Reviewed by Harriet
Jacqueline Winspear was born in 1955. Her debut novel – the first of her award-winning Maisie Dobbs mysteries – was published in 2003. Counting on my fingers (maths is not my strong point) this made her first publication just two years away from her fiftieth birthday, a surprisingly late start for such a successful novelist. I’m guessing that her many admirers may have wondered what she was doing before she became a writer. Well, now we know, and a fascinating story it is. Here’s what she says at the beginning of one of the chapters of this absorbing memoir:
A friend who is the same age as me, born in the mid-1950s, recently asked me if I consider myself to be a child of the 1950s or 1960s. I shook my head and laughed. “Neither,” I said. “My childhood was more medieval until I was about fourteen.”
Surely not, you might be thinking. If I hadn’t read the book I might be thinking the same. My early years were spent in Kent, like hers, and I’m older than she is, but though my family was not rich, we lived comfortably enough, with indoor plumbing and enough to eat. This was not the case for the Winspear family, who lived for the first fourteen years of Jackie’s life well below the poverty line. Her working-class parents, both Londoners, had escaped the big city after their marriage in 1949: an awkward few months living with her father’s family had set them off on a search for a better, quieter life. They borrowed the £50 needed buy a caravan and set up home close to a community of Romany gypsies, scraping a living picking hops in the summer months. When winter came they walked from farm to farm, taking whatever hard jobs they could find, often forced to live on boiled turnips. Then they lost the caravan and moved into what they always referred to as ‘the little black hut’. Even after Jackie was born, and they managed to move into a series of stone-built cottages, there was never a bathroom, and the toilet was a hut in the back garden. Money was always short, and the two children were frequently denied all but the basic necessities of life, and had to start work at an amazingly young age. Jackie was helping to pick hops as a tiny child, and by the time she was a teenager, ‘I had picked every kind of fruit grown in Kent’, in addition to ‘strawberry plugging’ and working in an egg factory.
The story of Jackie’s childhood and teenage years has to be pieced together in this memoir, which is made up of a non-chronological series of memories; imagine it like picking up a box of jumbled family photos and sifting through them one at a time. The stories she tells about her own childhood – the hardships, the class prejudice, the ill health, but also the joys and pleasures – make up much of the book, but then there are the recollections of her parents and their own early lives. There are the stories her mother told, of horrendous abuse suffered when she was evacuated, of being bombed out in the Blitz. Then there’s her grandfather, shell-shocked in WWI, who she remembers stabbing a much-loved doll while in the throes of a flashback. There’s a lot of pain, but there’s also tenderness, as in this story about her father:
I watched as my father put an arm around Grandad’s shoulders and asked, ‘All right, Dad?,’ My grandfather nodded as Dad knelt at his feet and began massaging his legs which I could see now were lined with deep purple scars. Every now and again he would tease something out . . . splinters of metal from the war.
It was her fascination with her grandfather’s wartime experiences which she would later feed in to her Maisie Dobbs novels. But becoming a writer remained a far-off dream for many years, preceded by teacher training, a career in journalism, and a move to California in 1990. Wherever she was, she stayed in close contact with her parents: her gentle, optimistic father, whose favourite saying makes the title of the book, and her clever, beautiful, hard-working mother, who she continued to love and admire despite the criticism and harsh words she meted out to her daughter for most of her life.
Given the amount of suffering and deprivation, it would have easy to write a misery memoir, but this book is the complete opposite. There’s no bitterness here, just love, and optimism, and bravery. It’s summed up in her father’s words to her mother on his deathbed in 2012:
We spoke of this and that for a while, ordinary things…then Dad turned and reached towards my mother, taking her hands in his own.
“Haven’t we had a great life?” he said.
She leaned her head towards his, pulled back one hand and rested it against his cheek. He moved his head and kissed her palm.
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and loves childhood memoirs so much that she wrote one of her own.
Jacqueline Winspear, This Time Next Year We’ll be Laughing (Soho Press, 2020). 978-1641292696, 314pp., hardback.
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