Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

Laughing All the Way to the MosqueI had the perfect book for my daily commute last week, but for one thing: Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz had me laughing, out loud, all the way to work.  This was vaguely unsettling for my fellow commuters, but, aside from a slight fear that they would band together to force the crazy giggling woman off the bus, I couldn’t have cared less.  There is no better way to start – or end – your day than with a laugh and this book provides many of those.

Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker, is most famous as the creator of the television series Little Mosque on the Prairie, a sitcom about the Muslim community in a quirky small town in Saskatchewan.  It attracted a lot of attention when it premiered and, reading Nawaz’s memoir, it is interesting to see how some of the show’s characters and episodes are inspired by her real-life events.

If you are looking for a serious, respectful observation of what it is like to be Muslim in Canada, this is not the book for you.  Nawaz is irreverent and slightly kooky and definitely talks herself into trouble more often than she needs to.  Which is what makes her so likeable and this book so entertaining.  For example, her great teenage act of rebellion was to become more religious and to begin wearing the hijab.  This was done partly out of religious feeling and partly, like any action taken by a teenager, out of the desire to outwit her parents:

…the best thing about the hijab was that I had discovered it on my own – my parents had nothing to do with it, which meant that I could beat them at their own game: religion.  I wanted so desperately to be different from them.  Hijab was the answer.  Some people think hijab is used to oppress people.  It’s true.  I used it to oppress my parents.

Nawaz fumbled her way through her B.Sc. undergrad, working diligently towards medical school.  When the med school rejection letter came, it prompted a rethink about her entire future – for both her and her parents.  Nawaz’s mother – who is portrayed as being just as spirited and quick-witted as her daughter, through a little more together – views it as opportunity to find her daughter a husband:

Her biggest fear for me was that too much education might result in old, dried-up ovaries.  Until the letter arrived, my father had squashed her matrimonial dreams for me, because he believed marriage was for women who failed to get into medical school.  I had officially become one of those females.

Nawaz is definitely not onboard with this idea, especially as she overhears unsettling conversations about one-eyed accountants.   She can’t understand why her mother is so determined to see her married.  Her mother’s answer to that, “because you’ll be lonely after I die”, is eminently sensible and true, but I can understand how a twenty-two year old might not see it that way.  Nawaz enrolls in journalism school instead of marrying immediately and, a few years later, ends up engineering her own marriage to Sami, then a medical student, now a child psychiatrist, and moving to the Prairies to be with him.

The years that follow are busy ones, filled with the births of four children and the start of Nawaz’s career as a filmmaker, first with low-budget short films, then documentaries, and finally Little Mosque on the Prairie.  But, thankfully since I’m not much interested in filmmaking, her career track is very much in the background here.  Instead, we hear about what it is like explaining to a Canadian contractor how a Muslim bathroom needs to be laid out or how a not-particularly-accomplished chef (Nawaz) finds herself cooking an Eid dinner for dozens of people.  One of my favourite chapters described Nawaz’s experiences on Hajj, when her father-in-law took all his children and children-in-law (grandchildren stayed home) on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Most of all, this book is funny.  It is full of hilarious dialogue, with all of Nawaz’s family members, particularly her mother and husband, portrayed as the long-suffering straight men to her unrelenting comedienne.  I laughed more than I have in months while reading it and I loved every page.



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The Past Is MyselfEver since Slightly Foxed released The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg, a memoir of Anglo-Irish Christabel’s wartime experiences in Germany with her German husband and children, I have been longing to reread it.  I’d read it twice before – one at the end of high school and once again at university – but it is a book I never get tired of.  My carry through this time was not particularly prompt and it took me until a few months ago to finally pick it up but the book was just as wonderful as I’d remembered.

Christabel moved to Hamburg in the early 1930s to study singing.  There, she met a law student, Peter Bielenberg, several years younger than herself whom she married in 1934.  They were a happy couple and quickly started a family but the backdrop to these early years of their marriage was the rise and increasing violence of Hitler and his Nazi party.  Even in liberal Hamburg, the awful changes taking place in Germany could not be escaped.

