Archive for the ‘Diaries’ Category

For me, the great tragedy of 2021 was the loss of the community garden plots which brought me so much pleasure in 2020.  They were always intended as temporary – developers get a tax break when community gardens use their empty lots while they wait on permits and whatnot – but the permit process went horrifically fast in this case and our lot lasted only one year.  The one time the city approved things quickly, damn them!

My gardening was restricted to a few containers this year but my dreams are never restricted and they are continuously fueled by garden books.  I had been hearing for years how wonderful The Ivington Diaries by Monty Don and finally tracked it down thanks to the inter-library loan system.

I can attest that it is, as promised, wonderful.  Consisting of diary entries written in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Don’s focus roams widely through the garden and his home life.  He is a gifted broadcaster (the only thing more comforting than actually gardening in 2020 was watching Gardener’s World) but he is an even better writer, with a lovely turn of phrase.

Arranged by month, this is the perfect book to dip in and out of as the year passes.  It’s no good trying to write more about it – I loved it, the end – so I’ll leave you instead with a few favourite passages:

“Greening” 12 May 2002:

As May slips in, there is the most astonishing greening of the world.  It shouldn’t surprise me – I’ve been here before nearly fifty times – but every year it shakes me to the core, scrambles the sediment that has silted up over winter and sends me spinning into a green space.  It is like falling in love, like recovering one’s sight.  I suspect that all gardening, all life perhaps, is built up from just a few moments like these.  Not many days in all, not a body of achievement.  Just the dew days each spring when you transcend your lumpen self.  All lyric poetry, all mystical expressions, all the most sublime music strains towards what every leaf does as carelessly each spring as it falls in autumn.

“Onoprodum” 22 June 1997:

I increasingly feel that the secret of a good garden is to choose your spreaders carefully so that you are swamped by loveliness.  I know that this goes against the grain of many gardeners’ buttock-clenching desire to control every flicker of colour and millimetre of growth but there are no transcendental moments to be had down that route.  The garden must teeter on the edge of anarchy to unfold fully, and disaster and joyous success will therefore be separated by a few days or a few square feet of accidental combinations.  The best gardeners hold the centre together by stealth and coercion rather than by strutting their horticultural stuff.

“Roses” 30 June 2002:

One of life’s lesser ironies is that flowers – one of the best and most beautiful things on the planet – are invented daily by people who have the aesthetic judgement of the average town planner on a day off.  And one of the confusing aspects of gardening is that enthusiasm for horticulture can evince itself in fanatical love of a plant, with lives literally devoted to its cultivation, amassing extraordinary depth of knowledge and yet without any development of aesthetic judgement.  It is as though after forty years a great art historian were unable to tell the difference between a Bayswater Road daub and a Matisse and yet knew everything about the provenance of both.

“Cricket” 11 July 1998:

Twelve is a fine age for a boy, an age where sex is not yet a blanket of miserable yet irresistible fog and, short of being able to drive, there is liberty enough to do most things you want.  We live in the country and Adam is a country boy.  His idea of happiness is days riding his mountain bike in the fields and woods with friends.  Always with friends.  He does things alone solely in order to be better at doing them when he sees his friends again.  As his nearest one lives five miles away, this means he can only see them if I drive him or their parents drive them.  The greatest service I can offer this holiday is to be a cross between a twenty-four-hour taxi service and a chauffeur with access to unlimited petty cash and chocolate.  Actually the cash side of things get not so petty as soon as mountain bikes enter the equation, so a chauffeur brilliantly working the futures market from the seat of the waiting vehicle, equipped with a fridge for chocolate, would be best.

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Garden Path in Spring by Duncan Grant (1944)

It feels like spring is just about here.  I’ve spent much of this weekend wandering about the city, where signs of spring can be found everywhere.  Snowdrops and crocuses, camelias and early rhododendrons, and, best of all, the first blossoming cherry trees.  After two extraordinarily harsh winters, it’s wonderful to see this and be reminded of how joyful it is to live in Vancouver at this time of year.  My measurement of whether it was a normal spring when I was growing up was whether the daffodils were in blossom on my birthday (February 19th).  This looks entirely possible this year.

It was an active weekend but I still had plenty of time for reading.  I read two great books over the last few days and wanted to share my thoughts while both were fresh in my mind.

On Friday, I managed to read all of Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley despite a full work day.  On my commute and over my lunch hour I happily sped through Heminsley’s tale of how she came to embrace swimming in her thirties.  Heminsley, a Brighton-based journalist and writer, had written an earlier book about taking up running (Running Like a Girl, which I haven’t read) so was no stranger to athletic pursuits but was clearly uncomfortable with the water when her journey began.  It’s wonderfully written and is so observant of the way swimming resonates with women in particular.  Yes, there are the hateful magazines and features on “bikini bodies” every spring but Heminsley finds a true community of swimmers, and recognizes how body shape and size out of the water has little to do with how you move once in it.  And how little vanity is involved in a changeroom.  Heminsley focuses quite a lot on body image towards the end, when her own body is undergoing transformations due to IVF treatment, and I’m excited to hear that her next non-fiction book will focus on this.

