This is an account of a childhood in Garston, Liverpool, before, during and after the Second World War. There is much for social historians — just as there is in hundreds of similar books filling the shelves of every bookstore in the land.
The family is commonplace and their lives are ordinary. The author goes to school and goes on cycling holidays, noting every bird, bee, flower, castle and stately home on the way, in what is often close to an unrelenting stream of consciousness. It may be wrong to expect a memoir of this kind to provide any kind of political overview. A child’s world is necessarily small. But this book wasn’t written by a child — it was written by an adult with the benefit of hindsight. When the author writes that she obsessively kept a scrap book on the royal family I want her to tell me that she was misguided and now recognises them to be an anachronistic bunch of useless parasites, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t criticise them at all.
Nevertheless there are oblique references to things the reader would like to know more about. The author’s father was a pacifist and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service just before the war, as did my own grandfather. Smith remembers seeing on Pathé News the relief of the concentration camps and the atom bombs dropped on Japan — what does she think about fascism and nuclear weapons? One uncle was a career soldier and remained “an unrepentant self-opinionated bigot and defender of the British Empire till the end of his life”. What does the author think of the British Empire? We don’t find out.
Nor do we find out what she thinks of Winston Churchill, who visited Garston in 1930 and was reportedly pelted with rotten fruit. Or women’s rights, given that her parents’ marriage was loveless and her mother thought providing sex to a husband was a duty. Or current societal attitudes to child sexual abuse, given that she herself was abused by her sister’s boyfriend.
There are hints within the book that the author went on to become a socialist. If I was writing a memoir of my childhood I would write it as the socialist I am now, not as the child I was then. Churchill was a bastard; Victorian attitudes to marriage stink; fascism needs to be actively fought. I hesitate to condemn Beatrice Smith’s childhood memoir out of hand, but in all honesty it is rather pedestrian and unanalytical.
But worst of all, the culmination of the work, the very denouement, is a 20 page account of the “fairy tale” coronation of our present monarch — “The coach moved so slowly it appeared to float towards us. Now it was level and we were looking straight at the queen.” This really is sycophantic twaddle.
The memoir only takes us to the author’s 19th year. Perhaps the sequel will be better. After saying virtually nothing political for 286 pages the very last sentence of the book is a completely random reference to the poll tax riots in 1990 — 37 years after the narrative closes. I didn’t hate it and it wasn’t hard to read, but I can’t go any further than the back page blurb — “Gas Masks and Garston is a heart-warming memoir.” If you want a cosy fireside read perhaps it’s for you. If you want fuel to help you change the world, perhaps not.