Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

I seem to make a habit of reading memoirs by famous authors before I ever read any of the books that made them famous.  And you know what?  I like it.  It’s an interesting way to approach a new author, learning first about them and then their works.  And it can make you so, so much more eager to read their other books than you would otherwise have been.  At least, that was the case for me when I read When I Was a Little Boy by Erich Kästner.  Kästner won fame for his many successful children’s novels (most notably, Emil and the Detectives and Lottie and Lisa, the inspiration for The Parent Trap) and it is for children that he wrote this beautiful memoir of his own childhood in Dresden.  Recently reissued as a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, it is now readily available in English for the first time since the 1950s.

Kästner was born in 1899 into a humble family.  His father, Emil, was trained as a saddlemaker but worked for a luggage maker in Dresden while his mother, Ida, had worked as a maid but retrained as a hairdresser when Erich was small so she could work independently.  It was not an affectionate marriage but nor was it a hostile one; it was simply a mismatch.  Ida had never been in love with her husband but had agreed to the match on the urging of her sisters, whose logic seemed pretty solid:

What did a young girl know about love, anyway?  Moreover, love came with marriage.  And even if it did not come, it didn’t matter all that much; for married life really consisted in working, saving, cooking and bearing children.  Love was no more important than a Sunday hat.

In this case, love didn’t come but, as the sisters had advised, it didn’t really matter.  Because there was Erich, her one child, and Ida loved him totally and completely.  Amid the darkness of her internal life (Erich came home to suicide notes several times, which would send him frantic out into the streets to search for her, terrified he might be too late this time), she had a son who lit up her world.  Emil is fondly mentioned but it was Ida who dominated young Erich’s childhood.  He was her life and it was a responsibility he took seriously, trying to live up to all her hopes and dreams for him:

Ida Kästner wanted to be a perfect mother to her boy.  And because she so much wanted to be that, she had no consideration for anyone, not even for herself, and she became the perfect mother.  All her love and imagination, all her industry, every moment of her time, her every thought – in fact her whole existence she staked, like a frenzied gambler, on one single card – on me!  Her stake was her whole life to its last breath.

I was the card, so I simply had to win.  I dared not disappoint her.  That was why I became the best pupil in the school and the best-behaved son possible at home.  I could not have borne it if she had lost her great game.  Since she wanted to be and was the perfect mother, for me, her trump card, there seemed no choice but to become the perfect son.  Did I become this?  I certainly tried to.  I had inherited her talents – her energy, her ambition and her intelligence.  That was at least something to begin with.  And when I, her sole capital and stake, sometimes felt really tired of always winning and of only winning, one thing and one things only kept me going: I truly loved that perfect mother.  I loved her very much indeed.

Ida wasn’t as overwhelming as that may make her sound.  She and Erich were also the best of friends, taking hiking holidays together throughout the country, and Erich had his freedom, indeed a shocking amount of freedom compared to children these days.  At seven, he was extraordinarily proud to be allowed to walk to school all alone.  Except he wasn’t entirely alone.  Years later, Ida admitted that she would see Erich off from home and then surreptitiously trail him all the way to school, ducking behind other pedestrians if it looked at all like Erich might turn around and spot her.  He had his freedom and she had her reassurance.  Everyone was happy.

With a mother like Ida, it is no surprise that Erich had a carefully planned life: he studied hard and was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers who had boarded with the Kästner family.  But when he actually stood in front of a class for the first time in his mid-teens, he (and they) realised he had no aptitude for it.  And so a new and rather extraordinary plan was hatched: he, the son of a saddlemaker and a maid, would go to the university.  And, after serving in the First World War, he did.  To his mother’s extreme pride, naturally.

But a memoir of childhood is not really about planning and career plotting.  It is snapshots of nostalgia-tinged moments: of walks through the beautiful city with his father, of visits to his rich but mean maternal uncle, of hiking holidays with his mother, of the sad demise of his zuckertüten (sugar cone – a traditional gift for students on their first day of school), in short, of all the really important but insignificant moments that make up a childhood, the memory of which never seems to dull:

‘More than fifty years have passed since then,’ declares the calendar, that horny old bookkepper in the office of history, who controls chronology and with ink and ruler marks the leap years in blue and draws a red line at the beginning of each century. ‘No!’ cries memory, shaking her curly locks. ‘It was only yesterday.  Or at most the day before,’ she adds softly with a little laugh.  Which of them is wrong?

