Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

Emma Smith, author of The Far Cry and Maiden's Trip, has written a memoir of the first twelve years of her life, which were spent in Newquay in Cornwall in the 1920s and 1930s.  Emma Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith, a terrible name for a small child with a lisp.  Her parents were middle-class but impoverished; her father's grandfather lost the family wealth in a speculation just before the Great War which put paid to her father's hopes of becoming a famous artist, and he now works as a cashier in the bank.  Her mother had been engaged three times before her marriage, and in each case her fiancĂ© had died before they could marry; the Hallsmith marriage seems to have been agreed rather precipitously and was as successful as you might imagine as a result.  

Guthrie Hallsmith has a craving for fame and social success that is not matched by his talents as an artist or more generally as a human being; his wife, friendly and pretty, achieves social standing more easily than he does, but reaps only his resentment.  Elspeth's older siblings, the twins Pam and Jim, draw their father's fire away from their little sister.  Pam is straightforwardly rebellious, while poor Jim, with his flat feet and double hernia, comes nowhere near his father's ideal of boyhood and suffers angry beatings as a result.  Elspeth is considered to have more of an affinity with her father, but she perceptively realises that this has no foundation, and torments herself with her hypocrisy in performing a relationship which has no basis in love.  Elspeth - and the adult Emma - remain perplexed by the paradox of Hallsmith life: "we are presented to local society as a remarkable family, quite out of the ordinary, and a cut above all other Newquay families, yet when at home, inside, and the door firmly shut on the world, then the theatrical glue that sticks us together dissolves.  Behind the scenes [...] we children are shown that each of us, as an individual, is in no way remarkable, but wretchedly inadequate, with nothing of which to be proud; the reverse, in face: much of which to be ashamed."  Elspeth's ambition is merely to survive the difficulties of family life, evading her father's anger and disappointment as much as she can.

While this aspect of the book is profoundly sad, Emma Smith draws out the joys of her childhood as well.  There is the dependable Lucy, their maid, who cooks and cares for the children, who knows where to find anything that is lost.  There is their beautiful and sociable mother, who charms their neighbours.  And there are lots of friends, to be met on the beach, at dancing classes, at the tennis club.  The memoir is well-titled, for the beach is the centre of society for the children; picnics, games, parties all take place there, they learn to swim and to surf, they know the business of the beach - deck chair hire, bathing huts, ice-cream from the kiosk.  A stormy winter sea is an entertainment for the family.  The book is also very good - and very funny - about the infinitely subtle gradations of class in interwar provincial society; Elspeth frequently offends through her inability to keep to these rules, making friends with a Barnardo's boy she meets on the beach, and unable to limit her conversation to topics suitable for nice little girls.  As she grows older, her views of these distinctions become decidedly critical, but remain unspoken in order to keep the family peace.  An afterword reflects on how these structures and limitations constrained her parents, with a sympathy not much evident in the text.

This is as well-written as The Far Cry, and as in the novel, the sense of place is very clearly evoked: little Elspeth is astonishingly attuned to the texture of the Cornish coast, the caves and inlets that only low tide reveals, the rockpools and the dunes, the strange quirks of the local landscape.  While the sadness of this story could make it drift towards misery lit, underlying the narrative is the growth of Elspeth's strength and independence of mind,  which makes the story a positive one,  however grim Guthrie's moods might become.  Smith is also very clever in combining Elspeth's child's view of the world with an elegaic tone for the loss of that world, and in maintaining a balance of adult and child in the narrative voice.  Finishing the book, I longed to know what happened next, and Smith gives a few things away in this interview with The Guardian.


  1. I read The Far Cry not long ago and absolutely loved. So obviously must get hold of this. Thanks.

  2. The hardback (which in my opinion has a much nicer cover than the paperback) is only a penny on Amazon Marketplace ...

  3. Great review, Tanya. I loved this book (and agree about the hardback - beautiful book) and was touched by her afterword. I was mostly impressed by how she had all the ingredients for a misery memoir, but still wrote a very positive, beautiful book.