Category Archives: Non-fiction

‘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.

Inspiring, appalling, amazing…

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER: a photographic recordby assorted Magnum photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Inge Morath, Werner Bischof, David Seymour… Published 1985

coverWhen I bought this book, I could barely afford it. I was a baby bookseller, and anyway the book industry has never been noted for lavish (or even sustainable) levels of remuneration. Even with staff discount, I had to save up. But it was worth the money. It’s a superb collection of photographs taken in, roughly, the ten years following the end of World War II, by some of the best photographers of the last century. And probably this one, too.

It’s strange to think, now that – as Grayson Perry put it in his recent Reith lecture – photography ‘rains on us like sewage from above’, just how powerful the photographic image was, and not all that long ago. It can still be incredibly strong, of course; it’s just that it can be difficult to pull the powerful out from the welter of everything else. Not so, once upon a recent time.

wow(Ernst Haas, Returning prisoner of war, Vienna, 1945)

In the aftermath of WW2 a group of photographers (photojournalists, I suppose) met in New York and talked about forming a different sort of photo agency, a co-op – Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Robert Capa, George Rodger and William Vandivert. The last named dropped out; Rodger was often away and that left the other three founder members, so Paris became the base for what was to become the most famous photo agency ever: Magnum. Gradually many others joined, some of the most illustrious photographers around, and the same is still true today. (And today, 22 October, would have been Robert Capa’s 100th birthday – a happy coincidence.)

Some of the photographs in this book date from before 1947, but the aftermath of the war very much informed Magnum, especially in its early days, and many of the shots included here come from that immediate post-war period.

refugees(Henri Cartier-Bresson, Deported Russians leaving Germany for home, 1945)

They show the wreckage of Europe, described as being ’empty, quiet and it stank’. The word ‘peace’ had a hollow ring for many of the Magnum photojournalists; apart from anything else, the war in Indochina kicked in in 1946, and the reality of a Europe with 30 million refugees was never far away. Hindsight gives a terrible reality to images like the one above – what awaited the refugees there was not known when it was taken, of course, though many people suspected the worst. IMG_7411

Others do not need hindsight; the traumatised child photographed by David Seymour in Poland in 1948 – the title is ‘disturbed orphan drawing her home’ – is powerful enough. You don’t need to know what this girl has been through in any detail (probably just as well) in order for the image to have a powerful impact; it bears witness all by itself.

If there is any one theme that runs throughout this book, it is people. People, their strength, their resilience, even though they might be ‘swept along on the winds of history’. And of course not all the photographs are of war; as time goes on there are portraits of famous people, shots of artists (Picasso, Matisse, Giaciometti), writers (Colette – and her maid – or Francoise Sagan or Simone de Beauvoir), singers and actors (Jaques Tati, Maria Callas).

HCBFor me, though, it’s the ‘ordinary’ people, the prostitutes working in 1947 Essen (David Seymour); the women chatting in Paris (Werner Bischoff, Ernst Haas) or coralling children in Naples (David Seymour) or  being chatted up by British troops in Berlin in 1945 (Robert Capa). The dignity of everyday, ‘normal’ human beings is expressed in shot after shot, such as this one by Henri Cartier-Bresson of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, taken – amazingly – in 1951.

So when does ‘post-war’ end? The photographers had different answers. For Ernst Haas, it was the early 1950s when he began taking his famous colour shots. For Inge Morath, it was the day in 1959 when she was unable to park her car in Paris because there were too many others using the available spaces. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it as the 1958 Brussels World Fair, which he shot and where he ‘scented hope’ – but, he said, he felt wary because he thought photography was a way of feeling a pulse, of sensing things in advance, of metaphorically sniffing the smoke in the air which becomes a blazing fire. He went on to say ‘…the world had been totally changed by scientific discoveries made during the war. These technological changes became a part of our lives, creating deeper and deeper tensions so that we are in a world that seems headed for suicide.’ Prescient, or what?

One final note: this is a beautifully edited book (says moi, ever the editor). Time and again photographs are shown in parallel, but in an understated way that informs and doesn’t distract. Take this pair,

men at work

by Werner Bischoff (London, 1950) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Tancarville, France, 1955). Understated symmetry.

