Archive for the ‘Slightly Foxed’ Category

I can think of no better way to start off February than by taking part in Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month.  Independent publishers should always be celebrated – and thankfully often are in our corner of the blogging world – and I’m looking forward to seeing what others choose this month.

To start off the month a little early, I settled down yesterday afternoon with A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins from Slightly Foxed (now sadly marked as “permanent sold out” on their website).  In addition to their peerless literary quarterly, Slightly Foxed reissues wonderful memoirs in gorgeous small hardback editions.  They have superb taste and have introduced me to new favourites as well as providing me with beautiful editions of old ones.  To me, a Slightly Foxed title is always an indication of quality, both in the writing and in the production of the physical book.  I will doubtlessly return to celebrate them further this month and it felt only reasonable to start with them.

At the beginning of the summer of 1951, fourteen-year-old Michael was sent by his parents in England to spend several months with “the aunts in Flanders.”  Despite not being actual relations – or having been seen by his parents since they visited on their honeymoon in the 1930s – the aunts are delighted to welcome this young man into their rural chateau, where Michael is quickly infatuated by the close-knit family:

…as I passed through the brick gateway perched on the front seat of an ancient black Citroen beside Joseph, the gardener who doubled as chauffer, and saw behind the trees the long façade of the house, I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold.  And if after only a day the world I had left behind seemed already remote, within weeks I no longer knew which was reality, the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England, or the dense fabric of extended family by which I was embraced, and within whose lives I had become entwined.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, beginning and ending with the formidable Tante Yvonne.  Then in her eighties, Tante Yvonne had taken charge of her five siblings when their parents died of typhoid when she was a young woman of twenty.  More than sixty years later, she remained at the heart of the family and of the village, always able to provide order where needed and deft counsel to those in need.  She never married and the story behind that is how Michael comes to understand his family’s link to the aunts.

Throughout the summer, Michael learns much of life.  He sees how the family cares for the mentally disabled illegitimate son of a brother who died in the First World War, he passes messages between an unhappily married nephew and his kind lover, and he lives amidst the tensions of a house containing six adult women who have somehow – mostly – learned to live with one another.  For him, coming from a chilly home with parents who have drifted apart without choosing to seek happiness elsewhere, it is an irresistible world and one he can’t imagine wanting to leave.  But there are those who want to, like the beautiful young Madeleine, who lives with her mother and aunts and is engaged to a handsome neighbour but is nonetheless unsettled and longs for something more.

Michael lives closely with two generations and it is fascinating to see how different events have shaped their lives.  For Tante Yvonne and her siblings, the First World War was the defining event.  Brothers and lovers were killed and maimed and nothing was ever the same for them after that.  For those born after that war, like Madeleine and her brothers, it was the more recent German occupation.  The wounds of that conflict hadn’t fully healed for anyone – the entire village remembers who collaborated and who was in the Resistance, and German tourists are far from welcomed when they appear.

Jenkins wrote the book fifty years after that first summer, looking back on a time and place that had remained vivid in his memories – as the best moments of our youths tend to do.  He conjures up an idyllic summer where he found a whole world of complicated people to care about and family histories – his own included – to unravel.  When, come September, he must return to England, the reader can easily understand his reluctance to leave.

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For anyone already thinking about their Christmas shopping (or their own Christmas wishlist), may I direct you to Slightly Foxed?  On December 1st they are issuing two very wonderful childhood memoirs from the illustrator E.H. Shepard: Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life.

Shepard, best known for his classic illustrations for A.A. Milne’s children’s books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, grew up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London.  Drawn from Memory looks fondly back at the year he was seven while Drawn from Life covers a much longer period, picking up later on in Shepard’s youth and following him through the end of childhood, into art school, and right up until his marriage.  Both books are lovingly told, beautifully illustrated, and unexpectedly moving.  I love them dearly.

I read both books back in 2014 and lamented at the time that they were out of print, saying of Drawn from Memory that “this book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.”  I’m delighted they thought so, too!  I can’t wait to add these to my beloved collection of Slightly Foxed editions.

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I seem to make a habit of reading memoirs by famous authors before I ever read any of the books that made them famous.  And you know what?  I like it.  It’s an interesting way to approach a new author, learning first about them and then their works.  And it can make you so, so much more eager to read their other books than you would otherwise have been.  At least, that was the case for me when I read When I Was a Little Boy by Erich Kästner.  Kästner won fame for his many successful children’s novels (most notably, Emil and the Detectives and Lottie and Lisa, the inspiration for The Parent Trap) and it is for children that he wrote this beautiful memoir of his own childhood in Dresden.  Recently reissued as a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, it is now readily available in English for the first time since the 1950s.

