‘Somewhere a’ stories are real, a’ songs are true.’

THE WEE FREE MEN, by Terry Pratchett, published in 2004

Bookcase 3, shelf 8, book 16

Well, that’s a bit of a change from the last book!

Before anything else, a confession. Until a few years ago, I’d not read a word of Terry Pratchett. That was because I knew I wouldn’t like him, right?

Then all my books were in storage, and I was living in a friend’s house for six months.  I had to read the books already on the shelves or bankrupt myself, and I was ‘reduced’ to Pratchett. Within half an hour I knew I’d been making a terrible mistake for years, blinded by stupid prejudice and ridiculous assumptions about genre. His books are wonderful.

But, but, but – I’m still not a huge fan of the earlier books, and there are inevitably some weaker ones (Monstrous Regiment went to a charity shop). I prefer the later Pratchett, the angry Pratchett, the Pratchett of the Night Watch. I wondered what I would do if the dice gave me a Pratchett I didn’t particularly like – admit it, or loyally defend it with qualifications? Happily, they didn’t. I got this.

It’s ostensibly a children’s book, following on from his award-winning Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. But this is darker, fitting in more with the overall atmosphere of Discworld. It centres on Tiffany Aching:

a child who is something of an anomaly in her family, having a deep respect for learning (she reads the dictionary for pleasure) and being a witch in the making. In this she is most closely linked with her recently-deceased grandmother, a shepherd of outstanding ability and status. Tiffany sees things as they really are, not as they ought to be. So when she sees a horrifying monster in the river she knows it is real and reacts appropriately. That means using her sticky baby brother as bait (that’s the ruthless witchiness coming out) and whacking the river-sprite – who is similar to a classic British folk horror – with an iron frying pan. This not surprisingly attracts attention, but the watchers are surprising: some of Pratchett’s most wonderful creations, the Nac Mac Feegle, or the Wee Free Men.

Apart from uttering cries of ‘Crivens! or ‘Oh, waily, waily, waily!’, I’m not sure how to describe the NMF. Hm. They’re wonderful. They’re diminutive fairies, except they don’t have wings, they have tattoos; they don’t tend to do good things unless there’s no other option or they’ve been bribed by promises of Special Sheep Liniment; they’re not cute or twee, they’re Glaswegian. They were thrown out of Fairyland, possibly for being drunk and disorderly. The Feeglespotting poster above, by Paul Kidby – whose illustrations of Discworld I absolutely love – comes from The Art of Discworld, where Pratchett comments ‘The Wee Free Men was launched in Inverness, to see if I survived. I did.’

Let’s whip through a bit of plot. Tiffany’s sticky brother disappears; he’s been knidnapped by the Queen of the Elves in one of her repeated attempts to invade the Discworld; she also invades dreams. Pratchett’s elves are nothing like Tolkien’s; they are immensely dangerous, self-centred beyond belief and wickedly tricksy. Tiffany, aided by the NMF, advice from Miss Tick (itinerant teacher and witch), Miss Tick’s ‘familiar’ (a helpful toad – he’s yellow because he’s unwell, but the actual pun is avoided, thank heavens), and her own natural good sense, sets off to rescue him. Which… no, no plot spoilers… it’s not a long book; read it to find out what happens.

But that’s just the plot. For me the main themes are more to do with being true to yourself, dealing with bereavement and understanding the power of the land. The high chalk, Tiffany’s country, is almost another character, a perpetual presence which is powerfully described. Pratchett says that ‘there’s a lot of my past in some of the descriptions in the book’, and you can tell. Let’s hope that’s mainly confined to his wonderful descriptions of the landscape, and not to any personal acquaintance with any small, aggressive, smelly (Tiffany makes them bathe), kilted and armed pictsies [sic]…

‘Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!’

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…

Alas, poor Fred

FRED, by Posy Simmonds, published 1987

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 7

This book is a legend. I love it. I can even recite parts of it, but that’s not surprising: it’s not the longest work in the literary canon. It’s magnificent.

Ahem.

Yet again the dice have given me a children’s book. They keep landing on bookcase 4, shelf 3, and that’s where I have some kids’ books. But they’re not all children’s titles; it’s also where I have my bandes dessinées and Fred resides with those, next to Posy Simmonds’ other books such as Tamara DreweGemma Bovery and the collections of strips she did for the Guardian.

