Iris Bryce, Greenwich Community College Press, 1995
I hadn’t expected much from this book. I’d passed it over several times in the Pepys Centre Tourist Information shop, having read various local ‘memoirs’ in the past and been underwhelmed by the writing standard and unexciting content. I was put off by the cover (aw, c’mon – show me the person who doesn’t judge books by covers just a little…) with its dated font and annoying landscape format.
Once again I’ve been forced to eat humble pie. I bought this book on Friday and, despite a full weekend where I was staying with friends and supposed to be doing stuff with them, I just couldn’t tear myself away from it. Iris Bryce is not just a natural storyteller, she has a story to tell.
Born and brought up in the centre of Greenwich in the 1920s and 30s, she came from a world where if you left your very street you were in foreign parts, dangerous and murky to a child who knew the hostility of poverty and the dangers of straying into the territory of a rival gang of kids.
Of course, we’re hardly talking Yardies here. This is good old-fashioned intimidation, not gun culture. But childhood cruelty comes in many forms and the taunts of kids from a street only slightly more well-off than your own still cuts to the quick if you’re the only one whose mother, even in a poor street, has to go to work to make ends meet. And to wander into the really poor areas was to risk the horrors of the ‘witch’ who sat on the step smoking a clay pipe or the docks, warehouses and scrap yards, with their seedy, shady ‘other’ worlds.
Where Iris Bryce’s memoirs differ from so many stories of poor, working class lives in the 20th Century is the knowledge that, from a very early age, she wanted out of the circle of poverty that most considered their lot. She was a bright kid, something recognised by her teachers, but not her own family. Time after time she was given glimmers of hope – offers of scholarships and better education, time after time she suffered the despair of her father ripping up the letters that would better her life and throwing them into the fire.
This is no misery memoir though (BTW – has anyone noticed that places like Waterstones now have a special section for this dismal genre? I vaguely remember the title “Tragic Lives” sits above the section. I ask you – who on earth would search these books out as a matter of course?) Bryce’s frustration is palpable but she never gives up for more than a few seconds, and it is that optimism that drives the book, and which kept me reading.
The detail about Greenwich is fine-tuned – enough streets, pubs and places namechecked to give a sense of real geography, but it is balanced with a strong storyline which although not always linear (hard to do linear when you’re talking about someone’s life, I guess) has a humanity about it. Even people like her father, an angry, violent man, are never painted totally black – there are moments of tenderness where it’s possible to see the dilemma and perhaps even guilt Bryce felt at wanting to leave her ‘lot’ behind.
This is not a perfect book. But it is mainly sins of omission, rather than badly-written. Bryce repeats herself from time to time, but it’s not something that really bothers me. Hell, I do it myself. What does get me, though, is that at no point is there any kind of biography of the author, and we are not given any start date for the story – forcing the reader to try to work out what period we’re talking about. This vagueness makes the early part of the book shaky, as the reader is constantly trying to work out dates of gas-lamps, street name changes and electricity-arrival just to get a handle on when other things are going on.
My biggest problem with the book is its sudden end. Even a book that will have a sequel needs some kind of conclusion. Its whole conceit has been driven by Bryce’s desire to leave her world, and at the end, she sort of does – she contrives to get herself conscripted into the ATS. But that’s it. For a story so well-paced up to this point, it’s extremely frustrating to turn to a blank page. No word on what happened next, whether she actually managed to break out of her cycle of poverty or even whether she ever returned to Greenwich. Even a “coming soon” teaser-note at the bottom would have sufficed. I found it extremely frustrating, lying in bed Sunday night, after a weekend of snatched paragraphs and sneaky peeks, to not actually find out ‘the end.’
Of course the first thing I did yesterday was get onto the internet to see what I could find out about Iris Bryce and, after some searching, I have found out some of her story – she apparently married a well-known British jazz musician and went to live on a barge, writing several books about her life on the canals. There is even a follow-up to Remember Greenwich. I concede that she perhaps didn’t know there would be a sequel when the first book was published – but a short biography at the end – even a few sentences – would have rounded-off the story without ruining the appetite.
I thoroughly recommend this book, whatever minor issues I may have with it. It would warrant a reprint – perhaps combined with the sequel, in a more attractive format, but in the meanwhile, I intend to quote liberally from this remarkable woman’s story. It is as much a part of Greenwich’s history as that of Henry VIII, Samuel Pepys and John Flamsteed.