Huw Williams is not a hermit. Not exactly. For one thing, he answers a telephone while I’m visiting him. The phone connects to a jack somewhere, although I don’t understand how it can function properly; it seems impossible that a cabin so rudimentary and run-down could support something as technologically advanced as a telephone.
The floors are covered with broken power tools, a machete, unmarked VHS tapes, decades-old newspapers and knocked-over litter boxes once filled by the three cats prowling around. Stenches of urine and filth are masked only by the rot on the stove, where the remains of long-ago meals are eating through the pans they were prepared in. And the cabin is so cold that when anyone speaks, breath becomes vapor.
Dried-out orange peels hang from the ceiling. “It’s a way of breaking up the straight lines,” the 76-year-old Williams tells me cryptically. “I’m averse to being inside a box, with all straight lines.” A radio plays environmental talk radio here in Edwall, a tiny community about 35 miles by car from Spokane, Washington. The radio is part of an ’80s-style dual cassette player, but the trays where the cassettes should go are broken off.
The best view of London is to be had from the north. Tourists and natives, elderly dog walkers, young kite-flyers, plump uncles anxious to walk off the effects of roast beef lunches: the people who make their way across Hampstead Heath to the top of Parliament Hill have been much the same mixture for as long as I remember, but the city they have come to look at has been dramatically transformed. Fifty years ago, the London skyline had very few verticals. As you looked south from Parliament Hill you saw the Post Office Tower to the west, Centre Point, a newly completed office block, to the east of it, and then, further east again, the familiar seventeenth-century dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other than those protuberances and a few power station chimneys and new housing blocks, the great city stretched flat and indistinct all the way from the western suburbs to the Essex marshes.
Today, towers have sprung up everywhere, many of them oddly shaped and attention-seeking. (“Target architecture. Structures made to be blown apart” is how Iain Sinclair ominously describes the style.) Clumps of towers mark London’s two financial districts—the City and Canary Wharf—while others march up the Thames in single file, their river views designed to attract the footloose cash of Asian investors.
I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and my mother was a working woman who didn’t like to cook. Although she dutifully made dinner for us every night, these were perfunctory and repetitive meals: meatloaf made with Catalina salad dressing, spaghetti with tomato sauce and occasional meatballs (also made with Catalina salad dressing), roast chicken (overcooked), and instant chocolate pudding or Jello for dessert. I looked with envy at my friends whose stay-at-home moms prepared things like veal parmigiana and shrimp scampi, baked alaska and pineapple upside-down cake.
At the time, convenience foods were sparse, limited mostly to canned foods. For many years, my idea of vegetables were greenish things floating in yellowish liquid that were dumped in a saucepan for 30 minutes so whatever taste and nutrition they contained had been boiled away. Another familiar adjunct to our meals was cream of mushroom soup — flavored lard to be added to casseroles, dips, or anything that needed a fat and sodium boost. Also, pork and beans: snippets of fat drowning in a salty mush and introduced alongside the occasional boiled hot dog (my mother saw hot dogs as low class but made an exception by serving them under the name of frankfurters). Finally, there was the much-loved macaroni and cheese — elbow macaroni and Velveeta — served to us when our parents went out for dinner.
The author is a historian by profession and her account is richly sourced and careful in its judgments: censoriousness is not her game, and Margaret Thatcher’s postwar behaviour (for example) is illuminated rather than condemned. Parr is also a gifted writer, who for the most part writes tenderly. Many passages are profoundly moving. There can be few better books about fighting men in all their bravery, terror and shame.