Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson – one woman’s wartime experiences in an eccentric, often funny, realistic account from Furrowed Middlebrow

Spam Tomorrow: Anderson, Verily: 9781913054212: Books

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson

Spam, that wartime standby, might not be the first choice to name a novel, but this is an eccentric novel of life for one woman and eventually her family in the Second World War. Full of eccentric humour, this book first appeared in 1956, but has more recently been republished by the excellent Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. Verily Anderson was a prolific writer who kept a diary from childhood, and this book has therefore got all the immediacy of recording events as they happened. Far from a romantic stiff upper lip atmosphere, this book is full of incidents of muddle and confusion, ranging from trying to arrange an instant wedding, through being over treated by enthusiastic volunteers, to the difficulty of getting three tiny children downstairs during a suspected air raid. Full of memorable characters ranging from dodgy lodgers to offhand but secretly thrilled grandmothers, this is wartime life taken at speed. There are points of fear, mainly during serious illness and persistent bombing, but also moments of gentle humour, such as dealing with an ex- Windmill dancer turned drunken Nanny. With a loving but sometimes bewildered husband, Donald, and small children to contend with, this is an all too true story of frequent house moves, illness under fire and the small challenges of living in wartime. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read this brilliant book, left breathless by its pace, and fascinated by one woman’s ability to not only cope with humour, but also record it with such flair.

The book begins with Verily taking a phone call from Donald, her boyfriend, asking for her ring size. Sending a telegram in response “P DARLING STOP YOUR ADORING V” alerts the army Captain she is driving to possible fifth columnist activity. She had joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (F.A.N.Y.S) at the first opportunity to be part of the war, but the complications of a swift wedding means that she leaves suddenly, which was possibly a good thing in the light of her previous arrest for a misunderstanding in the house of a family friend. She comes from a large family, some of whom do not return from service, and there is a very real fear of invasion, which leads to her mother burying sardines. A bout of German measles finds her confined in an infection hospital, being visited by an alderman friend in a “sparkling  Rolls Royce”. It is these little phrases that lighten what could be tragic, such as her tears “falling into a fire bucket”. After a traumatic birth she does not feel fear as much as disappointment that she was not sitting up in bed with a baby in an artfully arranged nightgown. Having a small child who was apparently excited by air raids was unhelpful, so she must find a house at a safe distance, and deal with a financial crisis that had her taking some unusual holidaymakers with varying success.

This book represents an excellent slice of social history, as a woman tries to contend with everything thrown at her and her family. As people arrive in her life she describes them in a few but effective words, reflecting the transitory nature of wartime life and her enormous skill at capturing characters. I truly enjoyed this book, partly for its honest descriptions of life, but also the realistic humour that is never laboured, but completely natural. I would love to read more of her writing and would thoroughly recommend this wonderful read of life for a woman in the most unsettling of circumstances.

An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse – an intense, powerful novel of a woman’s experiences of war and so much more

An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse

This is a book that shows that no life is completely “ordinary”, and that everyone has their secrets. In this book, mainly set in the Second World War, life is fragile but love and memories can last. This is the story of a woman’s life, her work, the risks she took, but most importantly, her love. Molly begins the book as a ninety four year old woman, struggling to fulfill a promise,  to reveal a secret central to her life. As she looks back, remembers a brief and glorious time, a time of worry, fear and overwhelming longing, the reader is involved in a story of love, loss, fear and much more. The food, the clothes, the objects descriptive give texture to a story that can be recognised by any reader, while the dialogue gives life to characters despite a distance of time. This is a book where the characters really come alive, especially Molly, whose doubts, fears and so many other emotions seem so real. This is writing, a novel, which lingers in the memory in all its colours and variations. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

After the older Molly has a nasty fall, she begins to remember her story, to go back to being eighteen years old in December 1943. Working in Bloomsbury, London as a senior translator for the Ministry of Information, she is a bright and ambitious young woman with a good friend, Geer, who drags her to a dance to meet her brother. Her attraction to Johan is immediate and total; happily it is mutual and each word, action and moment becomes vital to both of them. Snatched moments of love, spent in London and later elsewhere, become precious to Molly, diverting her from her work, her ambition, her petulant mother who she lives with, even a war that dominates everyone’s life. A sudden tragic discovery robs her of this blissful state, leaving her with a growing realisation that a new life beckons, very different from anything that she could have expected. The decisions that she must make, the special task that she chooses to embark on, fills her life, works on her brokenness, and leaves her a different person, a casualty of war and much more. Throughout this time she must depend on her family, made to realise that the heightened emotion she is enduring is beyond her alone, that she needs help from others to cope with so much, and express her greatest love.

This is a powerful novel that reflects the fact that war is more than a state of fear or even loss, that love can dominate a life in so many ways, that survival is more than bodily safety. A mission of incredible difficulty and danger is not the only story in this book, just as this is more than just an imaginative account of wartime life. It is the intense story of a woman who lives an extraordinary life of contrast and challenge, of love and sadness, but also purpose and small comforts. Prowse has created Molly as a woman of great depth and reality, her emotions and reactions though described by a narrator are vivid and understandable. There have been many books that deal with a woman’s wartime experiences, but this one places those feelings in the context of a long life, experiences that however brief are central to all that comes afterwards, colouring everything. The secret that Molly is trying to reveal is something and everything, a fact that has changed lives and made her own existence anything but an ordinary life.