To not do nothing

Miss Carter’s War
Sheila Hancock
2014, pp 432
Rs 499

There are some books that stay with you after the last page is turned. This is one of them. Miss Carter’s War is an extraordinary piece of work, and not only because of the way it effortlessly spans six decades of one woman’s life. Perhaps what is truly remarkable is that it shows us how extraordinary being ordinary could be.

Sheila Hancock is not exactly a household name in our part of the world, but to put her in context, she was married to the late John Thaw, who we have seen and loved as the irascible Inspector Morse in the TV series Morse. She has been on radio, TV, films and theatre as part of her career that began in the 1950s, and has won numerous awards and has culminated in a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (better known as a CBE) in 2011. Hancock has three non-fiction titles to her credit, but Miss Carter’s War marks her debut as a novelist at the remarkable age of 82.

The year is 1948, the setting — London. World War II has ended, shattered lives are everywhere, and rebuilding is a messy job. Young Marguerite Carter, a newly minted Cambridge graduate, one of the first women the exalted university has reluctantly agreed to confer a degree upon, has dreams of changing the world, “and where best to start than with children?” Ambitious and hopeful though Marguerite might be, she is hardly a babe in the woods. Her stint as a Special Operations Executive behind enemy lines in France has shown her horrors that cannot be spoken of lightly. She has brought back to England not just the nightmares of the damage human beings can inflict on each other, but also of heartbreak.

In her new avatar as an English teacher at the Dartford County Grammar School for Girls, Marguerite sets forth to educate girls armed with Shakespeare and optimism. Cynicism, poverty and prejudice are but some of the obstacles in her path, but she finds herself inexplicably allying with the games master, Tony Stansfield, the only male among the staff. It takes her little time to see through his flippant, bordering-on-the-offensive outlook, but the reader reaches a conclusion about the unmentionable secret underneath his veneer much before Marguerite does. Yet, those mountains are scaled and their friendship is one that lasts a lifetime.

As the post-war years give way to the 1950s, Tony and Marguerite watch the world changing around them with alternating joy and disbelief. They attend political rallies and meetings, and even heckle a young Torie candidate, Margaret Roberts, whom we later meet as the “impeccably coiffed” Margaret Thatcher — march against the nuclear bomb, protest the laws criminalising homosexuality and remind each other of their promise to “not do nothing”. A full cast of characters comes and goes, as friendships and other bonds are formed and broken, love is found and lost, and the world moves and shapes around them.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are short italicised excerpts through which we see glimpses of Marguerite’s past life — her terrifying experiences during the war, the about-face of her lover, and the loss of her parents. They are blunt, bald flashbacks from memories that have been buried deep — and while there isn’t a piece-by-piece resolution of Marguerite’s past, we know enough to understand that there is a reason she won’t just stand by and “not do nothing.”

His head explodes. The blue eyes blown away. The three other men in the car sprawl grotesquely like her childhood dolls thrown into the toy box. Yet the grenade had fitted into the palm of her hand and all she had done was pull out the small pin and throw it like a ball.

A late-blooming plot line involving one of Marguerite’s old students lends some old-fashioned, novel-worthy excitement to the story, but otherwise, Miss Carter’s War feels rather like a biography in places.

Hancock gives herself to a certain amount of exposition in the way she sets Marguerite’s story against the unfolding of Britain’s socio-political upheaval from the late 1940s to the early 21st century. Thus, we find ourselves watching the coronation of young Queen Elizabeth, marching in the peace rallies of the 1950s and witnessing “the flowering of the Swinging Sixties”. We see Thatcher coming to power and the rising popularity of Princess Diana. We find out when the paparazzi hound her to death and when the planes fly into the World Trade Center on September 9, 2001.

As with any life fully lived, cynicism, heartbreak and pain dents her existence, yet Marguerite doesn’t lose her idealism. Even at her jaded best, it lurks somewhere, just out of her reach. Thus, when she says towards the end of the book that, “The world is in good hands. There will be no war in Iraq after that huge protest. They have got to listen. People Power works,” you want to believe her. You want to live in that world where she is right.
Payal Dhar

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