Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Terms and Conditions

December 7, 2016

Or should I say term and conditions…

40 weeks came and went on Sunday – and the baby is now officially overdue. I think I would be feeling more relaxed about this had the past few weeks not been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Firstly, this whole waiting around thing is new for me. Vita was a week early, which took us by surprise and also meant that I was expecting this one to be early too. It’s odd how vague ‘feelings about’ things can soon cement themselves into indelible fact in one’s head. After Vita’s lovely birth, thanks to hypnobirthing, we are doing the same thing again (although this time we’re hoping for the added plus of a home birth). When the hypnobirthing lady came over a few months’ ago for a refresher evening, she, somewhat mystically, asked me when the full moon was nearest the due date. Babies have a habit of coming around the full moon, she said. I raised an eyebrow. It’s because, she said, there’s so much energy around then. The husband’s eyebrow remained raised. The labour wards are always busiest around the full moon anyway, she said, noting the eyebrows and then changing tack. Of course, then I had to look up the lunar situation, and discovered that the full moon was a couple of weeks’ before the due date. Right, I decided, that’s when the baby will come. I stopped even thinking of the due date being 4th December, and instead it was fixed to arrive on 14th November.

The day came and went, and on the following Monday I went for a routine appointment with the midwife. I think I might be having a few mild contractions, I said. Probably just Braxton Hicks, but they have been going on most of the morning. I stopped myself from saying anything about the full moon. She prodded my tummy. Humm, she said. Either the baby has got extremely low down in your pelvis and labour’s about to kick in, or it might have turned sideways. Would you mind popping down to the hospital for a scan, um, now? Nothing serious? I asked. Oh no, I’m sure it’s fine. Should I bring my hospital bag? Oh no, don’t worry, it’s just to check the position’s right.

I called the husband on the way to the tube. Just popping in for a scan. It could all be about to happen, they just want to check the position’s ok. What shall I do about the builders? he asked. I should say here that we have been getting cupboards put into our bedroom (so that when I spend most of the forthcoming nights in the bedroom, not asleep, it will be a nicer environment), and the building work ended up dragging on and on… None of us wanted them to be around during the home birth – least of all the builders, who looked increasingly pale every time they saw me. I don’t know, I said, you’re the architect.

At the hospital, the scan was done straight away. Thanks, I said – it’s amazing of you to squeeze me in like this. The doctor was unsmiling and had tattoos all up her arm. On went the cold jelly and up came the picture of the little one. The baby is transverse, she said. You are now a high-risk pregnancy. You cannot leave the hospital. If your waters break, the cord could be prolapse and you wouldn’t get here in time to save the baby. You must stay in the hospital until Sunday, when you will be 39 weeks, and then we will give you an emergency C-section. This was on Monday afternoon.

It was not a good moment. And the next few days weren’t good either. The first night was spent in the waiting room, as there was no space on the ward. (Presumably because of the full moon.) The antenatal ward, once I got there, is not a fun place to spend time. Aside from the fact that you are confined to a windowless purple-curtained cubicle, all day and night you listen to people doing one of the following things: arguing with their partner loudly; snoring loudly; watching telly loudly; or, worst of all, going into labour extremely loudly. Try to enjoy the rest, the husband said, as I grumbled tearfully on the phone to him after the second night of listening to labour screams going on from 3 to 8 a.m. He was running around manically trying to deal with his work, the builders (who had been dismissed then re-summoned), the washing machine, and ferrying Vita about.

Anyway, in the end, the clever baby managed to turn back into the right position all by itself. The doctors’ plan changed daily, as the baby slowly wriggled itself around, and by Friday I was released, and told we were back on for the home birth. No C-section, no induction, no turning by the midwife, no forced breaking of the waters, but back to the sanctuary of our living room and plan A. HOORAY!

Which brings me, at last, to books. For this was ten days ago, and – when not looking after Vita – I have been doing rather a lot of sitting around waiting, trying not to think about the baby not being here yet. The real worry is that if it is too late, I will have to be induced, and then I will have to go back to the wretched antenatal ward. And also, weirdly, the contractions have a habit of suddenly ramping up and then disappearing again, so that last week, early in the morning, the midwives arrived, the birth pool was semi-inflated, and Vita’s granny summoned to collect her, only for everything to return to ‘normal’ a couple of hours later.

So I have been in need of a good book: one that’s easy for my extremely distracted brain to dip into, and that will hold my attention. Having also finished all my work, this was to be the first book I would be reading entirely for pleasure for quite some time.

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And so I came to pick up the beautiful object that is the latest hardback published by Slightly Foxed: Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I know and love Ysenda’s writing from her Spectator columns and also from her very wonderful book The Real Mrs Miniver, which I wrote about here.

Her new book is all about girls’ boarding schools, from 1939 to 1979. Weirdly, I think this might be all the more interesting for readers who, like me, didn’t go to boarding school, for it is an astonishing anthropological study of a certain species, evident now as a grown woman who:

sleeps with the window wide open; feels homesick on Sunday evenings even though she is now at home; never touches cauliflower cheese; keeps an old address book in which most of the addresses have been there for so long that they don’t have postcodes; knows the Matins Collects by heart; fears unpopularity even among fully grown women in middle age; and still associates Friday with the smell of fish.

While of course there are moments of empathy, reading the book is more of a case of fascination with all the differences – there really was a time when girls woke up to find their hot water bottles had become blocks of ice, when they rebelliously – ravenously – tried to heat cans of baked beans over a candle flame in the dead of night, when they could choose between ‘cricket in the nets or dusting’ for their morning activity, and career prospects were known as ‘jobs’ in inverted commas because they were regarded as trivial, optional, and primarily a means to get a husband.

Ysenda has interviewed dozens of women about their boarding school experiences, and renders their stories largely verbatim, giving the book a documentary edge which makes it stranger than fiction. Listening to the stories in the words of these women makes you feel like you are there with Ysenda, having a cup of tea with them in their lovely kitchens, and hearing these treasure troves of memories which are solid gold to anyone with a curious bone in their bodies.

For instance, Maggie Fergusson recalls the snobbery of Mother Bridget, the headmistress of St Mary’s Ascot from 1956 to 1976. Ysenda reports that:

Mother Bridget … kicked off the first Latin lesson of 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 … When my eldest sister Kitty came to look round,’ Maggie said, ‘it was pretty clear that Mother Bridget didn’t think much of us as we actually lived in Ascot, which wasn’t really good enough. She was saying to my mother, “Well, I can’t promise that we have a place for your daughter …” when one of the mothers with a big country house came into the school and flung her arms round my mother, as they were cousins. That changed everything. Mother Bridget said she would take Kitty after all.’

I found myself entranced and gripped by the book, in spite of the fact that there is neither plot nor main character. Gosh it’s such a weird world, I kept on thinking, as the pages seemed to turn themselves. Ysenda is extremely clever at finding the crucially revealing detail time and again, laying it out with such grace and skill, and then – rather then telling us what to think – just letting it speak for itself.

