Torn from Home – Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust.  But not just The Holocaust.  It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.

If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that.  Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France.   Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpetrators and bystanders.  We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films.   There is thus a vast archive of material on which  we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.

If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘Torn from Home’.

This reminded me of an early blog post, published on 16 July 2012, the 70th anniversary of the massive round-up of Parisian Jews, which heralded the start of mass deportations to Auschwitz.

Thursday 16 July.   At 4 in the morning, it is still very dark.  The streets are deserted, the doors and windows closed.  But on this early Thursday morning, police cars are converging on pre-arranged spots, carrying officers and civilian assistants.   They consult their instructions, block the streets.   Each small team has a list of names and addresses.  Alongside the police vehicles, buses are parked along the pavements, awaiting their passengers.  At the appointed moment, the teams go in.  They knock.  ‘Police – open up!’.

The occupants are escorted to the buses, and taken on to one of two destinations – single adults to transit camps, including a half-built housing estate on the edge of the city,  recently cleared of many of its occupants to make room for this influx, and families to a nearby sports stadium.    At the latter, no food or water is provided.  It’s mid-July, and once the building is sealed, the heat rapidly becomes oppressive.  The few working toilets don’t work for long.  The people in the stadium are afraid, and some in despair throw themselves from the balconies to the floor below.  A few manage to use the general chaos to slip out, provided that the police at the entry are either sufficiently distracted, or willing to be suddenly inattentive.  A few manage to get themselves transferred to hospital (this may prove to be only a temporary respite).  Once space in the transit camp has been cleared again, the families in the stadium are transported there.   Until the trains take them, too, to their final destination.

Thursday 16 July 1942, Paris.  The Vel’ d’Hiv round up, named after the sports stadium used to house the Jews who were dragged from their homes that morning and in the hours that followed.   Drancy camp, next stop en route to Auschwitz.   13,152 were arrested, of whom 5802 were women, and 4051 children.  Some of the adults – less than 3% – made it home after the Liberation, to search fruitlessly for news of their children at the Hotel Lutétia. None of the children came home.

It wasn’t the first round-up, but it was the first to seize women, children, babies, the elderly, the sick. It gave the lie to the official explanation, that the Jews who were being interned were heading to labour camps in the east. And the sight of it, for some witnesses at least, and for some of those who escaped the net this time, was a catalyst that led to resistance.

Torn from home.

But the process had started well before that July morning. The process had begun with rhetoric, feeding on the anti-semitism that was so strongly present in French politics. The Dreyfus affair which had divided the country had been concluded (with the full exoneration and restoration of military honours to Captain Dreyfus) less than forty years earlier. (Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz. ) The anti-Dreyfusard contingent had continued to be active in nationalist and often explicitly anti-semitic politics and the Occupation gave them their opportunity. (Indeed, Charles Maurras of Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.) From the very beginning of the Occupation, anti-Jewish sentiment was nurtured, rewarded and disseminated.

Exhibitions were held using stereotypical images of Jews, and portraying a narrative of covert networks of Jews controlling the financial sector and influencing political decision making. (In our own time there has been a resurgence of this narrative, purveyed by both the far right and by the left, invoking, for example, George Soros and the Rothschild dynasty.) This kind of propaganda was not new to the French. The anti-Dreyfus press used such caricatures and stereotypes to attack both Dreyfus personally, and by extension all Jews.

 
The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.
http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/collections/PersonalWebs/Dreyfus/Pages/viralnatureantisemitism.aspx


The Nazi message was in itself therefore not radical or shocking. And to a nation reeling after a sudden and unequivocal defeat, the handy provision of a scapegoat was, to some at least, very welcome. The propaganda went hand in hand with the implementation of a range of measures designed to say to all Jews, whether French citizens or immigrants, that they were not at home. It was all done incrementally – Jewish businesses had to declare themselves with posters in the windows, Jews had to register at the police station, Jews could only travel in the last carriage on the Metro, Jews could only shop between certain hours of the day, Jews could not go to the cinema or the swimming baths, Jewish businesses had to be owned by an Aryan, Jews were barred from an extensive list of professions, Jews could not attend University, Jews had to wear a yellow star sewn securely on to their coats… Every step led closer to the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp, but by stealth.

