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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

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In a year full of comfort reads, Pravda Ha Ha by Rory MacLean made quite a change.  It’s about as far from comforting as you can get and is as urgent and important as it is upsetting.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, MacLean set out across the newly opened East.  Thirty years later, he follows his journey in reverse, from Russia through the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and finally back home to the UK, trying to make sense of how the hope and optimism he saw on his original journey has led to the corruption, authoritarianism, and exploitation rampant in Eastern Europe today.

Russia is, of course, at the heart of it all.  MacLean begins his journey there and his writing on it is superb, though the anecdotes he shares would hardly be credible were they from any other country.  With oligarchs, illegal immigrants, and hackers, he glimpses the new Russia, which looks disarmingly familiar to the old.  Its simplistic narratives about its history help fuel Putin’s mythologized version of the 20th Century, and kitschy celebrations are held for the glorious victories of the Second World War:

Beyond the billboard was the Night Watch festival ground.  Here every summer the notorious motorcycle gang re-enacted the Second World War.  In pyrotechnic fantasies and high-octane motorcycle stunts, ‘heroic’ Red Army bikers battled ‘heartless’ Wehrmacht BMW riders before taking on goose-stepping ‘pro-Western’ demonstrators.  In last year’s performance the Statue of Liberty even made an appearance, spewing a fiery retch of dollars ‘to poison, separate and kill the Slavic peoples.’

The flip side of this is the pointed erasure of Soviet crimes from the history books.  While other nations have worked to face their pasts, Russia has chosen to ignore it.  As MacLean says, “few Russians accept that past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed for the psychic health of a society”.    Attempts are made by volunteers to raise awareness, in the belief that these events must be acknowledged so that future generations can learn from them – but that seems to be exactly what Putin wants to avoid.  How much easier to focus on a proud history as a nation of victors.

I like to think I’m relatively well-informed and not too naïve about current affairs, but at times I feel like I could not keep up with all of the threats posed by Russia.  The most chilling – perhaps because it was the one I was least aware of – was Russia’s ability to use human trafficking as a weapon against the EU:

Russia’s 1,300-mile-long northern frontier with Norway and Finland is among the country’s most strategic, guarded by the army, the KGB and the Border Service.  Along its length nothing happens without Moscow’s approval.  They Kremlin alone decides which roads to open and close in the heavily militarized region.

…No proof existed of the involvement of the Russian state, yet – immediately after Helsinki had voiced support for NATO – some 1,500 refugees were dispatched across its border as a warning.  The Kremlin wanted to remind the Finns that over eleven million foreigners lived on Russian territory, a vast pool of potential migrants who could be used to flood Europe.

Moving to Hungary, MacLean finds a sadder land.  Russia may be sinister but it is bold and confident and powerful.  Hungary, so hopeful in its new independence on MacLean’s original journey, has walked a darker path.  The country struggled to adjust to capitalism and while some succeeded, many were left behind to struggle:

In the communist years everyone had a job.  Everyone had a roof over their head.  ‘Workers pretended to work and the authorities pretended to pay them’ was a well-worn cliché, meant as a joke, yet it contained a grain of truth.  But the joke vanished with the Wall.  In the early 1990s workers’ hostels were closed, along with redundant factories, throwing tens of thousands onto the street.  Many tried their luck at small start-ups, opening video-rental shops, nail parlours or a corner grocery, losing everything when their enterprises failed.  They left their villages and towns in shame, escaping bad debts, joining the exodus to the capital.

It is no wonder that these people, left with nothing and with no support, long for certainty while trusting no one.  Which is how they ended up with their current authoritarian government, to the distress of MacLean’s old liberal friends:

‘Remember what I told you: Hungary placed its faith in the losers of every war since the sixteenth century.  This twenty-first century will be no exception.’  Alajos said in toast: ‘To a once hopeful Hungary.  Long may we mourn her death.’

Things are no better in Poland, where MacLean finds himself losing patience during a conversation with several thirty-something men who work in the country’s increasingly state-controlled media:

‘Do you fear Poland becoming a one-party state?’ I asked them.

‘The real question is, do we need an opposition?’ replied the American, almost impressive in his complete sincerity.  ‘There are such diverse opinions in the PiS.’

‘And what about the party’s tolerance of the far right?’ I said…

‘Our strength keeps them out of power.’

‘As in Berlin in 1933?’