I’ve been swimming my entire life and can’t remember there ever being a time when I did not love the water.  I still swim regularly but, unlike Heminsley who finds herself in oceans, rivers and lakes, confine myself to pools during winter months.  That said, I spent Saturday morning walking the seawall here in Vancouver and the water was beautifully clear and flat – the way it often gets in winter.  It looked perfect for a swim.  Maybe one day…

(Also, Heminsley thankfully does not use that awful phrase “Wild Swimming” to describe swimming done anywhere other than pools.  This seems to be a uniquely British piece of linguistic idiocy.  Good riddance, where do they think the majority of people do their swimming?)

On a more practical note, Heminsley’s own frustrations with poorly fitted goggles inspired me to go and buy a new pair this weekend that I am absolutely delighted with.  Considering my last few pairs have all been salvaged from the lost and found, anything would have been a step up.  How luxurious to have goggles that fit and where the anti-fog coating hasn’t worn off!

The Heminsley book was a nice jolt back into fun reading but I was still left longing for a very specific kind of book.  For a few weeks, I’ve wanted something non-fiction, ideally diaries, preferably by a man, with humour and kindness and a bit a something special.  Helpful, yes?

I’d picked up Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters (Dashing for the Post) last weekend to see if they would suit, but they didn’t hit the spot – close, but not quite.  I thought of returning to Harold Nicolson’s diaries – because, really, when is that not a good idea? – but then had a brilliant idea: why not pick up the Alec Guinness diaries I bought after loving A Positively Final Appearance?  Within a few pages of starting, it was clear: My Name Escapes Me was exactly what I needed.

The diaries start in January 1995 and carry through to mid-1996, a period when Guinness was in his early eighties and, to all intents and purposes, retired from acting.  He and his wife were both suffering from health issues and his friends were dying off at an alarming rate but his outlook is remarkably sunny.  He finds pleasure in old friends, beautiful music, and many books.  His tastes are joyfully eclectic and entirely unsnobbish.  He loves classics, taking pleasure in Shakespeare and Dickens, and gets wonderfully excited about books from favourite modern authors, like Tessa Waugh and John Updike.  An enthusiastic reader is the best kind and his comments (like this one on Anthony Trollope’s The American Senator) were a highlight of the book for me:

Finished Trollope’s The American Senator.  The opening chapters are a bit wearily confusing but once he has got thoroughly underway it is enthralling.  Arabella Trefoil is a great creation and for sheer awfulness matches Sylvia Tietjens in Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End.  I’ve come across her several times, in various disguises but always recognizable, in London, Paris, Cairo and New York – but she lives mostly in Sussex.

And the spirit of kindness and humour I was looking for?  Guinness was full of them.  His regrets are always that he might have made someone feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, the true sign of a kind soul, and almost every day he finds something to smile or laugh over.  The best way to live, really.

I’m off to find a new book to end the weekend with (possibly Elizabeth of the German Garden, which Kate reviewed recently and reminded me how much I want to read) but I’ll leave you with a last word from Guinness to put a smile on your face:

It seems a pity that the good old phrase ‘living in sin’ is likely to be dropped by the C of E.  So many friends, happily living in sin, will feel very ordinary and humdrum when they become merely partners; or, as the Americans say, ‘an item’.  Living in sin has always sounded daring and exotic; something to do, perhaps, with Elinor Glyn and her tiger skin.

If you’d like to buy the books I’ve mentioned (or read a professionally and far more coherently written synopsis of them), check them out using the Book Depository links below.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you):

Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley

Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley

Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Diaries of Harold Nicolson

The Alec Guinness diaries – both My Name Escapes Me and A Positively Final Appearance – are both now out of print but second-hand copies can be easily found online


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You know what book you probably didn’t realise you needed in your life?  An ungossipy, undramatic collection of musings from an octogenarian movie star, that’s what.  And, more specifically, one with excellent tastes in books.  Does such a thing even exist?  Thankfully, it does in the form of A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness.

Published in 1999 and covering the period from 1996 to 1998, this was Guinness’ third collection of his diaries but the first I’ve read.  And how happy I am that I did!  Guinness is never an actor I’ve been particularly interested in, despite him being the star of my very favourite film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.  I’ve seen much of his work – he stared in David Lean’s most iconic films, before, of course, taking on the two roles he is best remembered for: Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and George Smiley in the television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – without ever feeling much interest in him personally.  Which, I get the impression reading this, is very much as he would have liked it.  But then Michael Dirda mentioned this in Browsings (which is the book that keeps on giving thanks to all the wonderful recommendations I got from it) and I had to give it a try.