Louise Doughty’s novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, describes this process – and how it reaches its conclusion – vividly:

How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss.  You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have.  When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine.  Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads.  Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more.  Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in.  When we got here, they took those.  They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp.  So many people have been separated from their families.  Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)

The Jews of France – many of them, at least – accommodated themselves stage by stage with the restrictions that were placed upon their freedoms. Until the round-up, the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp. Because each new restriction was designed to say to them, whether they were French for generations or new arrivals, you are not at home, can never be at home here.

The round-ups went on, right to the bitter end. As Allied troops were fighting their way through France after D-Day, Jews were still being arrested, herded into cattle trucks and deported to their deaths. Helene Berr and her parents, French for generations, were arrested in March 1944. The 1942 round-ups had targeted ‘foreign’ Jews, but by this time such distinctions were irrelevant. The Berrs were clearly being watched – they’d moved from place to place for months, staying with friends but never for very long, and went home just for one night. The knock on the door came the following morning.

And for those few who survived, the idea of ‘coming home’ was never really going to be possible. When they arrived at the gare de l’Est, they were often unrecognisable even to their closest friends and family. They were broken, physically and mentally. They were changed, utterly.

The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers.

(Levy & Tilly, p. 229)

They returned to find that they were alone, that everyone they cared about had perished. They returned to the place where neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.

I began this piece by explaining why, on Holocaust Memorial Day each year, I often focus on this particular bit of history, on what happened in France during the years of Nazi Occupation. There’s another reason.

Anti-semitic rhetoric, racist language, xenophobia, are all more prevalent today than for a long time. No one is suggesting that we are on the road to Auschwitz, but if we let ourselves become immunised to the shock of this language and of overtly hostile behaviour to perceived ‘foreigners’ we risk being numb to worse things. As we leave the community of Europe behind that risk is too great to ignore. As the hard right targets Muslims and Eastern Europeans, and invokes George Soros as a hate figure, whilst the left invokes the Rothschilds and a worldwide Zionist conspiracy, we have to speak out.

Britain is home to people from all over the world. It always has been. It must continue to be. We must never contemplate with equanimity the idea that anyone whose home is here might fear a knock on the door, might be interned indefinitely awaiting deportation, might be sent back to somewhere where their life is at risk because of their politics, their religion, their sexuality. We must never contemplate with equanimity our colleagues and neighbours being told to ‘go home’, that they’re not welcome any more. We must never contemplate with equanimity the casual slurs; the stereotyping of people of a particular nationality or religion; the language of ‘queue jumpers’, of ‘citizens of nowhere’, of ‘swarms’; the repetition of lazy untruths, whether about the largesse handed out to refugees or about the truth of the Holocaust.

The Jews of France registered without much protest when required to do so. They did not believe, could not believe, that anything too terrible could happen to them in the land of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, a land that for some had been home for generations, and for others that had offered a haven when persecution drove them from another country. They could not see where this path was leading. We know.

SOURCES

Helene Berr – Journal (trans. David Bellos, Quercus, 2008)

Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark (Harper, 2005)

Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Tallandier, 2010)

Renee Poznanski – Jews in France during World War II (Brandeis Univ. Press, 2001)

http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/collections/PersonalWebs/Dreyfus/Pages/default.aspx

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Rhymes

A fascinating and troubling reflection on history and on today, from Phil Davis’ excellent A Darkened Room blog.

A darkened room

We’ve been on holiday in America. Again raising the question ‘How does a country full of such interesting people elect a parody Twitter account as President’?

The logistics of the trip left us in Washington on the day we were to fly home. In the middle of a Government shutdown. Washington is pretty much a company town. When the Government shuts down, then the City (or at least the eclectic collection of Government and civic institutions and museums that make up the charmingly titled ‘National Mall’) shuts down too. The one exception was the Holocaust museum, sited in a suitably sober building just off the Washington Monument. With only a couple of hours before we had to go to the airport, we couldn’t take in more than a fraction of the museum, and so, following advice, we took a guided tour of the ‘America and the Holocaust’ exhibition, which explores…

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2018 – the best bits

Family circumstances make it unlikely I will have time to do my usual detailed breakdown of my favourite TV programmes, books, music and so forth for the year just about to end. I managed the film review, but for now, I will make do with mere lists, and hope to have time at some later point to talk a bit more about why.

