Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

When I picked up The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman I was looking forward to being reunited with an old, dear friend.  My acquaintance with Sylvia Townsend Warner (STW) goes back to 2012, when on Simon’s flawless recommendation I read The Element of Lavishness, a collection of letters between her and William Maxwell.  It remains one of my favourite books and encouraged me a few years later to pick up a collection of her letters (this time edited by Maxwell) that was almost equally delightful.  Through these letters I met a woman who was whimsical but dangerously observant, loving yet reserved, and ferociously intelligent.  I loved her for all these traits and looked forward to getting to know her even better through her diaries.

Turns out, that was not to be.  Some people are born diarists (Harold Nicolson and Charles Ritchie, for example, neither of whom I can ever praise too highly).  Others are not, perhaps because they have so many other outlets for expression.  STW, it turns out, was not a master diarist and saved the best of her writing and insights for her letters and books.  This is still a worthwhile book for any STW fans but it by no means gives as complete a picture of the woman, her interests, and her enchanting thoughts as do her letters.

Running from 1927 to 1978 (the year of her death), the diaries are sporadic and various periods her life remain undocumented.  The earliest years are dry but, to me, offer some of the most fascinating entries, full of musical scholarship concerns and relative indifference to her long-running affair with Percy Carter Buck, the director of music at Harrow.  She was in her early thirties, had already established herself as a successful author (with Lolly Willowes and Mr Fortune’s Maggot), and seems to have lived a pleasant and sociable life.  It was interesting to see her mention several times a vague sense of sadness that she didn’t have children but she seems more concerned with a sense of continuation and legacy than any feeling of loss:

I wish I could be a grandmother.  It is wanton extravagance to have had a youth with no one to tell of it to when one grows old (9 January 1928)

This period also included one of my favourite, very STW-esque entries:

We drank sherry in the nursery, while poor Bridget wailed on mother’s milk.  Sherry in the nursery seemed to very Victorian, with a high fender and a smoky chimney and all, that it occurred to us that we must be the last of the Victorians.  But later in the evening at the Chetwynd’s party I met a purer specimen…the little Countess of Seafield, so like Victoria that as I sat by her on the sofa I felt myself growing more and more like Lord Melbourne. (24 November 1928)

(This, for the record, is exactly what her letters sound like.  Please go read her letters.)

In 1930, however, the whirlwind begins: she begins a relationship with Valentine Ackland that will continue (with many, many bumps along the way) until Ackland’s death in 1969.  It was the consuming passion of STW’s life but it’s impossible to view Ackland benignly given how much pain she caused the ever-loyal STW.  Still, it began well:

Just as I blew out the candle the wind began to rise.  I thought I heard her speak, and listened, and at last she said through the door that this would frighten them up at the Vicarage.  How the Vicarage led to love I have forgotten (oh, it was an eiderdown).  I said, sitting on my side of the wall, that love was easier than liking, so I should specialise in that.  ‘I think I am utterly loveless.’  The forsaken grave wail of her voice smote me, and had me up, and through the door, and at her bedside.  There I stayed, till I got into her bed, and found love there… (11 October 1930)

The bulk of the diaries focus on Ackland.  Like many people, STW seems to have been most devoted to her diary when she was the most troubled and that trouble was invariably caused by Ackland’s infidelities, particularly her long relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Wade White.  It’s excruciating to read her pain at these times, when the woman she was so devoted to was casting her aside:

I kissed the hollow of her elbow – gentle now under may lips, and no stir beneath the skin.  She looks as beautiful now as when she was beautiful with her love for me. (15 August 1949)

But it is worse when Ackland dies.  After long years of illness, Ackland’s passing leaves STW bereft and, for the first time in almost forty years, truly alone.  I remember finding her letters to Maxwell from this period excruciatingly painful and the diary entries are equally so, showing how much her days were consumed with thoughts of her lost love.  But this is also when she begins to record her thoughts on aging, which she excels at:

In my bath, looking at my arm, remembering how often she kissed it, I bethought me that I inhabit my body like a grumbling caretaker in a forsaken house.  Fine goings-on here in the old days: such scampers up and down stairs, such singing and dancing.  All over now:  and the mortality of my body suddenly pierced my heart. (18 September 1970)

