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Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

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2020 is a strange year to look back on.  In some ways it was the year that felt like a decade, with so much happening so quickly and headlines changing every minute.  But in other ways I look back to things that happened in January and February and they feel so recent, largely because there was so little to fill the time memorably since then.

Reading, as always, has been a saviour and with limited opportunities to socialise there was more time than ever for it this year.  I made it through a ridiculous number of books, which provided comfort, distraction, entertainment, education, and companionship through this odd year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Plot 29 (2017) – Allan Jenkins
Not the book I thought it was going to be when I picked it up, but instead far more powerful and memorable.  Jenkins set out to write about gardening and his relationship with his foster family but instead undergoes a very emotional journey, unravelling the mysteries of his troubled birth family.

9. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2019) – Ursula Buchan
I loved this biography of the ever-fascinating John Buchan.  He was a man of such purpose, energy and loyalty and his varied accomplishments and loving legacy are a testament to these increasingly rare virtues.  His biographer is his granddaughter and she paints a rounded portrait of him both at home and at work throughout his too-short and extraordinarily busy life.

8. The Eighth Life (2014) – Nino Haratischvili (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)
A brilliant saga tracing the lives of the members of one Georgian family across almost one hundred tumultuous years, from the Russian Revolution to the early years of the 21st Century.  I loved every page.

7. Madensky Square (1988) – Eva Ibbotson
I think we all struggled with our reading at some point this year, a frustrating process when we know how helpful books can be in times of stress and uncertainty.  I read mindlessly for most of March and April but picked this up at the beginning of May and it broke the curse.  Ibbotson is always comforting but serious times called for serious measures and nothing but Madensky Square, the best of her novels, would do.  I wrote about it years ago and my love for its heroine Susanna and her friends and neighbours on Madensky Square in pre-war Vienna only grows with each rereading.

6. Love in the Blitz (2020) – Eileen Alexander
What a delight!  This collection of Second World War love letters written by a young Cambridge graduate to her future husband bubbles with humour, lust, and anxiety, tracking their romance from its infancy through declarations, separation, engagement and marriage.  I shared a few of the letters (here and here) and had to restrain myself from sharing dozens more.  Alexander is remarkably frank in her letters and they make for very refreshing reading.

5. Out of Istanbul (2001) – Bernard Ollivier (translated by Dan Golembeski)
This story of one man’s journey along the Silk Road was just what I needed in this travel-free year.  In the spring of 1999, the sixty-one-year-old Ollivier set off from Istanbul intending to hike several months each year in the quest to reach his ultimate destination: China.  This volume covers the first leg of that journey, when he made it almost to the Iranian border before being felled by illness.  It’s a fascinating journey and Ollivier is refreshingly free of the arrogance of so many male travel writers, who set out convinced of their invincibility.

4. Beartown (2017) – Fredrik Backman (translated by Neil Smith)
Set in a small hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, Beartown thoughtfully looks at how a horrible event splits the community.  When the town’s hockey star rapes a girl at a party, the majority of the town immediately rallies around him.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about the dangers of group identities, told simply and with great empathy, and deserves every bit of hype and praise that has been heaped upon it.

3. Pravda Ha Ha (2019) – Rory MacLean
A chillingly important journey through today’s Russia and other increasingly authoritarian Eastern European states.

2. Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) – Margaret Kennedy
Kennedy’s memoir of the first spring and summer of the Second World War is a wonderful record of a strange time and reading it through our own bizarre spring was perfect timing.  When everything felt uncertain, it was reassuring to be reminded that people had reacted the same way eighty years before (and ignored the same good advice that was being doled out both then and now).

1. Business as Usual (1933) – Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
Business as Usual was the happiest discovery for me this year, and for many others, thanks to its spring reissue by Handheld Press.  And if ever there was a year where we needed happy books, 2020 was it. This epistolary novel about an optimistic young woman’s move to London and work at a large department store is enchanting and I delighted in Hilary’s determined progress.  It is that rare book that suits me in most moods, giving me something to laugh over when I am down, to comfort me in times of stress, and to inspire action when I am feeling daunted by the world.