TOP TV – not ranked in any way!

  • Derry Girls
  • Black Earth Rising
  • They Shall Not Grow Old
  • No Offence
  • Strike
  • The A Word
  • Killing Eve
  • A Very English Scandal
  • Bodyguard
  • Star Trek: Discovery
  • Agents of Shield
  • Humans
  • Hidden
  • The Bridge
  • The Walking Dead
  • Unforgotten
  • Doctor Who
  • The Cry
  • Treme
  • Secrets of Cinema
  • Black Hollywood

 

2018 in Music

 

Books of the Year

  • Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
  • Naomi Alderson – The Power
  • Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know
  • Thomas Mullen – Darktown
  • Cath Staincliffe – Girl in a Green Dress
  • Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk
  • Lawrence Wright – The Looming Tower
  • Stephen King – The Outsider
  • Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho
  • Sarah Hilary – Come and Find Me
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
  • Stephen King & Owen King – Sleeping Beauties
  • Eva Dolan – This is How it Ends
  • Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad
  • Paul Dobraszczyk – The Dead City
  • Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
  • Caitlin Moran – How to be Famous
  • Henry Marsh – Do No Harm
  • Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale
  • Dervla McTierney – The Ruin
  • Keith Richards – Life

And a mention also to the Crucible Theatre production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to Philippe Sands’ superb podcast, The Ratline

Thanks to all who shared these delights with me – the usual suspects (Martyn, Arthur, Viv, Ruth, Liz, Jane).  

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2018 on screen – the best bits

These are my picks for films of 2018.  As usual, I’m resisting the urge to rank these, because they’re so diverse, but there is a top 3 which I will reveal shortly.

2018 had two huge additions to the Marvel cinematic universe. Black Panther has a significance that goes way beyond its contribution to the Avengers’ narrative arc. It gives us, all of us, a cast that is overwhelmingly made up of people of colour. Good guys and bad guys and somewhere in between. And not just guys – a whole lot of magnificent, clever women too. The film had, as one might have expected, a huge impact on black audiences. It’s not that they hadn’t ever seen people who look like them on screen, or even in superhero movies, but up front and centre? All over the damn screen? But it had an impact on all of us, I think. It didn’t make a big deal of what it was doing, it just got on with it, as this review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places, points out:

The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is.  For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume. … Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.



It worked on every level – there was much fighting, and things exploded, and there was moral ambiguity, and there was witty dialogue. And it was visually stunning – our first view of Wakanda was breathtaking.

And then there’s Avengers: Infinity War. Now normally I walk out of the cinema after a Marvel movie with a big daft smile on my face. Not this time. I was braced for deaths – I thought I knew what was coming and did a bit of advance grieving for my most-loved Avenger (Captain, oh, my Captain). What we got was much more confusing than that. We lost so many, but not the ones we expected to lose – in fact, many of those who we saw turn to dust were the ones we know absolutely can’t be gone. It’s fine that in fantasy death is not always the end – why bother creating a fantasy world if it has to obey all of the same rules as the real one? – but the risk is always that death loses its sting if we too often can just nod sagely to each other and say, ‘they’ll be back’. So, which of these deaths are going to stick, and which will be reversed? We have to wait until April 2019 to find out.

The Last Jedi features

a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.

As I’ve said previously, Star Wars isn’t my thing, although I’ve very much enjoyed The Force Awakens, Rogue One and this one. But I don’t feel quite the exhilaration that the true fans feel at the resurgence of the series, nor can I understand the sense of betrayal from fans who believe that the recent films get it wrong.

Annihilation was released on Netflix so we saw it on the small screen. It’s a shame – it’s visually stunning and would have really benefited from being shown in the full cinema setting. However, it’s a superb sci-fi film, which has the courage to leave plenty of ambiguity, right to the end. And, refreshingly, the crack team that’s sent in to try to investigate the mysterious ‘Shimmer’ is made up of women – scientists and a paramedic. That’s one of the areas of ambiguity – were they chosen solely because of their specialist expertise, regardless of gender, or is their gender a factor in their selection, that the failure of successive teams of military men to emerge from the Zone is actually to do with gender?

