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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Searching about for something quick to read for this weekend’s mini Persephone readathon, I settled on How to Keep Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw.  It’s been sitting unread on my shelves since late 2011 so this was the perfect excuse to delve into it.

Published in 1949, this detailed housekeeping guide is targeted at the young housewife so I couldn’t help but think of my grandmothers as I was reading it.  Born in 1920 and 1921, they were both married at the time this book was released, running their own homes, and carrying for small daughters (and presumably a little bit for large husbands).  And I can confidently say that if they had read this book they would have a) laughed heartily at it and then b) throw it against a wall.

In terms of actual cleaning tips, the book has plenty of helpful suggestions that still stand.  It assumes complete idiocy so if you grew up in a hovel and never saw someone vacuum a room you would be well served by it.  However, idiots from hovels are not actually the target audience.  Smallshaw has a very clear idea of her readers’ upbringing, as she makes clear with assumptions throughout the book as to how her readers grew up:

Mother was not so far wrong when she insisted that all the rooms must be “turned out” every week.  Mother, however, had regular help.  She did the cooking herself and she had a washer-woman in weekly so that she could concentrate on housework alone.

This, clearly, is where she would have lost my grandmothers (actually, the upholstery whisk mentioned as a key piece of equipment might have done that.  But if they’d made it past that, this would have done it).  My Canadian grandmother grew up on a dairy farm.  Her mother decidedly did not have regular help and the cleanliness of the house was secondary to the cleanliness of the dairy.  My Czech grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in middle class comfort, with a governess, a chauffeur, a cook, and a cleaner.  She was never taught to cook, never mind clean, on the assumption that she would always have staff to do it for her.  You needed to know how to set a menu, not cook it.   More importantly, she grew up with the assumption that she’d be going to university and then getting a job – something that clearly never troubled the mind of Smallshaw’s ideal reader.

Both my grandmothers ended up having very different lives than their mothers but both were united in one attitude: to be houseproud is a sin when there are so many more important things in life.  Whereas for Smallshaw, it seems that being houseproud is a woman’s entire raison d’etre.  (See Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virgina Nicholson for a full portrait of this claustrophobic mindset.)

When Smallshaw sticks to cleaning basics, it’s not too contentious (except for her bold statement that it doesn’t matter if you dust or do the floors first.  This is madness – always dust first.  No arguments).  Her standards are insane and clearly meant to occupy a bored housewife by finding as many unnecessary things as possible for her to fill her day with.  Your home would in fact be sparkling but your mind would be screaming out for stimulation if you allowed yourself to be held captive by your possessions in this way.  She has helpful and deeply condescending tips to save yourself from the heavy work, such as “A clever wife induces the husband to regard the boiler as his special province!”  The exclamation point is a dagger to the heart.

While I trust her cleaning tips (but not the deranged schedule she recommends), I am less confident that following her cooking tips would yield good results.  Her idea to make efficient use of the steamers seems particularly unappetizing:

Use the bottom of the steamer for a light sponge pudding or batter.  The next compartment will take potatoes, and on the top, fillets of fish between two plates.

If my grandmothers had made it through the upholstery whisk, and miraculously through the assumptions about what their mothers had done, I know their contempt for Smallshaw would finally have peaked in the chapter on budgeting.  In “helpfully” guiding her simpleminded readers, Smallshaw advises:  You’ll be remarkably lucky if your estimated expenditure comes within your income!  At this stage, you and your husband will probably agree on the housekeeping allowance you can have…The idea that they would have let their husbands be involved in managing the money is the laughable one.  My Canadian grandmother broke free of the farm after high school and worked in a bank, where she eventually became assistant manager during the war.  Even without such formal training, it was the norm in many farming families for the wife to manage the money.  They usually had more education than their husbands (who often left school at the start of their teen years) and were more confident with numbers.  My other grandmother ended up in a dual-income house where, aside from doing the shopping and sometimes cooking Sunday lunch, households duties were pretty evenly shared.  The idea of him “letting” her have a portion of their shared income would not have gone over well – and I presume it would never even occurred to him.

