Category Archives: Autobiography

‘Anybody can have tuberculosis…’

THE PLAGUE AND I, by Betty MacDonald, originally published in in the UK in 1948, my edition 1959 (boy, do I love old Penguins)…

coverOne of my favourites, for years and years. I can’t remember when I first encountered The Plague and I, but certain expressions and catchphrases from it have passed into our family shorthand, so my guess is that my parents loved it too.’Toecover’, for instance, a word that describes a hand-made object of uncertain usage and all-too-certain unpleasantness. Ideally, a toecover should have no discernible function, and – in my opinion – involve limp crochet in some respect. Then there’s ‘Hush ma mouth, what have ah said?’, delivered in a clichéd Southern accent. This should be deployed after the ostensibly inadvertent revelation of some fact that has got the speaker into trouble, and is ironically directed at the person who has given the game away. Then – no, enough already. You get the idea.

This should not be a funny book. Absolutely not, no way, it’s about a stay in a 1930s tuberculosis sanatorium, for heaven’s sake – and yet it is. Hilarious, even laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and yet those parts are interspersed with more serious stuff. I recently lent it to a friend who had to spend some time in hospital, and she not only loved it, finding it funny too, but also found it relevant. As she said, ‘times change, but people don’t.’

betty macdonaldIn the late 1930s Betty MacDonald – who had led a slightly unconventional life but who had, as yet, not committed any of it to paper (her best-known book is probably The Egg and I, about her first marriage to a chicken farmer and which came out in 1945) – developed a series of colds, then a cough, then extreme tiredness… But, ‘operating under the impression that I was healthy and that everyone who worked felt the same as I did’, failed to put two and two together. In all fairness, so did a series of doctors (largely because she consulted each specialist about his – and I mean his – own area), until she was finally diagnosed with TB. Tuberculosis, of course, could be tantamount to a death sentence. As it can now, sometimes – but then there were no drugs which worked against it and it was horribly prevalent. It’s also highly contaigious and MacDonald caught hers from a co-worker who managed to infect several other people as well. As a single mother with two small children and a negligible income, she was luckily admitted to a charitable sanatorium in Seattle, which she calls ‘The Pines’ in the book. She was to stay at Firland Sanatorium for nine months, in 1937-8, and emerged cured.

Firland wardThe picture she creates is so vivid that this is one of those books where the mental images generated are so strong that they dominate even when you see contradictory pictures of the place that inspired them. The echoing, draughty corridors, the never-ending cold, the sound of invisible footsteps approaching, passing and then fading into the distance… but it’s not depressing, even in the serious phases. It’s populated by a cast of characters, all of whom I find exceptionally well drawn and entertaining. They range from Betty’s family and her near-constant companion in The Pines, Kimi Sanbo, to the miscellaneous array of nurses and other patients such as Gravy Face and Granite Eyes (two nurses); Charlie who loved to pass on depressing news of deaths and disasters; Minna of the Southern drawl and ability to dump people in the cacky… there are so many of them, so well delineated, that picking just a few to mention here was difficult. But space has to be made for Miss Gillespie of the Ambulant Hospital’s occupational therapy shop, generator of many a toecover:

‘Miss Gillespie was physically and mentally exactly what you’d expect the producer of hand-painted paper plates to be. She had a mouth so crowded with false teeth it looked as if she had put in two sets … and her own set of rules. One of these rules was that women patients could not use the basement lavatory because “the men will see you go in there and know what you go in there for”. Another forbade the pressing of men’s trousers by women, on the grounds that such intimate contact with male garments was unseemly.’

