Category Archives: History

Standing firm

What with the way the world seems to be going, I’ve remembered a couple of events from my semi-distant past.

We had neighbours once, with children. It was before ours went to school, and being a naïve foreigner I knew very little. When it was time for the neighbours’ oldest to move to secondary education, they wanted the school that was perceived to be the best in town. Without paying for their education, that is.

So they did what they had to do and ‘omitted’ ticking the box on the form that showed the boys had attended a catholic primary school. Because back then – and it wasn’t that incredibly long ago – it seems anyone could attend the good state school, except for catholics.

When they were refused places at this school and they checked the application form, it turned out some kind soul at the primary school had ticked the catholic box for them.

They fought the decision, but by the time the authorities had changed their minds, the boys had begun term at the school deemed appropriate for their kind, and decided to stay where they were.

But as I said, it came as a shock to me.

As for speaking up, all the neighbours in our neighbourhood attended a public meeting about some development plans the nearby private school had, in the school’s hall. The chairman spoke at great length, putting the school’s needs and wants out there. After all, they were the private school, and the neighbourhood was just that; just people.

One woman had a question for him, and when he didn’t shut up for long enough, she piped up anyway, saying ‘I just wanted to ask…’

The chairman pointed his finger at her and replied, ‘lady, when I want you to ask, I’ll let you know.’

Which was when everyone stood up and left.

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Incredible Journeys

Because I am a bit of a fool I looked at Levison Wood’s book Incredible Journeys and decided it was one of those worthy, but slightly boring large, factual picture books. I.e. not for me. But I did that dutiful looking at it, nevertheless.

Good thing, too!

It actually seemed really rather nice. (Yes, thank you, Sam Brewster for the pictures.) And it was about exploring. Travelling. Learning about many people who had had visions and set about doing something.

For us old people there is less that is new, but for a reader who has not known about Edmund Hillary or Amelia Earhart or Captain Cook, this should be fun. Not to mention interesting. Actually, I’d never heard of Ibn Battuta. Have you?

It’s nicely written, and I’d like to think that there are many little future travellers and explorers who will enjoy this book. I kind of got the feeling I used to have with my beloved Junior Readers’ Digest (please don’t judge me! Or this excellent book) which I read and read until they almost fell apart. I hope children still do that, even with so much else available to them.

Levison Wood and Sam Brewster, Incredible Journeys

The Partisan Heart

Gordon Kerr’s fiction debut – The Partisan Heart – reminded me a lot of the books I used to read in the 1970s. That’s perhaps fitting, as it’s a crime thriller set alternately in Italy during the end of WWII and also over fifty years later, at the end of the 1990s.

Bad things happened in the war, and quite a few of the actions taken back then reverberate in the lives of some of the characters 55 years on. Englishman Michael has just lost his Italian wife in a car accident in Italy, and his life seems to be falling to pieces.

In true fiction hero style, discovering that she had some unexpected secrets, he decides to find out who his late wife’s lover was.

We also meet young Sandro, who was a partisan fighter in the war, in the same area that Michael’s wife came from. You can tell that some of the people from those times will still be around in the later story, but you’re not quite sure which ones, or how what they did influences later actions.

Wartime Italy seems to have become more popular, and this two-period kind of mystery/thriller is not unique. But Italy during the war is still unusual enough that I feel it merits more books.

The characters are mostly not all that likeable, with the exception of the barmaid in Scotland. But then, war did terrible things to ordinary people, and even worse to those who were already bad. I wouldn’t have minded not ever reading about some of the ways to kill other human beings. Even if it was in the war.

Gordon Kerr, The Partisan Heart

Refugee reads

The other night, I was suddenly reminded of Anne Holm’s I Am David. This lovely, lovely story has always been on my ‘journey book’ list. But it is also a refugee kind of story. And worth reading again.

