Iris Jones Simantel (above) and Iris's grandfather leading a band of evacuees in 1943 (below)
With such a strong field it was an immensely tough decision, but the judges finally chose Iris’s funny and moving account of a dysfunctional East End family and traumatic evacuation for its ‘authentic voice’. Her book, Far From the East End, is out this month. Here’s a glimpse of Iris and her winning story.
Thank you to everyone who entered. We were overwhelmed with entries – and more books may yet spring from this treasure chest of life stories that we’ve opened.
It is the very antithesis of a kiss-me-quick resort and possibly the last place that you might expect to find Iris Jones Simantel. A patchwork of verdant countryside gives way to towering red cliffs beside which nestle the Regency terraces, bow-windowed shops, narrow streets and neat floral displays of Sidmouth in Devon. The sea surges up a vast curving sandy beach, overlooked by the bustling esplanade where Iris stands, squinting at the horizon.
Iris is the winner of the writing competition launched by Saga Magazine and Penguin Books to find an author whose life story could become a bestselling book. Iris’s manuscript, which at its core is the trauma of her evacuation from London at the age of five without an explanation or goodbye kiss, greatly exceeded the hopes of the judges, who received more than 5,000 entries.
Entitled Far From The East End, her debut book has been published with remarkably few changes to the original manuscript. For hers is a natural and authentic voice, employing comedy, pathos and disarming honesty to depict her emotionally rigid mother, charming but philandering father and a hotchpotch of family members whose traits range from insanity to affected gentility.
Not that the young Iris had any doubts that her place was on the lowest rung of the social order. One aunt told her that as soon as she opened her mouth, people would know her for what she was. Her parents attempted to quash any ambition she might be nurturing by calling her ‘a proper little madam’ and constantly remonstrating, ‘Who do you think you are?’
Born within the sound of what Iris calls ‘Bow-bloody-Bells’, she was entitled to call herself a Cockney but the family actually lived eight miles away in a pebble-dashed house in the East End overspill of Dagenham, later moving to a housing estate near Watford where they churned mud underfoot on the unfinished roads. In one of her many vivid passages, Iris describes visits by travelling shops when the women ‘on our side of the tracks’ would rush out in curlers and bedroom slippers, but minus their teeth.
Iris moved to Devon three years ago with her partner Ralph Brooks, who became her fifth husband in May, shortly before she turned 74. Sidmouth’s coastal charms are a long way from her origins, but her life has been an odyssey in search of love, stability and recognition that took her at 16, as a GI bride, to Chicago where her book ends, with a sequel in progress.
She has more than a trace of an American accent, cultivated to fit in with her teen dream of being ‘an all-American housewife’. When we meet, Iris is effervescent in a zingy yellow top and coral lipstick, although she worries her waistline has been expanding under the pressure of Ralph’s home cooking.
She met Ralph, now aged 83, through an evacuees’ group – ‘We bonded over our wounds,’ she says – and, it later transpires, he is a vast improvement on her four previous husbands who were all called either Bob or Bill, although it has to be said that this was the least of their deficiencies.
Iris was initially a lodger in Ralph’s former home in Croydon, but love grew. ‘He understands who I am. He knows the old jokes and the old songs,’ she says. It was Ralph who suggested she enter the Saga Magazine competition with the manuscript she had written in three months, revised over several years and nurtured in her head for a lifetime. Although she had always written poetry and belonged to writers’ groups, she had had no success in getting published. At home, as a child, there were only two books plus a storybook, Our Friends Next Door, that her mother bought her in 1946 ‘in which the children always looked nice and belonged to the perfect family’. Growing up, she was ‘too intimidated’ to enter the public library, a middle-class domain.
Remembering the sights and smells of 1940s London
None of her three brothers was given a preview of her book. Ralph read only the first chapter and worried that Iris’s scatological humour might be too much. In fact, her family’s competitive habit of loudly passing wind was free entertainment and two fingers up to a world that looked down on them. Iris records the sounds, sights and smells of her poverty-stricken childhood. ‘I was hungry and often cried myself to sleep. I will never forget the disgusting smell and taste of the suet puddings my mother made as cheap filler, grating the blood-streaked membranes of raw suet into the dough.’
Iris’s mother Kit, red-lipsticked and impassive, unable to express love to her children, was a depressive who always trembled on the verge of a breakdown. ‘She seemed to have an invisible wall around her,’ she writes, ‘…a shadowy figure, living somewhere on the edge of my life.’ The family took it in turns to use one bathful of water a week, Iris didn’t own a toothbrush and her hair was a wild mane. She understood that she was the subject of ‘benign neglect’ only when she stayed with more motherly relatives who scrubbed her clean.
The subtext is the lament of a child starved of affection and who never felt she belonged, her emotional dislocation echoed in the physical upheaval of evacuation and, two years later, just as she was feeling settled in Wales, the return home to her dysfunctional family.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Iris’s five-year-old brother Peter was evacuated, but she remained at home until 1943. ‘I played on bomb sites, bringing home memorabilia like false teeth. I remember Dad going off on fire watch in his tin shelter.’ In her book she describes how, ‘stomach in knots’, she and her mother huddled in their home-made air shelter as bombs exploded. ‘The ground shook and earth sifted down on us through cracks in the corrugated steel overhead.’ She says now: ‘The other day there was something on TV with searchlights and I got the same emotional thing happening inside me as I had during the war.’