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The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

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In a year full of comfort reads, Pravda Ha Ha by Rory MacLean made quite a change.  It’s about as far from comforting as you can get and is as urgent and important as it is upsetting.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, MacLean set out across the newly opened East.  Thirty years later, he follows his journey in reverse, from Russia through the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and finally back home to the UK, trying to make sense of how the hope and optimism he saw on his original journey has led to the corruption, authoritarianism, and exploitation rampant in Eastern Europe today.

Russia is, of course, at the heart of it all.  MacLean begins his journey there and his writing on it is superb, though the anecdotes he shares would hardly be credible were they from any other country.  With oligarchs, illegal immigrants, and hackers, he glimpses the new Russia, which looks disarmingly familiar to the old.  Its simplistic narratives about its history help fuel Putin’s mythologized version of the 20th Century, and kitschy celebrations are held for the glorious victories of the Second World War:

Beyond the billboard was the Night Watch festival ground.  Here every summer the notorious motorcycle gang re-enacted the Second World War.  In pyrotechnic fantasies and high-octane motorcycle stunts, ‘heroic’ Red Army bikers battled ‘heartless’ Wehrmacht BMW riders before taking on goose-stepping ‘pro-Western’ demonstrators.  In last year’s performance the Statue of Liberty even made an appearance, spewing a fiery retch of dollars ‘to poison, separate and kill the Slavic peoples.’

The flip side of this is the pointed erasure of Soviet crimes from the history books.  While other nations have worked to face their pasts, Russia has chosen to ignore it.  As MacLean says, “few Russians accept that past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed for the psychic health of a society”.    Attempts are made by volunteers to raise awareness, in the belief that these events must be acknowledged so that future generations can learn from them – but that seems to be exactly what Putin wants to avoid.  How much easier to focus on a proud history as a nation of victors.

I like to think I’m relatively well-informed and not too naïve about current affairs, but at times I feel like I could not keep up with all of the threats posed by Russia.  The most chilling – perhaps because it was the one I was least aware of – was Russia’s ability to use human trafficking as a weapon against the EU:

Russia’s 1,300-mile-long northern frontier with Norway and Finland is among the country’s most strategic, guarded by the army, the KGB and the Border Service.  Along its length nothing happens without Moscow’s approval.  They Kremlin alone decides which roads to open and close in the heavily militarized region.

…No proof existed of the involvement of the Russian state, yet – immediately after Helsinki had voiced support for NATO – some 1,500 refugees were dispatched across its border as a warning.  The Kremlin wanted to remind the Finns that over eleven million foreigners lived on Russian territory, a vast pool of potential migrants who could be used to flood Europe.

Moving to Hungary, MacLean finds a sadder land.  Russia may be sinister but it is bold and confident and powerful.  Hungary, so hopeful in its new independence on MacLean’s original journey, has walked a darker path.  The country struggled to adjust to capitalism and while some succeeded, many were left behind to struggle:

In the communist years everyone had a job.  Everyone had a roof over their head.  ‘Workers pretended to work and the authorities pretended to pay them’ was a well-worn cliché, meant as a joke, yet it contained a grain of truth.  But the joke vanished with the Wall.  In the early 1990s workers’ hostels were closed, along with redundant factories, throwing tens of thousands onto the street.  Many tried their luck at small start-ups, opening video-rental shops, nail parlours or a corner grocery, losing everything when their enterprises failed.  They left their villages and towns in shame, escaping bad debts, joining the exodus to the capital.

It is no wonder that these people, left with nothing and with no support, long for certainty while trusting no one.  Which is how they ended up with their current authoritarian government, to the distress of MacLean’s old liberal friends:

‘Remember what I told you: Hungary placed its faith in the losers of every war since the sixteenth century.  This twenty-first century will be no exception.’  Alajos said in toast: ‘To a once hopeful Hungary.  Long may we mourn her death.’