In 1939, the Bielenbergs moved from Hamburg to Berlin.  Already deeply opposed to Nazi ideology and tactics, this move brought them into contact with other dangerously like-minded people – like the conservative dissident Adam von Trott, whose involvement in the July 20 plot in 1944 led to his execution and to Peter Bielenberg’s arrest and imprisonment.  Christabel’s heroic efforts to free Peter provide a tense, thriller-like climax to the book.

Christabel had renounced her British citizenship when she married but a change of passport cannot change your allegiances entirely, especially when you know your adopted homeland is in the wrong.  She eagerly followed whatever news she could get of Britain, devouring issues of The Times that Peter smuggled to her from the Foreign Office and listening to radio broadcasts from England.  Yet as comforting as it was to hear about home, she didn’t necessarily have faith that Britain would triumph.  Her feelings were conflicted.  Having seen how normal people changed under the Nazis, she was not naive enough to believe that the English had any particular moral superiority that would make them immune to the “collaborators, informers, crackpots” who helped the spread of fear so effectively in Germany:

It was on my birthday, June 18th, with my ear right up against it, as Nicky would have said, that I heard Churchill speak of England’s finest hour.  I listened, I knew what he meant, and I burst into tears; not so much because our governess had taught me that if ever a hostile power should occupy the Channel ports England sooner or later would be at their mercy, but simply because I wanted to be there.  Blessed, cockeyed, ignorant England, quite pleased, I would have said, to be rid of those bothersome continentals and to be on her own.

…I would like to think that Churchill’s words, steeped as I felt them to be in the very substance of my country’s history, and inevitably striking a chord somewhere deep down inside me, immediately quietened all my fears and banished forever the hideous vista of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich stretching away beyond the horizon of my lifetime.  But it was not so, because I knew too much.  Fighting in the streets, in the fields, on the hills there would surely be, and heroes, many heroes – but there might be others as well.  Collaborators, informers, crackpots who believe that Jews were Yids, and Negros ‘nigs’, and Italians ‘wogs’, and that only one race could rightfully consider itself to be the salt of the earth.  If such as these were international commodities, I knew there would be no drama about the aftermath.  There would be the tramp of marching boots and the loud knock at the door in the night, the creak and rumble of departing lorries fading into the distance of deserted streets; silence then, no drama, just silence, impenetrable silence.

When the Allies begin bombing Berlin, Christabel takes her three sons and decamps to a small village in the Black Forest where she quickly settles into a way of life almost untouched by the war.  It sounds like a wonderful place to have been a small child but unsettling for Christabel, knowing how much suspicion surrounded her husband and his friends and how closely they were being watched.  Still, the villagers provide a level of warmth and community spirit desperately missing from the other places Christabel lives over the course of the book.  They may have pictures of Hitler in their homes and offices but none of them seem to be particularly wedded to his beliefs.  They are warm and hospitable, to both Christabel’s family and, at one point, an American airman who appears out of the blue towards the end of the war.  I loved this episode.  No one is quite sure what to do or who to notify but they come together to offer the best of wartime hospitality – even to the enemy:

The mayor’s reserved table in the parlour had been spread with a spotless white cloth, and Nick was waiting behind the chair at the end of the table with a table napkin over his arm and a voluminous blue and white service apron covering his leather pants.  Frau Muckle had excelled herself – a splendid joint of roast pork with mashed potatoes and rich red cranberries, with dumplings to follow, feather light and topped with caramelized sugar.  Murmuring ‘zum Wohl’ Nicky kept the glasses filled with wine which was indistinguishable from vinegar, but which had not been served in the parlour for many a long year.

The American was obviously ravenously hungry and we watched a week’s rations disappear at a sitting.  Under the influence of the unaccustomed wine, the atmosphere became more relaxed.  The airman’s morose expression changed to one of slightly bovine puzzlement, and Sepp launched into some rather earthy tales which he insisted I should translate for our guest.