Smallshaw concludes the book with a bit of an about face.  After extolling the virtues of obsessive cleaning, she then concedes that her readers may eventually have children, at which point standards collapse entirely.  If the reader had made it through to the end, perhaps this would have given them some hope.  It is a welcome acknowledgement of reality after many pages of fantasy.

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Of all the books I read this year, Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich was the most harrowing.  Yes, I read other tales of war, and stories of tragedies, but it was this that left me the most upset and the most unsettled – something Alexievich has a talent for doing.  Why?  Because of its simplicity in describing the most devastating of things: children’s lives upset by a long and bloody war.

Originally published in 1985 (alongside The Unwomanly Face of War, my favourite book of 2018), this history of Soviet children’s experiences of the Second World War was finally translated into English (by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) in 2019.  Like all of Alexievich’s books, it is an oral history where her subjects speak for themselves.  Now adults, Alexievich gives us their age at the time they were remembering and, most intriguingly, their job.  Sometimes it’s easy to see how childhood experiences led to future careers, and sometimes it is a tale of how something – something we will never know – went wrong along the way.  It is always fascinating.

For the Soviets, the Second World War was devastating. Something like 25 million people died in only a few years, infrastructure and huge parts of the country were destroyed, and everyone’s lives were changed.  For children, who could barely understand what was going on, it was a particularly fraught period and Alexievich leads her interview subjects in ways that reveal how most of them were still living – decades later – with the consequences of what they had been through as children.

For an unsettling large number of her subjects, the war meant a chaotic evacuation from cities, the loss of parents, and a lonely childhood in orphanages.  Some arrived traumatized, knowing their parents were dead (perhaps having seen them die), while others found themselves displaced and in orphanages as, they hoped, a temporary measure:

What’s left in me from the orphanage?  An uncompromising character.  I don’t know how to be gentle and careful with words. I’m unable to forgive.  My family complains that I’m not very affectionate.  Can one grow up affectionate without a mother?

Ira Mazur (Five years old.  Now a construction worker)

But the farther we moved away from home, the more we expected our parents to come and take us, and we didn’t suspect that many of us no longer had any parents.  This thought couldn’t even occur to us.  We talked about the war, but we were still children of peace.

Marlen Robeichikov (Eleven years old.  Now section head in a town council)

There are moments of happiness in the book and they were a welcome relief from the overwhelming trauma of so much loss.  Memories of fathers coming home or the announcement of the end of the war provided a necessary contrast and glimmer of hope.  But even happiness was not uncomplicated after so much suffering:

I was the last to find out that our troops were in the village.  I was sick.  When I heard about it, I got up and ran to school.  I saw a soldier and clung to him.  I remember that his army shirt was wet.

He had been embraced, and kissed, and wept over so much.

Valia Matiushkova (Five years old.  Now an engineer)

In the end, what the book left me with was a deeper understanding of the post-war USSR/Russia and, to some extent, its relations with the rest of the world.  Diplomacy is really the art of repairing the damage done by the last war.  But when a nation has endured so much collective trauma, when all of its people are faced but such bleak memories, how can anyone else understand where they have come from and how they now view the world?

Even now I…All my life I’ve cried in the happiest moments of my life.  Drowning in tears.  All my life…My husband…We’ve lived in love for many years.  When he proposed to me: “I love you.  Let’s get married” – I burst into tears.  He was frightened: “Did I upset you?”  “No!  No!  I’m happy!”  But I can never be completely happy.  Totally happy.  It somehow doesn’t come out.  I’m afraid of happiness.  It always seems that it’s just about to end.  This “just about” always lives in me.  That childhood fear…

Tamara Parkhimovich (Seven years old.  Now a secretary-typist)

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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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Growing up, I loved to read about Victorian explorers.  I loved to hear about the cartographers and botanists and naturalists who set off across deserts and jungles and mountains guided by a spirit of adventure and more curiosity than was often good for them.

