Sunday, 4 September 2016

East West Street, by Philippe Sands

The tag line on the cover of this book is:


Now, I have a friend who gets restless when talk turns to the two world wars. ‘Why must people keep re-living the past?’ she wonders. ‘Isn’t it time to let it go?’ And my father, who was a prisoner of war from Dunkirk right the way through to 1945, had a similar attitude. When there were programmes around Remembrance Day, he too would ask: ‘Why must we keep remembering? Why can’t we just forget it all?’

(Dad actually did throw some light on this, when I asked him why it was that a contemporary and good friend of his, in contrast, regularly went to regimental reunions and loved reminiscing about his days in North Africa and then in Italy. ‘Ah,’ said Dad. ‘Well, Harold had a good war. Me, you see, I just had an ordinary war.’)

When I was a child, the Second World War was only a few years in the past. But to me then, it could have been centuries ago. It was gone, over: it belonged to my parents’ generation, not mine – just as the First World War was to do with my grandparents’ generation. To be sure, I thought that when I grew up, there would be probably be another war – that must just be what happened – but being grown-up was a very, very long way off so it wasn’t something I needed to worry about then.
But in recent years I’ve become more and more drawn to books about the Second World War and the lead-up to it, and I’m clearly not alone – there are masses of them, both fiction and non-fiction: what we think we know and understand is being constantly re-evaluated. I think the two big questions that draw me are:
  1. How did ordinary people cope with the terrible things that happened to them – with all the loss and destruction?
  2. In the particular context of the Holocaust - how on earth did human beings find it within themselves to treat other human beings with such unimaginable cruelty?
So when I saw the tag line on the front of East West Street, I thought it would be addressing the second of these questions. Well, it doesn’t - or at least, that's not its main purpose. It sets out to do something much more specific. Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, and what he seeks to do is to explore the origins of these two legal concepts: genocide, and crimes against humanity.

He does this by tracing the lives and careers of two of the prosecutors at Nuremberg, where Nazi war criminals were put on trial after the war: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Another significant figure is Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and the Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland; he was one of the men on trial at Nuremberg in 1946. 

There are several strange twists of fate in this story. One is that both prosecutors – who were far from being friends, and seem in fact to have had as little to do with each other as they could manage – came from the same city, which is now known as Lviv and is in the Ukraine, but has changed hands and names several times: in the war it was known as Lemberg. Further, near the end of the trial, the two men – both Jewish – discovered that most of their family members who had remained in the city were dead; and the man who had given the orders which led to their deaths was Frank.

And yet another twist, another thread that binds together the different elements of the story: the author’s own grandfather, Léon Buchholz, was also born in Lemberg/Lviv, at roughly the same time as the two lawyers. Sands knew little of his family’s history. His interest was aroused when, as a human rights lawyer with expertise in cases of mass killings in far too many places, he was asked to deliver a lecture in Lviv. While there, he saw the chance to find out more about his own family. His researches also led him to explore the origins of these new and terrible concepts which had formed the basis for his own career – and the lives of his grandfather’s two compatriots. (Another intriguing twist is that during his research for this book, Sands became good friends with Frank's son.)

It’s an extraordinarily complex narrative, and I found that there were times when I lost the thread and became confused as to which family I was reading about. But it’s fascinating – if challenging – to try to grasp the legal framework which allowed Germany in the thirties to treat (or mistreat) its minorities in whatever way it liked with apparent impunity; part, after all, of one of those questions I asked at the beginning. It doesn’t explain how sane men from a country with a great culture and civilisation could come up with the hideousness of the Final Solution, or how so many others could find it within themselves to carry it out: but it does go some way to explaining how the circumstances arose which made such a thing possible.

I like stories, and I like to look at history through the lives of ordinary people – that’s why I particularly enjoyed Thomas Harding’s book, The House by the Lake. For me, this book followed too many stories and demanded too much close reading: it’s a truly remarkable achievement, but you’ll need to be able to rise to the challenge and be prepared for some serious concentration (or, if you’re a lightweight like me, to be prepared to skip bits!).