But, even while welcoming him, Christabel finds herself angry with the young man from Colorado, now accepting the hospitality of those he has been sent to kill:

I was suddenly resentful of this tall ignorant boy who had never heard of the Rhine and who flew nose to tail, nose to tail, and did not even know in which town he had left behind a trail of dead and dying.

When Peter is arrested and sent to Ravensbrück on suspicion of being a collaborator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, Christabel girds herself for battle and, using all her skill, charm, cunning, and connections, manages to get her husband released.  It is a fabulously dramatic sequence, written with all the skill of a modern thriller.

That said, I almost preferred the quieter moments, the ones that illuminate the wider reality of wartime Germany.  Peter and Christabel and their friends we know.  We know they oppose the Nazis and believe in all the “right” things.  But what of everyone else?  What of the millions of other Germans who weren’t risking their lives in acts of rebellion?  While on her way to Berlin, Christabel finds herself encountering exhausted Germans and retreating soldiers.  I think (I know, judging from some of the comments on recent posts) that some people still believe all Germans were Nazis or at least all soldiers were but that is never the way.  Christabel finds men who are tired and completely lacking in political beliefs.  All they want is to stop fighting and get back to their real lives:

They could have been a cross section of any army, anywhere, that little group of soldiers.  Blown about by the whims of higher authority, to the East, to the West, and now back again to the East.  They had no particular hates, no resentments, no particular ambition, except to stay alive and get back to their families – although some of them had no idea where their families were.  Heini, the little Berliner, could easily have been a London cockney, with his Galgenhumour, as the Germans call it; a tough, cynical, chirpy, unabashed sense of humour which seems to thrive only in big cities.

As he left, he squared his small shoulders, clicked his heels, raised his right arm and said: ‘Well, whoever still wants to listen, Heil Hitler, etc., etc.’  In one absurd gesture he somehow managed to caricature the whole rotten business.

More chillingly, she meets another soldier, one whom the war has drained of all cheerfulness, all ambition, and certainly all will to live.  A Latvian by birth, he was a member of the Einsatzkommando, mobile killing squads that were particularly active during the early years of the war, killing unimaginably large numbers of Poles and Jews.  The men who were members of these squads had an outrageously high suicide rate – not shocking given the face-to-face nature of the atrocities they committed daily.  The man Christabel encounters on the train is certainly suicidal but still hoping that he might be killed in war rather than having to do the job himself.  He recounts the sickening details of his role and, even having read this passage several times before, even having read widely on the actions of these groups in other books, his words are as unsettling to read as they must have been for Christabel to hear.

Christabel and Peter had a happy ending.  Once released from the concentration camp, Peter spent the short remainder of the war hiding out in the Black Forest.  Shortly after the war, the family immigrated to Ireland, where they ran a farm and where, in 1968, Christabel wrote down her account of these extraordinary and unsettling years.  After all they had been through, it was a well-deserved peace.

I think it is difficult to read any book about resistance without wondering a) what compelled these people to take such risks and b) what you would do yourself in similar circumstances.  Christabel and Peter, though not actively engaged in any plots themselves, knew what they were risking by being friends with more active conspirators.  Peter almost paid a heavy price for one of those friendships and the number of their acquaintances who were killed or imprisoned for their beliefs during the war is high.  But how do you cut old friends out of your life, especially ones who are acting in accordance with your beliefs when you are too scared to act yourself?  I suppose you hope that by providing them with a little support and friendship they might keep going, might win the battles that need to be won.  I couldn’t have done it though.  And knowing that about myself makes it so much easier to understand and identify with the millions of Germans who were swept along after 1933, as Hitler muscled his way to power and created a country ruled by fear and suspicion.  How much easier – and safer – it is to sit back and disagree silently than to risk confrontation and death.  And how much more convenient for the dictators.

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Oleander, JacarandaPenelope Lively is, among other things, a memoirist who does not like to write memoirs.  She considers her most recent book, the delightfully named Dancing Fish and Ammonites, “the view from old age”.  In 1994, when Oleander, Jacaranda was published, she was equally coy about calling it a memoir, choosing instead the typically cautious and thoughtful “A Childhood Perceived”.