Kästner was born in 1899 into a humble family.  His father, Emil, was trained as a saddlemaker but worked for a luggage maker in Dresden while his mother, Ida, had worked as a maid but retrained as a hairdresser when Erich was small so she could work independently.  It was not an affectionate marriage but nor was it a hostile one; it was simply a mismatch.  Ida had never been in love with her husband but had agreed to the match on the urging of her sisters, whose logic seemed pretty solid:

What did a young girl know about love, anyway?  Moreover, love came with marriage.  And even if it did not come, it didn’t matter all that much; for married life really consisted in working, saving, cooking and bearing children.  Love was no more important than a Sunday hat.

In this case, love didn’t come but, as the sisters had advised, it didn’t really matter.  Because there was Erich, her one child, and Ida loved him totally and completely.  Amid the darkness of her internal life (Erich came home to suicide notes several times, which would send him frantic out into the streets to search for her, terrified he might be too late this time), she had a son who lit up her world.  Emil is fondly mentioned but it was Ida who dominated young Erich’s childhood.  He was her life and it was a responsibility he took seriously, trying to live up to all her hopes and dreams for him:

Ida Kästner wanted to be a perfect mother to her boy.  And because she so much wanted to be that, she had no consideration for anyone, not even for herself, and she became the perfect mother.  All her love and imagination, all her industry, every moment of her time, her every thought – in fact her whole existence she staked, like a frenzied gambler, on one single card – on me!  Her stake was her whole life to its last breath.

I was the card, so I simply had to win.  I dared not disappoint her.  That was why I became the best pupil in the school and the best-behaved son possible at home.  I could not have borne it if she had lost her great game.  Since she wanted to be and was the perfect mother, for me, her trump card, there seemed no choice but to become the perfect son.  Did I become this?  I certainly tried to.  I had inherited her talents – her energy, her ambition and her intelligence.  That was at least something to begin with.  And when I, her sole capital and stake, sometimes felt really tired of always winning and of only winning, one thing and one things only kept me going: I truly loved that perfect mother.  I loved her very much indeed.

Ida wasn’t as overwhelming as that may make her sound.  She and Erich were also the best of friends, taking hiking holidays together throughout the country, and Erich had his freedom, indeed a shocking amount of freedom compared to children these days.  At seven, he was extraordinarily proud to be allowed to walk to school all alone.  Except he wasn’t entirely alone.  Years later, Ida admitted that she would see Erich off from home and then surreptitiously trail him all the way to school, ducking behind other pedestrians if it looked at all like Erich might turn around and spot her.  He had his freedom and she had her reassurance.  Everyone was happy.

With a mother like Ida, it is no surprise that Erich had a carefully planned life: he studied hard and was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers who had boarded with the Kästner family.  But when he actually stood in front of a class for the first time in his mid-teens, he (and they) realised he had no aptitude for it.  And so a new and rather extraordinary plan was hatched: he, the son of a saddlemaker and a maid, would go to the university.  And, after serving in the First World War, he did.  To his mother’s extreme pride, naturally.

But a memoir of childhood is not really about planning and career plotting.  It is snapshots of nostalgia-tinged moments: of walks through the beautiful city with his father, of visits to his rich but mean maternal uncle, of hiking holidays with his mother, of the sad demise of his zuckertüten (sugar cone – a traditional gift for students on their first day of school), in short, of all the really important but insignificant moments that make up a childhood, the memory of which never seems to dull:

‘More than fifty years have passed since then,’ declares the calendar, that horny old bookkepper in the office of history, who controls chronology and with ink and ruler marks the leap years in blue and draws a red line at the beginning of each century. ‘No!’ cries memory, shaking her curly locks. ‘It was only yesterday.  Or at most the day before,’ she adds softly with a little laugh.  Which of them is wrong?

They are both right, for there are two kinds of time.  The one kind can be measured with instruments and calculations, just like streets or plots of ground.  But the other chronology, our memory, has nothing to do with metres and months, decades or acres.  What we have forgotten is old.  The unforgettable was yesterday.  The measure here is not the time but the value.  And the most precious of all things, whether happy or sad, is our childhood.  Do not forget the unforgettable.  I believe that this advice cannot be given early enough.

