If you look at a map of the London Underground, the Circle Line is yellow and it runs in a loop with a later addition--an extension--that looks like a digression from its normal route. Heads and Straights is Lucy Wadham's nod towards the Tube line that runs through Chelsea and Kensington. It is one of a dozen books published in 2013 for the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (all of which I hope to read and write about this year).
The books are a bit of an adventure as each author was given free rein to write about whatever inspired them using each Underground Line as their springboard. As an Anglophile who has traveled some of those Underground Lines (sadly far too long ago), though not intimate with the City and its particulars, the books are entertaining but a little like picking a chocolate from a box of bonbons. Until you take a bite, you aren't sure what will be in the middle (or if you'll like it).
Lucy Wadham is a novelist and Heads and Straights is a most intriguing memoir of growing up in Chelsea in the 1970s. Have you heard the term 'heads and straights'? You can likely tell from context what the words refer to.
"The first time I admitted publicly to having been brought up in Chelsea I was thirty-five and at the launch party for my first novel, which was being held in a tapas bar in Clapham."
Thinking back on my reading in the last year or so, I've come across another Chelsea girl who drifted away into more colorful parts of London as well. Chelsea must equate posh, and not always a welcome label to the wearer.
"Inverted snobbery was embedded in my sisters and me from an early age, so being from Chelsea was never a source of pride for any of us. I don't know where this class shame came from, certainly not from our parents."
So, what do you think--heads and straights? Heads are good, of course, and straights, not so much. "Heads were people who smoked pot and Straights were people who didn't." When you are a teenager in the 70s and are trying to be cool, it's probably pretty easy to figure out which camp you want to be a part of. Lucy, and the Big Three as her elder sisters were known, were firmly (though some more than others) in the Heads camp.
It doesn't matter that I don't know Chelsea, this is a memoir of the personal--of growing up and wanting to be a part of as well as wanting to be apart from. It's about family relations, parents, and even grandparents and siblings and bad choices and bad experiences and growing up and out of. I always find it fascinating how a memoirist can segue from one subject to another, sometimes seemingly unrelated topics yet without even realizing that the distances between the two are farther than you think. From Chelsea to siblings and parents to a grandmother who loved Virginia Woolf and passed on to her granddaughter Woolf's love of nature, teaching her names of trees and flowers that "would make us ridiculous to future boyfriends." And then more.
"Gran's Welsh cottage was freezing and you had to put fifty p in the meter for hot water, so she often read to us in bed beneath an eiderdown so thick and heavy it was like lying under another body. Her bed was large and we would often all squeeze in with her--'Plenty of room, come along, shove up'-and fall asleep to her radio, which she would tune to a shipping forecast, one of the few voices that still mirrored her own (very Edwardian)."
It sounds to me as though she would have come off as posh indeed, yet Gran was "busy shaking up the tree" since she took great pleasure in the girls' rebellion against their parent's very middle class lifestyle. Heads and Straights--I guess these things tend to skip a generation. Gran would have been a Head as well as the granddaughters and the parents most definitely Straights.
I understand being the youngest sister and I think I was in the same predicament. Older sisters are almost always pretty cool and you are the straggler, the hanger-on. And Lucy had sisters, those Big Three, who in some cases lived life a little too close to the edge. When she as the youngest sister, was a "fully blown, self-loathing Straight", she must have felt a square peg. Her first day in a new school, clothes preempted from one of her sister's closets, she realizes she looks like a "roaring Sloane" (Bad thing, I think) as if she had "Made in Chelsea" stamped onto her forehead.
It all comes out in the end, much happier and easier than her sisters anyway. A life story, or impressions of a life story, wonderfully told and with surely one of the best last lines, a memory, that I've come across in a long time. And all in less than 100 pages. A wonderful nod towards the Circle Line as it whooshes through Chelsea.
I've picked up a nature book, maybe a memoir, I'm not entirely sure as I am just now preparing to get into Richard Mabey's A Good Parcel of English Soil. Another reading adventure.