Things are no better in Poland, where MacLean finds himself losing patience during a conversation with several thirty-something men who work in the country’s increasingly state-controlled media:

‘Do you fear Poland becoming a one-party state?’ I asked them.

‘The real question is, do we need an opposition?’ replied the American, almost impressive in his complete sincerity.  ‘There are such diverse opinions in the PiS.’

‘And what about the party’s tolerance of the far right?’ I said…

‘Our strength keeps them out of power.’

‘As in Berlin in 1933?’

Across all of these countries, MacLean sees lies being presented at the truth, myths obscuring more complicated realities, the complicated being passed by in favour of the simplistic.  How easy it is to guide countries once their people are motivated only by fear and pride.  But he returns home sadder still to see signs of the same behaviour at home: “How could the English – a people raised in a stable, peaceful and prosperous society with centuries of democracy and freedom – have swallowed the vapid promises of restored glory?  How could they – we – have allowed ourselves to be played like puppets?”

How indeed?

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I felt a little shaky and battered after reading Plot 29 by Allan Jenkins.  I thought I was picking up a memoir about how gardening had helped Jenkins throughout his life but was entirely unprepared for the detective story that unfolded as Jenkins seeks to understand his childhood and the family he came from.  At several points in the diary-style chronicle Jenkins stops himself, wondering what his story has become, slightly surprised by the darkness on each page:

It has been a year since I started this journal, my journey through my life and the life of my plot, my past unfurling like leaves.  It was to be different: a story of a small boy and the man he became, wrapped in flowers and food.  Other voices have drowned it out…

It begins as the story of Allan and his elder brother, Christopher, brought together ages five and six after spending their early years apart, in locations and circumstances Jenkins eventually, chillingly, begins to piece together.  Bonded, they are sent to foster with an older couple – the Drabbles – in rural Devon.  Stability never quite turns into family or full acceptance and the cycle of Allan and Christopher parting and living separate lives continues painfully.  But it is with his foster family that Allan discovers the joy of growing things, the certainty and hope that seeds and plants hold, and finds a passion that will help center him throughout his life.

We learn of Christopher’s relatively early death early in the book.  From there, we begin to learn more about their five other half-siblings by their damaged, dangerously unfit mother.  As Allan talks to the siblings who remained to be raised by their mother, he sees the blessing of not having been in her care and the scars of horrific abuse his siblings carry.  But he also tries to make sense of his abandonment when he was only a few months old and to solve other mysteries.  Eventually he even uncovers the identity of his birth father, a mystery to be solved with DNA testing rather than trust in what his deeply untrustworthy mother had put on the birth certificate.

Throughout this year of revelations and unravellings, he tends a shared allotment, a place of peace and renewal, where order can be imposed in small yet meaningful ways, and sense of progress and certainty grasped when all else seems lost.  He also has a holiday home in his wife’s native Denmark to retreat to, a place for family and more time in nature, for being himself.  In a life where identity has not come easily, where his name has been changed repeatedly as pieces of his identity shifted, it is in these natural landscapes that he knows himself best.

I don’t know if I would have picked this up if I had known how dark it would become but I’m thankful to have read it.  It is beautifully and powerfully told and makes me more thankful than ever for the luck of being born to a happy, loving, safe family.

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Back in May, when the world felt like it was changing every single day and even the calmest of us had anxious jitters, there were endless parallels being drawn between our era and the Second World War.  The fear of an uncertain future and the urge for solidarity certainly felt familiar to readers of history.  It was at that moment that I finally picked up Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy, which I’d providentially checked out before the libraries closed after years of wanting to read it, and found an eerily perfect book for our times.

Published in 1941, Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry is Kennedy’s memoir of the spring and summer of 1940, between the fall of France and the start of the Blitz, when she left Surrey with her children (and nanny) for a Cornish village.  Already a successful novelist, this account was written not for her countrymen, who knew Kennedy’s experiences first-hand, but for the still neutral Americans.  I’m not sure how well it worked as a piece of propaganda but as a record of the quickly changing times by an unusually literate recorder it is excellent.