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Summer's end

And what a strange summer it's been here in the UK since the referendum result. Tempers seem to be heightened, everyone's suspicious of everyone else's motives, plots are suspected round every corner... but since the extraordinary round of political back-stabbing and resignations at the end of June, nothing much has happened: there's been a sort of a brooding lull over the summer.

Well, that's all as maybe and there are stirrings in the undergrowth which suggest that the uneasy peace will soon be at an end. But meanwhile, here on the Mendips, the seasons roll on as they always do. The sloes and hawthorn berries seem very abundant this year, and there are lots of blackberries too, though they're a but puny and sour so far. Here are a few pictures - I've played about with a couple of them!

This is a view of the reservoir from Roundhouse Hill. I found this option called 'Posterise' ...
Sloes and blackberries.

Ragwort - it's an ugly name, and it can do ugly things to cattle or horses. But it creates a bright splash of gold in an otherwise tired-looking hillside.
 Old man's beard is apparently also poisonous - though it usually isn't eaten. Plus, it chokes other plants. (Is there a bit of a theme developing here?) But the seed heads are lovely - feathery and graceful, gleaming when they catch the light.

A convolvulus flower. I hate this plant in the garden. The flowers are beautiful, but the plant's another thug. It wasn't a very good picture - it was windy, and I was holding onto the dog with one hand, so there was wobble - so I tried to enhance it. I hoped the finished result had a touch of the Georgia O'Keefe's, but I think I was kidding myself.

 Next time, back to books!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by Chris Packham

Chris Packham is on the right
For readers in other countries, Chris Packham is a very popular presenter of programmes about nature in the UK. When my children were young, in the 80s, he fronted The Really Wild Show - with Nicola Davies, amongst others, who's since become a very successful children's author. More recently, he's been presenting Springwatch/Autumnwatch, when all the BBC's outside broadcasting capability decamps to a reserve somewhere and for three weeks, Chris and his co-presenters investigate what's happening in the natural world. The highlights are too many to mention - the horror stories include the revelation that in times of hardship, the strongest owl chicks in a nest will eat their younger siblings. The nation watched and recoiled in shock - but Chris calmly put it into context: in the wild, you do what you have to do to survive. The mother owl had been unable to find enough food for her chicks because of exceptionally wet weather, and it was a case of one chick surviving, or none of them.

He is completely unsentimental, but he waxes lyrical about some pretty strange things - he's very keen on animal droppings, for instance - and will always stand up for creatures that most people revile, such as - off the top of my head - slugs, for instance, pointing out the beautiful complexity of their life cycle. And he's a fearless campaigner; he was arrested in Malta when he went there to publicise the number of songbirds killed there by hunters; and he's under fire at the moment from Sir Ian Botham, among others, for protesting the futility of grouse hunting.

Recently he wrote this memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, which shows very clearly how he came to hold the views he does. A child of the sixties and early seventies, his story echoes that of Billy Casper, in Barry Hines' wonderful book, Kes, about a working class boy who catches and trains a kestrel. Like Billy, Chris as a boy has a profound empathy with the natural world. In Kes there's a bit where Billy describes the sensation of putting his foot into a welly full of tadpoles - the boy Chris does some very similar things: the 'sparkle jar' incident of the title has something in common with that incident.

But this isn't a book 'like' Kes. In fact, it's not a book like any other I've ever read. It is a series of memories, not related chronologically, interspersed with accounts of sessions with a psychiatrist/psychologist whom Chris saw ten or so years ago, when he was suffering from a crippling episode of repression. I don't know how he wrote these - how did he remember everything they talked about? Or is it an approximation of what they said - a way of exploring his inner being, rather than an accurate representation of what was said? Whatever - these sections cast a light on his
memories of his childhood, and vice versa.

The writing is extraordinary, rich and lyrical and full of a 'passionate intensity', to lift from Yeats, who, like Bruce Springsteen and Shakespeare, seems to have a quote for almost every occasion. Here, for example, is his summation of an incident where he came across a cloud of moths in a wood.

