Archive for June, 2017

Charlotte Haldane: Russian Newsreel

June 29, 2017

41UYVH8LojL._AC_US218_Two astonishing cerise Penguins in two weeks! First Japan at the start of the Second World War, and now this one reporting from the Soviet Union a couple of months after the Nazi invasion. And this one really is a wartime special, printed on really low-grade paper and the binding stapled together…

Charlotte Haldane comes across as an amazing woman for the time. Clearly a convinced communist, she had already reported on the Spanish Civil War and the war with the Japanese in China for various Fleet Street newspapers, when she got herself sent to Russia, and seems to have been the only woman reporter there at the time. She sets to in a very business-like fashion, undaunted by her lack of Russian, and the pressing problems of the time surrounding her: she cultivates contacts, organises transport and accommodation, and attaches herself to various parties and delegations from Britain: the Soviets are now our friends and Allies.

She reports on Nazi air-raids on Moscow and other towns, unflappable because she lived through the worst of the Blitz, as she reminds Russians astonished at her phlegmatic approach; she reports on interrogations of captured Nazi officers and aircrew, and she demands – successfully – to take part in a lengthy visit to the front lines, on the grounds that it’s only right for a woman to be included in the press corps.

Haldane reports clearly and in a matter-of-fact way; various details she is clear she will not include because of security reasons, and, although she clearly both witnesses Nazi atrocities and interviews victims, she does not go into gruesome detail. At this point we need to remind ourselves that we are still in the opening weeks of the Great Patriotic War and it’s only at the end of the book that the Germans begin their onslaught on Moscow that leads to the winter debacle of 1941 and the cracks in the German war machine beginning to appear; none of the full horrors that were to emerge later on are known at this point, and although the extermination of the Jews has certainly begun, it’s not known about or spoken of yet…

It’s the approaching attack on Moscow that leads to Haldane and others, and various diplomats being evacuated from Archangelsk on one of the famous Arctic convoys…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course: Haldane is strongest as reporter and much weaker as analyst, and although she supports the idea of Nazi ideology as a pathological infection that has affected an entire generation and will need concentrated efforts to extirpate at the end of the war (no doubt at all that the Allies will be victorious), and is doing her bit for the war effort in bringing information about our new allies to the knowledge of the British public, I had to laugh at the idea of Soviet and Polish soldiers as comrades in arms: she did not know the half of what the newly-released Poles had had to endure for the previous two years at Soviet hands, nor how eager they were to get out of the country… and the graves at Katyn had not yet been discovered. But overall it was a marvellous book by a brave woman, vivid and immediate.

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On living in Thatcher’s Britain

June 28, 2017

Unashamedly political post follows: you have been warned.

I had planned to write on this theme before the recent election; I think it’s just as relevant now. I can’t believe I’m watching the madness they call Brexit, reading about the obscenities of the Grenfell Tower fire and countless other craziness. I have long felt that many of the things that are wrong with our country can be ascribed to Thatcher’s Britain: her evil legacy has infected us for years and will continue to plague for years to come.

Let’s be clear what I mean here: she said that there is no such thing as society. I’m not interested in the semantics of what she actually meant by it, because her attitude and the attitudes of those who latched on to her words and have shaped Britain for the last forty years are self-evident. She unleashed a culture of ‘me first’, of the worst kind of selfishness: I have money and I can do what I want with it, so get out of my way…

There is no sense of duty or responsibility to poorer members of society, to the old, the sick, those without work; in the harshest possible Calvinistic manner, it’s all their fault, and they should do something about it. We thought such attitudes had long gone after the post-war settlement and the advent of the NHS and the Welfare State, but instead Thatcherism has taught two generations to despise what was built then, and done incalculable physical and moral damage to our society (yes, society!).

It seems plain to me that if we are expected to feel any sense of loyalty to our state or our country (however you want to look at it) then it should give one the feeling of having something to feel loyalty towards. If the state wants the loyalty of its citizens, then it has a duty to ensure that everyone has access to affordable housing and healthcare, fuel, water, education and modern communications, to enable them to feel secure first… such things as these, which everyone needs, should not be provided by those who put the profit motive before everything else. If the state makes a loss providing these, then taxpayers will pay more to make up the shortfall; if the state makes a profit then we all benefit from lower taxes.

