Saturday, 25 January 2020

Conner Street’s War by Harry Bowling




This is really more a series of vignettes rather than a conventional novel.  It is a little like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in that it looks at the lives of inhabitants in a certain time and place. However, it lacks the irony though there is pathos and humour.  

We can learn much about life in London during World War II: air raid shelters, the bombing of the docks, evacuation, bringing children home from evacuation, the ARP, food shortages, the Black Market. The novel is full of characters fighting their own battles with their circumstances.       
  
There is an authenticity in the text that make these scenarios real for the reader.  

A useful read.  

Monday, 20 January 2020

Does social media help?




Some curious things happened in the early 1930s in Germany. The Enabling Act gave Hitler more power than he deserved. He could enforce laws without the approval of the Reichstag. The German people, powerless after losing the Great War, had also suffered hyperinflation and a depression more severe than it was in the rest of the world, welcomed a dictator who promised to make Germany great again.   

Some curious things happened in the UK in the late twenty teens.  The UK government tried to enact an article without presenting it to Parliament, prorogued Parliament at a time when crucial discussions were needed and ignored the fact that over 50% of people voted in an election for parties who wanted to give them a final say on one other most important political decisions ever taken. Years of austerity, ironically imposed by the very party for whom a majority voted in that curious general election, enticed the people to look for a golden ticket which was interpreted as breaking down an alliance that had worked successfully for over forty years.    

I saw parallels immediately between the two situations. I thought that was because I was in the world of the 1940s as I was working intensely on this project. 

Oh, and by the way, here’s another one. Both leaders were seen as charismatic buffoons at first.  
Gradually though, other people were making the same comparisons. 

And how do I know this? Social media!

Of course one is still hesitant to say what one thinks in public. You can never be sure who you’re talking to. But the chances are if you put an opinion out there on social media you will find like-minded people. We still have freedom of speech.  Okay, you also find a heap of fake news and a few trolls. But at least you can assure yourself that you are not alone. 

Compare that with the experience of the people I’m writing about in my Schellberg Cycle. They had newspapers, post cards, letters, telegrams and the wireless. On the whole only the men read the newspapers. The wireless tended to toe the party line - unless you picked up a foreign broadcast and risked severe punishment, or even death. You had to be careful what you put in postcards and letters.  Hanna Braun reminds the girls of this quite subtly in the class letter.  “do go into the details of what happens in your daily lives (p232) . She later suggests that when an exercise book was full and every girl had seen it they should burn it (261).

It is so easy these days with social media to sign a petition or set up an action group. That would have been pretty impossible in Nazi Germany. With the help of social media it’s happened before the powers that be realise it and without the need for civil disobedience.  

I’ve found my tribe. It was really difficult to find your tribe in 1930s / 1940s Germany.      

