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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

There are books that are important and books that are an education in and of themselves and books you never want to end.  And, best of all, there are books that are all those things.  The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich is such a book.

Between 1978 and 1983 Alexievich, the Belarusian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, travelled thousands of miles across the USSR and met with countless women to hear and record their experiences of the Second World War.  And for many people, Soviets included, these were stories they had no idea existed – stories of women who served in active combat, who knew what life was like on the battlefield, who had been shot at alongside their male comrades, and whose contributions had been largely swept aside as the official history of the Great Patriotic War took shape.  Published in 1985, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of their experiences changed that and now, thanks to a new English-language translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose previous work made me fall in love with War and Peace), it can change the perspectives of Western readers too.

When Russia went to war against Germany in 1941, women flocked to sign up.  Time and again Alexievich records women who remember leaving their schools to go to the recruiting office or fighting against military bureaucrats who thought they were too young to be put on active duty.  They enlisted as pilots, as snipers, as members of tank squadrons, and, overwhelmingly, as surgeons, doctors, and other medical professionals.  The Soviet Union may never have become the utopia dreamed of but it had trained women to think of themselves as capable, contributing and equal members of society.  They were doctors and lawyers and engineers without the novelty factor still common in the West.  As Vera Danilovsteva, a sniper, recalled “Girls felt equal to boys; we weren’t treated differently.  On the contrary, we had heard since childhood and at school: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors!,” “Girls – at the controls of a plane!””

But a large focus of the book is on how elusive that equality was.  By the time Alexievich came to speak to them, many had given up hope of ever getting to tell their stories.  They had been swept aside for so long and the relief at finally having someone who cares to listen was immense:

I want to speak…to speak!  To speak it all out!  Finally somebody wants to hear us.  For so many years we said nothing, even at home we said nothing.  For decades.  The first year, when I came back from the war, I talked and talked.  Nobody listened.  So I shut up…It’s good that you’ve come along.  I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.  Had to come.  (Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva – Private, Nurse-aide)

Alexievich recounts their stories of life during the war: how they joined up, how they fought, what they missed, how they fell in love (or didn’t), how they longed for their families.  They all had different experiences – understandable enough given their huge numbers (more than one million women joined the military and at least half of those served in active combat roles) – but the universal memory is of how their country and their brothers-in-arms failed them when the war ended:

How did the Motherland meet us?  I can’t speak without sobbing…It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.  The men said nothing, but the women…They shouted to us, “We know what you did there!  You lured our men with your young c—-!  Army whores…Military bitches…”  They insulted us in all possible ways…The Russian vocabulary is rich… (Klavdia S—va – Sniper)

They had come home wanting to be proud of their achievements, to stand next to their male comrades and be recognized for what they had done, but they also wanted to get on with their lives.  And being a soldier, it was made clear to them, was not possible if you were a proper woman:

When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears.  I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.  We had spent four years in trousers.  There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion.  Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you?  We were silent as fish.  We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front.  (Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva – Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery)

Their silence was extreme.  Some women did their best to make their past disappear, hiding their ribbons and medals away, not daring to wear them on parade days even though all the men did.  In extreme cases, women tore up their papers, making it impossible to claim the pension and benefits due to them as veterans, while others, wounded in the war and ashamed of what had happened, moved far away from anyone who knew them and did their best to hide.

But others remained happy and proud.  For those who had fought alongside their husbands it was easier to retain that part of their life with pride – if he knew and was proud, she could be too.  But it was these same husbands who could be found coaching their wives ahead of their interviews with Alexievich, reminding them of the facts of each battle – the dates, the outcomes, the soldiers lost.  This was their vision of how war should be discussed, particularly in an era when talking about your feelings and opinions about your country could get you into serious trouble, but it was not Alexievich’s – or, thankfully, the women’s.

It’s been a while since I finished the book and what has stuck with me the most were the feelings of the women as they swept through into Germany.  Western Allies remember finding a broken country, with millions of people displaced, millions homeless, and seeing some of the most gracious and elegant cities of Europe in ruins.  For the Russians it was a completely different experience.  They had marched from their own broken and ravaged country with no doubt, after Leningrad and Stalingrad, after passing the Polish death camps on their way to Berlin, of how their enemies should be treated.  But what seemed to bewilder and enrage them in equal measure was what they found in Germany.  For the Russians, after years of starvation, of living on almost nothing, sleeping “on straw, on sticks”, the level of civilization still intact in Germany floored them:

Finally, we were on their land…The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses…Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time…We didn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  (Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk – Sergeant, Liaison)

It is particularly feminine observation and a telling one, showing so clearly the disparity between the two enemies but also between the allies.