Born in 1933 in Cairo, Lively spent the first twelve years of her life in Egypt.  So much of Lively’s fiction revolves around history and memory but in this case it is Lively’s own history and her own memories that she examining.  And examine them she does, contrasting the vivid memories of childhood with what her now adult mind realises must have been the reality.  She can be a harsh and unsympathetic judge at times but is never anything less than an extraordinary gifted and articulate writer.

Lively may have been born in Egypt but there was nothing in her upbringing to tie her to that country:

… I was growing up in accordance with the teachings of one culture but surrounded by all the signals of another.  Egypt was my home, and all that I knew, but I realized that in some perverse way I was not truly a part of it.

With her parents on the perimeter of her daily life (her father was bank manager while her mother enjoyed a rather active social life), Lively was largely raised by her staunchly British nanny-cum-governess, Lucy.  Lucy sounds like the prototypical middle-class nanny, full of patriotic zeal, a distaste for foreigners, and pithy aphorisms.  Between Lucy and school, Lively grew up with the knowledge of the supremacy of a country she belonged to but where she had never lived:

England was pink.  I knew that from Bartholomew’s atlas.  Pink was good.  And there was plenty of it, too, a global rash; lots of the rest of Africa, and India slung there like a pear, and New Zealand and Australia and Canada and much else.  I learned history from a book called Our Island Story, much approved by Lucy.  It had glossy romantic pictures of national heroes, with potted accounts of the finer moments of the nation’s rise to pink glory.  Boadicea and King Arthur and Sir Walter Raleigh and Kitchener and Queen Victoria all somehow rolled into one to produce essence of Englishness.  The atlas reinforced this triumphant digest of the Whig interpretation of history.  Up there at the top is brave little England.  Britannia rules the waves.  Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square.  This sceptred isle.  John Bull.  The white cliffs of Dover.  I imbibed it all with a whisper of unease: did I truly have a claim to all this?

I look back in dismay.  There has been a lot of unlearning to do.  And can it all be unlearned?  Is there perhaps deep within me some unreconstructed layer which believes pink is best and that it has been uphill all the way from brave Boadicea to good Lord Kitchener?

That last paragraph leaves me unsettled, or at least perturbed.  It is a very politically correct reaction, especially for 1994, but it feels perhaps too much of its time.  I look forward to reading Dancing Fish and Ammonites to see if she still feels this way now, twenty years later.  To me, this seems an exhaustingly guilt-ridden overreaction, one that allows only for absolute truths (which rarely exist).

Despite her thorough schooling in Britain’s past glories, Lively’s childhood identity was that of the outsider.  In Egypt, she grew up in the ex-pat community, a community bound together by the shared “home” that Lively barely knew.  Sent to England at the age of twelve (following her parents’ divorce), she experienced an upsetting disconnect from the England she had imagined and found herself once again the outsider:

This was England, then.  But it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the hazy, glowing nirvana conjured up in the nostalgic chatter to which I had half listened back in Egypt.  Back in the real world.  Nobody had mentioned the cold.  Or the rain.  Or the London dirt which was not the aromatic organic dirt of Egypt but a sullen pervasive grime which left your hands forever grey and every surface smeared with soot.  In my mind I had created a place which seems like those now out-dated advertisements for environmentally destructive products like petrol or cigarettes – all soft-focus landscape, immutable good weather, gambolling animals and happy laughing folk.  I had never seen such advertisements and I suspect the image was based on Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations spiced with Arthur Rackham and Beatrix Potter.  Certainly I would not have been surprised to find toadstool houses and the odd gnome, or people wearing poke bonnets and pinnies.  I might well have felt on home ground then – I had grown up with that kind of thing, in a sense.