For instance, in her chapter about ‘pashes’, Ysenda notes how romantic girls used to be:

‘Oh, yes, pashes,’ Sal’s sister Georgina Hammick said to me when I reminded her of those long-forgotten schoolgirl adorations. ‘I do remember. You wrote poems to their eyebrows.’

She doesn’t need to point out how far a cry from today’s schoolgirl sexting this is.

The past has rarely felt like such a different country as it does in this book – mostly because the attitude to girls’ education has changed so much. The happiest school seems to be Hanford because girls could bring their ponies and there were such things as ‘galloping matrons’ who took them riding. ‘The entry of all examinations is purely optional’, states one prospectus, as a positive. In fact, a complete lack of academic ambition or concern is shown to be the rule everywhere except for Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which gets its own chapter. This results in endless funny moments: ‘Miss Fleming taught History and didn’t know any,’ said Amanda Vesey. Or, when Ysenda asked a group of Old Girls from Hatherop Castle if there’d been a lab in those days, she receives nothing but a blank look:

‘A laboratory?’ I expanded … ‘Oh that kind of lab!’ one of them said. ‘I thought you meant a Labrador.’

Smiles, laughs, gasps, frowns … My face has been well and truly exercised by the observations and recollections woven together in this extraordinary book. (Perhaps a good warm up for the labour to come.) It has been a lifesaver for this weird hanging around time, and I highly recommend it as something to occupy oneself during the similarly weird Christmas period which fast approaches. The only thing is, I’m not sure if someone who did actually go to boarding school during this time would find it a pleasant trip down memory lane, or an unwelcome return to a banished nightmarish world. Are any of you boarding school Old Girls? If so, please will you read it and tell me what you think? Finally, it goes without saying that any other tips for distracting myself over the coming ten days from the looming threat of induction and return to the antenatal ward would also be most welcome.

My Grandmothers and I

July 27, 2016

It strikes me as a surprisingly common, though little remarked upon, fact that one’s grandparents form two very different pairs.

I suppose this seems especially pronounced if I think of my daughter Vita’s grandparents – one side Jewish and the other side descended from the Fascist Oswald Mosley. I can see it too with my own grandparents – one grandmother fled Vienna as a child in the 1930s, whereas the other came to London from a family long-established in Plymouth. It seems astonishing that time and again two people can come together from such different backgrounds, thus giving their progeny two very diverse sets of grandparents. A walking book club member informs me this is due to the psychological inevitability of shunning one’s own background and seeking its opposite in one’s partner. I would be intrigued to see if you too, dear reader, have noticed this phenomenon.

My grandmothers and IDiana Holman-Hunt wrote brilliantly about her childhood in which she was parcelled between her grandparents in her very charming memoir My Grandmothers and I, beautifully published as a neat little paperback by Slightly Foxed. There is a stark contrast between life in the Freemans’ well-staffed comfortable country house, and the Bohemian squalor of the Kensington abode of ‘Grand’ – the extremely eccentric widow of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman-Hunt.

Diana’s life with Grandmother Freeman seems relatively happy, if lonely. For friends, she has to turn to the servants, and ‘Cherub’ – the statue on the fountain – with whom she imagines flying across the gardens. When the servants club together and give her a teddy bear for her birthday, ordered especially from Selfridges, Diana’s affection for it is transformed from sweet to moving when we realise it’s not just because she has no real friends to play with but because her other presents are so inappropriate: her father, who is away in India, sends her a leopard skin, and her grandparents give her a string of pearls, whose beauty and value will turn out to be of help in years’ to come, but are far too sophisticated for a little girl to appreciate.

Life at the Freemans has certain quirky downsides – such as the torturous brace which Diana must wear to improve her posture, and the list of daily tasks which is pinned to her curtain every morning. We are also treated to Diana’s glimpses of the more adult world in which she inhabits – the butler is always drunk after lunch, and one of the maids gets pregnant. There is the added humour of the clash of her childish perspective and our adult understanding, such as when she writes about her uncle’s friends, the ‘jolies laides’ – she discusses them with the servant Fowler, who remarks, you can hardly ‘call her jolly and I doubt if she’s a lady’. The real sadness here, however, lies in Diana’s early understanding of the fact that she will only be appreciated if she is sufficiently entertaining, being urged to ‘utter’ and regale her grandparents with stories, or else be banished from their company.

When she’s sent off to stay with Grand, however, we realise how lucky Diana’s been. Though she immediately flings her terrible brace into the fire, she has entered a world where breakfast is usually a rotten egg, and where she has to sleep curled up on a tiny scratchy sofa – examples of Grand’s despising ‘Brother Ass’, the body, in favour of nourishing the mind.

Grand’s eccentricities are extraordinary. For instance, before bed, the maid lays out a complex trap of trip wires and bells, to catch any thieves after all the great works of art, and, Grand adds, to stop them being murdered in their beds. Terrified, Diana asks, then what?

‘You will spring out of bed and twirl this large wooden rattle, round and round, out of the window, and I will blow several short sharp blasts on that whistle tied to the end of my bed.’

Grand is horribly stingy, and Diana relates the horror of having tea at the Tate:

I always felt embarrassed with Grand asked the waitress for two cups and saucers and a jug of boiling water.

Grand would then produce her own bag of tea leaves and envelope of powdered milk. But her generosity to pavement artists is even more embarrassing:

If she spotted one, she would never pass him by, but would retire discreetly to a doorway, or press against the railings with her back turned to the passers-by. Then, to my confusion, she would lift her skirts to find the chammy-leather pouch of money which she wore concealed, suspended from her waist. Flushed with effort, she would at last approach the artist and hand him a piece of silver, saying ‘If you are ever desperate and need to earn a shilling, you can come and sweep the leaves out of my area and scrub my front door steps. My cook will give you a cup of soup. You need never starve, I am your friend.’

In showing her grandmothers’ many oddnesses, Diana Holman-Hunt is so good at capturing their exact manners and cadences of speech that this memoir of what must have been a very difficult childhood is transformed into a comic masterpiece. Moments of poignancy remain, however, such as when Diana’s train pulls into London and she sees a man standing beside her Grand, waiting to meet her:

‘That must be my Papa!’ I said, jumping up and down.

The train guard dispels her excitement by revealing it is in fact the Station Master.

As the book progresses, and Diana grows up, the balance in tone shifts. The funny, mad and charming portrait – albeit with glimpses of terrible sadness and loneliness – is abandoned as Diana begins to see the growing desperation of her situation. There is a garish flash of an episode where her father visits, rescues her from school and takes her out on the town. She has nothing to wear but her confirmation dress. Next, we see Diana on her return from a year in Germany; her father – seemingly bankrupt – was unable to pay the Baronin with whom she stayed and sent her a note advising her to return to Grand and get a job. Grand, meanwhile, has lost her mind. Diana, ever resourceful, sells her pearls, sleeps on the cold attic floor, and attends secretarial school, with scarcely enough money to eat. As no one has paid for her to be presented and ‘come out’, she is shunned by her other relations, and it becomes clear there is no one who can look after her and she has no means of survival. Salvation comes eventually when Grandfather Freeman writes to tell her she must come and stay with him (Grandmother Freeman has died). When she returns to their Sussex home, Diana gets drunk and falls into bed.

This drunkenness seems to me to be such a sad, bleak ending. It is as though Diana longs to return to the naivete of that childhood world of imagination and innocence, playing with Cherub and the servants, but now – as an adult, with her place in the world shown to be so precarious – the only way she can return to this state of oblivion is getting blind drunk. Not that the ending detracts from the book, rather it saves it from being all charming nostalgia and eccentricity, tempering it with the bitter note of tough adult reality. Those who want to know what happened next might find this obituary in the Independent enlightening (and reassuring).

Emily’s Walking Book Club greatly enjoyed My Grandmothers and I. One walker said they would have loved to listen to it on the radio, read by someone like Maggie Smith, which we all think would be brilliant. So, does anyone know a radio producer who might be intrigued? If so, please please send them a copy.

Diana Holman Hunt

Here she is, looking extremely glam.

The Rings of Saturn

May 22, 2014

What a belated blog! I can only apologise and plead a great deal of travelling and sporadic internet access as my excuses.

Olivetti and peoniesLast week Emilybooks and husband spent a wonderful couple of days on a Roman holiday. We stayed in a particularly sweet bed and breakfast, discovered thanks to the clever mapping tool on the Alastair Sawday website. It was one of just three rooms in a little flat, in a lovely old building around a courtyard. Look at our beautiful desk, complete with peonies and an Olivetti typewriter! I longed to use it, but felt almost certain that I’d break it, and my Italian doesn’t quite stretch to the hideous prospect of having to explain my way out of that one.

We arrived and wandered down to the huge and humbling Terme di Caracalla. It was impossible not to feel overexcited as the Coliseum suddenly loomed into view on the way. Caracalla felt rather like we’d gone back to Narnia and discovered the ruins of Cair Paravel. One imagines these baths with the vast roof intact, vast and glorious, where thousands of people gathered every day. Now they’re ruined, empty, and little visited – the sunbaked white floor is undisturbed except for the crunch of an occasional weary tourist’s footsteps, and the sweeping shadows of gulls wheeling overhead.

Park notesThe following day, fortified with a breakfast of nutella cake and strawberries, we saw a million churches housing all sorts of artistic delights. Michelangelo’s Moses, various Caravaggios, rather a fun obelisk with an elephant by Bernini (just outside a church) and his Saint Teresa. This was of especial interest as I’ve contributed to what I hope will be a very intriguing book called Park Notes, about women writers and Regent’s Park, and Saint Theresa is key to my essay about George Eliot. (Just think back to the Prelude of Middlemarch…)

Antiquarian bookshop in RomeOn our wanderings, I was struck by the number of bookshops, such as this beautiful antiquarian one, with its very tempting window display of children’s books. I also spotted a smartly published series of essays, including Virginia Woolf On Cinema. I considered buying it, and then thought it was too ridiculous to struggle through it in Italian. Perhaps an enterprising English language publisher might publish an equivalent series … Please?

Intelligent Italian essaysThere is so much that one could say about Rome, of course, but I’ll confine myself to just two short points. One is that the scale of it is so impressive. While I could just about get used to there being quite so many beautiful churches, I could never quite get my head around the Roman ruins being so much a part of the texture of the cityscape. You come out of a wonderful church, dazed from gazing up at the ceiling, and then, round the corner there stands a trio of columns, so monumental, it is though they are left over from a time when giants roamed the seven hills. The other, more prosaic comment, is that ice cream really is a way of life! Strolling around after dinner on our final evening, we happened upon Fassi’s‘Ice Palace’, which has been going for over 150 years. It was nearly midnight and rammed with people of all ages, all tucking into the most delicious ice cream. Oh if only London had an equivalent, instead of our rancid kebab shops…

From Rome, we went all the way south to Puglia, the very heel of Italy’s boot. There we met Emilybooks’ mum for a few days in a very plush hotel, plus a little exploring to the intriguingly named Monopoli, Ostuni and Cisternino. Most beautiful, I thought, were the many groves of ancient olive trees, and the tiny lizards who darted around by the swimming pool (alas no photo of these special creatures – forgive me). They reminded me a little of Daphne in the way they could remain so still and contemplative, but then they zoomed off in a way that might have given Daphne a heart attack had she chanced to see.

The Rings of SaturnSuch have been the adventures of Emilybooks, and perhaps I better admit I’ve been stalling somewhat, because I have no idea what to say about Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which I’ve read twice over in the past week. It’s an astonishing book. So much so, that I really did finish it, feel unable to start anything new, so went back to the beginning.

The book is essentially an account of Sebald’s wanderings around East Anglia in 1992. Just as his feet wander, so does his narrative, and we find ourselves being taken on numerous informative diversions. For instance, a visit to the faded Somelyton Hall leads us on to a conversation about bombing raids on Germany in the Second World War, and a railway bridge over the river Blyth takes us to the Taiping Rebellion. One gets a good picture of the bewildering, tangential scope of the book from the contents page, which reads like so:

1. In hospital – Obituary – Odyssey of Thomas Browne’s skull – Anatomy lecture – Levitation – Quincunx – Fabled creatures – Urn burial

Reading The Rings of Saturn feels like being granted access to a highly intelligent, deeply knowledgeable, very curious person’s brain. Perhaps a collector’s or curator’s, for the connections are Sebald’s own, and his relish in this subjectivity makes it peculiarly charming – at times even quite funny – rather than intimidatingly po-faced.

Various themes become apparent as the book progresses. Images of burning and destruction proliferate – and a preoccupation with the terrible mass destruction that has been wreaked by human hands. It is written in the shadow of the Holocaust, and this echoes through the many other mass deaths in the book – be that of the Belgian Congo, the Taiping rebellion, Waterloo, or even the Dutch herring industry – in 1770, he says, ‘the number of herring caught annually is estimated to have been sixty billion’:

Given these quantities, the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. All we know is that its internal structure is extremely intricate and consists of more than two hundred different bones and cartilages.

Sebald intersperses his narrative with grainy, black-and white photographs. There is one of the herring haul in Lowestoft, showing mountains of dead fish at the feet of the fisherman:

Sebald's herring haul

Just six pages later comes a double-page spread showing piles of dead bodies at Belsen Concentration Camp. The pyramids of the blanketed figures echo the heaps of fish, just as the straight lines of the trees ghost in the figures of the agents of their destruction.

Belsen in The Rings of Saturn

Another preoccupation of the book is silk. We meet silkworms via the Chinese Empress Tz’u-hsi, who was devoted to her silkworms throughout the terrible drought of 1876-9, when, ‘whole provinces gave the impression of expiring under prisons of glass. Between seven and twenty million people – no precise estimates have ever been calculated – are said to have died of starvation and exhaustion…’

When the ill tidings arrived from the south, the Dowager Empress had a daily blood sacrifice offered in her temple to the gods of silk, at the hour when the evening star rose, lest the silkworms want for fresh green leaves. Of all living creatures, these curious insects alone aroused a strong affection in her … when night fell she particularly liked to sit all alone amidst the frames, listening to the low, even, deeply soothing sound of the countless silkworms consuming the new mulberry foliage. These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers.

Silk appears time and again – silken ropes for hangings, the purple silk in the urn of Patroclus, and the bamboo cane which was used to smuggle silkworm eggs from China to the Western world. At the close of the book, Sebald delves at length into the fascinating history of sericulture in the West. Here he compares the fate of the silk weavers to writers:

That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread. On the other hand, when we consider the weavers’ mental illnesses we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced … were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds.

Perhaps, then, this is a fitting description for The Rings of Saturn – ‘of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds’. Threads are woven through in complex patterns; the book is born of ‘Nature itself’ – inspired by his walking through East Anglia; and there is something of a bird’s flight in its darting, diving tangents. Like these beautiful, ‘truly fabulous’ silken materials, The Rings of Saturn has survived its author to provide ‘iridescent, quite indescribable’ inspiration for future readers … it certainly has for this one.

The Past is Myself

March 10, 2014

The Past is Myself is such an astonishing, thought-provoking, light-shedding, vitally important memoir that I feel I ought to have read it years ago. Why aren’t we given it at school? The Second World War is taught to death, and here is a book which gives a unique, fascinating and nuanced viewpoint. It ought to be a classic that we have all read, can all talk about, and yet it has only just found its way into my life.

Well, better late than never.

Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel Bielenberg was a bright young Anglo-Irish aristocrat, niece of press barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who won a scholarship to Oxford, but went to Hamburg to train as a soprano. There, she fell in love with Peter Bielenberg, a handsome young German lawyer, who cut a fine figure on the dancefloor. They married in 1934 and settled in Germany, where they remained during the Second World War. What a time to be British, living in Germany! The Past is Myself is her account of these years.

Although, of course, Christabel Bielenberg was no longer British. On marrying Peter, she had swapped her British passport, ‘with its jovial lion and unicorn’, for a German one, ‘a nondescript brown booklet with a disdainful-looking eagle’. She can’t possibly write as a gung-ho patriotic Brit, because she has married a German, has become one and raises her sons in Germany. She has as many German friends, as she does British. She can hardly cheer on the Allies, when sheltering from an air raid on Berlin, which wreaks destruction on the city and destroys the homes of her friends.

Yet there are aspects of Bielenberg that are unmistakably British. She reflects, on the way to visiting her husband, who has been arrested and is in a concentration camp, that she doesn’t have a plan:

Although I had lived so long in Germany, where everything from a picnic to a coup d’etat had to be planned down to the smallest detail, I knew that I had remained an incurable compromiser, inclined to plunge into a situation, flap around, see what was cooking, hope for the best and, as often as not, with God’s help, come up smiling.

Bielenberg is caught between two warring nationalities; it gives her a rare perspective and yields a brilliant memoir.

On her excellent Desert Island Discs (which you can listen to here), Bielenberg says she wrote the book out of a feeling of duty, because she felt that very few people in England knew there was another Germany, that not everyone went mad for Hitler. It is fascinating – and of course very important – to learn about this other Germany, which opposed the regime.

She shows the many shades of resistance, and of Naziism. There are outright revolutionaries like Adam Von Trott, a great friend of the Bielenbergs’, who was hanged after trying to assassinate Hitler. Then there are also the quiet inhabitants of the Black Forest village, where she spends the later war years with her children. Kerner Sepp is the village clerk and cobbler, who types dilligently away under a portrait of Hitler, but when the secret police order him to put Bielenberg under house arrest, he informs her exactly what they said:

Anyway he told us that if we told you anything except that bit about house arrest we would be shot. The poor Lower Baker got a bad fright when he said that, but we talked it over after he left and decided it was none of his business who we told. Stupid lowlander! Anyway, that’s the way it is, and just don’t tell anyone we have told you, and if you want to go to Furtwangen or any place to do some shopping, just let us know.

Bielenberg is sympathetic towards the Germans; she understands how difficult it is to live under such an oppressive regime while maintaining any feeling of integrity. She also has an outsider’s curiosity about them. An old friend of her husband’s is a Nazi, but when her husband is arrested, this Nazi does what he can to protect him. Bielenberg wonders:

How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his regime? Would it have been that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery? That awareness of belonging somewhere, which in England just came naturally, but I believed among Germans to be a rare, almost unique phenomenon?

Bielenberg is often on the verge of discovering a penetrating truth, but then declines to pursue it. She suffixes these thoughts above with:

Never mind, I gave up. I was suddenly very tired.

There is a perennial feeling of exhaustion, which prevents her from probing too far. One particularly harrowing moment is in a train carriage, empty other than for an SS officer. She finds herself unable to avoid having a conversation with him, in which he confesses the horrors of his work:

Do you know what it means – to kill Jews, men, women and children as they stand in a semi-circle around the machine-guns? I belonged to what is called an Einsatzkommando, an extermination squad – so I know. What do you say when I tell you that a little boy, no older than my younger brother, before such a killing, stood there to attention and asked me “Do I stand straight enough, Uncle?”

The SS officer continues, but Bielenberg confesses:

During his story I had found it increasingly difficult to listen. I had eaten practically nothing all day and the cold in the carriage was intense. As I fought wave after wave of exhaustion, my head kept falling forward and only the most startling points of his story penetrated the fog of sleep.

While Bielenberg edges close to the full dark horror of what was going on in Germany at the time, the full extent of it is too much. She is too exhausted to investigate, discover or really understand. This is certainly frustrating, especially given our subsequent knowledge of the horrors. It shows the limitations of such a personal account, written without hindsight, but also points to some answers. How could the Germans claim not have known what was going on? Perhaps the answer is here: The horror was too much to bear.

Bielenberg shows how much strength and guile it took to survive under the Nazis, so what could she possibly do when told about how awful it was to exterminate Jews? It isn’t so much a case of turning a blind eye, as being physically incapable of seeing it without going mad.

There are moments that break through the exhaustion. She gives shelter to two Jews for a short while, even though a good friend warns her not to, given that she is already under suspicion. She feels acute hatred for a Nazi officer who slaps a prisoner:

I was shaking again, but this was different, this was cold deadly hatred such as I never hope to have for any human being in my life again. I hated her, every living bit of her, and the fact that she was a woman made this hatred if possible more intense, for I think it was mixed with impotent rage and deepest humiliation that I belonged to her sex.

But these small gestures of defiance are useless, and worse still is the knowledge that they are useless.

The Past is Myself is a memoir of survival, and suggests that it would have been impossible to survive without seeking refuge in the oblivion of exhaustion. It would have been too much to see that those Jews who left her house after sheltering there for a few days were then not only caught, but exterminated. Bielenberg shows why it was not just tempting, but essential to turn away from such awful truths.

Instead, she relishes the tiny moments which make life more bearable: a rare cup of real coffee, a feast of eggs and bacon, the relief and solidarity of discovering her neighbours aren’t Nazis, the lifeline of listening to the BBC – an offence punishable by death. Tiny pleasures which are blown out of all proportion, for they are all there is to weigh against the horrors of informers, and of friends being hanged. The knowledge of the Holocaust would have tipped the scales too far.

I urge everyone to read this book. It is available either as a rather ugly giant paperback, in which it is paired with her second volume of memoir, second-hand as an out-of-print paperback, or as this very beautiful purple, pocket-sized Slightly Foxed hardback. The latter is little dear, but this is one of those books you will want to re-read and pass on to others, so worth investing in a smart edition.

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

Ammonites and Leaping Fish

October 14, 2013

I’ve had rather a heavenly couple of weeks in the company of two elegant, elderly women of letters.

I wrote about Emma Smith last week – a glut of reading her brilliant memoirs, followed by a delightful tea in her Putney cottage. Michaelmas daisies bloom in the front garden and, inside, the walls are covered with photographs of loved ones, shelves lined with interesting paperbacks. I drank hot tea, ate orange and almond cake while really feasting on our conversation – Emma Smith has a wonderful ability to turn life into a compelling story.

Ammonites and Leaping FishEmma Smith is ninety, astonishingly. Penelope Lively is eighty – I suppose a spring chicken by comparison. She launched and talked about her new book Ammonites and Leaping Fish last week, which I’ve been reading ever since.

You may have gathered how much I loved Moon Tiger from my post here a few weeks ago… you can perhaps imagine my excitement about meeting its author. She was every bit as inspiring and impressive as I’d hoped; what I wasn’t prepared for was how very funny she was! She regaled us with this episode from her book:

A couple of years ago, Izzy yearned for an old-fashioned manual typewriter: ‘Vintage!’ A Smith Corona was found off eBay, and she rejoiced in it until a new ribbon became necessary, and then no one could work out how to change the ribbon. I was summoned: ‘I can’t believe we’re going to Granny for technical support.’

She delivered this anecdote with perfect comic timing. We were all chortling over ‘Vintage’, and then falling about at the thought of her being the source of technical support. Behind this sharp wit, which glistens throughout the book, lie thoughtful forays into time, memory, life, books, things and more. Penelope Lively found, to her surprise, that although her mind didn’t remember how to change the ribbon, her fingers did. It inspires a reflection on:

procedural memory, that aspect of memory whereby we remember how to do something. How to ride a bicycle is the example frequently cited, but I prefer my typewriter experience…

And then we are off with Nabokov’s thoughts about his wrists containing ‘echoes of the pram-pusher’s knack’, before moving on to ‘semantic memory’. Complex ideas, but explained in a lively (ha ha) and anecdotal manner that makes them engaging, understandable, and of course has you rifling through your own memory for your experiences.

My favourite instance of procedural memory was its utter failure when I was twelve years old. My father and I were staying with some friends of his in America. We were supposed to be going on some kind of bike marathon, which involved wearing a special t-shirt and cycling in the heat all day. As a lazy, sulky and fashion-conscious pre-teenager, I thought it was the worst thing in the world and complained bitterly, but to no avail.  The fateful morning arrived and we gathered in our ghastly t-shirts and prepared to cycle off. My father – who has always said he cycled all round Oxford as an undergrad and religiously uses his (stationary) exercise bike – got on his bike … and went nowhere. He had completely lost the knack of it, and after a good half hour’s perseverance was forced to admit defeat. Of course if he didn’t have to go, there was no way I was going to be made to do it. Procedural memory, or lack thereof, had saved me!

I digress. Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a string of pearls. Every few pages there’s one that strikes you as particularly thought-provoking, just right, gleaming and special, making you want to remember it, jot it down, or fold the page. Here are a few of my favourites:

On the joy of old age:

Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold … The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of endgame salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.

On the randomness of memory:

None of this is sought, hunted down – it just pops up, arbitrary, part of the stockpile. And each memory brings some tangential thought, or at least until that is clipped short by the ongoing morning and its demands. The whole network lurks, all the tirme, waiting for a thread to be picked up, followed, allowed to vibrate. My story; your story.

Except that it is an entirely unsatisfactory story. The novelist in me – the reader, too – wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insights. Instead of which there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.

On the wonderful commonality of books:

Cultural community is shared reading, the references and images that you and I both know. Books are the mind’s ballast, for so many of us – the cargo that makes us what we are, a freight that is ephemeral and indelible, half-forgotten but leaving an imprint.

I could go on and on. There are such gems, and yet they are wonderfully scattered behind the everyday. Reading it feels rather like a conversation. It’s not off-puttingly difficult or dense, but easy peasy, a breeze to turn the pages, and then you’re caught off guard by the brilliance of a piercing observation.

There are also some very lucid accounts of history. The Suez Crisis is one of those things that’s so often referenced and of which I feel I vaguely know (big argument about controlling the canal in Egypt), but here Lively explains it all so clearly. I have always struggled with reading history. I find it is too often very like reading synopses – all these facts and things happening and crammed together so that the story feels fit to burst. Penelope Lively does it perfectly. The facts are there, but so are the interesting asides, like this:

Eden resigned in January 1957 (though he lived for another twenty years). The truth was that he had been ill throughout the crisis, following a gall-bladder operation some while earlier, and was heavily dependent on medication. It does seem that his condition may have had some effect on his state of mind, and his actions, during the crucial months of 1956. Certainly a number of associates were surprised by his responses, their bewilderment expressed in their language at the time: ‘gone bananas’, ‘bonkers’. His reputation never recovered – a tragedy for a man who had been a politician of integrity and a distinguished Foreign Secretary.

I’d never have known that so much of it boiled down to Eden’s gall bladder! And she tells us this with a novelist’s eye for character – and language. Please Penelope Lively, write us a whole history book!

Best of all – and the reason why Daphne is so fond of this book – is that Penelope Lively evidently loves tortoises. They come up in passing again and again:

When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hillside, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).

Oh tell us that story, please!

Later:

My mother had not been invited to Government House, and was staying more modestly at the American Colony Hotel, which I remember as having a lovely courtyard with orange trees, resident tortoises and amazing ice cream … The American Colony Hotel is five star now … I can have a standard double room tomorrow night for £175, or – if I want to push out the boat – the Deluxe Pasha King Room for £345. Are there still tortoises, I wonder?

Well there is still a tortoise at EmilyBooks, and Daphne’s library is all the richer for this rather idiosyncratic, intelligent collection of musings.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish ... and tortoises and rosemary

As Green as Grass

October 7, 2013

As Green As GrassI’ve been on something of an Emma Smith binge this week, in part because tomorrow I am going to meet her for tea. Tea with Emma Smith! It is too thrilling! I wonder, will there be ‘strawberry jam sandwiches and sultana scones’, as she wrote in her first volume of memoir, The Great Western Beach, or are these only for beach picnics?

I wrote here about Emma Smith’s superb novel The Far Cry – long-lost, then wonderfully recovered thanks to Susan Hill and Persephone Books. I hadn’t realised that Bloomsbury were just about to publish her second volume of memoir, As Green As Grass. What perfect timing. Having recently emerged from the colourful world of 1940s India captured within Persephone’s signature grey covers, I could swiftly immerse myself in more of Smith’s lush prose, but this time of the England of her youth – as she puts it, ‘before, during and after the Second World War’.

The Far CryIt is a real delight to read about the life of an author you greatly admire. The Far Cry is beautifully written, and offers one of the most startling and distressing characters in literature, but it is also about an intriguing subject – life on an Indian tea plantation in the 1940s. In her Preface to the novel, Smith writes tantalisingly about the basis for the novel – her trip to India after the Second World War, to make a documentary about the tea plantations. Who was with her on the trip? None other than Laurie Lee!

So I began As Green as Grass feeling rather impatient to get to the India bit. I wanted to read about her glamorous life with Laurie Lee in literary London, and then her escapades in India. But I soon became so engrossed in the memoir, that I’d as good as forgotten about the Indian antics that were to come.

The book is divided up into three sections – Before, During and After, all in relation to the Second World War. Before is growing up in Devon, with a father suffering from the legacy of the First World War. He is unable to reconcile his days as a war hero with his job as a humble bank clerk and is prone to violent eruptions of anger, which eventually get him sectioned. Her mother explains:

Poor Daddy is ill, she says to us children, but with care and the right sort of nursing he will soon get better. She doesn’t ever use the word which looms inside my own head so menacingly: mad!

It is so exactly what it’s like to be a child suddenly caught up in something adult. The grown-ups tell you soothing half-truths, when in your head you can’t escape the menacing melodramatic reality – words which you’ve only ever overheard or read, but now they apply to your family. I remember feeling exactly the same when various scary adult things happened when I was growing up – there was such menace in words like ‘divorce’ and ‘rehab’ when applied to your own family, and yet those words were so rarely said directly to you. You’d overhear them and vaguely know of them, and of course those words would be all you could think about, while the adults were busy coddling the truth in the softness of words like ‘gone away’ and ‘ill’.

The years during the War are particularly poignant. Smith describes going out for lunch with her sister Pam and a young fighter-pilot:

As soon as we’ve met and greeted each other, Ricky holds out Pam’s left hand in order to show me the ring on her engagement finger.

‘Goodness gracious,’ I say, amazed and delighted, ‘ – you’re engaged, you and Pam! You’re going to be – are you? – actually going to be married?’

‘We sure are,’ says Ricky, smiling broadly. ‘Isn’t that right, Pam?’

I’ve met Ricky before. He’s a fighter pilot on the same station as Pam’s young and handsome: a dear. How romantic!

But when I glance up and see the expression on my sister’s face, I’m startled. It’s the fond amused look of an adult indulging the passing whim of a small boy; as though, I think, the pearl-and-sapphire ring, and what it signifies – marriage – is merely part of a game she’s playing to please this nice young man.

Later, we learn:

Ricky, the Canadian boy I met in London, was one of those fighter-pilots who flew off and didn’t come back. I remember him showing me, proudly, the ring he had put on my sister’s engagement finger, and I remember being startled by the glimpse I caught of her unguarded expression: she knew!

Somehow the knowing – the complete destruction of any innocence, hope or optimism in favour of this necessary cynicism – is almost more terrible than the death.

There is tremendous energy in Emma Smith’s prose, you feel as though she is taking great pleasure in looking back at her youth and telling us all about it. It is written in the present tense, so you are right there, bang in the middle of things. We whizz through the pages and the years skip by, taking us to a smart typing school, then to the ‘innumerable flimsy huts that have sprung up, like a toy town’ in the grounds of Blenheim Palace to house the War Office, to gruelling cold work on wartime canals, to Bohemian Chelsea, to India, to France…

I was struck, of course, by the many differences between now and then – a time when women make friends with each other by leaving calling cards and Rupert Brooke is a heartthrob – but these differences never obstruct the great empathy Smith inspires. Beneath these surface differences, there is much that has stayed exactly the same. Her fizzing prose tells of problems and experiences that we all face – falling in love, having one’s heart broken, struggling to find what to do with one’s life, falling ill, feeling appallingly stupid for making mistakes in a new job, running out of money, and – particularly inspiring for me – having the courage, persistence and determination to keep on writing.

I can’t wait for tea!

 Emma Smith

Island Summers

July 1, 2013

Swallows and AmazonsWhen I was a child, I adored the Swallows and Amazons books. I read them all once and then, discovering that I had been given them in the wrong order, read them all over again. How I longed to be like John, Susan, Titty and Roger, adventuring on an island and commandeering a boat. The Lake District became a Mecca for me, and my parents very sweetly agreed to take me up there on holiday and even gave me a sailing lesson. Needless to say, I was acutely disappointed with the unavoidable life jacket, grown-up sailing instructor and decidedly unromantic modern dinghy.

In spite of my best Lake District efforts, my childhood wasn’t remotely like Swallows and Amazons. But what I didn’t have by way of sea-faring quests, I made up for with imagination, transporting myself to all sorts of adventures between the covers of a book, or in a corner of the garden. I suspect that books and games are as close to adventure as most children get. I mean, growing up in suburban middle-class North-West London, what were the chances of really opening a cupboard door and finding Narnia, or having a whole island to explore with a band of siblings?

Island SummersWell, perhaps I had to rely on books and a lively imagination, but Tilly Culme-Seymour did actually have an island to maraud around when she was a child. Island Summers is her beautiful memoir of a Norwegian island, which – as family legend has it – her grandmother bought in exchange for a mink coat. Her grandmother made it a summer home for her family, and so Tilly grew up relishing its wild freedom, roaming around with a million sisters and one brother – swimming, crabbing, fishing, enjoying faintingly-hot saunas and long lazy ‘dyne’ (duvet) breakfasts out on the rocks.

In Island Summers, Tilly Culme-Seymour explores her family’s connection with the island. She imagines her pioneering grandmother Mor-mor, who used to frolic naked on the island, then her Mamma’s childhood, before looking back at her own memories of the island. The book closes after Tilly’s time at university, when, struggling to settle in London, she returned to the island with her boyfriend to survive the island’s isolation for the inhospitable end of winter.

Island Summers is like The Hare with Amber Eyes in that it pretends to be a family memoir but is in fact far more. It is in part a lesson on Norway, as glossed Norwegian words pepper the text – my favourite is Døgnvild, the ‘wild twenty-four hours’ created by the summer short nights – as well as descriptions of Norwegian Christmas rituals and Constitution Day celebrations.

Tilly Culme-Seymour is also a food writer, and much of what I loved about her book  are the memories of food, the passed-down recipes and recollections of island-inspired dishes. It left me immensely hungry as I devoured descriptions of delights such as sukkerkake made with island raspberries and whipped cream, chocolate-chip bøller and endless hot pots of coffee. Many of the ingredients are sourced on the island – such as wild raspberries, or mussels ingeniously snared on the brush of a broom, or freshly-caught cod. She thrives on a paradoxically wild domesticity, that is inspiring and also surprisingly comforting to read.

What really comes to the fore in Island Summers is childhood. It’s clear that both Mor-mor and Mamma made this island a paradise for children, a marooned wildness where imaginations could take root. Going back to the island after university, Culme-Seymour reflects:

Being in a place well known, with little in the way of novelty or distraction to capture the mind, allowed old memories to stir, sometimes resurfacing in bizarre and rambling dreams … I discovered it was not only I, but Paddy too, who in the solitude of the island roved through his past, and through childhood.

What a contrast to day-to-day life! Usually, we’re so busy getting on with things, rushing about, constantly surrounded by people. It’s so rare to have any time without little daily distractions, existential worries, or lack of sleep. We’re always so busy pushing forwards, that we don’t stop to dip into the store-cupboard of the past, pulling out old jars and bottles and inhaling the memories stopped up inside.

I often wonder what happens to all those years of experience – such a huge wealth of time – which dissolve into the present moment. If someone were to ask me for ten memories from when I was eight, for instance, I’d be hard pushed. It was consoling, reading the memory-thick Island Summers, to think that all those memories might be still there somewhere. It made me wish that I could have a month or so off, to go somewhere isolated and let them all float to the surface again.

Strangely, just as I’ve been reading this beautiful evocation of childhood, my mother made me remove a huge box of stuff from home, filled with old school reports and a few kept birthday cards and letters. I had rather a nostalgic evening as I read bits out to the husband, who thought I was a total swot. (Best not to dwell on the ones for P.E.)

juvenaliaAmongst the  reports, I also found what I think must be my first book – When I climbed Mount Everest with Hillary – a story written when I was about nine, complete with a not-so-beautifully-hand-drawn jacket. To summarise the plot: one day a letter arrives saying that Edmund Hillary is inviting boys and girls to climb Everest with him. Needless to say, I am one of the lucky chosen few, and dress very warmly, set off on the expedition, have lots of tea, take some photos and then return home. It is essentially what was to happen in my Gap Year, minus the dead celebrity mountaineer. Who knew I had such a prescient imagination? In this piece of what I will now pretentiously call juvenilia, I display a keenness to make detailed lists

I put on a balaclava, a vest, a teashirt, a jumper, thick knickers, some warm jeans, three pairs of woolly socks and a pair of sneakers

And then, in comparison:

Hillary was wearing a wooly hat 6 pairs of socks 2 vests 3 jumpers.

This extended to food too:

For my food I had yogart, chips, bacon, toast and eggs.

And then, revealingly, the last line:

Mummy was very pleased to see me again and gave me my best tea. (It was chocolate cake and sweets.)

Nice use of parenthesis.

I loved reading Island Summers, and found it transported me to the barren beauty of the island, and also to an accompanying luxurious spaciousness of time. Tilly Culme-Seymour captures a wonderful childhood of games and adventure. How special to have your own real treasure island, rather than just an imaginary one, and how lucky we are to be able to read about it, let it take shape in our own heads, with extra details no doubt supplied by our own childhood dreams.

Looking back through this box of stuff and reminded of other fantasies I had and games I used to play, I realised that what is so very special about childhood is that it doesn’t really matter where you have it or what you do. Yes, roving about wildly on an island sounds incredibly special, but hanging out in North-West London needn’t stop one from climbing the odd mountain. If only we kept hold of this wonderful land of the imagination as we grew up, life might stay every bit as exciting as it used to be.

Dear Lupin

April 3, 2013

Until reading this book, I had only ever heard of one person called Lupin. Remus Lupin is a character in Harry Potter – one of the creators of the Marauders’ Map and occasional teacher of Defence against the Dark Arts. For sure, he is a great Lupin.

Perhaps, like me, you are also ignorant of other Lupins. Worry not, for now is the time to learn about two more.

Firstly, Lupin is the son of Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody by Charles Grossmith, one of those books of which everyone has heard but few have actually read. Inspired by this literary example, Lupin is also the affectionate nickname Roger Mortimer used for his son, Charlie. Charlie explains the relevance, for Lupin was:

the disreputable son who was the source of much of Mr Pooter’s worries.

Dear LupinDear Lupin is a delightful little book, in which Roger Mortimer’s letters to his son are gathered together, with occasional interjections from Charlie for context or an illuminating anecdote. They begin in 1967, when Charlie is fifteen, causing havoc at Eton:

Your mother came back rather sad and depressed after seeing you yesterday. You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge, so to speak.

They continue for twenty-five years, until Roger’s death in 1991. Over this time, Charlie has got into all sorts of scrapes, as his life has seen him go from Eton to a crammer and then for a spell in the Coldstream Guards, followed by a couple of breakdowns and various jobs ranging from driving articulated lorries to making backgammon boards, and from being an estate agent to manufacturing boxer shorts. The letters tread a hilarious and very touching line between stern reprimand and fond indulgence. The feeling can perhaps best be summarised in this one line:

I am very fond of you but you do drive me round the bend.

Poor old Roger Mortimer. Reading his letters you can feel him getting unbelievably stressed out by his complete lack of control and influence over his wayward son:

Even allowing for the fact that you cannot yet tie a bow tie, a sweat rag coiled round your neck is a somewhat unattractive form of evening dress … I don’t expect you to be a second Lord Chesterfield, but I rather wish that in appearance and conduct, you were slightly less typical of a transport café on the Great North Road.

Luckily, his exasperation makes for very entertaining reading.

I have discovered, scattered liberally amongst these pages, my new favourite expression:

to do a pineapple chunk.

This is posh rhyming slang (it certainly isn’t cockney) for to do a bunk, i.e. to have an affair. E.g.:

her ever-loving husband has just done a pineapple chunk with a saucy nurse.

It seems to me to be the perfect expression for it, evoking a canapé from a seedy seventies cocktail party, sickeningly illicitly sweet, and yet also making such a silly, whimsical rhyme. I would – of course – never do a pineapple chunk on my husband, but how I long to use this brilliant phrase!

I’ve written elsewhere of the pleasure to be found in reading other people’s letters. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation, rich with nuggets of gossip, in-jokes and revealing lines. All these pleasures are here in spades, and by the time I’d finished, I felt like I’d got to know Roger Mortimer, and his family, dog and garden, rather well.

Dear Lupin captures a peculiarly English upper-class, father-son relationship: a funny mixture of grumblings and tellings off, with naughty stories and words of encouragement, peppered with helpful cheques and boozy lunches at a gentleman’s club.

You have to take a deep breath and decide not to get wound up by its unbelievable poshness and just give into enjoying this hilarious evocation of that world. Take this on servants, for instance:

I suppose we had some fairly weird servants, e.g. Kate Murphy who was pissed at a dinner party and fell face downwards in the soup; and a butler who had been wounded in the head in World War I and was apt to pursue Mrs Tanner, the cook, with a bread knife. To these could be added Brett who forged cheques: Ellis, who emptied the cellar and peed into the empty bottles and Horwood who thought he had droit de seigneur in respect of the footmen.

You could read this and be quite appalled, or you could get over yourself and roll about laughing. I did actually laugh out loud on many instances, much to my embarrassment (on the tube) and my husband’s irritation (at home … crikey, I only hope he wasn’t so irritated that he felt inspired to do a pineapple chunk).

The most touching thing about Dear Lupin is that Charlie Mortimer went through his chaotic nomadic up-to-no-good life keeping tight hold of nothing much except for these letters. Despite ignoring most of his father’s well-intentioned advice, he evidently valued it dearly. As, indeed, should we all.

So I shall leave you with a final nugget of wisdom, courtesy of Roger Mortimer when Charlie is about to go to Greece:

Try not to look like some filthy student who has renounced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.

Sage advice indeed.

Roger Mortimer

West with the Night

March 18, 2013

Apologies for not writing a post last week – I was away on hols, in beautiful Cordoba, finding it hilarious that the husband and I were getting a little sunburnt while all the Spanish were shivering in their winter coats. We live in the wrong country, I tell you. This post is about a book set somewhere even hotter, and I hope it will chase away the last of the winter blues.

Beryl Markham’s extraordinary memoir West with the Night is a peculiarly feminine tale of African adventure and derring-do. Here are many escapades of breath-holding, fist-clenching excitement, but written about in thoughtful, lyrical prose. It’s an unusual combination, and a brilliant one.

Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya – although back then it was British East Africa – at the beginning of the twentieth century. She describes her wild childhood, hunting with a local tribe and getting mauled by a lion, then her adolescence when she helped her father train racehorses. This idyll is shattered by the First World War, and then by a drought which brings financial ruin to her father. He summons Beryl, aged seventeen, and tells her he is going to Peru. He asks her if she’d like to come with him or stay behind in Africa. Bold and courageous, Beryl decides to stay in Africa, reluctant to sever the connection she feels with the land. She rides north on her horse Pegasus to start training racehorses on her own:

I had two saddlebags, and Pegasus. The saddlebags held the pony’s rug, his brush, a blacksmith’s knife, six pounds of crushed oats and a thermometer as a precaution against Horse Sickness. For me the bags held pajamas, slacks, a shirt, toothbrush, and comb. I never owned less, nor can I be sure that I ever needed more.

Evidently, she is not your average seventeen-year-old girl.

After a successful spell training racehorses, Beryl changes tack and becomes a pilot, carrying mail, passengers, and then scouting for elephant. Later she flies to England, and then, from England, she makes the first solo East-West Atlantic flight.

I suppose it is an exciting life by any standards, and yet I was surprised by how entranced I was by it. I know and care nothing for horses or horseracing, but the chapter about a horse race had me edge-of-my-seat mesmerised. I don’t care much for aeroplanes, finding them at best noisy machines that make me feel nauseous, and at worst unnatural aberrations which are likely to send me to an untimely death. But in Markham’s prose, they are transformed into beautiful, incredible machines that conquer the vast land of Africa:

We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.

Flying an aeroplane becomes a means of empowerment and a metaphor for life. I might never fly a plane, but I will happily take that inspiring knowledge that you can always get above or beyond the horizon.

There is something emblematic in Beryl’s graduation from horse to aeroplane, from living thing to machine. It is echoed in the moment when Arab Ruta – her childhood friend who follows her into adulthood as her loyal servant – gives her a clock as a goodbye present when she departs for England:

What a sad substitute, that hysterical jingle, for the soft and soothing voice that used to say, just after dawn, ‘Your tea, Memsahib?’ or long before, ‘Lakwani, it is time to hunt!’

It is also echoed in the way the Murani tribesmen are made to replace their spears with guns to fight in the First World War. A spear to a Murani, is not just a spear, but:

as much a part of himself as the sinews of his body … he will always hold it while there is strength in his arms and no cloud of age before his eyes. It is the emblem of his bloody and his breeding, and possessing it, he is suddenly a man.

When a Murani is killed in the war, this spear – almost part of his body – had been swapped for a gun, and ‘some said [his death] was because he had forsaken his spear.’

West with the Night is in many ways a chronicle of progress – from horse to plane, servant to alarm clock, spear to gun. What makes it such an intriguing book is that the nostalgia inherent in a memoir is coupled with excitement for the new. The looking back over a past life is met with Beryl’s looking forward to the next adventure. Her sadness at leaving Africa – ‘seeing it again could not be living it again… while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you’ – is swiftly replaced with eager anticipation of flying to America. It stops it from being a schmaltzy paean to a lost time, and instead makes it a beautiful record of a thrilling surge of life.

I loved every page of West with the Night and I was delighted that absolutely everyone at yesterday’s meeting of The Walking Book Club loved it too. But what none of us could quite believe was how selective Beryl had been in her self-portrait.

I was captivated by her life of adventure, filled with admiration at how she held her own as a woman in such a masculine world – but then, having reached the end and done a little digging around, I discovered the other side of her life. Beryl had three husbands and yet she mentions none of them in West with the Night. She had countless affairs, and while some of her lovers feature in the book, none of them is written about romantically. She also had a mother, brother and son – all of whom are absent from the book. Why did she leave all these major characters out of her life story?

It’s a puzzle, for sure. Perhaps she wanted to write about Africa, about her relationship with the land, rather than with these people. Perhaps, she didn’t want to undermine her rare position as a woman allowed into British East Africa’s macho male society by writing about such typically feminine concerns as love affairs, husbands and children. Whatever her reasons, I suppose being selective is the privilege of the memoirist. It just did feel like a little bit of a betrayal to have spent so many pages beside Beryl, learning about so much of her life, to discover that so much has been edited out.

There is a biography of Beryl Markham, Straight on Till Morning by Mary Lovell which looks good. Perhaps I need to read that to fill in the gaps a little more satisfactorily. Until then, I’ll leave you with a quotation from one of Hemingway’s letters:

Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With The Night? … She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.

Apparently Hemingway made a pass at Beryl and she rejected him – hence, perhaps, why he thinks of her as ‘a high-grade bitch’ – but he still gives her writing his seal of approval. Indeed, when a Californian stumbled upon this mention of Beryl Markham in the 1980s, it inspired him to get West with the Night republished, leading to its popular rediscovery, forty years after its initial publication. I have to admit that I’ve never particularly got on with Hemingway’s writing – such short sentences, so much machismo, so utterly dissimilar from Markham’s prose! But I take my proverbial hat off to him for lauding her in this letter. Were it not for Hemingway, this inspiring, beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable book might never have come to light.