The book is focused on Guinness’ observations as he moves through the years.  It is not a celebrity memoir where the focus is anecdotes about the famous and infamous (go to David Niven if that’s what you’re looking for); instead, we hear mostly about Guinness’ family (wife, son, grandchildren, and great-grandchild), his thoughts on current events (the 1997 election and Princess Diana’s death are both remarked on), and, best of all, his reading.  Because it turns out that Guinness was a reader and a proper one who formed attachments to authors, read widely and eclectically, and, if he had still be around by the time it was published, would almost certainly have loved Slightly Foxed and probably wanted to write for it.

And what does he read?  He loves Shakespeare, suitable enough for an actor who got his start on the stage, and has a particular fondness for Trollope, calling him “the most English of great Englishmen” and admiring his ability to capture men and women as they are and always will be in his books:

The pleasure lies in recognizing, today, habits which were to be found among us a hundred and twenty years ago however much the mores and manners have changed; and a hundred years before that, and before that as well.  The sense of continuity, going both backwards and forwards, I find entirely rewarding.

From there his reading wanders.  He mentions James Lee-Milne’s diaries, Dickens, Patrick O’Brien, Iris Origo, Henry James, and, much to my delight, From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple – the book I’d bought just before I started reading this.  I always take it as a good sign when my reading aligns like that.

Unlike the average aged celebrity diary, Guinness focuses on his life at the time, not on past glories.  He relishes visits from his family and close friends, and enjoys spending time with his wife, Merula.  I particularly loved hearing how he commemorated their 60th wedding anniversary: rather than buying jewellery, he bought his wife a painting and masses of gardenias, the flower he used to bring her every Friday evening when they were engaged.

I also, it must be said, loved hearing his views on the 1997 election, which feel especially poignant these days:

If only one party had a bold, enthusiastic pro-European line I would be genuinely behind it.  Without Europe I have a gut feeling we are lost.

But every life involves reminiscing too and Guinness chooses anecdotes from his career wisely.  I enjoyed this one from an ill-fated run as Romeo in 1939:

The first night was memorable.  I lept the garden wall for the balcony scene – ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’ – whereupon the wall fell flat.  With professional sang-froid I ignored the whole thing and struck a romantic pose of extreme yearning.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun.

At which moment the balcony fell off, to reveal, gasping with astonishment, Miss Stanley in her nightie.  Another foot forward and she would have tumbled to her eternal rest.  The curtain was lowered.  After ten minutes of hammering we started again, to tumultuous applause.  The audience was thoroughly enjoying the mishaps, as they always do, but they also wanted, I think, to show their admiration for Miss Stanley not succumbing to the vapours.

But the most horrifyingly memorable story comes not from the world of stage or film but from a society party where he was seated with Cyril Connolly, Frederick Ashton, Hugh Trevor-Roper, a young Princess Margaret, and an intoxicated and uninhibited Lady Diana Cooper:

‘Can’t go out unless I take a little fortification,’ [Lady Diana] said to me.  ‘Too nervous.  Stage fright.  Tonight I fortified myself twice, which was foolish.’

She eyed her fellow diners.  ‘Who’s that little man?’ she asked me in a loud whisper.

‘Cyril Connolly.’

‘I can’t bear him,’ she said, full voice, and picked up a roll and flung it at him.  It was a good shot and struck him on the forehead.  Connolly flushed but otherwise didn’t react.

Not quite the polished society matron that evening!  I can’t imagine what that would have been like to witness.  It does remind me that I want to read Lady Diana’s memoirs though (all three volumes of which – The Rainbow Comes and Goes, The Light of Common Day, and Trumpets from the Steep – are being reissued next month by Vintage).

In the end, I was left with the impression of Guinness as a kind, thoughtful person, a loving friend and husband, and an interested reader.  And that is the kind of epitaph we should all aim for.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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When I picked up The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman I was looking forward to being reunited with an old, dear friend.  My acquaintance with Sylvia Townsend Warner (STW) goes back to 2012, when on Simon’s flawless recommendation I read The Element of Lavishness, a collection of letters between her and William Maxwell.  It remains one of my favourite books and encouraged me a few years later to pick up a collection of her letters (this time edited by Maxwell) that was almost equally delightful.  Through these letters I met a woman who was whimsical but dangerously observant, loving yet reserved, and ferociously intelligent.  I loved her for all these traits and looked forward to getting to know her even better through her diaries.

Turns out, that was not to be.  Some people are born diarists (Harold Nicolson and Charles Ritchie, for example, neither of whom I can ever praise too highly).  Others are not, perhaps because they have so many other outlets for expression.  STW, it turns out, was not a master diarist and saved the best of her writing and insights for her letters and books.  This is still a worthwhile book for any STW fans but it by no means gives as complete a picture of the woman, her interests, and her enchanting thoughts as do her letters.