So what – or who, rather – is Fred? Well, if you don’t already know, Fred is a cat. But he’s not just any cat, as becomes evident after his death.

Sophie and Nick, the children to whom Fred ‘belongs’, are very sad about the death of their beloved pet.

He didn’t do much (he liked sleeping, as you may have gathered), but they loved him deeply, and most of the people they tell think of him fondly too: ‘He used to sleep on my dustbin’, ‘We’ll miss him, he used to sleep on our wall…’

But then night comes, and Sophie is awakened by a strange noise outside. Not surprisingly, she is so astonished by what she sees that she wakes her brother and drags him into the garden. Well, it’s not every day you see a cat in a top hat, and one that looks normal – in as much as that is possible. It’s Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, in fact, dressed like a Victorian undertaker.

Sophie approaches. ‘Puss… puss… ‘ and is immediately rebuffed: ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON!’ This is not a world in which you talk down to cats, because they talk back.

Especially this night.

It is, you see, Fred’s funeral. That’s his proper funeral, not the one the family had earlier, the one where they buried him underneath the buddleia and Sophie made a little paper gravestone with ‘Fred’ written on it. That was hopelessly inadequate. Because Fred, it transpires, was a rock star.

Posy Simmonds once described him as the ‘Roy Orbison of the car world’. (His band, incidentally, are The Heavy Saucers.)

A large crowd of mourners, including two dogs and three mice as well as the two humans, gather for the ceremony. Most carry flowers, some clutch laurel wreathes, a sniffling kitten holds an album sleeve. Everyone joins in the funeral song (‘Meeeow! Meooooo! O Caterwauley wailey-woe!) and, one by one, they lie flowers on the grave. Sophie and Nick don’t have anything, so they contribute – Sophie makes Nick contribute, that is – Nick’s ‘special wabbit’, his soft toy.

And then they all go off to the funeral tea in the dustbins, it being the eve of rubbish day, taking a short cut through the children’s house. The celebrations are beautifully drawn, as is everything, with meticulous attention to detail – the teddy-boy cats in brothel creepers, a couple of mice in leather jackets (while I’m on details, the endpapers are worth looking at, too). All drawn, of course, with Posy Simmonds’ wit and touch, which avoids the twee, the sentimental and the cloying. Completely.

The noise of the wake brings an inevitable end to the ceremony as it wakes up the street (‘Oh, those blessed cats!’, ‘What an unholy din!’, Here, I’ve got a saucepan of water…’). The cats disappear and the children trail back to bed.

And in the morning? It’s all very odd. There’s a trail of muddy paw prints through the house. The daisies have all been picked. Nick’s rabbit is in the garden – and Sophie’s improvised grave marker has been replaced.

(The observant will notice, looking back at the scene, a ginger cat walking away along the wall. Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, no doubt.)

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!

Wibble wobble

WOBBLE TO DEATH by Peter Lovesey, 1970; my rather battered edition, 1980.

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 27

Sometimes life just gets in the way, and so do self-imposed rules. The rules of this project dictate that I must read what the dice select.

Life, on the other hand, has ensured that I just haven’t had the time to give The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England my full attention. Actually, I probably never will, and it was never my area of archaeology, so why I’ve got this title baffles me. It’s time to overturn those self-imposed rules (I knew this would happen sooner or later, but I’ve been so good that making the decision was difficult) and roll those dice again.

Phew – detective fiction! Extremely tatty, pages-falling-away-from-the-binding-because-I’ve-read-it-so-often detective fiction. I love this book.

Actually, I love Peter Lovesey’s books. Some more than others, but I have been known to track them down in France, where classy detective fiction is properly valued  (I even found one on a station bookstall, and Un flic et des limiers (aka Bloodhounds) kept me thoroughly entertained during a boring journey). But the Inspector Cribb titles are my favourites, and that accounts for the shocking condition of this one. Some are, at last, being reissued, so it may be time for a replacement, but for ages it was only available – even through Abebooks – as a large-print edition. Shameful…

Ahem.

Wobble To Death is the first of the Sergeant Cribb books, and was originally published as the result of a competition.

