Category Archives: History

The Short Knife

How hard are you willing to work for a carrot?

You couldn’t accuse the characters in Elen Caldecott’s The Short Knife of being lazy. This surprisingly topical historical novel is quite a thing. And by surprising I mean that Elen couldn’t possibly have foreseen the slavery business making the front pages as the publication date for her book grew near.

These slaves are white, and British, and their owners are also white, and more Saxon than British, but everyone has a bad side, whatever their nationality. In AD 454 the Romans have left Britain, and the Saxons have made the move to take over.

Mai and her sister Haf and their dad are poor, but live peacefully (in or near Wales), when their lives are interrupted, and ruined, by a few Saxon men. Much hardship and sadness follow, and the girls can’t be sure what will happen to them.

The story is told from two time perspectives; mostly from autumn AD 454 when the Saxons come, slowly leading up to the second one, where someone is giving birth at the same time as something vague but horrific has happened. So the reader both knows, and does not know.

You see both nationalities with all their faults, and some good sides. Having more than a measly carrot to eat is one of the good things about what might otherwise be considered pretty bad.

You feel you know what is happening, when Elen suddenly switches the truth of what we are seeing. And then again.

This is good writing, and a truly good story.

See you again, Vera

The first of several versions of We’ll Meet Again was recorded in 1939, when the 22-year-old Vera Lynn ‘really does not know where or when a reunion will be possible. British war nostalgia derives from the knowledge of victory. It’s the possibility of defeat that distances the 1939 version from Churchill kitsch and Blitz cosplay and represents something truly worth remembering: resilience in the face of the unknown.’

The above is by Dorian Lynskey in the New Statesman, stating the very obvious, but probably also mostly overlooked, fact, that no one knew how WWII would end. Not when it was happening. And still Vera Lynn sang, keeping up morale.

I’d begun to believe that she would live forever. Hearing the Queen mention Vera in her speech at Easter brought home to me the fact that Her Majesty is younger than the Forces’ Sweetheart. I wonder how that feels; to be so old yourself and then have someone else who is older still and who has sort of matched your every step in the public eye.

In the end Vera Lynn didn’t live forever, but 103 is pretty good going. We’ll meet again, but hopefully not too soon.

Mohinder’s War

Bali Rai’s short novel set in France during WWII is in one way an ordinary war adventure, showing the courage so many displayed while fighting the enemy and hoping to survive.

But the hero here is Mohinder Singh, a Sikh pilot with the RAF, who crash-lands his plane somewhere in occupied France. He is found by 13-year-old Joelle, who with her parents feed and shelter people who need help, be they members of the Resistance or as in this case, a foreign soldier.

This is what’s important. You learn, if you didn’t already know, that Indians fought for Britain in the war, flying from England. And you discover that the hero of a story like this can be a Sikh pilot, which will feel good for not just young Sikhs, but for anyone who might believe that the British don’t take ‘immigrants’ seriously, and who don’t know that many of them died for what was someone else’s country.

Mo is as brave as any RAF hero, and he brings with him his Sikh values, which he teaches to Joelle, as they run from the Germans.

The book begins with Mohinder’s funeral, at the grand old age of 105, and Joelle is there too. This helps, because at least you know that the two of them survived the war. The bad things they encountered were bad enough, and you don’t want to worry about whether they will make it.

I could do with more stories like this one. We might know that all sorts of people fought in the war, while not really understanding, unless it’s spelled out to us.

They Called Us Enemy

Not being a trekkie I didn’t know who George Takei was when his interesting snippets turned up on social media. I simply liked them.

Now I have read his graphic, well, I suppose, autobiography, from WWII onwards, about the interning – imprisonment – of American citizens of Japanese background after Pearl Harbour. It is a great book about this atrocious and shameful history. (The only thing I knew about this before came from watching the film I’ll Remember April some years ago.)

George was four when his family were more or less removed from their beds in Los Angeles in the middle of the night, and taken on a long journey to Arkansas at the other end of the country, where they were to stay for most of the war.

I have deep admiration for George’s father, who worked hard, kept the peace and made himself useful to his fellow ‘prisoners’ for the duration of this wrongful treatment. His behaviour also meant that this whole period seemed like an adventure to George, and possibly as almost normal to his two younger siblings.

Through George’s later fame, some of this unfair treatment has reached more people than might otherwise have been possible.

And I was reminded of what I read on Normblog some years ago; something which made me want to cry again. But mostly good crying. In a world of many really very bad people, and leaders, there are good ones too.

(Almost as an afterthought, I have to comment on how easy it was to read this graphic novel. They aren’t always, but this one worked perfectly.)

Killing the teacher

Benjamin Zephaniah’s Teacher’s Dead is a book well worth revisiting. More than a dozen years old, I’d say none of the problems have gone away. Black people have it as bad as ever, their rights eroded rather than having got a bit better. It was a YA novel I really wanted to read back then, and I was not disappointed, except for how life ends up for too many people.

With hindsight, I find my own review of the book quite lacking, although I seem to recall Benjamin was terribly polite about it. He didn’t do email, so actually spent time and money on sending me a proper card.

Now, I have looked for a better description of the story than mine, and I hope Bookbag won’t hate me for this. It’s so good, and the screen grab below is simply to motivate you to follow the link.

It’s more recent than mine, which just goes to show that this story will move the reader at any time.

The Sunbird

When Elizabeth Wein mentioned her 2004 novel The Sunbird recently, saying she had just re-read it, I decided I needed to get my copy out. It’s so unusual to hear an author say they’ve read their own book again, long after publication. Elizabeth has signed my copy, claiming ‘it is the darling of my heart’.

