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Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

After slacking off a bit with my non-fiction reading earlier in the year, May saw me stepping up my game (also receiving a number of much-anticipated library holds – truly the deciding factor when it comes to what I read) with seven non-fiction titles.  But it was still balanced by many, many rom-coms.  

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary (2022) – Three women are stood up by Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day: Siobhan, who enjoys their hotel hook-ups when she’s visiting from Dublin; Jane, who Jospeh had promised to partner as a fake date for an event she dreaded; and Miranda, his girlfriend.  None gets a straight answer as to why she was stood up and so their doubts begin to grow.

O’Leary treads a line here between slick and smart and I’m still not entirely sure which I think she pulls off but it’s fundamentally a fun book, even if Joseph remains a (necessarily) distant figure throughout and therefore not an ideal romantic hero.

Free by Lea Ypi (2021) – a wonderful memoir about growing up in Albania in the dying years of communism and in the desperate 1990s.  Ypi provides an interesting glimpse into a country I know little about and her memories of helped me understand all the modern stereotypes I’ve absorbed – of gangsters trafficking people across the Adriatic and illegal workers in Italy – and how they came to be.  A good country to leave, sadly.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (2021) – the subtitle for Sieghart’s entertaining and enraging book is “Why Women Are Still Taken Less Serious Than Men, and What We Can Do About It”, but it’s hard to get excited about the (very practical) actions she outlines when you realise just how many of them there are.  I suspect there won’t be many surprises here for most women, especially those in the corporate world, but it’s helpful to have the facts.  A book you’ll want to make every man in your office read (but will they take it seriously?).

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (2019) – Reread.  A joyous foodie memoir about Cloake’s bicycle journey through France to explore regional specialties.

Goblin Hill by Essie Summers (1977) – After Faith’s parents die, she discovers she was adopted with only just enough time to reconnect with her dying birth mother.  Now knowing the identify of her birth father, she looks for a job near his New Zealand farm until she can work up the courage to present herself.  She starts work as a family historian only to discover that the women who have hired her are her great-aunts.  Soon she is caught up in the family (especially with Gareth Morgan, her stepbrother) while waiting for her father to return from his travels.  There are many silly secrets and the overall effect is classic Summers but far from her best.

The Wedding Crasher by Abigail Mann (2022) – an enjoyably slow-moving romcom about a woman who finds herself swept up into the wedding chaos of her university housemate years after last seeing him.  It’s a bizarrely complicated set up but Mann makes it work with fundamentally relatable characters.  This is her third novel and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

Twelve Days in May by Niamh Hargan (2022) – jumping from one novel about two university friends contemplating what-might-have-been, I fell straight into another.  I guess we know what people were musing about during Covid lockdowns.

Twelve years after meeting in Bordeaux, Lizzy and Ciaran reconnect at the Cannes film festival where his film is debuting and she is working for the Scottish Film Board.  With allegations of plagiarism against Ciaran, his PR team pulls her in to the media whirlwind to attest to the originality of the film, based on their Erasmus experience.  But the film – and being together – brings back memories of their intense friendship all those years before and its abrupt ending.  Soon Lizzy is wondering how well she really remembers what happened and if there is a chance to start again.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood (2022) – Hazelwood has a trio of linked novellas that have come out before her second novel is released in August.  They’ve been released first as audiobooks and I did listen to the other two but this was the only one I read.  About three friends in STEM fields, I honestly found all the characters very annoying and the romances frustrating, though this one – about two unwilling housemates who eventually fall in love – was…the least frustrating?  Faint praise, indeed.