Across all of these countries, MacLean sees lies being presented at the truth, myths obscuring more complicated realities, the complicated being passed by in favour of the simplistic.  How easy it is to guide countries once their people are motivated only by fear and pride.  But he returns home sadder still to see signs of the same behaviour at home: “How could the English – a people raised in a stable, peaceful and prosperous society with centuries of democracy and freedom – have swallowed the vapid promises of restored glory?  How could they – we – have allowed ourselves to be played like puppets?”

How indeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are ye worrying about anything?”

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

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

I pleaded guilty.

“What d’ye want to do that for?”

“I like to know what is happening.”

“Aw!  The newspapers don’t know.”

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

He asked me how often I listened to the wireless.

“Four times a day.”

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

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

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

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

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I’ve been aching for a good book of letters the last few years and then came across two excellent volumes within weeks of each other.  One was Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander (which I shared excerpts from here and here), the other Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother edited by Donald Sturrock.

Like so many children, I grew up reading Dahl’s children’s books and having them read aloud to me but it was his two volumes of autobiography – Boy and Going Solo (both now available from Slightly Foxed) – that have stayed with me the longest.  In these letters, we see many of the same events but through Dahl’s eyes at the time rather than as an adult looking back.  Thanks to excellent editing work by Sturrock (Dahl’s biographer) we also see how much of what Dahl was writing as a child was already fiction.

The letters begin when Dahl is nine, writing home to his mother from boarding school.  Sofie Magdalene Dahl had lost her eldest daughter and husband only a few weeks apart when Roald, her only son, was small.  Left a wealthy widow with four children of her own and two step-children, she was clearly a strong personality and the four decades-worth of letters in the volume testify to the strength of her relationship with her son.

Throughout his school years Dahl would paint an at times rosy or at worst benign portrait of a place he loathed and found to be full of violence and cruelty.  Sturrock ascribes this in part to the censorious practice of teachers being able to review students’ letters home but it is intriguing when compared to Dahl’s frankness about so many other things.  Dahl swears jollily from a young age and his mother must have shared his scatological sense of humour as it continues well into adulthood.  The only sadness in reading this book is in not having Sofie Magdalene’s side of the correspondence but even without it you can get some glimpses of her in the trusting, companionable way her son writes to her.

After finishing school, Dahl joined Shell Petroleum and was sent to Tanganyika where his letters attest to a steady work- and busy social-life:

I’m a bit drunk so you won’t get much of a letter.  I had meant to write to you this afternoon because I knew I should be drunk by the evening because we had a darts match on.  But someone asked me to go bathing in the Indian Ocean, so I did that instead & said well I’ll write my letter after dinner. […] Then we had a darts match against the Gymkhana ‘A’ Team in this house – it was only finished ½ an hour ago, & a great deal of liquor was consumed by all concerned.  You see the result in my handwriting for which many apologies, but the alternative is that I wait until I’m sober & miss the bloody mail & you’ll probably think I’ve been eaten by a rhinoceros or a white ant or something equally dangerous.

Though not yet thinking of a writing career, you start to see during these years snippets and images that would not be out of place in his future books, like this portrait of a fellow passenger sailing to Africa:

There’s a man sitting near me (a fat one), who is almost unconscious from the heat.  He’s flowing over his chair like a hot jellyfish – and he’s steaming too.  He may melt.

That image just begs for a Quentin Blake illustration, doesn’t it?

When the war begins, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force and, as anyone who has read Going Solo will surely remember, eventually crashed his plane in the desert.  Sturrock’s interjections here are vital, comparing the facts to the fictions Dahl presents to his mother – and pointing out how rarely Dahl’s future descriptions of the crash would correspond to the truth of it.

Later in the war, Dahl finds himself posted to America as an attaché where it becomes frankly fairytale-esque.  He is instantly successful as a writer, finds himself working with Walt Disney, spends a weekend with the Roosevelts, and generally meets everyone.  And, for once, it’s all the truth.  (This reminds of me of The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which looks at the intelligence work Dahl was doing while in America.  I had it on my shelf for years without ever reading it but wish now I had it readily to hand!)

The letters tail off after the war, with only a few spanning the decades until his mother’s death in 1967, not out of any cooling of the relationship but from the happy explanation that they were so often together during that period.  They were tumultuous years for Dahl – the dramatic injury of his son who was struck by a car as an infant, the death of his daughter, the traumatic aneurysms suffered by his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, which left her initially unable to walk or talk, and the establishing of a wildly successful writing career – but it is best to look to Sturrock’s biography detailed coverage.

This was just the book I was looking for this year.  Dahl’s letters are bright, funny and trusting, knowing that his correspondent is the most supportive person he will ever have.  They’ve left me wanting to reread his own books but especially to read Sturrock’s biography as he did such a wonderful job selecting and introducing the letters in relation to Dahl’s extraordinary life.

