Thursday, 28 August 2014

My Friends the Hungry Generation by Jane Duncan

published 1968





In 1951, when I had last seen my niece, she had been an entrancing three-year-old who was just beginning to read and when the door opened now I was quite unprepared for the leggy coltish eight-year-old dressed in very short shorts and a very dirty white shirt. The first things I noticed about her were the long, beautifully-shaped bare legs, the long, light brown pigtails and the large eyes, shaped and darkly-lashed like the eyes of her mother, but in colour, the brilliant blue of her father’s. The two boys, who stood on either side of her in the doorway, I had never seen before, of course.



[Some time later] George, Tom, Sandy Tom and I followed. On the driveway there was a Land Rover, hitched to it was a small horse-box and looking over the tailboard of this was the hairy face of a little Shetland pony… Miss Forth, George and Tom were leading the pony down the little ramp on to the gravel…. Liz clasped her arms round the pony’s neck and laid her cheek against the wiry mane.




observations: And on we go with Jane Duncan and her alter ego Janet -  it is 1956 now, and she is visiting her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law is having another baby, and Janet ends up looking after the other children, who are the Hungry Generation. Janet is child-free herself, and makes heavy weather of the mysteries of childcare. She is also very soppy and bursts into tears the whole time. Normally these books have a mixture of a current thread and a historical one, but this one is unusually linear, with some reminiscences of Janet’s youth, but otherwise a straight story about the summer looking after the children.

The book is a curiosity in terms of childcare, showing us how much has changed since those days – the children sound positively hysterical and are endlessly badly-behaved, and Janet doesn’t hesitate to spank them. The general level of violence in the house (which is definitely meant to be a happy, loving, normal household) is quite surprising to modern readers I would suggest. In addition the new-born baby (two weeks old, max) is given diluted cow’s milk to drink, and when that doesn’t work, goat’s milk. The Christening happens almost immediately, with no special preparations. When an aunt dies (in the same town) the parents of the new baby both disappear to the bereaved house completely for several days – possibly just a plot device to give Janet more responsibility.

Janet in the book claims that one character loves her son-in-law ‘more, even, than her own daughters or the [grand]children.’ This trope comes up occasionally in books, and always seems to be wholly unconvincing – and in normal circumstances (ie there is nothing wrong or strange about her relationship with her own children) unimaginable. It sounds sniping to say that the author had no children of her own.

I think I enjoyed this one less that others in the series, because of the single setting. More on the series by clicking on the Jane Duncan label below. I have missed out My Friends the Macleans, a rather uninspired entry that ends on the day that this one begins. 

In a serious adult book in the 1960s, it seems very strange that one character will casually give a pony as a thank you gift to a family: in fairytales and old-fashioned children's books, yes, lovely. In real life: worst gift ever.

Girl in shorts, a 1958 photo from the Florida archives via Flickr. The picture of the children on a pony comes from the National Library of Wales.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - No, I can't imagine anyone in real life giving a pony as a gift! And it sounds like this one is as much as anything else almost a period piece on child rearing/childcare. Sorry to hear this one didn't quite live up to the others for you, but I can see why. To be honest, I don't think I'd find Janet particularly likable in this one either. Still, the writing style is solid and smooth.

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    1. Margot, I keep thinking about the pony! I don't think *that* idea has anything to do with childcare in the 1950s, but I do think the rest of the book is interesting sociologically. But I can't honestly say everybody should be reading it....

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  2. I know what you mean about the pony giving! Mind you, I went to visit a friend of mine in Plumstead who told me that until a month a go the woman living opposite had a pony living in her back garden for months before the council eventually insisted she take it to a proper stable. Apparently the street was devastated ...

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    1. Oh that's a lovely story Sergio. You'd think people could turn a blind eye. And I'm certainly projecting on the subject of pony-giving, because anybody who gave any kind of animal to me and my family would be most unpopular with me....

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  3. Really? You don't like any animals, even dogs and cats, the norm around where I live.

    I like that photo of the children on the pony. I was wondering where the photo was taken, as the children remind me of a neighbor's children, he, from England, and their mother of Irish ancestry. So, Wales seems appropriate, too.

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    1. I'm not that keen on animals, it is true, but is also the thought of giving an animal (with all that involves) to someone else. Her friends gave my daughter a tortoise for her 18th birthday, just before she went away to college, but they did check with me first....
      That picture definitely *looks* Welsh to me, as well as being Welsh.

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  4. I love that girl in shorts photo. This definitely doesn't sound like the book for me. I would definitely be bothered by parents, especially a mother, leaving a newborn for even a few days. And I am not just talking about what I would do when I was having a child, but how my parents would have handled the situation ...

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    1. It's a great picture isn't it, I was really pleased to find it. This whole series - I'm definitely reading them so others don't have to, but I still wish someone else had read them for discussion purposes...

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  5. Not one for me. I'm still waiting for the right Jane book to come along, just haven't found it yet.

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    1. Well I think you're right, it's never going to be Jane Duncan for you. I'm trying to think of any other Jane authors...

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