The Great Western Beach: A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood Between the Wars – Emma Smith

A memoir from the PoV of a young girl growing up on the Cornish coast, this is nicely written and has the tone balanced between the wide-eyed optimism of Elspeth’s youth along with the more realistic view of an adult. It’s written in present tense (which some find irritating, but is well done here), and when I was reading this in large chunks, it was easy to get sucked in and really experience what the protagonist experiences: the smell of the sea, the sound of the waves, the emotional impact of her parents…

Elspeth Smith (later called Emma Smith) is the youngest of three kids in a genteelly poor family at the seaside town of Newquay. Her father went off to WWI and came back a hero, but since then has done nothing worthy to maintain that adoration. Instead, he married Elspeth’s mother within a year of his return from the PoW camp, and has pretty much been miserable since then. Elspeth’s mother is eight years old than her father, had been engaged three times prior to her marriage to Mr. Grumpy, each of her fiancés having been killed due to the war. She also married out of desperation and running out of time, so there is little love lost between these two. It’s a shame because their offspring have to suffer from their continual bickering and arguing and tears which is a constant undercurrent of the children’s childhood.

Speaking of parents, this is not really a Misery Memoir, but it’s not all midnight feasts and ginger beer. Her father is a grumpy SOB, frustrated at his career as a lowly bank clerk when he just *knows* that his real talent is painting (or perhaps poetry) and if only someone would notice so he would be famous… He rails against life frequently, taking his unhappiness out on Elspeth’s older twin siblings while she stays immune for reasons unknown. Her mother is powerless to change, and unable to stand up to him, and in the unpleasant environment, the kids are unable to predict how their
father will react and walking around on egg shells the whole time. The only person who is remotely reliable is Lucy, their nanny type person who is helping to raise the kids. She is the one steady influence for them throughout these early years.

Every now, the father will be happy and like other people’s fathers, but it never lasts long and then the whole “happy Family” image collapses. Elspeth feels especially guilty as her father sees her as his obvious favorite of the children, gives her special treatment which puts her into a very difficult situation for a child: she knows she doesn’t love her father (as unpredictable and mean as he is to her brother and sister), and yet she feels she has to pretend that she does to keep the peace and ongoing fragile stability in the house.

The father is really a mean person, believing (and telling his older kids) that he thinks they are useless, Jim being “slow-witted and clumsy” and Pam very outspoken (to protect her brother). Father was an athlete when he was younger and compares Jim to his younger self which, of course, does not bode well for him as he is not athletic at all. He is quiet, academic, bookish – none of which the Father notices or appreciates. One of the happiest occasions in the story is when their grandma sends them their first books for their birthdays; up until that point, there had been few books in the house and neither parent was a reader. Elspeth’s description of the excitement of reading, and being able to recognize the difference between fact and fiction was wonderful. It was a great reminder of the novelty of the reading experience and you could just feel her excitement at this new stage of life.

The title of the book refers to the Great Western Beach which is almost a character in and of itself. It has an overarching influence on the family and is enmeshed in all they do; in fact, it could be argued that the coming and going of the tides echoes the ups and downs of this little family and its changing fortunes. And change they do.

Originally living a life of genteel poverty, the family’s circumstances change when the mother inherits some money from her uncle. Before then, Elspeth and her siblings had had to pretend to be more well off than they really were in public. But when the family was home, and the spotlight was off, that was when she felt they were a completely different family. (But even then…) All this must have been very confusing for the children as no one told them anything – they could only observe.

However, despite the shitty parents, Elspeth gives wonderful descriptions of her life at the seaside town throughout the years, the summers being described in most detail (as they play the most important role in her life) and the winters merely mentioned in passing (as they may well appear to a young child at that point). It’s a difficult childhood for all of them, and throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of unpredictability that is reflected in how the children see life and other people, but there are some
happy times.

The picnics on “their” beach, their little beach hut, meeting new friends (even though this is fraught with social difficulty due to their father’s unknown and ever-changing rules). The author does a good job of describing the children’s confusion in trying to understand their complicated father and how easily he could “break”. It must have been exhausting for them to try to work out what would keep him happy and what would make him snap as it wasn’t always the same things.

Overall, a good read packed with details of an English childhood in a seaside town. Many memories of our holidays on the Isle of Wight and at Anglesey were triggered by this (all of which were lovely). It’s a shame that Elspeth and her Twin siblings couldn’t say the same thing.

Book bought second hand.

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