The Temporary European by Cameron Hewitt (2022) – For North American travellers, Rick Steves is a dependable and practical travel guru, inspiring others with his passion for European travel.  Cameron Hewitt is his right-hand man and equally excited about sharing his love of Europe.  I’ve loved reading his blog posts over the years, especially since his main area of focus is Central and Eastern Europe, so it’s no surprise I loved this collection of travel essays.  Like Rick, Cameron is funny, generally optimistic, and candid about his likes and dislikes.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry (2022) – when literary agent Nora’s sister insists they take a holiday together to a small town in North Carolina, Nora can’t refuse.  Ever since their single-parent mother died twelve years before (and even before that), Nora has felt responsible for Libby’s happiness.  Seeing how harried Libby is now – pregnant and with two young daughters already – Nora goes along with the plan.  She’s less willing to go along with Libby’s romance-novel-esque list of things to do while there (ride a horse, go skinny dipping, date a local).  But when Nora finds a familiar face in the small town – Charlie, an editor she’s crossed paths with in New York – things begin to look up.

Henry is very, very, very good at romcoms and this may be her best so far.  Nora is the anti-Hallmark heroine.  She feels cast as the evil urban ice queen, whose boyfriends go on business trips to quirky small towns and find love with peppy girls trying to save their family companies.  When she finds herself in a small town…that does not change.  And I loved that.  Nora gets to be who she is throughout – a successful, competent, in-control woman.  And she gets a successful, competent, in-control love interest who doesn’t need to challenge or change her, just be there for her to rely on and let her feel comfortable enough to relax a little.  Truly, the dream.

We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (2022) – a superb blend of history and memoir in which journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day.  Reviewed here.

Borders by Thomas King (2021) – a graphic novel adaptation of an old short story by King about a boy and his mother trying to cross the Canada-US border.  When his mother is unwilling to identify her nationality as anything other than Blackfoot (whose lands straddle the border), the boy and his mother find themselves stuck in a no man’s land at the border crossing.

The Meet Cute Method by Portia MacIntosh (2022) – Still enjoying my discovery of MacIntosh’s romcoms.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016) – Reread of Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport (2022) – another fascinating history from the always reliable Rappaport about the Russians who found their way to Paris both during the early years of the 20th Century and after the revolution.  Reviewed here.

A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1931) – excellent sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand from the perspective of Abby Deal’s granddaughter Laura.  Laura is determined to fulfil the gentile aspirations her grandmother never achieved but, ultimately, like Abby she finds herself tempted by love and the promise of friendship and a family.  Aldrich poignantly tracks the decline of the first generation of pioneers and reflects on how quickly the country has changed, that the grandchildren of those early settlers now take going to college for granted and have the whole world at their feet.

New Zealand Inheritance by Essie Summers (1957) – this was Summers’ first book and she certainly began as she meant to go on.  Roberta returns to her grandfather’s Otago farm in her mid-twenties, after travelling the world with her artistic parents and nursing them through their final years.  Now she is looking for roots and feels drawn back to Heatherleigh, where she spent one idyllic summer as a child.  When she arrives, it seems as though her grandfather’s one-time shepherd and now neighbour, Muir Buchanan, is paying her attentions with an eye to her inheritance.  Roberta, fighting her attraction, decides to lead him on a merry dance.

Roberta is the worst kind of heroine: a sensible person doing absolutely bonkers things to serve the plot.  And Muir is uselessly uncommunicative and struggling a bit with the chip on his shoulder.  Backed up by some absurdly melodramatic stories for secondary characters, it’s all a bit much.

How We Met by Huma Qureshi (2021) – a short, gentle memoir about Qureshi’s experiences growing up in a family and culture that shaped her approach to finding a romantic partner – and how she eventually chose a different path and a very different sort of husband.

Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan (2022) – I loved the writing in this story of a young woman starting a new life at university in Dublin, growing away from the swimming that defined her teen years and delving into her family’s past and the suicide of her famous poet grandfather. But…there are too many buts to count.  The plot and characterization are bog standard and I’m sure I’ll forget everything within a month or two.

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2022) – Extremely good YA novel about two university freshmen who find themselves stuck – à la Groundhog Day – reliving the same day over and over.  When they realise it’s happening to them both, they band together and start trying to break out of the loop and move forward with their lives.  As days turn to weeks, they have time to get to know one another, go a little loopy, work through some issues, and, very sweetly, fall in love.  It’s all delightful, funny, and poignant, and the characters, both dealing with baggage they don’t particularly want to confront, are highly relatable (if a little too emotionally evolved for eighteen year olds).