Our national infrastructure is gradually falling to bits; large parts of it have been sold to other countries, who subsidise their countries from the profits they make from us… can this possibly make sense?

To me, a child of the Welfare State and proud of it, the above seems obvious. But there are many millions who now don’t understand it. As a nation we have always expected to have things on the cheap – firstly from living off the backs of colonies and empire, then from the supposed benefits of ‘privatisation’. I cannot believe that so many people are thrilled with spending considerable amounts of time and energy trying to find the best ‘deal’ when buying gas, electricity, a train ticket, a phone or internet contract, without ever being sure that they have succeeded… saving a few pounds here and there, perhaps, whilst ensuring that the fat cats get richer and richer from the proceeds. I’ve better things to do with my time, and actually long for the days when the state supplied these utilities, and I paid and got on with my life…

We are told that the 1960s and 1970s were a period of chaos, almost anarchy, when the trade unions wrecked the country. That’s not the country I remember; I remember a more caring and rather more unified society, where the poor and the sick and the unemployed were not vilified for what they could not help and often had not brought on themselves. Now I’m living in a time of chaos and anarchy, with big business and the Conservative (ha, ha, fine choice of word, that one!) party busy doing far more harm than any trade union ever did. I’m grateful that my trade union fought for semi-decent working conditions and a reasonable pension which I can now enjoy, and think that rather more people need to take up that fight again today.

I have been heartened by some of the outcomes of the election and begun to think that perhaps almost enough people are fed up of the meanness, the divisiveness, the greed and the squalor that Thatcherism has brought to this country. We shall see; I’m not holding my breath, but it would be nice to spend my declining years in a rather fairer and happier place than today’s Britain.

Emmanuel Carrère: The Kingdom

June 27, 2017

41NhBTMsvIL._AC_US218_512fu00TIRL._AC_US218_Searching for an illustration for this post, I was surprised and pleased to discover that this book, which I read in French, has just been published in the UK.

It’s quite an astonishing book, and one that perhaps may not appeal to very many. It’s by one of France’s best-known and most popular contemporary novelists – who I hadn’t heard of until I came across a review of this book – and yet it’s not a novel; it’s quite hard to assign it to a single genre, as it’s part spiritual journal, part religious and biblical history and part a novelist’s imagination of what might have happened two thousand years or so ago…

The writer cannot decide whether to go on an organised tour of places in the life of St Paul, on which he has reserved a place: this leads into the first section of the book which is an account of his own spiritual journey, one that led him to spend three years of his life as a convinced practising Catholic, believing in and accepting the tenets of the church, and during which he embarks on various spiritual exercises, including a detailed journal on his reading of John’s gospel. We share in how his godmother encourages his growing faith, the religious practices he adopts as part of his new-found faith, and then we see the gradual emergence of doubts and fears, which eventually lead to his drifting away from that faith, and putting all his notebooks away for a number of years, indeed to what seems a deliberate hiding of three years that he felt somehow ashamed of.

Carrère is not an atheist or an agnostic, but what I suppose I must call a seeker after truth, a label with which as a Quaker I can identify. He accepts that something of great moment and significance happened in those years of what is now the first century CE: a man called Jesus did exist, travelled around Palestine preaching, and was executed by the Roman authorities for some reason. And then there are the stories which grew up around the man, which Carrère finds harder to accept or understand, because neither he nor we can know the truth, which has been so obscured, over time, both accidentally and deliberately, in so many ways and at so many different levels. What kind of man was Jesus: a political or spiritual leader? and why was he executed? who brought about that execution, Romans or Jews? how did the work of various groups of his followers end up as today’s church? how did the rivalry between the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians play out? what was the role of Paul in all this? who wrote the accounts in the gospels, the Acts? who wrote the various letters to the early churches?

