Category Archives: History

The Last Hawk

I forced myself to take reading breaks so that Elizabeth Wein’s third book with Barrington Stoke, featuring female pilots during WWII, would last a little longer. The Last Hawk is really something; the same exciting flying war stories as we’ve come to expect, but as seen from inside Germany.

Ingrid is a 17-year-old German glider pilot. And she stutters. So not only is she at risk from the war in general, and flying in particular, but she faces having ‘her own’ turn on her, because she stutters. Faulty citizens are not something Hitler wanted to keep.

This is so chilling, even when in many ways it’s not news [to me], and it would have felt good to be able to look back to this time and know that it would never happen again. But we know this is not the case, don’t we?

Ingrid is recruited as an assistant to test pilot Hanna Reitsch, to show future Luftwaffe pilots how to fly. Plus some other, less attractive, tasks, which worries her. She needs to work out what to do, and if she has the courage to do it.

Perfect reading material for teenagers today. Enjoy the mix of fiction and real facts, and learn from it before it’s too late.

When the World Was Ours

Her new novel, When the World Was Ours, is Liz Kessler’s best work. It stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s not saying a little.

I had heard about the background to this story set before and during WWII for several years, and always found the tale of Liz’s grandparents’ serendipitous encounter with a British couple on holiday in Europe, spine-tingling and hair-raising and all those other things you feel when something truly special happens. So I had been waiting for this book. Really waiting.

I have also, more recently, heard that many young people today don’t believe in WWII; don’t believe that it really happened. They need to read When the World Was Ours.

This story about how one young Jewish boy and his parents managed to escape from Hitler’s annexing of neighbouring countries before 1939, shares many aspects of what you can find in other children’s books set in the same period, most notably Lisa Tetzner’s Die Kinder aus Nr. 67. But I don’t believe I have seen the persecution of the Jews and the transport to the concentration camps, or the way someone might join the Hitler Jugend, from the inside, the same way as in this book.

Leo, Elsa and Max are three close friends in Vienna in the mid-1930s. We follow them from Leo’s ninth birthday until just after the end of the war. It starts in an idyllic enough fashion, but little by little, bad things enter their lives, and their relationship. Leo and Elsa are Jewish. Max is not.

This is realistic. It will not be a happy ever after for all of them. It can’t be, because that’s not how it was. But while reading about Leo’s route to England, based on Liz’s dad’s, we also learn much about what it was like if you were left in a Europe where things were quickly turning very serious.

As a hardened soul, I only cried towards the very end. But you can start much earlier if you want to. You will probably have to.

You will hopefully also want to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. I hope it’s not too late.

Goodbye, Captain Tom

I held my breath when Captain Tom Moore first entered the news. He was walking round his garden and he raised a lot of money. And he was nearly, but not quite, 100 years old. I always fear the worst when people talk about things as though they will definitely happen.

But he did make it to his 100th birthday, and he was not only knighted for his walking and fundraising, but he made it to meet the Queen. And absurd though it sounds, he had a Christmas no. one hit (no, I haven’t heard it).

Now that Captain Tom Moore has died, I hope he enjoyed his last year, which in so many respects was very different from the first 99. He looked chirpy, so I am guessing he had fun meeting people and all the rest that goes with fame.

He was an inspiration. I’m rather hoping that he will now meet his old WWII comrades again. It can be lonely having a get-together on your own.

Who’s cooking?

Having cause to study Astrid Lindgren’s Vi på Saltkråkan again, Son watched a few episodes with Dodo. I have to assume it was Dodo’s first time.

Which is why her comments are of interest. Me being of the same age as Saltkråkan, and having Son and Daughter growing up with the television series, they will be seeing it much more the way I did.

With immediate access to Daughter, I asked her thoughts on Malin, the 19-year-old [eldest] daughter in the Melkersson family. And that was a surprise. She felt Malin had no real purpose.

Whereas the seven-year-old witchlet needed her screen peers to have a mother figure. Hence Malin acting as mother to her much younger siblings, and making sure their crazy, widowed father doesn’t cause too much havoc. She cleans, and peels potatoes, but also has fun and meets several hopeless, I mean promising, young men.