They are both right, for there are two kinds of time.  The one kind can be measured with instruments and calculations, just like streets or plots of ground.  But the other chronology, our memory, has nothing to do with metres and months, decades or acres.  What we have forgotten is old.  The unforgettable was yesterday.  The measure here is not the time but the value.  And the most precious of all things, whether happy or sad, is our childhood.  Do not forget the unforgettable.  I believe that this advice cannot be given early enough.

Isn’t that nicely put?  I loved the writing in this book.  I loved Kästner’s optimistic view of the world, despite the difficult elements of life (which he does not shy away from discussing), and his frequent asides to his readers, his earnest desire to pass on what he knows.  He is writing for you, whoever you are.  This story is meant to be shared with you.

By the time Kästner was writing in 1957, he was living in Munich.  He’d gone to university in Leipzig, spent almost twenty years in Berlin, and had settled in Munich after his Berlin home was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.  And yet the city that retained all his love and affection was the Dresden of his childhood, a city of beauty and history and one he knew intimately from years of wanderings – a city whose death he was still mourning:

Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners.  Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity.  From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.

[…]

Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city.  You may take my word for it.  And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right.  For the city of Dresden is no more.  It has vanished, except for a few fragments.  In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map.  It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty.  A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth.

The Frauenkirche today, rebuilt and much brighter than the pollution-stained black church Kästner was used to from his childhood

I wonder what Kästner would make of Dresden today, with the Old Town skyline now restored to its pre-war image.  Would he find the Frauenkirche, with its painted “marble” columns, unbearably tacky or reassuringly familiar?  What would he make of the modern additions?  I suspect he would find it disconcerting – elements of the familiar in juxtaposed with the new.  And even if it looks the same, you can’t get rid of the memory that it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed in those few days but also 25,000 people.  In all the ways that mattered, the city of his childhood was gone.

I loved this book.  I loved reading about Dresden, a city I dearly love, as it was more than a hundred years ago; I loved reading about how young Erich spent his days, learning about the norms of boyhood in a time and place long gone; I loved the simple sketches throughout, illustrating Erich’s various adventures; and I truly loved old Erich’s fondness for it all.  Another really wonderful choice from Slightly Foxed.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cyril Connolly.’

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Back when I was still relatively new to blogging, I used to sign up for reading challenges, partly for the fun of reading in a group setting but mostly for the joy of making ambitious reading lists.  My favourite among those challenges was the Eastern European Reading Challenge and each year that I did it I put together obscenely detailed reading lists (in 2011 and 2012).  One book that made it on to the list both years was How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel – which is really just a rambling way of telling you that I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long, long time.

Pavel was a Czech sports journalist who was diagnosed as bipolar in his mid-thirties (after he set an Austrian barn on fire while in Innsbruck covering the Olympics).  He spent much of the rest of his short life (he died of at heart attack at age 42) going in and out of hospitals but also writing.  And the best of what he wrote was this gentle, meditative, and comforting memoir of his childhood, first published in 1974.

Pavel grew up just outside of Prague in the town of Buštěhrad, the third son of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father.  His mother is a steady presence in his life but it is his father whom Pavel focuses on here – most specifically his love of fishing which he passed down to his youngest son:

Business and fishing were his two great passions.  He excelled unbelievably at both, preferred fishing, and considered it a disaster if he could not combine a sales trip for the Swedish firm of Elektrolux – for which he sold refrigerators and vacuum cleaners – with a fishing adventure.

Pavel was only eight years old when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and still a little boy when, a few years later, his two elder brother and his father were sent away to concentration camps.  Before he leaves, his father tries to teach his young son all the secrets to catching his beloved carp.  They are lessons Pavel needs to remember as the war continues on, as his mother returns home exhausted each day from forced labour, as food supplies run out:

At that time we needed delicious fat carp meat.  We had so little to eat and nothing much to barter.  We could trade carp for flour, bread and Mama’s cigarettes.  Mama and I lived alone at that time, for the rest of the family was in a concentration camp.  It was up to me to catch the carp, but it took me some time getting to know them.  I had to learn to tell the difference between their good and bad moods; I had to learn how to tell when they were hungry, when they were full, and when they felt like playing.  I had to recognize where they were likely to swim, and where I would look for them in vain.

Pavel doesn’t dwell on the tragedies of war and his family was luckier than most.  When he is caught stealing fish from local German-controlled ponds it is by a sympathetic gamekeeper.  His father and brothers all return home from their concentration camps.  And he and his mother survive the lean times.  But the horror of war is certainly there: Buštěhrad is only a few kilometers away from Lidice, the town the German’s chose to massacre in reprisal for the assassination of Himmler in 1942, and Pavel knew people there.

