Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

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.

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Hanns and Rudolf

August 12, 2015

You’ll be pleased to hear that life at Emilybooks has improved since the last post-disastrous-holiday post. Much time has been spent making the most of Britain’s lovely sights and cooler climes. While the husband was away at a stag weekend, Vita and I summoned a few pals for a trip to Eastbourne for fish and chips on the beach and a squizz at the Towner Gallery, where there’s an excellent William Gear exhibition – you can read Rachel Cooke’s intriguing review of it in the Observer here. (We were all ready to fight any menacing seagulls who so much looked at Vita.) Another weekend, Vita resided with her doting grandparents while the husband and I disappeared off to a wedding in Scotland, and nearly reeled ourselves sick (at least I think it was the reeling, I suppose it could have been the whisky), and then, last week, another doting grandparent took us all off to a sunny spot in Gloucestershire, where we had a glorious time, not least when we attempted to inspire Vita to live up to her name by looking around the beautiful gardens at Highgrove. I had to restrain her from tugging the heads off the flowers, which I take to be a sign of great promise.

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas HardingIt was on the train up to Scotland, luxuriating in the heaven of not having to entertain a baby for the four and a half hour journey, that I read most of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding. This book did terribly well when it was published a couple of years ago and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, in part because he has a new book coming out this autumn.

Thomas Harding traces the stories of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Höss, who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Harding explains why he was so drawn to the story:

In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews – and I am one – were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereotype until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me. This is a Jew-fighting-back story

Although a great deal of the book is taken up with a trajectory with which we are familiar – Aryan German from humble beginnings flourishes under the Nazi regime and acquires a great deal of wealth as he persecutes the Jews versus rich Jew managing to escape to London just in time even though this means losing most of his money and having to start again – Harding continues the story and shows what happens when the tables turn. Hanns Alexander joins the British Army and then works for the War Crimes Investigation Team; Rudolf Höss flees Auschwitz, separates from his family and goes into hiding while his family suffers acute poverty. Before long, Hanns is tasked with finding Rudolf, so we see the hunter become the hunted and vice versa. As Harding says, we see the Jew fighting back … and winning.

Hanns and Rudolf is exciting. Harding tells his story using alternate chapters – one focussing on Hanns, the next on Rudolf – and it is fascinating, sickening and gripping in equal measure to watch their lives spin out in such different directions while being pulled along by the knowledge that they will come together at the climax. It is, as it says in the puffs on the cover, ‘a thriller’.

Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s a true story; the true story of a terrible episode in our history. Hanns and Rudolf is not a novel based on, or inspired by, real events, it is the raw truth itself. Throughout his book, Harding reminds us of his tale’s truth – the prose is thick with facts, heavily illustrated with photographs, and there are many notes detailing his research at the back – but he tells it with a keen eye for the tale itself. He presents the facts in thriller form, and thereby renders history as story.

This certainly makes Hanns and Rudolf a good read. The problem is I think that, morally, this story ought to be a terrible read: a grim heavy book that makes you feel the full horror of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. Perhaps Harding has hit on something when he talks about how rare it is to find a ‘Jew-fighting-back’ story rather than a Jew as victim story, and no doubt it is this which lends the narrative this element of a thriller, earning cover puffs from John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Also quoted on the cover is Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, saying the book ‘deserves a wide readership even among those who think they are bored with the Holocaust’. I think it is not OK to give being ‘bored with the Holocaust’ as an option, but perhaps there is something in this … If people really are bored with the Holocaust as presented in appropriately grim heavy books, then maybe this is why this book – a thriller – did so well. It is a very troubling idea to get one’s head around.

Even more troubling is the extent to which Harding’s storytelling prowess makes the reader empathise with one of his main characters. Rudolf.

Take this, for instance. Rudolf has just met Himmler, who’s told him it is time to implement ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’ at Auschwitz and that millions of people will be sent there to be killed:

Rudolf returned to Upper Silesia with mission in hand, but no clear idea how to achieve its objective. He knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using Phenol injections, and shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but, from his time overseeing the executions in Sachsenhausen, Rudolf learned that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads – resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates – and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree.