I was already reading the Famous Five books and I – I am sorry about this – thought it was fine for Anne to look after the domestic aspects of the mysteries, while the other three behaved like boys.

And Dodo. Well, she obviously remarked on the fact that Malin did all the work. She’s a female of the 21st century. I should be too. But when it comes to Saltkråkan I am seven again, and I need for Pelle to have a mother figure. I ‘am’ Tjorven, and I quite need a kind, caring adult female to chat to.

The four older siblings in both families, who must be around twelve, are purely there for adventures. Not peeling potatoes. In fact, I believe I’ve heard that they were meant to be the focus of the series, but no one reckoned on Tjorven. She and her dog took over, and along with them we have the other two younger children, Pelle and Stina.

I believe we also need Mr Melkersson to be single. Not for romantic reasons; simply to be alone and a bit useless. That’s why we also require Malin to bridge the gap. And to peel the potatoes.

In 1963 when this was filmed, I suspect none of us were all that aware. We were sold the set-up and we were satisfied. Since I have remained seven years old all this time, I am still satisfied.

The Morning Gift

I 95% adored this adult novel by Eva Ibbotson. It came highly recommended by several people whose taste I respect, and my knowledge of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books backed this up.

To begin with I sat back and basked in the way Eva put her words together, how she described the background to what happens in The Morning Gift. The plot is good and the characters loveable and interesting and the setting in prewar Austria/Vienna was enough to make me want to go back there.

We meet the family of the heroine, Ruth, who is 20 when the real action begins in 1938. Prior to that we’ve learned how her parents met and how the well off Viennese intelligentsia lived. We also meet the British hero, Quin, who is everything you want from the romantic, but also kind, intelligent, rich man in your life.

When the Germans take over in Austria, the family flees to England, but due to a technical mishap Ruth does not manage to leave. Enter Quin, who obviously wants to help, and in the end this help has to take the form of a marriage of convenience.

If you’ve read romantic fiction before, you will know what to expect, except here you can expect it in a wittier and more intelligent shape than average. This is Eva Ibbotson we’re talking about.

You know it will end well, even though we are just coming up to the beginning of the war. You know that London in 1938/39 will lead to six years of a very bad time, and these are Jewish refugees we’re talking about. Added to which is the lack of acceptance by white English people who are not too keen on foreigners.

So the war is perhaps 2% of my ‘negative rating.’ The other few percent, well, this is set – fairly realistically, I would say – in the 1930s, and the book was published in 1993, written by someone who had experience of prewar London. Had I read it back then, I’d not have seen much of a problem when Ruth and Quin finally ‘get together’ properly. But now, in 2021, this is #metoo territory. And, well, I felt uncomfortable.

It quickly returns to most of its charm again, and all is well. Only, the degree Ruth worked so hard to get, is no longer needed once there is a happy ending. Not even in this modern version of a time when that would have been the norm (or so I imagine).

On the other hand, how can you not love a heroine who knows herself; ‘Would you like me to stop talking? Because I can. I have to concentrate, but it’s possible.’ So is reciting poetry – in German – to a sheep.

The unaddressed haggis

I’ll just give you the first verse of the Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns, or we’d be here all night.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

I’ll also just give you the first verse in translation, or we’d be here all night.

Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

Our dinner did not involve any of this poetry (we were hungry), nor did it involve intestines, seeing as we went to ‘Butchers Corner’ and got their veggie version. The haggis was very nice, if a bit dry. Can’t fault the flavour at all, and I’m fairly picky when it comes to haggises.

The tatties were Golden Wonder, which was partly because that’s what they had at Butchers Corner, and partly for the fun of it, remembering the Grandfather. He spoke of Golden Wonder potatoes All The Time.

Finally, there was me, the swede, or neeps as they call me here. (Rutabaga if you live on the other side of the Atlantic.) Daughter mashed me, I mean the swede, well and good, and I don’t know why, but this was the best mashed swede I’ve ever had. Could be that Butchers Corner know where to get their neeps.

Then we talked about Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants. And the haggis was neither addressed nor piped in. Life can be rough sometimes.

