Archive for the ‘Eileen Alexander’ Category

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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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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