Monthly Archives: March 2012

Witnessing the consequences of war

THE ROSES OF NO MAN’S LAND by Lyn Macdonald, originally published in 1980

Bookcase 10, shelf 3, book 13

This is a remarkable book, and yet again the dice gave me something vaguely appropriate. With one hand immobilised by a giant dressing following an op, I get a book on nursing. Admittedly, nursing in WW1…

Actually, The Roses of No Man’s Land is so much more than that. It’s partly an oral history, full of eyewitness testimonies and personal accounts grabbed just in the nick of time by Lyn Macdonald, formerly a BBC Radio 4 producer. Her beautifully written histories of the Great War are extraordinary – Somme and They Called it Passchendaele are especially vivid – and are all the more moving because they are tied together with first-hand accounts.

Roses is a bit different because it moves (slightly) away from the battlefields.

Macdonald did become irritated by people referring to it as ‘your book on the nurses’, and I’m not surprised. It isn’t, not wholly: it’s about the inevitable and appalling consequences of war for those involved, from the wounded and dying to the plastic surgeons who had to develop revolutionary techniques, from the VADs coping with horrific situations completely outside their previous experience to Americans who became caught up in the War well before their country was directly involved, from tired stretcher bearers and orderlies to, yes, the nurses.

‘If the ghost that haunts the towns of Ypres and Arras and Albert is the statutory British Tommy … then the ghost of Etaples and Rouen ought to be a girl. She’s called Elsie or Gladys or Dorothy, her ankles are swollen, her feet are aching, her hands are reddened and rough. She has little money, no vote, and has almost forgotten what it is to be really warm…’

Bear in mind that during the First World War five times as many men were wounded, affected by gas poisoning, shellshock or disease as were actually killed (and that’s considering the vast numbers of deaths). The Roses of No Man’s Land is their book.

Throughout all of her works on WW1, Macdonald uses interviews with survivors (and sometimes diaries and letters, and material from the Imperial War Museum archives) to build up an intensely personal view of the conflict, one which gives real life to what can sometimes be a litany of dreadful statistics.

And the people, mostly octogenarians when she interviewed them – well, they’re just like us, but caught up in a situation of appalling horror and coping with it. In Roses, many of her witnesses are women which does make it different to the other books she has written. And you often follow the individuals through the course of the conflict, too. But there is much more to Macdonald’s books than a string of personal accounts; they are set firmly in their context, and this more orthodox historical setting is illuminated by the voices of people who were there.

Given the nature of Lyn Macdonald’s wonderful book, perhaps the rest of this post should be given to a few of these testimonies…

This is Gladys Stanford, from the very start of the War:

‘…my family had planned a very big and special picnic. […] We were going to have cricket in the afternoon and dancing in the evening, by the light of lanterns among the trees. Overnight we got messages from some of the guests to say they would be unable to come…’

and here she is a couple of years later, working as a VAD with casualties from the Somme in Southampton:

‘There were extra beds up everywhere. [… The wounded] were in a terrible state, straight off the ships, and doing the dressings was terrible. We didn’t give them anaesthetics for these dreadful dressings – there just wasn’t time to administer them. […] There was one man who must have been splattered all over with shrapnel. It took five nurses to do his dressing, little bits of him at a time. His leg was fractured and we had to roll him over on his side, because his back was completely riddled with holes…’

There are flashes of attempts at a normal life:

‘It was absolutely ridiculous how they enforced that regulation about not going out with officers. […] I was actually not allowed to go out with my own father, and he was a general in the Army! […] Matron said “No. […] You know perfectly well that VADs are not allowed  to walk with officers.”‘ (Kitty Kenyon, another VAD, over in France at Camiers)

By the spring of 1918, exhaustion was general:

‘There was an awful atmosphere of depression. We had no news, but we could tell what was happening by the very bad condition of the wounded who came down, and the tremendous numbers of them, and you could feel the atmosphere of anxiety and worry around you…’ (Lorna Neill, British Red Cross ambulance driver)

and yet the end was in sight, of course. And here is how it was, really, for Margaret Ellis of No. 26 General Hospital, Camiers:

‘On the day the Armistice was declared, there wasn’t one man in the ward who knew. They were all delirious, not conscious enough to know, too ill. There wasn’t one man who understood. Not one man.’

And it wasn’t over when the guns stopped, either. The flu epidemic still had to run its course:

‘I was working in the casualty clearing station, doing the usual work. There wasn’t much surgery to do. I shall never forget the sight of the mortuary tents. There were rows of corpses … dying from something quite different. It was a ghastly sight, to see them lying there dead of something I didn’t have the treatment for.’ (Captain Geoffrey Keynes, RAMC)

These are the reality, the authentic testimonies of people caught up in the most appalling, disgusting conflict. The Roses of No Man’s Land gives them a voice. It is a profoundly humane book, and it is also a deeply angry one (while being objective – and, yes, there are German voices here too, and it covers more than just the Western Front).