A Quiet Place was one of the tensest ninety minutes I can recall (and I endured Forest’s last ditch Championship survival on goal difference a couple of seasons ago). It was initially a hard sell – you watch this film, you have to sign up to the discipline of no coughing, no rustling of crisp packets or sweet wrappers, no sotto voce asides to your neighbour. Silence is survival in this world, and we rapidly become part of it, as we see how this family has adapted every detail of their life to enable them to function in silence. It’s made very clear early on that the peril is real, and it gets realler. We watched this on the small screen but there was never any question of hitting pause to fetch a cuppa or go to the toilet. We sat so very still that my Fitbit thought I’d had a 90 minute sleep…

First Man was 60s science fiction become reality, portraying the build-up to the 1969 moon landing, focusing on Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on another world. Armstrong (as portrayed here by Ryan Gosling) was in many ways a hard man to root for, his emotional distance shown vividly in the final scene, where after his return to earth and still in quarantine, his reunion with his wife is through the barrier of a pane of glass.

A rather odd (and atypical) review in The New Yorker complained that:

there’s no sense of what Neil’s perspective might be on the Twist, the Beatles, or anything else going on in the turbulent sixties.

I can’t say I was particularly troubled by that – it is actually refreshing to reflect that probably most people in the sixties were not caught up in that cultural maelstrom. The reviewer goes on to claim that:

Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly—those pesky intellectuals, blacks, and Hispanics who go on TV or into the street demanding “gimme” while the likes of Neil and his exclusively white, male colleagues uncomplainingly put their lives on the line to accomplish historic things in the interest of “mankind.” 

This seems to me an extraordinary claim. Nothing in the movie suggested to me either that Armstrong’s emotional closedness was being lauded (indeed, the damage to himself and to his family was very clearly shown), or that Chazelle was pushing some kind of MAGA patriotic agenda. A much more perceptive – but not uncritical – review appeared in The Culture Vulture .

One of the most striking things about the film was the sensation of the physical reality both of the machines that transported these men into space, and of the claustrophobia of being strapped into those machines – the sheer noise, the jolting and juddering, the shots of sheets of metal held together by nuts and bolts. We’re used to space craft as bright white shiny machines, not as something that might have been built in someone’s garage. I watched that first landing on TV, having been allowed a special dispensation to stay up after normal bedtime. Back then it might as well have been sci-fi – in First Man it’s science, it’s engineering, it’s mechanics and it’s fragile human bodies making it all work.

Three Billboards featured the redoubtable Frances McDormand, who was as magnificent as one might have expected. McDormand’s Mildred wasn’t readily likeable, even when she was being admirable, and she got it horribly wrong in many ways, but she was a powerful presence.

The heart of the film was Woody Harrelson’s police chief, trying to find the best in everyone. And the moment that touched me most was when as they confront each other he is racked by a cough that spatters blood over both of them, and she says, ‘oh, baby’, as she realises how very ill he is. It’s often a brutal film, and often brutally funny.

Cold War is a musical history of postwar Europe, shot in luminous black and white, a story of doomed lovers who find and lose and find and lose and find each other, always searching, never settling. The film’s last line is “Let’s go to the other side. The view is better from there”. 

The lovers’ story is told through music, from the raw rural folk that Wiktor and Irena are attempting to record, to the ‘Stalinisation’ of that tradition, the Parisian jazz and chanson that they immerse themselves in after their defection and back to the bastardised pop of Zula’s final performance. The chill referred to in the title is political and personal. Irena stands up during the first full-on Stalinised performance and walks out, never to be seen, or spoken of again. Zula admits in passing to having informed on Wiktor. Those were the realities, but they’re not underlined or over-explained. It’s beautiful and devastating.

My final pick for 2018 is Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful, as is Laurie Metcalf (always one of the best things about Roseanne). As a former teenage girl, and more recently as the mother of a teenage girl, I identified with both the eponymous Lady Bird (aka Christine) and with her mother Marion. This was real, and touching, and often very funny. There were scenes that I could swear were ripped from my own life:

Do you really need to use two towels?
Ah… No, I guess no.
If you need two towels you just have to say so because this affects my whole day. Because I have to do laundry before work, and I need to know if there are more towels that I need to wash.