In May and June [1940] “the whole world was in a state of chassis” to quote the Paycock.  Everything was slipping and sliding and changing, and one never knew what was going to happen, or what to think, and the lifebelt of today became the straw of tomorrow.  I felt bound to slap every day’s impressions and reflections down onto paper for fear I should forget them, as one tries to remember and fix a dream.  Even now [August 1940], re-reading the May entries, I am astonished to find how much I have forgotten already, and how far we seem to have travelled since then.

Kennedy chronicles the everyday things – evacuees, the Home Guard, all the usual stuff of home front books – but that is not what resonated for me on reading this.  Those details are too familiar from dozens of other wartime books.  What is captivating here, reading this book in these times, is how well Kennedy captures people’s feelings, her own included, and how familiar they are to what we have all felt this year:

All my life I have had a great curiosity to know what it felt like to live through history.  I have wondered how ordinary, everyday people, like myself, felt and thought while they were waiting for the news of Waterloo, or when they saw the beacon fires which told them the Armada had sailed.  Were they horribly frightened or were they always quite sure they would win?  Did they realise all that was at stake or did the little commonplaces of life still hold the foreground in their minds?  Could they sleep and, if they slept, what kind of dreams did they have?  What kind of jokes sustained them and what sort of prayers did they say?

Kennedy’s assessment of the government’s feelings towards its wartime citizens, desperate for information, could just have easily applied to the arrogance with which today’s British government responded to the coronavirus:

We had this whim, this caprice, to know how the war was getting along, which was a great nuisance when they were all so busy, and so a few facts were flung to us at random, and we were left to make what we liked of them.

They tried to run the war in the manner of good civil servants, and nobody has a greater contempt for public opinion than a first-rate English civil servant.  Perhaps it is because we are all so meek and law-abiding.  We pay our taxes promptly and without grumbling, and we fill up correctly all forms sent to us and post them on the right date.  Therefore they despise us, as servants despise easy-going masters, or as children despise a father who always uncomplainingly foots the bill.  Hitler understands that total war cannot be waged in that manner.  He does not dare to flout public opinion, but takes the greatest pains to lie to it and flatter it.  But he is not a civil servant.  Our civil servants take the stand that if we have no confidence in them we can oust them, since we are a democracy.  But in the meantime pray do not speak to the man at the wheel.

As with any piece of history, it is both reassuring and frustrating to see how consistently people respond in times of stress.  We are predictable but we never learn.  All of the responses Kennedy witnessed or saw herself exhibiting could be seen this year again, and the good, practical advice being dispensed was just the same – and just as likely to be ignored:

I still cannot sleep so I went to Dr Middleton to ask for a bromide.  He used to attend all our family in the old days.  He asked:

“Are ye worrying about anything?”

When I said I was worrying about Hitler coming, he said, “He won’t,” so firmly that I almost believed him.  He looked me up and down very crossly and said:

“I suppose ye’ve been reading the newspapers?”

I pleaded guilty.

“What d’ye want to do that for?”

“I like to know what is happening.”

“Aw!  The newspapers don’t know.”

He said if I must read a newspaper I should stick to The Times because I would find there any news there was, put in a way that would send me to sleep instead of keeping me awake.  He said that when a war broke out once in the Balkans and there were scare headlines in all the streets, The Times headline said: ACTIVITY IN EUROPE.

He asked me how often I listened to the wireless.

“Four times a day.”

“And that’s three times too often.  I’m sure I wish that infernal contrivance had never been invented.  When I think of all the insanity that’s poured out over the ether every minute of the day, I wonder the whole human race isn’t in a lunatic asylum.  And what good does it do ye to know what’s happening?  Ye aren’t responsible.  Ye don’t like it.  Ye can’t stop it.  Why think about it?  Go home and fly kites with your children.”

“How many other patients have you said all this to?”

“You’re only the twenty-seventh this week.”