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, 2015




First published 1956
This is the story of what happened to a Polish family during World War II. Note that this wasn’t written until 1956, so some time has elapsed before the end to the war and people have had time to rationalise what happened to them. Right at the beginning the reader is warned that this may be a grim tale: “the Balickis had a grim time of it. But worse was in store for them” (Loc 42).
We are given a quite graphic description of the concentration camp where father Joseph is interned (loc 52). Joseph, does manage to escape and has to make some tough decisions. He threatens some of his compatriots. He finds his home-town changed when he gets back(loc 212). Worst of all he discovers that his children have probably died (loc 239).
The children escape the Nazis but only by taking a great risk - escaping via the roof tops (loc 357). Then they live in a cellar. In the summer they camp out in a field. They become very resourceful. However, Edek, the oldest, gets captured (loc 448).
There are some gleams of hope: not only do they find the silver sword in street-urchin Jan’s box but they are helped by some of the Russian soldiers after the war has ended. There are helpful coincidences: Jan found the silver sword in the rubble of what was Joseph’s home. It was a present he gave to his wife. He tells Jan to keep it and if it is recognised Jan can tell his children that he has gone to Switzerland. The children meet Jan. But there are also near misses: they find out what had happened to Edek. They arrive at the camp where he had been held - now liberated by the Russians - only to find that they have just missed him. He ran away the day before. Yet their meeting is also a great coincidence: a fight breaks out in the displaced persons camp. Ruth comes to holding a hand; it is Edek’s.
The story is fast-paced. Good fortune and problems alternate for the children.
As they make their way to Switzerland they stay for a while with a German farmer and his wife. They learn about their two sons who were killed in the war. They realise that the young men were actually really just like them (Loc 1275).
Throughout the story the children take risks - not least of all when they escape by canoe along white water (loc 1399) and in Chapter 23 ‘Dangerous Waters’. At this point too, the Americans become the enemy even though the family was originally persecuted by the Germans. Edek’s coughing is also a constant worry.
They arrive in a camp just outside Switzerland. They have been helped by an American of Polish descent. They are so near and yet so far. The Swiss will take no more refugees.
This is a story about displaced persons and it looks just before the end as if it is going to have a happy ending. But Serrailier warns us: “They did not know that what was in some ways their most dangerous ordeal still lay ahead” (loc 1691). He uses here the story-telling skills that produce Hollywood blockbusters; the children are almost completely scuppered by the famous freak storm of 1945 on Lake Constance.
The story ends happily. The whole Balicki family is reunited and they adopt Jan. But Serralier warns his young readers: “The war produced countless tragic stories, few of which ended as happily as that of the Balicki family” (loc 1846). Jan anyway remains damaged.
The story is fictional but based on some real people who did not form part of the same family. The final chapter tells us what happened after the war to the fictional characters.
This edition of the book contains many useful activities for the young reader.               

Friday, 3 January 2020

Schellberg 5 The Round Robin




I’m now writing another book in the Schellberg Cycle. This goes back to the original class letter and I’m expanding on some of the stories behind the letters. So, I’m in 1940s’ Germany again. 

I’m focusing on just a few characters:

  • A farmer’s daughter,
  • A young woman who becomes an actor
  • The class teacher Hanna Braun
  • One of identical twins.  They have to take over running their father’s factory.  One twin gets married and has a baby.  The other, featured here, takes on most of the work with the factory. 

To do this I’ve gone back to the letters included in The House on Schellberg Street. There’s an interesting story here, too. My editor suggested shortening some of the letters and leaving some out altogether. I think he was right. However, one reader asked where all the others were; he’d noticed an oddity in the sequencing. That is one of the reasons I’ve included “deleted scenes” on this web site.  Find them here.       

Each letter from these individuals is turning into two or three chapters. 

Again it is proving to be a way of uncovering what actually may have happened. What led to the twins needing new boots and how did they actually cope when there were none available? What was it like for Hanna Braun when her mother died and when she had to give up teaching? What was it like when they knew they were losing the war and how did the young men react? What was it like when the Americans arrived? 

I anticipate the book being about 80,000 words. I’m working on other projects as well but every day I work on this one I’m writing about 1,000 words.    

Monday, 30 December 2019

The Children’s War by Juliet Gardiner





I found this book totally fascinating, though it’s an awkward book to read in bed.  It is a heavy and wide hardback.

It is actually the official companion to the Imperial war Museum Exhibition of the same name.  There is an interesting blog post about the exhibition here

I have of course researched this era extensively but I was pleased to be reminded of some things I’d forgotten, be assured about some things that I still know and even to find out a few things I’d not known. 

This isn’t a scholarly work but I did buy the book because another academic mentioned it. It is however extremely well researched and gives a lot of factual information.  There are masses of illustrations and also photographs taken at the time. Many of the illustrations are adverts and posters.  When I used the facsimile War Papers for my research I found the advertisements very informative.  They gave much insight as to what life was like back then. The same was true for the illustrations here. 

The other academic who recommended the book did say that many of the first hand accounts were less reliable as the story-tellers had had too much time to rationalise their experience.   Yes I’ll admit that is normally the case but I actually found it less so here.  The first-hand accounts and the realia gave very similar information. 

Very interesting was a discussion about the General Election just after the war when Churchill was ousted in favour of a Labour government. The Beveridge report in 1942 had promised ‘security to all “from the cradle to the grave” from the ravages of sickness or unemployment’ (200). There was an attack on ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’ (201).

This is a book I shall dip into time and time again. An absorbing and very easy read.