This was Alexievich’s first book and if she had ended there her contribution to history would have been considerable.  As it is, she has written about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the survivors of Chernobyl, and the disintegration of the USSR.  She picks timely, important subjects and creates books that matter both in the present and to posterity.  She has left me better informed, much moved, and feeling like I need to read all of her other words immediately.  It is the best possible feeling I can have when I finish a book.

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 first heard about Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd I was delighted.  A book about foreigners in Germany from the end of WWI to the end of WWII?  Yes, please.  I didn’t manage to get my hands on a copy last year (which is why it made my list of The Ones That Got Away) and the book won’t even be published in North America until August but, thankfully, the university library was as eager as me to read it and ordered the British edition.

Boyd wisely begins her story with the start of the problem: a Germany crippled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  One of Boyd’s strengths is highlighting how awful these post-war years were for Germans: how much they struggled, how shamed they felt, and how much they longed for something better:

For Violet [Bonham-Carter], as for so many other observers of inflation-ridden Germany, it was the plight of the middle classes that aroused her greatest sympathy.  As no one could any longer afford their professional services, and as inflation destroyed their capital, many were reduced to total penury…When hyper-inflation reached its peak in November 1923, even the sceptical Lady D’Abernon was moved at the “distressing spectacle of gentlefolk half hidden behind the trees in the Tiergarten, timidly stretching out their hands for help.

But there were advantages among the chaos.  The extreme liberalism of Weimar-era Berlin, with its cabarets and cross-dressing, attracted many, as did the liberal attitudes towards sex and nudity.  Women were active in politics (they had more female parliamentarians than any other country) and in the workforce.  But outside Berlin, it drew a very different, more traditionally-inclined type of traveller, ones in search of “quaint houses, cobbled streets, brass bands, and beer.”

The book is full of familiar figures observing these scenes and unfortunately Boyd never quite delivers on her subtitle’s promise of “The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People”, unless you count (largely British and American) journalists, diplomats, and socialites as everyday people.  We hear from the fascist members of the Mitford clan (Tom, Diana, and Unity), Violet Bonham-Carter, Robert Byron, Chips Channon, Knut Hamsun, Brian Howard, Christopher Isherwood, the Lindberghs, the Windors, Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Eddy Sackville-West, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  It’s an interesting variety of perspectives – everything from Bloomsbury to passionate Nazis – but class-wise it’s rather homogenous.

What is sadly lacking are the views of other Europeans (aside from a couple of French and the odd Nordic Nazi), other foreigners, and the everyman.  Boyd mentions the Nazi push for foreign tourism by offering cheap holiday tours for the working classes but we hear from no one who actually went on them.  Instead we only see them observed:

[Sibyl Crowe, the daughter of a British diplomat] had travelled out from England by train and had been much struck with a group of her fellow passengers, bound for a small town on the Mosel.  ‘They were a party of thirty from Manchester, mostly shopkeepers, shop assistants, typists, and factory-hands – quite simple and poor persons’ […] To her surprise, she discovered that most of them had already travelled many times to Germany.  ‘One man, a draper, told me he had been there seven years running; he sang the praises of the Germans, said what nice people they were.’  A young shop assistant from a Manchester department store had hiked all over the Bavarian Alps, staying in youth hostels.

These are the voices that are missing.  Boyd quotes the gushings of teenage girls but ignores the equally unsophisticated but better-informed views of these return visitors.

The greatest variety of sources comes during the infamous Olympics, particularly from the American athletes.  American journalists were keen to report back on the discrimination faced by their black and Jewish athletes.  With overt signs of anti-Semitism tightly locked down while Germany played host, both groups reported that the only discrimination they faced came from their American coaches, not the Germans.  Many of them left the country with only good memories of the German people who had chanted and cheered for them.

