Monday, July 24, 2017

VERILY ANDERSON, Our Square (1957)


This makes the last of Verily Anderson's six humorous memoirs that I've read, though it was the second to be written. I've written about three of the others, but unfortunately I read Spam Tomorrow (1956) and Beware of Children (1958), the two books that sandwich Our Square chronologically, before I was blogging, so will have to use that as an excuse for re-reading someday soon. The three that I have written about are Daughters of Divinity (1960), The Flo Affair (1963), and Scrambled Egg for Christmas (1970). Of the six, Spam Tomorrow, which describes Verily's World War II experiences, and Daughters of Divinity, which describes her adventures at boarding school, are my favorites, but all six make for delightful reading, and Our Square proved no exception.

This volume traces Verily and her family's life in London in the years after the war, when the family's budget shortfalls and the city's housing shortage resulted in their house becoming a sort of cheerful three-ring circus:

Neighbours could let themselves in to help themselves to the right-sized pudding basins and friends and relations in London for the day, could use our house to wash and brush up without our even being at home. If at times it was rather like living on the pavement of Kensington High Street, so little privacy did it allow us, it gave our house that pleasant lived-in atmosphere some houses strive for centuries to achieve. Most of our country friends and relations only came to London once a year, but there seemed to be three hundred and sixty-five of them, for hardly a day passed without a country visitor.

Among other things, Verily must face the challenges of finding an appropriate school for her children (a memorable search, with careful investigation of a nearby school whose students seem unusually happy and well-behaved leading her felicitously to the local State school), finding—and affording—domestic help ("Nanny came. From the start she made it fairly obvious that it would take her years to reform our children. In fact, Marian would be almost grown-up before we could expect to notice a change."), dealing with Donald's sudden period of unemployment, and encountering a slightly eerie doppelganger family just across the street.


And of course, it wouldn't be a Verily Anderson book if illness didn't come into play. They do seem to have been a bacterial and viral hub! In this installment, the family weathers mumps, quickly followed by influenza, treated by a rather half-hearted woman doctor:

I sent for the doctor. He had 'flu. His partner came. She could just as easily have been a bishop's wife interested in art, or a hockey mistress interested in food. Her physical development was so great in all directions that she was unable to ascend the stairs without knocking at least one picture off the wall, which she then picked up and admired for its depth of colour. She was intense; she was verbose; she was apparently quite uninterested in being a doctor.

And those illnesses are punctuated with Verily's diagnosis with a gynaecological issue that may be limiting her ability to contribute further to the chaos of their home, and which may require surgery to correct:

A gynaecologist who had cured me after a year's tiresome illness following Marian's birth told me yes, there was something definitely  wrong. The details he gave me of my present complaint were sufficiently alarming to make me have to hang on to the back of the heavily carved chair to prevent myself from falling over. By the time he had finished, in his quiet polished unemotional tone, I had decided that the best thing for the children, as well as Donald, was for him to marry again as soon as possible after my untimely decease. I even put up one or two candidates in my mind's eye.

Of all the authors I think would have made lovely neighbors, Verily Anderson might be near the top of the list. She approaches even crises with her wry sense of humor and a "more the merrier" kind of zest. Of course, I might specify that she should live just a few houses down from my own, in my ideal literary neighborhood, as the noise might be a bit much to have next door…

I always look forward to the appearances of Verily's mother, and I wasn't disappointed here. One gets a clear sense of her energy and (almost too) lightning-fast mental processes from Verily's description of her arrival on a visit:

"I hope you make them put their beds up themselves," my mother said. "You must eat them today. They were shot on Saturday. They were both on leave together." Which meant that my mother's mind, hopping with the ease of a tit on a twig, had jumped from visiting relations to a brace of dead pigeons, which I now noticed she had laid across the arm of a chair. It was not they who were on leave, but their slaughterers, my two brothers in the Navy. "I wish I could get some nice long ones," she went on. "The last ones were so short they hardly lasted any time." She was off my brothers now and on to wicks from Barkers. I could tell that by the way she started looking for her bag and gloves.

My only regret now is that having read all of these lovely memoirs I have no more to look forward to. I don't know of any other memoirist who can quite match Verily Anderson, and I rather wish she had written 20 more. I have to take this opportunity, also, to share again the wonderfully informative obituary of Verily (see here) which Grace, a commenter on this blog, shared the last time I wrote about her. It gives such a vivid sense of how much fun it would have been to sit down to tea with such a witty, compassionate woman, who had seen hard times and weathered them with her humor and cheerfulness intact. (In fact, I rarely refer to authors by their first names, but it seems to come unthinkingly in the case of Verily.)



And while re-reading that obituary, I noticed something I must have read before but hadn't properly registered. Verily's third memoir, Beware of Children, about the Andersons' time running a holiday home for children, was filmed as No Kidding in 1960 (though apparently released in the U.S. with its original title?). As literary kismet would have it, it featured Geraldine McEwan in Verily's role and Joan Hickson as the cook who liked her drink rather too much. Both actresses, of course, are best known now for playing Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in two different television adaptations of the novels. To stretch the connections a bit further, a supporting role in the film is played by Irene Handl, who later wrote two novels that are just out of my date range.
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