Though the book is, primarily, an account of her time with Ackland (and an especially detailed chronicle of the difficult periods in their relationship), there was still enough of the minutiae of daily life to entertain me.  I was touched by her account of picking up Between the Acts shortly after Virginia Woolf’s death:

At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia Woolf’s last book.  And I received an extraordinary impression how light it was, how small, and frail.  As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant woman.  The feeling has haunted me all day. (26 January 1942)

And I loved her delight at receiving a positive review from an Italian newspaper:

In the morning I received a cutting from La Gazettino – a Venetian paper – sent by Aldo Camerino who had written an extremely praising and glorifying and gratifying account of Winter in the Air, and me in general.  It is wonderful to begin a day by reading of oneself as La Townsend Warner.  Such things occur but seldom, and I have been enjoying a compass of over two octaves, a flawless legato, complete control of all fioriture passages, great dramatic intensity and a commanding stage presence all day.  (18 January 1956)

Moments like this are why I love STW.  It seems she saved most of them for her letters but there were still enough in these diaries to provide real enjoyment.  I can’t say the diaries helped me to know her any better but they were moderately fascinating, enough that I am happy to have read them.  And I did discover one very interesting thing: that she is exactly the same person in her letters as she is in her diaries.  It takes a special kind of confidence and courage to be fully yourself in correspondence and I’m delighted to have discovered this about her.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The best thing about celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day is that you gain a whole evening in which to enjoy your Christmas gifts. And for me, that meant curling up with the much-anticipated Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill and reading late into the night (other benefit of celebrating on the 24th: no need to wake early on the 25th).

This is Hill’s second volume of bookish musings following the wonderful Howards End is on the Landing and one I’d been looking forward to for a long, long, long time (learn more about the confusing evolution of this book in Simon’s excellent review). Did it live up to my expectations? Unfortunately, not quite but I am still very happy to have read it.

I adore Hill’s enthusiasm for all things book-related. She is a passionate reader and has opinions about everything going on in the literary community. This can make her a divisive figure as her views are strong, bluntly stated, and seemingly unassailable. She is in fact deeply obnoxious when these moods strike her. But in between she writes intoxicatingly about the books she loves and, rather randomly but beautifully, about the natural world around her. And these are the sections that I love and make everything worthwhile:

Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to leave and return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next…

The greatest joy of Howards End is on the Landing for me was the excellent book recommendations it contained. My TBR list grew immeasurably. This book felt much lighter in terms of the number of books it referenced and I didn’t find any of them (excluding the ones I’ve already read) particularly intriguing.

What Hill does seem to focus on more this time are her own life stories (in case you didn’t think there were enough of those in the first book). This, if you are a reader who finds her intolerable, is not a good sign. I was vaguely neutral towards her before I started reading but the more time she spent talking about herself, the more insufferable I found her. She spends far too much time being defensive about literary prizes (except when complaining that there are too many now), and has a strange egotistical rant about how few novels about WWI had been written when she (a woman! And not yet thirty!) wrote Strange Meeting in 1971 and apparently set the entire trend ablaze. She does graciously acknowledge that a little book called All Quiet on the Western Front was also being read at the time. Now, I’d never heard of Strange Meeting before but apparently it won her the Somerset Maugham Award: £500 to be spent on travel. Her description of how she used it was perhaps my favourite passage in the entire book:

Instead of going to Ulan Bator or across the Atlas mountains by yak, I took the night train to Venice and spent six weeks there on the money, staying in a tiny but pleasant and clean hotel and living on their breakfasts and then cheap fruit from the market and tiny pizzas. The orchestras in St. Mark’s Square were outrivaling each other with the theme from Love Story and, as I could never afford a coffee at Florian’s, I just walked about hearing them down every side alley. It was an extraordinary time and I wrote about Venice a great deal afterwards. And thanked Maugham from the heart, every day.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Hill has certainly lived an interesting life and has lots of strong and fascinating (if frequently infuriating) opinions. I felt like her best anecdotes and favourite books may have been used up in the first book but this is still an interesting and enjoyable read – if you can stomach her pretension and narcissism.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

The theme of 2017, for me, was travel.  This was reflected in the three months I spent in Europe, obviously, but also in my reading throughout the year.  I read books to help me plan, to inspire me to visit new destinations, and just to enjoy learning about people doing things I haven’t the slightest interest in doing.  Some of the books were helpful, others not, some were well written, and others were absolutely cringe-worthy.

