Book Review: Spanish Crossings

Spanish Crossings, by John Simmons, is set mainly in London in the years around the Second World War. Its protagonist is an unassuming young woman, Lorna Starling, who has left behind her quiet upbringing in Kent to live independently in the city. She is well respected by her colleagues at the lawyers office where she works. In her free time she is an active supporter of socialist causes.

After a short prologue the story opens in the spring of 1937 when Lorna attends a meeting at the home of Diana Seymour. Diana’s wealth and connections intimidate the young secretary but she soon finds herself trying to emulate the older woman’s confidence and style. At the meeting Lorna encounters Harry James who is recently returned from Spain where he had fought Franco’s forces with the International Brigade. After a night of passion he returns to this battlefield leaving Lorna bereft at the loss of her first, brief love.

Wishing to do her bit for the cause, Lorna has signed up to ‘adopt’ a child refugee, one of four thousand shipped from Spain by the Basque Children’s Committee. At Diana’s behest, the firm Lorna works for are to provide the committee with legal services pro bono and Lorna will be their representative at meetings. Diana and Lorna visit the camp where the children are being processed before being dispersed to colonies around the country. Lorna is introduced to the child she will ‘adopt’, a fifteen year old boy named Pepe whose age and grasp of the English language has made him something of a leader amongst the children.

Pepe is moved to a house in London where Lorna visits him regularly. With Franco gaining control in Spain, and the prospect of war with Germany increasing, the boy grows restless. Lorna understands Pepe’s discontent but cautions him to remain within the law that he may avoid being sent back to a Spain that is now killing its dissidents with impunity.

The timeline moves to 1943. Lorna has taken an active role during the war years, volunteering as a watcher for the ARP. She lives behind boarded up windows but appears largely content with her solitary existence. Her chief regret is that the life she had dreamed she could have had with Harry was taken from her. All this changes when Pepe reappears, declaring his love. Despite recognising their significant differences in core values, Lorna is tempted by the prospects this offers. She encourages Pepe to sign up to fight, thereby gaining his British citizenship.

By 1947 Lorna is settled in a comfortable council flat, raising a child but feeling frustrated at the limitations this has placed on her developing career. Although pleased by the social progress being made by the Labour Party she no longer feels that she is contributing as she once did. Her fear is that she will become like her parents who she has long regarded as insipid in their desire for quiet compliance with societal expectations. She contacts an old lover, risking the life she has built for reasons hard to justify. The guilt this elicits drives her to comply with a plan that she appears blind to.

Much of the book is written in measured yet evocative prose. It offers a picture of the difficulties faced by a young woman raised to be reticent yet determined to break away from such restrictions and stand up for herself. As she ages she changes, and she resents that this is happening. Her desire to be more like the self she aspires to plays out in the final section of the book where the pace changes to one of increasing tension.

I wondered at the continued obsession with Harry James who Lorna was with for just one night. Perhaps it is another case of curated memory, a comfort blanket she carried. Later in the book Lorna makes a return visit to Highgate where “She had enjoyed living […] ten years earlier”. She nurtures this thought, apparently forgetting that she had left because the flat she now views with nostalgia had become tarnished. It was earlier described as “not home, it was simply where she lived”.

There are a great many subjects explored within the pages of this book, many only briefly touched upon but nevertheless impacting Lorna’s life and those who influenced her. The Spanish Civil War is not a conflict I know much about so this added interest. The reactions within government to the child refugees is depressingly familiar.

I enjoyed the understated strength of the author’s writing which I first came across in his previous novel, Leaves. His characters are rounded, relatable yet never sepia tinted. Their imperfections enable a greater understanding of the scars created when life is lived.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.

Book Review: Leaves

leaves

Leaves, by John Simmons, offers a trip down memory lane to 1970’s London. Although evocative it neither rose tints nor overly criticises a time too easily remembered for misogyny, stagnancy and reluctance to change. There is an honesty in the characterisations which encourages sympathy, even for those hard to like. The reader is offered a chance to reflect on behaviour that was expected and acceptable, which would be frowned upon today.

It was not known then but the city and the country as a whole were on the cusp of change. Those who look back with nostalgia may well pause when reminded of how things actually were: the cold and damp that could not be dispelled by a small, electric fire; the expectation that women would not aspire to more than life with a husband to whom they would willingly defer; the conspiracy of silence when truth could shine a light into dark corners it was easier to ignore.

The story is told from the point of view of a young reporter taking up his first job on a local newspaper. Set over the course of four seasons he writes of events in the street where he has come to live. We are told only the bare details of this narrator. His tale is of the residents in the houses he looks out on, a street like any other at the time.

Ophelia Street housed a pub, a shop, two rows of terraced houses (some divided into flats) and two larger detached properties at the end of a cul de sac. One of these larger houses belonged to the owner of an adjacent factory where several of the residents worked. The second had been converted into a hostel for newly released prisoners of the criminal justice system. This was a microcosm of society: economically, socially and racially diverse. Prejudices were nurtured.

In one of the flats lives Keith, a teacher who married Brenda when she fell pregnant with their son, David, now five years old. They could afford to live somewhere better and Brenda resents that they do not, although she has never voiced this opinion to her husband. Keith holds to his socialist ideals, of being part of a working class community. He struggles to make friends.

“he set high standards, especially for others. Setting standards was easier than living up to them”

Below Keith lives Joe along with his aged mother, Ginny, his wife and their two children. Joe tolerates Keith who likes to sit with Ginny, comfortable with her company and their silences. Keith also likes to visit the pub, another escape from the oppression he feels at home.

The factory owner, Gerald, lives with his habitually reclusive sister, Seline. The factory and their large, dark house were inherited from their parents who died in a boating accident when Seline was just seventeen. Gerald plans to make changes at the factory and promotes another resident, Robert, to help oversee his plans. Robert lives with his mother, a widow who dotes on her cruel son. Seline is flustered by these changes and reacts in ways that Gerald would never have imagined.

The street hums with a life that ebbs and flows with familiar routines. Workers come and go while their children attend school or play outside. Notable amongst these youngsters is Elaine, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Irish mother. Elaine delights in taunting some of the adults who pass her by, including a resident of the hostel who is struggling with his newly found freedom.

The author takes us inside each home where the women prepare food for their men, watch TV and silently rail against their restraints. Thought processes are explored, expectations and frustrations simmer. These are snapshots of everyday life through the course of one calendar year which will bring violence, death and upheaval. It is a tale of individual loneliness, of how people take out their personal unhappiness on those they may be expected to care for.

In one scene Keith takes his young son for a walk in the city while his wife stays home to prepare lunch.

“it offered him his best chance to perform that eternal paternal urge, to indoctrinate the son in the beliefs of the father.”

When difficulties arise or opinions differ, thoughts and feelings are suppressed.

“they all felt uneasy, as if each had unpleasant news to break to the others, without knowing exactly what the news was, and dreading that they might find out.”

In presenting this story as a fictional memoir the families come to life. What is exposed is often uncomfortable but is written deftly with sensitivity. The prose is lyrical, a pleasure to read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt something close to disappointment that the author was not the young narrator, now thirty years older and looking back on a pivotal time in his career. He seemed so real.

It is hard to mourn the passing of places such as Ophelia Street and the life which the residents endured. This is, however, as fine an example as I have ever read of how fiction can capture a moment of history, and bring it vividly back to life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.