Family life, summed up in one short exchange. And then there’s the sequence where mother and daughter attempt to choose a prom dress. I laughed and winced.

OK, so I kind of committed myself to a top 3. Black Panther, A Quiet Place, Three Billboards. Such very different films, which is why I’m not willing to rank them within that top 3. I hope the comments above explain why I’ve chosen them.

Honourable mentions to: Death of Stalin (Jason Isaacs!), the Showroom’s Bergman season of which I managed to see only Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night, and their Varda season of which I saw only Jacquot de Nantes. Both seasons whetted my appetite for more from those directors. I particularly loved the humour and warmth of Agnes Varda’s love letter to her husband, Jacques Demy. Also the first part of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which was infinitely better than the previous version, and the second part of which I await eagerly.

It’s also important to recognise the old movies that I enjoyed this year. A bit of a Powell & Pressburger retrospective with Blimp, A Matter of Life & Death, and I Know Where I’m Going. Lord, those guys were brilliant. And a couple of Billy Wilders – the familiar (Some Like it Hot) and the new to me The Apartment (I’d seen the Bacharach musical based on the story but not the movie). Rewatched West Side Story as a birthday treat, and had my annual sobfest watching It’s a Wonderful Life just before Xmas.

Small screen will have to be a separate blog. Given current family pressures, it may be more of a list than a blog, but hey-ho, that’s how it goes. I also hope to look at how the Bechdel test stands up in terms of contemporary films, where it still has validity and importance and where it falls down.

Thanks to those who’ve shared these cinematic pleasures with me (Arthur, Viv, Martyn, Liz).

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Danube Diary

I wouldn’t have expected, even a few months ago, to have been sailing up the Danube on a luxury floating hotel.  But my 90 year old father, who is partially sighted and deaf, needed a companion for his chosen cruise holiday, and, well, someone had to step up to the plate.  Someone had to take one for the team.  And it was fabulous.

The chances that I’ll ever be able to do it again are remote but if I could, I would, and if you can, do.  (Riviera Travel, highly recommended (no, I’m not on commission…) – everything fantastically well organised, and the boat fantastically well appointed).  

We arrived in Budapest on Day 1, too late to do any more than enjoy looking at the city lights as we had dinner.  And then the real magic thing about a river cruise – you nod off to sleep and when you wake up you open the curtains to somewhere new. 

Ezstergom, once the capital of Hungary, and now known for its basilica, the top of which apparently is and must by law remain the highest point in the country.  Then onwards, and from Hungary to Slovakia, and its capital city, Bratislava. 

That November afternoon as we sailed on up river it was unseasonably warm, and we sat out on the sun deck.  The river was so quiet, all we could hear was the low hum of the boat’s engines, and the splash of the cormorants’ wings as they skimmed the water.  I can’t remember when I last felt such peace.  

On the cabin TV there was a channel which just showed the view from the camera on the front of the boat, all day and night.  I took to leaving it on as I fell asleep, loving the tranquillity.  (It was also reassuring when we were going through some huge locks, and things got a bit bumpy). 

The first view of Bratislava from our mooring point was less than prepossessing, but the old city is beautiful.  And part of the fascination of these cities that once lay behind the Iron Curtain is the juxtaposition of utilitarian concrete blocks from the Communist era with the rich baroque heritage.  Many of the plaques in Bratislava commemorate the Second World War rather differently to those in Western Europe, mainly recording the heroism of the Red Army that liberated them from the Nazis.  But others record the corrective to that simplistic version of history, as with this memorial to Anton Petrak:

For a history buff with a particular obsession with WWII and the postwar period, this stuff is obviously richly fascinating. And our local guide added to the story, with his parents’ memories of the Prague Spring, and of how after the fall of Communism the country split (‘without so much as a referendum’, our guide said, in one of many ironic Brexit references during the trip). 

I’ll go back to Bratislava, if I can, and explore properly.  

Onwards.  En route, on the sun deck again, we glimpse a castle on the shoreline, Devin castle.