Boy, am I glad I saved up my pennies and didn’t spend them all on beer.

Normal service will be resumed…

… as soon as I can read properly and comfortably without hurting myself.

neckieOW. An old neck injury – which I didn’t know I had – has flared up and is giving me all sorts of problems which are far too boring to go into here. I’m in diagnostic limbo, waiting for my appointment with the neurologist (only ten days to go), and while everyone assures me it can be dealt with, they all want further investigations to make sure that no further damage is going to happen. While I applaud this – but of course – it is also extremely frustrating.

And one of the main reasons it is driving me insane is that reading has become extremely awkward as I cannot bend my head without dizziness setting in. I end up lying down with a book supported by pillows and my head by even more pillows, and then I have to change position frequently and lie on the other side. So the ‘reading what the dice select’ game has had to be suspended, as the dice kept selecting large art books. All I can manage are paperbacks. Dice not cooperating.

So what have I been reading? Well, not my comfort books, which is interesting. I’ve been travelling vicariously, since I can’t do too much of that physically, and I’ve been travelling in both space and time. At least you have to do the latter vicariously, whatever your state of health.

WreckersFirst off, Bella Bathurst’s excellent book The Wreckers.  Neatly combining history and travel (and enough accounts of stormy seas to make my dizziness appear comparatively trivial), it’s a very good, well-written read. My only quibble, really, is that the very last section on the ship breakers of Alang doesn’t sit very neatly with the rest, which is confined to the seas around the British Isles. But if you don’t know it, read it. It’s so often better to travel vicariously, and this book is a good example of why that is so.

rubiconNext, Rubicon by Tom Holland. Ah, narrative history. And for anyone who was hooked by that splendid TV romp, Rome, this is the real deal. What really happened. Maybe what really happened. Possibly – after all, can you really trust sources, especially if they were sources dependent for their living – and their life – on the emperor Augustus? But it is crammed with fascinating information (I didn’t know that Caesar was a notorious dandy; how could that have escaped me?) and – yet again – is an excellent read. Very diverting, and intelligent.

Torrid ZoneOne of my favourite authors next, and no way would I have wanted to follow Alexander Frater on this journey – series of journeys, really – neck or no neck. Tales from the Torrid Zone is a mixture of travel, autobiography and history, centred on the tropics, and I’m too much of a northern lass to really enjoy the tropics. I get off the plane somewhere excessive and I want to get right back on. Not Frater. Born there, he loves them – and this book is a paean of love and affection and exasperation. I didn’t get it at first, and this is only my second reading. Boy, have a got it now. Lovely book.

HareAnd another is The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmond de Waal, one of my more recent purchases (but before the whole dice thing kicked in). Again, this was only its second reading, but I know it’s going to merit more. De Waal tracks a family collection of netsuke – and his family, the Ephrussis – from a purchase in nineteenth-century Paris to their residence in his studio (he’s a potter), via Vienna – and being hidden from the Gestapo in a mattress – and Japan. Along the way he learns much of his own history, but also illuminates much of recent European history. Wonderful.

And now I have to choose the next book. Wonder what it will be, other than a paperback? If anyone has any tips for coping with irritating neck injuries, do let me know (head transplants and all). And, in the tones of Arnold Schwartznegger: I’ll be back…

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)

Walking away…

CLEAR WATERS RISING: A MOUNTAIN WALK ACROSS EUROPE by Nicholas Crane, published in 1996

Bookcase 10, shelf 8, book 1

What a hiatus – lots of work meant that I was only reading recipe books, and they don’t make for the most exciting posts. Oh, all right, some of them do – Claudia Roden’s fabulous Jewish Food, for instance, which is as much about social history as it is about stuffing your face. But they’re outside the scope of this project – for one thing, I’d need three dice to get as far as the cookery books, and I’ve only got two. But the two dice I have got gave me a lovely read to make up for the increasing sameness of cookery books.

Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful vicarious walk from one end of Europe to the other, from Cape Finisterre and Santiago de Compostela right through to Istanbul, following the watershed over various mountain ranges as much as possible. It was undertaken in the mid-90s by a thoroughly entertaining writer, Nicholas Crane. Some people will know him from the BBC’s Coast series, always accompanied by an umbrella on his back and a TV crew. This comes from before then, and indeed starts even before the acquisition of the umbrella (though that is bought early on). When he undertook this solitary walk he hadn’t been married for long, fortunately to a very understanding person, another traveller. He’d done many other difficult journeys, but never anything by himself – and that was exactly what he decided to do in this project, which he optimistically thought might take a year.

Keeping in contact by phone – phone boxes assume a lot of importance; this is before ubiquitous mobile technology – and with some pre-arranged meetings (either with his wife or others) enabled NC to travel comparatively light in a journey that spanned the seasons. Its length, both physically and temporally, paint a changing picture. As he sets off, for instance, the mountains he travels through begin to fill with other climbers and walkers then gradually empty as the time wears on. Mountain cafés and campsites empty:

‘This is the last meal I cook at Cortalets this year,’ he announced.
‘You are going to the valley, then?’
‘Tonight…’

and rough camping (it saves him money, plus is more enjoyable – generally, except when wet, snowed upon or being thoroughly spooked in the Vercors) becomes more and more difficult. There are detours – a quick sideways trip to climb Mont Blanc, for instance – and an always entertaining commentary on the places and people he encounters. It’s a very well-written book; In some places it’s straightforwardly amusing; in others it catches a universal feeling…

‘Darkness had fallen when I walked into St Maurice Navacelles. Water shone in the light cast from a window. Inside, an elderly couple were pulling up trays of food before a fire. The warmth and sheter of their secure little haven … was on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. I was comfortable with my tramp’s life, for it brought freedom and full-time relief from restlessness, but it was still difficult to pass a lit window at dusk without wanting to be in on the warmer side of the glass.’

And the photographs are good, as well.

As Crane moves eastwards, the nature of the people he encounters changes: there are more shepherds, for instance, and fewer people walking in the hills for pure enjoyment. And if this sounds a little like Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s journeys across pre-War Europe, then that’s hardly surprising. Their tracks converged in Vienna, where Crane’s resolve really wavered for the first time. The thought of the young Leigh-Fermor was one of the things that kept him going: as he says, ‘he wouldn’t approve’. Plus, of course, there was consistent support from his family, not least his wife, and he did manage to do most of the journey by himself, except when obliged to take a companion by the authorities in the Ukraine. One was fine, a kindred spirit; the other was not, but the problem resolved itself. And there was really only one occasion (apart from the mystery sounds of footsteps approaching a shelter in the Vercors, footsteps with no apparent owner) when he felt in any danger.

Clear Waters Rising is such a good read. There’s not a cat in hell’s, or a ghost in the Vercors, chance that I would ever be able to do something like this – certainly not now, Achilles tendon injuries being what they are, and probably never. I’d have given up at the first campsite, I suspect. But books like this broaden horizons as well as entertain, and sometimes they bring you up short with a realisation about something you may have taken for granted.

(As a spinner, I had to use this double-page spread – even though I can’t spindle-spin and never wear headscarves or – phew – socks with sandals)

Ahem. Take art, for instance. I’ve known about the glorious painted churches in Romania for years, but the sheer impact they might have had on their original audience never really occurred to me. NC, however, having been on a journey ‘where “art” had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel’, was utterly blown away by them. ‘Christianity in freeze-frame covered the entire exterior and interior … saints and priests and claocked philosophers (Plato crowned by a reliquary of bones) floated in ranks above an earthly landscape of mesas and buttes, cityscape and forests…’ In short, a ‘carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees…’. It must have felt a lot like that many centuries ago, too. And without Clear Waters Rising, I’d not really have given that fact a second thought. Not just a walking book, not just a mountain book, not ‘just’ a travel book – but a damn good read, and a very thoughtful one.

Can I go back to the beginning and read it again?

A Rough Guide to the past

THE TIME TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer, 2008/9

Bookcase 10, shelf 5, book 22

The subtitle is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century’ – and that’s exactly what this is. When the dice ‘chose’ this book for me, I was a little disappointed; I’d read it not long ago, and was sure that I could remember a lot of it. I didn’t particularly want to read it again so soon, but the dice select what the dice select.

