THIS TIME NEXT YEAR WE’LL BE LAUGHING
The New York Times bestselling author of the Maisie Dobbs series offers a deeply personal memoir of her Kentish childhood and her family’s resilience in the face of war and privation.
After sixteen novels, Jacqueline Winspear has taken the bold step of turning to memoir, revealing the hardships and joys of her family history. Both shockingly frank and deftly restrained, her memoir tackles such difficult, poignant, and fascinating family memories as her paternal grandfather’s shellshock, her mother’s evacuation from London during the Blitz; her soft-spoken animal-loving father’s torturous assignment to an explosives team during WWII;
The New York Times bestselling author of the Maisie Dobbs series offers a deeply personal memoir of her Kentish childhood and her family’s resilience in the face of war and privation.
After sixteen novels, Jacqueline Winspear has taken the bold step of turning to memoir, revealing the hardships and joys of her family history. Both shockingly frank and deftly restrained, her memoir tackles such difficult, poignant, and fascinating family memories as her paternal grandfather’s shellshock, her mother’s evacuation from London during the Blitz; her soft-spoken animal-loving father’s torturous assignment to an explosives team during WWII; her parents’ years living with Romani Gypsies; and Jacqueline’s own childhood working on farms in rural Kent, capturing her ties to the land and her dream of being a writer at its very inception.
An eye-opening and heartfelt portrayal of a post-War England we rarely see, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is the story of a childhood in the English countryside, of working class indomitability and family secrets, of artistic inspiration and the price of memory.
- Soho Press
- November 2020
- 312 Pages
“This is a memoir both evocative and unflinching. Without a trace of self-pity, Jacqueline Winspear portrays a childhood of rural poverty overcome by hard manual labor, lifelong love amid emotional wounds, and a profound understanding of how ‘the gift of place’ creates meaning . . . An illuminating portrait of a time and place that is as optimistic as it is deeply moving. ” —Sally Bedell Smith, author of Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life
“Jacqueline Winspear’s memoir takes the reader through the early and adolescent years of the author’s life as well as the history of her parents’ young marriage in a fashion that is simultaneously endearing, touching, amusing, heartfelt, and astonishing . . . It’s a love letter and a beautiful work of gratitude toward the people and the place that made the author what and who she is.” —Elizabeth George
“[Winspear] draws distinctive portraits of postwar England, altogether different from the U.S., where she has since settled, and her unsettling struggles within the rigid British class system. An engaging childhood memoir and a deeply affectionate tribute to the author’s parents.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“Jacqueline Winspear has created a memoir of her English childhood that is every bit as engaging as her Maisie Dobbs novels, just as rich in character and detail, history and humanity. Her writing is lovely, elegant and welcoming.” —Anne Lamott
1. In your opinion, how much of this memoir is Winspear’s own story, and how much is it her parents’? Is she offering anecdotes from her parents’ lives in order to contextualize her own life story, or because they have become her own life story—or both?
2. On memoir, Winspear says, “we don’t just look back at an event in our past; we are remembering the memory of what happened.” What do you think she means by that? Is that how you would describe memoir? How are memory, memoir, and history similar or different?
3. In several episodes from her childhood, Winspear describes being profoundly affected by things she learned about women who lived in her neighborhood; in several cases, she recollects that their stories pointed her toward novels she would later write. Do you have personal memories like this from your childhood—people who you might not have known well, but whom you still think about decades later because of something they said or did, or who affected the way you think or live your life?
4. The title of the book comes from Winspear’s father’s oft-repeated saying during hard times, “this time next year we’ll be laughing.” Do you relate to that phrase? Were there particular examples of perseverance during hard times in the book resonated with you? Do you or does someone in your family have a maxim that you look to for reassurance?
5. The theme of war-era PTSD runs through the personal stories of both sides of Jacqueline Winspear’s family, and she discusses the scientifically proven theory that traumas can be hereditary. Is her family story a very British one? Or are there comparable or analogous American stories about the “Greatest Generation” or the generation born between the two World Wars?
My parents were married in the summer of 1949, in a wedding ceremony that kicked off three days of celebrations.
As my mother told me, “We were so broke after the parties, we had to take all the bottles back to get the deposit money.”
Though she was already qualified as a bookkeeper, my mother had joined the Civil Service and was working on the secure government telephone exchange. My father was employed as a painter and decorator, having returned to his original trade following army demobilization in 1948. He met my mother soon after leaving the army and was in the process of reenlisting when their paths crossed—but he changed his mind about what might come next. His reason for planning a return to the service was simple—he had been offered the chance to train at the army catering college. Though some might not believe this, the army knew how to train a chef for the officers’ mess and the many dinners and dances officers enjoyed. My dad loved to cook and it would have been his chance to do something he could give his heart to. So perhaps it’s time to tell you more about how a young soldier who had become an explosives expert at the age of eighteen came to the attention of the army cook in Germany. We have to join that young man just as he’s beginning his apprenticeship at fourteen years of age in October 1940—this boy who hated loud noises, but had been tasked with running through the Blitz to deliver messages.
