Monthly Archives: January 2012

George Cross Island

FORTRESS MALTA – AN ISLAND UNDER SEIGE 1940 – 1943, by James Holland, published in 2003

Bookcase 11, shelf 5, book 3

I’m fascinated by history, especially modern history (this rolled-dice project will, I’m sure, illustrate that in some depth) which is a little odd – perhaps – for someone who trained as an archaeologist. Then again, Malta is remarkable for its archaeology, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with that. Of course.

Anyway, whatever attracted me, I’m glad it did.

I knew something about about Malta during the Second World War – the appalling bombing, the hardship, the resilience of the inhabitants, a bit about Operation Pedestal – but this wonderful narrative history gives so much more. I’ve reread it several times, and it was a joy to visit it again at the command of the rolling dice.

To say that Fortress Malta is detailed and well researched makes it sound anther dry, but it’s anything but that. It’s an extremely well-written book (not always true of narrative history) that tells the story of the Siege through the experiences of a wide range of individuals, ranging from a small boy to fighter aces, nurses to submariners.

You get to ‘know’ people like John Agius and his family, instantly increasing your involvement. Holland’s admiration for the people – and for the whole island – shines through. Because of this, it’s possible to gain some understanding of the otherwise unimaginable conditions of life on Malta during the Second World War.

When you look at photographs taken at the time (all the ones in this post are from the collections of the Imperial War Museum) it is difficult to imagine that life still went on, that the island still held out. But it did.

Here’s one example of how it did so. I was pleased, when I first read this book, to find out more about Operation Pedestal, the August 1942 ‘crash-through’ of vital supplies to Malta. I’d not realised how close the island was to disaster, and to possible capitulation:

‘Much of the Island lay in ruins … And the population was even hungrier. The bread ration had been cut again, and at the beginning of July pasteurised milk was restricted to children between the ages of two and nine. Farmers had been ordered to hand over their crops to the government … Supplies of potatoes were also now exceedingly short.’

Also severely limited was fuel – fuel for the few fighters that provided some sort of defence for ‘the most bombed spot in history’.

And so a massive convoy was assembled. Ships came together in the Clyde, some – like the oiler Ohio – ‘lent’ by the Americans. The size of the escort which also assembled gave some of the sailors an indication of what they were sailing into – and it’s no exaggeration to describe what happened to the convoy once it was well and truly into the Mediterranean as sheer hell.

Holloway tells the story through the eyes of some of the seamen involved, people like Joe McCarthy from the SS Rochester Castle, and Freddie Treves from the Waimarama (I’m mentioning these ships because they deserve to be remembered, as do they all).The attacks came quickly, and one ship after another was sunk. The Waimarama exploded when her deck cargo of tinned petrol was hit, and Freddie Treves’ account of what followed is heart-breaking. The sea was on fire; his friend and mentor couldn’t swim.

(At this point I have to introduce the Ledbury. HMS Ledbury was on escort duty; they’d previously been on the Arctic convoys, received an order one night to scatter, done so – and U-boats had attacked their convoy. Roger Hill, the captain, vowed he would never ‘abandon the merchant arm’ again, orders or no orders. And he didn’t. He turned the Ledbury round into the burning sea and his crew pulled what survivors there were out of the water.)

What was left of the convoy – five ships – and the escort limped into Valetta, essentially in two groups. People in Malta had been anxiously tracking their progress, and the harbour walls were lined with cheering crowds. But the most stunning arrival was the Ohio. Badly damaged an appalling low in the water, she was unable to make way herself.

So HMS Bramham was tied to one side, HMS Penn to the other, and the Ledbury was ahead acting as a rudder.

Painfully slowly, she limped forwards – to the accompaniment of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo which someone had found and broadcast on the ship’s Tannoy. And she made it, creeping into Grand Harbour and to an astonishing welcome, as narrated by Michael Montebello, a boy at the time:

‘There were so many people, you wouldn’t have been able to put a needle between them. Everyone knew exactly what was on the Ohio and how important it was…’

There was a naval war correspondent on the Ohio – Anthony Kimmins – and Holloway quotes a piece he wrote for the Times of Malta:

‘If ever there was an example of dogged persistence against all the odds, this was it. Any one of this hundreds of bombs in the right place and she would have gone up in a sheet of flame.’