Running from 1927 to 1978 (the year of her death), the diaries are sporadic and various periods her life remain undocumented.  The earliest years are dry but, to me, offer some of the most fascinating entries, full of musical scholarship concerns and relative indifference to her long-running affair with Percy Carter Buck, the director of music at Harrow.  She was in her early thirties, had already established herself as a successful author (with Lolly Willowes and Mr Fortune’s Maggot), and seems to have lived a pleasant and sociable life.  It was interesting to see her mention several times a vague sense of sadness that she didn’t have children but she seems more concerned with a sense of continuation and legacy than any feeling of loss:

I wish I could be a grandmother.  It is wanton extravagance to have had a youth with no one to tell of it to when one grows old (9 January 1928)

This period also included one of my favourite, very STW-esque entries:

We drank sherry in the nursery, while poor Bridget wailed on mother’s milk.  Sherry in the nursery seemed to very Victorian, with a high fender and a smoky chimney and all, that it occurred to us that we must be the last of the Victorians.  But later in the evening at the Chetwynd’s party I met a purer specimen…the little Countess of Seafield, so like Victoria that as I sat by her on the sofa I felt myself growing more and more like Lord Melbourne. (24 November 1928)

(This, for the record, is exactly what her letters sound like.  Please go read her letters.)

In 1930, however, the whirlwind begins: she begins a relationship with Valentine Ackland that will continue (with many, many bumps along the way) until Ackland’s death in 1969.  It was the consuming passion of STW’s life but it’s impossible to view Ackland benignly given how much pain she caused the ever-loyal STW.  Still, it began well:

Just as I blew out the candle the wind began to rise.  I thought I heard her speak, and listened, and at last she said through the door that this would frighten them up at the Vicarage.  How the Vicarage led to love I have forgotten (oh, it was an eiderdown).  I said, sitting on my side of the wall, that love was easier than liking, so I should specialise in that.  ‘I think I am utterly loveless.’  The forsaken grave wail of her voice smote me, and had me up, and through the door, and at her bedside.  There I stayed, till I got into her bed, and found love there… (11 October 1930)

The bulk of the diaries focus on Ackland.  Like many people, STW seems to have been most devoted to her diary when she was the most troubled and that trouble was invariably caused by Ackland’s infidelities, particularly her long relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Wade White.  It’s excruciating to read her pain at these times, when the woman she was so devoted to was casting her aside:

I kissed the hollow of her elbow – gentle now under may lips, and no stir beneath the skin.  She looks as beautiful now as when she was beautiful with her love for me. (15 August 1949)

But it is worse when Ackland dies.  After long years of illness, Ackland’s passing leaves STW bereft and, for the first time in almost forty years, truly alone.  I remember finding her letters to Maxwell from this period excruciatingly painful and the diary entries are equally so, showing how much her days were consumed with thoughts of her lost love.  But this is also when she begins to record her thoughts on aging, which she excels at:

In my bath, looking at my arm, remembering how often she kissed it, I bethought me that I inhabit my body like a grumbling caretaker in a forsaken house.  Fine goings-on here in the old days: such scampers up and down stairs, such singing and dancing.  All over now:  and the mortality of my body suddenly pierced my heart. (18 September 1970)

Though the book is, primarily, an account of her time with Ackland (and an especially detailed chronicle of the difficult periods in their relationship), there was still enough of the minutiae of daily life to entertain me.  I was touched by her account of picking up Between the Acts shortly after Virginia Woolf’s death:

At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia Woolf’s last book.  And I received an extraordinary impression how light it was, how small, and frail.  As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant woman.  The feeling has haunted me all day. (26 January 1942)

And I loved her delight at receiving a positive review from an Italian newspaper:

In the morning I received a cutting from La Gazettino – a Venetian paper – sent by Aldo Camerino who had written an extremely praising and glorifying and gratifying account of Winter in the Air, and me in general.  It is wonderful to begin a day by reading of oneself as La Townsend Warner.  Such things occur but seldom, and I have been enjoying a compass of over two octaves, a flawless legato, complete control of all fioriture passages, great dramatic intensity and a commanding stage presence all day.  (18 January 1956)

Moments like this are why I love STW.  It seems she saved most of them for her letters but there were still enough in these diaries to provide real enjoyment.  I can’t say the diaries helped me to know her any better but they were moderately fascinating, enough that I am happy to have read them.  And I did discover one very interesting thing: that she is exactly the same person in her letters as she is in her diaries.  It takes a special kind of confidence and courage to be fully yourself in correspondence and I’m delighted to have discovered this about her.

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To-War-With-WhitakerIf I were knowingly heading into an active theatre of war, I like to think I would go armed with the necessary information, wardrobe, and exit plan (I’m a desperate coward).  What I would never have thought to put on my packing list are a valet, a parrot, and a little black book with the names of seemingly everyone interesting, exciting and important.  Hermione Ranfurly had all these things and more with her when she followed her husband, Dan, to the Middle East at the beginning of World War Two.  Dan was fighting Germans, Hermione was fighting the British military for the right to stay near her husband, and Dan’s valet, Whitaker, was fighting to keep as much order as is possible in a) a war zone and b) a desert.  Hermione’s diaries of these days, collected in the excellently-named To War with Whitaker, make for wonderful reading and offer a perspective on that war that is certainly unlike any I’ve come across before and all the more welcome for that.

Read my full review at Shiny New Books.