The best outsider – true outsider – accounts come from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ji Xianlin.  Du Bois was an African-American scholar, a professor at Atlanta University who chose to spend a six-month sabbatical in Germany in 1936 to seek inspiration on educational methods, revisit a country he loved from his graduate student days at Berlin University in the 1890s, and take in the Bayreuth Festival with fellow opera lovers.  Ji Xianlin had come to Heidelberg from China to study Sanskrit (he obtained his PhD in 1941) but found himself trapped in the country until 1946 due to the war.  Both offer fascinating observations and well-informed ones given that both men had lived in the country for years (albeit at very different times) and had a more nuanced understanding of both the culture and the politics than many of Boyd’s other sources.

Another Chinese student, Shi Min, was studying in Paris but came on holiday to much cheaper Germany with a group of fellow Chinese students in 1935.  His group marveled at the clean streets and athletic, inelegant women (very unlike both the French and Chinese ideal), and, embarrassed, corrected policemen who asked if they were Japanese: ‘They dislike the Japanese but respect them.  They are sympathetic to Chinese but look down on them.’

It is through all these eyes that Boyd guides the reader through the 1930s as Germany turns from a depressed and downtrodden country to a nation brimming with energy and optimism – and deeply, deeply troubling politics.

What rankled me most was Boyd’s overt judgement that it was morally wrong for people to be travelling in Hitler’s Germany, especially post-Olympics.  She criticizes American schools for sending exchange students, British mothers for sending their daughters to be finished by impoverished German noblewomen, and, despite having significant written evidence to the contrary, insists ‘to any non-believer visiting Germany in the late 1930s, it must have seemed as if National Socialism had permeated every last nook and cranny of human existence.’  She is incredulous that any visitors or foreign students managed to contrive to ‘ignore the Nazis while at the same time extracting the best out of Germany.’

Her conclusion drives home everything that irritated me about this book:

Perhaps the most chilling fact to emerge from these travellers’ tales is that so many perfectly decent people could return home from Hitler’s Germany singing its praises.  Nazi evil permeated every aspect of German society yet, when blended with the seductive pleasures still available to the foreign visitor, the hideous reality was too often and for too long ignored.

I hate that she doesn’t try to explain how it came about that ‘perfectly decent people’ felt this way when she is making such sweeping criticisms.  Either let the letters speak for themselves or try to draw a conclusion but don’t damn without making the effort to understand.

Despite this frustration, it is still a fascinating book – just not a definitive one.  It’s simplistic and needlessly judgemental but it does compliment other books on the subject.  I’d hate to think of people reading it in isolation from other books about Germany at the time but if read alongside more nuanced works (like the novel Manja, the oral history Frauen, and The Germans, the unsurpassed guide to the national identity) I think the reader can properly appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.

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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Fun and World War Two history books don’t always go together.  Happily, in Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson they do.  Olson, always an entertaining writer with a talent for unearthing entertaining tidbits, has written widely about the war before, including books on Polish airmen, Churchill’s ascent to power, and American support for the war (prior to their belated joining).  Now, I think she has found her most interesting subject to date: the contributions made (and too often overlooked) by occupied countries to the war effort.

Olson focuses on the countries with, from early in the war, London-based governments in exile.  These countries are (in order of Nazi occupation): Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.  While much has been written about Poland, France, and, to some extent, the Netherlands, it’s wonderful to see some of the smaller countries examined in detail and to have the focus shifted to not just what was done to them and for them but by them.

Olson begins the books with stories of escape, telling how governments and monarchs fled as the Nazis poured into their countries.  It is stirring stuff and I was in tears multiple times in just the first 50 pages of the book over the angst of patriotic King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who hated leaving behind their people, knowing how they would suffer.   Queen Wilhelmina had to be tricked into leaving the Netherlands, so determined was she to stay.  I don’t envy the men who were tasked with that job.  After all, she is the woman of whom Winston Churchill remarked “the only man on earth I fear is Queen Wilhelmina!”  She sounds deeply formidable and exactly the right woman for the time.  But while she may have struck fear into Churchill’s heart, she loved and was equally loved by her people: whenever a Dutch citizen escaped to England, she insisted on meeting them and often invited them to have tea at her home.  And her people at home did what they could to reach out to her, too.  When John Hackett, a British parachutist who had been captured after the Battle of Arnhem but was rescued by the Dutch resistance (a story told in beautiful detail in his memoir, I Was a Stranger, and recounted here by Olson), escaped and returned to Britain, he brought with him a letter for the queen from the three elderly Dutch women who had risked their lives to shelter him.