Carrère reads widely as he explores all of these questions and imagines various possibilities about those early years, the participants in the events, and where there are various possible alternatives he explores them as a novelist might, not seeking to confuse or waylay his readers, as he always makes clear when he is drifting into the realms of what if…

It’s quite difficult to write coherently about such a complex book that ranges so widely and speculates in such an interesting way: if the early history of Christianity interests you, or if the idea of life as a spiritual quest speaks to you, then I recommend it highly. It obviously makes one think quite deeply about the notion of faith, which Carrère had, or thought he had, briefly; it’s something I think I had once, too, but now find myself in a similar situation to the author, of being a seeker of something, but I’m not quite sure of what…

John Morris: Traveller from Tokyo

June 26, 2017

51pZmjS9F+L._AC_US218_I’ve mentioned the cerise Penguin series of travel and adventure writing before in these pages; they date from the 1940s and 1950s and were, I presume, later superseded by the Penguin Travel Library. They presented some amazing accounts of travel and exploration, and I always look out for them when I visit second-hand bookshops. Because they date from the early days of paperbacks, and also because many of them were published under wartime restrictions, on very poor quality paper, they are quite rare, and often quite fragile.

I bought John Morris’ account on a whim, realising I’d never read anything about travel to or in Japan, and it was a real eye-opener. He was employed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry to teach English at one of Tokyo’s university campuses during the period leading up to and immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and because of his unusual employment status was apparently the only Briton who was not interned when war was declared, whereas all other foreigners he knew were. Eventually he was evacuated through diplomatic channels.

He presents us with a picture of many aspects of Japanese life, language, culture and history as he experienced them in the very early 1940s; it’s a detailed, balanced and thoughtful account, which does recognise the growth of Japanese militarism and its increasing effect on all aspects of society: he can see the growing tensions between Japan and the US. And his account of his personal treatment and growing concerns as he becomes more and more isolated after the start of hostilities is fascinating: he is not ill-treated, though he fears for his friends and colleagues, and since he has treated us earlier to an in-depth account of the vagaries of the Japanese legal and justice system (which starts from the premise of guilt until proven innocent) we can understand those concerns. We are relieved when he is able to leave the country.

There is something special in reading, so many years after the events, and when we have the benefits of hindsight, an account with the immediacy that comes across so strongly and clearly in Morris’ book. It was a really good find, well-written, though, surprisingly for a Penguin book of that vintage, riddled with spelling errors…

Sadly unable to find an illustration of the actual cerise Penguin edition.

More second-hand bookshops…

June 25, 2017

One of the things I always enjoy on holiday is visiting second-hand bookshops (in spite of my vow not to buy any more books) and after our recent holiday in Suffolk I feel moved to enthuse about two really good ones, both to be found in the village of Westleton, a couple of miles inland from the famous village of Dunwich, the mediaeval town swallowed by the sea…

I’d been to Chapel Books before, on previous holidays to this part of the country, which we like very much. As its name suggests, it’s in a converted chapel. There was a very large selection of books, well-arranged and all of decent quality. The travel section – always a touchstone for me – was particularly good, and I came away with some interesting swag, including another of the wonderful cerise Penguin series from the 1940s, by a communist woman journalist who reported from the Soviet Union shortly after the Nazi invasion. There were lots of books I managed to resist, fortunately for my wallet and the space in our house. The owner was friendly, and provided tea whilst I browsed.

The other shop – Barnabees – I’d not known about before, was five minutes walk away in a large cottage. The owner was very friendly and we chatted about all manner of things, and I came away with a couple of things I’d been looking for. Her shop was not as well organised and categorised as she would have liked, she admitted, but again the stock was wide-ranging and good quality, with a particular emphasis on art.

I mention these two shops because they are exceptions to the general rule in a number of ways, I feel: friendly owners, good quality stock – I’ve lost count of the number of shops where I feel that most of the mouldering books should have been in a skip or recycled long since; pretty well-organised – again, many shops could be tidied up by a well-placed bomb; and sensible prices – not given away, but not taking the mick either, as was the case in another shop in a nearby town which I will not name, where the owner had decided that all paperbacks should be four quid, no matter what the age or condition…

My travels: W for Walking

June 7, 2017

I’ve never been one for sport or strenuous exercise: I could have won prizes for skiving at school. And I’ve always firmly believed that the only time it’s necessary to run is to catch a train one might be in danger of missing otherwise… But I’ve always loved walking, from exploring footpaths around my Stamford home in my childhood, to walking and tramping around rural Nottinghamshire when at boarding school – as long as a couple of friends and I took exercise, we were pretty much excused team games, which was marvellous. And we fairly ate up the miles.

