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When I was reading Laura Thompson’s beautifully penned The Last Landlady, I was trying to think about why I love memoir and biography so much. What it is about these genres that so enthralls. And when they’re done well, they are enthralling, the writers weaving us into the subjects’ worlds so tightly that we’re there with them, cheering them on at the peaks, and suffering alongside them at the devastating troughs. Essentially, they’re love letters, the result of the authors’ utter fascination, perhaps even obsession, with their subject matter. And Thompson’s book is exactly that, a rather terrific love letter to her grandmother, Violet, one of the great pub landladies, but oh, so much more than that.

From the very first line, we’re aware that Violet is a woman worth celebrating. Always beautifully turned out, her hair styled by the salon at the top of Harrods, her deep red lips and powdered cheeks painted with Estée Lauder cosmetics, her shirt collars ‘impregnated with Alliage scent’, she is a ‘casual empress’, charming the characterful customers who come to spend time in her pub in the Home Counties. Her establishment is a ‘home but not quite home … as dear and familiar to people as home’, but also ‘the place where people escaped from home’. And it is here that Thompson spent much of her childhood, watching Violet stylishly interact with her customers, family and friends – the women of her own ‘rich vintage’, who descended on Sundays to play solo, laugh and reminisce, while drinking and grazing on plates of cheese with ‘certain Sunday embellishments’.

It’s Thompson’s beautiful writing that brings Violet to life, that and her obvious love for her grandmother, and yet the book’s success lies not just in the fact that it’s a finely penned homage to a beloved relative. It’s quite simply social, cultural and women’s history writing at its best, the author evoking an important and lively period of England’s fairly recent past as the backdrop to wonderful Violet. And Violet shines, one of those amazing characters whose antics become part of local folklore, her story becoming ever bigger, brighter, more mesmerising with each new telling.

I love books like this, that must be obvious, but I also think books like this are important at this particular time in our history. They celebrate a particular type of Englishness that’s not based on bombastic nationalistic rhetoric, but rather on an extraordinary individual who made a difference in her own special, rather delicious way.

We’re a nation made of people like this, women and men whose everyday lives and actions have shaped our communities, our way of life, our mores. These are the people we should be talking about now. The pioneers, the trailblazers, the people who forge a path, making our worlds so much better for knowing them. Even if that is via the pages of a rather finely written book.

 

Laura Thompson | The Last Landlady | Unbound | paperback | £9.99 | 5 September 2019

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Background music:September in the rain‘, Dinah Washington; ‘These foolish things‘, Ella Fitzgerald; ‘Cry me a river‘, Julie London; ‘In the dark‘, Bix Biederbecke; Gershwin playing his Prelude No 2 in C sharp minor (one of our favourite pieces of music).

 

Acknowledgements: Quoted book text © Laura Thompson 2019. Many thanks to Anne Cater, as always, and to the publisher for sending us a review copy and a jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

Also of interest: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Yvonne Battle-Felton, Remembered’; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.

 

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