Re-reading it made me wonder if I’d actually bothered to read it the first time – there was so much that I didn’t remember, or only partly recalled. I don’t think that’s down to me, though (no, really). I think it is because of the fact that this is an extraordinarily dense book, crammed with interesting information. I thought I knew something about life in Medieval Britain – it wasn’t my specialist study period, but I’ve worked on medieval archaeological sites – but there is something on almost every page to surprise and entertain. And it’s written in an accessible, easy style.

I suppose it all starts with L P Harley: ‘The past is another country. They do things differently there.’ With that in mind, the idea of a something which is almost a travel guide to the past seems logical and almost inevitable – and here it is. Ian Mortimer starts with the idea of the past ‘happening’, of walking down a road in a Medieval town, hearing people talking and shouting, seeing the sights and smelling (phew) the smells.

And that is indeed a useful place to begin, and the opening for one of the most entertaining history books I’ve read in a while. Entertaining and informative. Unlike many historians, Mortimer doesn’t spurn re-enactors: in fact, he says ‘collectively they remind us that history is more than an educational process’. I’m used to the world of experimental archaeology, where attempting to recreate something from the (extreme) past is an acceptable form of research, whether that something is a way of making beer or of moving a huge stone over hundreds of miles. It’s less common to find historians embracing this approach, at least in the imagination, and then writing a bestselling book embodying it. Mortimer selected the fourteenth century because ‘…it comes closest to the popular conception of what is “medieval”, with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art…’ and, of course, with cathedrals, revolt and insurrection, war with France, famine and the Black Death.

But for me, it’s the incidental information that you pick up that I enjoy the most. Snippets. So let’s have some, picked completely at random while flicking through the book:

  • It’s a multi-lingual society – not just English. French, Latin and, depending on where you are, the Celtic languages are all in common use and likely to be overheard on the streets. And people’s English is ‘a little rough around the ages’. It’s, er, robust. That’s seen in place names like Shitbrook Street and Pissing Alley (and quite evident in Chaucer’s work, of course). In fact, there are a lot of ‘English’ people whose English is not fluent.
  • Football is popular, though not the game as played today (of course); it’s more like the semi-riots that still take place in a few villages today under the flag of tradition. There are no rules as such, though there are some which try and ban it completely. Huge numbers of people take part, there’s a vast amount of noise and fighting, many get injured and some even die. One William de Spalding, for example, managed to kill a friend during a match when they collided so violently that De Spalding’s knife went through its sheath and into his friend.
  • People caught poaching game no longer have their hands cut off, as in the previous century, ‘but loss of limb is still meted out on their animals’ – so a poacher who managed to only get a fine may see his dog lose a paw.

Medicine is a strange mix of the rational (a truss for hernia) and treatments which appear somewhat more magical – annointing yourself with fat from a roasted cat (!), and frying beheaded dung beetles and crickets in oil to treat a bladder stone. Your doctors will want to look at your pee in order to determine what is wrong with you, by the way.

  • Cow’s milk is suitable only for cooking, and for old woman and children. Each member of a monastic community is allocated a gallon of ale a day. And as for monks not eating meat – well, the monastic Rule states that they should not have meat in the refectory. So there’s another room, the misericord (place of mercy), in which they can eat meat with impunity. Westminster’s Benedictine monks manage to justify eating bacon, however, and bacon and eggs are served in the refectory as a treat before Lent.
  • If you’re a monk in an urban monastery, you’ll live – on average – about five years less than you would if you hadn’t entered the monastery but had lived outside. It’s the infectious disease risk that makes the difference. Yes, you have better sanitation and a much better diet, but you’ll also have a shorter life. And if you die while staying in someone else’s house, the goods you have with you automatically become his property.

More seriously than all of those (not that some of them aren’t serious), looking at history this way does bring up the whole issue of how we perceive the past. Traditionally, history is deeply concerned with assessing, selecting, interpreting the evidence available, and that’s generally documentary evidence. Evidence like this imposes boundaries – because all you can really assess is the evidence. Approaching history as something that was lived, and lived by people who were not that different from us, certainly makes you think. And so does this book.