In Egypt, European society was strangely flat: like most ex-pat communities or outposts of empire, it was homogenously middle-class.  It wasn’t until British soldiers began arriving in Cairo during the war that Lively had her first introduction to the British class system – a system she had not quite mastered by the time she had to move to England:

I was in something of the same position as the average Egyptian.  I too had known only one kind of British person.  Now I too discovered that English is spoken in many different ways, and that there were apparently mysterious gradations of Englishness which appeared in some perverse way to mirror Lucy’s definition of degrees of non-Englishness.  It was bewildering.  My previous indoctrination had been that English was an exclusive club.  If you spoke English you were a member of the club, and that was the end of it.  Now I discovered – slowly and incompetently – that things were quite like that after all.  It was more complicated, and bafflingly so.  I was quite devoid of the innate social perceptions of any home-bred British child.  I had not acquired them by the time I came to England in early adolescence, and was to continue to commit what were seen by my relatives as solecisms and gross errors of judgement.

I finished the book desperate to continue on with Lively, to know what happened when she went to university (where she discover that, despite what her teachers told her at school, other young people did like to read and had in fact been doing quite a lot of it) and how the rest of her life went on from there.  It is fortuitous timing that I waited until now to read Oleander, Jacaranda since I now have Dancing Fish and Ammonites to move on to – with great joy and anticipation!

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Drawn from LifeAfter reading the delightful Drawn From Memory, I could not wait to pick up Drawn From Life by E.H. Shepard.  While the first book focuses on one year of Shepard’s childhood, this volume lets us follow him through more than a decade of his life, from the death of his beloved mother when he was ten to school and then art school, right up to his marriage in his early twenties.

Because of the large time period covered in this book, Shepard does not linger lovingly over small events the way he did in Drawn From Memory.  Or rather he does, but not as frequently.  He tells of the time spent living with his aunts immediately after his mother’s death, of his school days, of his joyous family holidays in France, Germany, and various regions of England, and of his beginnings as an artist.  I loved hearing about his time at art school and his first (shared) studio.  Shepard and his friends do not seem to have had any pretentions of artistic grandeur.  They come across as nice middle class boys and girls, working very hard to earn a living with their pens, pencils, and brushes.  Luckily, there seem to have been plenty of contests with cash prizes and scholarship awards to help keep them afloat. P1080166 P1080168

The book picks up some structure towards the end, after Shepard realises he is in love with his close friend and fellow art student, Florence Chaplin.  Tortured by this revelation, he makes himself almost sick during a summer holiday, pondering all the reasons why he can never tell Florence of his love: she is cleverer than him, she is three years older than him, and, even if she would have him, how could he, with no steady income, support a wife?  Thankfully, this angst-ridden holiday ends with a visit to a close family friend, a woman who wisely reprimands Shepard for his black outlook and reminds him that “no girl ever minds being told she is loved”.  Florence, or Pie as she is known (Shepard’s own nickname was Kip), isn’t quite as sure of her own feelings when Shepard declares himself but she soon realises that friendship has also turned to love on her side.  Pooling their joint earnings (Florence was working on a mural at Guy’s Hospital at the time), the two decide to marry.P1080163 P1080165

One of the most touching things about these final chapters, as Shepard and Florence prepare to start their new life together in a small cottage outside of London, is how closely involved Shepard’s siblings are in the preparations for his wedding.  After their father’s death, the three Shepard siblings lived together.  Though Ernest was the youngest, he was the first to marry and both Edith and Cyril were delighted for him.  On the day of his engagement, Shepard describes coming home and spending the night talking over his future with Cyril in the bedroom they shared.  Once he takes the lease on a decrepit cottage in the country, both Edith and Cyril commit themselves to helping him make it not just habitable but cosy: Edith and Ernest camp in the cottage while the work is being done, with Cyril coming down from London on the weekends to help.  They are a close-knit trio and it is wonderful to see that the sibling affection from childhood only intensified with age.

The book ends in 1904 with Shepard’s marriage but also with the promise of a successful future: he has just sold a painting for £100 and been introduced to the senior cartoonist at Punch.  Wide-spread fame was another twenty years off but he was firmly set on his path.  The only sadness I felt at the book’s end was knowing that there was no third volume of memoirs to detail his adult years.  What a loss!