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We are almost half-way through the year and while there are already a number of books in the running for my end-of-year list of favourites, there is only one that is currently in the race for the number one spot: We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole.  A blend of history and memoir, journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day (this was published in 2021), an extraordinary period of social and economic upheaval.

I was born in the mid-eighties so my first impressions of Ireland were shaped in the 1990s, when the economy was booming and the country was being shaken by revelations about the Catholic church’s involvement in decades of child abuse and the incarceration of girls and women in the Magdalene Laundries.  While we learned a fair amount in school about Ireland in the 19th Century, given how significantly it impacted Canada – around a million Irish people immigrated here during and after the famine, explaining why every farm town where my father’s family is from in Southwestern Ontario is named after an Irish village – our only 20th century content was a quick overview of the War of Independence and the Civil War to give us context for the Troubles and the ongoing peace talks that were always in the news.

What I didn’t learn in school or through the news, I supplemented with Maeve Binchy books, which it turns out were excellent social histories to cover the changing attitudes of a country that changed incredibly quickly.  As O’Toole says early in his book, “the transformation of Ireland over the last sixty years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one.”  Fiction has done a good job of capturing that, but not as good as memoir.

The Ireland O’Toole was born into was a land of emigrants.  The birth rate was low because a generation of child-bearing adults had disappeared, looking for jobs and a future in England or America:

In 1841 the population of what became the twenty-six county Irish state was 6.5 million.  In 1961, it would hit its lowest ever total of 2.8 million.  By that year, a scarcely imaginable 45 per cent of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1936 and 40 per cent of those born between 1936 and 1941 had left.

Yet from such hopeless beginnings, O’Toole has seen Ireland ascend (and fall and ascend and fall and ascend – it’s been a turbulent few decades) to become, unbelievably, a country that draws immigrants.  Economically, this is primarily due to huge investment from America (the numbers are staggering – “by 2017, US direct investment stock in Ireland totalled $457 billion, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”), which is slightly worrying as a model for a stable economic future but I digress.  That’s a topic for another book.  Economic growth and stability always drive social change and the liberalising of the country has been, if anything, even more extreme.

Seeing the church through O’Toole eyes is fascinating.  Ireland has modernized so fast that, from the outside, it is easy to forget what a stranglehold the church had on all aspects of society.  They taught your children (and beat them, and molested them), they decided what could be printed or shown on film or TV, and they insisted that women and children who transgressed should be shut up in terrifying institutions.  And in their stranglehold, they allowed corruption to flourish, answerable to no one – an inspiration, surely, for the politicians to come.

Reading Maeve Binchy, not generally an author given to shocking her readers, I was always shocked by the corruption of some of the characters and the casual acceptance of it by others.  What to me seemed so over-the-top and unbelievable now, with all these real-life examples laid before me, seems like harsh social realism.  Still bizarre though, wound up in a society trained for generations by the church to pretend that they don’t see what is happening in front of them and to believe they have no power to change it.

That infantilizing of a nation was, O’Toole asserts, the Catholic church’s greatest achievement.  For years, people had had no way of even finding the words to talk about what had happened to them.  When they tried, when families spoke to the church about what had happened to their children, it was with shame and embarrassment rather than outrage:

It had so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong that it was the parents of an abused child, not the bishop who enabled that abuse, who were ‘quite apologetic’.  It had managed to create a flock who, in the face of an outrageous violation of trust, would be concerned as much about the abuser as about those he had abused and might abuse in the future.  It had inserted its system of control and power so deeply into the minds of the faithful that they could scarcely even feel angry about the perpetration of disgusting crimes on their own children.