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these-wonderful-rumoursIn this week of wartime diaries, These Wonderful Rumours!: A Young Schoolteachers’ Wartime Diaries by May Smith is certainly the most lighthearted of the books I’m discussing and one of my favourites.  Here, the background anxieties of war are recorded and thoughtfully considered, but not at the expense of a young woman’s still active – and quite wonderfully-observed – social life.

May was twenty-four years old when the war began, an elementary school teacher living with her parents in Derbyshire.  A born diarist (in no small part influenced by the style of E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady), May recorded the events of her daily life with a spritely sense of humour.  Unlike the tiresome Joan from earlier this week, May’s life was clearly impacted by the war.  She follows what is going on and comments on events throughout the war.  However, her main topics are the things that really absorbed her attention: the books she is reading (she has excellent and eclectic tastes), the films she has been to see, the clothes she is spending too much money on, the many unsatisfactory hats she seems to buy while in search of the perfect one, the tennis parties she goes to in the summers, and the many complaints she has about her life as a put-upon elementary school teacher.

Having one failed romance in her past (a clerical ex-fiancé whose comings and goings are scornfully remarked on for most of the book), she has two central admirers for most of the book: Fred and Dougie.  Having flipped through the book earlier on and seen the photo of May and her husband in 1978, I knew from the start which man won but that did not impact my enjoyment of her offhanded treatment of them both.  Dougie spends the war plying her with food to bulk up her rations while Fred squires her around to tennis parties and films.  For years, neither makes much visible progress but their attempts at courtship (and May’s deft scheduling to make room for two suitors) provide May with the perfect comic material for her diaries.  In the early years particularly, she doesn’t take either man’s attentions very seriously – all the better for us.  Here is a typical example of her treatment of the Faithful Freddie:

Amy descended liked a locust upon us for tea, but left early to go to Wuthering Heights.  She had just gone when, oh dear! – palpitations and heart-throbs – the Voice of My Beloved came floating over the telephone.  No, it was only Dear Freddie, so my heart remained untouched.  He invited me to the flicks, so having nothing to do, and making use of him, his pocket and his car again, I went.  Saw a mediocre programme and promised to go to the dance with him next Wed.  He smoked a pipe, but he puffed furiously at it as though he wanted to get it over quickly, so I’m sure he only did it to appear the Strong Silent Type and not because he really enjoyed it.  His faults seem to strike me more readily than his virtues.  I must be more forbearing.  (Tuesday, December 5th, 1939)

Poor Fred also comes in for much criticism whenever he reveals a trait not to May’s liking – whether it be a liking for beer or comely WAAFs.  Dougie rarely rouses as much passion, but then he was living in the Fens most of the time and was not close enough at hand to advertise his flaws as Fred did.  Dougie, unlike most of May’s mild-mannered friends, was quite bloodthirsty when it came to the war.  In his letters to May he spoke often of his hate for the Germans, Conchies, and anyone else whom he felt was standing in the way of Germany getting the whooping it deserved:

Letter from Dougie stating with ghoulish importance that he has already picked up one case that refused to take cover in a raid [Dougie was a volunteer ambulance driver] – he will see no more raids, says Dougie grimly.  He also goes on to relate morbidly the deaths of (a) his aunt, (b) a fellow next door and (c) his old school pal, but adds viciously that We Shall Make Those Blighters Pay For It, and he’ll kill everyone he sees if he has the chance, which he hopes he will.  (He gets rather involved and ungrammatical at the end.)  He ends by stating simply that this is not a very cheerful letter – which sentiment I heartily endorse – and the usual solicitous admonition to me to take care of myself.  (Wednesday, July 3rd, 1940)

The reader gets a better sense of the violence and destruction of the German bombing of Britain from May’s summaries of Dougie’s letters than from any commentary she provides.  The raids certainly intrude on her life, but more as a bothersome way of stealing her sleep rather than a source of real terror or destruction.  For the early raids, May and her parents would retreat to the shelter at her grandmother’s house nearby.  Eventually though, they would rarely even rouse from their beds when the sirens went.  What does absorb May’s attention are the little inconveniences brought about by the war: the inability to get either the amount or quality of chocolate she wants, the chaos wrought on her teaching schedule, and, time and again, the incredible difficulty of getting any place:

Travelling in this here war is just about the last word in Refined Torture.  To get to Burton, once so simple, is now a Herculean task, and one must combine the patience of Job with the frame of a prize fighter and the tenacity of a bulldog.  To be timid, polite and unselfish is fatal.  One must either park oneself in front of the hardest and most savage-looking pusher, or else assume the tactics of the rest and jostle, elbow, poke, manoeuvre and otherwise propel oneself forcibly forward until the goal is reached, viz the first step of the bus.  This done, one can reassume one’s better nature, eye the jostling throng with surprise and horror, and proceed with dignity down the bus, aloof and detached from the pushers. (Saturday, December 2nd, 1939)