The Silent Stars Go By

This new book by Sally Nicholls is everything you’d want it to be. It tells the story of 16-year-old Margot who becomes pregnant just as her fiancé Harry goes off to fight in WWI in 1916. Harry doesn’t know, and when he’s reported missing in action, Margot eventually has to tell her parents about the baby. Her father is a vicar, and it’s not welcome news.

Three years later, Harry – who is not dead – returns home, and wants to see Margot, who is back for Christmas, and she has to decide what to do, what to tell him.

Set at a time when unmarried mothers were much more frowned upon than today, and also at a time when prospective future husbands were far fewer than some years earlier, this is not an easy problem to solve. Added to which is the fact that Margot’s parents adopted her son, so she can’t very well ‘take him back’.

Margot is lovely, and so is Harry. The whole village is pretty lovely. But there is still a problem to be solved. And there was a fact about adoptions I didn’t know before reading Sally’s book.

As the reader, you want everything to work out perfectly, but you can’t see how it can be done. Or which part of almost perfect it will end up having to be.

But take it from me, Sally Nicholls just gets better and better.

Plague event

Here’s one I went to earlier.

A chance encounter online, with a fairly cute looking plague doctor, reminded me of my real life encounter with one of those. Real life, but, I think, not real plague doctor.

On the other hand, the way things are going, how could I possibly be sure?

It’s now nearly seven years since I made the jump and crossed over the Scottish border to live, which was a generally wise choice, or so I believe. Within days there was an event at an Edinburgh school, featuring none other but another Stopfordian, who has since also moved, but hadn’t then.

It was he, Philip Caveney, who had written about a plague doctor, and ever the good publisher, Clare at Fledgling had spirited one up, complete with stick and all. Mercifully I don’t recall what he was supposed to do with the stick.

But a good day was had by all, I’m sure, and I reckon his mask was a lot more uncomfortable than the ones we are wearing now. And we’re not getting into strange cars at all.

Careful with that advice

And I should obviously heed that, erm, piece of advice myself, re advice on what to tell people to read.

I can’t tell you how relieved I felt on reading today in the Guardian Review that Patricia Highsmith can be a bit iffy to read. It absolves me from the disaster that was the younger me having a go with one of her books, on the advice from someone else. I forget who. I found it a horrible book, and I can no longer recall if I soldiered on or if it was an early instance of me permitting myself to give up.

Since then I have steered well clear.

Setting personal tastes aside, I feel the suggestion was made to too young a reader. I don’t mind inappropriate sex or violence at too early an age, as you will generally just filter it out if you don’t enjoy it. But the sheer boredom of not understanding what’s being written about is a sure way of turning people off.

At what was most likely an even lower age, I was told to read Graham Greene. I started on The End of the Affair, found it incredibly boring, but made it to the, well, end of whatever this affair was. I forget. I went on to read many Greene books, but they were slightly later and they were chosen by me, so the subject was more suitable.

And at a rather more mature stage in my life, someone said I would love P D James, because she’s just like Agatha Christie. That sounded good, and I did have a go. But it was a lie. She’s not like Agatha. I’m sure she’s very good, but I was mis-sold, in all innocence. So me and P D have not really recovered from that first meeting.

I shall now go away and see if I can reign in my own advice on who should read what and when.

Baby, it’s cold out there

‘Do you even know what that is?’ Daughter asked as I read out loud from the television guide, suggesting that Saturday afternoon we could have watched Ice Station Zebra.

Would I suggest something without knowing; without meaning it?

I swiftly informed her about the film, whose novel it was based on and that the Alistair MacLean book was far superior. But the film would still have been worth watching. Again. Can only have seen it three or four times.

This was confirmed by friends on social media, who did actually watch yesterday, and I felt I had sort of missed out. Even if I can watch later. But I’m glad that at least people my age are still enjoying these ancient adventure thrillers. And there was nothing wrong with Where Eagles Dare, which both Offspring have watched.

I probably won’t reread the MacLeans. Although the reason I gave up at whatever point, must have had more to do with me moving on as the books moved in a different direction. I suspect I favour the WWII and Cold War stories.

And if I may say so, one good side to the lack of new programmes and films has been that there is so much old stuff offered again. Things that would usually have been hidden away in the middle of the night if it ever came to light again. I like seeing films again.

Again.