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.