I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards. Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go. Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards. Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.
Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s. It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it. If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir. She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours. If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.
The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area. Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved. And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there – has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.
It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.
She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel. “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it. Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information! Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university. Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists. She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people. She certainly had an interesting time of it.
And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes! It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb. Then that went as well. But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there. I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories. That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional. And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!
This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.