Mostly though, this is a memoir of wonder and childhood.  Of learning how to fish, of admiring the great fishermen in young Pavel’s life, and of finding one good thing to hold on to when everything else is turned upside down.  When the war ends, the family has earned its peace and his father chooses to spend it as he has always spent his leisure time – fishing:

Down at the river he slept most of the time, just as many fishermen do.  The water hums, the small waves roll as the clouds float by, and the wife is miles away.  The rods are set so that the fish can almost catch themselves.  Of all the sleep a man can have, the fisherman’s sleep is the sweetest.  It is the greatest of luxuries – sleep and fishing.

I really enjoyed this short, touching book but the one thing that drove me a little crazy about this edition was the complete absence of accents on the Czech words (for example, Pavel’s home of Buštěhrad becomes Bustehrad).  I know this is the lazy way of anglicizing place names but it is distracting and a little odd since the introduction to the book does retain the correct accents.  And since the book is part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series it seems even odder to be so dismissive of the accents.  However, it is a good translation and readily available so, in the grand scheme of things, I can overlook a few missing accents.

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).  

Read Full Post »

A long, long time ago, Danielle wrote about Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment and instantly convinced me that I had to read it.  That was five years ago today.  I may not be fast when it comes to reading books off my to-read list but I am tenacious – I get there in the end!

Heidi’s Alp (also published as The Canary-Coloured Cart) is a memoir of a trip Hardyment took with her four young daughters around Europe in a camper van in the early 1980s with an itinerary gently guided by classic children’s stories.  Hardyment isn’t rigid in her itinerary (sensible when travelling with so many children) so they take in scenic spots and child-friendly sites as well as places with literary ties.

Rather than a straightforward account of her travels, Hardyment’s book is part travel memoir but also part literary history.  She looks at the facts behind the stories and explores at some length the life of Hans Christian Anderson, which I found unexpectedly fascinating.  I was also captivated by the chapter on Hamelin and various theories behind the tale of the Pied Piper and the children he led away.  Were they young people who went as colonists to Moravia?  Confused with those killed at the battle of Sedemunde in 1259?  A fiction created to drive 16th century tourism?  Victims of a plague (like St Vitus’ Dance) or hopeful young people who set out on the Children’s Crusade of 1211?  There’s no way of knowing the truth but it’s interesting to contemplate so many possible explanations.

Hardyment also goes into some detail about the logistics of living in their cramped van (christened Bertha) with so many children.  At the start of the trip she is accompanied by a friend with a baby, making for five children and two adults.  It sounds messy and cramped and exhausting.  When her husband joins them (and the friend and baby return home) a little more order is restored but it’s still not a way I’d plan to travel.

But the places they travel to, those I would happily visit – and in some cases I already have.  I loved hearing about Denmark, a country still on my to-visit list, and their experiences in and impressions of East Germany during a brief visit there.  But, predictably, I mostly loved hearing about the places I know: they visit the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, relax at a campground within easy boating distance of Venice, find themselves charmed by laid-back Lucca in Tuscany, and are awed by the unbelievably scenic Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.  Having spent two weeks in Lucca last summer studying Italian and living within the city’s walls, I loved hearing their impressions of it:

We hadn’t meant to come to Lucca at all, let alone stay there for a night and a day, but we did.  We ate a leisurely breakfast in another little square, climbed the bizarre treetopped Guinigi tower, admired the old Roman amphitheatre, and walked halfway round the shady city walls back to Bertha.  Inside the cathedral Tilly found an early Renaissance effigy of silky marble, the young wife of Paolo Guinigi lying in state…We all loved Lucca, both for its beauty and for its down-to-earth quality.  It was a good solid reminder of everyday reality.

Lovely Lucca

What I also loved – because I have thought it every single time I’ve crossed the border myself – is their observations of the changes you see coming down into inexplicably slovenly Italy from neat, orderly Austria:

Well, it looked like Italy.  The countryside was picturesque enough.  Sad cypresses flanked robber strongholds in the Dolomite gorges.  The immaculate wooden chalets of the Austrian Alps had changed to dilapidated farmhouses with crumbing terracotta roofs and peeling plaster walls.  Olive groves and vineyards replaced the flowery alpine pastures.

