Dear Mrs Bird and Yours Cheerfully – AJ Pearce

I seem to have been unintentionally reading many books lately which are set in Britain, particularly London, during the period from the start of the First World War through to the Second World War. They’ve ranged widely, from the glorious and moving children’s books by Hilary McKay, The Skylarks’ War and The Swallows’ Flight, through Judith Kerr’s autobiographical novels which followed on from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the at-times harrowing Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, to the charming first novel Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce.

Dear Mrs Bird

Pan Macmillan

Rating: 5 stars

Dear Mrs Bird is set in London in 1941, with the Blitz at its height. Old friends Emmy and Bunty are sharing a house in badly bombed Pimlico belonging to Bunty’s grandmother – she has moved out to the relative safety of the countryside, while they’ve made the reverse journey to pull their weight in the war effort, Emmy as a volunteer in the Auxiliary Fire Service, Bunty in the War Office as a secretary. (Their childhood sweethearts are also pulling their weight in the Royal Artillery and as a fireman.) But Emmy has ambitions and dreams of becoming a journalist, writing articles about the really important stories of the day, and is constantly working on improving her general knowledge and awareness of current affairs.

I was desperate to learn how to be a reporter. The sort of person who always had a notebook in hand, ready to sniff out Political Intrigue…

Unfortunately, she is daydreaming about becoming a ”Lady War Correspondent” during a job interview and, not paying attention, accepts a position as office junior to Mrs Bird on the problem page of a magazine. Even more unfortunately Emmy soon realises that Mrs Bird has very strong idea about what topics are Unacceptable for the Woman’s Friend magazine to respond to. Desperate to help women who write in pleading for help with their difficulties, Emmy secretly starts to reply to some of them, pretending to be her boss.

The twists and turns of the plot are beautifully executed, and AJ Pearce deftly brings a light touch to the grim realities of wartime life in London. She shows clearly the harsh facts of how difficult life is for everyone, whether it’s the two friends or their families and colleagues, all facing new horrors all the time, mostly with a grim determination to somehow get through. The central turning point of the plot is based on the bombing of the Café de Paris in which they are caught up and which changes their futures for ever. I’ve read other fictionalised versions of this appalling night and this one brought home the realities of what must have faced the rescuers vividly, just as it does the feeling of what it felt like to be in the club at the time the bomb exploded. The novel becomes much darker but Pearce manages to steer a careful course through the bleakness and bring humour and humanity to the forefront.

Yours Cheerfully

Pan Macmillan

Rating: 5 stars

With Yours Cheerfully, Pearce has pulled off the tough problem of following a highly successful first novel, with a sequel to Dear Mrs Bird. The action has moved on a few months, and Emmy and Bunty are still living and working in London, still surrounded by the constant stress and danger brought by constantly coping during wartime. Mrs Bird has now left Woman’s Friend magazine, and Emmy is still doing all she can to help the magazine’s readers cope with their problems, but now with the knowledge and blessing of the management and her co-workers. As summer moves into autumn, the government calls upon magazines like Woman’s Friend to help in the recruitment drive to get woman into war work, particularly in the factories, making vital war supplies. A chance meeting with a young war widow, Anne, and her two small children leads Emmy into writing a series of pieces about Anne and her new friends who are working in a factory making munitions while trying to cope with childcare and running households on a horribly tight budget.

Again, Pearce has a light touch, with moments of great humour, but brings home the realities of life in wartime, both for Emmy and her friends in London, and for the young women working so hard under such difficult conditions with the children’s fathers either away at war or dead. Emmy gets deeply involved in her new friends’ struggle to cope and to get a fair treatment from their employers, while she is also trying to cope with arranging her own wedding with Captain Mayhew and the knowledge that at very short notice he is about to leave the relative safety of his army work in England and start an overseas posting.

I really recommend this pair of books – and as ever many thanks to my local library for getting a copy of Yours Cheerfully so soon after publication!

The Lido – Libby Page

Rating: 5 stars

If, like me, you’re feeling that summer is an awfully long way off, now’s the time to turn to a book to make you feel better about the wait, and I thoroughly recommend turning to The Lido. Like Flora and her mother Ingrid in Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, the two leading characters in The Lido, Rosemary, who is 86, and Kate, 60 years her junior, feel liberated and free when they are swimming. But whereas in Swimming Lessons the swimming is done in the open sea in Dorset, for Rosemary and Kate their liberating swims take place in Brixton Lido, a much-loved local venue. Rosemary has swum there for her entire life and it’s the key cornerstone in her whole being, as she’s watched the city she grew up in changing and shifting around her. So when it’s under threat of closure for redevelopment as part of a proposed luxury development called Paradise Living, she starts a campaign to prevent this. Kate is a young reporter working on the Brixton Chronicle who is assigned the task of covering the story.

the lido.jpg

In this, her first published novel, Libby Page writes beautifully both about her characters – Rosemary and her late husband George in particular are an unusual central focus in modern fiction, working class and childless, and portrayed in tender detail – and about her setting. The descriptions of Brixton are vivid and capture a real, living place, chronicling vividly its changing nature, from Rosemary’s childhood in wartime right up to modern times. (George’s old greengrocers’ shop in Electric Avenue has become a trendy cocktail bar, for example.) Rosemary has many friends in the streets of her home town, so her shopping days are happy outings punctuated by long chats and treats; at home, however, she’s alone and missing George desperately.

Kate, on the other hand, is desperately shy, with no friends either at work or outside it, spending her evenings crying in her room in a house share.

She doesn’t tell anyone that often she feels like a sad, matted teddy bear you might see forgotten under a bench on the underground. She just wants someone to pick her up and take her home. … Kate’s loneliness sometimes feel like indigestion, at other times it is a dull echo at the back of her eyes or a weight that makes her limbs feel too heavy for her body.

Gradually Kate finds her way back to enjoying life – she has her eyes opened by Rosemary and her friends, and starts to become friends with them herself as she becomes aware of sides of Brixton she’d never previously known existed. She and Rosemary swim together and work together on a campaign to save the pool; she draws from Rosemary’s strength to become stronger herself, and when Rosemary is ill Kate steps in to find she is capable of doing so much more than she’d previously known – each of them needs the other in sometimes surprising ways. In addition, there’s a rich cast of other characters we come to know: members of Brixton’s eclectic community, from the teenage boy swimming at the Lido, to the gay couple in the bookshop, from the staff of the Brixton Chronicle to those working at the Lido, Rosemary’s old friends and colleagues. All play their part in this celebration of the triumph of hope, friendship and community over loneliness and feelings of loss.

Congratulations are due to Ms Page; I can’t wait for your next novel! Fingers crossed, too, for a film version of The Lido – there are two great lead roles here for both an older and a younger actor. Suggestions for casting?

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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