As the world has developed and become better connected, its mysteries have dwindled.  Modern-day explorers are lamentably scarce on the ground but not – I was delighted to discover when I picked up Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – extinct.

Growing up in a small rural community in southern Ontario, Harris loved tales of Marco Polo and dreamed of becoming an explorer in her own right.  But she dreamed of reaching into the heavens – her destination was Mars.  She excelled at school, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and was working on her Ph.D. at MIT when she finally realised that space wasn’t what she was really looking for.  She wanted more earthly adventures so, combining her fascination with wildness conservation with her childhood love of Marco Polo, Harris set out with a childhood friend to cycle along the Silk Road, from Turkey to India via Central Asia, Tibet, and Nepal.  It was a thrilling but also terrifying leap:

Beyond avenging my childhood ideals of explorers, and figuring out how to be one myself, I wanted to bike the Silk Road as a practical extension of my thesis at Oxford: to study how borders make and break what is wild in the world, from mountain ranges to people’s minds, and how science, or more specifically wilderness conservation, might bridge those divides.  So there I was, rich in unemployable university degrees, poor in cash, with few possession to my name besides a tent, a bicycle, and some books.  I felt great about my life decisions, until I felt terrified.

The book chronicles their journey across Asia, as well as dipping into Harris’ earlier years as a way of explaining how she came to go on this crazy, marvellous adventure.  She is clearly an overachiever – her academic CV makes me feel like the laziest person on the planet – but her achievements are all a result of her genuine and intense enthusiasm for learning.  Like all the very best and most fascinating people, she is fascinated by the world.  It’s impossible not to find that kind of enthusiasm engaging.

Not only is she a talented scientist and a capable outdoorswoman, she is also a beautiful writer.  I picked the book up because I was fascinated by the journey but found myself utterly absorbed by Harris’ writing.  She writes clearly, warmly and beautifully – the way I wish I could write, in fact:

…exploration, more than anything, is like falling in love: the experience feels singular, unprecedented, and revolutionary, despite the fact that others have been there before.  No one call fall in love for you, just as no one can bike the Silk Road or walk on the moon for you.  The most powerful experiences aren’t amenable to maps.

This passage about Ani, once part of Armenia but now in Turkey, was one of my favourites:

As the sun blinked cold and low over the mountains, the “city of 1001 churches” caught light the way I wished history would: the crumble and decay illuminated, some foundations still solid, graffiti aged gracefully to art.

And what of her other destinations?  The beauty of travelling by bicycle is the time it allows for observation and interaction.  Without the purple prose or excessive introspection common to lesser travel writers, Harris chronicles their encounters with local residents, wildlife, and – always key when cycling – topography.  Most hair-raising are the two instances when Harris and her travel companion snuck across the Chinese border into Tibet.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying that!  (And especially not right now, with China looking for any excuse to arrest Canadians in retribution for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou earlier this month.)

It is a fascinating and beautifully-told tale of a great adventure and, most importantly, it cannot help but make you feel excited by all the mysteries and secrets the world still has to offer.  We are all explorers in one way or another and Harris reminds us of how thrilling – and terrifying – that is.  Read it and be inspired.  Or, to experience the same journey in a different medium, check out the trip highlights video.

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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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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The wars we are proud of we don’t forget.  We write books and films and televisions shows about them, study them for years, and never tire of discussing them.  We do not let ourselves forget.  We remember because we are proud of what we fought for, what we accomplished, and, even if we lost the war, we can still be proud of how we survived and came to terms with loss.

But there are other wars we cannot forget quickly enough, so urgent is our need to wipe the shame and futility and waste of them from our memories.  Sometimes this begins even as the war is still being fought.

