Born "in a hospital in Walthamstow six days before the end of the Second World War", her mother "always reckoned I was cause for a double celebration. I grew up an only child as my elder brother died of convulsions when he was three days old." So begins the story of Sylvia Smith's life, as documented in her 2001 book Misadventures, published by Canongate.
Sylvia Smith died last Saturday, aged 67. She was apparently working on a fourth memoir with the provisional title The Men In My Life.
The style of Smith's books was variously described as "faux naïf", "Postmodern", "compelling", "two dimensional" and "almost hypnotically bad", and she divided critics and readers. One reviewer described her writing as "a cross between a police officer giving evidence in court and a slightly demented grandmother intent on telling you everything over a cup of tea." Some early interviews with Smith for Misadventures expressed astonishment that some people live in bedsits and don't even mind.
Smith's books describe the minutiae of everyday life, in a deadpan style that gradually reveals a sense of loneliness and modern malaise. A skiing trip to find boyfriends ends with not finding boyfriends; the company for which she temps sacks her for someone younger. Perhaps her books came as a refreshing antidote to the popular "Hampstead novel", in which everybody is talented and brittle. In Smith's books, nobody is brittle and there is precious little talent.
Smith left school at 15 with no qualifications, and briefly trained as a hairdresser before working as a temp. She lived in bedsits and shared accommodation, which later provided the material for her books. "I didn't keep a diary; I did it from memory," she said.
Misadventures was Smith's first published memoir, but the first book she wrote was Appleby House, about the everyday goings on in the Walthamstow boarding house where she lived. She later explained to Radio 4's Open Book programme: "I was about 43. I had in mind Appleby House, I thought it would be a marvellous story …. And when I was off sick some time later – I'm not telling you what it was – I had the time to sit down and start writing ...." Many publishers rejected the manuscript, but Appleby House was eventually published by Picador, following the success of Misadventures.
"I don't know why I wrote Misadventures," she said. "I just like writing books and I wanted to get published. I thought it might be a good idea."
The Independent's review of Smith's My Holidays, published in 2003, declared: "Very little happens, but Smith does possess an authentic narrative voice, and her latest non-adventure … verges on the interesting as social history." The book describes a lifetime of holidays, from Margate to the Costa del Sol, which are largely "uneventful". However, a "holiday" to New York, to promote Misadventures, coincided with the terrorist attacks of 9 September 2001. It was, she wrote, "an uneasy three days".
Smith didn't read other people's memoirs, she told Open Book. She had enough to do writing her own.
Misadventures is published in paperback by Canongate, £8.99. Appleby House is published in paperback by Picador, £9.99. My Holidays is out of print.