Despite being focused on the events of 1940, this truly felt like the most relevant thing I read in 2020.  By focusing on human reactions to upheaval and uncertainty, Kennedy’s memoir is able to resonate outside of times of war and suit any period of mass turmoil.  I found it deeply comforting to know how little people change, how predictable we are, and, ultimately, how resilient we can be.  I’m delighted that Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry is being reissued in March by Handheld Press and can only hope that, with vaccines being rolled out across the world, reading it in 2021 will be a very different experience than it was reading in the tumultuous spring of 2020.

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I’ve been aching for a good book of letters the last few years and then came across two excellent volumes within weeks of each other.  One was Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander (which I shared excerpts from here and here), the other Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother edited by Donald Sturrock.

Like so many children, I grew up reading Dahl’s children’s books and having them read aloud to me but it was his two volumes of autobiography – Boy and Going Solo (both now available from Slightly Foxed) – that have stayed with me the longest.  In these letters, we see many of the same events but through Dahl’s eyes at the time rather than as an adult looking back.  Thanks to excellent editing work by Sturrock (Dahl’s biographer) we also see how much of what Dahl was writing as a child was already fiction.

The letters begin when Dahl is nine, writing home to his mother from boarding school.  Sofie Magdalene Dahl had lost her eldest daughter and husband only a few weeks apart when Roald, her only son, was small.  Left a wealthy widow with four children of her own and two step-children, she was clearly a strong personality and the four decades-worth of letters in the volume testify to the strength of her relationship with her son.

Throughout his school years Dahl would paint an at times rosy or at worst benign portrait of a place he loathed and found to be full of violence and cruelty.  Sturrock ascribes this in part to the censorious practice of teachers being able to review students’ letters home but it is intriguing when compared to Dahl’s frankness about so many other things.  Dahl swears jollily from a young age and his mother must have shared his scatological sense of humour as it continues well into adulthood.  The only sadness in reading this book is in not having Sofie Magdalene’s side of the correspondence but even without it you can get some glimpses of her in the trusting, companionable way her son writes to her.

After finishing school, Dahl joined Shell Petroleum and was sent to Tanganyika where his letters attest to a steady work- and busy social-life:

I’m a bit drunk so you won’t get much of a letter.  I had meant to write to you this afternoon because I knew I should be drunk by the evening because we had a darts match on.  But someone asked me to go bathing in the Indian Ocean, so I did that instead & said well I’ll write my letter after dinner. […] Then we had a darts match against the Gymkhana ‘A’ Team in this house – it was only finished ½ an hour ago, & a great deal of liquor was consumed by all concerned.  You see the result in my handwriting for which many apologies, but the alternative is that I wait until I’m sober & miss the bloody mail & you’ll probably think I’ve been eaten by a rhinoceros or a white ant or something equally dangerous.

Though not yet thinking of a writing career, you start to see during these years snippets and images that would not be out of place in his future books, like this portrait of a fellow passenger sailing to Africa:

There’s a man sitting near me (a fat one), who is almost unconscious from the heat.  He’s flowing over his chair like a hot jellyfish – and he’s steaming too.  He may melt.

That image just begs for a Quentin Blake illustration, doesn’t it?

When the war begins, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force and, as anyone who has read Going Solo will surely remember, eventually crashed his plane in the desert.  Sturrock’s interjections here are vital, comparing the facts to the fictions Dahl presents to his mother – and pointing out how rarely Dahl’s future descriptions of the crash would correspond to the truth of it.

Later in the war, Dahl finds himself posted to America as an attaché where it becomes frankly fairytale-esque.  He is instantly successful as a writer, finds himself working with Walt Disney, spends a weekend with the Roosevelts, and generally meets everyone.  And, for once, it’s all the truth.  (This reminds of me of The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which looks at the intelligence work Dahl was doing while in America.  I had it on my shelf for years without ever reading it but wish now I had it readily to hand!)

The letters tail off after the war, with only a few spanning the decades until his mother’s death in 1967, not out of any cooling of the relationship but from the happy explanation that they were so often together during that period.  They were tumultuous years for Dahl – the dramatic injury of his son who was struck by a car as an infant, the death of his daughter, the traumatic aneurysms suffered by his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, which left her initially unable to walk or talk, and the establishing of a wildly successful writing career – but it is best to look to Sturrock’s biography detailed coverage.

