‘Few contemporary poets have written with such sad luminosity,’ wrote George Szirtes of Freda Downie’s posthumously published Collected Poems. This memoir, written in the last year of her life, is an equally sharp distillation of her melancholic sensibility. She recalls the high and low points of a poor, often disrupted English childhood, evoking people and places with the acute sensitivity of an isolated child and adolescent.
As in her poems, a single figure moves through the world, as Szirtes has said, ‘between yearning and disappointment, between fear and the desire of oblivion, listening and watching everything intently with a witty, even humorous attention’.
Born in 1929, Freda Downie was an only child, and spent her early years living in a temporary wooden house on the outskirts of London at Shooters Hill, from where she roamed the lanes and woods of the nearby Kent countryside, or was taken out by her parents in her father’s motorbike and sidecar.
She assembled this book as an album with pictures, without showing it to anyone, concentrating in her writing on the most vivid and formative times in her early life, which included evacuation to Northampton-shire in September 1939, a return to London in time for the Battle of Britain and the Blitz; then the family’s hazardous sea voyage from November 1941 to February 1942 around the Cape to her father’s war work in Australia, and the return in 1944 across the Pacific and though the Panama Canal to a London under threat from the V1 and V2 bombs.