What’s left of Londoners

LONDON BODIES – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day, Museum of London, 1998

Bookcase 9, shelf 4, book 6

I am surprised that this is the first exhibition catalogue the dice have presented me with, given that I used to work in museums and galleries, and have an incurable catalogue habit (well, I’ve cured myself of it now – largely, OK, I’m cured for this year).

It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of exhibition publishing – possibly not of general interest, ho ho – and it also sent me to my other shelves, pulling out old catalogues, new catalogues, big catalogues, catalogues that set themselves up to become the definitive work on X or Y, catalogues that are little more than a flyer… What are exhibition catalogues for, when it comes down to it?

I can only answer for myself. I find that unless I visit an exhibition several times – and that’s been known, quite apart from the time I effectively lived with exhibitions every day – I later forget about things I would prefer to remember. And I miss things, especially at blockbusters where seeing anything through other people is next to impossible. The enormous tomes are also useful reference books, though they do break your back and lead to other problems: I had a nasty fight with an Air France steward about Le Siecle de Titien being too heavy to go in an overhead locker. Or even fly. She did have a point.

This, happily, is not such a breezeblock of a book, nor is it a straightforward list of everything that was in the Museum of London’s fascinating 1998 archaeological and historical show. The show was based around their extensive collection of human remains, but it was more than that – they have equally extensive collections of all sorts of other things connected to physical appearance, from Roman leather knickers and an Elizabethan child’s knitted vest to Victorian underwear. Unsurprisingly, London Bodies is one of those discursive catalogues, rather than one which details the exhibits one by one and then tells you something about them.

There are seven chapters on various aspects of the show, starting with one on excavation, and then moving chronologically through to a photo-essay on modern London (superfluous, in my opinion). However, because the chapters are all written by different people there is little unity of tone; one chapter is a bit dry, another chatty…

But having said that, there’s still plenty to chew on. Each chapter throws a light on a specific aspect of the time it discusses – the Black Death and famine in the Medieval chapter; costume in the one on Tudor London; the question of a ‘London look’ in the one on the Georgian and Victorian city. In addition there are feature spreads covering all sorts of subjects from recent work in Roman cemeteries and what it tells us about Londoners (most people ate comparatively well, and only a small proportion show evidence of deprivation, or of parasites) to what made you sexy in Elizabethan London (minute waists and large cod-pieces). So inside this particular exhibition catalogue is a wealth of interesting information.

Human remains – and what you do with them – are a controversial subject in archaeology, and this is little explored, but I recall the the show as being both fascinating and comparatively sensitive in the way it dealt with the issue. The book is quite clear – the remains are valued for the information they can give, and they give a lot. This woman, for instance, was a Saxon. She was about 30 when she died (of what, we do not know), and was buried dressed in an overgown fastened at the shoulder by a brooch. The brooch is still there, but we also know that she wore a bracelet – her wrist bones are stained by the metal – and that she had a congenital back disorder, had once broken her collar bone but been treated well since the mend was good, and that she had enjoyed quite a bit of sweetness in her diet (bad teeth – the sweetness could have been from beer or honey). At the same time, I am sure that more attention would be paid to the ethical side of displaying human remains were the book (and the exhibition) to take place today. I know where I stand – I trained as an archaeologist, after all.

On a less profound level, one of the things I recall most clearly from the show was the corsets, and of course they are reflected in the catalogue. I know quite a bit about Victorian dress, but I found things here to inform me further, and amuse me (like one corset manufacturer in Berners Street, who won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition – the wonderfully and apparently anachronistically named Madame Roxy Caplin). Oh, by the way, her corsets were ‘beneficial to the weak, delicate and imperfect’. Just about everyone, then.

I have really enjoyed revisiting this catalogue and, through it, remembering the show. Not all are so interesting, of course, and I’m not sure this could properly be described as a ‘catalogue’ anyway – it’s more a ‘book to accompany the exhibition’. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it’s time to pull out a few more and renew my acquaintance with Ancient Greek gold, the effects of light on fabric or Russian Constructivism. Sigh…

(Apologies for the slight hiatus in posts – not idleness, an exotic holiday or a sudden weakening of resolve on the book-buying front. More mundane: problems with WordPress…)

Bars, brothels and the bals-musette…

THE SECRET PARIS OF THE 30S, by Braissaï, English translation published in 1976 (original Le Paris secret des années 30)

Bookcase 7, shelf 2, book 22

From one classic to another, and I was tempted to say that they couldn’t be more different – except that the night is a central feature of both. Oh, all right; they couldn’t be more different. This book is also a legend, though, an inspiration for generations of photographers and stylists (If you know The September Issue, the documentary about Vogue magazine, you’ll know that Grace Coddington uses it to spark a series of fashion shots).

