He wants me no more

Tessa Hadley

  • Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times by Wendy Pollard
    Shepheard-Walwyn, 500 pp, £25.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 85683 298 7

Pamela Hansford who? When I asked friends and family, they vaguely knew the name but couldn’t place it – until I said she was married to C.P. Snow and then they vaguely remembered that too. They were much clearer about him: the two cultures argument, and Leavis’s vituperation, and some novels revolving around Cambridge colleges. Someone had read one of those novels long ago but couldn’t remember anything about it. In the context of all that forgetting, this biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson reads as a meditation on time and fame and oblivion.

It isn’t meant to be anything so subtle. It’s the second best kind of biography, the innocent kind, which doesn’t think with much penetration about its subject but doesn’t interfere with it either, no flashy stuff. Wendy Pollard’s record of Johnson’s life is scrupulous; she sticks to the diaries and the letters and the work, and her admiration for her subject and enthusiasm for Johnson’s writing is unflagging. By the end of the book the enthusiasm feels touching, a feat in itself; the story ends in darkness, really, though she doesn’t quite say so – and not just the darkness that ends all biography. Pollard is quite sure that this life needs to be put on the record, because the work has made the life important. The reputations of quite a few novelists of the mid-20th century, particularly women novelists, have been brought back from the brink in recent decades – why not Johnson’s too? She would certainly be quite astonished at having been so forgotten, so quickly. If there’s any afterlife jostling for position in posterity, you can be sure that the Snows are both of them feeling indignantly overlooked and putting it down to the worst kind of élite conspiracy – even while they try desperately to muscle in on whatever kind of élite there is in heaven. Or the other place.

The biography really does have its fascination, though, only not necessarily in the way that Pollard hopes. In all its rich, accumulated detail it’s a feast for anyone hungry for the otherness of the past. The story of noisy, clever, bossy, ambitious Pamela Hansford Johnson – caught, to begin with, in the unselfconscious prose of her adolescent Boots Home diaries, 8” x 5”, a week to a spread – gives us privileged entry into the textures and flavours of a vanished time, the nuances of its class structure and language. You might have guessed that a girl in the 1920s and early 1930s could have ‘a topping time’ and be ‘divinely happy’, that things could be ‘jolly nice’, or that she had scared ‘the cat into fits’ – but not that at the cinema she might have ‘clicked with an artisan bloke!’ When Johnson was depressed she was ‘pipped’, and when she was Cleopatra in the local am-dram (Shaw, of course, not Shakespeare), ‘the play went simply marvellously! Raging success’ and had ‘awfully good notices’ in the local paper.

She was born in 1912 and grew up the adored only child in a fractious household of women, with her mother, Amy, her aunt and grandmother. Her father, ‘R.K.’ Johnson, was a minor colonial administrator, chief storekeeper on the Baro-Kano railway (you couldn’t make this up). He was usually in Nigeria, where he never took his family, and died when Pamela was 12. The family background belongs on the slippery edges of social status; Amy’s family were vaguely theatrical – her father had been a manager for Henry Irving – and thought of themselves approvingly as ‘bohemians’, too good to marry into ‘trade’ (though Amy’s mother was from a family of grocers). The large brick terraced house in Clapham belonged to Amy’s family and its hallway was hung with Irvingiana – ‘playbills, programmes, sketches of costumes, photographs’. Money was short even before R.K.’s death, and most of the house was let out to lodgers (including one who pretended to be a doctor but was actually in the pornography business). Amy and her daughter had to share a semi-basement room. We need a London Dubliners to do justice to the atmospherics of this little world, and its symbolic language.

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