Slouching in the Undergrowth by Jack Swaab [Book Review]
I bought Slouching in the Undergrowth because I’d previously read and enjoyed Field of Fire, the author’s wartime experiences. Slouching in the Undergrowth covers pretty much all of Jack Swaab’s extraordinary life.
Slouching in the Undergrowth
There’s a fair amount on his childhood, first in Sydenham and later at boarding school in the South West. Jack also tells us of his time as an undergraduate that doesn’t flatter himself much. I guess when you get into your nineties you don’t need to worry so much what people think of what you did as a callow teenager. There is some good social history on pre-WW2 Britain from the perspective of reasonably well to do children. You can see how experience in a boarding school (cold baths, hard beds, little to no privacy and terrible food) helped generations of men cope well with war.
Jack’s wartime experiences are very well documented in Field of Fire, although it focuses on his diary from the latter part of the war. There’s some more background in Slouching in the Undergrowth, including his brother’s enlistment and refusal to apply for a commission. After the war Jack returned home to work in advertising (sort of picking up where he left off as a journalist). He met his wife, a Canadian jew who was working as a nurse in the UK.
After the war
The book gets more interesting from here. Jack Swaab seems to have been one of the original mad men in the UK. He lived the high life, doing adverts for the airlines and a host of other clients. He travelled the world and partied. It all caught up on him though, and he ended up with TB. In the early 1950s this entailed six months in a sanatorium. It’s almost unthinkable that we would make people stay in medical care indefinitely. However he was, with many others, subject to a routine that tested every six weeks and wouldn’t let you out until you had two clear tests. Jack spent six months on the Isle of Wight with only occasional visits from his wife. This chapter reminded me strongly of some of the POW memoirs I’ve read!
Dementia and loss
Jack clearly had a long and mostly happy life. It was eventful in places, but the most poignant period was the most recent. Jack’s wife had dementia and Jack became her carer. This chapter should be compulsory reading for us all. We see the decline as Jack saw it, although without his pain as he slowly lost his wife. It started with everyday things, and Jack gradually shouldered more and more of the burden. He didn’t want to ask for help. Thankfully he got it when he needed it, although reading this story made me cry.
There’s another thread under all this. Jack is one of an extraordinary generation, and they are still just amongst us, for now. We cannot see them as they were, or what they’ve done. Often we just see the frail old people, and we fail to realise that when they were our age (or at least my age) they had been involved in extraordinary events.
In summary, this is an excellent autobiography that adds a lot of context around Jack Swaab’s already published wartime diary. I wouldn’t describe Jack as an ordinary person, his life hasn’t been ordinary. However he isn’t famous or celebrated, and that’s what makes this book interesting for me.