‘Of course, one has to write, but what can one say?’ Ursula Wyndham’s mother set up this despairing wail whenever she read in the Times that a friend had given birth. To a girl. Her contempt for female children extended – with knobs on – to her daughter, and she was backed up by a husband who acknowledged his least loved offspring only by explosions of distaste. ‘Can nothing be done about that girl’s spots?’ he would grumble in front of the offending child. Or, when friends were assembled: ‘The tragedy about Ursula is that she is grotesquely tall.’
Ursula Wyndham (5' 10½") says that all this disdain persuaded her not only that she was physically repellent, but also that she had no personality. She once tried to explain this to her mother, who ‘listened eyes averted, half bored, wholly uncomprehending’. In fact, her descriptions of being disdained are delivered with more than a touch of her mother’s imperiousness; her anecdotes are plonked down with an almost thrilling bluffness – as if to outface the accusation of inconsequentiality. This is a book which – despite the ‘unique gift for psychological annihilation’ practised by the author’s mother – could stand as a vindication of upper-class belief in character.
The author has not moved far from her family, geographically or socially, but she has led an independent life. This family is one of maids and mansions, and of neighbours who, when quizzed abroad about their occupation, explain: Moi, je suis une espèce de roi. Within such a family, a spinster may be pitied (for ‘tragedy’ read ‘unmarried’): she may also occupy a privileged position as a licensed eccentric. Ursula Wyndham is not outrageous, but she is – what often appears to be the same thing – practical and forthright. When, in the Fifties, she started to keep goats, she herded them through her Sussex village dressed in a bikini. When she detects absurdity in her nearest and dearest, she says so: ‘As God did not play bridge, nor inhabit the social scene, my mother naturally found any reference to Him boring.’ She has a very good ear, and expresses such peculiarities with pungency. She transmits, for example, the full oddity of Lord Mersey, who plied her with salacious aphorisms at luncheon, and pursued her in church: ‘I hoped to see you today, as I have a rather improper poem I would like to read to you.’ He also followed her round a graveyard to recite a gnomic piece of autobiography:
I thought I saw a butter-pat
Upon the Sussex down.
I looked again and saw it was
The Lady Mary Brown.
And are you standing up? I said,
Or are you sitting down?
When he died, the Times obituary set itself to demonstrate that ‘there was no corner of the globe into which Lord Mersey had not penetrated, no adventure that he had not masterminded, no experience known to man, that he had not encountered. I was told that Lord Mersey had written it himself.’
The most striking example of her forth-rightness is her dogged detailing of her love affairs. As a youngish woman she went round telling people that she was undersexed, but in her middle years decides ‘it would be a pity to die wondering,’ so springs into action. First, she has a fling with a ‘not unattractive’ married man who ‘looked well on a horse’ but has irritating ways, turning up on the spur of the moment and expecting his lover to abandon ‘dustpan and brush and be taken at the foot of the stairs’. She trades him in for the manager of the local Stud, a colonel who charms his mares as if they were women and whom Ursula Wyndham finds both ‘dull’ and ‘magnetic’. The colonel has a chilly wife, a long list of past loves that he likes to tell her about, and a sense of guilt proportionate to the strength of what he calls his ‘unfortunate desires’. He ‘fishes out’ one of her breasts and tells her she has a nice bottom. He sends away for pornographic pictures which he is eager to share with her, and takes her to view a house in which years before he had made love to his major’s wife. His lover spots a distinct ‘element of sordidness’ in him, but after they have made love his face wears an expression of ‘noble ecstacy’.
Ursula Wyndham sometimes meanders, but she is not mealy-mouthed: she tells her own idiosyncratic story. As recorded by Angela Lambert, the slightly younger debutantes of the 1939 Season were less adventurous and more euphemistic: they recall a few gropes ‘round the bosom area’, a rumour that one girl had ‘crossed the Rubicon’, and the designating of several young men as ‘NSIT’ and ‘MTF’ (‘Not Safe In Taxis’ and ‘Must Touch Flesh’). Love affairs meant courtship: of 45 debs traced by Angela Lambert, only three remained single – though nearly a third of them were to separate from their husbands. There are glimpses of impending disappointment amidst all the gaddings in tulle and gauze and feathers and satins: one deb, having been to her balls and stitched her way through her trousseau, was heard to wail, ‘All this, and John at the end of it!’
