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Urchin: a Child of War

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by Garry Shaw

Cover designs, though fair game for criticism in a review, are not the only criterion by which most readers judge the merits of a book. This is lucky for Garry Shaw, because the cover illustration on his memoir, Urchin: a Child of War, leads one to expect some kind of cartoon history of the Korean or perhaps the Vietnam war. One might argue that it is at least an original design, in the sense that it does not follow the usual well-trodden paths of World War II memoirs: a sepia print of a pre-war street in a nameless English village, or of the author in military uniform. In this sense, it is very much in keeping with the book’s content.

Mr Shaw did not serve in the armed forces during the war, because he was too young. He did, however, have the kind of adventures and setbacks experienced by the majority of the British population. Whereas residents of other countries always appear to have had a more exciting time than us (being occupied by enemy forces, starved to death, sent to prison camps or having atomic bombs dropped on them), we British have a tendency to laugh it off. We won the war, after all, so we can afford to make light of it.

The reality is that many British people suffered terribly during World War II, and even the more fortunate ones lived in an environment where anxiety, fear, deprivation and loss were the norm. Children were at the bottom of the pile. Mr Shaw writes of a Britain where the under-tens were ignored and abused. He harbours a strong resentment against some of the adults who featured strongly in his early life, particularly his teachers, and it is not fanciful to suggest that the."war" mentioned in the book’s subtitle refers to more than the obvious.

I am always wary of prologues that end with the exhortation to "Enjoy!"; but it is clear that this author wants very much to make his reminiscences enjoyable as well as memorable, and he goes to great lengths to achieve this. His strategy is to develop each small incident into a drama that builds up into a composite picture of childish experiences and insecurities: a row from the headmaster, an encounter with the school bullies, masturbating in the broom cupboard while thinking of Lana Turner.

It takes a while for the reader to figure out what the author is trying to do. The chapters are more like short stories than accounts of real-life incidents. The lady with the yellow Italian shoes, for example: she cannot possibly have existed in exactly the way Mr Shaw describes, and is perhaps a conflation of several women he knew. If this were a book of short stories, it might work. As it is, I fear it will offend many of those who actually lived through the war, and confuse others.

This is a pity, because Mr Shaw is at heart a good writer. His use of vocabulary, though not always correct, is invariably clever and varied. The feelings he has kept bottled up flow out through his writing, in passages of fluent prose that are often quite moving. Yet somewhere in the bottling, there was a distortion that has yet to be resolved either in the writer’s mind or in his approach to recording his memories. I would love to be able to say that I truly enjoyed the book; but in the end I found it too bitter a reading experience to be able to make such a statement without qualification.


ISBN 1 904444 31 8
Apex Publishing, 2007
238pp, paperback
Retail price 7.99

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Review by Deborah Fisher