Written for Time Out
Growing up in suburban London in the 1950s as an odd-looking Jewish tom-boy, with a ‘pin head, and staggeringly ugly profile’ wasn’t much fun for Michele Hanson. Suburban Ruislip, with its ‘one cinema, and the lido and woods’ didn’t offer many thrills. But, lucky for us, 50 years on it provides an amusing read.
Covering the years from naïve child to questioning teen, the memoir charts the vicissitudes and enlightenment of this transition. Hanson attempts to understand her family, her Jewishness, and the surprising facts of life – from the shouting, farting and general vulgarity of her mum and dad (‘I did not want to hear my parents laughing loudly and crudely at things to do with sex and bottoms, or using Yiddish words beginning with “schm …”) to her own somewhat painful developments (‘Bosoms were the last thing I wanted … There was something terrifying about them.’).
Dashes of flavour mark place, as well as time. We visit the seedy Soho of the 1950s, where Hanson’s father owned a belt factory and her mother opened the second-ever Soho coffee bar; and where later on, Hanson is horrified by the goings-on at the Heaven and Hell bar on Old Compton Street. Quentin Crisp appears as a life model at the Ealing Art College where Hanson is a student, with his ‘bouffant purple hair, purple nails, eye make-up, and rather worryingly loose jock-strap.’
The book is filled with the Guardian columnist’s trademark warmth and wry humour, despite the ever-present backdrop of the recent war and the difficulties facing Jewish families at that time.