John wasn’t the only reason for wailing. There were always girls who spent hours at dances cowering in the Ladies, abandoned by their partners and cold-shouldered by the other girls on the grounds that they ‘lacked personality’. There was the difficulty of having to open your mouth: one woman sent a fierce note flying down the dinner table instructing her shy niece to ‘Talk, you loon.’ And there was the difficulty of having to shut your mouth: a deb remembers ruefully that her father ‘hated talking to intelligent girls. He didn’t like it if you came out with anything, really.’ And there were the occasional brushes with an outside world tenanted by the blemished and the smelly, where ‘shopgirls and typists almost invariably smelt of BO’ (debutantes had one deodorant day a week) and where creatures were marked by ‘those hardened lines that develop on women’s faces if they have to work all their lives’.
Every now and then, alongside the detailed fripperies (‘the banks of exquisite flowers in the drawing-room, the red carnation and the cocktail on one’s dressing-table’), Angela Lambert deposits a grim snippet of news from elsewhere: ‘Jewish parents in Bohemia ask asylum for their boy,’ ran a personal ad in the Times of 2 May. These juxtapositions have the effect of accusation, but scarcely of surprise. More astonishing than the fact that many of these sequestered girls had a limited grasp of the international situation is that some of them refused to behave as husband-fodder. Some of them came out with something. Some of them bolted. And Cressida Bonham-Carter used to sit at dances, knitting furiously.
It is suggested by one deb that surviving the snubs of the Season was ‘good training’, and a sign of the ‘gallantry’ of the upper classes. Several others observe that staying out late at so many balls and getting used to being tired was useful practice for the war. It seems that a few galas would have done the working classes a power of good: ‘the solid workman is a splendid chap, but he did not volunteer.’ Nearly every bit of this vocabulary is foreign to the world of Carol Lake, which contains no balls, no volunteers and few workmen. Like Ursula Wyndham, Carol Lake is a single woman – no spinster – who is detached from but committed to the community in which she was brought up, and to which she has returned to live. This community, which has a large Muslim population, has a 37.7 per cent unemployment rate and big tracts of wasteland. Carol Lake wrote about her life there in a Diary piece for the London Review of Books four years ago, at a time when Brixton and Birmingham were resounding with fights and fires. She has now added a series of further sketches to that piece, and produced a book which is well worth attending to: a documentary which is informed by a distinctive imagination.
Rosehill can be trawled for the sort of information collected by feature writers. It describes days on the dole spent buying paraffin, collecting the Giro and dreaming. It also describes arcane domestic arrangements, explaining how supermarket trollies are used as portable cupboards and filing-cabinets, storing laundry, a wounded cat or wet washing. But in the main the book’s social observation is rendered, with touches of quick physical description, as gossip, as episodes caught on the wing. There is a lot of physical violence. One neighbour, Hawa, is beaten up by a gang of girls at the fair: they rip her clothes because they think she fancies herself. Chris, who is six, gets a bloody nose when a teenager throws a brick at him. Ahmed is bashed about by the Cane brothers, who lie in wait for small Pakistanis and take their mosque money. And there is a lot of verbal abuse: the local Scots drunk reels through the streets hailing his community: ‘Can yuh hear me, blacks? ... We fought for yuh. Youse didn’t feyt for us ...’ On the other hand, riots are something that happen round the corner – though their reverberations may be caught in the voices of children. One child preens herself: ‘Ugggh, don’t come near me, I’m prejudiced.’ Another (black) keeps getting the words ‘nigger’ and ‘bugger’ muddled up.
The narrator of these and some more amiable occurrences is highly literate, sometimes too literate: she quotes Chaucer, talks of ‘a chthonic visitant’, and has 24 overdue library books. She is also laid-back, artless, natural, dippy. Her world is full of messages, not all of them interpreted or amenable to interpretation. On the old bed in her attic room a previous inhabitant has scrawled, ‘Florence don’t break the glass’; on the local Sikh temple someone has inscribed the legend ‘LUV GOD LUV NAYBOR OK.’ From time to time, the ‘adult part’ of Carol Lake ‘clocks off’, and she becomes mystical, prone to visions and to belief in God. She imagines that the Baby has been snatched from the crib in the local church, and that she will be held responsible. She imagines that a red car is following her around the city – she has a friend who thinks that he is being pursued by people who are cross-eyed. Carol Lake has spent some time in a mental hospital, has seen women with ‘wires’ in their heads, and has seen these women released onto the streets where they push round prams full of bottles. They fit into her landscape perfectly.