Snaps from an age gone by
FLICKERBOOK by Leila Berg Granta Books pounds 15.99
Sunday 26 January 1997
The blurb on the back of this short, easy, fast-moving memoir reminds us that Leila Berg shot to fame in 1968 for Risinghill, Death of a Comprehensive, "the story of Michael Duane's school in Islington", and that she is well- known for her children's books. Here, though, she offers something different: an album of written snapshots of her pre-war childhood among a long- vanished community of Manchester Jews.
Nowadays we tend to idealise the sort of tight-knit urban neighbourhood in which Berg grew up, yet she experienced it as unloving and chauvinistic. In her own home in particular she felt emotionally deprived: her father ignored her in favour of her brother, her mother never talked to her about things that really mattered.
This particular memoir, then, is less about parents than about their cruel absence. "People won't tell you anything or they tell you lies," says the seven-year-old Berg. Yet she learnt to survive on her own and, getting almost nothing from her teachers, gave herself one of those educations that, for reasons which are not obvious, don't seem to exist any more. She spent her free time at the Halle, in bookshops and cinemas, in the shiny new Manchester Reference Library ("all great celebrating places, much better than schools") and later on, in London, at Speakers' Corner and in the meetings of the Young Communist League.
Berg's book falls into two parts: the first brings her to the brink of adolescence and, I thought, doesn't quite work, although for interesting reasons. The second takes her onwards to adulthood; it succeeds superbly.
Much of the problem with the early part of her book arises from the fact that Berg takes on what is perhaps an impossible task: she sets out to reconstruct the thoughts and perceptions she had as a little girl. Flickerbook is written in the present tense, supposedly from the infant Berg's point of view. Yet adults have very little idea of how children think - of what it is like to be a child. We run up against the same problem with animals, the insane, the senile - confounded by their versions of consciousness, we end by attributing to them perceptions and reactions like our own.
There are, to be sure, admirable things in Berg's account - for instance, young Berg sees everything close up, noticing the bugs, leaves and hopscotch markings that adults miss. But the early images in her flickerbook strike me sometimes as anachronistic and slightly contrived: too often the five- year-old Berg picks out things that loom large in the adult world, but not necessarily in that of a child - instances of sexism, racism and injustice, for example. There is something a touch artificial, too, in the way Berg presents herself. We always see the same unvarying pose: an impossibly good-natured, innocent child, adrift in an adult world - quaint, charming, confused. "I think that I must have one layer of skin less than everyone else, so that things get in more. Is that possible?" "Can Jewish birds sit in Christian churches?" "Telegram is when someone is dead."
But as Berg approaches her teenage years, is abandoned by her mother and moves down to London with her father, Flickerbook takes flight. This is partly because we can suddenly relate to how Berg (now older) thinks, and in part because Berg allows herself a fuller character - a girl with an admirable thirst for life, but also angry and headstrong. She writes frankly about herself and her own sexuality (standing in a crowd at a Halle concert, she finds to her delight that she can have an orgasm - choral works or Mozart are best) and lyrically about the loss, in quick succession, of two lovers killed fighting Fascism in Spain. The brief literary form she has pioneered for herself - not quite a pensee or aphorism, I suppose you'd have to call it a "flick" - makes her book a delight to read, but also underscores the emotions of these intense, disorienting years. What we get, in the end, is a wonderfully vivid depiction of the radicalism of the 1930s and, beyond that, an exceptionally artful and honest portrait of adolescent rites of passage.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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