I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs. Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.
Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone. Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences. There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort. Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism. At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old. She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull. She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’ After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.
Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone. When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’
Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with. I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family. I don’t know what either of them is thinking. Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six. I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his. He wriggles free.’
In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too. Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic. There was no real consistency here. I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat. There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.
I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories. Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful. Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.
Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame. Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall. However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.
Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years. The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive. To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.