Without the restless insects the place seemed stunned, stupefied, shocked by that ballet of gossamer violence, the wonder of plain and simple things drawn together to conjure such beauty, transforming that bubble of urban air into a theatre where an astonishing performance was fleetingly played to an awed audience of one, the memory of which would sparkle for a lifetime. And he knew it then, in that moment of dazed happiness, what a gift, what a thing he had seen, what a treasure he held.

It's not the easiest of reads, but it is immensely rewarding, on several different levels: notably in its minute and loving observation of the natural world - but also in its evocation of the world of a sensitive, driven, bemused boy who finds it much easier to relate to creatures than to human beings.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The growth of a book - from the germ of an idea to 'The Things You Do For Love' - by Rachel Crowther

I'm very pleased to be introducing my very first blog tourist - Rachel Crowther. Rachel's thoughtful and highly enjoyable novel, published by Bonnier Zaffre, is about a woman at a turning point: a highly successful surgeon, Flora Macintyre loses her career and her marriage at the same time, after she retires to nurse her husband through his final illness. The book is about how she - and her two daughters - negotiate the next part of their lives, and in so doing find they must also come to terms with the past. 

I'll be reviewing it soon, but in the meantime, here's Rachel on what inspired her book.

A long time ago (writes Rachel), when I had a small baby, a job as a hospital doctor and a few thousand words of a novel that I’d written on maternity leave, I had the wonderful good fortune of meeting Fay Weldon – an idol, both then and now. To my embarrassment, the journalist friend who took me with her as chauffeur told Fay about the embryonic novel, and among many words of wisdom I’ve treasured from that occasion was her pronouncement that it’s hard to manage more than two out of three things – work, babies and writing – at a time.

Since then, often struggling to manage even one thing properly, I’ve regularly been astonished by quite how much many women juggle – but I’ve also been very much aware of the cost. Guilt, maybe. A belief that they are not good mothers, or good doctors, or good wives or daughters or friends or sisters. Having no time to themselves, to think or read or sleep, let alone write. Marriages that are perhaps complicated by their success, or at least their preoccupation with careers in which they have to fight harder than their male colleagues to succeed.

As the women I’d looked up to and admired in my twenties and thirties approached retirement age, I began to wonder what it would feel like for them to let all the plates they’d been juggling all these years fall to the ground. There was an influential and hugely energetic consultant I’d worked for as a junior doctor who very sadly died on a mountain climbing expedition around the time she was due to retire, and I was haunted by the thought of what she might have done in retirement: whether she’d have had as busy and fulfilling a time after stopping work, or whether she’d have found it hard, having invested so much in her career, to manage her life without it. Then my aunt, a lawyer who had sustained a brilliant career for several decades while her children were growing up, retired early – and almost immediately seemed just as busy again, and in particular blissfully happy to be a granny.

As writers do, I started thinking not just about real-life examples, but ‘what ifs’. What if a woman who’d made it in a truly male-dominated world – surgery, for instance – had done so partly thanks to the support of a husband who had driven a hard bargain in return? What if she found herself retired and widowed at more or less the same time, so that she lost her career and her marriage at the same time? What if she actually gave up work to nurse her faithless husband through his last illness – and why might she do that, pray? What if, after he died, she realised she’d lost sight of her daughters, and that she had no interests, no hobbies, no friends – absolutely nothing to fall back on?

Rachel Crowther
(Photo:Roger Smeeton)
That was the beginning of ‘The Things We Do For Love’. I actually started with a line constructed as a sort of pastiche of the famous opening of Jane Austen’s Emma: Flora Macintyre, retired, widowed and entirely without occupation, had nearly twenty-five years of life expectancy left to her and very little idea what to do with it.

As novels do, ‘The Things We Do For Love’ took a circuitous route from that first germ of an idea to the finished article. For a while it was going to be a pair of novels, one from Flora’s point of view and one from her daughters’, rather like Jane Gardam’s Old Filth novels or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. At various points there were three daughters rather than two, a literary festival in France with a fully fledged organising committee, a medical crisis in a French hospital – and the shadowy woman Flora meets on a cross-channel ferry in the first chapter reappeared several more times throughout the book. Quite near the end of the editing process, Kitty’s second-string boyfriend was cut, events were reordered, relationships were subtly reshaped.