Submitting it was cheeky, because the book itself is set in a competition – an six-day endurance walking contest in Victorian London (‘for cruelty, knuckle-fighting don’t compare with it’), in which a star contestant is knocked off.

It’s immaculately plotted, but that’s not what draws me back. It’s the context, I think: the meticulously researched world of London in 1879. Of course the quality of the writing and the tightness of the plot are essential, but the whole atmosphere of this book – and of the others involving Cribb – is something I find addictive.

The basic setting may seem unlikely (most of us only know of similar contests from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), but such races were not unusual, and Wobble to Death was inspired by Lovesey’s interest in the history of athletics.

But it’s everything else you want from a good who-done-it as well, not just the interesting result of thorough research and understanding. It grabs me right from the very start, from a cold November Monday midnight – the wobble starts at 1 a.m. – in Islington.

‘The 12.05 a.m. trundled out of Highbury and Islington station and along the line. Its rhythmic snorts were replaced by unmechanical sounds. Harsh, stomach-wrenching coughs echoed in the tunnel leading to the platform. Then the clatter of heavily shod boots and shoes. The unexpected influx of midnight passengers massed at the barrier, every one muffled to the eyebrows and topped with a cap or bowler. A ticket collector, scowling under his cheese-cutter, came out to draw back the grille. They filed through, out of the booking hall and into a dense fog.’

That unprepossessing collection are the Press, come to report on the contest. By Tuesday, one of the main contestants is dead. Accident, a consequence of the disgusting conditions in the Agricultural Halls? The result of doping (yes, it was happening over a century ago)? Deliberate interference? And when Sergeant Cribb – and his long-suffering assistant Constable Thackeray – are called in to investigate, a whole series of revelations expose a variety of deceptions. Oh, and a murderer. In the end…

I am glad I bent the rules. Normally I hesitate about re-reading detective fiction, but this – and Lovesey’s other books – doesn’t suffer if you can remember who did it. As it happened, I couldn’t – or not until the last few pages, anyway. Whether that matters or not is the mark of a truly good murder mystery.

Violence and small racoons

BENJAMIN AND TULIP, by Rosemary Wells, my edition – which belonged, perhaps worryingly but not at all surprisingly for anyone who knew her, to my mother – 1973

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 23

This rather appropriately battered little children’s book is profoundly shocking. It should not be allowed.

(Er, maybe I should point out that I am being ironic here. I love this book, and am so glad the dice picked it for me. But Benjamin and Tulip is startling, particularly if you’ve been fed a diet of sanitised children’s books.)

For  book of – oh – about 200 words, it’s pretty comprehensive. It covers:

  • violence (and that’s violence which could just possibly have sexual overtones),
  • inappropriate – to some – role reversal,
  • adults who cannot be trusted to protect you,
  • adults who cannot even be trusted to believe you when you’re a victim of violence.

See? Shocking.

So ready yourselves.

Benjamin and Tulip are small – well, I’m not quite sure, but I think they’re racoons. Tulip, according to Benjamin’s Aunt Fern, is ‘that sweet little girl’:

Benjamin knows differently. Every time he passes her home, she threatens to beat him up.

‘This is my brand new suit,’ said Benjamin.
‘I’m going to mess it up!’ said Tulip.

And she did. 

Poor Benjamin. His sister Natalie knows exactly what’s going on: ‘Looks like he’s been in a fight with Tulip again, and it looks like he got the worst of it.’ His aunt, however, persists in her belief that Tulip is a sweet little girl and sends him to the store for more watermelon (Tulip smashed the one he’d been sent to get earlier).

‘This time,’ said Aunt Fern, ‘come back with the watermelon and without bothering that sweet little Tulip, or you can forget about dinner tonight.’

He has to go right past Tulip’s house – again.

Time for a little preventative action this time, and Benjamin zooms straight up a tree when he sees Tulip, who threatens him  – ‘You’re cruising for a bruising’ – from below. Resignation has set in; he’s prepared to wait up his tree all night if he has to.

But Tulip climbs up, and wordlessly edges along the branch to where a nervous Benjamin is perched, still holding his watermelon. Then the branch suddenly bends, then it snaps and they both plummet down, followed by the watermelon.