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Drawn From MemoryPublished in 1957 but focused on events that took place in 1887, Drawn From Memory by E.H. Shepard is an utterly charming memoir about Shepard’s life as a seven-year old boy growing up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London. It is also, as Shepard’s advises in his introduction, a memoir of the last entirely happy year the family had, which adds a special poignancy to the entire book; shortly afterwards, Shepard’s adored mother became ill and then died, leaving her devoted family devastated. But while she lived, what a happy family they were!

The youngest of three children born to a London architect and his wife, Shepard grew up in a home where the arts were encouraged. His parents moved in artistic circles (Frank Dicksee was a family friend and Shepard’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Royal Academy) and from an early age they encouraged Shepard to become an artist. Though the child did not have any intention of doing so (he “considered an artist’s life to be a dull one and looked for something more adventurous”), his early drawings, some of which are included in the book, were certainly impressive and I can understand why his father showed them off with such pride to his artist friends. Even if they are “mostly concerned with battle scenes.”

E.H. Shepard - Battle Scene

But, for the most part, this is not a book about a budding artist. It is a book about childhood memories. Shepard recalls the figures of his home life (his nurse, the cook, his elder sister Ethel and brother Cyril), devotes a marvellous chapter to his four easily shocked maiden aunts, and recounts events that impressed themselves on his young mind. Some of these events were of general significance – such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, an event which Shepard celebrated with the purchase of a Belgian flag (“As Cyril and Ethel had each bought a Union Jack, I thought a change was called for.”) – but most of them are episodes significant only to the Shepard family. He remembers Christmas celebrations, a visit to the pantomime, an expedition to a tennis party in Highgate, and family holidays to Eastbourne and, best of all, a farmhouse in Kent. The chapter devoted to “Pollard’s Farm” is as perfect description of childhood bliss as I have ever read. They are spoiled there with food, freedom, and proximity to animals. Of all the happy moments in the book, this is by far the happiest.E.H. Shepard - JubileeE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, BreakfastE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, Hay Loft

But there are moments scattered through that remind us that this perfect happiness cannot last. Knowing that Shepard’s mother would soon become ill is difficult enough – that poor young woman, about to be separated from her lovely family – but towards the end Shepard reduced me to tears by mentioning coming across his brother’s grave in France during the First World War. Cyril died in July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of A.A. Milne’s books and particularly of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were such an important part of my childhood that it feels particularly appropriate to now know more about his childhood.  This book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.

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Bring on the Empty HorsesSometimes in life, you just need an affectionate, gossipy Hollywood memoir.  Or at least I do.  I was certainly in need of one this weekend and nothing could have answered better than Bring On The Empty Horses by David Niven.

Bring on the Empty Horses is less a personal memoir than a professional one.  Rather than focusing on his own life (which he did – wonderfully – in The Moon’s a Balloon), Niven provides portraits of his Hollywood friends and acquaintances.  Some were good friends and major stars – Clark Gable and Errol Flynn both have lengthy chapters devoted to them – while others warrant only a few pages, in brief but wonderfully-drawn sketches of Hollywood figures both familiar and obscure.  In all instances, this is a book about Hollywood as it was during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s:

Hollywood was a village, and the studios were the families.  Everyone knew everyone else’s business, weaknesses, kinky leanings, and good points.  We were all in the same boat, involved in the early years of a terribly exciting experiment; it was an international community, and there was the maximum of camaraderie and the minimum of bitchiness.  At all studios, employees from the most glamourous stars to the lowliest riveters on the heavy construction gangs felt that they were members of a team, gloried in the success of their “hit” pictures, and occasionally indulged in college humour at the expense of their rivals.  “In case of an AIR RAID,” – they chalked up on the main entrance at Paramount – “go directly to RKO…they haven’t had a hit in years.”

Hollywood was hardly a nursery for intellectuals, it was a hotbed of false values, it harboured an unattractive percentage of small-time crooks and con artists, and the chances of being successful there were minimal, but it was fascinating, and IF YOU WERE LUCKY, it was fun.  And anyway, it was better than working.