The most heartbreaking thing is how widely known the abuses were and how a country chose to live silently with the shame for so long.  Catholicism and Ireland were inexorably entwined.  Everyone knew who the dodgy brothers were at the school, or that when girls disappeared for a few days to England that it was for an abortion that could never be spoken about.  What was then surprising is how quickly the nation embraced changed, how it longed for future generations to have more freedom than theirs had had.  The Irish are great ones for referendums and passed both the 2015 one in favour of same-sex marriage and the 2018 one to legalize abortion with majorities of greater than 60 per cent.  In both cases, O’Toole reports his generation reacting with some surprise to their parents’ votes in favour.  When the abortion ban was repealed, O’Toole was drinking with a politician friend who was happy but conflicted, having not spoken to his elderly, very devout parents who lived on their rural farm, feeling uneasy since he had publicly voiced his support for the repeal.  Their drink was interrupted by a call from his sister, ringing to share her happiness with the result:

Then he asked her how their father and mother were taking it all.  Delighted, she said – sure both of the parents had voted for repeal.  ‘Daddy said he couldn’t bear thinking of all those women coming back from England and not being able to tell anyone what they were going through.’  There had been, all along in the old man’s mind, another history, a history of migrants and absentees, of secrets and silences.  He was, it seemed, glad to let it out at last.

The one thing I’d (naively) not expected to have been so dominant were the Troubles.  I’d always thought of them as specific to Northern Ireland but O’Toole’s memory of his father coming home one day in the early 1970s and saying that it looked like he and his sons would soon be forced to go up north, certain they were on the brink of a war where Irishmen on both sides of the border would be fighting, impressed on me what that level of unrest felt like contained on a small island.  The family had another tense evening in 1972 waiting for O’Toole’s father, a bus conductor, to come home after an IRA bomb exploded near the company canteen and it wasn’t clear who had been killed.  His father was safe but two colleagues died.

It’s moments like that – the family conversations, the memories of certain television programs or exchanges at school – that make this such a vivid and impactful book.  O’Toole does a wonderful job of presenting his country’s history but an even better job of expressing what it was like to live through.

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Once you’ve proven yourself as a novelist, what do you do next?  Do you turn out novel after novel, perhaps improving, or perhaps churning out forgettable fodder?  Or do you try something entirely different, striking out into the unknown and – to your readers – the unexpected?  I know which sounds like more fun to me.

In 1954, Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford was released to indulgent – and no doubt frustrating for the author – praise from the critics.  With seven novels already behind her, Mitford had a fine reputation but, intoxicated and in love with her new home in Paris, she was eager to write about something other than the romantic trials of the English.  She threw herself into researching Louis XV’s famous mistress and the result is something between the froth of a novel and the impartiality of a biography.

My first encounter with Mitford the biographer was her last book: Frederick the Great.  Published in 1970, it’s a wonderful book, full of colourful anecdotes skillfully threaded through a well-structured and well-researched account of a difficult man’s fascinating life.  From the very first chapter of Madame de Pompadour, it was clear how much Mitford had learned about the art of biography in the period between those two books.

The approach to the codified world of Versailles is, paradoxically, familiar and affectionate.  Individuals are described as dears (or the opposite) in a chatty tone, with Mitford enjoying a good gossip over their foibles despite most of them having been dead for the better part of two hundred years.  She is particularly critical of Louis XV’s queen, a Polish princess who, “though an exceedingly nice woman, was dowdy and a bore.”  Mitford believes “[she] might have played the part of mistress as well as that of wife, if she had had more character.”  Instead, her husband was forced to go find new bedmates and friends to keep him constantly entertained.  The Queen, having given birth to 10 children in the first 12 years of their marriage, seems to have been completely at ease with that – and who (except Mitford) can blame her?

The character of Louis XV is the gap at the center of the book.  He sounds to have been a man of extraordinary energy, thoughtless selfishness, and enormous appetites.  But what actually attracted people to him is less clear.  He suffered immense losses as a child, after which he “retired into a world of his own, concealing all his thoughts and feelings from those around him, and nobody every knew much about them for the rest of his life.”  No one woman ever seems to have held his attention sexually – Madame de Pompadour was his chief mistress for a time, but there were others before and after, not to mention the girls of no significance who were procured for a bit of bed play, most never even knowing the identify of their lover.  (Which of course makes Mitford’s criticism of the Queen ever harder to accept.)