‘It’s funny,’ said Tilly.  ‘The houses here are shabby again, like they were in East Germany, but it doesn’t look as if the Italians mind, somehow.  It looked as if the East Germans couldn’t afford to do anything up.  But it looks as if the Italians can’t be bothered.’

Northern Italy

But Hardyment is more comfortable with the more lax Italian (and French) approach to life.  After a stay in Switzerland, she finds herself frustrated by national obsession with order and longs for a bit of chaos:

Switzerland had delighted us in many ways…And yet we felt strangely displaced there.  The premium the Swiss lay on good behaviour and orderly living is something of a strain to those of the casual gipsy persuasion…The minute we crossed the border and met the casual insouciance of French manners, I felt a load tumble off my shoulders.  We stopped in an untidy lay-by around seven in the evening to change drivers.  I sat at a bitumen-covered trestle table, glass in hand, and considered the unlovely public conveniences, the overfull wastebins, the lorry-drivers drawing on their Gauloises, with perverse satisfaction.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way myself but I’ve certainly felt the reverse!  I was so delighted to leave Italy after an extended stay there this summer and head back to the Germanic and Slavic worlds where things are clean, people are cheerful, and everything runs on time.  (It should also be noted that I come from Canada, a country based on “Peace, Order, and Good Government”, which primed me from birth to like such things.)

All in all, a very interesting concept for a family trip and a wonderfully compiled account of it.  I hope Hardyment’s daughters (ages five to twelve when the trip was taken) retained their love of both stories and travel as they grew up.

Read Full Post »

for-the-gloryAt a time of year when everyone is talking of resolutions and dreaming of self-improvement, I can think of no better book to read than For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton.  I picked it up on January 1st and did not put it down until late in the evening when I’d finished the last page.  I needed a large box of tissues to get through it all but it is the perfect book to inspire with resolutions that truly matter.  Ignore the advertisements urging you to make 2017 the year you get rich or thin or ultra-fit.  Make it instead the year you become a passionate, committed, generous person.  Make it the year you become more like the book’s subject, Eric Liddell:

Valorous lives like his – which must be calculated in terms of value rather than length – encourage us to make our own lives better somehow.  In his case that’s because everything he did was selfless, each kind act bespoke for someone else’s benefit.  He believed entirely that those to whom “much is given” are obliged to give “much in return” – and should do so without complaining about it.  In adhering to this, he never demanded grand happiness or great comfort for himself.  He grasped only for the things that mattered to him: worthwhile work and the care of his family.  He’d once – on that hot July evening in Paris – grasped for an Olympic title as well, knowing nonetheless even as he won it that the glory of gold was nothing in his world compared to the glory of God.

For those who do not remember the film Chariots of Fire (the famously-scored 1981 Oscar-winner about British runners competing at the 1924 Paris Olympics), a brief introduction: Liddell was in his last year of a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Edinburgh when the games were run.  The son of missionaries and planning to go into missionary work himself, he believed the Sabbath was a day for God and not for running.  At the Paris Olympics, the events for his signatures distance – the 100 meters, both individual and relay – involved running on a Sunday.  Despite pressure from the British Olympic Association and the press, he instead chose to run the 400 meter individual “only because no other replacement distance was feasible for him.” It was a distance he had little experience with but he ran it gloriously and won.  It is a wonderful story but, as Hamilton makes clear, it was by no means the most dramatic or admirable episode in Liddell’s eventful life.

Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902 and died there a short – but extraordinarily full – 43 years later.  His father, a missionary, and mother, a nurse, arrived there just as the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion began.  The first few years of their married life were ones lived in fear, knowing how vulnerable they were: more than 250 missionaries, Hamilton reports, were killed in the conflict, along with more than 30,000 Chinese Christians.  The situation in China would not noticeably improve during their lifetime or that of their second son, Eric.  And yet the family was devoted to their work there.

Eric and his elder brother Rob were sent to England to attend boarding school when very young and went years without seeing the rest of their family.  But despite the separation, the family remained remarkably close, all looking forward to the day when they would be reunited in China. From the age of eight or nine, Eric knew he wanted to be a teacher-missionary and follow in his father’s footsteps.