This was just the book I was looking for this year.  Dahl’s letters are bright, funny and trusting, knowing that his correspondent is the most supportive person he will ever have.  They’ve left me wanting to reread his own books but especially to read Sturrock’s biography as he did such a wonderful job selecting and introducing the letters in relation to Dahl’s extraordinary life.

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I promised to share more from the superb Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander, a collection of letters written by Alexander during the war to her future husband, following the first one.  So here we go – a delightful account of Alexander’s first and far from hum-drum encounter with working life.

Through family connections, she found herself filling in during the 1939 Christmas holidays in the office of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War.  She derides his staff as ‘Public Adorers’, devoted to him, but it’s not hard to see where that devotion could come from – Alexander is clearly fond of him after just the one meeting, though less fond of the Public Adorer who comes to interrupt it so Hore-Belisha can shift his focus once more to the war:

I’ve had a most fantastic day, darling, which is a Good Thing, because there’s been no time for my imagination to sit on brood (a lovely expression, I’ve always felt – and from one of my best-known plays too).

Miss Sloane introduced me to her underling – a Miss Fox, whose underling I am to be (and damn me if she isn’t a fully fledged Public Adorer as well!  This thing is becoming a cult – but I’m pledged to it now and there is no escape).

Then Miss Sloane said, ‘I think Mr Hore-Belisha wants to see you,’ and she flung open the double doors – and there I was in his room.  That was at three – at three-five he’d already found out why I love Malory – at 3.10 he was asking me what position the Jews held in Mediaeval Society (if any) and at 3.15 – I was giving him a lecture on Chivalric Love Poetry, and religious mania as exemplified in the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’.  He just sat and nodded all the while – and then he sighed and said, ‘My dear, you must come in and read me some of these things.  I feel like the child in Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable – everyone laughed at him for playing with toys – and so he put them away in a cupboard, saying that he’d play with them again when he was grown-up and no-one would dare laugh at him, then – and then he forgot all about them.  You have opened the cupboard for me, and I have caught a glimpse of the things I had forgotten.  Please come and read to me sometimes.’

It was very beautiful, darling – and then the crash came.  PA No. 1, who had been standing by chafing all things while, now bustled busily forward.  ‘Certainly, certainly,’ she said briskly, more in anger than in sorrow, ‘Eileen will be glad to read to you when we’ve got rid of the war – but you’ve got to see the Prime Minister in five minutes – and you put off Lady Dawson of Penn,’ (Leslie here interjected irritably, ‘Damn the woman’ and PA No. 1 looked as shocked as a PA can permit herself to look) ‘so as we could go through the points of your interview together’ – (glowering at me) ‘and we haven’t.’  Whereat she seized me by the shoulder and pushed me out – shutting the door with a determined click.  Not So Beautiful. (14 December 1939)

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Oh! dear, Gershon, (observe the comma – I am not being forward!) I wish you weren’t so much cleverer than I am.  When I first knew you, I was always in a state of waiting breathlessly for you to find out that I wasn’t clever, & erase me from the tables of your brain for ever – then I thought oh: well you must have found out by this time & were kindly overlooking it – but the more I saw of you, the more things I discovered you could do that I couldn’t – you could understand music, and pass your driving test at the second attempt, and play games, & follow the Hebrew in the prayer book without using your finger, & be forward without being impertinent, & sing in the street without being foolish – & all kinds of other things too – but this last display of versatility is too much – you can type as well – and in two colours – and two different sizes!  What can I do but say humbly that it’s been an honour to know you? (3 August 1939)

I have been longing for a really good collection of letters to read but Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander is exceeding my every expectation.  Alexander, a recent Cambridge graduate, was recovering from a car accident during the summer of 1939 when the letters to her future husband Gershon Ellenbogen begin and from the beginning they are extraordinary.  Bursting with life and humour, I can barely stand to put them down to do anything else – except perhaps pop by here to share a few snippets.  Expect more dispatches in coming days!