But what of Madame de Pompadour herself, a woman who would go down in history for her exquisite taste, her intelligence, and her support for the artists and thinkers that modern France continues to revere?  As a child, a fortune teller predicted she would one day rule the heart of a king and within the family she was then nicknamed Reinette and given all the education and training a king’s mistress would need, however unlikely it seemed that a young bourgeois would ever be picked for such a role.  She grew up, she married, she became a mother…and she met the King.

Mitford paints a very romantic picture of the attraction and whirlwind that kicked off the relationship, with countryside cavorting and masked balls, obvious to the entire court, before she was officially installed in the palace.  She was far from the first mistress but she was the first from outside the court, so a crash course in the bizarre intricacies of Bourbon etiquette was required.  But she found her feet quickly, cunningly (innocently?) made herself appealing to the Queen, and was soon established in the world where she would live for the next twenty years until her early death, firmly first in the King’s affections if not always in his bed.

Indeed, she was, Mitford states, “physically a cold woman.  She was not strong enough for continual love-making and it exhausted her.”  Since Louis XV seems to have liked nothing more than continual love making, it must have been a great relief when the relationship turned away from the physical, as it did within 5 or 6 years due to her poor health, leaving them as companions.  All Madame de Pompadour’s early training, her talents, and her charms had combined to make her a delightful companion – one who could not be parted with even when the obvious purpose of the relationship had been extinguished.  It was, Mitford notes with some amusement, quite like a normal marriage.

I enjoyed reading this but it felt too much like a romantic biography rather than a true biography to me.  And yet how do you assert the individualism of a woman’s whose goal was to be an appendage?  For most mistresses, the chase, the conquest, and the victory might be the full story.  But I don’t think it was for Madame de Pompadour.  Mitford does look at Pompadour’s championing of Voltaire (always so hard – he did not make life easy for his supporters), her gifts as an actress, her establishing of a porcelain factory in Sèvres, and her involvement with politics during the Seven Years War, but I would love to see how Mitford would have approached this with more experience behind her.  It’s still a very enjoyable book but not as good an example of biography as she would eventually prove capable of.

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Brevity requires the sort of genius I do not have, which makes me all the more admiring when I come across it.  It is hard enough to do in fiction, where the author controls all, but to do it in biography, as in A Rage for Rock Gardening by Nicola Shulman, is extraordinary.

A Rage for Rock Gardening tells, in a brief 120 pages, the life story of Reginald Farrer.  An author, gardener, and plant hunter, I’ve come across mentions of Farrer and this book repeatedly in Ursula Buchan’s writings and been intrigued.  Farrer was a member of John Buchan’s Oxford circle, alongside Raymond Asquith and Aubrey Herbert.  For the most part, this group was brilliant and charismatic – with Farrer as the exception. Farrer hung on, determined to prove himself and equally determined to attract the attention and affection of Aubrey Herbert, whom he considered “the personification of joy”.  He would manage one but not the other.

While Asquith’s combination of beauty, brilliance, and polish was no doubt alluring, it is perhaps telling that Farrer’s focus was Herbert, a “dishevelled boy, half-blind, not altogether beautiful”.  Though Herbert would go on to be a hero of the Gallipoli campaign, a champion of Albanians (who twice offered him their throne) and the inspiration for John Buchan’s Greenmantle, he must have seemed at least somewhat relatable to the ugly, dwarfish Farrer.  Born with a cleft palate, Farrer had been educated at home until coming to Oxford due to his speech impediment, fussed over continuously through bouts of ill health by his mother.  Which made him all the more determined to live once he was free in the world.

Upon graduation, he set out for Asia with Herbert, who was taking up an attaché role in Tokyo.  Already keenly interested in gardening, Farrer had the time to explore and his interest in oriental plants would be a passion that drove him for the rest of his life, alongside his enthusiasm for alpine gardens.  Back home, he began a successful career as a garden writer, driving the huge popularity of rock gardens and introducing a new, more personal style of garden writing.  And he would keep returning to Asia as a plant hunter, tramping through the wilds of the Himalayas in search of new alpine specimens, until he died of an illness there at the age of only forty.