What made Liddell so inspiring throughout his life was his concern for others.  Although he was deeply competitive when race time arrived, even as a very young man he took time out before races to put those around him at ease:

…there are countless anecdotes of his sportsmanship toward fellow competitors that sound a bit like the brightest boy in class allowing everyone else to copy his homework.  In competition he’d lend his trowel, used to dig starting holes, to runners who lacked one.  He once offered to give up the precious inside lane on the track, swapping it with the runner drawn unfavorably on the outside.  On a horribly cold afternoon he donated his royal blue university blazer to a rival, freezing in only a singlet and shorts – even though it meant shivering himself.  On another occasion he noticed the growing discomfort of an Indian student, utterly ignored before an event.  He interrupted his own preparations to seek him out; their conversation went on until the starter called them both to the line.  This was typical of Liddell.  He’d engage anyone he thought was nervous or uncertain, and listen when the inexperienced sought advice on a technical aspect of sprinting.  He’d share what he knew before the bang of the pistol pitted them against each other. 

When success came at the Olympics in 1924, it came with countless opportunities.  But rather than appear in advertisements or make paid appearances, rather than put out a book or write a newspaper column, Liddell rebuffed the offers that came his way.  All except the offers to speak.  Liddell had started preaching while at university, his sporting successes bringing in audiences who might otherwise shy away from religious meetings, and his Olympic success made it possible for him to pack the largest halls available.  To these listeners, in an easy, conversational manner he could share his Christian belief and the virtues he believed we must all work towards each day: “patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, gentleness, and sincerity.”  He believed in striving for perfection, in faith and in sport, and that there was honour in doing your best even if you didn’t achieve what you had been striving for.

With a university degree and an Olympic medal to his name, Liddell was happy to leave Scotland behind and return to the country he always considered his home: China.  Here, he began his work as a science and sports teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin (now Tianjin).  Though logically he knew the move to China had put an end to his competitive running, he continued to train and occasionally competed in smaller meets.  But there would be no more Olympics for him.  From now on, his life was devoted to God and China and, with time, his wife and daughters.

China in the 1920s and 1930s was a perilous place to be.  The country was divided in a bitter civil war and further torn apart by the Japanese invasion.  Millions died, anti-Christian feeling was high, and no place outside of the cities seemed safe.  Liddell lost close friends to absolutely pointless violence and fellow missionaries were killed for their religion.  Which is why, when Liddell finally was offered a rural missionary position after years at the college, the missionary society decided his wife and children could not come with him.  It was work he loved, saying “I have more joy and freedom in the work that I have ever experienced before”, but the separation from his family was bitter.  He could still see them when he came into town for supplies but it was hardly the partnership he and his wife had hoped for.  When his wife became pregnant with their third child in 1941, they decided it was too dangerous for her and the children to remain in China and so she and their daughters left for Canada, hoping one day Eric would join them.  That day never came.

Liddell lived the last years of his life in a cramped internment camp.  As was typical of him, he became the most depended on member of the community, the one who would do anything and who had time for anyone.  As Hamilton describes it, “Liddell was officially the math and science teacher.  He was unofficially everything else.”  He was particularly loved by the children at the camp, who called him “Uncle Eric”, and for whom he organized sports days – including races he would run in (with a considerable handicap, to give the other runners a chance).  And it was at Weihsien camp that he reconsidered his position on the Sabbath: to help keep the children from getting into trouble on Sundays (with no other ways to channel their energy they had begun fighting), he agreed to organise sports on Sunday afternoons.  This was the so-called “Continental” half-day Sabbath that the British Olympic committee had tried in vain, so many years before, to convince him made it acceptable for him to run the 100m on a Sunday.  As one of the boys from the camp remembers “everything he did was for the greater good, including that”.

There were many ways to die under the Japanese during the war but Liddell’s end was not of their making: he developed a brain tumour that triggered a series of strokes.  He died in early 1945, at the age of 43, surrounded by people who loved him and after a lifetime of service to others.

Hamilton has done a wonderful job telling Liddell’s story and it is one that deserves to be known.  I don’t share Liddell’s faith but you do not need to in order to recognize his value and his exceptional strength of character.  He was a man who was rare in his own times, who is rare still, and who should always serve as an inspiration.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooksIt is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada.  As I write this, the turkey is roasting, the pies are made, and I am thinking about what it means to be thankful.  But I am thinking about that less because of the day than because of the book I just finished reading: I Was a Stranger by General Sir John Hackett, originally published in 1977 and, with their typically unerring excellence of taste, reprinted by Slightly Foxed in 2014.

