Review: What The Grown-ups Were Doing

Quips, slips and trips in 1950s' Ruislip and beyond

By Michelen Wandor, February 6, 2012
Hanson (left) with her cousin Olga in Barrow, 1956

Hanson (left) with her cousin Olga in Barrow, 1956

By Michele Hanson
Simon & Schuster, £14.99

Michele Hanson's Guardian columns are a model of confessional journalism. She consistently entertains with accounts of home life with three generations and a dog living in the same house. A male figure, called Fielding, comes and goes, and a daughter, called "daughter" is a support and friend.

Perhaps the most compelling columns are those about her elderly and increasingly frail mother, who came to live with them. The vagaries of everyday life are met with humour, sometimes resignation and, invariably, resilience. The bonds between mother and daughter, over three generations, have always been movingly chronicled.

This memoir offers us some back-story to the journalism. We do, as the title suggests, learn what the grown-ups were doing - from the young Michele's point of view.

In the mature Michele Hanson's easy-going, across-the-garden-wall style, the book recreates 1950s' suburban Ruislip, the spitting image of many other London suburbs. However, this portrait of Ruislip is further refracted via the perspective of its Jewish community and, in particular, the passionate pride and vehemence of Michele's mother.

She is a Shouter, to ballast Michele's father, a dashing, handsome Sulker, the latter perhaps by way of self-defence. Yiddish phrases, curses, an obsession with both ends of the digestive system and a continuous and insistent emotional and cultural separation from the "Christians" were indelible marks of this childhood.

It doesn't sound idyllic, and yet the bonds between only-child Michele and her parents were clearly strong. Her Barrow in Furness grandparents adored her. So the gangly girl with Christian friends, and a dread of bosoms and adult sexuality ran free on Ruislip Common, rode horses, and developed her own glancing take on family eccentrics, such as Auntie Celia, Queen of the Fibbers, living in Park Lane and gambling away the family inheritance.

Children pick up intractable sub-texts and undertones, and the suburban '50s contained plenty of these. Though not fully understood until much later, it is pretty clear that there were Ortonesque secrets behind the lace curtains. Friend Kathy's father was an inveterate bottom-pincher, and Pamela's mother even worse. Pamela was regularly locked in her room or the cellar, inadequately fed and left cold while her mother got up to heaven knows what shenanigans with local male shopkeepers and various others.

But there were excitements and thrills. Michele's mother took time off from shouting to enjoy bridge, Latin American dancing and Mediterranean holidays before these became the norm. And the family weathered the experience of father's factory, making ladies' belts and accessories, falling foul of dishonest partners.

As the '50s close, Michele dons black clothes and prepares for art college. The '60s are looming: CND; the break-outs of social life; the Gateways club in Chelsea, where "poufs" and lesbians could meet. The mark of a comic writer is that s/he leaves us with a smile. This touching memoir, complete with casual family snaps, reminds us how wit often conceals sharp social criticism.

Michele Hanson will be appearing at Jewish Book Week 2012 on February 21 at 1pm. Michelene Wandor is a writer and broadcaster

Last updated: 11:35am, February 6 2012