The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted nine messy and fruitless years from late 1979 to early 1989, falls into the latter category.  Only a few years after its start, the Soviet Union was already trying to reshape the narrative and doing its best to hide the true conditions and casualties.  There was anger and frustration among the soldiers, among the families of those whose children had died and were not being honoured, and among the general citizens who felt the truth was being hidden from them.  It was in this atmosphere that Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich was born.

First published in 1990 (and translated to English in 1992 and then again more recently), Alexievich began work on this oral history while the war was still on.  It came from her frustration – one shared by many others – that:

All we know about this war, which has already lasted twice as long as World War I, is what “they” consider safe for us to know.  We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are, and from the fear that such understanding would bring.

Through countless interviews with soldiers, civilian employees, grass widows, bereaved parents, and regular citizens, she gathers all perspectives and presents them in her typically straightforward manner, allowing each subject to speak for him- or herself.  It’s an approach I love and which Alexievich wields powerfully to compose her portrait of a weary, stubborn, distrustful nation and an increasingly weak government, desperate to retain authority and control.

Her title comes from one of the war’s most enduring symbols: the zinc coffins the bodies were shipped home in.  Like so much else about the war, efforts were made to keep these repatriations quiet but they fooled no one:

In those days [1981] no one had seen the zinc coffins.  Later we found out that coffins were already arriving in the town, with the burials being carried out in secret, at night.  The gravestones had ‘died’ rather than ‘killed in action’ engraved on them, but no one asked why all these eighteen-year-olds were dying all of a sudden.  From too much vodka, was it, or flu?  Too many oranges, perhaps?  Their loved ones wept and the rest just carried on until they were affected by it themselves.  (Private, Grenadier Battalion)

For parents who lost children, the collective choice to ignore what was going on or to condemn it was wrenching.  To have your child come home in a coffin is bad enough but to have the death ignored, to be treated as though it had no value, made it even worse.  The days of brave soldiers (men and women, as Alexievich reminded the world in her extraordinary first book, The Unwomanly Face of War) being honoured for their bravery and sacrifice were done.  This was nothing like the communal spirit of the Great Patriotic War – those who suffered were left to do it alone:

…I was sitting near the grave and a mother came by with her children.  ‘What kind of a mother would let her only daughter go off to war at a time like this?’ I heard her tell them.  ‘Just give away her daughter?’  The gravestone had ‘To My Only Daughter’ carved on it.

How dare they.  How can they? She took the Hippocratic Oath.  She was a nurse whose hands were kissed by a surgeon.  She went to save their sons’ lives.

‘People!’ I cry inside me.  ‘Don’t turn away from me!  Stand by the grave with me for a little while.  Don’t leave me alone…’ (A Mother)

But there has never been a war without some soldiers enjoying it and Alexievich includes their stories as well, reminding us that war brings with it travel and excitement, the chance to see new things and challenge yourself daily:

I tell you straight – they were the best years of my life.  Life here is rather grey and petty: work – home, home – work.  There we had to work everything out for ourselves and test our mettle as men.

So much of it was exotic, too: the way the morning mist swirled in the ravines like a smokescreen, even those burubukhaiki, the high-sided, brightly decorated Afghan trucks, and the red buses with sheep and cows and people all crammed together inside, and the yellow taxis…There are places there which remind you of the moon with their fantastic, cosmic landscapes.  You get the feeling that there’s nothing alive in those unchanging mountains, that it’s nothing but rocks – until the rocks start shooting at you!  You sense that even nature is your enemy. (Artillery Captain)

Once home, life could be difficult for those who believed in what they had done in Afghanistan.  The injured and sick struggled to get treatment and respect from civilians.  For soldiers who came back to public apathy and, worse, disapproval of a war they had spent years of their lives fighting, the public debate that eventually emerged was pointless:

