Greenwich observatory

Joys and Sorrows
July 12, 1996

This is the last of four books that make up a small classic of urban working-class life worthy to rank with Flora Thompson, and a kind of continuation of the Candleford story. It starts in the 1920s when Phyllis Willmott was born in the then-and-now village of Lee on the edge of Greenwich in south London, a mile or two from the prospective site for the Millennium Exhibition. It ends with the death of grandad and her marriage to her partner for the rest of her life, Peter Willmott, the sociologist.

Willmott has written a portrait of herself through her own candid and clear-sighted eyes and through the eyes of her family, her teachers and her friends. "I was far from being a 'love child'," she says about the start of her life, "my mother once told me that she could have knifed my father at the moment I was in the process of being conceived." Her father said at his first sight of her "She looks like a bleeding gyppo." He had spent the last three years of the first world war serving in Egypt.

What is so masterly is her account of the time lags in the speeds at which the three generations respond to (and create) the social changes of the century. The grandparents have got beyond their fast time and into their slow time. Phyllis's parents move faster, and she faster still. The slowness of her grandparents, and of her parents relative to her, is both the source of tension and also of the stability that is reflected in the personality of the author. Unless the pace of life were different for people of different years, society would have fallen apart long ago, from boredom if from nothing else.

Her family was as much together as it no doubt was in the rural England where the ancestors came from. In their tiny Victorian house in Lee Green she and her two brothers shared the smaller second upstairs bedroom with mum and dad. Early on, gran, grandad and her two cousins slept in the main front bedroom upstairs and her three uncles in the back room downstairs.

The unheated house with its gaslight is described in the minutest detail as well as the beloved and infuriating people within it. The long-lasting conflict which made mum lose her figure and her teeth was between mum on the first floor and gran on the ground floor. Everyone had to pass by gran's quarters on the way to the outside lavatory which was in such large-scale demand.

Each person has his or her own character which is never lost in the changes all around them. Grandad called the ARP shelters of the second world war "dug-outs". He and gran were the best off because he had small pensions from the time when "he joined the colours" in the Second Battalion, Coldstream Guards, and from his subsequent jobs as policeman and park-keeper.

He had also joined the big world from the time when he had, according to the photograph of him in the kitchen, been a "slight, straight, fair young man in a tight military tunic, drainpipe trousers and a pillbox hat". His boast was that, through his relations with the Coldstream officers, he had "conversed with the highest in the land".

He may have contributed to Phyllis's early idea that in some distant places there were "lords" and "ladies" and "gentry" connected in some general way to the king and queen. His privet hedges, trained with military precision, were also hers. She and her brothers were always on the lookout for passing horses and carts so that they could scuttle out with a bucket to collect up the manure for grandad's garden.

Grandad belonged to the Empire, and Phyllis to a school where Empire Day was celebrated with as much ceremony every year as it was in the Australian elementary school where a bit before Phyllis I marched back and forth across a playground.

Her own family were poor, especially in the winter. There was no money for winter clothes. Every autumn large strips of brown paper were cut in a waistcoat shape to fit each child and melted tallow wax was spread on the papers. These plasters while still hot were pressed on their chests and left on till the spring. There was usually work for her dad as a self-employed builder in the summer but much less in the winter. In winter they let insurances go, bought food on tick, borrowed from the loan club and mum half starved herself so that dad and the children could have enough, and dad something over for his beer.

Phyllis gradually emerged from the space under the kitchen table into the children's paradise of the street. "In a sense the space between our houses and those on the other side was used more like a private courtyard than a road." She and her many relatives and the friends who were like family - she knew and was known by "everyone" - had a freedom denied to people in council flats.

A decisive step was when she won a place at the Roan Grammar School. She was caught up in the educational mobility which took away so many of the stars from the working class. She was always close enough to her family to feel their pain too. It did not stop her from separating herself off. "When dad gave a particularly long and loud fart I no longer joined in the laughter and jokes that this could inspire." She was horrified when much later mum popped a lump of butter into her mouth to warm it and then spat it on to the bread. She even remonstrated with her husband when he licked his knife. After the grammar school she was always, according to her mum and dad, full of "airs and graces".

It is a fascinating account, herself in the middle, her multitudinous family, her grammar school, her middle-class jobs and loves, and all of it livened by her sense of surprise that she is there at all. It is a pity it has been published, like Dickens, as a series of partworks, of which the first three parts are now out of print. It now needs all to be brought into one saga of the 20th century - a working-class Forsyte - and rounded out with a new part at the end. Treated like that, it will live on.

Lord Young is director, Institute of Community Studies.

Joys and Sorrows: Fragments from the Postwar Years

Author - Phyllis Willmott
ISBN - 0 7206 0931 3
Publisher - Peter Owen
Price - £15.95
Pages - 144

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