But, being the third in a trilogy, I’d not got to it. Now, though, reading the inside cover blurb, I [re]discovered that it is about a deadly plague, and quarantine, in the African kingdom of Aksum during the sixth century. I didn’t ask, but maybe that explains the re-reading? It’s such a coincidence. For me, anyway.

We’re back in the Eritrea/Ethiopia corner of Africa, which Elizabeth knows well. Telemakos is related to kings, and when he accidentally discovers how some men intend to use the quarantine to make money, he tells his aunt who is Britain’s ambassador to Aksum. She asks Telemakos to undertake several dangerous tasks to save their country.

I don’t know how old Telemakos is; but I am guessing 10-12. From here on it’s mostly a thrilling spy mission for a young boy, and it gets very exciting. Elizabeth is not gentle with her characters, and Telemakos suffers a great deal. I imagine it’s realistic.

There is less mention of the plague and I assume it’s there as the reason for what Telemakos has to do. If it was written today, there would most likely be more of the fear of contagion. But still, it’s very current. Bad men will be bad men, whatever century they live in. And money rules.

We have a likeable hero in Telemakos, and his family feels so real.

And yes, you can read a third book first.

Enigma reading

And for publication day of The Enigma Game, Elizabeth Wein reads a chapter of her book.

If you’re very worried about spoilers, maybe go straight for the actual book book. But if not, let this be an appetiser, complete with fake pub and everything.

The Enigma Game

By about page 4 of Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, The Enigma Game, I turned to the end to check that there really were another 400 pages for me to read. I knew there should be, but wanted to make sure. What is a witch to do when reading a prequel to her second most favourite book in the world? Other than explode with contentment, I mean.

This is so good. It’s a second prequel to Code Name Verity, taking place after The Pearl Thief. This is a book for meeting old friends. Jamie, aka James G. Beaufort-Stuart, is back, and so is Ellen, with a mention of her twin. They are doing their bit for the war, at an airfield up in the cold north eastern corner of Scotland.

And there’s Louisa Adair, nearly sixteen and a recent orphan. And half Jamaican. I only mention this because life is harder when you have brown skin, and you need a job. Louisa is an expert at identifying different kinds of planes by sound. She’s also into music, which is useful when she gets a job as assistant to an old German opera singer, Johanna von Arnim.

Once they’re all ‘gathered’ at the pub near the airfield, the action can begin. Well, Jamie and his pilots are kind of busy all the time, but then a German defector turns up with a stolen Enigma machine, which in their innocence they put to good use. This is more dangerous than you might think. But at least, it matters a lot less if you are brown-skinned, or a traveller or a posh pilot. Or German. They are in this together, and it being the early part of the war, you know that whatever happens ‘now’ there will be more danger later on.

Not everyone survives, even at this point.

I need more. Lots more.

They all helped

You might know that Son translates for a living. Recently he was asked to make Swedish words into English ones, for an American customer with Scandi roots.

Trouble was, he couldn’t read them. Joined-up handwriting from a hundred years or more, can be hard. Especially in the other language. But he has a mother, who is older, although not that old, but old enough. She can read. I mean, I can read. He asked me.

There was lots of it! Everything from a school report to a ten page diary entry for travels round the US. We agreed on a couple of samples, so I soldiered on with lots of verses of religious songs the joiner ancestor had composed. By the time my transcribing of the handwriting had gone through the keyboards of the translator, and then his proofreader editor – who also happens to be a published author – those songs brought joy to the client’s heart.

Or so I would like to think. He was happy and wanted more.

Then came the rest of all those texts, apart from some that were farmed out to other, equally ancient readers of old handwriting. There was a really short one; just a receipt for travel tickets. But where to? And when? Once I applied myself, I could make out most of it.

Daughter helped, spurred on by the clue-solving aspect of the whole thing. She suggested she try it on her iPad, with this newfangled handwriting stuff, reckoning she could write on top of the illegible words. And she could. But not all of it. We couldn’t agree where the man had travelled to. Or from.

The receipt was emailed over to our ‘old’ minister from church, and when he’d pored over it it for a while, we had the destinations. I’d like to think that he, too, enjoyed the puzzle.

An old letter, about three cows and a horse, and what hard work it was to look after them, had our translator harking back to Hamsun. The actual transcribing was done by the witch’s friend from school, being pretty old (I mean, sprightly and agile) and experienced at deciphering ancient letters.

When all pull together, the job gets done. Though how our boss will divide up the earnings between us, I have no idea.

Did I have a little pear tree?

On our way home from our short daily stroll, Daughter and I stopped at no. 2 and I accosted the man building a fence next to the pavement. He’s new. So new he’s not moved in, but is ‘improving’ the house, which to my mind was so beautifully shabby I almost cried when it was painted before being put on the market.

Anyway, there he was, fencing, so to speak, and I felt called upon to introduce myself. We chatted a bit, and then I told him he’d better keep watering the little pear tree in its pot in the porch. It’s small – I told him – and in a pot, but bears lots of very decently sized pears. I have suffered badly with pear envy.

Then I went home, thinking I’d not object if he gave me the tree. I’d even take the gnome.

Told the Resident IT Consultant over our afternoon tea, and he started saying something like ‘I had a little pear tree…’ and muttering about the King of Spain. It sounded familiar, but I am not the native to these nursery rhymes.

Then he got up and reached behind him for a book. Trust us to have a book on nursery rhymes! The Oxford Dictionary of, no less. By the Opies, obviously. I was not surprised, but nor would I have known we had it. Certainly not where to find it.

Its index wasn’t as good as Mr Google’s, so pear tree didn’t help. After more mutterings he moved on to nut trees, and soon found it.

So the King of Spain was there. Or at least, his daughter. And there was a pear. Not on the correct tree, but still.