Category Archives: War

Packed bags and passports

While I’m talking about Hadley Freeman, as I was yesterday, I’ll return to something she wrote in her Guardian column in the summer [about antisemitism]. She said ‘the stories about Jewishness I grew up with, at home and at Hebrew school, were all about persecution, keeping your bag packed by the door, just in case.’

Reading that sent chills through me, because it echoed what another Jewish author told me a few years ago, which was that as a Jew she couldn’t have too many passports.

And now, I’m thinking of both those statements, and finding myself closer to ‘packing a bag, just in case.’ As for passports, they have been greatly on my mind recently. Brexit – do you remember Brexit? – raised its ugly head and almost shoved Covid aside.

I thought, I need a new passport. Not immediately immediately, but pretty soon. Sooner than felt comfortable, as the borders of Europe closed again, and airlines cancelled the flights they had been happy to take your money for, and there were quarantine rules all over the place. I’m not saying I wanted to fly anywhere, or even to travel. But to have a passport is awfully handy when you live ‘somewhere else’, even when that is your home.

So not only were there fears about catching a bad illness, but before we knew it, those tiers started coming and we were not supposed to travel. Unless essential. Seems passports might be ‘essential’. Doesn’t mean you won’t catch anything, though. Travelling domestically or internationally both have drawbacks, as well as the odd advantage.

It’s very expensive, travelling within this country, to your ‘local capital city’. And the passports cost more. Going abroad would have been more cost effective, but not advisable.

My nearest honorary consul held a Zoom meeting this week, where we all discussed stuff like this. Many turned out not to know certain relevant things about continuing to live here in 2021. Many might be unable to afford a 600 mile return trip for a new passport, or feeling too old or feeble to undertake the journey.

I’m now so old that I have started thinking about pensions. While we’re in the grip of the virus, many will – possibly – have to go without their foreign pension, if they are unable to prove they are still alive. This, too, necessitates some travelling in many cases. The foreign authorities have said they’ll be somewhat patient, waiting for proof, but not for that incredibly long. If you’ve been declared dead, I’m guessing it’s hard to be ‘revived’ after travel restrictions are lifted. If ever.

So, we’ll see. Technically I’m not supposed to go and pick up my new passport, either.

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

Bookwitch bites #149

The other day I discovered a lone book on the coffee table. That is unusual. Mostly I have a pile of three or four, that are either queueing or are emergency spares if things take a turn for the worse. But there I was, with just the one book. It’s Philip Caveney’s latest, which he’s about to launch this week. I now stand a small chance of reading the book by then. The Sins of Allie Lawrence. I’m scared already.

The Costa shortlist, by which I obviously mean the children’s Costa shortlist, turned up in the paper this past week. I’d like to think it’s because newspapers always feel this is important stuff, and not that they are keen to fill pages easily. I’ve only read one of the shortlisted books, Meg Rosoff’s The Great Godden. But as I looked at the five author photos, I could count meeting three of the writers. Should I get a hobby?

I’ve got On the Cover of The Rolling Stone whirring around in my head. At the time – like in the early 1970s ? – I didn’t really know The Rolling Stone. But as Dr Hook sang so wistfully about it, I got that it was a big deal. Not sure what authors dream of, but I imagine that ending up on the cover of The Bookseller can’t be a totally bad thing to happen. Very happy for Liz Kessler whose new book, When the World Was Ours – out in January – is covering the latest Bookseller.

‘Her election book’

It was gratifying to discover an online book event, shared with the US, where I was still awake enough to attend. But I suppose with Elizabeth Wein sitting not too many miles north of Bookwitch Towers, it needed to be early enough, while still permitting Carole Barrowman, somewhere in the US Midwest, to have got past her morning coffee.

They met up at the end of a week filled with online events for Elizabeth’s war time book The Enigma Game, recently published in her home country America. Carole gave us all of one sentence in a Scottish accent before switching back to her American one. I wish she’d said more! It’s strange really, how she’s over there and Elizabeth is over here.

The above quote is Carole’s who, having started reading the book on election night and loving it, now felt it was her ‘election book’; the one which made her week endurable. (I just want to know why she waited so long.)

Anyway, there we were, and I suddenly realised I was sitting next to two of my former interview subjects, which felt a bit weird. But nice. And fun. Because Carole is good at this interviewing thing, and Elizabeth has just the right books to be interviewed about, even if, as she said, she’s no good at elevator pitches. After an extended pitch, Elizabeth read us an early chapter about the German and the grammophone.

