As promised, another book to add to my (in no order) 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About – and the sixth non-fiction book to make the list. White Cargo by Felicity Kendal was a book I picked up 20p in a local charity shop years ago, on the strength of loving her performance in The Good Life. For those who don’t know it (the programme was called Good Neighbors in the US) it was a 1970s sitcom about self-sufficiency in Suburbia. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers kept chickens and a goat in their suburban back garden, much to the displeasure of their decidedly upper-class (and hilarious) neighbours, played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington.
So, I assumed Felicity Kendal’s autobiography might focus on this sitcom, and the British acting scene of the 1970s. I couldn’t have been much further from the truth. What I didn’t know about Felicity Kendal was that she was born and brought up in India, as part of an acting troupe led by her father Geoffrey Kendal – they toured from place to place, performing everything from (lots of) Shakespeare to (hurray!) A. A. Milne. These recollections are leant poignancy by the fact that Kendal writes her autobiography at the bedside of father Geoffrey, who is in a coma and slowly dying. It would be mawkish in fiction, but in non-fiction it is courageous and moving and gives Felicity Kendal a real drive to write her history.
And a compelling history it is. Having her father so near death doesn’t affect the honesty of her narrative – the loving/warring relationship between the two is represented with great truthfulness, and comes to a head when she decides to move to England to pursue her acting career. Before that decision is made, she describes a childhood surrounded by hand-to-mouth actors with a love of their trade – as well as a firsthand guide to living in India in ‘the long twilight of the British Empire’, as the Evening Standard described it.
Utterly fascinating, moving, witty and with a writerly skill which makes one wonder if the stage’s gain was the book’s loss. Certainly the best autobiography I’ve read by someone whose profession isn’t writing. Even if you’ve never heard of Felicity Kendal, this is a captivating account of an experience both extraordinary, and representative of a type of acting group whose story is seldom told, and which doesn’t seem to exist anymore.