Both those monarchs and their governments were welcomed to London; other heads of government fared less well.  Edvard Beneš, who had been Prime Minster of Czechoslovakia until he was forced to resign after the British-signed Munich Agreement, had been living in exile since the Nazis invaded his country in 1938 and quickly established a London-based government in exile.  However, it took until 1941 for the UK to recognize the government.  And as for Charles de Gaulle, one of the most entertaining things about this deeply entertaining book may be the many references I group under the title “Everyone hates de Gaulle” – a rich and fruitful vein.  My favourite, and too good not to share, was: “His unofficial motto, in the words of one observer, was ‘Extreme weakness requires extreme intransigence.’”  De Gaulle grew into his role and proved useful eventually but was never well-liked.

The tangible contributions made by each of these occupied countries varied.  The Norwegians had been able to get most of their fleet to Britain and it was these ships – more than 1,000 – that helped ferry food across the Atlantic to keep Britain fed.  The Czechs, whose military strongholds had been taken over by the Nazis in 1938, had little to contribute but 5,000 servicemen did manage to escape, first to Poland, then to France, and finally, after it too fell, to Britain.  Along the way they joined almost 30,000 Polish servicemen.  Seasoned after fighting in Poland and France, and significantly older than the new British recruits, it was the Polish airmen who would soon become the toast of London after their spectacular performance during the Battle of Britain:

…it was the Poles, with their hand kissing and penchant for sending flowers, who won the greatest reputations as gallants.  John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries, once asked a woman friend, the daughter of an earl, what it was like to serve as a WAAF driver for Polish officers.  ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I have to say “Yes, sir” all day, and “No, sir,” all night.’  The head of a British girls’ school made headlines when she admonished the graduating class about the pitfalls of life in the outside world, ending her speech with ‘And remember, keep away from gin and Polish airmen.’

What emerges strongly is the incredible contributions made by the Poles.  Anyone who has read about the Battle for Britain or codebreaking is probably already aware of the vital role Poles played in these areas but Olson goes deeper and her discussion of the value of the vast and trustworthy Polish intelligence service is excellent.  Intelligence had been one of the country’s priorities prior to the war – a history of being fought over between Germany and Russia had taught them the importance of knowing their enemies’ plans.  An estimated 16,000 Poles were involved in intelligence gathering in occupied Poland and, in addition to that, more were active outside of their country as well, sending information to London from: Austria, Germany, France, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Balkans and North Africa.  And as Poles, classed as sub-humans by the Nazis, were sent to work as slave labour in the Reich, they sent intelligence reports from the factories there as well, giving the Allies valuable information about munitions production.

The problem then became how intelligence was used.  The chilling incompetence of British intelligence during the war is a story I have come across many times before but is always horrifying.  The way agents were run in occupied countries can only be called reckless and the siloing of information was ridiculous, with SOE running each nation’s network independently – of both other departments and the nations’ exiled governments.  The Poles, thank god, along with the Czechs were the only exceptions and were allowed to:

Operate their own training establishments, codes, ciphers, and radio networks without MI6 control, with the proviso that they pass on all intelligence relevant to the Allied war effort.

The Poles and the Czechs were often parcelled together in the minds of their British hosts, despite having very little in common.  (By the way, Olson’s frequent reference to them as “eastern European nations” is the only thing that jarred me in this book.  Once and for all everyone: they are in central Europe.  If in doubt, look at the goddamn map.  End rant.)  More importantly, they each KNEW they had nothing in common with their neighbour:

The romantic, emotional Poles tended to disparage the Czechs for what they perceived as their neighbours’ dullness and industriousness.  “The Czechs seem to the Poles solid, heavy people, much like liver dumplings,” A.J. Liebling noted in the New Yorker in 1942.  For their part, the Czechs regarded the Poles as arrogant, foolhardy, autocratic, and suicidally reckless.

The “sober, sensible, middle-class” Czechs viewed themselves as “focused on hard work” and, unlike their Polish neighbours, “shied away from flashy heroics.”  Poles, on the other hand, were “polar opposites…hotheaded and rebellious by temperament, they repeatedly rose up, particularly against the Russians and just as repeatedly were crushed.”