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After travelling to Germany in 1937, Walter Fish, a retired editor of the Daily Mail newspaper, returned to England convinced that war was coming.  His response was to find a home in the countryside for himself and his wife.  They’d planned to find something turn-key with a ready-made garden.  Instead they ended up buying “a poor battered old house that had to be gutted to be liveable, and wilderness instead of a garden”.  Almost twenty years later, in 1956, Walter’s wife looked back and chronicled what they did with their two acre plot in the classic gardening book We Made a Garden by Margery Fish.

Margery was in her mid-forties when they bought the house and Walter almost twenty years older.  They had married in 1933 after working together at the Daily Mail and while Walter had had gardens of his own in his previous homes, this was the first one Margery had ever been involved with.  In fact, surrounded by gardening-minded relatives, she’d been quite scornful of their pastime in earlier years:

I have always felt my family have been very forbearing towards me.  Before I was married I didn’t do anything in the garden.  Every weekend, when my sisters were navvying to make a garden round the little house we built, I sailed off on my bicycle to play golf.  And I never stopped saying the most scathing things about gardeners, what fools they were always to be working and never enjoying their gardens, and what was the good of having a lovely garden if you never had time to sit in it and enjoy it? […] I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years.

Now with a space of her own, Margery threw herself wholeheartedly into the making of a cottage garden, making up in enthusiasm and energy what she lacked in knowledge.  With Walter also interested in the garden, she realised quickly that to make her mark on the space she would need to move quickly – before he could impose his own vision on the garden:

We all know the saying about fools.  When I think of it now I wonder how I had the hardihood to attempt such an ambitious scheme.  I had never done any gardening before we went to Somerset and had certainly never even thought about garden design.  It might have been the most abysmal failure, but I didn’t think about that.  My only thought was to get the project under way before Walter took an interest in what I was doing and complicated matters with too much criticism and advice.

Margery leads the reader through the garden, recalling how they handled different areas and challenges.  I particularly loved hearing about the areas where they failed or struggled – it’s always heartening to know this doesn’t just happen to you.  Margery was led by enthusiasm in the early years and sometimes, as with the stone garden, that led her to plantings that she’d regret:

I was instructed to plant what I could between the stones, to relieve the hard angular lines.  At that time it was literally a case of making bricks with straw as I had practically nothing to use.  Looking round the garden I came upon some stonecrop and pounced on it as an answer to prayers.  There wasn’t very much and I broke it into small pieces and poked them between the stones.  I had no idea that when it settles down in a place it not only starts raising a family but goes in for founding a dynasty as well. […] Sometimes in the summer my heart softens when I see its really pretty flat pink rosettes, but most of the time it is war. […] If, by an oversight, it is allowed to stay on a piece of a flower bed for more than a minute, in two minutes that flower bed will be a solid mat of stonecrop of a particularly luxuriant quality.  Every year I pull out barrowloads of it and I know I shall continue to do so until I die.

There were lucky successes, plenty of failures, and lots of marital conflict as Walter’s strong opinions (on watering, on certain plants, on caring for the drive, and on and on and on) had to be taken into account.  Walter died in 1947 and while Margery remembers him fondly throughout the book and his influence helped make her the gardener she became, she also obviously enjoyed the freedom she had after his death to shape the garden according only to her own ideas.  They started the garden as a “we” but Walter was a fair-weather gardener and it clearly became Margery’s main interest as time went on, a topic of which she never tired:

I could go on and on.  But that is just what gardening is, going on and on.  My philistine of a husband often told with amusement how a cousin when asked when he expected to finish his garden replied ‘Never, I hope.’ And that, I think, applies to all true gardeners.

I found this slim volume delightful.  Margery is an excellent and entertaining writer, full of informative gardening details but also a cheerful sense of humour.  So much of her has been poured into the garden and into the book that it’s easy to understand why it has stood the test of time and remains a classic.  Her garden has also survived and can still be visited today.  If I’m ever in Somerset, I’ll be sure to stop by East Lambrook Manor Gardens and see it for myself.

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