Brassaï (it’s a nom de plume derived from his birthplace, now Brasov; he was actually Gulya Halasz) was a Hungarian immigrant in Paris, whose love of photography developed from his love of the city at night – and his first book, Paris de Nuit, was published in 1933. It was a great success…

But one of the reasons for the success of this particular title is the text. Some photographers can write; some cannot – and Brassaï falls wholeheartedly into the first category. His text combines perfectly with the images, creating a complete picture of a vanished world. This isn’t surprising, really; he actually started as a writer who used his photographs to illustrate articles. Brassaï’s photographs are much more than illustrations, though. They stand alone, a highly atmospheric testimony to a world which disappeared not long after they were taken.

Brassaï loved the hidden side of the city, and its more secretive inhabitants. These might be people whose occupation was purely nocturnal, such as the cesspool cleaners above, or those who chose to live mostly by night, the prostitutes, petty criminals and barflies. His concise and misleading reputation is as a photographer of streetwalkers, but these shots are a relatively small section of his work. Of course they’re in here; they were an essential part of the nocturnal city which he documents. And so are the madams…

This is the madam of Suzy,

‘…a small brothel in the Quartier Latin, on the Rue Grégoire des Tours. At night, with its coloured windows, it looked like a chapel lit up for midnight mass … At Suzy, a bell went off as the client opened the door, and he found himself in a kind of booth, as though he had gone to vote. The madam appeared with a wide, salacious grin. She would clap her hands and call out, “Choosing time, ladies!”…’

There was another side to her (but of course), and Brassaï came to know her better and was invited to spend an evening behind the scenes, celebrating her saint’s day. She also had a little salon, quite apart from the ‘work rooms’ upstairs ‘for good clients who just want to drink some champagne with the girls’…

That conforms to the shorthand image of Brassaï’s work, but there’s much more to it. His portraits of individuals are wonderful: people like La Môme Bijou, an extraordinary bejewelled drinker; the beggar in his top hat, and again with his cat Doudou; the cross-dressing drinkers at Le Monocle… There are photographs taken in an opium den, behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, at the Foire du Trône, in gay bars and at the notorious artists’ balls. This was a largely undocumented Paris, well known to its habituées but brought to a much wider audience by Brassaï.

Generally, he worked alone. He did run into problems but not as many as might have been anticipated, given that at the time ‘no one had heard of night photography’. He expresses surprise both at how many doors were opened to him, and at not being shot. The police hauled him off for questioning only three times: they ‘refused to believe that anyone might want to take pictures by the canal at three a.m., and were more inclined to think I had been dumping a body into the greenish water.’ He eventually took to carrying some finished photographs to prove the truth of his tale should it prove necessary.

And through all the book runs an elegiac tone, most apparent in the more general shots of the city in the dark. From up on one of the towers of Notre-Dame, a gargoyle watches over the night-time city; crowds on the terasse of a brightly lit cafe are indistinguishable as individuals from Brassaï’s viewpoint high in the building opposite, and a cop and passerby exchange words under a street light.

Even at the time the photographs were originally taken, there was an air of teetering on the edge of an abyss. Away from the night-time streets, and frequently on them, this was a world of uncertainty and inflation, of widely polarised political opinions and the build up to the Spanish Civil War. Plus, of course, the Occupation – often referred to as ‘les années noires’, the dark years – was just around the corner…

I’m so glad the roll of the dice picked this book for me to read. I’d not looked at it for a while, and it was like running into an old friend.