What they did have in common was the complete irrelevance of their futures to the Western allied powers.  Russia, who absorbed a shocking 95% of the total wartime casualties suffered by the Big Three (UK, USA, and Russia), needed to be appeased.  Churchill, to his credit, did feel some guilt at signing Poland over to Russia – Roosevelt felt none.  The Czechs, who had never had any ties to Russia but were afraid of being handed over in the same way as the Poles, tried to make a deal of their own, which backfired spectacularly even before the war was done:

Acting more like conquerors than liberators, [the Russians] treated the Czechs, their supposed friends and allies, in much the same ruthless manner they were now treating the citizens of the collapsed Third Reich.  Eyewitness accounts reported widespread rape and drunkenness, wholesale looting, and wanton destruction of property.

Beneš was never forgiven by his people for making that deal, but it is difficult to see any better outcome.  Although the Allies benefited hugely from the contributions of the central European countries, they never learned to value or respect them.  Britain, always suspicious of Europeans, remained so even as those Europeans did all they could to win the war.  Field Marshal Montgomery, hero of North Africa and the man in charge of all land forces on D-Day, exemplified the typical disinterest of his nation:

Montgomery, whose command included thousands of European troops, was particularly noted for his lack of knowledge of and regard for them.  Once, during a visit to a Polish division in his army, he asked its commander whether Poles spoke to one another in Russian or German.  He was stunned to learn they had their own language.

What Olson does so well here is manage to illustrate how difficult it was for the British hosts to imagine, nevermind respond to, the challenges facing occupied Europe.  In the occupied countries, people were murdered and starved, millions were left homeless, infrastructure was destroyed, and all sense of individualism, the ability to chose your future was taken away.  In Britain (and even more so in Allied countries outside of Europe), it was a mildly dangerous but primarily thrilling event taking place at some distance:

To the Europeans, World War II was a cataclysm that must never happen again.  To the British, who had suffered neither invasion nor occupation, it was one of the proudest periods of their country’s history – a “moment of national reconciliation and rallying together, rather than a corrosive rent in the fabric of state and nation.”

In too many history books (and especially novels), this is still the case.  Olson lays bare the incompetence and xenophobia that greeted the leaders of the occupied nations in London, shows how they were ignored and distrusted despite their contributions, and, ultimately, forgotten in favour a narrative that focused on the official Allied saviours and conveniently swept aside those allies (Poland, in particular) sacrificed for “the greater good”.  But she manages to make it wonderfully enjoyable along the way, a true accomplishment and tribute to the men and women whose achievements should be remembered.

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The receipt in my copy of The Marches by Rory Stewart reminds me that I bought it a year ago today.  It took me almost a year (a very strange and hectic year in my defense) to read it but one year from purchase to reading is hardly my worst record.  I had been looking forward to this book for a long time (it was announced years ago but the publication date kept getting pushed back and back and back – I can understand why, having read it) and wanted to have the time to savour it.  It was completely worth waiting for.

The book is subtitled “A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland” and is based on Stewart’s walks through the borderlands – first along Hadrian’s Wall and then from Stewart’s home in Cumbria to his father’s home in Crieff, Scotland.  Only 44 years old, Stewart has already led a fascinating life and walked through some precarious places.  Currently an MP, he has been: a lieutenant in the Black Watch, private tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry, a diplomat serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, a deputy governor in two coalition-held provinces in southern Iraq, the founder of a NGO in Afghanistan, and a professor at Harvard.  He also, in 2002, found time to walk across Afghanistan (among other places) and wrote a fascinating book about it (The Places in Between).

I picked this up because I was feeling the urge to encounter someone out of the ordinary – both eccentric and a bit old-fashioned (at least in their ideas of duty and service), which I knew Stewart to be.  What I didn’t realise is that there was someone who fit that description even better than Stewart: his father, Brian, who is the most perfectly eccentric person I have come across in years.  And he is the heart of the book.  What starts as a journey to understand, in advance of the Scottish independence vote, the differences between the people on either side of the border becomes a tribute to the life of Brian Stewart, proud Scotsman and lifelong British public servant.