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After travelling to Germany in 1937, Walter Fish, a retired editor of the Daily Mail newspaper, returned to England convinced that war was coming.  His response was to find a home in the countryside for himself and his wife.  They’d planned to find something turn-key with a ready-made garden.  Instead they ended up buying “a poor battered old house that had to be gutted to be liveable, and wilderness instead of a garden”.  Almost twenty years later, in 1956, Walter’s wife looked back and chronicled what they did with their two acre plot in the classic gardening book We Made a Garden by Margery Fish.

Margery was in her mid-forties when they bought the house and Walter almost twenty years older.  They had married in 1933 after working together at the Daily Mail and while Walter had had gardens of his own in his previous homes, this was the first one Margery had ever been involved with.  In fact, surrounded by gardening-minded relatives, she’d been quite scornful of their pastime in earlier years:

I have always felt my family have been very forbearing towards me.  Before I was married I didn’t do anything in the garden.  Every weekend, when my sisters were navvying to make a garden round the little house we built, I sailed off on my bicycle to play golf.  And I never stopped saying the most scathing things about gardeners, what fools they were always to be working and never enjoying their gardens, and what was the good of having a lovely garden if you never had time to sit in it and enjoy it? […] I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years.

Now with a space of her own, Margery threw herself wholeheartedly into the making of a cottage garden, making up in enthusiasm and energy what she lacked in knowledge.  With Walter also interested in the garden, she realised quickly that to make her mark on the space she would need to move quickly – before he could impose his own vision on the garden:

We all know the saying about fools.  When I think of it now I wonder how I had the hardihood to attempt such an ambitious scheme.  I had never done any gardening before we went to Somerset and had certainly never even thought about garden design.  It might have been the most abysmal failure, but I didn’t think about that.  My only thought was to get the project under way before Walter took an interest in what I was doing and complicated matters with too much criticism and advice.

Margery leads the reader through the garden, recalling how they handled different areas and challenges.  I particularly loved hearing about the areas where they failed or struggled – it’s always heartening to know this doesn’t just happen to you.  Margery was led by enthusiasm in the early years and sometimes, as with the stone garden, that led her to plantings that she’d regret:

I was instructed to plant what I could between the stones, to relieve the hard angular lines.  At that time it was literally a case of making bricks with straw as I had practically nothing to use.  Looking round the garden I came upon some stonecrop and pounced on it as an answer to prayers.  There wasn’t very much and I broke it into small pieces and poked them between the stones.  I had no idea that when it settles down in a place it not only starts raising a family but goes in for founding a dynasty as well. […] Sometimes in the summer my heart softens when I see its really pretty flat pink rosettes, but most of the time it is war. […] If, by an oversight, it is allowed to stay on a piece of a flower bed for more than a minute, in two minutes that flower bed will be a solid mat of stonecrop of a particularly luxuriant quality.  Every year I pull out barrowloads of it and I know I shall continue to do so until I die.

There were lucky successes, plenty of failures, and lots of marital conflict as Walter’s strong opinions (on watering, on certain plants, on caring for the drive, and on and on and on) had to be taken into account.  Walter died in 1947 and while Margery remembers him fondly throughout the book and his influence helped make her the gardener she became, she also obviously enjoyed the freedom she had after his death to shape the garden according only to her own ideas.  They started the garden as a “we” but Walter was a fair-weather gardener and it clearly became Margery’s main interest as time went on, a topic of which she never tired:

I could go on and on.  But that is just what gardening is, going on and on.  My philistine of a husband often told with amusement how a cousin when asked when he expected to finish his garden replied ‘Never, I hope.’ And that, I think, applies to all true gardeners.

I found this slim volume delightful.  Margery is an excellent and entertaining writer, full of informative gardening details but also a cheerful sense of humour.  So much of her has been poured into the garden and into the book that it’s easy to understand why it has stood the test of time and remains a classic.  Her garden has also survived and can still be visited today.  If I’m ever in Somerset, I’ll be sure to stop by East Lambrook Manor Gardens and see it for myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Marsh gas, I suppose?’ I teased her.

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

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

The Castle

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

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

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not sure why we travel.

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

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

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

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After some very intensive reading on my recent holiday, I couldn’t find anything to settle down with and was casting books aside as quickly as I picked them up.  This can be a frustrating cycle so to break it I reached for something familiar and always entertaining: More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern.