Hackett was thirty-three years old and a career soldier serving as commander of a British parachute brigade when, during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, he was severely wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.  In the hands of the enemy and weak following major, life-saving abdominal surgery, Hackett was already focusing on the important things: making an accurate record of the battle and drawing up the list of recommended commendations, and determining how to escape.  Thankfully for him, the well-organised Dutch resistance was at hand and, while still very weak, he was spirited out of the hospital (battle notes in hand) and into hiding with the de Nooij family in Ede.

A deeply Christian family, the de Nooij household consisted of four middle-aged sisters and John and Mary Snoek, the twenty-something children of one of the sisters.  Immediately impressed by the gentleness and kindness of the whole family, Hackett knew of the immense risk they took in sheltering him and was hugely grateful for it:

A fighting soldier in war-time takes the danger and tensions that bear upon himself for granted.  It is quite a different thing to contemplate the actions of other people, in observing their bravery, contrivance and self-sacrifice, in protecting and looking after someone thrown by hazard into their care.  There is nothing to be taken for granted here.

Hackett’s life in Ede was simple and quiet.  At first, he rested and recovered from his wounds, carefully nursed by the family.  As his health improved, his urge to exercise and strengthen himself ahead of the inevitable escape was necessarily in conflict with the need to keep him safe.  The family stayed close and, with a bevy of tricks to fall back on, managed to take him for walks under the eyes of the less-than-watchful Germans.

But mostly, due to his health and the winter weather as the months passed, this is a book about indoor life.  Hackett devours with real pleasure what books the family is able to bring him: the Bible (which he started each day by reading from), the complete works of Shakespeare, some Dickens, Vanity Fair, an eclectic handful of novels, collections of Wordsworth’s and Scott’s poetry, and a massive anthology entitled One Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry (which he mentioned when he appeared on Desert Islands Discs in 1980).  But mostly he savours the time he spends with the family – who truly become his family as time goes on.  As he recovers, they always seem to be able to find an egg to feed him or something warm to clothe him in, little gestures that become large ones at a time when everything was difficult to find and there was never enough to go around.  For his thirty-fourth birthday, celebrated while he was still recovering in bed, the family sat at the piano and sang English songs (his favourite hymn, ‘Abide with me’, and all the verses of ‘God save the King’) loud enough so that he could hear:

My feelings as I listened would be hard to describe.  Such loving kindness to a stranger in adversity, on whose behalf these people had already accepted so many dangers with such modesty and courage, was a thing beyond words then and never to be forgotten afterwards.

Their kindness on his birthday left him in tears and his open admittance of that is one of the many things that makes this book such a warm and precious one.  For all the kindness and love the Nooij family showed Hackett was rewarded with his complete dedication to and adoration of them.  His love and respect for them is written on every page.

Hackett in later life

Hackett in later life

Hackett has a sense of humour as well and the book is peppered with humorous recollections and asides.  It is, in fact, one the least angst-ridden books you could imagine.  Hackett takes particular pleasure in recording the tricks and sly taunts the Dutch wield against their German oppressors but he also enjoys the everyday moments of humour, such as one of his early encounters with John, after arriving at the de Nooij house:

John came up to see me.  He had a little dictionary in his hand, his finger marking a page.

‘Good day, Mr Hackett,’ he said gravely. ‘How is your corpse?’

I thanked him equally gravely and said that it was well.  He discovered later from Miss Ann, to his dismay, that the little dictionary had not told him everything and he wondered whether he had been wholly tactful.

Throughout, Hackett has a wonderful eye for the simple details of a scene.  It is difficult not to read about the first leg of his escape route, a snowy bicycle ride with John through the countryside, without shivering with both cold and excitement at their daring.  And it is impossible not to feel at peace when he describes his early morning winter walks with Aunt Ann, one of the de Nooij sisters, taken to help build his strength:

Soon dim figures of men could be seen in the growing light plodding to their work, huddled-up shapes like birds in the cold.  Others on bicycles were struggling through the snow.  A cart would pass with the horse pulling strongly, the wheels squeaking against packed snow, or crunching and clattering on the ice.  There would be a glow in the dark where a man stood still for a moment and the sharp surprising tang of tobacco smoke would drift over the morning air.

After four months in the Netherlands, Hackett managed (with the help of the resistance and, of course, the de Nooij family) to make his escape back to Allied-controlled Europe and, very shortly, back to England and his wife.   But as soon as Ede was liberated he was back with supplies for his Dutch family and letters of thanks from his English one.  As the postscript makes clear, the families remained close for the rest of their lives.  I cried as I finished the book, thankful for the courage and the kindness of the de Nooij family and, an equal gift, the humility and the gratitude of John Hackett.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »