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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are ye worrying about anything?”

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

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

I pleaded guilty.

“What d’ye want to do that for?”

“I like to know what is happening.”

“Aw!  The newspapers don’t know.”

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

He asked me how often I listened to the wireless.

“Four times a day.”

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

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

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

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

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Sharlene has the Mr Linky this week

The last gasp before Christmas and I am certainly gasping.  This year has felt like a marathon that will never end and I so looking forward to taking some time off.  I’m working Christmas Eve morning but after that will be off until January 4th, leaving plenty of time for Christmas celebrations (which start and end on Christmas Eve in our house), lots of time outdoors (most likely in the rain, based on the weather forecast, but positive temperatures in December are a highlight of living in Vancouver), and, of course, reading.

I still have plenty of books left from recent library trips but have added still a few more (and the library will be open next week so I’ll doubtlessly find more then):

Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash – I read about this account of life in a Cornish fishing town back in the spring and was delighted to see the library had acquired it.

Possession by A.S. Byatt – I haven’t read this in far too long and it truly is the perfect book for dark wintery nights.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend – I think I was younger than Adrian Mole last time I read this and am looking forward to some humour – if ever there was a year when we needed funny books!

What did you pick up this week?

Weir Phillips Architects (via Desire to Inspire)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

With just about two weeks left in 2020 (hurrah and good riddance!), I am stocking up on books for the holidays.  I’m not taking too much time off – just three working days – but the way the holidays and weekends align means I’ll have a lovely 10 and a half days without work.  With no entertaining pressures this year (no socialising outside of your household where I live), that leaves a lot of time to fill with books and walks.  Sounds perfect!

A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings – the much-read memoir about the founding of Virago Press.  The Guardian described it as an “essential literary memoir” and everything I’ve heard from other readers has been enthusiastic.

Love and Freedom by Rosemary Kavan – A memoir of the sinister early years of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia by an Englishwoman married to a Czech.  This complements the extraordinary memoir, Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovály, as both women’s husbands were persecuted during the show trials of the early 1950s.

Outpost by Dan Richards – a journey around the world in search of remote retreats.

Book by Book by Michael Dirda – Subtitled “notes on reading and life”, I’m so looking forward to this.  I loved Browsings by Dirda and think he is one of the best writers about books and the joys of reading.

Perfume from Provence by Winifred Fortescue – a 1930s  best-seller about moving to France.

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble – Last Christmas we pulled out some old jigsaw puzzles for the first time in years and since then have been unstoppable.  Drabble has been a more constant of lover of puzzles and here looks back on her life-long enjoyment of them.

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman – a new book from Lipman!  A political satire/romantic comedy for the Trump era seems ambitious but I trust Lipman to always be entertaining.

Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton – Not a winner.  I’d heard this mentioned as a family story about the children of an activist icon and their cousins but, belatedly, also saw it advertised as a divorce romantic comedy.  It didn’t succeed as either for me but it was one of those quick books that I kept reading, willing it to get better and reward my attention.  It didn’t.

Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes – I can’t go and observe the Swiss in person (*sob*) so I might as well read Bewes’ take on them.

What did you pick up this week?

Home Work by Enslin du Plessis

It’s that happy time of year when the “My Life in Books” meme is doing the rounds and I thought I’d join in, following the fine example of Karen, Ali, Lisa, Annabel, and doubtlessly many others whose posts I’ve missed so far.

Using only books you have read this year (2020), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was: One to Watch (Kate Stayman-London)

People might be surprised by: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (Dorothy L. Sayers)

I will never be a: Lady in Waiting (Anne Glenconner)

My life in lockdown was: Life in the Garden (Penelope Lively)

My fantasy job is: Something Light (Margery Sharp)

At the end of a long day I need: The Lido (Libby Page)

I hate being: Rootbound (Alice Vincent)

Wish I had: The Beauty of Your Face (Sahar Mustafah)

My family reunions are: The Lost Europeans (Emanuel Litvinoff)

At a party you’d find me with: The Shining Company (Rosemary Sutcliff)

I’ve never been to: Madensky Square (Eva Ibbotson)

A happy day includes: Summer Light (Andrew Stevenson)

Motto I live by: One More Croissant for the Road (Felicity Cloake)

On my bucket list is: A Castle in the Clouds (Kerstin Gier)

In my next life, I want to have: More Talk of Jane Austen (Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern)

via LA Times

photo credit: Robert Rieger (via AD Deutschland)

I love this “rustic” retreat in Tegernsee (more photos and article – in German – here) and am happy that, like any proper retreat, it has a lovely bookish corner.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith edited by W.H. Auden – When I read The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory back in 2013, the standout individual profiled in it – for me – was Sydney Smith, the witty essayist, diarist, and clergyman.  He was already on my radar then but the book confirmed my desire to learn more about him…so of course I did nothing for eight years.  Picking up An Englishman’s Commonplace Book by Roger Hudson recently, I was inspired the Smith quotations included there to finally track down this selection of his writings.

A Chip Shop in Poznan by Ben Aitken – Back to my favourite genre: the expat memoir.  Here Aitken moves to Poland for a year to better understand why Poles are leaving their country.

Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber – I loved Abu-Jaber’s first memoir, The Language of Baklava, and am looking forward to this follow-up.

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan – I borrowed this back in August as an e-book but reached a point where I couldn’t stand to use my e-reader for a while.  I’ve got this out now as a nice hardcover – much more satisfying.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman – I finally caught up with the rest of the world and read Beartown last week and loved every page of it.  Even before I finished reading, I made sure to grab the sequel.

Sarah Morris Remembers by D.E. Stevenson – I read this in 2012 back when I was racing through all of D.E. Stevenson’s books and it stood out then as one of her best.  I’ve been struggling to find a copy of my own so am delighted the interlibrary loan system is running again and was able to lend this to me.  It’s the perfect cosy comfort read for winter.

What did you pick up this week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

credit: SHED Architecture and Design

As much as the decorative items spelling out ‘nest’ pain me, this dining room earns points for having both a bookshelf and amazing sliding doors that open to the outdoors.  And I love the overall modern feel of the space.