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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.

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terms-conditionsEvery December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school.  It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women.  There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia.  It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays.  It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.

This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979.  The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort.  Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.”  And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.

But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain?  Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.

I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:

…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills.  These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise.  These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers.  They thrived on obstacles in their way.  The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”

Delightfully put and full of truth.  My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.

In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools.  Some were miserable, some happy.  Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept.  We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.

I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools.  There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones.  The overachieving academic schools (school?  This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes.  The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:

Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above.  If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms.  The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county.  It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.  Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out.  If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.

The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:

Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.”  “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”

You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world.  Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women.  Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied.  Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”

It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone.  British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level.  It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing.  The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.

However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:

There was an innocence about these establishments.  They were not all about self-advancement or money-making.  They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters.  As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.  The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement.  But what I am not torn over is my love for this book.  It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.

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more-home-cookingOn a night when television, social media and frankly even conversations in the street are a little too stressful (even in countries where we are not electing anyone), I have come up with the perfect antidote: the marvellously calming, deeply comforting More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.

It would have been very useful if, when I’d read it back in 2014, I’d reviewed Colwin’s first volume of food writing (entitled, you will not be surprised to learn, Home Cooking).  I did not but just trust me on the fact that it was wonderful and so is this follow up book, published posthumously in 1993 after Colwin’s untimely death the year before at the age of just 48.

Her writing is so friendly, so familiar that after just one essay you feel as though you’ve been reading something written directly to you by someone you’ve known your whole life.  Colwin shares herself with the reader through friendly asides, personal anecdotes, and lots and lots of cookbook recommendations (many of which come prefaced by irritated disclaimers that the book is not available in North America due to ignorant publishers – I enjoy these particularly).  All this builds an intimacy that is almost unbearably poignant for the reader, knowing as we do that Colwin’s days would be cut sadly short.

While the book includes many recipes, they are almost beside the point.  Yes, I want to try her recipes for Lemon Pear Crisp and Wensley Cake and Gingerbread, but what most stands out are her stories around the recipes.  I have no memory of what recipes were included in the essay on black beans but the introduction is unforgettable:

I had my first taste of black bean soup on a cold winter Saturday when I was sixteen years old.  A friend, home for the holidays from a very glamorous college, gave a lunch party and invited me.  Seated at her table, I felt that I – mired in high school and barely passing geometry – had died and entered a heaven in which people played the cello, stayed up at night discussing Virginia Woolf, saw plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, and went to Paris for their junior years abroad.  But it was the black bean soup that changed my life.

And I may never need to poach a pear, but I certainly loved to read about Colwin’s first experience doing so:

I first made poached pears in the kitchen of the man who would later become my husband.  He had bought a nice bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, and I thought I would use some of it to poach the fruit.  As the pears were simmering, I decided to take a little nip.  My, I thought, this is fizzy.  It tasted like a kind of sublime grape pop but not as sweet.  By the time the pears were ready, the rest of the wine had been consumed without so much as a drop left for my sweetheart, but I was quite cheerful.

She writes like the novelist she was.  In fact, I kept thinking of Elinor Lipman’s writing as I read this.  They have the same gentle optimism and sense of humour and, of course, love of food.  I was deeply upset when I realised that Lipman’s wonderful novel, The Inn at Lake Devine, was published in 1998 – six years after Colwin’s death – because I am certain she would have loved it.

Most of all, Colwin feels like an encouraging friend in the kitchen.  Someone who is sharing her best tips, her amusing failures, and all of her love.  I came away with half a dozen cook books to track down (chief among these is the irresistibly titled Curries and Bugles), a burning desire to make mulligatawny soup (which I fulfilled on Sunday night with delicious results), and a sense of thankfulness for the generosity these essays embody.  And in that spirit, let us tonight remember that it is far easier to share with others and build friendships than it is to carry on disagreements and maintain an exhausting animosity.  If you chose to do this with cake, all the better:

I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result.  Fortunately, there are such cakes, and usually you get them at the homes of others.  You then purloin the recipe (since you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends, who then serve it others.  This is the way in which nations are unified and friendships made solid.

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classic-german-bakingTwenty five years ago this autumn, I met my best friend.  We were five years old and met the way any five year old meets a new friend: a forcible introduction arranged by our parents.  It was just before Kindergarten started, where she and I would make up two thirds of the female population of our class, and our parents thought it would be good for us to meet before school started.  So my friend was brought over to my house, Lite-Brite in tow, and, as far as we can recall, we sat side by side at our respective Lite-Brites, diligently but silently plugging coloured pegs into the screens.

