Between the wars;Book of the week

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
'MISS BUGLE SAW GOD IN THE CABBAGES'. By Sara Yeomans. Piatkus Books. pound;16.99.

The soldiers had put their guns away, but a new set of battles was looming. The Fifties was a strange time to be growing up in Britain. Reva Klein talks to author and teacher Sara Yeomans about God, sex and cabbages.

Back in the Fifties life was uncomplicated. There was a God. It was important to be nice. Boys were brave, and girls were demure. Sex was something that you did after you were married, and not a minute before. You listened to your mum and dad, who always lived under the same roof even if they slept in separate beds.

Then came the Sixties, and all hell broke loose. God was out, and logical positivism was in. Sex - the more of it the better - usurped chastity. Rebellion against your parents became a point of honour. And the arrival of yoghurt and moussaka on British menus opened up a new world of exciting sensations and dodgy spelling.

This is the setting for Miss Bugle Saw God in the Cabbages, by teacher Sara Yeomans. The eponymous character is based on the headmistress of the girls' grammar school in Painswick, Gloucestershire, that the author attended in the Fifties, and who, Yeomans insists, really did claim to have seen God in a row of cabbages. "She was very funny, scatty but intelligent and, yes, like Miss Bugle, always yanking up her left bosom." In the book, says Yeomans, "she's meant to epitomise the religious, social and cultural attitudes of the times".

Those times moulded Yeomans, a 55-year-old part-time teacher at Exeter FE College, and continue to fascinate her. "The watershed between the Fifties and the Sixties signified a great culture shock," she says. "We jumped 100 years in four months, from finishing A-levels to starting university."

The book is a witty evocation of friendship, class and testing boundaries which draws on her own experiences without, she stresses, being autobiographical. The setting is a small town called Swain's Chard, modelled on the Painswick of her childhood. "The cultural soil in which I grew up is that in which my characters grow," she says. There, three girls who are best friends share a horse, talk a lot about God and boys, have their first snog, and find with a jolt that life is shockingly unpredictable once they move from the safety net - or iron grip - of family life to university and beyond.

Meanwhile, their parents are negotiating their own ways through the vicissitudes of not only parenthood, but the rapidly changing world of post-war Britain. Sara Yeomans has modelled the adults on people from her own village, who were "completely class-ridden, but quite cheerfully so. Things were sort of feudal back then, but with a middle-class guilt that made you try to shed your identity once you became aware of what was going on."

Yeomans has a good eye for comic detail, particularly when dealing with social embarrassment. A wincingly awkward formal dance organised by the lady of the manor results in big, tall Philippa being paired with a tiny boy who stares in terror at her eye-level bust. After listening to a church sermon about the Good Samaritan, middle-class Ann impulsively invites the local tramp to her house for Sunday lunch, to the tight-lipped disbelief of her parents. Jenny quizzes the well-meaning vicar about what hell is like. " 'Oh, you know, fire and brimstone . . . all that sort of thing,' he said, fiddling with his dog collar. He cleared his throat again and tried to smile. 'Let's get back to more cheerful matters, shall we?' " Sara Yeomans has been writing ever since she can remember. As a child, she had some of her stories broadcast during Children's Hour on the radio, she regularly writes for women's magazines and had a long-running column in She. Her first book, Travels with a Pram and Hot Flush and the Toy Boy, was published four years ago. "It is about a chaotic housewife and mother with two teenage daughters and a toddler who tries to make life shine a bit. The husband leaves because he's not interested in shine. So she sets up a menopausal pop group called Hot Flush and the Toy Boy that gets into the charts."

Apart from the menopausal pop group, the book drew on Sara Yeomans's own experiences. When her two older daughters, now in their twenties, were 10 and 11, she got pregnant again and became a single parent not long after the birth. She used the new baby as "a brilliant excuse to stop teaching at the comprehensive where I was working at the time. Writing became an assertion of myself, the one bit of life that I could control." Today, she lives with her youngest daughter, a dog, cat and a few tortoises in the village of Topsham near Exeter.

She's currently working on another novel. "I've got in the rhythm of writing. It's strange. Sometimes I think I don't want anything more to do with words, that I need a practical, physical life. But after a breathing space, the ideas begin flickering and I'm off again."

'Miss Bugle Saw God in the Cabbages' by Sara Yeomans is published by Piatkus Books. pound;16.99

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