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Archive for the ‘Rory MacLean’ 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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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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