Later, as a student, I did some walking in the Lake District with friends who were keen fell-walkers, but I’ve never been wild about that part of the country, and have recently realised that it’s because to me – sorry! – it’s rather grey and bare: I prefer walking in woods and forests where suddenly and unexpectedly an amazing view can reveal itself as I turn a corner, or briefly come out into the open… and I loved the footpaths around the River Lune when I lived in Halton, near Lancaster.

I walked the footpaths in the parks of Leeds and later around Ripon when my daughters were small, and I think I’ve helped pass on a love of walking.

Now that I’m retired, I can do a lot more, and lead my feet farther afield, as it were. I have come to enjoy walking on my own, spending time with my thoughts, reflecting and meditating, and looking carefully at my surroundings, pausing to take time over my photography when I see something worth capturing; all of these are things much harder to do when you are in company. I sometimes think I’m a bit anti-social, but I set out with good intentions of joining local walking groups when I retired and, six years later, have still to do so. I’m a fair weather walker, too – can’t be doing with wind and rain, so mostly it’s spring to autumn, and despite living in Yorkshire, I’ve yet to do much exploring of the Dales or the Wolds.

My favourite walking territory at the moment is the Ardennes, in Luxembourg. There’s an astonishing variety of terrain and landscape in a very small area. There are walks along the border with Germany where you often don’t know what country you are in, and there’s a broad swathe of land along the border with Belgium that is being allowed to return to the wild, and it can be quite spooky in the middle of it all, carefully following a map and a trail and wondering where the next way-marker will be, or whether I’m lost. It feels like being lost in a jungle, especially as it’s quite rare to meet another walker, and yet you can be only a couple of miles from a village.

I’ve walked quite a bit in the Somme region of France, exploring the battlefield sites of the Great War: there are some good walking guides, and everywhere now looks so peaceful, beautiful in places, especially along the river marshlands, that it’s almost impossible to believe the carnage that happened here a century ago. That is, until you come across a small pile of rusting shells at the side of a road or path, waiting for the French equivalent of the bomb disposal squad to pick them up and take them away. They’re not in a hurry – there is 700 years’ (yes!) worth of such work to do in some areas. But you do get a clear picture in your mind, as you walk along sunken paths, or look at the gently undulating and open landscape, of the utter insanity of climbing out of a trench and walking slowly towards enemy lines under machine-gun fire: those poor men never had the slightest chance.

Last year I did some wonderful walking the the Aude departement, in Cathar territory: it was incredibly hot, even in September, but the landscapes were beautiful, even in their dryness; they smelt different, the plants and bushes and trees were different. And assuming I remain fit and healthy enough, I have plans to go walking in the Eifel region of Germany, and also in Switzerland.

My travels: W for the Wolf’s Lair

June 6, 2017

Wolfsschanze, or the Wolf’s Lair lies deep in the forests of northeastern Poland; before 1945 it lay in East Prussia, and was Hitler’s Eastern HQ, from which he directed his insane attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, and where he lived from 1942-44. It’s also the place where the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 1944 took place.

In communist times, it was on the tourist trail after a fashion: you could park your car, and go and wander around the ruins, clamber all over them, risk your neck in collapsing tunnels – once my sisters and I had seen ‘Achtung! Minen!’ (yes, it really said that) painted on a wall, we got out pretty quickly – and generally pose for photos where you liked. It was quite a rambling site, quite open, and there wasn’t a great deal of information around, no clues as to what any particular wrecked chunk of concrete had been used for.