Someone said to me that I seemed to enjoy all the books the dice selected for me, and questioned whether or not I’d just been picking my favourites. No, I haven’t, but of course the dice have been ‘selecting’ books I like. They’ve already been pre-selected. Anything I don’t like goes straight to Oxfam; not much chance of that happening to this one. Now that would be an exercise of faith, reading only from local charity shops. Hmm…

Riding into the recent past

STOPPING-TRAIN BRITAIN, A RAILWAY ODYSSEY by Alexander Frater, photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur; published 1983

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 8

I have to confess a weakness for trains.

No, nothing truly embarrassing like a tendency to fondle steam engines or collect large pieces of railwayana: I just like trains. Admittedly not the 7.15 to Blackfriars, but happily those commuting days have gone since I upped sticks and left London with cries of glee and a big party. Now, when I use a train, it’s the Cambrian Coast Line. By a curious coincidence that is one of the railway lines featured in this book, which I encountered years and years before I ever dreamed of actually using the line myself.

This book grew out of  a series of articles in the Observer. Alexander Frater wrote for them and, trains or no trains, I would have picked this book up anyway because he had written it. I often reread his Beyond the Blue Horizon – following the route of Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – and Chasing the Monsoon, which does just what it says on the tin. He’s an excellent travel writer, curious and sympathetic, and his style is one I find clear and equally sympathetic.

Stopping-Train Britain was written at a time when many local railway lines were still under the shadow of more Beeching-like cuts. Cars were dominant; by and large you only used a train if there was no alternative, or if you needed to commute to school or work. Green issues were not a factor and oil would last for ever or, if not forever, for the foreseeable future. Local railways either had no future or only a limited one, and an elegiac note pervades the book. ‘Many rural railwaymen,’ says Frater in the introduction, ‘are convinced that within a decade or so, they will have no trains left to operate.’ Now, three decades on, the Settle to Carlisle line is secure; the Cambrian Coast Line is busy with people going to the doctors or out to a celebratory lunch or visiting the market in Machynlleth…

This is a journey back into a recent past.

Frater started off rather romantically – he always does; it’s one of the things I love about his writing: a realism, but a romantic realism – with Edward Thomas’s Adelstrop ringing in his ears. (‘When the country trains have finally gone, that, I suspect, is how many of us will choose to remember them – the last survivors of an age of innocence,’ he adds.) He also started rather haphazardly, which is why the lines he and Alain Le Garsmeur took are somewhat random, both the famous and the more obscure. And they’re not spread across the country either; there’s a collection in the north-west, a couple in Scotland and here in Wales, one in Norfolk and one looping around north London.

But the lines they followed weren’t always like those of Seigfried Sassoon’s or Edward Thomas’s pre-WW1 journeys. A surprising amount remained of those rural lines alive with birdsong, of small trains pottering through woods or over high moorland, but the more modern world had intruded. One line largely owed its survival to the transport of nuclear waste from Windscale (aka Sellafield); another ran though a bleak landscape of abandoned mills and dilapidated housing. And whatever the landscape, the photographs are just right.

Each journey is much more than a simple record of a trip from A to B. It’s the people as well as the lines, the people who both work and travel on rural railways.

Travelling by train gives you time to observe, time to reflect and time to chat, and it’s particularly the latter that brings this book to such vivid life. Frater discovered a community of railway people he liked and admired, people with ‘a strong sense if identity … They had good stories to tell. Patagonia? Who needs it? For a writer there are equally rich veins waiting to be worked in East Anglia or the Western Highlands.’ The other thing he discovered was a deep admiration for the railways:

‘And the more they talked, the more I became aware of the astonishing complexity and richness of railway history, lore and language. It slowly dawned on me that the little diesel rattling along between, say, Shrewsbury and Hereford, is only doing so because for a century and a half generations of engineers have been obsessively solving millions of problems in the cause of a single principle. Every artefact … has been considered, reduced to its logical elements and then resolved, often with surprising elegance and simplicity.’

Maybe I should start collecting railwayana (the spellchecker keeps changing that to ‘railwayman’ – now there’s a thought)… or maybe I should simply celebrate the fact that those railwaymen were wrong when they predicted a fairly swift end for rural rail. Thirty years on from the publication of  Stopping-Train Britain I can take a ten-minute walk down the hill, raise my hand to stop the train and go and do my shopping.

Hooray!

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.