It’s no secret that I love the Bloomsbury Group reprints – many of which are crowded eagerly on my tbrvvs (to be read very, very soon) shelf – but today I’m going to talk about the only one I hadn’t previously read from the first batch of six. All my reviews of Bloomsbury Group reprints can be read here, and the latest to add to the fold is Wolf Mankowitz’s A Kid For Two Farthings. (Fact fans: Mankowitz was born on the same day I was, albeit sixty-one years earlier.)
It’s the shortest one so far, I think, coming in at 128pp. of fairly big type, and it’s not set in the 1930s domestic world which perhaps defines the series in my mind. Instead, this is 1950s and the East End of London. We see this world through the eyes of Joe, age six. Rather than Lady B., china tea cups, and bring-and-buy sales, we see a boxer desperate to afford an engagement ring for his girl; a poor mother longing to join her husband in Africa; and this sort of scene, picked more or less at random to give a glimpse of Joe’s surroundings:
Near Alf’s stall there was a jellied-eel stand with a big enamel bowl of grey jellied eels, small bowls for portions, a large pile of lumps of bread, and three bottles of vinegar. There was also orange-and-black winkles in little tubs, and large pink whelks. People stood around shaking vinegar on to their eels and scooping them up with bread. A ltitle thin man in a white muffler served them and sometimes dropped a large piece of eel on the ground. Behind the stand a very fat man with a striped apron and an Anthony Eden hat waved a ladle in his hand and shouted, “Best eels, fresh jellied; buy ’em and try ’em.” Over the stand a red, white and blue banner flapped. “The Eel King,” it said. The King himself never served.
What is so wonderful about the setting Mankowitz creates is that it doesn’t fall into one of two familiar traps. It’s not salt-of-the-earth, honest-‘umble-poor (thank you Mr. Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell) nor is it aiming to shock with its gritty realism and the gratuitously unpleasant (thank you Irving Welsh et al). I have never lived in the East End of London in the 1950s, but Mankowitz has – and was born in Spitalfields in 1924. (Incidentally, for a great and incredibly varied blog on Spitalfields, see Spitalfields Life). As such, his portrait in A Kid For Two Farthings is certainly fond, but not saccharine.
And ‘saccharine’ might be a word on the tip of your tongue when you read the first sentence: ‘It was thanks to Mr. Kandinsky that Joe knew a unicorn when he saw one.’ For Joe spots one at the market, and persuades Mr. Kandinsky to help him buy it. What nobody tells Joe, of course, is that his unicorn is simply a slightly deformed kid (i.e. young goat). He’s a six year old, and they don’t disillusion him – which makes him all the more certain that the unicorn’s horn will magically grant his wishes, and those of the people around him. His wishes – naturally – tie in with the everyday romantic troubles, professional anxieties, and recreational competitions that his mother and his neighbours undergo. Gradually everything falls into place…
So there are definitely fairy-tale elements to A Kid For Two Farthings, but it is Mankowitz’s observational humour – always kind, mind, never mocking – and his refusal to deny his characters their flaws, that stop the novella being too sweet. The lives of the characters are too ordinary and empathetic for that. Instead, it is affectionate and affecting – something of a treasure, and one to re-read. It may not have the instant appeal that Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta books had for me, but I can still recognise a gem that I am delighted Bloomsbury chose to reprint.
Books to get Stuck into:
The Harp in the South – Ruth Park : my favourite Australian novel, and one I read before the days of blogging, we’re in 1948 and in a slum on the other side of the world, but again amongst a flawed, realistic, and affecting family and their neighbours. Sometimes humourous, sometimes sad, always captivating.