MacDonald is extremely good at expressing the life of any closed institution. The way the world narrows down; the way rumours (‘all based on a little bit of truth’) start, expand and spread; the effect of being thrown into involuntary contact with people you would normally avoid, and the intensity of the resulting reactions. (‘…the major irritation of all was my room-mate, who was so damned happy all the time, so well adjusted. She loved the institution and the institution loved her. She loved all the nurses and the nurses loved her. She loved all the other patients and all the other patients, but one, loved her. That one used to lie awake in the long dark cold winter nights and listen hopefully for her breathing to stop.’) It was a tough regime, but it had to be – no drugs, remember. TB was essentially treated by rest and some basic chest operations; there had to be rules. But there was also the pointless expression of power indulged in by some: ‘ “We do not tell the patients the rules, Mrs Bard. We find that trial and error method is the best way to learn them.” I said, “But how can I be obedient, co-operative, and helpful if I don’t know what I’m supposed to do?” She said, “We don’t allow arguing, Mrs Bard”…‘ She is also very good on how difficult it is to adapt to life afterwards, describing what could almost be a type of Stockholm Syndrome. But she did shake herself free, and the TB didn’t reappear.

So yes, a sort of happy ending. ‘Sort of’ because Betty MacDonald died in 1958, from cancer, at the age of only 49.  I’m sure she would have been surprised and possibly flattered to know that people were still enjoying her books over fifty years later. I most certainly am. Great book.

Witness to chaos

THE PAST IS MYSELF by Christabel Bielenberg, originally published 1968 (first edition)

Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 7

I have been a bad blogger. The truth is that after a whole year of reading from stock (as it were), I just wanted to read a few new things. But I didn’t break my resolve of cutting down on the purchase of new books – I went to my local libraries instead. And discovered just how good even small libraries in small Welsh towns can be, even in these straightened economic times; long may they last. Go Gwynedd Libraries!

Now I’m back on track, reading my ‘backlist’ books, though I’m not giving up on the libraries. They need support, and that support is gauged by borrowing, so I’m borrowing. But I am also reading through my own library, and the books in this blog will continue to be from my excessive (can such a thing be possible?) collection.

What a treat the roll of the dice gave me, too.

Christabel BeilenbergThe Past is Myself is one of my favourite books of all time, and there’s no cover shot, because my first edition has unfortunately lost its dust jacket (probably why I found it lurking cheaply in a dusty corner of an otherwise expensive second-hand bookshop in Cambridge). I probably re-read this every year, so it’s not a surprise rediscovery or forgotten jewel. What it is, undoubtedly, is a remarkable memoir, intelligent and humane, written by someone who got caught up in the nightmare that was Germany during the Third Reich.

rallyWhen Christabel Bielenberg died in 2003, one or two of the obituaries made me see red. One in particular was quite snotty about this book, and I suspect the writer hadn’t actually ventured beyond the first few pages. Yes, CB was a well-connected deb – her uncles were press barons – when she married Peter Bielenberg in 1934, but though she may have been naive at times, she was no empty-headed, upper-crust bimbo. And this particular obit described Peter as ‘apolitical’. Maybe a little, maybe at the start but, like his wife, his naivety disappeared and they moved from fighting their way to the back of a Nazi rally – where they discovered other like-minded, slightly incredulous watchers – to more active participation.

outside gestapo hqHis real awakening came when he saw one of his freed clients (he was a lawyer at that stage) leave the court only to be seized and bundled away in an anonymous green van. Her politicisation was more gradual, an accumulation of individually disturbing incidents. But it’s probably inevitable that they would have been anti-Nazi: Adam von Trott was an old friend of Peter’s and, completely coincidentally, their neighbour was Carl Langbehn. Peter himself was arrested in the aftermath of the plot to assassinate Hitler and ended up in Ravensbrück, from where he was freed in the last days of the war.

So credentials have been established, but what of the book? Well, it’s episodic, moving from those early days of a disappearing doctor – he was Jewish, and fled to Holland – to CB’s life in the Black Forest with the children while PB was in Ravensbrück. There is narrative flow, but the book covers many years and I personally find the episodic nature completely satisfying. The small sketches of life under the Reich are so evocative, from the story of her gardener, party small-fry, to the time fate in the shape of two Jews seeking a hiding place came literally knocking at her door one night.

There’s almost a quality of Greek drama about some of them: the Latvian SS man she encounters on a blacked-out train, seeking death as some retribution for what he has done ‘in the East’; her encounter with the Gestapo interrogator – she volunteered to be interrogated to support Peter’s bodged-together account of his involvement; the women’s tea party uniting in the face of an informer; and, indeed, the difficult life of her gardener, battered by the winds of economics and history.