Last year I took myself there again, for a proper look, 45 years after that first visit. It’s a serious tourist attraction now: entrance and parking fee with proper tickets, guides, leaflets and a souvenir shop, and tourist buses from many countries, especially Germany. There’s a bar and restaurant, and a trail around the ruins that you’re expected to stick to. There’s a lot more information, now: you know which bunker was whose, where the assassination attempt took place (a modest memorial to the conspirators who gave their lives marks the spot) and you get a real sense of the vastness of the place. The bunkers have ten metre-thick reinforced concrete roofs – you have to see this to get your mind round the colossal waste of resources involved; apparently the Nazis used an entire trainload of high explosives when they attempted to destroy the complex before the advancing Russians got there. They failed. And the thing I found most strange, the whole area gradually has been taken over by forest and woodland, creepers and vegetation, almost a jungle; the concrete is dripping with damp and mineral stalactites leaching out of the concrete, covered with greenery; visible metal has almost rusted away…

The place is awesome in the sense of huge, and utterly bonkers: such a ridiculous waste of space and materials; by the time it’s a century old, I wonder if anything discernible will be left. Certainly a sort of Ozymandias moment here.

My travels: V for Volubilis

June 6, 2017

When I was a student and a hippy, back in the dim and distant past, a friend and I took a trip one summer to Morocco, where we did the usual hippy things, camping out in the open, living and eating as cheaply as possible, travelling around on rickety Moroccan buses along rather scary-looking winding roads overlooking precipices. We didn’t get that far on our travels, a few days on beaches before setting off for Fez, and eventually we fetched up in Meknes, which had stunningly impressive mediaeval city walls, the like of which I’ve never seen since until my recent visit to Carcassonne; from here we went to a small town called Moulay Idris, and thence to a ruined Roman town in the desert, called Volubilis

I think I did a number of daft things when I was younger, and this was probably one of the daftest. OK, we knew it would be hot – we’d been in the country for a while already, and it was so hot that it was impossible to do much at all in the afternoons – but this was the desert and we’d never been in a desert before, the middle of nowhere, with very little shade or shelter, and after we’d got back to civilisation at the end of the day someone casually remarked that it had been fifty degrees that day… We weren’t really prepared at all and I do not know how we escaped sunstroke, dehydration or grievous sunburn.

Volubilis was an entire town, a town from Roman times, in ruins in the middle of the desert, and largely untouched since those days. Yes, it was sort of on the tourist trail, and I think we may have paid to get ‘in’. I probably still have the ticket somewhere… It was astonishing. Everything was the same sandy colour – the sand, the scant vegetation, the stonework. There was a lot of it – probably on a par with the Roman site at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, if not larger. And it was hot. I lost count of the number of litres of water I drank that day, and sweated out. But it was a magical day: I got a very brief feel of what a desert actually was, and the ferocity of the conditions, and I have wondered if that experience was one of the things that sparked my lifelong fascination with deserts, which you may have noticed via quite a few of my blog posts… The Roman ruins were fascinating, because they hadn’t been tidied up and prettified the way many ruins are in more affluent countries.

Morocco was a serious culture-shock to this sheltered Western student. I saw people suffering from leprosy in the streets, and many with crippled and deformed limbs; when I mentioned this to someone who’d been in the country rather longer than me, he replied, ‘Well, in Europe if you break a limb you go to hospital and get it fixed. Here, if you’re poor and can’t afford it, you don’t…’ We came across many locals who did their best to part Westerners from their money in a range of devious ways; we also met many friendly and interesting people. The food was fascinating, the hygiene…different. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the medinas in the towns we visited, fascinated by how different everything was, what was offered for sale, how transactions were carried out, bartering… As we travelled around, I couldn’t get over the huge cacti and other desert plants which grew everywhere, and no doubt these triggered my enjoyment of growing them myself back home, though on a far more modest scale.

I suppose what has stayed with me most from that long-ago trip was the nature of the encounter with somewhere that was, in so many ways, so utterly different from what I had known up till then, and the challenge it represented to how I saw the world…

My travels: Q for Queribus

June 5, 2017

Some readers may have noticed my recent interest in the Cathars; in autumn last year (2016) I took myself on a trip to the Aude department in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, to visit some of the sites associated with this heretical church that was finally wiped out in the thirteenth century. The local tourist offices have been trying hard, in this rather poor area of the country, both to cash in on the history they have, and to dispel a lot of the myths that have grown up over the years about the Cathars. I found the tourist office personnel very helpful, and able to provide all sorts of extra information and tips as to what to look out for.

Cathars seem to have gathered in small, remote hill-top towns in the area, such as Rennes-le-Chateau, and when driven towards extinction to have fled to castles held by supporters of their faith. But the castles on the trail are not those where the Cathars made their last stands, but later replacements, from the era when the border between France and Spain was in dispute.