Isn’t that nicely put?  I loved the writing in this book.  I loved Kästner’s optimistic view of the world, despite the difficult elements of life (which he does not shy away from discussing), and his frequent asides to his readers, his earnest desire to pass on what he knows.  He is writing for you, whoever you are.  This story is meant to be shared with you.

By the time Kästner was writing in 1957, he was living in Munich.  He’d gone to university in Leipzig, spent almost twenty years in Berlin, and had settled in Munich after his Berlin home was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.  And yet the city that retained all his love and affection was the Dresden of his childhood, a city of beauty and history and one he knew intimately from years of wanderings – a city whose death he was still mourning:

Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners.  Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity.  From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.


Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city.  You may take my word for it.  And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right.  For the city of Dresden is no more.  It has vanished, except for a few fragments.  In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map.  It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty.  A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth.

The Frauenkirche today, rebuilt and much brighter than the pollution-stained black church Kästner was used to from his childhood

I wonder what Kästner would make of Dresden today, with the Old Town skyline now restored to its pre-war image.  Would he find the Frauenkirche, with its painted “marble” columns, unbearably tacky or reassuringly familiar?  What would he make of the modern additions?  I suspect he would find it disconcerting – elements of the familiar in juxtaposed with the new.  And even if it looks the same, you can’t get rid of the memory that it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed in those few days but also 25,000 people.  In all the ways that mattered, the city of his childhood was gone.

I loved this book.  I loved reading about Dresden, a city I dearly love, as it was more than a hundred years ago; I loved reading about how young Erich spent his days, learning about the norms of boyhood in a time and place long gone; I loved the simple sketches throughout, illustrating Erich’s various adventures; and I truly loved old Erich’s fondness for it all.  Another really wonderful choice from Slightly Foxed.


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2016 was an entirely adequate year for me.  I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves.  Well done us!

And, of course, there were lots of books.  Here are the best of the best:

books-310. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!

9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.

8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.

books-27. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.”  A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness.  His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter.  Really very wonderful and touching.

6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.

books-14. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.

3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.

2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooks1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.

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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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New Arrivals

img_20161030_162558A few weeks ago, to reward myself after reaching a professional milestone, I placed a massive book order from Slightly Foxed.  And now it has arrived!

Here are my new arrivals:

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

A Late Education by Alan Moorehead

My Grandfather and Father, Dear Father by Denis Constanduros

I Was a Stranger by John Hackett (I read a library copy of this in October and am so happy to be adding it to my collection now)

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holyrod

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Brensham Village by John Moore

And, of course, I have pre-ordered a copy of Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, which is being released today.

Lots of happy reading ahead of me!


My ever-expanding Slightly Foxed collection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2019 Edit: Lies.  As soon as I started reading The Eagle of the Night, I remembered it.  I knew the story but hadn’t, in the way children don’t, realised it was by Sutcliff]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’

‘No, Daddy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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I have been collecting Slightly Foxed Editions over the past few months but The High Path by Ted Walker is the first one I have actually read and, I have to say, it sets a very high standard.  A memoir of Walker’s Sussex youth, the book begins in 1932, two years before Walker’s birth, when his father moved south from Birmingham in search of work, and continues on through to 1953, just when Walker is getting ready to leave for Cambridge.  The working-class Walker family had their hard times – multiple generations lived in one cramped house, money was scarce, and Ted’s sister Ruth died when she was only a few weeks old – but this is the memoir of a very happy childhood.  And there are few things I love more than happy childhood memoirs.

Born in 1934, Walker’s childhood memories really begin during the war.  He was an only child until he was ten and, in the absence of any brothers or sisters, his favourite companion was his father.  He had school friends and admired other male relatives but his father was the center of his world.  One of Walker’s earliest memories is the evening routine of welcoming his father home.  His description of it gives a sense of how much he adored his father – getting so much pleasure from being carried by him and watching him eat – and also how beautifully detailed his writing is:

…in the kitchen, even had I been blindfolded, I could have recognized him: for he brought into the house an entire anthology of smells I associated with nobody else: the hair-oil smell of his cap; the open-road gustiness of his flapping coat; and then the redolence of his trade: sawdust and shavings of pitch-pine and mahogany, a toolbag rankness of nailsacks and creosote, carpenter’s pencil and linseed oil.  With water scaldingly hot from the kettle on the hob, straight away he would wash his hands as methodically as a surgeon; and then I would nuzzle at his own essential fragrances – sweat and Nut-Brown shag at the nape of his neck – when he carried me through to the living-room table.  Here his dinner would be waiting for him (my mother and I would already have had ours) and I would watch him, cat-like, eat every mouthful.

