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The Liberty Man

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Quartet, London, 1973
price: 40p; 184 pages
first published by Longmans, Green & Co in 1955

dedication: For Edward Thorpe

The blurb on the back:

When Freda Mackenzie, eminently respectable young schoolteacher with a stockbroker father and a background of tennis, riding and university, meets Derek Smith, a big blond sailor from the East End of London, she tells herself that she sees him only as a challenge, that she simply enjoys watching his reactions as she introduces him to good food, good films, good music.
But their friendship develops into something more: Derek awakens in Freda a latent sensuality, a passionate joy in the act of love she has never before experienced or even imagined. As their affair becomes more intense, Freda and Derek find themselves torn between their feelings for each other and their very different social backgrounds - and they have only three short weeks in which to make their choice...

opening lines:
Signalman Derek Smith closed his suitcase by sitting on it and went over to give Able Seaman John Cooper a hand with his uniform.

Best I can tell, this is the first novel by the great Gillian Freeman, but you wouldn't notice from reading it. It's a typically beautiful piece of writing and if the story is absurdly thin - middle-class girl meets working-class boy, er, that's it - then it matters not a jot. What you get is a pair of standard but closely observed characters working through the permutations of impossible love.

And, even better, what you get is a virtual documentary of London in the post-Festival of Britain years. Here, for example, is our sailor hero experiencing Piccadilly at night:

News-stands, which during the day had sold all the usual magazines, now displayed thin paper books with lurid covers decorated by what seemed like the voluptuous prototypes of the girls walking along Coventry Street. There were also sealed envelopes with insinuating titles about flagellation and corporal punishment. Derek had once bought one, but all the envelope contained was a booklet telling the story in early English, of an obscure medieval martyr. He considered it a very disappointing waste of seven and sixpence. (p.40)

We see the vacuity of the London stage immediately before Look Back In Anger, the nascent underclass of the East End, the would-be gentility of South Kensington bedsits, the furtive gay drinking clubs of Soho. In short, if you want to know what London was like before it began a-swingin', this is the place to be.

Not as essential as some of Ms Freeman's other work, but still damn fine. Incidentally, Edward Thorpe, to whom the book is dedicated, was Ms Freeman's husband and is probably best known for his works on ballet. Not to me, obviously, since I know bugger all about ballet, but to those who do, he is.


from the maker of:
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Jack Would Be A Gentleman
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The Leather Boys
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The Leader
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The Marriage Machine
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Nazi Lady