Nowadays they say we were an occupying force.  But what did we take away with us, except our comrades’ coffins?  What did we get out of it, apart from hepatitis and cholera, injuries and lives crippled in all sense of the word?  I’ve got nothing to apologize for: I came to the aid of our brothers, the Afghan people.  And I mean that.  The lads out there with me were sincere and honest.  They believed they’d gone to do good – they didn’t see themselves as ‘misguided fighters in a misguided war’, as I saw it described recently.  And what good does it do, trying to make out we were simply naïve idiots and cannon-fodder?  Who does that help?  (Private, Artillery Regiment)

While I enjoyed the entire book, I found the perspectives of the women who went to Afghanistan particularly fascinating.  Alexievich interviewed female medical personnel and civilian employees, who had not just war stories to share but nasty comments thrown at them by soldiers who preferred their women to stay on pedestals back home apparently:

…we couldn’t walk past a group of soldiers without sneering comments like ‘Well, Bochkarevka!  How’s our little heroine today?  Doing our international duty in bed, are we?’  The name ‘Bochkarevka’ comes from the little houses (they look a bit like railway carriages) known as ‘bochki’ reserved for senior officers – majors and above, so the girls who, well, ‘serviced’ them were known as ‘Bochkarevki’.  You’ll often hear soldiers who’ve served here say things like this: ‘If I hear that a certain girl’s been in Afghanistan she just doesn’t exist for me.’  We got the same diseases as they did, all the girls got hepatitis and malaria, we were shot at too, but if I meet a boy back home he won’t let me give him a friendly hug.  For them we’re all either whores or crazy. (Civilian Employee)

I could go on and on with these quotes.  The book is full of fascinating insights from all different perspectives.  But Alexievich’s genius lies in not just interviewing her subjects and obtaining powerful and emotional stories from them; she is wise enough to know how to set them out in a way that builds her narrative.  Through all these voices she tells a full and complete story of a messy conflict and an even messier home front.

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One of the greatest joys of reading is how one book leads to another.  Until I read My History by Antonia Fraser, I had never heard of The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford.  Fraser’s memoir of her youth is great fun but I found myself fascinated by her stories of her mother, who was an enthusiastic if never successful political candidate, popular historian, and mother of eight.  Thankfully, Elizabeth Pakenham, Countess of Longford (also known as Elizabeth Longford), had anticipated my fascination and thoughtfully published this memoir in 1986 when she was an energetic eighty-year old and I was just being born (I shall now think of it as a “Welcome to the World” present intended for me personally).

After opening the book with a little about her parents’ families and courtship, Longford chooses to introduce herself by describing briefly her entry into the world and, at more length, the state of women’s lives at the time.  Born in London in August 1906, she came into a world where one in three working women was employed as a domestic servant but where the professional opportunities for educated women were growing rapidly.  Careers in civil service were recommended as somewhere women could “’rise to the top’ (that is, become clerks)” and there were 378 women on the Medical Register in England.  Among those women was Longford’s own mother, who had qualified as a doctor before her marriage but practiced only briefly.  Longford’s father, also a doctor, had encouraged his wife to continue in their field, suggesting the role of medical inspector for schools and even setting aside a room in the house as a joint workroom, before his wife chose to focus on her family and home.  But all around their Harley Street home (where her father had his practice) other families did have two professional parents so Longford saw from an early age that a combination of career and family was possible.  It is clearly a lesson she took to heart.

After a relatively uneventful youth, Longford went to Oxford.  Arriving at Oxford in the late 1920s, she was swept into a world of Bright Young Things and intellectual dynamism.  She soaked in everything, seems to have known everyone, and has remarkably kind things to say even about awful people.  The New York Times referred to her as  “the Zuleika Dobson of her day, with undergraduates and even dons tumbling over one another to fall in love with her”, and it is not hard to imagine that her fresh good looks, intelligence, and enthusiasm for life would have been an irresistible combination.  But for Longford the greatest passion of her university career seems to have been her introduction to socialism through friends like Hugh Gaitskell (whose encouraging note to her entertained me so much a while back).  As school ends, she sets off full of good intentions to make her contribution to raising the nation’s poor by spending the summer tutoring at a Workers’ Educational Association summer camp.

