M.T. McGuire's Reviews > 1923: A Memoir: Lies and Testaments

1923 by Harry Leslie Smith
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's review
Jul 27, 2011

liked it

I downloaded this book because I like history and because I've run into the author on the Amazon forums on occasion and he's a lovely chap.

Despite the very British nature of this story it is published by an American publisher. This means it has a few strange american quirks which jump out at you - more on that later. Otherwise, the standard of presentation is good. I spotted a couple of typos but nothing that would annoy me.

First I should say that I am really impressed by the writing. It's lyrical and the voice of the character/writer is strong. I like that someone is attempting to write about the past the way it actually was; with rose tinted specs kept firmly in the box. It's an eye opener and it's a window on a world that was, harsh, unfair and which is thankfully gone, for the most part - at least in this country. It makes good points, too, that education is a privilege for starters; something that's worth remembering in an era of degrees for all when I can imagine it's easy for kids to see it as more of a chore. The book is about a very hard life but the author never goes for competition hardship, so to speak.

So, if you are thinking of reading this book, then yes, I would recommend it. There is no doubt it's good. However I would be lying if I said I was enjoying it. My relationship is definitely love/hate and I'm not sure if I will be able to finish it. It's interesting, compelling and as I've said, the standard of the writing is excellent and I find myself sympathising more with the central character as it progresses and it was worth perservering.

However, the Americanisms grate. Normally they don't but normally I'm reading American books by American authors. I found it strange to find someone, in a British autobiography, speaking in the vernacular of another country about mine. So for example at one point he told his sister he was 'pissed' in the sense that he was annoyed rather than drunk. I'm 43 and I've yet to hear that done by one of my fellow countrymen. It also feels strange when a Yorkshireman talking about his 'pants' turns out to be referring to his actual trousers rather than the things underneath. Other odd stuff; his mother went into labor and of course she was his Mom and not his Mum. All of that felt totally weird. In the book's credit that is an indication of how well the writer puts the Britishness and Yorkshireness of his personality across. I just wish there was a UK spelled UK version because while I don't usually notice the US/UK gap it does seem to matter here. Finally, there was a description of Epping Forest and Chigwell as being in Sussex. I'm from Sussex and I promise you, they're not there. They're in Essex. [edited Jan 2012 to add: this has been corrected in the latest edition]

The narrator is very harsh in some places especially about his Mum. although I completely understood his attitude although I found I could sympathise with her, too, even if I could not like her very much. I did share the author's sense of social injustice at the position his family ended up in and the hardships they had to go through.

The book is very amusing in parts and all of the opinions expressed are honest and forthright. Forthright is great but it is a two edged sword. I liked it mostly but there were a couple of sweeping generalisations about the south which had me scratching my head a bit. Then again, I suppose, for the last several hundred years, when people have made money, they've moved nearer to London and the City and yes, I appreciate that in Sussex, at least, while we've been blessed with some we've been lumbered with a good many others.

So all in all recommended but it loses a couple of stars for the bits where the Americanisms grate and because, for me, it didn't quite connect. I would definitely have a look at more books by this author though.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Terry Tyler I know what you mean; like the spelling of manoeuvre, and there were a few more like that, too. I know it gave the impression that people from the north are poor and people from the south have never had it so good, but it is, after all, his impression; you can onlhy write how you see things yourself. As a southerner who has recently moved to the north, I see much of that attitude, even in this day.

M.T. McGuire Terry wrote: "I know what you mean; like the spelling of manoeuvre, and there were a few more like that, too. I know it gave the impression that people from the north are poor and people from the south have neve..."

I think what you say about it being his personal impression is right and for a book like that, it's important he's true to his own personal view.



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