Margaret Forster

They had such a Good Time in the Olden Days

Women Remember: An Oral History

By Anne Smith

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Anne Smith has been annoying me, and I’m sure many other fiction lovers, for nearly a decade now. In 1981 she published a brilliant first novel called The Magic Glass which was a hilarious but touching story about a working class Scottish girl trying to get to grips with those three adolescent mysteries: sex, politics and religion. It was funny but powerful, too, and it was obvious a talented novelist had been launched.

Right: it is now nearly ten years later and I’ve grown tired of waiting for a sequel. When I heard of this book I immediately assumed it was fiction and was sorry to find it was not. Instead it is that contradiction in terms, a written ‘oral’ history, a genre I’m not fond of. ‘Oral history’ tends to be a euphemism for hotch-potch of memories. It is supposed to be smart just to tape-record ‘fascinating’ people and not interfere with the result and I can remember in the 1970s the Literary panel of the Arts Council was forever being besieged by these oral historians for grants to enable them to go into darkest Brixton or wherever and interview unsuspecting working class people who were gems but couldn’t write down their memories.

But Anne Smith is not that sort of person nor is she so unprofessional or phoney as merely to type out what people said. She has a purpose and states it clearly: with the family breaking as an institution, few people have access to grandmothers and yet these grandmothers, merely through longevity, have insight to offer as to the meaning of life. Being a canny Scot, there is nothing affected about Anne Smith, so she admits before she introduces her women that she never did discover any ‘meaning’ in any of the lives she investigated. What she did discover, across her range of eight old women, were some very interesting and amusing stories together with an almost shocking acceptance of what had happened to the women, however tragic or horrific that had been.

The two most striking portraits in the book are the working class ones. Mary Coull and Bessie Brennan are both stalwart figures inured to every kind of hardship in lives of what seem unremitting dreariness – and yet they tell their stories with unmistakable pride. Mary was born in 1903. Her father was a fisherman and her mother a servant. By the time she was seventeen Mary was a herring-gutter working with such heavy salt that it holes into her hands – ‘My mother used to chew oatcake and filed the holes in between my fingers with and I tied the cloths on and they stayed until the fingers healed …’ But does the elderly Mary rage to Anne Smith about this? Not a bit of it – ‘I’ve no regrets’ she announces and for good measure asserts ‘poverty puts you on your mettle’ and that young mothers today have it too easy: ‘the children are brought up any way they like.’ Her own bravery and endurance, her own cruel experiences only seem to leave her thinking there is something virtuous about being a stoic.

Bessie Brennan carries this further. She was born in 1902 and her father was a miner. First she was a domestic servant then a confectioner after a spell as a field hand. She tells us she started in the fields ‘at six o’clock in the morning – weeding turnips, tattie-lifting’, all back breaking work for long hours and derisory pay but ‘I enjoyed all my work’. As a confectioner, she sat all day with wasps swarming around her – ‘the summertime used to be murder’ – but ‘I never got fed up, no.’ It is her opinion that there is not enough hard work and that ‘they get too much nowadays’. She doesn’t like any of the big changes she’s seen and thinks ‘the generations that’s come up have ruined the world.’ The only important thing she feels she’s learnt is that you must never ‘sit down and think’ because if you do ‘you’ve had it.’

Where is Anne Smith in all this? Keeping very quiet while I scream. She is a model of restraint, not seeing it as her job to do more than introduce each subject with a short, factual biography and then explain, before the interview starts, how she came to meet them (most through journalistic work). Occasionally she does print, in the middle of the text of the interview, a question she put and the exact answer given. It was not until I came to the first example of this that I realised how knowing precisely what had been asked helped a lot to understand parts of the mostly uninterrupted flow of oral history. In the cases of Mary and Bessie in particular I badly wanted Anne Smith to challenge some of their attitudes; she’s such a clever, sympathetic interviewer I’m sure she could have done it tactfully and got to the root of all this pride in being utterly downtrodden (though not, of course, in spirit, which is the curious contradiction). My own Scottish mother-in-law was the same – proud of the hellish material circumstances of her life, going it all with an air of positive triumph, exactly as Mary and Bessie did, and, just like them, contemptuous of women now having it easy, instead of delighted.

There are no such problems with the other six, all middle class and of varying but always comfortable means. But, strangely, with one exception, none of these women is so sure there was no other way to have lived their lives. They have plenty of regrets, though in fact they have had a lot more fun and good fortune. Josephine Pasternak, Boris’s sister (‘I didn’t like Zhivago very much’) thinks her whole life has been one of repression and Erica wishes she had had more than a choice of three for a career – ‘a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary’. Erica provides good copy, believing as she does that it is fine to discuss sex, especially with the window cleaner, but not diarrhoea. But she is not such good copy as Kathleen who once worked in Aquascutum and sold the Duke of Windsor a trench coat. She maintains that if she’d tried she could have married him and once she would have done so ‘I could have Buckingham Palace into a school for black children.’

None of the eight women are tired of life. Kathleen Tacchi-Morris, who obviously still lives a remarkably full life, heavily involved with the Women for World Disarmament movement which she began, would like to live another 100 years and Josephine doesn’t want to die ‘because I am a coward.’ In a short Afterword, Anne Smith maintains that knowing the eight women she interviewed has not just been a privilege but that knowing them has changed her – ‘altered my perspective on my own life, connected me up better to the continuity of my own sex, and given me examples to follow when my own inner lights fail me.’ I wish I could say the same, but thought I enjoyed every single one of these oral histories, and certainly think they are of value as well as entertaining and even moving, I don’t think they add up to anything substantial. And they could have done. Annie Smith could have fashioned this material into something much more relevant and useful without in any way destroying its simplicity and freshness and without intruding herself (which she obviously did not want to do) ruinously. But then I suppose she worried that this might fictionalise the stories … what a good idea. Enough of this oral history lark, Dr Smith, where is that second novel?

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