I was first introduced to Sophia Fairclough in 1985 by my new English teacher, the kind who came to lessons without notes and charmed those susceptible to such charm with his raw excitement for good writing. Sophia herself, although fictional, was immediately real to me: a quirky, self-deprecating, parentless artist who took people at face value and made many mistakes as a result. I loved her. I loved her naïvety, her optimism, even her self-destructive behaviour. I wanted to shake her into action but I also wanted to be her. She became an unlikely heroine for me, for though I planned to be a writer when I was older rather than an artist, I was quite prepared to suffer, to be poor, to live off tinned soup, even to fail in love, if these experiences enriched my writing.
I remember my first meeting with Sophia well. As usual we fell silent as Mr Fitzmaurice came into the room. He was still on trial, though I had long since made up my mind about him. He was a small man with big hair; he always wore black but not polo necks, so I don’t think he was an existentialist, despite the constant smell of cigarettes. But he was a teacher who loved his subject and that was all that mattered to me. And then he began to tell us about one of his favourite writers, Barbara Comyns, reading us the first page of Sophia’s story, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), as a taster.
I was hooked: she was my near namesake, the title of the novel was unforgettable, and the writing was completely different from anything I had read before. After the lesson I went straight to the library and found the novel in its green Virago casing with a grotesqueStanley Spencer woman’s bottom looming out of the front cover. I read it that weekend, cried a lot when it was finished, and over the next few months bought or borrowed all the books by Barbara Comyns that were in print.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the semi-autobiographical second novel of a rather gla
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