The castles themselves are mind-boggling in their inaccessibility, perched high up on rocky outcrops in a way that none of the castles – and I’ve visited a lot of them – in the UK are situated. And yes, I know that we don’t have any Pyrenees here. I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could possibly manage to build a castle in such a place: where did they get the labour (enforced?) from? The stones? And how did they get them all up there? Then, when the castle was there, how on earth did anyone manage to besiege it? Because they were besieged, and captured… Queribus could be defended by a couple of dozen soldiers, and when you climb up to it, you can see how. And you are so high up, you can see to the Mediterranean.

They I went to Peyrepetuse. You drive up and up for ages along narrow winding mountain roads and eventually reach a dusty car park: the road goes no further. You can look across the valley and see Queribus in the distance. Then you look up, from the car park, to the mountains towering up another two or three hundred feet, and it’s as if someone has dropped a stone replica of the Titanic on top of the mountain – that’s the castle, coming to a point like the prow of a cruise liner, hundreds of feet above you… And then you try to get there. Absolutely stunning. There are actually three different castles there, though you can’t really separate them, in their ruined state. Making your way around is fairly random, and precipitous, and it’s bloody windy up there, too.

There are ruined abbeys, mediaeval walled towns, and there is also Carcassonne, which I spent three days exploring. An entire, walled mediaeval town, with a citadel, seriously but carefully restored, and you can walk all the way around it, either on the ramparts, half of which are Roman and half mediaeval, or in the moat. It is huge, and awe-inspiring. All-in-all, I think this has to be one of the most stunning areas of the country I’ve visited.

My travels: P for Paris

June 5, 2017

Paris is Paris and everyone who has been there has their own particular memories of it; it’s pretty easy to get to and to explore. It’s also pretty easy to be fleeced, to stay on the well-defined tourist trail and perhaps to miss some of its hidden magic. You also get to see, know and understand more if you speak the language, I firmly believe.

For me, the best thing is that Paris is eminently walkable. The metro is wonderful, efficient, cheap and useful, but you don’t need it unless you’re completely knackered after a long day’s exploration on foot. You can walk everywhere; the city is amazingly compact. And because the metro stations are so close together, and the entrance to each one has a huge and helpful map, you don’t even need to carry your own map…work out where you’re heading for, and check at each metro station where you actually are and when to change direction. On the other hand, don’t miss the wonderful elevated sections of the metro, where underground becomes overground, particularly the marvellous bit near the Eiffel Tower where it crosses the Seine on a double-decker bridge – the view is amazing.

I was lucky that in my twenties, a friend of mine lived and worked there, and so I was able to make a number of visits and have somewhere to stay; when I worked in Normandy as a language assistant I was also able to spend some weekends in Paris exploring. Basically I would set off walking; I’d stop anywhere that looked interesting; every now and then I’d look at one of those huge maps and work out where to head next. I never got ‘lost’; wherever I was, was interesting. I roved around Montmartre which offers wonderful views across the city, and the Marais, explored the strange areas around the elevated metro, headed south of the river, roamed the Left Bank, dropped into all the tourist sites as and when I fancied. And when I got hungry, there would be a bakery or small supermarket to get a snack, or the wonderful Tunisian sandwiches available in the Latin quarter…

There are plenty of things I missed: I’ve still not been round the Louvre (!) and it was only ten years or so ago that I finally came to know the stunning brilliance of the Sainte Chapelle… but I’ve explored the Canal St Martin, the Buttes Chaumont, the old Jewish quarter of the Marais and been to the Museum of Counterfeits… on my to-do list are the catacombs, the sewers, perhaps the Louvre, and certainly some of the other museums again.

Another thing I recall about Paris in my younger days was the enormous number of cinemas, all of which offered useful discounts to students; in many of them there would be several different screens, some of them with only a couple of dozen seats, showing a wide variety of films, especially arthouse and foreign language ones. With not much money it was possible to spend whole days – and I did – watching all sorts of amazing films that never made it to cinemas in Britain… Although it’s probably ten years since I was last there, it’s still the overseas city that I know best, and probably love the most.

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