JugendHe was an innocent, really, and the embodiment of the joke about Hitler and the gifts of four fairies. The first told him that every German would be honest, the second said every German would be bright, and the third said that every German would be a member of the Nazi party. And then the fourth spoke up, and said that every German could ‘only possess two of those attributes. She left the Fuhrer then with Intelligent Nazis who were not honest, honest Nazis who had no brains, and honest and intelligent citizens who were not Nazis.’ Herr Neisse fell into the middle category, never uttered any word about anything untoward he observed (he may not have understood the implications, but nonetheless he evidently said nothing), ‘passed on no incriminating titbits, such as other zealous informers had thought fit to do.’ He’d been hanged from a lamppost when the Russians arrived in Berlin.

The Past is Myself is a remarkable and wonderful book. I will go on re-reading it for ever, I suspect, getting something new out of it each time I do so. It’s essentially a celebration of humanity, at a time when, in the words of Bonhoeffer: ‘…we now have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.’ I’ll say.

(The photographs of Third Reich Germany are courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Almost good timing – Christmas with Dylan Thomas

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone; this illustrated edition originally published in 1978

Bookcase 9, shelf 2, book 3

The book-selecting dice are evidently not quite running on the same calendar as me, but I am very glad I got this in November and not, say, June – that would have been completely wrong. This nostalgic, romantic, poetic and occasionally deeply surreal evocation of Christmas past would have been impossible to read in warmth and sunshine, but snuggle up next to the stove on a dark night – perfect. And that’s even if I can’t read anything by Dylan Thomas without hearing Richard Burton’s voice in the background at the same time. Or my own – it’s a wonderful book to read aloud.

There is a sort of narrative to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, taking readers through memories of the Christmas season, starting with one of the most evocative opening passages I can think of:

One Christmas was very much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It moves from ‘the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve’ with Thomas (or his narrator, perhaps that should be) in Mrs Prothero’s garden waiting for cats – (‘It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.’) – being diverted by Mrs P frantically calling ‘fire’,

to him going to bed on Christmas night:’I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’

Ardizzone’s illustrations run throughout my childhood like a thread, as does this book – despite my growing up 250 miles from the nearest part of Wales; my father adored Dylan Thomas – and it’s such a perfect combination. The frantic Mrs P, the boys and the cats: they’re just right. It’s tempting to see Ardizzone as a literal ‘translator’ and so he is, but his versions of the time of Thomas’s childhood – ‘when there were wolves in Wales’ and the boys ‘chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears’ – are equally literal:

The use of language is, as you’d expect, absolutely magical. It’s impossible to describe; it has to be quoted:

‘Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss…’

The year before last, we had heavy snow right over Christmas, even here on the west coast of Wales where we normally get very little. As I forced my way out of the house and up the hill, trudging through the woods, I thought of this so clearly. I’d have liked to declaim it to the few sheep I passed, but I couldn’t remember it well enough (sheep are such sticklers for poetic accuracy – oh dear, I think it’s catching).

More realistically, I love the family get-together (brought hilariously and touchingly up-to-date by Mark Watson in the 2009 BBC film ‘A Child’s Christmases in Wales’), the aunts and uncles – ‘There are always Uncles at Christmas’ – around the fire:

This book is frequently described as a ‘modern classic’, and so it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a delightful read, an amusing, diverting journey into the past, into Christmas family traditions and foibles (‘Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year’), into a partly imaginary but completely believable poetic world. There’s even a possible ghost. What else can I say but a rather early Nadolig Llawen?

Of course, the classic version of this book is read aloud not by Richard Burton but by Dylan Thomas himself; it’s worth digging it out. And if you’re inspired to find this lovely illustrated edition, be aware that there is a minature version about; delightful but impractical. You need to see the deacon’s jawbone and the bishops in the belfrey. Didn’t I mention them?

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.)