We slip quietly into Austria.  Next stop Durnstein.  We’ve lost the sun now, it’s a bit misty in the morning, which means the photos don’t do justice to the cruel crags above the village, and the ruined castle. (According to legend, Richard II of England was imprisoned there, and his loyal minstrel Blondel found him by singing outside the fortresses of Europe until he heard Richard joining in.  Well, I did say it was a legend).  

Durnstein is gorgeous, beautiful old – really, really old – buildings, and a fabulously ornate church.  Back to the boat for lunch and on to Melk Abbey.

No photos allowed inside, but a really fascinating tour of a very imaginatively organised museum within this still functioning Benedictine abbey.  

Next day we are moored at Linz.  We’ve been forewarned that we’re going to be double parked, so we don’t fling open our curtains in the morning inadequately clad, only to see the passengers on another boat staring back. Another misty morning. 

Some of our group go for a tour of Linz, but we board a coach and head off to Salzburg, which is just as fascinating and picturesque as I would have imagined. 

It’s also my first sight of Stolpersteine, literally stumbling stones, plaques set into the cobbles of the city, commemorating those of its citizens who were  murdered by the Nazis, usually adjacent to the houses where they lived.  There are over 70,000 of these across Europe, and whilst some cities have rejected this particular way of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, the project has prompted them to find alternatives, ways of giving back to those people the names and the homes and the stories that the Nazis took from them, along with their lives. 

These two Stolpersteine commemorate Catholic priests who were murdered by the Nazis.  Father Gottfried Neunhauserer died at Schloss Hartheim, used by the Nazis for their T4 euthanasia programme, and the place where thousands of prisoners from Dachau, Ravensbruck and Mauthausen were taken to be gassed.  He’d been a patient in Salzburg-Lehen mental hospital from 1920, and was taken to Hartheim in 1941 where he was murdered.

Brother Jakob Furtsch was murdered in Ravensbruck in 1943. He’d been expelled from his abbey in 1942, and went back to his home town, Neuensee, where he was arrested as a dissident and deported to Dachau, then to Ravensbruck. 

We also saw plaques for Rudolf Erich Muller, a Catholic convert arrested as a Jew in November 1938, deported to Vienna and then to Theresienstadt where he was murdered,  and Karl Rinnerthaler, a school janitor, who died in 1948 due to the injuries he’d received in various prisons, after his arrest in 1942 as a member of the illegal Austrian Revolutionary Socialist resistance group. 

So through chance, in just a small area of the city,  we encountered these stories which convey so much about the Nazi horror.  A victim of Aktion T4, a worker who took part in resistance activities, a Jew and a Catholic dissident.  

We’d sailed straight past Vienna on our way to Linz, so now we head back there. 

Obviously, there is no possibility of doing justice to Vienna in the time we have, though our guide is (as they all have been) well informed and does a brilliant job of showing us as much as we can in the time.  I will have to come back some time.  

That evening we have a classical string quartet performing on the boat.  Yes, they do play the Blue Danube waltz (I guess it was a contractual obligation) but also some Mozart and Haydn.  I quite fancied a bit of Schoenberg but there you go… More seriously, it was lovely, and well pitched for the audience.  (My father has fond memories of a previous Danube cruise where there were such concerts on board most days, as well as musical outings in several of the cities they visited, including one in Vienna with the orchestra all in full 18th-century costume. ) 

We’re on the last leg now.  Onwards to Budapest.  But the low water levels which have been causing problems for river traffic means that we aren’t going to get there in time for a proper visit, so instead we dock again at Esztergom and get a coach to Budapest, whilst our boat carries on (less heavy laden!) without us, to meet us again for our last night on board after we’ve toured Budapest. 

Despite this, the daylight is already fading once we have the chance to walk around the city.  We look around Heroes’ Square, and then on to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic/neo-Romanesque terrace which provides a wonderful vista of the old city, as the lights come on. Then we’re back to the boat for a gala dinner, and a performance of Hungarian folk music and dance to mark our final evening.  

We didn’t get to see the Shoes on the bank of the Danube due to the rescheduling of that final day.  Our Hungarian tour manager couldn’t speak of this, of its history and meaning, and of the fact that people still leave flowers there,  without choking up.  I will record it even though I didn’t see it for myself. 