But the basic premise stayed the same through all this, and it remains the driving force for the novel. What price had Flora paid for her success, and what exactly was the final reckoning she’d been left to face? How was she to rebuild her life when so many things had gone from it? Had she, as she believed, failed as a mother and lost her daughters for good? What had become of the things she’d done for love?

Rachel's website is hereFor more dates on her blog tour, please see below.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Very special places...

I've been fortunate enough to be away from my desk a good deal over the last couple of months. Now I'm back, there are all sorts of things I want to catch up on writing about - but before I do that, I just want to take a little time out to reflect on some of the special places I've been to recently.

I don't mean 'special' simply in the sense of places that are interesting/fascinating/stimulating to visit, because they're beautiful or full of history or whatever. I mean it in the sense of places that soothe you and calm you: and much more than that - that fill you with a sense that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the world is in balance - that 'all manner of thing shall be well', to steal from Julian of Norwich.

The first two places come from a trip to Canada for a family wedding. We flew from Bristol, with a chirpy new Icelandic company called Wow Air, changing planes at Keflavik, the airport for Reykjavik. Coming in to land, we saw low mountains in the distance, scattered with blue lakes and patches of snow: closer to, the landscape was treeless, almost lunar. As we taxied towards the terminal, we saw swathes of blue flowers that looked from a distance like lupins.

We were all set for the stressiness that usually comes with airports - crowds, miles of corridors, inaudible announcements. But Keflavik wasn't like that at all. As we entered the small building, we saw that our departure gate was just on the other side of the corridor. So we had time to wander around. The shop was full of Icelandic woolly jumpers, scarves, and toys; puffins on pottery, tea towels, and cushions; little trolls and a postbox for letters to Christmas elves. On the walls of the airport were lines from Icelandic poems and sagas. I particularly liked this one, from a Viking poem, the Havamal: Better weight then wisdom a traveller cannot carry. It was all rather magical, and a world away from Heathrow or Toronto or even Bristol.

But once we were on the next leg of the flight to Toronto, things got even better. I glanced out of the window, expecting to see the Atlantic - and saw this. It was a breathtaking landscape of jagged mountains, broad glaciers, and snow-filled chasms. It was Greenland, and it was glorious.

A little later on, we were over the ocean - but what an ocean! It was liberally scattered with ice floes, some quite large, many tiny: glittering and ethereal.

The next place with a touch of the numinous (can I say that? Of course I can. It's my blog, and I'll say what I want to!) was a small town in Ontario called Paris. A river runs through it, broad and shallow. I think it might just be the friendliest town I've ever visited. We had breakfast overlooking the river: upstream, long freight trains occasionally trundled over a bridge. Birds stood on rocks, sunning themselves. This was the day before the referendum result, and in the sunlight and the peace, all seemed right with the world. (Ah, those were the days!)

The river a little way out of the town.
Just two more places. One might seem a bit odd. It's St Pancras Station. I was there last Sunday, to meet my grandson, who was coming to stay with us for a week. His train didn't arrive till late afternoon, so I'd taken advantage of my trip up to London to go to a special exhibition at the British Museum, about Sicily. It was very interesting and I'd enjoyed it, but the museum itself and that part of London were very crowded - a bit stressful for a fool used to a quiet hill in Somerset. So when I got to St Pancras, I sat down just opposite the gates from which Oskar and his father would emerge - and a wave of calm swept over me. There's a piano there, and somehow or other there always seems to be someone passing by who can play it, and play it well. So I sat and listened to the music, and watched people strolling past, breaking into smiles as they met friends and relatives - and it was just lovely. I didn't think to take any pictures, but this may suggest the atmosphere.

There is something very special about St Pancras. There's always a whiff of excitement about it, of possibility; you could do through those doors, and up those stairs, and the train that awaits you will take you direct to Europe, with all its variety, beauty and history. (Yes, yes, politics again...) Yet it's not stressful at all - not like Paddington, for instance. I love it.

