Books Monthly Volume 15 No. 1 | January 2012 | This is | 15th year on the web! | I hope you enjoy your visit and find something of interest herein...

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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”:

It 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.

We 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.

I 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 finish.”

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 religion:

The 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.

“Aren’t 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:

Let’s 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.

Her 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’.

Jerry Dowlen December 2011

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.




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