Niven is unkind to no one.  He is blunt about people’s vices – his friends were far too often hard-drinking, oft-married womanizers – but is sad for them rather than censorious.  The most controversial of his friends was Errol Flynn and he is also the only one Niven seems defensive of.  Though the two men were roommates during their early days in Hollywood, their lives followed very different paths.  Niven returned to England at the beginning of the war and enlisted.  When he returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s, he was a happily married father of two.  Flynn was more reckless than ever, drinking too much, experimenting with drugs, and sleeping with women who were far too young for him.  It is a fascinating but sad portrait:

The great thing about Errol was you always knew exactly where you stood with him because he always let you down.  He let himself down, too, from time to time, but that was his prerogative and he thoroughly enjoyed causing turmoil for himself and his friends. 

I loved the chapter on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the rival journalists whose columns were read by millions hungry for gossip about their favourite stars, and was touched by the sympathetic chapters on the women who find themselves defeated by Hollywood: the sex bomb whose life begins to fall apart when she hits thirty or the fresh-faced girl who finds life as a high-class call girl more comfortable than sleeping with producers in hopes of getting an acting role.  I was also affected by Niven’s recollections of how Clark Gable helped him through a difficult time after the accidental death of his young wife – an experience Gable had unfortunately been through himself.

Generally though, the book is full of amusing anecdotes (both first-hand and hearsay) about classic Hollywood.  One of my favourites is Niven’s recollection of his interview with Sam Goldwyn in September 1939, when he told the famous producer that he was leaving to enlist:

He was very put out that I was leaving voluntarily and not waiting until I was called up, so he put me on suspension till the end of the war or the end of my life, whichever came sooner, and said, “I’ll cable Hitler and ask him to shoot around you.”

And, of course, there is Niven’s wonderful first meeting with the legendary and universally beloved director Ernst Lubitsch after being cast in his Bluebeard’s Eight Wife:

“I don’t think I can do it, Mr. Lubitsch,” I mumbled.

He looked at me, and his eyes shone with merriment.  “Do I frighten you?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said, “but I’m terrified of Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert…”

He jumped up and hooted with laughter.

“Do you know something?” He chortled.  “Claudette is frightened of Coop because of his natural acting, and Coop is frightened of Claudette because she’s so expert and this is his first comedy, and both of them are scared out of their wits by the small part players Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, and Herman Bing, because they are supposed to be scene stealers…but d’you know who is the most frightened of all?…Me!”

He put his arm around my waist (because he could not reach my shoulders) and led me to the door.

“Everyone will be nervous on the first day,” he said, “even the electricians in case they set fire to the studio, but we’re all going to be together for many weeks, and I promise you it’ll be fun.  Now run along to wardrobe and makeup, they have some fittings and tests set up for you…Drop in to see me anytime…We don’t start for two weeks – you’re a member of the family now!”

I couldn’t wait to start.

Whether he is talking about the biggest stars in Hollywood or now forgotten writers and society hostesses, Niven is a consummate raconteur.  Always charming, always self-deprecating, and always surprisingly forthcoming with a racy story, I am sure he was a wonderful dinner guest, which no doubt explains how he was able to gather most of his material for this book!  He certainly uses these gifts well as a memoirist and I had a lovely Saturday evening reading about his life on the edges of a fantastic, insular, and now long-gone world.

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Blue Remembered HillsAfter dragging it out as long as I could, I have finally finished reading Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood and early adulthood is delightfully-written but cruelly slim.  I rationed myself, reading only little bits at a time, trying to savour the treat as long as possible.

I should admit now that I’ve never read any of Sutcliff’s historical novels, which is bizarre.  I am not sure how we never crossed paths during my historical fiction-crazed childhood but we did not and so this was my first introduction to her.  I can’t imagine a better one.