Back in 2013 I read Speaking of Jane Austen, Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first collection of essays about Jane Austen.  It was a complete joy – what Austen fan wouldn’t want to spend hours reading enthusiastic, educated, and whimsical pieces about her books? – and just rereading my review makes me want to crack it open again.  This follow-up volume isn’t quite as sparkling but it is still a pleasure to return to.

Trading back and forth, Kaye-Smith and Stern present the reader with twelve different essays in which they muse on various Austen-focused topics.  Both are excellent writers but I find Stern especially delightful.  She brings such lighthearted energy to all her pieces and clearly had great fun sharing her love of the books.  Kaye-Smith is far from stodgy but she doesn’t manage the same magic.

My favourite essay (one of Stern’s, naturally) was focused on the health and appearance of Austen’s characters (entitled “Her fine eyes…were brightened by the exercise”, of course).  She looks at how Austen chooses to describe her characters, detailing their health and vitality more often than their attractiveness and is especially attuned to the height of Austen’s heroes.  She has fun in reviewing everyone’s appearances but it is all merely a set up to allow her to speak about her favourite of all Austen characters: Mr Woodhouse, that terribly healthy hypochondriac.  There is a lengthy digression when she focuses on the true conflict of Emma: that between Mr Woodhouse, loyal follower of Mr Perry, and Mr Wingfield, the London doctor in whom his daughter Isabella has recklessly placed her trust:

…with little Bella’s throat, we enter upon a saga which to my mind has not its equal in all Jane Austen: the saga of Mr Woodhouse at war with Mr Wingfield.  True, it cannot be said that this is exactly the leading theme in Emma, but we feel a little deprived when mere lovers occupy the scene.

Stern again has great fun in “Seven Years Later”, in which she imagines the fates of the characters seven years after Austen ends their stories.  Fond of Mrs Dashwood, younger and more charming than anyone in Sense and Sensibility ever seems to acknowledge, Stern gives her a happy second marriage while General Tilney has turned into the most doting of grandfathers.  Her vision of Emma’s future is perhaps the least happy, strangely given that Emma is her favourite of the novels, not because of any mismatched lovers but from the strain of Emma and Mr Knightley remaining with Mr Woodhouse at Hartfield.  Stern disposes of a character (but of course not her beloved Mr Woodhouse) and domestic arrangements are neatly handled.  With Persuasion she is quite assured of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s future happiness so she turns her mind to what might become of the minor characters.  I had to laugh when she considered mournful Captain Benwick’s future:

He will go to sea; he will come home again; he will find women to listen while he reads poetry aloud…he will begin to write poetry himself.  A slim volume will be published – and not read by any save his brother-in-law Charles Musgrove, who might try out of sheer kindness; but he would be sadly put to it to discover what it all meant…And presently he would toss it aside, and ask Captain Benwick if he would care for a ratting expedition.

I think Austen would certainly approve of that, don’t you?

Reading this made it clear what book I must pick up next: all of the mentions of Northanger Abbey reminded me of its charms and its most charming heroine and that it had been far too long since I last read it for myself.  Both Kaye-Smith and Stern have nothing but praise for both Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney and, for my part, I have always thought theirs one of the marriages most likely to run smoothly and happily from the start (the Knightleys and the Martins in Emma being the only others I am equally confident about).  They are kind and communicative, and they are both young and honest enough to make anything work.  And, as Stern reminds us, they have an excellent example of a good marriage and exemplary parenting from Catherine’s own parents:

…I am certain no one can dispute that as parents, Mr and Mrs Morland are without serious rivals; they are, in fact, the only important mother and father in Jane Austen where both emerge coupled in unselfishness and good sense; we find them disposed to indulge their large family where indulgence can do no harm, yet to check any tendency towards bad manners, sulking or affectation […] Most of us, as children, were told somewhat sententiously that people are likely to judge our parents according to the way we behave…to which we gave our shoulders an impatient shrug and muttered inaudibly: ‘Don’t believe it.’  The older I grow, the more the truth of this comes home to me: Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, displays so much honesty and spontaneous politeness in her conduct, as well as a genuinely modest measurement of her own claims to notice, no tiresome shrinking nor constant need of reassurance (can I again be thinking of Fanny Price?), that she reflects the greatest possible credit on her mother’s upbringing and her father’s judgement in the selection of a wife.

What this book does best is remind you of how wonderful Austen’s books are and all the reasons you should reread them.  There are romances to be revisited, and minor characters to laugh over, and jokes to be caught, and just a thousand small joys to be rediscovered.  Unless it’s Mansfield Park.  Even Kaye-Smith and Stern can’t muster too much enthusiasm over Fanny Price.  But who among us can?

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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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