While May’s voice is reason enough to love and enjoy this book, I was quite fascinated to see through her eyes how the war affected schools and teachers.  Some of the things I knew about – teachers acting as billeting officers to organize evacuees, chaotic classroom schedules meant to share space with evacuated teachers and students but really organized to create the utmost inconvenience for everyone involved – but others were news to me, like the cutting back of holidays and the changes to pay.  No wonder May did not always greet her work with delight:

Back to school with many a moan and sorrowful sigh.  Make my way to the cheerless place with the greatest reluctance.  We now have no heating by order of the Government – and it is not to be put on until November 1st.  The children return to school full of beans as usual and amiably disposed to chatter all day long.  Unfortunately I fail to see eye to eye with them over this.  (Monday, October 19th, 1942)

I was delighted with this book and with May’s addictively dry sense of humour.  The war really is a background element here and I mean that in the best possible way: I’d much rather have a book by a writer who can write well and interestingly about the most commonplace topics than a book by a dull writer on what should be an interesting topic.  May never kept diaries in quite this detailed form after the war.  By then her life was busy with a husband, children, and work.  Still, what a treat for us that she put such time and effort into them when she was younger and unencumbered!

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on-the-other-sideToday, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.

Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.”  She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady.  So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts.  But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian.  There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy).  It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War.  This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway.  Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.

By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University.  Of her five children, only one was living in Germany.  Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:

My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)

There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing.  But, generally, life went on.  In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on.  When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak.  Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings.  As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:

I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins.  If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings.  A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg.  When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them.  It is unbelievably wretched and frightful.  (4 February 1945)

The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war.  Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed.  (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.)  With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:

For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left.  But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode.  Can anyone fathom this?  I cannot.  There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination.  For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates.  Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)

Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was).  Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself.  But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany.  Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:

…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)

What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased.  She too cannot hold back her anger at times:

I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world.  He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)

Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war.  I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days.  I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age.  Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British.  At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history.  I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated.  I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew.  But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic  and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.

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LoveLessonsCan you ever have too many diaries from the Second World War?  I think not and this week I’m out to prove it.  I have four reviews coming up over the next week, all of diaries written by women during WWII.  Two of them chronicle what was going on in England (Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham and These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith) while the other two look at what was happening in Germany (On the Other Side byMathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg and The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg).  Today I’ll be starting with the weakest of the four: Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham.

Now, the delightful Jenny of Reading the End is the best PR person I think this book has probably had since its original publication in 1985.  I’m certainly not going to be.  She read it back in 2009 and since I started blogging in early 2010 I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen her recommend it to others, including myself.  And, in many ways, I can understand why she loves it: Wyndham’s frank diaries feel very much like those of a normal, self-absorbed sixteen or seventeen year old, obsessed with relationships and sex and not much carrying about the greater implications of the major world events playing out around her.  But the shallowness of Wyndham and her social circle, the artificiality of their lives, the callous way they managed their relationships drove me completely around the bend.

Wyndham was sixteen when the war began, the only daughter of highly dramatic and thankfully divorced parents.  Wyndham lived with her mother – a devout Catholic after her conversion when Joan was small – and her mother’s companion in west London.  One gathers that her father was off being generally useless most of the time.  At sixteen, Wyndham has some vague idea of studying art but mostly she is very busy have passionate crushes on pretty much everyone she comes into contact with.  Fair enough.

Where things took, for me, a calamitous turn was when Wyndham started moving in more artistic circles.  When she begins to study art, her mother sets her up with a small studio of her own.  Wyndham still lives at home, technically (she is only seventeen), but the bulk of her time is spent in her studio, generally surrounded by useless older men who talk about how much they want to seduce her but then do nothing about it, being scared off by her virginity.

My tolerance for artistic circles is low at the best of times but the so-called artists that Wyndham finds herself keeping company with are the absolute worst.  They seem to spend all their time posing as artists rather than producing any art.  For Wyndham certainly, art lessons and her studio are whims her mother is indulging her in.  She notes several times that she is not really an artist and doesn’t take what she is doing seriously.  Neither apparently do her new thirty-something friends.  I suppose if you’re bone lazy it is easier to go around seducing teenagers and mooching all of their paint and food.  I will say that these studio seduction scenes perfectly match the clichéd vision of what bohemian “artists” get up to and there is always some value in remembering that clichés are founded in truth.  Still, it is a world away from the commercially-minded art students and studio days described by E.H. Shepard in Drawn from Life.  But there again you have the difference between people who play at being artists and those who actually work at it.  I suspect Wyndham and her set would have had nothing but contempt for the middle-class Shepard and his work ethic.

