Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Week Twenty-Two - Jeanette

Westwood by Stella Gibbons (1946)
Recommended by Kathryn

‘I swear I put that fifty pence in,’ wrote Kathryn in her second ever letter to me. ‘If it’s not in this letter, you know to blame the thieving GPO!’

Kathryn had contacted me the previous week (sans fifty pence), wanting a copy of this:

Kirby was my fanzine, on its second issue. In an uncharacteristic fit of self-promotion, I’d sent it to Ceefax, which reviewed zines on a weekly basis. They liked it, called it ‘post-riot grrrl’, I got a rash (twenty or so) of orders, and one was from an Oxford girl called Kathryn. Once we’d settled the contentious fifty pence issue (yes, it was there in her second letter!) we started writing to each other very regularly.

Kathryn’s letters were amazing. Literally, some of the funniest, sweetest, most insightful words I’d ever read. We’d write about current music a lot, the lo-fi girl groups like Golden Starlet and The Rondelles that we both liked, plus we’d laugh and laugh about pop and indie culture. We’d make each other mix tapes. Soon we started writing about our lives, our dilemmas, our happiness and our hurts.

Eventually, we met. We arranged that she would come into my branch of Oddbins. Late that afternoon, while I was up a stepladder arsing about with champagne for a dithering customer, I could see this girl with a silver backpack out of the corner of my eye and I knew it must be her. The time it took for that customer to wrap up the champagne transaction felt like an absolute lifetime, so anxious was I to actually talk to this girl who had come to mean so much to me.

She was even more incredible in person than in her letters!

Eighteen months or so after that, we became Hackney flatmates. We had four glorious years there. So many details of that home remain with me: the pigeon infestation on the balcony (and Kathryn throwing out their egg because I was too squeamish to); the armchair where we’d dump our coats; the nonsensical sticker on the bathroom mirror that said ‘You’ve gotta sleep sometime’; the Polaroid of the two of us blu-tacked to the lounge door… but mainly it was the feeling of belonging. The knowledge that she and I had a very rare friendship.

While we lived together, I got to know her literary tastes. She enjoyed a wide range of writers, was vocal about the ones she didn’t (I remember her calling Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius ‘a tedious work of staggering shite’) and she leaned towards British literary female authors of the early-to-mid twentieth century. In the last few years she’s read significant numbers of works of this style from the era, and has become very knowledgeable about it.

‘Margaret! Put that book away and come down here at once! Reg’ll be here any minute and I want the cloth set and some potatoes done, and he’s sure to want a bath, the boiler’ll want making up. Come along, get a move on, now!’
Margaret reluctantly returned to the present, put the book back among the many others that crowded her room, and went slowly downstairs.

Margaret Steggles, the central character of Westwood, is in her early 20s, rather plain to look at, and serious about Art and Literature. When she performs a chance good deed (the return of a ration book), she meets the artist, Alexander Niland, and his wife, Hebe. The grave and wide-eyed Margaret can’t quite believe she’s breathing the same rarefied air as these glamorous people, yet at the same time she is deeply disenchanted by the experience.

She began to listen to what Alexander Niland and Lev were talking about, but was disappointed to find that it concerned the difficulty of obtaining matches.

Margaret soon learns that Hebe’s father is an idol of hers, the playwright Gerard Challis. Gerard, unlike Alexander, doesn’t chatter idly about matches.

‘There is a helpless quality, don’t you agree, about a room that is prepared for a party,’ he observed. ‘The silence and flowers are like victims, awaiting the noise of conversation and the cigarette-smoke and dissonant jar of conflicting personalities that shall presently destroy them.’

Margaret had been thinking that the hall looked perfectly lovely and wishing with all her heart that she were going to the party too, but she hastily readjusted her point of view, and answered solemnly, ‘Yes, I know just what you mean.’

Enamored with Gerard and his purple prose, Margaret begins to neglect her old friend, Hilda. Hilda is really awesome; she’s a jolly sensible girl, whose pretty face and sprightly manner attracts many a man – including Gerard. Gerard’s attempts to woo Hilda are absolutely priceless. He describes the main character of his latest play, Kattë, to her.

‘She makes men suffer,’ said Mr Challis somberly, gazing at her, ‘even as you do.’
‘I don’t do anything of the sort!’ she exclaimed indignantly, turning round. ‘My boys are always ever so cheery.’
            ‘Perhaps they suffer without your knowledge,’
            ‘Well, I can’t help that, can I?’

A quote on the back cover compares Stella Gibbons to Jane Austen – and that seems very astute to me. Gibbons explores the sexual and class mores of wartime British culture as deftly as Austen dissected those of the early nineteenth century. And, just as with Austen, Gibbons is exceptionally gifted at exposing flaws and strengths through humour. Westwood has a wide cast of supporting characters, from American GIs to a little girl with Down’s Syndrome, and all are memorably drawn; the children especially are believable mixtures of gits and angels. Westwood is charming and wistful and delightful, but it is never shallow. Furthermore, as it’s a wartime story, you do get an honest sense of how it must have been for civilians: a bore and an inconvenience as much as a horrific and life-changing experience. Westwood is a superb book. I can’t think of anything to criticise in it.

It doesn’t surprise me that Kathryn picked up on Stella Gibbons – an author who is really only known for one book, Cold Comfort Farm, but who wrote plenty of others that are mostly out of print. I remember her scouring charity shops for Rosamund Lehmann books when those, too, were very hard to find. And, generally, Kathryn is gifted at teasing out life’s detail; she enjoys observing and disentangling the ebb and flow of situations and feelings, so it is logical that Westwood appeals to her.

I called Kathryn my soul sister in the Seasons They Change acknowledgements, and I can still think of no better way to express my feelings towards her. She’s still just incredible. Westwood is, too: yet it could never, ever be as incredible as she.