The best of the bunch was The Way of Wanderlust by Don George.  So much so that as soon as I finished reading it I went back and read through my favourite bits again.

As someone who haunts the travel section of my local bookstore, George’s name was vaguely familiar to me from his work as the editor of countless collections of travel writing but that was it.  I knew nothing of him as a writer or a traveller in his own right but just flipping through this book’s table of contents and seeing the variety of places he wrote about convinced me I needed to try this.  Croatia, Japan, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Jordan all beckoned.

This is a collection of George’s best works and they range over his lifetime as well as over the globe.  Separated neatly into three sections (pilgrimages, encounters, and illuminations), he writes about youthful adventures in Europe and Africa, family life in rural Japan, spiritual encounters in the Outback, how it feels to stand in front of a beloved painting in Paris, and so many more things that aren’t necessarily obvious subjects.  But in George’s hands, they are not just worthy of attention – they are precious.

His writing style changes from subject to subject and with time but he is always engaged, empathetic and fully present in each story.  I loved how confident he was regardless of his tone, able to make fun of himself but also to feel awed and humbled by the things he encounters.

One of my favourite stories, “Conquering Half Dome”, is about a vacation he took with his wife and children to Yosemite National Park in California.  Despite a lifetime of travel and moderate outdoor adventures, he finds himself terrified by the cable route up Half Dome.  His account of it definitely falls into the humorous category:

I’d read before the trip that the path slopes up at an angle of about sixty degrees.  In my mind I had pictured that angle and had mentally traced a line along the living room wall.  That doesn’t seem too steep, I had said to myself.

Beware estimates made in the comfort of your living room.  From the plushness of my couch, with a  soothing cup of steaming tea in my hand, sixty degrees hadn’t seemed too steep – but in the sheer, slippery, life-on-the-line wildness of Yosemite, it seemed real steep.  I looked at the cables, and I looked at the sloping pate of the mountain – and I thought, This is a really stupid way to die.

I could cheerfully read an entire book written in that vein, but this is not that book.  In my other favourite piece, “Japan’s Past Perfect”, the beauty of his opening paragraph shows just how well he can set the mood and how beautifully he can describe a scene:

I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a succession of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars.  Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes.  No other houses are visible.  The only sound in the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch.  The faint scent of charcoal from last night’s hearth rides on the air.  I feel as if I’m in the hermit’s hut in a 17th-century ink-and-brush painting.

There are 33 stories in the collection and all are fascinating.  The foreword he includes for each piece is also wonderful, giving the reader some context around both the place described and George’s life.  George shares a lot of himself in each story but these forewords provide even greater intimacy.

Really good travel writing isn’t necessarily about making you fall in love with a certain destination; it’s about making you fall in love with the entire world and feel that exploring it is a great and wondrous adventure.  And in this wonderful collection that exactly what Don George does.

Read Full Post »

When I found The Coast of Bohemia by Edith Pargeter in a used bookstore in Nelson, BC last summer, I gasped audibly and then spent the rest of my visit with the book clutched firmly to my chest.  No one was going to part me from this book, which I had been longing to add to my Czech collection for years.

Never heard of The Coast of Bohemia before?  Or Edith Pargeter?  Fair enough, though you might have heard of Pargeter under her pen name of Ellis Peters.  As Peters she wrote the best-selling Brother Cadfael mystery series.  Lesser known are her translations of a rather marvellous variety of Czech works, ranging from beloved 19th century tales to political memoirs to post-war classics.

Czech is not a language you pick up easily.  But for Pargeter, who became fascinated by the country after befriending Czech servicemen during WWII, it was a labour of love.  The country, the language, and the people all fascinated her.  In 1947 she made her first visit to Czechoslovakia and then returned for three months in 1948, the trip which she recounts in The Coast of Bohemia.  She would continue to visit the country regularly but it was only this early trip in the hopeful post-war years that she chronicled in this wonderful, enlightening travelogue.

Pargeter arrives in Prague in the midst of the 1948 Sokol slet.  The Sokol movement was based on gymnastic exercises but involved a whole ideology (see Wikipedia for more detail) and the slet was a mass exhibition that drew in people from all over the country, as well as foreign spectators.  For Pargeter, it set just the right festive mood for her stay.

