As Green as Grass

Emma Smith

Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War

Published by Bloomsbury UK 15 August 2013/Bloomsbury USA 24 September 2013

320pp, hardcover, £16.99/$19.99

Reviewed by Jessica Mann

 In 1948, aged 25, Emma Smith  won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial prize for her first book, Maidens’ Trip. Her second, The Far Cry, came out a year later and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize, which goes to ‘the year’s best novel in the English language’. This remarkable double should have been the start of a dazzling career. Instead there followed marriage, motherhood and sixty years of obscurity; not silence, for Emma did publish more short stories, another adult novel (The Opportunity of a Lifetime) and several books for children. However when Persephone Books  republished The Far Cry in 2001 she was one of their ‘forgotten authors’. In the foreword she wrote, ’Now my typewriter, that old friend, is back on the shelf. I shall not disturb it again.’ But she did: in 2008, six decades after her success with that first book, The Great Western Beach, made her famous again. ’I have rarely come across a more gripping childhood memoir,’ Diana Athill wrote, while most other reviewers proclaimed the autobiographical account  of  a Cornish childhood as a classic. Here is the next episode.

The Hallsmith family – Emma Smith is a pseudonym for Elspeth Hallsmith – has moved from their seaside home in Newquay to a village in Devon. Emma/Elspeth’s difficult father has a breakdown and moves away, leaving his family to a life which is much improved by his absence. The war breaks out, big sister Pam joins the WAAF, big brother Jim is at first a pacifist and then a bomber pilot. When Emma comes of age for doing war work, she becomes one of the crew of a pair of narrow-boats on the Grand Union Canal, describing here the hard labour and discomfort, but also the fun of her life as a bargee.

After the war, already a published author of short stories,  she goes to London to work in a company making documentary films. She is taken to the Gargoyle club, Philip Toynbee makes a pass at her, David Tennant insults her, Laurie Lee becomes her neighbour. Then she goes to India with the team to make an educational film about tea.

Back home in Devon, she writes the half fact, half fiction Maiden’s Trip. In Paris she uses her notebooks and diaries to write her novel The Far Cry. ‘Fairly and squarely launched on my chosen career’, Emma expects, and is expected, to produce a third bestseller. Instead she gets married, and this volume of her memoirs ends with her arrival in Devon, ‘where my darling mother greets her new son-in-law – thank heavens – with open arms.’

As Green As Grass is just as beguiling and evocative as The Great Western Beach. Its publication date is Emma Smith’s ninetieth birthday.



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