.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3441 0

Once upon a time there was a Tory grandee who owned a house on the Costa Brava. Venturing forth to an art gallery one day, who should he meet but a hippy. The hippy was a beautiful young lady, rather thin but very clean, and she was known to her friends as Shoe. Shoe had wandered in many lands, pursued various trades and callings, sampled most of the religions of the earth and most of its banned substances. Sometimes Shoe sold lavender bags, or performed as an acrobat. Sometimes she was seen looking in dustbins. Sometimes she visited Salvador Dali.

Jonathan Guinness – for it was he – found the hippy attractive, and carefully tested her out: not by offering a glass slipper, but by mentioning that his mother had been married to Oswald Mosley. Being a simple girl from the North of England, and knowing better than to meddle in the affairs of the quality, Shoe didn’t react. The merchant banker was pleased. ‘Shoe’s whole charm, for me, depended on her being non-political.’ After he returned to London, he wrote letters to the girl. They met again, and soon she had three bouncing babies.

Then in 1986 the tabloids turned up the story: the former chairman of the Monday Club had a second family by a woman not his wife. They weighed in with the usual moral outrage. Guinness was unabashed. Now that the existence of his mistress was an open secret, he felt free to write a book about her. He thought she had led an interesting life, which he saw as a novelist might see it, with ‘shape, unity and progression’. He felt that he could not treat Shoe as if she were a figment of his imagination. But an ordinary biography would not capture the flavour of her adventures as she had told them to him, and so, he says, he decided to impersonate her: he would tell the story ‘in the way Shoe might tell it, if she could write. From now on,’ he asserts, ‘I am Susan Mary Taylor, born in Oldham, Lancashire, on 26 July 1944.’

While the author has explained, in his foreword, what he means to do, nothing quite prepares one for the shock of the switch into the first person and it is only when the switch occurs that one becomes conscious of the oddness, not to say impertinence of the venture. The most diverting part of the book is the description of Shoe’s childhood in Oldham, an unlovely textile town which, like Wigan, may have been built expressly to be the butt of jokes. There is much of the flavour of Oldham life in this first chapter. Shoe’s grandfather, it seems, was stoned to death by little boys. Her father, when courting her mother, placed a Valentine’s Day token under the lid of her piano. It was a sheep’s heart on a saucer, transfixed by a skewer. ‘After that they started to go out together.’ Oldham people are not quite like others, and to Mr Guinness, Shoe’s stories of early life must have been most alarming: it is to his credit that the tenor of his prose never falters, nor does his imaginative sympathy fail. Shoe’s father was a butcher, but not one of the horrible kind: ‘Even the animals who came to be killed seemed to see him as a friend and master.’ Is it possible that the author can enter not only into the feelings of his mistress but into the emotions of a cow or a pig? And if he can, with what sort of book will he astound us next?

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