I picked up “The Great Western Beach”, Emma Smith’s memoir of her Cornish childhood between the wars, with great expectations.
I had lots of reasons for optimism. I love childhood memoirs and I know Emma Smith to be a wonderful writer. She writes of Newquay, a town that I know and worked in for a short period a few years ago. It is very like the town I grew up in on the opposite coast of Cornwall and the author is of the same generation as my mother.
“The Great Western Beach” more than lived up to my expectations. It is a wonderful book.
Emma’s parents are sadly mismatched. Her father was decorated for bravery in the 1st World War, but he struggles with family life in peacetime, his job as a bank clerk and the financial constraints that imposes.
He in unkind and cruel to his wife who, having losing three fiancés to the war and fearing that she would lose her chance of a family of her own, married in haste.
Emma’s elder sister Pam copes with a mixture of bravado and secrecy, but Pam’s twin Jim is terrorised by their father, who despises the timidity that he largely creates in his son. Emma keeps her head down and is his favourite as a result, a position she is far from comfortable with.
All of this sounds dark, but one of the great strengths of this book is the empathy and understanding that Emma has for all her family. Her father is not a monster, but a flawed and unhappy man.
And there is so much light.
Emma recalls so many details of a wonderful childhood by the sea and writes of it wonderfully well.
The excitement of a trip to the cinema, the thrill of owning a motor car, the arrival of the town’s roller-skating rink, tennis parties, birthday parties and so much more. The details are packed in but the author’s skill is such that the book never feels crowded.
The family’s maid Lucy brings great warmth and Newquay’s varied array of residents and visitors are all portrayed with great charm.
And best of all, there is the beach. Emma and her siblings spent their free time on the beach, on the sands, in rock pools, swimming and surfing, shell-collecting, reading and observing life all year ound. There are holiday-makers, donkeys, ice cream and deck-chairs in the summer and there is a quite magical emptiness in the winter.
Trips to the beach seem to be the times when all of the family can be happy and enjoy together.
All of this is related in wonderful clear prose, and the author balances the perspective of her chilhood with her greater wisdom as an adult wonderfully well.
Emma’s mother receives an inheritance from an uncle and the family move to a bigger house and enjoy some financial freedom. As they advance in society more and more possibilities open to them.
Eventually though they advance right out of Newquay when Emma’s father is promoted and the family move to Plymouth. As the book ends Emma is aware that a significant part of her life is over and that she will miss in very much.
I loved this book and I miss the world it recreated now I have finished reading.