The danger of childhood memoirs is always that they might descend into that treacly swamp of sentimentality that can only leave the reader feeling queasy and the author, one hopes, embarrassed.  This is decidedly not one of those memoirs.  Sutcliff is affectionate in her remembrances but never boringly nostalgic for days gone by or pitying for the circumstances she faced.  She has a marvellous sense of humour and wonderful eye for detailing, making the reader feel part of the episodes she shares with us.

Born in 1920, Sutcliff was the daughter of a naval lieutenant and, with the exception of long hospital visits, spent much of her childhood surrounded by other naval families, both in Malta and the UK.  She developed Still’s Disease (a crippling and painful form of juvenile arthritis) as a toddler, and though her disability and the pain made her life different from most children’s, she does not dwell on these differences.  As a child, she was determined to live as normally as possible, when not in hospitals or nursing homes.

While young Rosemary casually dismissed her disabilities, the situation was more difficult for her parents, especially her mother who had to care for an extremely sick daughter alone while her husband was at sea.  Sutcliff generally speaks of her mother with fondness and admiration, but there are mentions of tensions between them that escalated as Sutcliff aged.  The only thing that marred this book for me was my feeling that Sutcliff wasn’t quite as fair to her mother as she might have been.  Especially since, from all she shares of herself, Sutcliff can’t have been an easy child to parent!  Aside from the unimaginable stress her illness must have had on her parents, she seems to have been frustratingly willful when healthy.  She remained determined not to learn how to read for an extraordinarily long time, more than content to listen to the stories her mother told her.  This gap in her education bothered her not at all but was deeply alarming to her parents:

…I still had my inability to read.  My father now joined the battle, and had small serious talks with me.

‘When you can read to yourself, old girl, you will find a whole new world opening up to you.’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said I.  Polite but unconvinced.

He resorted to bribery.  I longed to model things.  He bought me a box of ‘Barbola’ modelling clay with all its accompanying paraphernalia, and promised me I should have it when I could read.

‘You can’t go on like this for ever!’ he said.

‘No, Daddy,’ I agreed.  I had every intention of going on like it for ever.

‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’

‘No, Daddy.’

Obviously, she eventually learned to read.  She did so while attending Miss Beck’s Academy, where she had gone despite having “no real desire to learn to read, but the dignity of schoolgirlhood appealed to me strongly.”  Miss Beck and her old-fashioned academy was one of my favourite parts of the book and a wonderful glimpse into the peculiar middle-class engine of the empire, since all her students were children of naval or military officers and often remained in that world themselves:

Christmas cards from old boys in big ships of the China Station and dusty cantonments on the plains of India; from fishery protection gunboats tossing in the North Sea; from Camberley and Greenwich and the Persian Gulf.  Christmas cards from old girls in married quarters and rooms and small rented houses up and down the world, usually enclosing letters and snapshots and messages of love from small sons and daughters whom Miss Beck had never seen.  Miss Beck’s old pupils seldom forgot her, and woe betide any of them who did.  ‘I have not heard from Elaine this year.  Of course her mother was always unsatisfactory, and they allowed her to use face powder much too young.  I shall write to her in the New Year.’  Or, ‘I must say, I did not think Peter would have forgotten me so soon.  He was a very affectionate little boy.  I suppose getting his regiment so young has gone to his head.’ 

(Simon, wise man that he is, seems to have been equally taken with Miss Beck and her school when he read this.)

The book follows Sutcliff from her childhood into her twenties, when she worked as an artist before becoming a writer.  This period includes a detailed account of her first painful love affair with a dashing young officer who, though delighted with Rosemary as a platonic soul mate, had no idea of marrying her.  Not an easy experience for her to live through but an interesting and valuable one that helped her to grow up and helped her along her way to becoming a writer.

I’m not quite sure what I expected going into this but this exceeded my expectations in every way.  Sutcliff writes so warmly and affectionately of the people that formed her that you can’t help but feel you have missed out by not having known them yourself and her enthusiasm for life and new experiences is wonderful to behold.  A charming book and one that, delightfully, is readily available from Slightly Foxed, who have an unerring talent for picking perfect books.

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