We meet Brian in book’s opening paragraph, immediately discovering he is a very involved older father (he was in his fifties when Stewart, the first child of Brian’s second marriage, was born) and a rather unique one:

I was five years old and it was just before six in the morning.  I walked into my parents’ room and poked the shape on the right-hand side of the bed.  My father’s head emerged.  He rolled himself upright, retied his checked sarong, pushed his white hair flat on his head, and led me back out of the bedroom.  Once we had dressed, we marched to Hyde Park for fencing practice.  Then we marched back to the house and laid out toy soldiers on the floor to re-enact the battle of Waterloo.

Throughout the book, Brian is a huge part of both Stewart’s daily life (in the average month he would write his son emails totaling 40,000 words and they check in by phone regularly during his walks) and his memories.  A former soldier, diplomat and British Secret Intelligence Service officer (the second-most senior one, in fact) who invariably called his son ‘darling’, Brian had much practical advice for Stewart when he was establishing his own diplomatic career and working in places (like Indonesia) well known to his father.  The casual helicopter parent of today had nothing on Brian Stewart.  My favourite anecdotes were the ones describing how Brian descended on his son’s new postings and, with characteristic energy and focus, immediately started in on projects:

When I left the Foreign Office to set up a charity in Afghanistan, he was eighty-four.  This time it was nine months before he came to visit me.  When he did, he flew through the night to Kabul, came straight up to our office, laid out his sketchpad and began designing a formal Persian garden.  An hour later he began an essay title ‘You know more Persian than you think.’  By supper he was standing in the kitchen, training the cooks.

How terrifying and how absolutely wonderful.  And how excellent that his son appreciates the father he has and the legacy Brian has given him: “not some philosophical or political vision, but playfulness and a delight in action.”

But the book is not entirely about Brian (though his spirit dominates).  It is also about Stewart’s inquiries into the identity of those who live along the border and what that may tell us about the future of both Scotland and England – a debate that is particularly relevant to him, as a Scotsman who lives in England and has, like his father, devoted a good portion of his life to public service.

He begins by walking along Hadrian’s Wall, more a border of imagination than reality, reflecting on the Roman occupation.  He does a superb job of making that strange place of uncertain purpose come alive, a place where foods imported from across the empire were eaten by soldiers, merchants, and slaves from Syria and North Africa and a dozen other places.  And he marvels at how it all disappeared – of how little remained in Britain after the Romans left.  For him, the parallels with the collation occupation of Afghanistan are clear and fascinating:

…while archaeologists seemed to want to insist there was a rational, practical purpose to the wall, which could be read from its architectural design, I sensed absurdity.  The wall was cripplingly expensive to build and maintain.  It failed to prevent incursions from the north, that devastated the economy and society of southern Britain.  Over the course of the occupation, tens of thousands of Romans and hundreds of thousands of Britons were killed and indigenous cultures were smashed forever.  And in the end nothing sustainable was left behind when the Romans departed.

Later, as he walks north to his father’s Scottish home, he considers the artifice of local “heritage” and identity.  The border should an “irrelevance” but as long as the people on either side think of themselves as different they remain different.  In what was once a Welsh kingdom, then the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, he now finds three distinct “countries”: the area north of the Scottish border, the area south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the area between the two.  His observations are excellent and this entire section is just a superb piece of travel writing.  In particular, his comments on how southern Scotland has co-opted highland culture, embracing traditions (Gaelic, tartan, etc.) that have no ties at all to the region, are especially interesting.

In the end, Stewart’s journey comes to an end and the book comes to its inevitable conclusion: Brian’s death at age 94.  From the structure of the book, from the importance of Brian’s presence throughout, it was clear that this was a tribute to him as much as it was an exploration of a specific region.  It would have been an excellent and fascinating book without Brian; with him, it is unforgettable and incredibly moving.

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terms-conditionsEvery December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school.  It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women.  There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia.  It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays.  It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.

This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979.  The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort.  Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.”  And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.

But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain?  Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.

I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:

…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills.  These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise.  These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers.  They thrived on obstacles in their way.  The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”

Delightfully put and full of truth.  My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.

In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools.  Some were miserable, some happy.  Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept.  We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.

I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools.  There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones.  The overachieving academic schools (school?  This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes.  The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:

Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above.  If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms.  The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county.  It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.  Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out.  If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.

The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:

Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.”  “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”

You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world.  Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women.  Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied.  Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”

It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone.  British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level.  It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing.  The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.