Farrer was a complex and troubled soul, never content and never able to stop competing with those he loved.  Shulman manages to distill the essence of his life and his relationships into this slim volume without it ever feeling rushed.  She cannot answer every question, but it intrigues you to want to learn more.  Sadly for Farrer though, it is his extraordinary peers who I longed to learn more about.  Even in his own biography, he is overshadowed by the men he admired, loved, and envied in equal measure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are ye worrying about anything?”

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

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

I pleaded guilty.

“What d’ye want to do that for?”

“I like to know what is happening.”

“Aw!  The newspapers don’t know.”

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

He asked me how often I listened to the wireless.

“Four times a day.”

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

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

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

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

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At this stage in my reading career, how many types of wartime memoirs have I read?  Serious and humorous, military and political, front lines and home front, Allies and Axis, I’ve made a pretty good survey of the Second World War but I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that managed life on the home front as lightheartedly as Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson.

Anderson was in her mid-twenties when the war began, single and working in the F.A.N.Y.s, though not very devotedly.  When we meet her on the first page she is just about to go AWOL and get married, with no plan of returning.  This, as we learn, doesn’t seem wildly out of character given the number of jobs she cycled through before the war.  She has spent time as a “nursery-maid, a governess, a chaffeuse, a scene-shifter, a ballet-dancer’s dresser, and then I tried to emigrate to Canada […] as a mobile Sunday school teacher”.  She also found time to illustrate wrappers for toffees while living in a studio flat with three bohemian friends.  It is an incongruous and intriguing life for the daughter of a country parson but a good indicator of the adventurous and indomitable spirit that makes her so interesting to read about.

Anderson hadn’t enjoyed her time in the F.A.N.Y.s but she had found some peace there.  When she takes the time to analyse her reasons it with her usual humour and self-knowledge:

Walking home to the rectory, I tried to analyse my reasons for wanting to go back.  My heart had never been in the F.A.N.Y.s until Dunkirk.  The community life did not suit me.  Discipline did not appeal.  I was not a good F.A.N.Y., either technically or socially.  Could it be patriotism?  Knowing myself, I felt there must be some more selfish motive behind it.  Then I remembered telling Lucy I should feel safer right in the war.

That was it.  Anything might happen now, not only to my brothers and friends in the navy, the army, the air force, but to my parents, to Rhalou [a sister] with her little family, and to Lorema [another sister] still at school.  In the F.A.N.Y.s I should be safe from the impact.  Somebody else does your thinking for you in the army, and even your feeling.  And if I were killed, well, in the F.A.N.Y.s life was that much less interesting to want to cling on to.

Even though the F.A.N.Y. portion of her life is over with quickly, I did love hearing about it.  Her sketch of her commanding officer delighted me and seems like something from a Joyce Grenfell sketch:

We were commanded by a bubbly-haired old actress who, as the niece of a senior army officer, took her position very seriously.  In her talk she mingled a certain amount of army jargon, picked up at her uncle’s breakfast table, with the normal chatter we understood of hats and actors and horses.  Sometimes, judging by her modes of addressing us, she saw us as Mayfair Debutantes and sometimes as Men Going Over The Top.

Once Anderson dashes away from the F.A.N.Y.s to marry Donald Anderson, who is much older than her and whom she has been in love with for several years to the disapproval of her family, the focus becomes exceedingly domestic.  But for once in a wartime memoir we do not have to hear ad nauseum about the prices of things or about ingenious cooking on the ration (I’ve taken about as much of that as I can handle).  What we do hear a lot about is housing and, thankfully, I find that endlessly entertaining.  The Andersons bounce around frequently through the short war years, setting up homes in London, in the suburbs, and in the country.  As housing shortages and stretched finances make shared living both practical and necessary, Anderson takes on a variety of housemates and eventually latches on the brilliant plan of letting rooms to holidaymakers.  This turns out to be not so brilliant for someone with no hospitality training but is very funny.

During the war years Anderson had her first two children (she would eventually have five in total) and of all the domestic details I’ve read in diaries and memoirs I’m fairly certain I’ve never come across so many pages devoted to life in a maternity hospital.  The birth of Anderson’s first child was rather dramatic so she spent plenty of time at the hospital and I was fascinated by the details of it.