"Evacuation left me forever in search of a place called home"
Evacuation was a pivotal moment. ‘It left me forever in search of a place called home,’ says Iris. She shows me a picture of herself in the Rhonnda Valley, her straight hair rag-rolled into ringlets. ‘I had the creature comforts there, but I didn’t belong. I spent hours wandering alone on the mountains and now I wonder how on earth I was allowed to go off on my own.
‘I was just settling in when war ended and, at seven, I was back home. Mum didn’t know how to cope with Peter and me. He is still very bitter and never felt he was wanted. Mum had two more children after the war; when I was in America I would get pictures of them on holiday with Mum and Dad and get quite jealous that they seemed to have a real family life.
‘Mum was short and plump, while Dad was dark, with wavy hair, a handsome man. Mum was always in love with Dad and he was her focus. She was jealous and possessive and always in floods of tears over him and his affairs. The only person she cried over was him. I would have given anything for her to cry for me when I went away.
Later Dad left her for another woman and I came back to comfort my mother and let my father have it with both barrels. He flaunted it and was cruel. He once gave my mother and brother tickets for a London Palladium show while he sat nearby with the other woman.’ He returned to Kit later and they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, but the evidence was that he never reformed his ways.
At 15, Iris had met Bob, a soldier from one of the American bases near her home. When she asked her parents if she could bring him home for tea, ‘cigarettes flew from their mouths’. There is more comedy at the ensuing tea when Kit says, ‘Oh my gawd. I thought they spoke the same language as us,’ to which her husband responds, ‘They do. They just don’t speak it proper.’
The dialogue, which Iris intended ‘to catch the way they spoke’, is one of the most successful elements of the book. While writing it she found that one memory triggered another: ‘I put myself in the spot and walked around as if I was there.’ She also visited her old haunts. ‘Our house in Dagenham was unmodernised and it was emotionally powerful to go in. I could see my mother in her special chair and my father on the piano.’
A Cockney in Chicago
Her life in America is the subject of her second book. After marrying at 16 in the UK, she and Bob, who returned to civvy life as a carpenter, went to live with his parents in Chicago. ‘They thought I’d married their son to get to America.’ They had a son, Wayne, but the stresses of young parenthood ended the marriage after four years. ‘I visited home with the baby and cried my eyes out when my parents said I had to go back to the US.’
After four years as a single working mum she met Bob number two, a hotel manager, ‘who drank himself out of every job and kept getting hauled off to jail. On my wedding day, I knew we shouldn’t have married. Later, Dad cashed in his life insurance to come over to the US and help, but ended up going out drinking with Bob.’ They divorced after four years and four years later she married Bill number one, a lawyer. ‘I was warned not to as he was a known cheater. Soon he was quite openly sleeping with anyone and everyone.’ The four years on, four years off pattern ended when she met Bill number two, ‘the kindest man’. They ran a bed and breakfast establishment in the Ozark Mountains, Arkansas.
‘It was 24/7 and we were on different clocks. Our marriage ended after 34 years in 2008. Our dream house is on the market and I go and visit when he is away and spend my time cleaning it.
‘Writing has been my therapy. I have come to understand my parents. I can forgive my father; he had a terrible upbringing when his mother was widowed young with 11 children. I went through two years of inconsolable grief after my mother died in 1994 because finally I had taught her to say “I love you”.’
When Iris entered the competition, she attached a note saying, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be heard at last.’ She says, ‘I never felt good enough and I never felt I belonged, but I found myself in my writing. Then to hear that I had won was wonderful. To say I was over the moon is an understatement. I can’t wait to see my book on sale.’
These days, Iris spends her afternoons writing. ‘I’ll say to Ralph, “I’m going up. Will you bring me a cup of tea when you make one?”’ In her marriage and her writing, she seems rooted as never before. ‘I’ve finally come home,’ she smiles.
Our two runners-up each win £100 and the glory of beating some 5,000 submissions to the podium. Penguin hopes that these life stories will also find their way into print in due course.
Patricia Crayton was one of the first female members of the police force, enrolling as a WPC in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1951. Her funny, lively and sometimes touching tales of rural life and its characters paint a vivid picture of Yorkshire in the Fifties. Her memoir is full of details that bring those days to life, reminding us, for example, that before the use of walkie-talkies and mobile phones, she had to rely on public phone boxes to communicate with the police station.
Penguin editor’s comment: ‘I loved Patricia’s story, as it offered a real insight into a fascinating career at a time when women in the police were few and far between. Her reminiscences were wonderfully varied and reminded me of James Herriot’s writings. I wondered if we’d all benefit from taking a step back to the days when she was on the beat!’
Patricia, now 83, still lives in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.
Pat Mackay fell in love as a young nurse but was jilted by her boyfriend without explanation. Left heartbroken, she picked herself up and began a roller coaster of a life, nursing children during the Forties, being a top photographic model in the Fifties, and starting her own business in the Sixties. Then after 30 years of no contact, she and her first love were reunited and they’ve been happily married for 32 years.
Penguin editor’s comment: ‘Books about nurses’ experiences are immensely popular, but Pat’s was the story of a fascinating life on top. To have rediscovered her “true love” was remarkable, and testament to the saying that life can often be stranger than fiction.’
Pat is 82 and lives in Minehead, Somerset.
Far From the East End by Iris Jones Simantel (Penguin Books, £6.99) is out on July 19, 2012. Buy it at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
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