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Brigid Keenan's memoir is a welcome change from misery memoirs! The best part for me was her first eight years of life in India which were a blissful time with her beloved ayah in a dazzlingly colourful life of luscious fruit, exotic animals and golden warmth. It all came to a shuddering end when she was wrenched away from her ayah without a goodbye (that poor ayah) to sail to England in 1945 after the horrors and dangers of Partition. Her father was part of the Punjab Boundary Force whose role was to oversee the terrible debacle of Partition. Keenan's account taken from letters which her father wrote to her mother at this time are one of the most vivid and harrowing I've ever read of this terrible time, and it was an experience which haunted Keenan's father to the end of his days.
Returning 'home' to her grandmother's house in Fleet was no 'home' for Brigid and her sisters who had known only India. The colour had gone and everything was grey and dreary, the food (still on the ration) repellent to her - she was horrified to be expected to eat the grey flabby skin on fish and where were the mangoes and papayas? Brigid was a plain child ('What a pity she'd so plain!' she heard an aunt say once) and her father rewarded her galumphing dance with the title of the book, 'Full marks for trying!'. But she grew into a highly successful journalist and fashion editor.
After her finishing school and her introduction to the Queen (one of the last debs to go through this event on the social calendar), she became Fashion Editor of the Daily Express at the age of 21, and continued through the late Fifties and early Sixties, through The Sunday Times, Observer and the dazzling new magazine Nova. She travelled to do fashion shoots to Paris, India, Saigon, working with all the huge names of the time: David Bailey, Mary Quant. Her accounts are modest and filled with entertaining anecdotes and details - such as Reginald Bosanquet's drinking habits becoming obvious on the News at Ten when coloured television picked up his florid complexion; or asking the elephant attendant in India why the aroused elephant had a fifth leg!
The whole memoir is a delightful chart of social change which Keenan constantly muses upon - how Photoshop would have saved so much work (and destroyed the point of it); the constant smoking even between mouthfuls at dinners - and torrents of other examples. One of the themes necessarily very strong is the importance of social class drummed into the girls at finishing school including which Non-U words were completely verboten: 'toilet', 'pardon' would condemn you socially, just as would pierced ears and holding your knife like a pencil. Given all this, I cannot understand what seems to me to be a crashing inaccuracy and anachronism which is used throughout the reading: Keenan referring to her parents as 'Mum' and 'Dad'. On the finishing school's list of Non-U words, these two would have been high on the list. I can only think that this an editorial decision. I cannot imagine that Keenan ever called her parents Mum and Dad, and when she referred to them she would have said or written 'my mother' and 'my father.' Mum and Dad are used hundreds of times throughout the 6 hours and it grated with me every time.
The narrator's voice is very soothing and pleasant to listen to, but Keenan worked through such exciting times socially that I would have liked a bit more zest in her voice. Don't be put off - a brim-full life and a fascinating social document charting the everyday reality of enormous social change, whether or not you lived through it.
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