I had not heard of Jane Miller’s In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, but I could not resist picking up a brand new Virago hardcover online for just a couple of pounds when placing a remaindered books order in the late autumn of 2020. Imagine my surprise when I found that this lovely collection of articles, written by a British author for an American magazine, had just five ratings and two reviews on Goodreads! I felt that it would be a title of interest to a lot of my friends and fellow readers, and had no choice but to add my own review to the very small pool in existence.
In My Own Time follows Miller’s memoir Crazy Age, which Diana Athill commented came from ‘a mind so subtle and well furnished.’ Interestingly, Miller, who has worked for many years as a teacher and Professor in London, writes that she only became a journalist when she was almost eighty years old. The columns collected here were all first published in the Chicago-based proudly Socialist magazine entitled In These Times. They have been published together here for the first time, specifically for British readers. However, I feel that a lot of the topics which Miller writes about and comments upon are relatively universal, particularly within the Western world. There is, of course, a lot of emphasis upon Britain and its politics, but the subjects here are wide-ranging. In My Own Time surely has a great appeal for a wide range of readers.
The topics of Miller’s articles, of which she has full selective control, vary greatly. She writes, amongst other things, about ‘reading Tolstoy in Russian, on Syrian refugees, on the demise of the NHS and on struggles with technology.’ She discusses class, economic inequality, the monarchy, travelling, the media, the changing use of language, education, Charles Dickens, protests… Each subject is a surprise, and most of them wonderfully feel quite unrelated in content to those which they are sandwiched between. Interviews with historian Eric Hobsbawm and Labour politician Tony Benn, both of whom Miller was greatly fond of, have been included as appendages.
Miller carries rather a charming humility throughout. Of the span of twentieth century history, she comments: ‘We grandparents were there, witnesses to it all; yet I am shaky and uncertain when it comes to change itself and not much good at remembering moments when the world spun on its axis… But more often time is marked for me by the births of babies, the deaths of my elders or the day in 1985 when I stopped smoking.’
In her preface, Miller writes about the difficulties which she sometimes faces in selecting topics for her monthly articles. She says: ‘There is often far too much in the news or in my life, not all of it suitable, though on one or two occasions I could think of nothing at all.’ In her first column for the magazine, which is included here, she reflects: ‘it seems to me now that I was announcing – perhaps a little apologetically – who I was: confessing that I was middle-class, had attended a school where I didn’t learn much, was a bit of a technophobe or technofool, and that I was awash in memories of a sort which might seem dull or incomprehensible to an American readership.’
The pieces here range from May 2011 to the start of 2016, and are arranged chronologically, which I appreciated. It seems a logical way to arrange such a book, and I enjoyed being able to follow threads of idea from one article to another. Alongside recent occurrences, there are some marvellous anecdotes sprinkled through its pages; for instance, when, in 1875, Karl Marx helped Miller’s great aunt Clara with her German homework. There are some very personal troubles here, too; she writes quite candidly about her husband’s death from cancer, and the loss which is left after his passing: ‘When someone you know and love dies you are confronted by the unique, particular shape of the hole they leave, by the utter specificity of their absence. That strange, contradictory, complicated person will never exist again.’
Miller writes with truth, and honesty. On the monarchy, for example, she writes: ‘I wish I knew quite why I should want to watch these strange people at their play and in their hats and uniforms doing what they do. I don’t know them. We’ve got almost nothing in common. They spend their days doing things I’ve never done, just as I spend mine doing things they’ve probably never done.’ Miller is an author who is very to the point, which I admired.
Miller is wonderfully scathing about the Conservative government, their misleading comments, and their utter lack of transparency. She writes the following in a column entitled ‘Bad Language’: ‘We’ve had prime ministers recently “passionately believing” things, and entirely sure that something is “the right thing to do” and “the right ting for our country”. These are weasel words, which bypass the expectation that we might be told exactly why we have gone to war, why the National Health Service will be even better once it has been privatised and reduced, why bankers must be indulged and everyone else must take it on the chin, and so on.’
In My Own Time is an important reflection on the modern world, and an excellent work of social commentary, written by an author with a great deal of wisdom and wit. Miller is an erudite person, in touch with both the modern world and the twentieth-century history which has helped to shape much of it. She also has a marvellously warm sense of humour, and I found myself chuckling at points. The pieces within In My Own Time are relatively brief, covering an average of four pages each, but without exception, they have been so well executed. I am so surprised that this wonderful book has not had a larger readership, and can only hope that more readers come to it in the near future. I also hope that another book of this kind is forthcoming.