I won’t lie. A publisher presented me with a list of their refugee books, and many of them are excellent. But I will let my mind wander of its own here, and see what I come up with. It will probably mean I forget a really important one, but…

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr. I see from the comments that Judith wanted a cuckoo clock. It brings a whole more human scale to the refugee issue.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, told by Enaiatollah Akbari to Fabio Geda. Enaiatollah who’s a real refugee, but who was also refused a visa to come to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Oh, those fears that everyone will want to come and live here illegally…

Like the poor souls we meet in Eoin Colfer’s and Andrew Donkin’s Illegal. All that suffering.

Life in refugee camps is no picnic, and The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon is a hard read. Necessary, but harrowing. Or you can read books by Elizabeth Laird and the Deborah Ellis stories from Afghanistan.

In No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton the refugees have arrived, but don’t know if they will be allowed to stay. You need to adapt, but with no guarantee that it will be worth it.

A Candle in the Dark by Adèle Geras is almost happy by comparison. It’s Kristallnacht and Kindertransport territory, but when we read that book we believed we were improving year by year. Yes, it was bad back then, but no more…

Like the true story told by Eva Ibbotson, by one refugee about another. Still makes me want to cry.

Owen and the Soldier

I’ve never considered talking to statues, or even those waxwork figures you might find yourself sharing a bench with, at first believing they are real.

But of course they are real! In some sense.

Lisa Thompson, Owen and the Soldier

In Lisa Thompson’s Owen and the Soldier, 13-year-old Owen talks to a stone soldier in the nearby park’s war memorial corner. His life isn’t great, and it helps to chat to this soldier who seems so good at listening.

And then he discovers that the council are going to make ‘improvements’ to the park and the old soldier is due to be removed. In the midst of trying to deal with his problems at home and the demands of school, he needs to save his soldier friend.

This story could empower readers both to tackle problems and to seek a conversation partner for when they need to talk. Brief, but lovely.

A is for Alibi

You can tell I’m a little behind, can’t you? Only by 33 years, but still. Sue Grafton was only known to me as the woman who wrote the alphabet crime novels. For years I didn’t know if they were good, quality, or just light crime. And when one day I came across A is for Alibi in a charity shop, I decided this was the right book to start with.

And then a few more years passed. When Sue died, not long ago, Sara Paretsky said some lovely things about her peer. And more recently she said some more, and someone else whom I respect also mentioned how important these books were to her, and I got the A book down from my bookcase.

How things have changed! Published in 1986, it is almost a lesson in modern history, what with phone messenger services, and typewritten case notes stuffed in desk drawers.

I enjoyed this tale about the ghastly man who was murdered, and whose second wife was believed to have done it. Now out of jail, she wants PI Kinsey Millhone to find out who really did kill him.

My instincts were right. Partly. The whole case was more complicated than was first obvious, and with a few more killings, Kinsey had a lot to look into.

Loved her comment at the start, that the police believe ‘murders are committed by those we know and love, and most of the time they’re right – a chilling thought when you sit down to dinner with a family of five. All those potential killers passing their plates.’

Also loved that Sue began by plotting to kill her ex-husband, but decided to write a book instead. Good idea.

Embarrassingly out-of-date. Or an antique?

Can’t remember what made me get the old atlas out. We were talking about something or other.

At some point in the mid-1960s Mother-of-witch bought a new atlas. It was about time. She’d had an absolutely ancient one for about 25 years or so. It was all brown and generally embarrassing. The old one, I mean.

I was very pleased with the new atlas, even if it wasn’t mine but hers. I could still study it. And study it I did. Aren’t atlases great?

It is now being held together with brown parcel tape, mostly due to excessive crossword-puzzling by Mother-of-witch. It was one of her reliable sources, so no wonder the spine died.

But last week we got out the old brown one. I think maybe we’d been talking about Berlin and train lines, and I felt that they could surely be found in the 19th edition, published in 1940?

Ancient atlas and holiday crime

It’s fascinating! The railways, yes, but also all the dated stuff from 1940, where they had simply over-printed some information from the 18th edition three years earlier. I’m guessing that school pupils understood about the changing maps of Europe right then.

And it’s no longer embarrassing. There’s so much to see and think about. Besides, it’s in far better condition!