However, Benjamin lands on Tulip, and the watermelon lands on Benjamin’s head, and suddenly something snaps in Benjamin too:

‘There!’

Of course there’s only one thing to do with a smashed watermelon and that’s eat it (oh, and spit the pips at each other – more undesirable behaviour being encouraged by Rosemary Wells).

And eat it in a new spirit of mutual respect:

This book still cracks me up.

It’s a splendid combination of the rather laconic writing (‘Where is the watermelon?’ asked Aunt Fern. ‘Back a ways,’ said Benjamin) and the wonderfully expressive illustrations. Tulip radiates malevolent glee; the expression on Benjamin’s face as he waits for her to reach him on the end of the branch says more about his state of mind than all the words in the world.

I’ve always liked Rosemary Wells’ work, but Benjamin and Tulip is in a slightly different league – some of her books are a little, well, anodyne. Not this one. Track it down and let yourself be shocked…

A vanished world

A PHOTOGRAPHER IN OLD PEKING by Hedda Morrison, published in 1985

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 9.

It’s very strange. This ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise has thrown up some oddities, and in this case it’s given me a book I cannot recollect buying. I can’t remember it at all, though I have a vague recollection of finding some books on China in a second-hand bookshop when I was on holiday once. I wonder if this was one of them? It’s been driving me mad. After ages in the book trade, I do not forget books.

Er – except I evidently do.

The next thing that baffled me about it was why I’d not shelved it with my photography books. And then I opened it, and I knew why (so I’d evidently looked at it at some time to make the assessment). There’s a fine line between a photograph which is simply a document and one which has artistic ambitions, and sometimes time alone is enough to cause an overlap. Sometimes it isn’t – and there’s nothing wrong with documenting what you see, of course.

For me, Hedda Morrison’s photographs fall onto the documentary side. What is most interesting about them is the time and place, not the composition, lighting, thought processes. But that was probably inevitable, given the circumstances in which she worked…

Hedda Morrison went to Peking in 1933. A German national, she ‘was anxious to work overseas as I had no sympathy for the Germany of the time’, and answered an ad asking for someone to take charge of a German-owned photographic studio in China.

Her family saw her off in 1933 a little apprehensively – really, Hedda? – and gave her protective gifts: an umbrella and a pistol. The way you do. Her contract was for five years; she stayed on, finally leaving in 1946 when she got married. (I know all this because A Photographer in Old Peking isn’t just a collection of photographs; there is plenty of background text to set both the shots and the photographer in context.)

Most of the time she used Rolleiflex twin-lens relax cameras, which were ‘perfect’, she says – but the same could not be said of the flash available, of course. It could be dangerous, and on one occasion she did manage to set herself alight, so there are not many shots of interiors. As a result she had to either work outside or ask people to keep as still as possible. This is part of the reason why so many of the photographs look rather carefully posed: they were. 

But they are often fascinating, too. The cut-out maker, surrounded by his delicate stencils (‘in a multitude of patterns, for home and window decorations’) is one example, and there are many others. The text is a mixture of informative – and occasionally slightly didactic – and atmospheric. Morrison manages to conjure up the atmosphere of pre-War Peking – streets sounding with the noises of hawkers’ clappers; funerals and weddings; lofts of pigeons; crickets in cages, night-watchmen patrolling the streets. And very, very, very different streets (not many camel trains). She isn’t romantic about it, however.

They seem to belong to an unchanging China – a complete illusion – though one, of course, which was about to undergo the most massive change which no-one could fail to notice. When Hedda Morrison went back (which she did in 1948 and then, later, in 1979 and 1982), she was stunned by the extent of the changes, even though many significant ones had already begun while she was already there.

Despite appearances, her China was not an imperial one; the Forbidden City was already largely open to the public. But the later developments were massive, and it’s one thing knowing about them in theory, but it’s another being confronted with the reality. And for a photographer, the most significant one must have been the pollution, as she laments: ‘the brilliant light of north China has lost its shine to a layer of smog.’ But ‘change had to come and I have no doubt that the people today are infinitely better off and live under a much fairer system’. Check out the photograph below, and the size of the woman’s feet, for instance… hmm.

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.

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.)