I heard the first part of this story when I was eighteen, and the most important part when my father was in the hospice, just days before he died. So much became clear with the telling. My father meted out his stories with care, as if he had squirreled them away to season with time.
The lucrative contract won by his first employer was for painting crews to go to every Royal Air Force depot, airfield or decoy airfield and to paint the buildings inside and out with a fire retardant. Airfields had been targeted by the Luftwaffe, so to save people and buildings from the spread of fire, the retardant had to be applied—and the RAF was building and rebuilding aerodromes at a fast pace. So my father, the apprentice, joined a crew and was sent from place to place, living in billets in country towns and small villages, wherever the government found room and board close to an airfield. There was an advantage to the job—it was a “reserved profession.” That meant my father would be protected from enlistment because he was employed on essential government work. But he was also working with highly toxic materials, so his steady hand was an advantage.
In one area Dad was billeted on a farm, walking along country lanes each morning to meet the crew—he was older by now, sixteen going on seventeen, I would imagine. He loved that farm. During his stay—a long one, because there were several airfields within traveling range—the farmer taught my father how to work with sheepdogs, and Dad began training two of them before and after work. These were Old English Sheepdogs, not Collies. My father loved those dogs. But the painting job had begun to wear on him, and he wanted to go home to his family—he’d hardly seen them since starting the apprenticeship. In 1943 he gave notice. His boss told him he was a fool, warning that he’d be called up and that would be him in the army. But he was young, and he thought the war would be over soon—how long could it go on, after all? The previous war had lasted four years, so they were probably close to the end—or so he told himself. He also thought it would take a few weeks for the authorities to find out he’d left his reserved profession; he would have some time. The farmer was sorry to see him go, and as a gift, gave him the two sheepdogs, Tiny and Tiger. When I first heard the story, I wondered what the heck he thought he was doing, taking two big working dogs to a house in south London. But my father believed he would soon return to the land with his dogs and stay there forever as a farmworker—and he was only seventeen, after all.
The government had other plans. My father received his call-up papers within twenty-four hours of officially leaving his job. He was instructed to report to barracks without delay. He left the two dogs with his parents, organized a local lad to take them for walks in the park—he told the boy he wouldn’t be away for long—and joined the army. Following the usual medical and tests, together with an assessment of his previous work, it was discovered that my father was one of those people who remained very calm under pressure. He was an unassuming, thoughtful person. So they sent a young man who had grown up in a quiet house—who had lived with a man suffering shell shock—to train in explosives. In the meantime, though he was sending home most of his pay to keep the dogs, it wasn’t long before my grandparents wrote to tell him they’d sold them. It broke his heart. I would never have told my father this—and no doubt it crossed his mind—but I believe the dogs were euthanized, because people in Blitz-hit areas were instructed to take their dogs to be put to death humanely given the extent of the bombings. It was hard enough saving human lives and dealing with the dead without having to account for household pets.
It was in Germany, before the war’s official end, that my father ended up working in the army kitchens. Germany had yet to surrender, and the armies of Britain, the US and Russia were moving in. My father was with a unit blowing up German communication lines, bridges and roads, and at the end of one long day, they were instructed to pitch their tents for the night on the banks of a river. My father looked at the river and realized the best place to get a good night’s rest was on the other side—he’d watched the flow of water and believed, correctly, that the location his commanding officer had chosen could easily flood. Ever resourceful, Dad found a place to cross the river and pitched his tent. He woke up the next morning surrounded by Russians in their tents. His commanding officer was shouting at him from the other bank that he was being put on a charge for disobeying orders and would be peeling spuds for a very long time if he didn’t get right back over that river. My father’s fellow soldiers were on the British side of the rushing water, wringing out their sopping wet clothes.
It wasn’t such a long time in the kitchens, as the telling goes, but it was enough to persuade one branch of the army that the young soldier with a steady hand on the detonator had a gift when it came to preparing food. He was offered a place at the army catering college, but turned down that first offer because, in his words, “I didn’t want my mates to laugh at me.” In the meantime, despite having marched him to the kitchens, his commanding officer missed his “calm under pressure” demeanor, because there were still bridges to be demolished. And there were horses to ride, because as the soldiers worked their way across enemy territory, and as the war came to a close, Dad’s unit moved into a barracks abandoned by a German cavalry regiment. The groom had remained behind to look after the horses. My father could tack up a horse and stay in the saddle—as a child he’d trotted along the streets of London on his father’s cart horses—but the German taught him to ride like a gentleman. In truth, my father really wanted to ride like a cowboy, which probably has some bearing on the fact that my brother and I both ended up in California. It was Dad’s tales of the Wild West that did it—but that’s another story.