It’s been a while since I read it last, and I’m so glad I have re-read it now – and I’m very grateful that Lyn Macdonald managed to gather her witnesses to history, and bring their testimonies to a wider audience.

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Slowly boating

SLOW BOATS TO CHINA by Gavin Young, originally published in 1981; my (lovely) edition 1995

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 33

I love vicarious travel.

It has so many advantages – you don’t have to worry about the water, being assaulted or offending people inadvertently; you don’t have to spend time at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases getting unlikely injections beforehand and you don’t have to spend time with the bank afterwards, trying to sort out your finances.

Some travel books, though, make you want to leap off and emulate the author immediately.

And some do not – and this is one of those.

That’s not, of course, to say that it’s a bad or even indifferent travel book, because it isn’t; it’s wonderful (or at least, I think it is). But I am deeply grateful that I wasn’t in any way involved with most of Gavin Young’s 1979/80 journey. It was a romantic dream of sea travel, of taking a succession of ships and small boats all the way from Europe to China, something that was barely possible at the time, and which is even less possible now. But Young managed it, and indeed even went on to write a sequel, Slow Boats Home. And if anyone could do it, he could.

Gavin Young was born in 1928 and worked for a large part of his life as a foreign correspondent, covering a total of fifteen wars. He started in journalism as a stringer working out of Tunis, and before he joined the Observer he worked for two years with a shipping company in Basra, and then spent a couple more years with the Marsh Arabs nearby in southern Iraq. His journalistic career was marked by revolutions and conflicts, and he was 1971 International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the traumatic birth of Bangladesh. All of this certainly prepared him for his later life as a travel writer, particularly one with a marked interest in the East. His ability to get on with a wide variety of people, and his persistence and flexibility when travelling, are certainly reflected in the journey which resulted in Slow Boats to China.

It is perhaps surprising, given such a career, that he comes over as such an incorrigible romantic…

The whole idea of the journey sprung from childhood memories of the north Cornish coast and consequent dreams of running away to sea. Young decided he would take whatever ships were available – it’s been described as ‘a sort of traveller’s roulette’ – and make his way from Piraeus to Canton as best as he could. From disgusting ferries in the Mediterranean to kumpits in the pirate-infested Sulu Sea, he managed it (and only rarely had to resort to alternative means of transport).

En route he met many interesting individuals – a cliché of the travel book, but Young’s reporter’s eye and ear make the most of all his encounters and the same cannot be said of some other books in this field – and enabled his readers to share in many experiences, but virtually: always more comfortable. I certainly hadn’t the slightest desire to spend precarious time with Moros in the Sulu Sea (though I now have a good piece of advice should I be in fear if my life in similar circumstances: keep smiling), and I still haven’t – but Young’s account makes me understand what it must have felt like. His writing is extremely evocative, and time and again the romantic surfaces, though not in purple prose: he was, after all, a war reporter.

Young died in 2001, six years after Slow Boats to China appeared as one of the Picador Travel Classics.

It’s a lovely edition, though the illustrations and clear maps have appeared in all editions – and the maps are excellent (it’s a shame that the same cannot be said of all travel books). His later book In Search of Conrad was joint winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, but I much prefer Slow Boats.

Maybe I’m something of an incorrigible romantic about the sea myself…

Comfort reading

DRAWN FROM MEMORY and DRAWN FROM LIFE, by E H Shepherd, originally published in 1957 and 1961 respectively; joint edition, 1986.

Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 9

I’ve not been very well. I’m waiting for a hand op – which I’m looking forward to, as it should make my life much easier – but I’ve caught the Great Cold from Hell, and have been feeling very sorry for myself indeed.

The dice must have sensed this, because they led me to this enchanted title – the literary equivalent of a nice snuggly blanket and a welcome cup of tea.

That’s not to say that it’s cosy. Far from it, in fact. But it is a good read, and that’s exactly what I needed.

E H Shepherd is an artistic hero of mine, and I adore his work (I worked for a brief while as an illustrator’s agent, and this amazingly failed to put me off my love of illustration). He’s undoubtedly most familiar as the man who brought Pooh Bear to life, not to mention Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore and – unsurprisingly my favourite – Tigger. He also breathed illustrative life into Mole, Water Rat and Badger, and gave Mr Toad his rakish air and goggles. 

These books are his autobiography. They are snapshots rather than a full account, though – the first one looks at roughly a single year, 1887, and the second takes the story on until his first marriage in 1904. They are, of course, beautifully (and often wittily) illustrated.

Drawn from Memory originated because Shepherd promised his children to write down all the stories he had told them, and it reminds me strongly of Marcel Pagnol’s magical autobiographical books. There is the same clarity of vision – almost like looking down the wrong end of a telescope into the past – and the same elegiac quality. That is perhaps not surprising. Like Pagnol, Shepherd lost his mother shortly after the book’s narrative ends and, also like Pagnol, his best friend (in Shepherd’s case, his older brother Cyril) died in the First World War.