Film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created this memorial on the east bank of the Danube.  Many Hungarian Jews were murdered even before the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944.  But in those last months of the war, as the Red Army surrounded Budapest, the murder of those who remained was regarded as an urgent priority, hampered by the fact that they could no longer deport to the death camps. So, with the help of the fascist Arrow Cross militia, 3,500 people, including 800 Jews, were taken to the banks of the river, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot, so that they fell into the river. 

This trip has been full of such contrasts.  The picturesque alongside the reminders of genocide.  The Communist concrete blocks alongside the baroque.  If I get the chance to come back to these cities, it’s these contrasts that I will want to explore. I want to find the Stolpersteine in all of these cities, as I sought out the plaques on the walls of Paris that tell of resistance and persecution. In these cities that embody our notions of culture, of beauty, of civilisation, people were rounded up, herded into ghettos, deported to camps and murdered because they were Jews, or Roma, or gay, or communist, or because they opposed the murderous ideology that would destroy people because of who they were.  That history is ever more vital, as so many European nations seem to be drawn to nationalism and xenophobia once again. 

It was poignant to be in Europe on the centenary of the Armistice, and to recall that the young men in those three nations who would be commemorated would have all fought against ‘us’.  I thought of this again watching Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall, which portrayed the 1914 Christmas truce through the voices of German, French and Scottish soldiers. 

And I thought, with sadness and anger of how our union with all of those European nations is portrayed as something that oppresses and exploits us, rather than something from which we gain immeasurably, economically and culturally and in so many other ways.  And I so wanted to dissociate myself from my government (and opposition) and from so many of my compatriots as our tour managers and guides made reference to Brexit, ironically, regretfully, in bafflement and in hurt.  

So if I can I will go back, to Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, and wander around in the way I enjoy, looking for the places where history bubbles up into the present. 

I’d also love to go back on the river though, to recapture that sense of peace.  

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To Hell in a Handcart

Seems to be where we’re heading.  I do try, really I do, to retain some optimism, some faith and some hope.  I think I’m just weary now, of hoping that some coherent opposition will emerge, hoping for evidence of a truly significant shift in public opinion (here and in the US), hoping that the bad guys won’t win this time.  

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up – I’m at a low ebb for personal reasons, and that’s sapped my capacity to muster up some positive thoughts.  

(The other thing, of course, that militates against my traditional end-of-year musings on the state of the world, is that by the time I have drafted anything events will have moved on, for better or (more likely) for worse, and I’ll have been left behind by them.)

To paraphrase Brando in The Wild One: “What are you despairing about?”  “What you got?”

Brexit (obvs) – is it even going to happen? I desperately want it not to happen but so much damage and division has already been created that it isn’t a straightforwardly comforting thought that there might yet be a way that we can Remain.   

If it does happen, there will be, I believe, a very great deal more long term damage, and much more profound division.  It’s not the consequences for me personally that concern me, it’s about the consequences for all of us.  But most particularly for European citizens in the UK, for anyone ‘foreign’ in the UK, for my kids’ generation whose opportunities will be so curtailed, for the poorest who will be hardest hit by recession and tightened austerity, for the sick who will suffer as the NHS runs out of resources.  

I am fearful, and I’m sad.  I recently travelled up the Danube on a cruise ship – our hotel manager and tour managers were from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary respectively, our tour guides were from Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava.  All of them mentioned Brexit, and the tone was one of bafflement, of regret, of hurt (‘You don’t want us any more’).  

I’m also angry because this whole mess could have been so easily avoided.  If the referendum had been clearly and publicly stated to be advisory (as it legally was), if under-18s had been enfranchised (as in the Scottish independence referendum), if EU citizens resident in this country and UK citizens long-term resident in Europe had been able to vote, then the outcome might well have been what the majority of MPs and Cabinet members hoped it would be.  If, when the result was known, the powers that were had said, ‘OK, we weren’t expecting this and we haven’t exactly planned for it, but now we know that is the view, we will put together a cross-party team of the very best minds we have (yes, ‘experts’), and work out how we can do this without damaging the country.  If we conclude there is no way, we will revisit the outcome, having made our findings known to Parliament and to the nation’…  But that would have taken courage and integrity, qualities in woefully short supply.