What is particularly interesting is that all this was written when Walker’s father was still alive.  The High Path was published in 1982 when Ted Walker was only in his forties and he refers to his father several times in the present tense, still always in the admiring terms of his childhood memories.  As the book wears on, you realise how far apart the men’s lives drifted – Ted advancing on to a university education and a writing career that his carpenter father could not easily relate to – which makes it all the more poignant.  The easy companionship that existed when Ted was a child – when he and his father shared a French tutor and played cricket in the backyard – may have disappeared but the love and admiration definitely remained.

Walker was a poet and perhaps it is his poetic nature that occasionally leads him to contemplate the “what ifs?” in his life.  I love when writers do this.  It is why Making It Up is my favourite Penelope Lively book and I would be thrilled if every memoirist devoted a good third of their book to such questions.  Few do but I am happy to content myself with a couple of paragraphs from those whose minds wander down such paths.  I was particularly moved by his thoughts on his sister Ruth and what life would have been like for them had she lived.  There is something about the potential of unknown siblings that is unsettling but endlessly fascinating.  As adults, Walker and his brother (who was ten years younger, so their childhoods did not really overlap) were good friends but their relationship is very different from the one he imagines he and his sister, so close in age, might have had:

…the notion of my having had a sister often disturbs me, and I cannot drive past that cemetery without thinking of Ruth.  Had she lived, she would now have been a woman in her mid-forties, perhaps with a family of her own; one with whom I could share a confidence: a woman, I mean, who might be spoken to not as a man may speak to his wife, mother, daughter, mistress – all of whom have understandably vested interests when it comes to the intimacies of his heart.  Only a sister, much of an age, might be expected to take a neutral, unsentimental yet not unsympathetic stance about a man’s conduct or his state of mind.  There have been many times in my life when I could have done with knocking on Ruth’s door of an evening and having a chat in her kitchen.

The bulk of Walker’s memories are from the war years but the war plays a remarkably small role in them, not particularly impacting his school days or friendships, the things that really matter to a small boy.  To him, having been so young when the war began, a lot of what the older children viewed as novelty and the adults viewed as terrifying was normal.  If you only know rationing and blackouts, there is nothing noteworthy about them.  Still, there are moments when the war surfaces: he recounts how his uncle was killed by a mine and how he felt when his father showed him the pictures from Belsen.  He also remembers how he got hooked on the fudge given to him by Canadian soldiers stationed nearby, which he would do almost anything to get more of.  One of the strongest images of the books, for me, was of Ted and his friends rushing down to the beach the day it was reopened in 1945 – not even pausing to take off the roller skates they had been using when they heard the news:

When we reached the stony road by Glazebrook’s off-license, we did not stop to remove our skates.  Absurdly on our wheels, we trod across the shingle and down to the sand we sank into.  The tide was far out, the sun was just setting.  There were hundreds of people strolling, their faces lit with pink delight.  This, then, was what Peace was: to stand and gaze at the unsinister sea; to pick up a streamer of bladder-wrack and watch it lift with the wind.  We took off our skates and ran about crazily.  We paddled, kicking the water, tasting the salt on our lips.

How strange and wonderful, after years of living by the sea, to finally be able to enjoy it.

The book continues through Walker’s teen years, touching on his academic progress, his growing love of languages, and his first love, Lorna.  Lorna and Walker met at a dance when she was sixteen and he almost fifteen but that was it.  First love was true love and they married shortly after finishing university, had four children and remained together until her death in 1987.  Walker’s second memoir – The Last of England – deals with Lorna’s painful final illness and Walker’s difficulty dealing with her death.

I knew nothing about Walker before I began reading – well, I knew from Slightly Foxed that he was a poet but I have never read any of his work – so I had no particular attachment to him but I loved him by the end.  The writing is strong but simple, full of rich images but no excessive flourishes or sentimentality.  This book is simply the fond remembrances of a man thankful for his happy upbringing and, as such, it is perfect.

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