Still, shiftlessness and a little immorality among friends can all be excused.  The whole world would be very boring if it were peopled only by monogamous, responsible capitalists (I am picturing a world composed entirely of the Swiss which sounds delightfully efficient, if dull).  What pushed me over the edge was the universally awful natures of the people Wyndham chose to surround herself with.  I can understand why all the unrepentant adulterers and camp homosexuals would have seemed exotic to a girl just out of school but I cannot understand why she willingly put up with their pettiness, their cruelty, and their self-absorption.  Not a single one of them seems to have any real kindness or compassion in them and the worst of the bunch is the man that Wyndham falls in love with and loses (or rather cheerfully unloads) her virginity to: Rupert.  Rupert is vile.  Whenever he appeared and Wyndham went weak kneed, I felt ill.  When Wyndham says:

Rupert and I sat on his roof in the sun.  It was perfect – he was wearing a blue and white striped shirt and sackcloth trousers and playing Spanish music on his guitar, with one bare foot resting on a brick. (Sunday, 3rd August)

All I could think was how little I could possibly have in common with a woman who defines perfection as a man wearing sackcloth trousers and, worse, a blue and white striped shirt.  Still, that is by far the least of Rupert’s sins.  He talks down to Wyndham, continues sleeping with other women while he’s seeing and sleeping with her, is unspeakably awful when one of their friends – and one of Joan’s old admirers – is killed during the war, and hits her.  Wyndham makes very little protest about any of this treatment or, if she does, she doesn’t mean it.  Even after receiving a heavy blow in public, she notes that “the extraordinary thing is, I bore him no malice although I pretended to.”  The “pretending to” might be what pushed me completely over the edge with this book.  So much of Wyndham’s life feels artificial but acting on top of that, pretending at things, just adds a whole new level of good riddance as far as I’m concerned.  I almost wished Joan and her friends were fictional characters, so my hatred of them and desire to see them bombed to smithereens in all their smugness would seem a little less callous.  Eventually, Rupert is called up (yay!) and then Wyndham joins the WAAFs.  I can’t say I wasn’t pleased to see everyone finally usefully employed and forced to confront the real world – and the war, which until then had only been a minor inconvenience, what with the Blitz and all – for once.

The writing throughout is good, though I suspect the diaries were heavily edited/rewritten for publication.  There is too much dialogue to seem natural in a diary format and every so often the older author obviously inserts herself to provide hindsight commentary (such as “this was the night that such-and-such famous event occurred”. Why this wasn’t done in a footnote I have no idea).  Frustratingly, the entries aren’t properly dated – they have the day of the week and the day of the month but generally not the month itself or the year.  This got rather disorienting.  But, as should be obvious by now, my issue really wasn’t with the writing but with the writer.  It is hard to feel fascinated by someone who you think is living a shallow and artificial life, more concerned with appearances and posturing than substance.

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The Seasons of RomeThere are places in the world that I have no particular longing to visit but which I love to read about.  Rome is one of those places.  For all the other cities and regions in Italy that I long to visit, Rome does not entice me.  Milan, yes.  Venice, absolutely.  Rome, not so much.  But I love reading about the city and so turned the pages of The Seasons of Rome by Paul Hofmann with delight.

Austrian by birth, Hofmann (who died in 2008) spent decades living and working in Rome.  By the time The Seasons of Rome was published in 1997, he had lived in the city for more than 30 years (including during the war) and the book reflects both his first-hand and his learned knowledge of the capital’s history.  In these short journal-style entries, he is able to examine a year in modern Rome and see in it the echoes of its classical heritage as well as the more recent past.

It is recognizably the work of a journalist.  Hofmann was chief of the New York Times bureau in Rome for many years and his writing is factual and understated.  He uses the first person but without gushing and emoting in the manner of many current columnists.  Essentially, he reports.

I was fascinated by the city’s never-ending appetite for papal gossip.  Neighbours gossip about the pope’s health constantly, with everyone seemingly having some connection, however tenuous, inside the papal state to provide private info.  In turn, the gossips then gossip about their sources.  One of Hofmann’s neighbours gets her (unerringly correct and days ahead of official new sources) updates on Pope John Paul  II’s ailments through the sister of her daughter-in-law:

She is an unmarried woman in her thirties who ten years ago was hired as a computer operator by an administrative office in the pontifical state; meanwhile she appears to have risen to a quasi-executive position under the supervision of a high prelate. ..I remember her as a chubbily attractive, fashionably dressed blonde.  Later I was told she lives in a nice apartment in a church-owned building not far from the Vatican, has a Filipina maid, and in August every year spends her vacations in Switzerland.  Inevitably there is talk that she has a clerical friend. 

Innocent that I am, I was a little shocked by the idea of a “clerical friend”.  But then I am rather surprised by the mention of modern-day mistresses in any context.  If you trust what you read by Italian and Irish authors, a mistress seems to be an absolutely essential accessory even for modest businessmen in Catholic countries.

Hofmann loves Rome and made his home there for many years but is far from blind to its faults.  What was most fascinating for me were the pieces (and they are many) which discuss the difficulties of Roman life: the mail lady who comes maybe two or three times a week (as opposed to the promised 9 times); the disruptive and never-ending strikes by unions and students; the nepotism and cronyism among politicians; the pervasive influence of the mob; the racism experienced by Asian and African immigrants…the list goes on.  But he is not negative, just truthful.  There is never any doubt that Rome is a city he loves and through his eyes even I could see its appeal.