Part of the solution was found two months later when Rudolf’s thirty-nine-year-old deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules – used at the time to exterminate the camp’s vermin – into a small cell in Block II holding a group of Russian prisoners. After waiting only a few minutes, he had observed that all the prisoners had died. There were two problems, he said. First, only a few prisoners could be killed at a time; and second, they had to carry the bodies out by wheelbarrow, which caused shock and anxiety among the other prisoners. Rudolf suggested that if they used the old crematorium on the other side of the block buildings, and adjacent to the villa where he lived, they would be able to kill more prisoners. There would also be an on-site solution to the problem of disposing of the bodies.

Reading this as I type it makes me feel sick. Here is Rudolf coldly discussing the most efficient means of implementing systematic mass murder. It is hard to admit to this, but when I read this terrible passage in the course of reading the book, part of me felt: how is Rudolf going to find a solution to this problem that Himmler’s set him? And, therefore, part of me felt: clever Rudolf for working it out. This is a terrible thing to say; I hasten to add that it is all the more terrible for me to say as a Jew, whose great-grandfather was killed in the camps. But such is the power of Harding’s storytelling, that in following Rudolf’s story, I couldn’t help but see his perspective, and feel partly on his side in spite of myself. I was similarly conflicted when Hanns got closer and closer to finding Rudolf in hiding: part of me instinctively sympathised with the underdog and wanted Rudolf to find a means of escape.

I never thought I would find myself seeing the world through a Nazi’s eyes, certainly not the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet I did. As Harding detailed the atrocities Rudolf committed, presenting them in the way that Rudolf would have seen them, it was a real effort to force myself out of Rudolf’s head.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of the book and of Harding’s writing, but I hate to think of other people reading the book and feeling a similar empathy towards Rudolf.

In his author’s note, Harding says:

By calling Hanns and Rudolf by their first names I do not mean to equate them. Indeed, it is important to me that there be no moral equivalence. Yet both of these men were, self-evidently, human beings, and as such, if I am to tell their tales, I should begin with their first names. If this offends, and I understand why it might, I ask for your forgiveness.

Here is the real knot of the book: Rudolf is a human being, and Harding enables us to see this. And this is what is so deeply uncomfortable about the book – in encouraging us to see things from Rudolf’s perspective, you can glimpse how the atrocities happened, how it isn’t completely inconceivable for a human to oversee the genocide of his fellow humans.

There is much more to say about Hanns and Rudolf, but I shall restrict myself to just a couple more points.

Firstly, it was fascinating the way that Harding showed the significance of Rudolf’s capture and testimony. During the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis were on the brink of being found not guilty because in spite of the evidence of the genocide taking place, the men denied their knowledge of it. Soon after Rudolf was arrested, he was called as a witness and confessed that at Auschwitz:

At least two and half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about three million.

He admitted that he ‘personally supervised executions’ and gave further details of the deaths. The following day, Hans Frank, head of the government in occupied Poland, took the stand and for the first time confessed to his role in the atrocities. When asked, ‘Did you ever participate in the destruction of the Jews?’, he replied:

I say Yes. And the reason I say yes is because I have been burdened by guilt for the five months of this trial, and particularly burdened by the statement made by Rudolf Höss.

Rudolf’s testimony was key to getting the other Nazi war criminals to admit to their guilt – in capturing him, Hanns captured many others too.

And the final point to note is that Harding informs us that when so many Nazi war criminals were held in Nuremberg for the trials, ‘the Americans had instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct extensive interviews and tests with the defendants.’ Harding tells us who interviewed Rudolf: Gustave Gilbert ‘a New Yorker born to Jewish-Austrian immigrants’, and Major Leon Goldensohn, ‘a Jew who had been born and raised in New York’.

It makes me wonder, who were the other American psychologists, and what proportion of them were Jewish? Isn’t it extraordinary – and quite ironic – to think of a bunch of Jewish New Yorker shrinks interviewing this haul of Nazi war criminals? Please could someone write a book about this!

Hanns and Rudolf