Now, a common love of Lite-Brite only gets you so far.  But from the very beginning we realised we had something in common that all the other children found very weird and slightly suspicious: we got our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.  This is a very big deal when you are little and, in our minds, marked us out as rather special people.  What it actually meant was that her father was from Germany and my mother was from the Czech Republic.  Our respective Canadian grandparents lived too far away to hold much sway over the holidays, whereas our European grandparents lived nearby.  So the holiday traditions we followed were theirs and were similar enough for us to feel a sense of a shared heritage.

This sense of heritage extended into the kitchen.  As we grew up, we both became keen bakers and cooks.  The Czech women I am descended from are famous for their lack of interest in anything culinary so it was my friend I could share my cooking adventures with.  We experimented with all cuisines but it was the Central European recipes that bound us together.  We could talk to anyone about making a quiche or homemade pasta and find hundreds of books to advise on how to do it perfectly.   But, thanks to a dearth of books about Central European cooking, we alone could talk over how to make a feather light dumpling (something I have still to master), debate what the “correct” filling is for rouladen (still no consensus around whether or not there should be egg), and share our secrets for the perfect schnitzel (carrying these to the grave, sorry readers).  It wasn’t an everyday thing and it wasn’t the core of our friendship but it was a way to explore our heritage and share it with one another.

We stayed together from Kindergarten to the end of university, moving through four different schools together.  We made strudel with my Czech grandmother when we were little, lost our minds trying to get the streusel topping right on fruit cakes when we were teenagers, and caught up during busy times at university over homemade schnitzels.  During high school, we co-wrote a food column for our school paper that was titled something like our “German Cooking Corner”.  Because every teenage girl is naturally looking for a good Christmas stollen recipe, accompanied by bad puns and hilarious family anecdotes.  (For the record, it was an excellent recipe, direct from my friend’s oma, even if it did call for 20 cups of flour.  The danger of getting a recipe from a woman who came from a family of 12 and used to run a beer garden, I suppose.)

When I bake, she is always the person I wish was in the kitchen with me.  But these days we live in different cities and in different countries.  It isn’t so easy to make vanilla kipferl together at Christmas or pflaumenkuchen (the best of all possible cakes) in the summer.  But now there is at least one way to bring our kitchens closer together…

Today is the release day for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since Weiss announced it was in the works.  You may remember Weiss’ excellent memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, or know her from her outstanding blog, The Wednesday Chef.  Now she has presented us with this gem of a baking bible, which, thanks to NetGalley, I have been using for months and which served as the inspiration for most of my summer baking.  Some recipes are familiar favourites, others I remember from my travels , and some are entirely unknown to me (naturally, these are the ones I’m most eager still to try).

Weiss confidently guides the uninitiated through the wonderful world of traditional German baking.  She gathers recipes from around the country (with the odd drift into Austria) and the results are a tempting introduction to the region’s too often overlooked delights.  There is an entire chapter devoted to Christmas baking, which is inspired, and I appreciate that cakes and yeasted cakes are handled in separate sections (giving us that much more cake – never  a bad thing).  Yeasted cakes are something I have yet to master and I am hoping this book will give me the confidence to finally confront them.  As much as I love my current plum cake recipe, I know I’d prefer it with a yeasted base.

All of the recipes I tried were excellent.  One of the hits of the summer was the recipe for Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices.  Made with apricot jam and a streusel topping with nuts, they were the perfect combination of sweet and tart, crunchy and buttery.  And they travelled surprisingly well on hiking trips (which were necessary to burn them off as they were very more-ish).  I lost track of how many times I used the Sour Cherry Streusel Cake recipe as inspiration, replacing the cherries with whatever fruit happened to be in season (it handled excessive volumes of blueberries very well indeed).  I loved the simplicity of the Simple Rhubarb Cake and the equally straightforward Sunken Apple Cake has become one of our go-to recipes (I made it again over the weekend).  And, for those who aren’t familiar with it from Weiss’ earlier book, she includes her recipe for plum butter (Pflaumenmus), which is absolutely delicious and so, so much better than any of the store-bought brands you can find.

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

I’ve only tried a handful of the recipes and I’m eager to move on to more, especially the savories and the breads.  If I could whip up fresh rolls for a proper German-style breakfast one weekend that would be joyful (and require much more confidence with yeast than I currently possess).  And who isn’t intrigued by a Cabbage Strudel?