But it was more than just high ideals that drew her to the WEA.

Frank Pakenham makes his first memorable appearance in June 1927, the night of a ball at Magdalen College:

About midnight, on my way back from the cloakroom to the dance floor, I was astonished to see a large sleeping figure draped over a garden chair in the middle of a wide canvas corridor.  As I approached the figure on tiptoe I saw that it was wearing a “Bullingdon” uniform, the last word in social glamour: yellow waistcoat and navy blue tailcoat with white facings and brass buttons.  The face was of monumental beauty, as if some Graeco-Roman statue – the Sleeping Student maybe – had been dressed up in modern clothes by some group of jokers.  I stood for a moment admiring but puzzling.  “What sort of girl”, I asked myself, “could have allowed such a magnificent partner to spend the best part of the night alone and asleep?”  Years later I discovered that the girl had been Alice Buchan, daughter of John Buchan, the novelist.  If the Buchan charm could not keep Frank Pakenham awake, it was clear that nothing and nobody ever would.

He drifts out of her life for a while but they are drawn together by their mutual passion for politics, though they were at different ends of the spectrum, and action.  It is he who encourages her to tutor at the WEA camp, where he will also be working.  From there, their courtship progresses naturally but turbulently.  After some struggles to reconcile their political differences, they married in 1931.  Evelyn Waugh, catty and snobbish as usual, referred to them the next year as the “poor Frank Pakenham who married beneath him and the Hon. Mrs P who married above herself” but the couple, like all sensible people, ignored him.  Waugh would view them much more positively decades later once they had both converted to his beloved Catholicism.

With both spouses actively supporting different parties, the tensions that had almost prevented their marriage continued to make life difficult though, remarkably, their marriage remained harmonious.  When Longford was standing for election, Frank decided it was presumably too much for both his work and social life to remain right-leaning.  Longford’s tale of his resignation from the Carlton Club was delightful and one of my favourite passages from the book:

“My wife is a socialist candidate,” he told the club secretary in order to explain his resignation.  The secretary blanched.  At first he was speechless.  Then he clasped Frank’s hand with a look of unutterable sympathy, as if his wife had committed a despicable crime.  “If you are ever abroad and in trouble,” he managed to murmur, “don’t forget that the Carlton Club will never let you down.”  The interview dissolved in a mist of unshed tears.

Frank would eventually change his political allegiances and become a not-terribly successful member of several Labour cabinets.  Longford is a tad defensive of his less popular stances, both as a social reformer and politician, but I can only imagine how much flack they received over the years.  An eccentric hereditary peer/Labour politician is surely the stuff of dreams for British tabloid newspapers.

The book is crammed with details from their very full lives as political candidates, social reformers, and parents to their eight children (an evenly balanced four girls and four boys).  They had the most amazing energy and I felt incredibly lazy reading about all the things they attempted, lamenting my relative lack of ambition.  But how wonderful to know there were such passionate people in the world, trying with every fibre of their being to make the world into a better place.  They had not just passion but optimism, feeling that if they only tried hard enough and long enough they could make a difference.

Longford lived a long and fascinating life, full of ambition and action, and has the writing skills to do justice to it.  Though four of her children would become writers (Antonia Fraser, Thomas Pakenham, Rachel Billington, and Judith Kazantzis), Longford proves more skilled and engaging than any of them, with a wonderfully breezy style and gift for anecdotes.  She ends the book in the 1960s, just as she is embarking on a new career as a biographer and historian (her books on Queen Victoria, Wellington, and Wilfred Scawen Blunt are all still in print) and my only regret is that she never wrote a second volume of memoirs to cover the next phase of her life.

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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