He describes and illustrates a vanished world, but one which is recognisable much of the time – small boys are small boys, always have been and always will be. Childhood holidays, especially when looked back on, can be idyllic, times of sun and animals to make friends with and undiluted fun.

Other things here are amusing and entertaining because of the changes that have taken place since, but I suspect that the characteristics underlying incidents (such as his maiden aunts’ shocking discovery that the new curate was – shhh – a smoker) still remain. And his illustration of their horrified recognition that the mantlepiece held a tobacco pipe – sorry, a ‘TOBACCO PIPE!’ – radiates their disapproval and uncertainty. How could such a thing be tolerated? What was the world coming to? A curate! Smoking!

The second of the two books, Drawn from Life, was really written in response to the success of the first. It is darker, partly because Shepherd is older and partly because the years after Drawn from Memory were not easy. His mother’s illness and death is not mentioned in any detail, but the shadow is cast over the future – and before the book is out and Shepherd is married to his beloved ‘Pie’, his father has also died, after becoming increasingly disabled. It’s also a book about a young man, with a young man’s recognition that the world isn’t straightforward and with his growing understanding of how things work between people. But it is still a delightful account of life as an art student at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is still a good read even if it hasn’t quite got the innocent charm of Drawn from Memory (it would be fake if it did, after all).

And I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing in the final full-page illustration an echo of the legendary hundred-acre wood, where ‘a boy and his bear are forever playing’:

(Incidentally, and this has nothing to do with these books, but Pie died young too, following an operation to relieve her athsma some ten years later. Shepherd’s illustrations may reflect a sunny and innocent world, but that’s a tribute to his personality, and his upbringing. He was, above all, a survivor – not someone to whom bad things never happened. Another reason to love his work. It radiates optimism.)

Fantasy island – sigh…

THE TREEHOUSE BOOK, by Peter and Judy Nelson with David Larkin, published in 2000

Bookcase 9, shelf 5, book 11

It’s everyone’s fantasy. Well, I think it is (and I’m not sure I want to know people who don’t share it – thus, probably, ruling out at least 50% of my friends).

Or maybe I’ve just been too deeply influenced by discovering Lothlorien at an impressionable age. Or maybe not – Bart Simpson has one, after all, and you can’t get much further from one of Tolkien’s elves than Bart.

I was supposed to be being sensible, buying a selection of book tokens to be sent off to far-flung friends’ children one Christmas, and my attention wandered. Perched temptingly on a nearby shelf, this book spoke to me of freedom, of woods, of escape and adventure – and, above all, not remotely of a ‘festive’ Tesco’s. I had to have it. 

I was able to excuse buying it because it was practical. I knew that I was extremely unlikely to add any such structure to one of my trees but, should the inclination take me, here was the ‘how-to’ book. See? There are drawings; there are plans. Practical.

Seriously, it is practical.

There are before and after shots – well, during and after:

There is plenty of advice on planning and choosing the right sort of tree, though admittedly – and unsurprisingly – as an American book, it does tend to assume you live on the other side of the Atlantic; the basic principles are the same. Most of the thoroughly practical stuff is at the beginning of the book, and then you get into the more inspirational examples.

Mind you, there is plenty of practical information there too, should you suddenly find yourself in possession of a wood in Washington State… But let’s stop pretending: for most people, this book is about fantasies. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The majority of the treehouses – the authors are specialist treehouse builders – are in rural locations, but some are more urban. Wherever they are, the text provides just enough information to involve you in the specific house, and each one is well illustrated, generally with both interior and exterior shots. And some of them – well, I wanna!

How about a treehouse which is so remote you have to make the first part of the journey to it by canoe (or on cross-country skis when the river freezes). And imagine the logistics of building the thing in the first place – every single plank had to also come in by canoe, and the house took three years to complete. And it’s in use throughout the year (the previous pictures are of the same house, which is in New England), and you can just make out a set of snowshoes underneath the house, which is built on hemlocks.

Incidentally, this particular house gives me a very bad case of woodpile-envy disorder, let alone treehouse envy or wildness envy… But what would happen if you broke a leg falling off those snowshoes? Hm? Just as well it’s fantasy, then.

There’s a large section on children’s treehouses, some of which I feel are not really treehouses as such – more garden buildings. However some undoubtedly are true treehouses, and again I wouldn’t say no if I bought a house with any of them already installed. This rather less remote and idealistic example is in Washington State. Yes, please.

And then there are the little details. Perhaps some of them could inspire a more real-world use (well, more ‘real-world’ than having to transport everything by canoe). Check out these steps:

I could do that…

Not really a book review, for which I apologise. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I stop fantasising about finding a remote lake somewhere and building a treehouse in the surrounding woods in which to write a masterpiece. At this precise moment, I’d settle for anywhere the RAF were not practising low flying. Earplugs, I need earplugs!