The first sentence could act as a tribute to the whole Island… as demonstrated by this excellent book. I am glad the Diceman picked it out!

(I’ll come clean here. My father was in the navy for some years, and he loved Valetta though he only knew it after the War. That may be one reason why I picked up this book – don’t care why, as I said: I’m just glad I did.)

Go Sampson! Go Sampson!

THE CHURCH MICE AT CHRISTMAS, by Graham Oakley, published in 1980

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 7

Well, that’s the risk you take when you let the dice choose your books; you get a Christmas book in January. Next December I’ll probably end up with something on tropical gardening or making ice creams.

But this is a joy, whatever the time of year. And I’m not one of those people who thinks that children’s books are only for children; far from it (yes, I spent time working in general bookshops, but I’ve always loved kids’ books). A good book is a good book, and a good illustrated children’s book will entertain adults every bit as much as it will entertain children. And Graham Oakley’s wonderful books are certainly entertaining. They are also beautiful.

So what of the tale (or perhaps that should be tail)?

Well, the basic premise of the whole series of Church Mice books is that Sampson, as a church cat, has taken a vow not to harm the mice who also live in his church. Instead of chasing them, he is constantly involved in their exploits and misadventures, which is not surprising since the ringleaders of the mice are Arthur and Humphrey who can be relied on to cause chaos. Sampson is very, very patient – and in this book they decide to raffle him to raise some money for a Christmas party (they are at pains to explain to him that he can run away after he’s been raffled). He is won, however, by a most unpleasant couple who come back to the church to seek him out after he vanishes.

I love the illustrations – the detail, the elegance, the wit. Many have jokes for the grown-ups in them (a carrier bag is captioned ‘H M Binge and Son Ltd, wines and spirits’; a chainsaw in a Christmassy shop window has a caption above it reading ‘now in beautiful Christmas colours’ and the nearby record shop urges passers-by to ‘spend Christmas with the Garotters’). And I think you can tell that Graham Oakley spent a lot of the 1950s and 60s working in the theatre and later the BBC as a set designer – but that’s not to deny the wit of the text as well. The Church Mice books are great fun for adults to read aloud to children, too.

Ahem – back to the plot…

The couple decline the handle-less dustpan they are offered as an alternative to Sampson, and take their money back. So the mice have to find other methods of fundraising, and settle on carol singing. Their attempts are defeated by noise, then by being spotted, then being chased and having to run for it. The mice are despondent, but Arthur and Humphrey decide to salvage something and set out, dressed up, to retrieve all the choirboys’ left-overs (mostly sweets) and bring them back as surprise presents. They retrieve some:

and on the way back they spot the real Father Christmas climbing out of a window. They know he’s the real thing because he’s wearing the kit and has a big bag marked ‘presents’. Admittedly, it also has ‘swag’ written on it, but that’s been crossed out. They pester him with their over-excited Christmas requests – and then a policeman appears and catches the burglar (not Father Christmas, sigh) by the boot as he climbs a wall. The mice, of course, still think he’s The Man and call after the retreating FC that they will see him at 9 p.m.

They return to the vestry, but when there’s no sign of FC by 9.15 things start to deteriorate, and

‘When the clock struck half-past nine, Arthur and Humphrey began to fear for their safety. Humphrey started to stammer that Father Christmas was probably having trouble with his reindeer or something, but the mice were in no mood for excuses.’

In the meanwhile, the police sergeant resolves to do his rounds in the burglar’s festive costume. A reward has been delivered to the police station and the sergeant decides to deliver it, which he does, and the mice think- you guessed it. Better late than never.

Graham Oakley’s books are wonderful, and yet he has lamented that he finds it difficult to get published now. It’s such a shame, and yet I’m not surprised. There’s no snot or poo, the colours are subtle and the detail meticulous, the text would stretch younger readers. They’re just not fashionable. Take the average selection of children’s books in the average local bookshop or quickly browse bestsellers online, and there’s a depressing sameness to many of them. Not to these, thank heavens.

Go Sampson! Go Arthur! Go Humphrey! Go Graham Oakley!

(Do check out Graham Oakley’s website – lovely illustrations, as you’d expect:

Concerning cow-creamers

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P G Wodehouse, originally published in 1938

Bookcase 2, Shelf 1, Book 27

Ah – this has revealed one of the problems associated with letting Fate choose from your library (ahem, that gives my collection of books a status they really do not deserve, but let’s stick with it). The rolling dice pick something you just don’t fancy reading.

Well, not at that particular time. Don’t get me wrong; I like Wodehouse – but I was feeling in a much more non-fiction frame of mind, and so, and so – this went by the board. And then I did what I promised myself I would do: picked it up and read it anyway. Unfortunately I was drinking tea at the time, and snorting + hot liquids – not a good combination.

After I’d mopped everything down, I settled into Wodehouse’s splendid language and lost myself in the saga – or rather the ‘sinister affair’ – of ‘Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow-creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook’.

I make no apologies, by the way, for quoting. I’m with Stephen Fry, who said of Wodehouse ‘I am not alone in believing he has come closer than any writer of English to approaching Shakespeare’s complete mastery and transcendency of language’. All you have to do is tune in, and the next thing you know is that tea is coming down your nose. Inelegant but inevitable.

The cow-creamer – ‘a sort of silver cow with a kind of blotto look on its face’ – is critical. Bertie Wooster is sent on a cow-creamer-related mission by his Aunt Dahlia:

“‘Aunt Dahlia, this is blackmail!’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ she said, and beetled off…”

(who is a wonderful role model, and one I fully intend to emulate when dealing with my own nephew). This unsurprisingly results in the usual confusion, and a chaos which only Jeeves can resolve. Bertie’s aunts are some of Wodehouse’s greatest creations, notably Aunt Agatha ‘who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next the skin’. Fortunately this is Dahlia’s book. Not that it helps.

There’s no point going into minute plot details; like all of P G’s Wooster books, The Code of the Woosters builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and unwonted assumption upon unwonted assumption. Along the way French chefs have to be retained, lobster is consumed in unwise quantities, and an incriminating notebook is lost.

Of course, Jeeves sorts it all out, but only after Bertie has attempted – disastrously – to act as a substitute. But the absolute joy, for me anyway, lies in the characters. It’s packed with wonderful descriptions. Take Madeline Bassett, Gussie’s fiancée: ‘a ghastly girl … I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort’. And there’s Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie’s ‘fish-faced friend’ and newt-fancier.

However, my personal fave has to be Roderick Spode. The awful Spode is the ‘founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts’. Yes, that is Shorts:

…’By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, of course.’
‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’
‘Footer bags, you mean?’
‘How perfectly foul.’
‘Bare knees?’
‘Bare knees.’

Bear in mind this was published in 1938 (and Spode has the requisite moustache as well as his black shorts), and then fast-forward to what happened after the War when P G Wodehouse was accused of collaboration. I find it difficult to believe that anyone reading his shredding of 1930s British fascism in this book could have actually believed he deliberately collaborated – been ridiculously naive, yes, but not coldly collaborated. Spode, you see, has a shameful secret which I will not reveal here. Needless to say, it is Jeeves who ferrets it out.

And one final word: I love the covers of these old Penguin Wodehouse editions. The illustrator was Ionicus, aka Joshua Armitage, 1913-1998. When I was little I developed a deep love of the covers of my grandfather’s Dalesman magazine, also by Ionicus. What came first, I wonder, in my affections? Maybe I picked up P G W because of the illustrations on the covers. There are worse reasons…

Roll the dice

Like many people, I have too many books. Let’s put the whole question of whether that is a dubious concept – can you have too many books? – for the moment, and take it as a given. My shelves are full. There’s no more room. I’m already a bit like a mad cat lady but with paperbacks. And hardbacks. And strange things with spiral bindings. I haven’t ventured into Kindle territory yet, but if I had one, I’d have filled it.

But they don’t get read enough. And I’m still buying more – or I was until I decided I’d had enough.

So now I’m going to read my stash, and not buy new. And I’m going to let fate decide. I’ve got a little drawing of my bookshelves with them all numbered. I’ll roll a dice – two dice will be needed – and go to the bookshelf chosen by fate. Then I’ll roll for the specific shelf, and for the book on that shelf.

I’ll give myself a little leeway, though. I can count from either end of the shelf, and if the dice give me a three and a two, that could be five, or it could be thirty-two or twenty-three. And I’m confining myself to books in English.

I could get fiction, or I could get a cookery book, an art book, something about the history of Wales, a book about gardening or smallpox or the history of carpets or refugees. Let’s see!