I was excited to see that the author of Mothering Sunday (which I loved) and Last Orders, winner of the Booker prize, has recently written a new book. It more than met my high expectations and I am at the moment listening to it for the second time.
The story begins with a vaudeville show at the end of a pier in Brighton in the mid-1950s, just before television puts an end to such entertainment. There’s Jack Robinson (later Jack Robbins), the master of ceremonies, who addresses audiences with a cheery, “Tonight, boys and girls, you will see the Great Pablo and Eve….” and ends each show singing, “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along.” Pablo and Eve have a successful magic show and are Ronnie and Evie when they are out of their costumes. The two met when Ronnie advertised for an assistant and Evie was the only applicant. Over the winter, they developed the routine and became engaged. Early on we learn that the last show of the summer is also the last time anyone ever sees Ronnie; over the course of the book we learn about Ronnie’s life and what happens to Evie and Jack after he is gone.
As with Mothering Sunday, British class distinctions are gently in evidence. In this case the contrast is illustrated when 7-year old Ronnie is put on a train with other children in London to be taken to the countryside in anticipation of the blitz. Though many had great misfortune in those who “cared” for them, Ronnie’s new life was “bloody fantastic.” He had lived with his mean-spirited mother in wretched Bethnel Green and saw his father only on the short occasions when he was home from the sea.
The couple who took in Ronnie lived in Oxfordshire; Penny and Eric Lawrence had been unable to have children and felt fortunate to have this little fellow in their lives. Their house was called Evergrene, a palace by Ronnie’s standards; he was overwhelmed at first:
Evergrene was unlike any house in his experience. For just two people, it was enormous. It had separate rooms for doing different things in. You had a dining room for dining in. What was dining? You had a bathroom with a huge white tub in it. You had a sitting room–a room just for sitting in. It had two separate little rooms for shitting in. Even the garden–garden!–it seemed to extend indefinitely until it merged into trees, had separate bits: a vegetable patch, a lawn, flowerbeds, a greenhouse, and a cold frame. What was a cold frame? There was even an ancient withered but clearly strong man called Ernie who came now and then to ‘do’ the garden. For a brief period Ronnie thought that Ernie lived in the greenhouse.
This idyllic time for both the Lawrences and for Ronnie changed Ronnie so that when he returned to Bethnel Green at age 14, he and his mother were strangers, and she felt betrayed by the changes.
The story of Evie and Jack is revealed early; after Ronnie’s disappearance, they were together for nearly 50 years when they were separated by Jack’s death. He had foreseen the end of the vaudeville era and had been a successful television and screen actor while Evie had the controlling share of their production company and was the push onto the stage that Jack always needed.
This dear little story was so beautifully told, you can’t help but be enchanted.
Graham Swift, Here We Are, Knopf Publishing Group, 2020, 208 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.