Pargeter roams widely in her travels but Prague is her base and her love for the city flows throughout the book.  I particularly loved this passage about the view towards the castle, perhaps because it is so much how I feel when I am there:

I have many great things still to see, but so far I know of no prospect which lifts up my heart and stops my breath as this does.  Gothic towers have always a quality of tugging one towards heaven as in a rising whirlwind, and here the towers are themselves the culmination of an upward rushing of roofs, palaces, gardens and orchards, all climbing with an equal impetus of flight from the level silver calm of the river, and the counter-balance of bridges.  I can see it twenty times a day, and never without an answering leap of the heart; at the end of a close daily acquaintance with it for three months it is as new as at the beginning, yet coming back to it has every time something of coming home.

Because she has so much time to explore, she also takes delight in discovering Prague’s “subtler serenities” and “less accessible charms” which come only “to those who have time to appreciate them.”

Much of the pleasure of her visit comes from the fact that she is not alone.  She spends most of her time with Czech friends who squire her about to show off their country but are also happy to just spend quiet evenings in discussion.  By slipping so easily into family life, she really gets to know the people and the country in a way that the vast majority of travellers never do.

And she sees places most travellers never see, even today.  She goes on daytrips from Prague into the countryside or along the river, visits nearby historic sights (including Terezin, the former concentration camp), spends some time in a famous spa town, and relaxes in the mountains.  I read this back in June, knowing that I was only weeks away from going to Europe but with no plans to stop in the Czech Republic while there.  It was torture.  As things turned out, I did get to spend almost two weeks there (split between Prague and a Moravian spa town) and so I was able to stop being so jealous of Pargeter.

Because she has close Czech friends, Pargeter gets to ride along on family visits to friends in the countryside outside of Prague.  There she is rather amazed to see the family’s son, the elegant and sophisticated Honza, comfortably helping out – something she can’t imagine British city-dwellers being able to do:

It seemed to us that in Czechoslovakia there was no such gulf between the townsman and the countryman as can often be found in England.  You could take any apparently typical young Praguer […] and find that he had firm roots somewhere in the soil and a very close knowledge of country matters.  The link not only exists, but is close and strong.  We discovered during the war how completely ignorant many town-born English people could be of the most elementary facts of country life.  Jaroslav and his family would go off during the summer holidays to help with the harvest on his brother’s farm in Sumava.  Honza, when he talked about his childhood, often trotted out incidental anecdotes about the hop-fields, and his uncle’s draught oxen.  Shop-gazing in the streets of Prague, or forking manure and casually shepherding animals here, he fitted into the picture equally securely.

Whether this is universally true, I can’t say, but it certainly remains true in my family.  Connecting with the land is important to Czechs – after all, the national anthem is a love song about the country’s beauty.  Combine that with a love of physical activity and you have a nation that can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend the weekend than foraging for mushrooms, building a friend’s cabin, or, joy of joys, getting together a small group to slaughter and process a pig.  I doubt this is uniquely Czech but it is certainly more common in continental Europe than in the UK, both then and now.

Pargeter’s love affair with the Czechs was only beginning when she took this trip and wrote the book (it came out in 1950).  Her Czech was minimal (only around 50 words she estimates) so her ability to grasp all the nuances of the Czech character are limited.  While she is delighted by all the visitors come to Prague for the Sokol slet, dressed in their regional costumes, her Prague friends view them with condescension, explaining to her that “most of these […] were Slovaks.”  Slovaks are never to be admired, even as picturesque peasants.  And when a Czech man she meets on a train very neatly explains the national character to her as “everyone smiles, but has a sorrow in his heart” she is not quite sure how seriously to take him.  In time, I’m sure she learned just what an accurate description that was.  In fact, even by the end of this trip she was well on her way to understanding why the Czechs were different:

The Czechs seem very like us, we say – and indeed I believe they are – why do they not think as we do?  The answer is on the map.  They simply cannot afford to. […] She looks back on a history of unending troubles, wars and wrongs, all because she made the mistake of being the very antithesis of an island, the core and crossroads of a continent.

Pargeter is an excellent and enthusiastic observer of the Czechs and, more than anything, a fond one.  The book reads like a particularly erudite love letter to the country and the people, and is a wonderful reflection on both.  I think any traveller (or armchair traveller) with an interest in the Czech Republic would enjoy this but for Czechophiles it is a true delight.

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 »

Older Posts »