by Jerry Dowlen
'When I'm Sixty-Four': Enjoying Emily Hahn’s Memoir of Post-War England.
On the evidence of her
autobiographical memoir 'England to Me', published in 1949, Emily Hahn (1905 -
1997) was a marvellous writer: she wrote beautiful, lucid prose that flowed like
the clear running water of a mountain stream.
She must have been good: she
wrote regularly for 'The New Yorker'; and they only take the cream of the crop.
I don't suppose that anyone
reads Emily Hahn any more: her books are long out of print and are rarely if
ever seen on lending library shelves or second-hand bookshops. By all accounts
it was her earlier book 'China to Me' (1944) that made her literary reputation:
it described her real-life experience as a young woman from USA high society who
lived in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong where her prospective new husband, a
member of the British Military Intelligence, was interned by the Japanese
before eventually securing release.
I have a very specific reason
for connecting with 'England and Me': Emily Hahn describes living in England
during the year of my birth, 1947. From the very first page I feel that Ms Hahn
has picked me up and tucked me under her arm and has promised me: “I’m going to
take you back to your childhood and give you a vivid sense of the England that
your parents lived in when you were a very young child”:
was August 2nd, 1946 when we arrived. The war was not so long over that we had
shed every reminder of it, even in New York, and the Queen Mary was still
fitted up as a troopship.
We landed in late afternoon, ten years after the Major last saw his native land
and twelve years since I left Europe for the Orient. One is always inclined to
be reminiscent at such moments, and the Major had to drag himself from a deep
silence to struggle with the mechanics of getting us home to Dorset.
had missed the train, and decided to go by taxi. Dusk was drawing in as we rode
out through the suburbs of Southampton. It didn't look too good. The driver
showed us where the bombs aimed at the docks had fallen, and until we were out
in the country it all looked disarmingly unfamiliar. The countryside, however,
was its usual lush green self.
began to wonder what the house, Conygar, would be like. I had seen no
photographs. The Major had only said: “The place must be in frightful shape -
the Army's had it six years.” I had seen letters from an agent in Dorchester
about getting it derequisitioned - a wonderful wartime word, that. I had also
exchanged a letter or two with Mrs Clifton, the wife of the caretaker.
Emily Hahn, her English
husband Charles Boxer (mainly referred to as "the Major") and their
young daughter Carola found the big house in the village of Broadwayne to be a
daunting challenge to occupy: food and other essential local supplies were
rationed; the garden was overrun with nettles and the apple trees furred up
with lichen; everybody was imprisoned indoors for long, dreary weeks during the
winter of 46/47 that brought 'The Great Freeze' (Chapter 8 in the book): burst
pipes, no coal, chattering teeth and chilblains. One imagines for Emily Hahn
and the Major a comfortable wealth: and yet there is a litany of complaints
about Conygar’s splintered floors, broken windows, faulty electrics, crumbling
sofas, unsuitable curtains ... Could they not afford simply to mend or replace?
- or was it that materials couldn't be obtained in the shops at any price, nor hired
labour, in 1947?
That must have been the case.
‘England to Me’ frequently references the privations that the British public
had to contend with, after the war. Emily Hahn and the Major decided to take
themselves up to London for a few weeks’ stay. “We were lucky to get rooms,
considering the housing shortage.” (This sentiment would be echoed in Barbara Pym
and Muriel Spark novels of the early 1950s, set in bedsit London). There were
feelings of guilt that eating out in London restaurants was immoral, while
rationing was in force. And yet: “Restaurant meals are not lavish. If you take
bread and butter you can’t have a sweet; if you take meat you can’t have fish.
There is a price limit per meal, the average being five shillings.” As for
living accommodation: “Hostel-keepers are not allowed to start heating the
water till seven in the morning.” Even the House of Commons was using temporary
space in the House of Lords, after being blitzed by the Germans. In
‘Westminster’ (Chapter 14) Emily Hahn wittily described her visit to hear a
Parliamentary debate. “Photographs do not give an idea of the back of Churchill’s
neck, which shows a dowager’s bulge.” Outside, meanwhile: “I saw the new
Commons building; all in the girder stage; it will take another three years to
Political and social change
Emily Hahn arrived in England
at a time of landmark political and social change. Clement Atlee led the
newly-elected Labour administration. The old social order was slowly breaking
down. Inside the small world of Conygar, the Major acknowledged this, and played
at class reform, but his ham-fisted efforts backfired. Inverted snobbery reigned:
the staff and servants preferred to be talked down to; meal times were “deeply
uncomfortable” when the Major attempted to embrace social inclusion.