Instead, those tasked with negotiating our exit have demonstrated no understanding of the issues, no aptitude for negotiation.  They’ve faffed and fannied about for two and a half years.  They’ve been smug and arrogant and dishonest.  The only consistent thing has been the way in which everyone is to blame other than them, the EU, the ‘unapologetic Remoaners’, the business community, everyone. And at this late stage, our hapless and hopeless PM is reduced to desperate pleading with EU leaders, and – because she really can’t help herself – pronouncing even in those last ditch meetings, as if it means anything at all, that ‘Brexit is Brexit’.  

That’s just us.  But wherever we look we see the same, or worse, sometimes much, much worse.  Where do we look for comfort and hope?  

As always in dark times there are people striving to bring light.  As always when the haters are out in force there are people speaking truth and love.  As always when there’s mess there are people who will move heaven and earth to clean it up.  The light-bringers, the truth-sayers, the open-hearted, the problem solvers may not hold power but we have to hope they have influence, that their voices will be heard, in all the parts of the world where they’re most needed.  

It’s been a while since I posted anything here at all, and I’d really rather that I could have broken the silence with something stronger, something more uplifting and positive.  But that’s all I’ve got, folks, right now.  


“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

― E.B. White

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Ten Books*

*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books.  I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly.  Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.

Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am.  So I’ve devised a plan.  I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore.  I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today.   Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics.   Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.

A Childhood with my Head in a Book

How to Be a Girl

The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl.  It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me.  I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf.  You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches.  I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).

I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.)  Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins.  Just).

And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom.   Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.

L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

Travellers in Time

I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past.  And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present.  Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge,  and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home,  The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge.  My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.

hemingford grey

Clare Trowell (linocut) – Hemingford Grey

In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up).  I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons.  And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.

I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different.  It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions.  It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.

Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe

Thresholds to Other Worlds

And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible.  Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas.  I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism.  But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.

Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling.  Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously,  Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon.   Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.

 

One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.

Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies.  Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well.  Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the  literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.

C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Other Worlds

Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether.  I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob.  Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question.  Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.

lord of the rings

J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

The Past

Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper.  Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings.  Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me.  Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world.  And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III.  I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive.  I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II).  All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.

Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess

Displaced and Endangered

Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.

The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies.  It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure.  The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother.  The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences.  An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans).  It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats.  Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).

All of these books pull their punches to some extent.  They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide.  And they are right, in my view, to hold back.  What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.

Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers

Everyday Magic

There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary.  Here, the extraordinary is very small.  So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes,  it can live alongside us but without us knowing.  Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with.  What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this.  The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.

Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose

Myths & Legends

As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals.  Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends.  He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur,  which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.

Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset

SciFi

Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi.  The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given.  My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives).  From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids).  These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…

H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids

Reading the Detectives

As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading.  I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited.  Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit.  And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.

Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison

If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt.  I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.

 

 

Adult Life with my Head in a Book

I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction.  Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.

Fiction:

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13

For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists.  If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it.  Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.

 

The Stand

the standI’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel.  No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages.  I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too.  Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings.  And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.

L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants

Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald.  Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…).  Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).

Half of a Yellow Sun

half of a yellow sun

This is a brilliant, powerful novel.  For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war.  Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.

 

 

The Womens Room

womens room

Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits.  It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one.  I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more.  But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends.  French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing.  The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t.  And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.

 

Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t.  But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes.   The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels,  and what I watched on TV and at the cinema.  They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years.  If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know.  I still believe in humanity, despite everything.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda

I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there.  Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966.  Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened.  But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything.  Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities.  It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.

The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945

My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary.  But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers.  She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear.  When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her.  The simple questions – why did they have to hide?  why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary.  My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…

Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews.  This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour.  But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)

I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV.  Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance.  It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal.  As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42).  It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.

I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson.  But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least.  I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.

Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land.  It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers.  Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.

I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma  in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes).  David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.

All the President’s Men

This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government.  The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things…  This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story.  There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).

 

 

 

So, that’s my ten books…  Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me.  I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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