For this book she learned Morse code. Of course she did. Apparently it’s easy to learn, but hard to understand when it comes at you, so to speak. It was a suitable thing for young girls to learn, giving them something to do.

As Carole pointed out, everyone in The Enigma Game has something to hide, or they are hiding, like being a traveller, or a German refugee, or in the case of Louisa, someone who can’t hide her darker skin. Elizabeth said she always has someone like her in her books, a stranger, and she thinks it’s because she has never quite belonged where she’s lived.

During the conversation Elizabeth even began mixing herself up with Louisa, which proves the point. As a child in Jamaica she spoke fluent Jamaican patois, which she quickly had to shed when moving to the US. Carole compared that with her and her brother John’s needs when they moved from Scotland to America, quickly having to fit in.

Carole kept discovering more and more of Elizabeth’s books, and made notes on what else to read. The Enigma Game was going straight to her parents. She had actually read the Star Wars book, Cobolt Squadron, which Elizabeth described as her practice for Enigma, saying ‘how much fun is it to write an air battle?’ (Quite fun, I’d say.)

She’d got the railway line up the east coast somewhat confused, which means she forgot it had to be allowed for. So the northeast of Scotland was slightly altered by Elizabeth. Her fictional airbase is based on Montrose airfield.

Slightly behind her deadline for the next book, which she is not allowed to tell us about, is a kind of Biggles for girls, set in the 1930s. That’s good enough for me! And then Carole read out my question! I never ask questions in Zoom events. But I’d really like more books about the three characters in Enigma. No pressure, but yes.

As always when you have fun, this event came to an end. But it was good, and this was a perfect pairing of people to chat about a perfect book. Like Carole said, read The Enigma Game!

Daisy and the Unknown Warrior

I don’t know why I never thought of it before. Like so many other tourists, I have visited the grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. But I took it at face value, not considering what it stands for or how it came to be there. And as someone from a country that wasn’t at war, it somehow didn’t strike me as quite as important.

I am sorry.

Tony Bradman’s short book for Barrington Stoke, Daisy and the Unknown Warrior, tells the story of 11-year-old Daisy, who in autumn 1920 hears about the plans for burying an anonymous soldier at Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day. Her father never came back from the war, and the family don’t know where he’s buried. She immediately senses that the unknown warrior is her dad.

She vows to make her way there to see what happens to her father. And it seems that so did thousands of Londoners, to see their lost warrior.

After a while Daisy realises that not only does she feel better for having seen somebody’s coffin given this special treatment, but that this goes for everyone else there too. This Unknown Warrior really is the soldier these people have lost, every one of them.

Captain Tom Moore

Most adults will be aware of Captain Tom Moore who walked 100 laps round his garden for the NHS Charities Together. Some children will too. Here he is in one of the Little People, BIG DREAMS books by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Christophe Jacques.

Tom hoped to raise a couple of thousand pounds, but ended up raising £30 million. It’s the kind of story we all need, to help us through the next hurdles in life, or to cheer us up when life seems a little bad.

100 laps might not seem much, even for a man just short of his 100th birthday, but perhaps that is why he was so successful. Traipsing round your garden is something almost anyone can manage. Donating a few pounds is also a manageable task, and if enough people do it, there could eventually be a big sum of money.

This book provides a simple, sweet background to this man, who was knighted by the Queen and who was celebrated with a flyover by the RAF for his birthday. I was particularly taken by the  group of men he worked with in WWII, and with whom he had regular get-togethers for 65 years until in the end he was the only one left.

And then there is the photo of Sir Captain Tom Moore with the Queen; two old people who were both in the war, and who are still here today.

Some of the price of this book will go to Sir Tom’s NHS Charities Together.

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.

Looking back some more, and forward

When I had the idea to cover more [than my average] black fiction during June, I came up with a lot of titles and authors. And then I realised that many of these authors were white, which is what much of the criticism of books featuring black characters has been about. So I vowed to avoid those books, however great they may be.

I also came up with a list of books I wanted to read, but was unable to fit into one month. If nothing else, it would have been unfair to the books, as I wouldn’t have given them the time they deserved.

Two ‘recent’ books were Mare’s War by Tanita S Davis, and Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini. The former is about black American women serving in Europe during WWII, and the latter is about being an immigrant in a very white part of Canada. Neither is typical and I enjoyed them. Also, the two authors are not really household names, which adds to the fun.

Speaking of household names, I am getting a lot closer to reading Toni Morrison. And despite her being very well known, I have to admit to wanting to read Michelle Obama’s autobiography. And Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated which, while being a picture book, is so much more.

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.)