The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

September 2017

 - Wednesday, September 06, 2017
During my enforced leisure time, owing to knee surgery, I was at times—unbelievable as it may seem—unable to find anything to read in the house. However, after one search I found a book that I had bought as a present, but had never got around to giving. It is The Great Western Beach: A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood Between the Wars by Emma Smith, née Elspeth Hallsmith—I’m not sure when, or why, she changed it. The book tells of her first 12 years in Newquay, which is on the west coast of England. The family consisted of her parents, her elder brother and sister (twins), and younger brother, Harvey—an unexpected late addition to the family. Nothing has ever gone right for Captain Guthrie Hallsmith, Emma’s father—and he makes sure everyone knows about it. Much to his dismay, he’s a clerk in the local bank. He is convinced that he, with all his talents, should be the manager. A deeply disappointed man he had desperately wanted to be a painter—but is forced to work to keep the wolf from the door. He takes his failures out on his wife and children, especially his eldest son, Jim—who was born with a medical condition that stopped him from being the tough, sporty son his father wanted. Whenever the children cross him, Captain Guthrie doesn’t hesitate to use corporal punishment. Emma’s older sister, Pamela, suffers a lot because she is the most defiant of the siblings, whereas Emma, keeps quiet, obedient, and out of sight to avoid punishment. Possibly this explains why her father developed some kind of affection for her. Janet, Emma’s mother, married young to an older man, and she was unable to stand up to him—given as he was to terrible, overpowering rages. She tried her best to keep the family happy and safe—on one rare occasion, she stopped him from beating Pamela, who had just had an operation. However, despite all this misery, there were some great times. The children loved living on the beach, and they had wonderful picnics in the summer. They learned to swim and surf, spending many happy hours with their mother during the holidays, their father safely at the bank. Sometimes he would join them for lunch, striding across the sand in his dark suit, shirt and tie. Occasionally they’d motor further afield for their outings—trips which even their father seemed to enjoy them. There is so much in this book—the story of the children’s schooling, or rather, lack of it, is very entertaining, and the family’s ill-fated meeting with Lawrence of Arabia is quite funny. Today, we would say that Guthrie had psychological problems, and he could perhaps benefit from treatment. A decorated officer from the war who felt he never got the recognition he deserved, a frustrated artist, desperate to have a picture in the Royal Academy, but doomed never to achieve this, his was a sad and lonely life. The children were told to be patient with him, but as Emma says, for how long?

If the above doesn’t make me glad to to live in these times, with all its benefits, and of course, with all its problems, the following book does. I picked this book from a bunch that was delivered to me by a very kind colleague. At first I was a bit daunted by its size—but I’m so glad I dived in. Probably best known for his children’s book, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne’s latest novel if called The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The title is a quote from Hannah Arendt—when talking about W. H. Auden she said these Furies were written on his face. Where to start with this big book, physically exhausting to hold up in bed, and emotionally exhausting to read. Set in the country outside Dublin in 1945, it starts with the terrible scene of a pregnant, unmarried young woman, being physically kicked out of church, by a priest—later found to have fathered two children by two different women in two different counties. The scene is a shocking one, but unfortunately, not the last to come. This young woman, Catherine is disowned by her family and goes by bus to Dublin. She gets to know Sean—the young man who sits beside her, and begs Sean to let her stay with him in Dublin. Sean is happy to help but not his friend, Jack—at whose place they’ll be staying. Catherine gets a job in the tearoom of parliament house, and as she now can help with the finances, she can extend her stay. A terrible tragedy occurs (no spoilers). Catherine has her baby—Cyril, who is adopted Charles & Maude Avery, who never stop reminding him that he is not a real Avery. Charles works with money—not always legally as you shall see in one of the funniest scenes in the book, and Maude is an author—who can’t cope with the popularity of her books! At seven years old, Cyril meets Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles’s solicitor—they are both sent to the same boarding school. When Cyril comes to understand what his feelings for Julian may mean, he very quickly banishes the from his mind. Remember, this is Ireland in the fifties, & the church reigns supreme. Terrified of what his sexuality Cyril attempts relationships with women, with of course disastrous (and sometimes comic) results. I loved this book, and am so glad I read it—but I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving away too much away. At times very funny, at time distressingly sad—I hope you read it and love it too. Janice Wilder