However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:

There was an innocence about these establishments.  They were not all about self-advancement or money-making.  They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters.  As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.  The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement.  But what I am not torn over is my love for this book.  It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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Perfect Wives in Ideal HomesI read a few really excellent books right at the end of 2015, the most enjoyable of which was Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson writes social histories that focus on British women and in previous books she’s looked at surplus women following the First World War (Singled Out) and women’s lives during and immediately after the Second World War (Millions Like Us). Here, she has moved on to the 1950s.

For thousands of young women […] in the early 1950s, the dreams of education, career, achievement and fulfillment were within reach. The war had exploded the inequality myth. The doors were opening. But for too many, their own ignorance, fears, confining desires and expectations were bred-in-the-bone.

To tell her story, Nicholson draws on an amazing variety of first-hand accounts from:

  • a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret
  • a Jamaican immigrant
  • a beauty queen
  • a working class girl who studied at Cambridge
  • an Irish nurse
  • a miner’s wife
  • a young policewoman
  • a rock n’roll-loving Teddy girl
  • several educated but desperately isolated suburban housewives
  • and many more

Through these women and their experience, Nicholson marks the mood of the decade. She looks at the fields now open to women (all of them, basically, though women were only being paid 59% of what men received in the same roles) versus the conditioning in popular media that reminded them femininity was the most important thing. Graceful secretary, desirable air hostess, and glamorous model were presented as much more appropriate ambitions than a career as a lawyer, doctor, or politician. And, most important of all, work must come second to husband, home and children.

However, that wasn’t really the reality. “In the post-war world, there was little – except a residual belief in her own incapacity – to stop a young woman from training to become an architect, a biologist, or a lawyer. The opportunities were there.” In 1951, nearly 85% of women between the ages of 14 and 25 were working. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t just single women who were working: in 1961, 30% of married women under 30 and 36% of married women between the ages of 35 and 45 worked (up from 25% in 1951).

Nicholson chooses to focus on specific women’s experiences. This is very compelling from a story-telling perspective though I did miss having a historical or geographical context. And while Nicholson pays particular attention to women of the working class, we don’t hear much from the upper middle class – the women who followed their fathers and brothers into professions, becoming doctors and lawyers.

What she does do wonderfully is allow the women to tell their own stories. I particularly enjoyed the chapters which look at the pressure to be constantly attractive and appear pure, but also sexually alluring. A confusing enough mix which, when coupled with poor sexual education, lead to a predictable number of shotgun weddings or quiet adoptions.

We hear much about the two famous Margarets: Princess Margaret and Margaret Thatcher. Nicholson contrasts them throughout the book and it is an effective pairing: one the beautiful, feminine storybook princess whose purity and perfection, at least in the 1950s, was the pride of the nation, the other a brilliant, ambitious career woman, ready to take advantage of every opportunity available to her and brutally pilloried for it (though that would come later, once she achieved success).

Like most enjoyable reading experiences, I have my quibbles with Nicholson’s presentation of facts. Throughout the book, she treats certain topics as though they are relics of the past, specific to the 1950s, when if fact they persisted long past that decade. She treats the opposition to Princess Margaret’s relationship with Townsend as something specific to her time and gender. Given that her uncle and nephew faced similar pressure when they fell in love with unsuitable partners, there is a strong argument to be made that it is more a hazard of position than anything else. Also, bizarrely, she throws in an off-handed comment about how the women of the WI were “starting to look beyond poultry-keeping and meal preparation.” The WI started off in the 19th Century, enraged by high infant mortality rates and determined to educate and mobilize woman to combat issues such as poor hygiene, a lack of family planning, and alcohol abuse. If anything, it has become dulled and sanitized since then with its jam-making and hymn singing.

There are some disappointing anti-male comments scatted through the book (references to the walls built by men to keep women out of professions, etc). Apparently, it is natural for women to be conditioned to accept stereotypical gender roles but men have no such excuse. And they certainly do not get any credit when they did encourage women to enter the workforce and join professions, though Nicholson does acknowledge that the walls no longer existed in any meaningful way.

Overall, it is a very fascinating book and great fun to read. I added so many of Nicholson’s source books to my own to-be-read list and can’t wait to learn more about some of the fascinating women introduced to me here.

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