At least, though, the Major’s
every false step was not lambasted in the daily papers: we can imply from Emily
Hahn’s commentary that our present-day Tory press would have fitted into 1947
like a glove: “The newspaper writers peer into a future that is deeply black;
they have always done this in England and I suppose they always will.”
It would be another fifty
years before a Labour government would enforce a ban on hunting. Living in Dorset,
deep in Hardy country, Emily Hahn was well placed in 1947 to observe the local
Coleman family – Jim, his wife and their five children – live for hunting. Elaine
never misses, even when she has babies. Sometimes she has the whole house to
take care of – a seventeenth-century country farmhouse, with uneven stone
floors and cranky doors, and all the cooking, and no modern appliances, and
strictly limited petrol with which to go marketing five miles away. She does it
all, including scrubbing the stone floors, but not until she has come home from
the day’s meet.
you going to hunt again?” she asked the Major, who is an old friend.
“Lord no, I can’t afford it,” he said, and the
Colemans both looked badly shocked. They can’t afford it either, but they’d give
up anything else first.
‘When I’m Sixty-Four’
If like me, you have just had
a birthday when your family has serenaded you with The Beatles' 'When I'm
Sixty-Four', then you were born in 1946 or 1947. I guarantee that if you read
‘England to Me’ you will gain from Emily Hahn a vivid and enlightening of grasp
of daily life in post-war Britain: that era of "watery cabbage and boiled
potatoes", "housewives in 'kerchiefed heads" and
"kitchenettes with worn and scratched lino on the floor".
At a minimum, you will be
reminded of how your mother used to dress:
take a look at the British housewife. To American eyes, she is no beauty, but
she is well dressed in her way, until we scan the details. We appreciate good
tweed in America, partly because it is a nice thing in itself; but partly, I
fear, because it costs so much. In England, tweed doesn’t cost so much: it is a
necessity rather than a sign of wealth. The British housewife wears a
short-skirted tweed suit and a knitted sweater, except in the middle of an
exceptionally warm summer, when she uses wash blouses or printed cotton or
rayon dresses. She loves prints, and rarely uses block colour in her summer
dress. In winter she wears all the underwear that she’s got, and always a
topcoat or mackintosh. She goes without stockings if she possibly can; if not,
she wears much-mended cotton, rayon, occasionally silk, or very occasionally
nylon stockings; or bobby socks (fewer coupons). Her shoes are especially
characteristic, because unless she is very much dressed up the British
housewife goes in for flat-heeled shoewear, and well she might, considering how
much walking and standing about she must do.
face ought to be fresh-coloured and smooth, but these days it is more likely to
look drawn and aged. There are more cosmetics around than there were fifteen
years ago, which lessens the contrast between the Englishwoman and her American
opposite number, but her hair never changes very much. She still wears a short
bob, even an Eton crop, and seems to think that fuzzy, uncombed locks are
youthful and pretty, more so than smooth, groomed hairdos. She is as firm about
that as she is about printed summer frocks.
Emily Hahn had a second
daughter, Amanda, in 1948. She left England in 1950, to relocate in New York
and pursue her literary career with new vigour. We should be grateful that she
left for posterity her beautiful babbling brook of an England post-war diary:
‘England to Me’.
Some books from 2011 you may wish to spend your book tokens or Christmas money on!
STEPHEN KING: 11.22.63
Hodder HB PERFECT GIFT WHAT IF you could go back in time and change the course of history? WHAT IF
the watershed moment you could change was the JFK assassination? 11/22/63, the
date that Kennedy was shot - unless . . . King takes his protagonist
Jake Epping, a high school English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, 2011, on a
fascinating journey back to 1958 - from a world of mobile phones and iPods to a
new world of Elvis and JFK, of Plymouth Fury cars and Lindy Hopping, of a
troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian
named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake's life - a life that
transgresses all the normal rules of time.
With extraordinary imaginative
power, King weaves the social, political and popular culture of his baby-boom
American generation into a devastating exercise in escalating suspense.