With her ever-changing accommodations, Anderson spends a fair amount of time bouncing around to friends and family as well.  Any time her mother appeared I was delighted as she seems a redoubtable sort of woman, equal to anything put before her (whether it be reconciling herself to her daughter’s elopement or living under the German flightpath to London):

My mother was very sceptical about the German raiders getting across the Channel at all.

‘Once,’ she said, ‘one got across and dropped some tiny little bombs on Eastbourne and then landed and gave himself up.  He was hardly out of the sixth form.’

There was a fifteen-mile-from-the-coast ban on non-residents and my mother was determined to keep all the secrets behind it.

‘Then what’s that whacking great crater down in the field over there?’ I asked.

‘One of ours,’ she assured me.  ‘They dropped it by mistake on their way out.’

‘Just as uncomfortable all the same to be hit by it.’

‘Anyways that was ages ago.  They’re much more practised now.’

As she spoke there was an enormous explosion on the marshes.

‘Marsh gas, I suppose?’ I teased her.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, sure to make you smile and even giggle throughout – a rare enough thing for a wartime memoir.

But what delighted me most was discovering facts about the rest of Anderson’s life.  I was tickled to learn that her fourth child is Janie Hampton, author of How the Girl Guides Won the War, a book I read and loved years ago.  But most impressive of all for me was the discovery that Anderson’s father had been the clergyman at All Saints’ Herstmonceux in East Sussex.  The last book Anderson wrote was about Herstmonceux Castle, including her memories of playing on the grounds through the 1920s and 1930s.  The castle is now owned by Queen’s University, the Canadian school where I studied, and serves as its international study centre.  I spent a term studying there in 2007 and it was the happiest part of my university years.  It’s a small, small world.

The Castle

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It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

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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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Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.  It was the day the Czech and Slovak people gained their independence after hundreds of years of Hapsburg rule, ushering in a new era of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.  It was a brief era (twenty years later the Nazis invaded) but a glorious one.  And no one epitomised the spirit of the new nation like its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Masaryk was 68 years old when he became president.  Born to estate workers in Moravia, he’d followed a long path to the presidency and had been tireless in his quest for reform and freedom.  And he was loved for it.  He served as president for 17 years, until 1935, and in the early years conducted a series of extraordinary interviews with the much-loved author, Karel Čapek.  The result of these interviews – although interview is hardly the right word for it, really it is musings that Čapek was around to capture – were several books that in 1995 were condensed into a single translated volume for English-speakers called simply Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek.  The book is in Masaryk’s voice, which is a wonderful way of getting a sense of the man himself.

The collection has been laid out to follow the chronology of Masaryk’s life, beginning with his childhood in Moravia.  His father was Slovak and his mother a German-speaking Moravian and those were the languages Masaryk grew up speaking.  German was spoken all through school (as was typical throughout Austria-Hungary), making it easy to progress to university in Vienna, but when Masaryk moved to Prague years later to take up a teaching post he was uncomfortably conscious of his poor Czech.

He had fond memories of his parents and somewhat rural upbringing but also acknowledged the limitations of such a life:

A boy in an out-of-the-way village has few living examples of anything beyond his circle of farmers and artisans: the teacher, the chaplain and dean, the owners of the estate and their servants, and a merchant perhaps.  What a boy becomes is determined not so much by his gifts as by the opportunities closest at hand.

A passion for helping young people runs throughout the interviews.  Masaryk had founded a social democracy that firmly believed in helping people make the most of themselves.  He thought about education and infrastructure and, constantly, health.  He believed deeply that the nation’s systems and institutions had to be crafted in a way that benefited the people.  They are ideas that sound very familiar to political discussions going on in certain supposedly developed countries even today:

…take health.  I can’t understand why we’ve thought so little about playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks for children.  The poorer the district, the more such facilities are needed: poor districts have more children.  With the proper watering we can have the same grassy playgrounds as England.  Here again it’s a question of money, yet putting money into children is the best investment there is.

