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Yealm is a memoir set in the first half of the twentieth century. It deals with the migration of Jews from the East, Anarchist circles, imprisonment, London bohemia, schooling, war, evacuation, the world of work and all the intricacies of everyday life that bolster and ruin us. Through all this course the destructive energies of world events. We observe the ways in which people are flung around by forces that are greater than themselves. Yealm is both intimate and grand-scale. All the contradictions that texture lives, personal and political, are assembled here, like the bundle of straw that lends the title, in order to make sense of the nonsense of official history. Yealm... is a wonderfully full and detailed account of a childhood and adolescence, like an old-fashioned novel, in which a cast of hundreds is brought to life and lost again. Some of the characters are well-known, at least to a 1930s literary nerd like me: Sheila's unlucky father Charlie Lahr, James Hanley (who had an affair with her mother), Rhys Davies, Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and plenty of others. But they come and go, according to the ways they impinge on Sheila's life and consciousness. And the reason it works is because of her consciousness, which is both created with hindsight and recreated with complete presentness. The two books which it calls to my mind are in many ways quite different, being written with a profoundly literary sense of form and shaped into artifice in order to get at their truth: Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and Edward Upward's The Spiral Ascent. But Yealm has a comparable fluency, evocativeness, detail and reflectiveness. And it's very well-written and a real pleasure to read. The world it portrays is one familiar to me at one remove, as it's close to the world my mother (born eight years before Sheila) grew up in, but which I never knew. The personal becomes generalisable. People's lives and their often brief intersections with other lives create the fabric of another role history plays in the book, which I haven't mentioned so far. It's hardly there but it's felt throughout and becomes briefly explicit near the end. By this time we've read so much about Sheila and her family, her fears and her troubles, about the house in Muswell Hill, and the aspirations and limitations of friends, acquaintances, neighbours, enemies, teachers and the like that we have a deep and nuanced sense of a community and the limits placed on its freedom. We cheer, therefore, with Sheila, when the liberating effect of the war gives this community real importance, and when that sense of importance is made tangible in the election of a Labour government in 1945, even though the founding pillars of the welfare state are shadowed by the attack that is to be launched on them seventy years later by a resentful Tory government. As she says, "Radio, newspapers and government all tell us what wonderful people we are, us, the British working class. How will we be pictured once the war is ended?" Not often enough like this, is my answer. If you want to know not just about one set of individual lives, not just about the local history of part of North London, not just about the awfulness of education, or the intransigence of bureaucracy, or even coming of age during the war, but if you want to get a sense of what it all might actually mean, to us as readers, as inheritors, as future components of the dustbin of history, then this book that you're holding in your hands is one of the things you should read. I've just finished it and I want to read it again. Ian Patterson Queen's College, Cambridge
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