These are exactly the kinds of recipes I want to be sharing with my friend.  Which is why one copy of the book is on its way to her and another is on its way to me.  We might not be able to share a kitchen these days but we can still share the recipes we love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackett in later life

Hackett in later life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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More Was LostI woke up early this morning to finish reading More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi.  In 1937, the American Eleanor was travelling in Europe with her mother when she met her future husband, Zsiga Perényi, a minor Hungarian nobleman almost twice her age (not difficult when you are still in your teens).  After a brief courtship, they married and returned to the Perényi family home in Hungarian lands that had been given over to Czechoslovakia after the First World War (lands that are now part of the Ukraine).

One of the guiding rules for the women of my family is that you do not marry Hungarians.  Especially aristocratic ones as they are inevitably impoverished.  They may be romantic and dramatic, but they inevitably morph into morose depressives with a penchant for attempting to kill and/or further bankrupt themselves (see Sunflower, another NYRB Classics reprint).   I can’t say this has been a pressing concern in my life so far but it is excellent advice nonetheless and has steered other women in my family out of the path of danger.  Clearly, no one had ever thought to pass this advice on to Perényi.

It is a fascinating world that the young Baroness Perényi finds herself in.  Not the shallow artificial whirl of Budapest society but a deeply rural hamlet where feudalism is still the preferred way of life for both peasants and masters.  The first half of the book follows Perényi as she settles in her new home, making her mark on the family’s castle (really more of a large house, in the way of most Central Europe castles), studying Hungarian (to the disapproval of both nobles and peasants, who  view this adaptability as disappointingly middle class), and learning to run both the castle and the estate, with the help of the family’s various servants.  It is not a difficult life by any means and Perényi has great fun for several years, gossiping with the steward, redecorating the castle, and meeting her husband’s marvellously colourful friends and relatives.  Modesty and reserve, she soon learned, were not Hungarian virtues:

In the conversation there was constant interruption.  Nobody seemed to listen very attentively to what anyone else was saying.  Also no one dreamed of trying not to talk about himself all the time, and setting forth his ideas with great care.  There was a phrase which literally meant “I am so with this thing.”  Or in other words, “This is the way I feel about it” – and I heard it all the time.

Coming from hardworking America – and witnessing daily the efficiency of the Czech-run state in which she lived – Perényi was somewhat baffled by the Hungarian aversion to work.  Her comments on this were some of my favourite passages in the entire book:

No one in Hungary is interested in business, and most Hungarians are certainly not very good at it in any case.  After the last war, a good many members of the nobility had to go to work.  They were fantastically inefficient, and it was not entirely lack of training.  There was really no excuse for the inability to cope with practical affairs that most of them showed.  It was simply that they despised business because it was middle-class.  The peasants, too, looked down on commerce.  And as everyone seemed to be either a noble or a peasant, business and the professions were gratefully turned over to the Jews.  So, of course, were the arts.

Let’s be honest: the most enjoyable aspect of this book, for me, were all of the comments about the the efficiency of Czech bureaucrats and the general useless of Hungarians.  I believe the book should be subtitled “Ways in Which Czechs are Better than All Other Central Europeans”.  As this is pretty much the theme of my life, it was very gratifying.  Perényi clearly had a soft spot for the Czechs, who were nowhere near as romantic or appealing as the Hungarians, but whose roads were passable, border guards efficient, and policies fair to all citizens.

In the second half of the book, the war intrudes.  From the Munich Crisis in 1938 to 1940, when, pregnant and at her husband’s urging, she left Europe to return to America with her parents, Perényi bounced around Europe, seeing the action unfold from Budapest, their country estate (whose location – in terms of what country – was in flux), Paris (where her father was working), the south of France, and Italy.  It is less cohesive or original than the first half but fascinating nonetheless.

This is very much a young woman’s book.  Perényi was only in her late teens and early twenties in the years she describes and still only twenty-eight when the book was published in 1946.  She is happy to be the charming American girl who married a handsome man and went to live in a castle, rather than a political commentator and it shows.  Perényi is far better at chronicling her delight with her new husband, 20th Century feudalism, and Hungarian country gentry than she is at contextualizing her place in a world tearing itself apart.  She wanted a simple love story and the world gave her a war instead.

It is no wonder then that, when she sat down a few years later to write this book, she used it to mourn what she had lost: a home, a way of life, and so many beloved people – some of whom were by then dead, some of whom lived but she despaired of ever seeing again, and some of whom, like her husband, had drifted too far away to ever return to the old intimacies.

 

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