But perhaps his most modern-seeming views were on the equality of the sexes.  Masaryk was an unapologetic feminist.  He was devoted to his American wife, Charlotte, and took her maiden name (Garrigue) as part of his.  Guided by logic and reason as always, he could see no reason to treat women differently than men:

How can people ask, I wonder, whether woman is man’s equal?  How can the mother who bears a child not be equal to the father?  And if a man truly loves, how can he love someone beneath him?  I see no difference between the endowments of men and women…

He believed firmly in marriage but was progressive as well, recognizing that divorce had its place in the society he envisioned:

The greatest argument for monogamy is love.  True love – love without reservation, the love of one whole being for another – does not pass with the passing years or even death.  One man and one woman for life, fidelity till death – that is how I see it.  Happy is the man or woman who has lived a rigorously monogamous life.  Yes, I am for divorce; I am for divorce because I want marriage to be love and not commerce or convention, not a senseless or thoughtless union.

Always a modest man, Masaryk believed in simple living.  His dictates in aid of this occur throughout the book and make clear that he probably wasn’t a huge amount of fun on a Friday night.  He gave up even modest drinking at 50, did not smoke, ate simply and sparingly (his details his menu at one point), and was devoted to his daily exercise regime (Sokol exercises and horseback riding).  When living in exile in London, he lived cheaply and would travel by bus to meetings with government officials and world leaders and then dine at a Lyons café, where he appreciated that you could “get a decent meal for ten or fifteen pence.”

In the end, his prescription for a long life was simple:

It shouldn’t be a feat to live to a hundred, but no tricks or gimmicks will get us there, that’s for sure.  Fresh air and sunshine; moderate food and drink; a moral life and a job involving muscles, heart, and brain; people to care for and a goal to strive for – that’s the macrobiotic recipe of success.  Oh, and a keen interest in life, because an interest in life is tantamount to life itself, and without it and without love, life ceases to exist.

Reading these passages felt eerie, in a way.  It was like hearing my great-grandfather speak, a man whose edicts for how to live were passed down from his children to their children to their children and now they are being passed again to the newest generation.  It is no surprise that he was a huge fan of Masaryk.

But, helpful as such guidance is, health tips are not what made Masaryk so beloved.  As staunch as he was in his personal habits, he was stauncher still in his beliefs.  His devotion to democracy was absolute and he was that rare man who did not change with power, whose beliefs held strong and fast for decades and guided first him and then an entire nation forward.  It was something he was rightly very proud of:

Should I be asked what I consider the high point of my life I would not say it was being elected president…It comes from having relinquished nothing as head of state that I believed in and loved as a penniless student, a teacher of youth, a nagging critic, and a political reformer, from having found no need in my position of power for any moral law or relationship to my fellow man, my nation, and the world but those which guided me before…I have not had to change one item of my faith in humanity and democracy, in my search for truth, or in my reliance on the supreme moral and religious commandment to “love they neighbour.”

My great-grandmother’s proudest story was of how Masaryk, whose estate shared a wall with her garden, used to ride past on his morning constitutional and admire her roses.  The roses were already the pride of her life (her four children were modestly appreciated, too) but to have the great man stop and tell her of their beauty made both them and him even more precious to her.  He was that sort of man – he appreciated small things and was thoughtful enough to show that appreciation.

Masaryk served as president until 1935 and died two years later at the age of 87.  He left behind a robust democracy with a thriving economy.  Thank god he did not live to see what came next.  Would things have been different if “the Grand Old Man of Europe” had survived a few years more?  Would Czechoslovakia’s allies have been so quick to desert them in 1938 if he had been there?  Who knows.

Masaryk believed in human progress and that “The future is with us now.  If we choose the best of what we have now, we’ll be on the right road; we’ll have extended our lives with a piece of the future.”  He was an extraordinary politician and statesman then and, sadly, is no less extraordinary today.  He is a reminder of what we all can and should be.  And, thankfully, he has not yet been forgotten.  In fact, a film has just been released dramatizing these conversations between Masaryk and Čapek.  It seems unlikely to make its way into the English-speaking world but one can hope.

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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