Monthly Archives: June 2016


her brilliant career by rachel cooke

The premise of this book is simple – as the title suggests, it’s about the brilliant careers of 10 women living through the 1950s. I heard Cooke speak about it a few years ago at Charleston book festival but it’s taken me some time to get around to reading it but it’s every bit as entertaining and educational as she promised. As a whole, it is a compelling portrait of a decade in which women responded to the social and economic changes that took place during the second world war. The diet of wasp waists, home baking and proud home makers with which we’ve been fed was only a small part of the story – by 1957, 33% of married women worked – and here we have an actress,  film makers, an archaeologist, a high court judge, an architect, a cutting edge gardener, a cookery writer and a motor racing driver as prisms through which to explore women’s new opportunities. Each individual account is rather superficial but I didn’t mind that, as Cooke’s ambition is less biography, more broad narrative about emancipation and pioneers. Her style is relaxed and she often goes off at a tangent, but what really shines through is her obvious passion about the era, her subjects and the social history she is plotting. There’s some useful historical footnotes, a timeline (fish fingers arrived on the market in 1955) and a section on fashion, which add to the overall impression of a well researched book that’s also hugely accessible.

As well as the careers of the ten women Cooke puts in the spotlight, we get the low down on their personal lives, which are often just as groundbreaking – divorce, affairs (with men and other women), secret love children and open relationships all feature. Considering women living through the 1950s could not take out a mortgage in their own name and had to produce a marriage certificate to be fitted with a diaphragm, Cooke’s subjects are ahead of their time in more ways than one.

Margery Fish,  for example, started her first job before women had the vote and embarks on a whole new career at the age of 64. I especially warmed to her after learning that she snorted at the word “ladies” – “women were only ever women”. Another, Rose Heilbron, was a hugely popular and successful barrister who because the first women judge and, Cooke tells us, cleverly used the media to cultivate a persona that meant she avoided being seen as a potential threat to the establishment or becoming a source on envy and spite for other women, and instead was a national treasure that everyone admired. That said, Cooke speculates that Rose’s popular public profile may well have checked her career when she lost out on becoming the first woman to be appointed to the high court. Cooke goes on to note that, whilst Rose was very much a trailblazer, the conservative forces that undoubtedly held her back still exercise a strong grip on her profession: of the current 91 high court judges, only 17 are women, and only 1 woman sits in the supreme court.

HER BRILLIANT CAREER is shot through with other similar reflections on the role of women today and I’m sure Cooke’s background as a journalist is partly responsible for how wide ranging, engaging and relevant she makes her subject matter. Not a huge fan of non fiction, this actually held my attention more than the novel I’ve been reading since (of which more soon). Whether you are interested in feminism or not, this is a great read, and each and every one of the individuals featured has a story well worth the telling.


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NW by Zadie Smith

nw by zadie smith

NW is North West London and, in common with many books set in the capital, I found myself far more impressed  by Smith’s depiction of the clamour, edginess and sheer relentlessness of  Willesden and its surrounds than by the characters and plot.

The novel opens with scene in which Leah, one of two women around whom NW revolves, is scammed by one of her neighbours, Shar, who claims to need money to take a taxi to the hospital. It’s a striking, lively, beginning  and the streets come alive in Smith’s assured hands. Every sense is assaulted and all this whilst also introducing many of the threads of Leah’s life that will be picked up later in the book.

These include her childhood best friend, Natalie, another of the planets that make up the NW universe, but this is more soap opera than a story with dominant protagonists or a plot with a beginning middle and end.  Both women have made success of their lives, though Natalie more so in Leah’s eyes, and NW sparkles with insight into the rivalry that exists between them, thrums with the discomfort and disparity between their middle class presents and working class pasts. Thrown into the mix is race, including white Leah’s black boyfriend, and all at once you have the ever present potential for discordance as well as harmony that marks out London and the lives of those within in it.

It’s a slightly non conventional novel, with some sections that use stream of consciousness for example, but by far and away the most enjoyable is the slightly out on a limb story of Felix Cooper, a reformed drug addict, who goes West to check out a sports car, gets asked if he has any dope to sell, then diverts to see an old lover, Annie. There’s a warmth and slowing down that makes his story accessible in a way much of NW isn’t – like stepping away from the polluted traffic jams of London’s main thoroughfares and seeking a bit of calm on a side street or a park.

Felix was at the same school as Natalie and Leah, his life starts and ends on the streets they think of as home, but other than that, there’s very little connection between their stories. It’s not an unusual literary device and underscores the jarring sense of disconnection NW awoke in me, but I am not sure that’s deliberate – it feels more like something that just didn’t work that well.

Bits of the novel are incredibly good – there’s a scene set on the Jubilee line that is almost perfect in the nuance, the glances and the unspoken rules of the underground. A dinner party at Natalie’s house is rich with observations about our class ridden society. The diversity, history, culture clashes and ebb and flow that make London such an interesting place are deeply ingrained in the fibre of Smith’s storytelling.  But the story itself just isn’t big enough for its back drop and as a whole NW a bit too much like many people’s experience of the capital – messy, unfriendly and alien.


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