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The Harold Nicolson DiariesWe all have our childhood heroes.  Some people spend their adolescence admiring athletes or film stars.  Some dream of growing up to be the next Austen or Hemingway.  In my case, I spent my teen years slightly obsessed with 20th Century diplomats and politicians.  At some point, my intentions to purse a diplomatic career waned (probably when I realised I lacked both the tact necessary to succeed in that field and the bilingualism that is a prerequisite for any kind of government post) but my fascination with the diaries of those whose lives were devoted to civil service has never faltered.  I suspect Charles Ritchie will always be my favourite diary-keeping diplomat but after reading The Harold Nicolson Diaries edited by Nigel Nicolson earlier this year, I must say that Ritchie finally has a rival for my affections.

For years, I have been reading history books about wartime Britain where Nicolson’s diaries were heavily quoted.  His career during that period I was familiar with: a diplomat turned writer turned politician, Nicolson was among a small number of MPs who spent the years preceding WWII believing and arguing that fascism needed to be confronted and defeated rather than ignored or appeased in an effort to ensure peace.  He was never a brilliant politician but he was intimate with those in power and his diaries offer a fascinating glimpse of the government in wartime.

To some of my readers, I suspect Nicolson is better known as the husband of the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.  The two had a famously unconventional partnership, with both Nicolson and Sackville-West conducting homosexual affairs outside of their marriage, but if there is one thing that is clear from this book (and from their son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage) it is how devoted they were to one another over the almost fifty years they spent together.  Though the book is titled The Harold Nicolson Diaries, it is actually a collection of both diaries and letters and most of the letters were written to Vita.  For a man who had, when very young, dreamed of “a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk”, Vita was an extraordinary choice for a partner but not one Nicolson ever seemed to regret.  His adoration of her is clear in his diaries, his letters to his sons and his parents, and very much in his letters to her:

I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.

I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone.  I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged.  But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love.  I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.

I have often wondered what makes the perfect family.  I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness.  Each of us has a room of his own.  Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.

Though edited by his son, these diaries are not presented to entirely flatter Nicolson.  The less appealing parts of his character are there: he can be snobbish and unrepentantly racist. He sulks like a child after defeats and hungers for at times undeserved admiration.  He sometimes makes bad decisions, he allies himself with the wrong people, and he flip-flops on major issues.  He is easily flattered and easily insulted.  He is, in short, very, very human and more aware of his failings than most.  At the end of each year, he takes stock of his life and those entries show a man fully aware of what the world thinks of him and resolved, always, to do better:

I am thought trashy and a little mad.  I have been reckless and arrogant.  I have been silly.  I must recapture my reputation.  I must be cautious and more serious.  I must not try to do so much, and must endeavour to what I do with greater depth and application.  I must avoid the superficial.

Yet in spite of all this – what fun life is! (31 December 1931)

Yet despite the off-putting moods of self pity, Nicolson is for the most part charmingly aware of limitations and contradictory ways.  He knows his strength, however much he may like to dream of being dashing and a man of action, lies in solid, conservative competence:

We have a meeting of the sub-committee of the London Library to consider who is to be President.  We decide to separate the posts of President and Chairman and to choose for the latter, not a man of eminence, but a man who will attend meetings.  They therefore choose me. (25 October 1951)

And he is able to observe, delightfully, the workings of his own easily-flattered mind:

The Spectator this week suggests that I should be sent as Ambassador to Washington.  It amuses me to observe my own reactions to such a suggestion.  My first fear is that it will expose me to ridicule, since all we Nicolsons are morbidly sensitive to being placed in a false position.  My second impulse is to realise how much Vita would hate it.  My third is to feel how much I should loathe the pomp and publicity of an Embassy.  My fourth is to agree with the Spectator that I might do the job rather well.  But it will not occur. (21 April 1939)

But it is the family-minded side of him that is the most appealing.  Whether he is writing to welcome a new daughter-in-law into the family (“You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent”) or advising his young son on how best to get his mother’s approval for the kind of dangerous adventures that are the stuff of every mother’s nightmares (“she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman”), he is perfection.   The book covers his life from 1907 (when he was just twenty) to 1964 and so we get to see not just the relationship he had with his wife but the ones he had with both his parents (his chatty letters to them show what a close, friendly relationship they had), his two sons, and, eventually, his grandchildren.  For all the other things he was in his life and for all the varying level of success he had, he was a wonderful family man.  I defy anyone to read this letter Nicolson wrote in 1954 to his freshly christened granddaughter and not think what  delightful grandfather he would have made (his granddaughter certainly thought so):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

I am so happy to have made the acquaintance of Nicolson the family man after having known for so many years only Nicolson the political observer.  He is wonderful in both roles but so much more interesting to me now that I have a clearer, more complete idea of his character.  Each page of this book was a delight; it is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year and one of the best diaries I have ever read.  Nicolson has certainly earned his place alongside Ritchie on my bookshelf.

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