My final magical place is at the edge of things, where the sea meets the shore. We've been to several different beaches this week with Oskar, in search of perfect castle-building conditions. When the sea sparkles on the water, the waves spill onto the sound and the seabirds cry - well, it's very heaven.
Oskar working on a moat system.

This is at Brean Down, not far from Weston-Super-Mare; the land you can see in the distance is the Welsh coast. (For anyone familiar with my book The Willow Man, I used Brean Down as the setting for the hunt for Ash, in the last chapter.)

Do share any of your special places - well, unless you want to keep them to yourself!

Friday, 22 July 2016

A Library of Lemons, by Jo Cotterill

Now, I have to admit that it's some time since I read A Library of Lemons. As you will have noticed, things have been happening in Britain lately, and like many others, I've suddenly become addicted to news and comment programmes, and to following discussions on Facebook - some of which, I may say, have become very heated: and not just the ones about Brexit and the turmoil in the Labour Party. Somehow, the whole tenor of discourse seems to have become more extreme: people are becoming more angry, less kind. It's all very worrying.

I've also been away a fair bit, and will probably post about some aspects of my travels as time goes on. But for now - A Library of Lemons. This is a VERY GOOD BOOK. I will admit that Jo Cotterill is a friend - when you're a children's writer, you tend to get to know other children's writers. But I wouldn't be writing about it if I didn't think it was good - not just good, in fact, but special.

Special in what way? Well, it's a contemporary story about a girl who loves reading and writing - Calypso. Since her mother died, her father has taken refuge in keeping Calypso - and life - at a distance. He is wrapped up in the book he is writing - about lemons - to the extent that he often forgets about minor details like shopping for food. Calypso follows his example by keeping herself separate from her classmates; anyway, her life is so different from theirs that this isn't such a difficult thing to do.

Then a new girl arrives at school - Mae. She is warm and friendly, and she makes it clear that she wants to be Calypso's friend. She too loves writing: the girls bond, and Calypso finds her reserve melting when she meets Mae's family - particularly her mother, who welcomes Calypso with warmth and generosity.

Well, of course things go wrong. But they don't go wrong in an obvious way. For instance, a well-trodden path would have been for Mae to get bored with Calypso, and become tempted away by other, more popular girls. But what happens is far more subtle than that. Somehow, there's real truth in how Jo writes - she doesn't choose the obvious option. One of the exciting things about reading is that sometimes, you read a sentence or a paragraph and you think: 'Yes! I've felt like that, but I never put it into words - in fact I'd forgotten about it, but now I see that's just how it was'. And this happens over and over again with this book. Pretty much at random, here's an example.

...Mae and I... it feels strange to say 'Mae and I', even in my head... we had a conversation. And then it broke. Did I break it? I don't know. Sometimes the rules of conversation are too hard to work out. It's easier to stay silent, or alone.

'Sometimes the rules of conversation are too hard to work out.' That sort of brings me back to where I started...

PS By a funny sort of coincidence, another friend has written a book about lemons which is probably exactly the book that Calypso's father was trying to write. It's The Land Where Lemons Grow, by Helena Attlee, and it's a lovely book, rich with stories about every kind of citrus fruit you've ever heard of and lots you haven't!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

You really couldn't make it up...

Yesterday, I watched Theresa May making her first speech as Britain's new prime minister. What she said was unexpected: she talked about unity - about bringing people together and healing divisions. It all sounded rather good, and for the first time since the referendum result three weeks ago, I allowed myself to feel a little bit of hope that perhaps there might be just a tiny glimmer of light on the horizon.

And then, an hour or so later, she appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Minister. Here he is.

And here's a link to some of the reactions to this news.

This is the man who employed his considerable gifts of persuasion to persuade the British people into voting to leave the European Union - in, it would appear, a cynical attempt to further his own career. This is the man who walked away when, against his expectation, he succeeded, and it all started to look a bit too difficult. This is the man who has unforgivably insulted world leaders, including Barack Obama, and who has never run a Government department.

So that's it. I've had it. Life in Britain has become so much stranger - and not in a good way - than fiction, that if a talking animal or boy wizard walked in through the door right now, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Back to books it is.