We talked about all these things when my father was in the hospice. He told me about his dog, Tiger, how he would walk under the kitchen table and lift it up with his back, and how my grandmother would complain and his father would laugh. He told me about that job where he was exposed to the powerful fire-retardant used to protect the airfield buildings. One of his first tasks was to mix the emulsion and pour it into buckets for the painters. Then he had to test it after each wall dried. The testing amounted to lining up a series of blow-torches along the floor, with only a couple of inches between the searing hot flame and the dry fresh paint.
“Then we’d leave the torches right there for three or four hours,” said Dad.
“Wow—didn’t that leave a burn?” I asked.
“Not a mark. Not a mark,” he replied.
“What was that stuff called?”
“Oh no name, love. It just had a number.”
I knew then that the viscous emulsion had probably never been put through tests for human tolerance. Such things happen in wartime—consider the effects of Agent Orange on a later generation of soldiers.
My father had been diagnosed with a serious blood disorder categorized as “idiopathic.” That means there is “no known cause.” When I recounted the circumstances of my father’s passing to my doctor in California, she told me that when she was in medical school one of her professors maintained that idiopathic really meant that the doctor was an idiot and couldn’t figure it out. But I think I figured it out—of course with the help of Dr. Google. While my father’s illness is known as “idiopathic,” research has revealed a link between exposure to toxic substances and the condition, which leads to a breakdown of the red blood cells; the young cells—the blasts—die at birth, and if they survive, they don’t enjoy a long life, so the blood’s clotting ability is diminished. In the end you simply bleed to death. Fortunately—though in truth there was nothing “fortunate” about it—that bleeding is, for the most part, internal.
At a vulnerable age he’d been exposed to a powerful fire retardant with no name. Then explosives, followed by the paint he used as a master craftsman, from the days of lead through to polyurethane. And of course there were the years he worked on the farm where I was born, which meant exposure to the powerful insecticides and fertilizers that came into use in the 1950s to increase food production in a country still subject to wartime rationing.
As they say in America: Go figure.
An interview with author Jacqueline Winspear
After writing 16 novels, what made you decide to turn to memoir?
It was not a big instant decision, but rather a process over time. I have always loved memoir and the art of the personal essay, not least because the form touches upon universal truths to be found in individual stories, and the way in which they can draw together people from wildly different backgrounds, cultures and times, almost as if the reader were looking into a mirror. I first began writing a memoir over 25 years ago and I have written many personal essays inspired by my family and my experiences over the years – whether traveling, my work, my observations.
This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is more than just your own life story: it delves into three generations of family lore, and captures a fascinating slice of twentieth century English history, ranging from your grandfather’s fighting at the Somme to your parents’ years living in a Romany Gypsy caravan to your own childhood in the Kent countryside, where you started working picking fruit when you were only six. Through different vignettes, we learn about the ramifications of both World Wars on soldiers and their offspring; about the Blitz and the wartime removal of children from their families, the evacuation; about secondary PTSD. Will Maisie Dobbs fans find the roots of some of your fiction in your own family’s past?
I think any writer draws upon experience – that’s why writers tend to travel to do research, so they can walk the paths of their characters, or to get a sense of time and place. However, it’s true that I’ve drawn upon family stories to some extent – but no one in my family has ever seen a murder or committed one, though they’ve done some pretty off-the-wall things!
Will you tell us a bit here about where and how you grew up?
I was born and grew up in the Weald of Kent, in a rural area about sixty-odd miles from the area in London where my parents were from. They left in 1950, four years after the end of WW2. Sixty miles doesn’t seem such a long way now, but when I was a child it might as well have been the other end of the world, and definitely so when my parents took flight. Kent has been known for its agricultural heritage for centuries, earning the name “The Garden of England” (though there’s a funny story about a less attractive origin of the name). Apples, blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, hops, barley and those amazing Kentish cherries – the list of crops goes on, and when I was a child my mother worked on a couple of the local farms, so it was natural for me to work on farms alongside her during the school holidays. I love the landscape of Kent, the soft undulating countryside, the woodland of mixed deciduous and conifer – in fact the word “Weald” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for forest, which is “wald.” Once Kent was covered in this beautiful woodland, much of which remains to this day. Some really good wines are produced in Kent and Sussex, along with local beers and ciders.
Was it hard to write something so personal?
Yes and no. In one respect the stories have been inside me for years, so I know them, I’ve lived with them, but the process of putting the words on the page seems to put rocket fuel under the memory, so more and more stories seem to emerge ready to be told. I left out as many as I chose to include. I think the key for me was to show how love is sustained, even through the worst of times; that we can have our ups and downs in a family, our discord and rough interludes, but if the foundation of love is solid, it can hold fast through thick and thin. I also wanted to write about my late parents because I have so much respect for them, for their work ethic, for their ability to endure and for their resilience even when things became pretty dark. The title wasn’t just something my father used to say when life was tough – it was an attitude, a way of looking at the world that was very much present across my extended family, along with a sense that the future would be just another turn of the page and all would be well.