Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore was published in 1993 and it’s the first book that the author had published. It won the McKitterick prize which is apparently for debut novels by authors over the age of 40. The setting is mainly Spring 1917, in Zennor, a coastal village in Cornwall, close to where D.H. Lawrence has settled with his German wife Frieda.

Clare Coyne is a talented young artist who has always been very close to her cousin John William. But he is preparing to join the army, much to her grief.

The village is full of rumours about D.H. Lawrence and Frieda. Obviously the fact that she is a German is more than a little annoying to people, especially as so many families have suffered the loss of loved ones in the war. Clare befriends them and asks to draw them. Clare’s father isn’t happy about that at all, people say that Frieda is signalling to U-boats from the cliffs, but he’s a vicar and has secrets of his own.

The first part of this novel didn’t quite work for me, it became more interesting when the Lawrences made more of an appearance. Dunmore, based that part on what is known of the movements of the couple who eventually were forced by the authorities to move away from the coast.

This was an enjoyable read but not as good as the other books that I’ve read by Helen Dunmore, which is to be expected I suppose.

The 1929 Club – Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

1929 club

Goodbye to All That cover

I was very happy to see that Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves was published in 1929 so I could read it for The 1929 Club which is co-hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I’ve been interested in World War 1 since ‘doing’ it at school and luckily Jack has the same interest so we’ve visited some of the locations mentioned in the book, including trenches.

But at the beginning of the book Graves writes about his family history, his childhood and schooldays which were quite miserable, he wasn’t really very likeable to most of his peers it would seem. However, one of his teachers was George Mallory of Everest fame and he did go climbing with him which is definitely a claim to fame, but over the years Graves met up with lots of people who were going to achieve fame of some sort, even in the trenches.

For me it was the wartime parts of the book which were most interesting. Almost as soon as he finished his schooldays at Charterhouse he had decided to enlist, like the rest of them he was scared of missing what was going to be a very short war. Strings were pulled and he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Wrexham, and yes that is the correct spelling of ‘Welsh’ within that regiment. His parents were thrilled to bits, but he started off guarding German prisoners. He was so proud of his regiment despite being quite uncomplimentary about many of the people he met there. At this stage of the war the ‘highheidyins’ seem to have been very lenient with soliders who refused to conform and just had them categorised as ‘unlikely to be of service in His Majesty’s Forces’ and sent them home!

There’s humour but also a lot of the horrors of war and the stupidity of their orders. Given what he was doing eventually it seems amazing that he survived the war at all. I believe that Graves said that some of this memoir is fictional, as you would expect really, but amazingly he did meet up with and make friends of a sort with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But eventually fell out with Sassoon, a recurring theme with Robert Graves.

By 1926 and now married he had had enough of Britain and left for Egypt where he settled for a short time, working at a university as a teacher, but his pupils were less than sparkling, his marriage began to fall apart and he moved on again.

This was a good read, really harrowing at times as you would expect but Robert Graves comes across as being a difficult person – as many writers are.

My copy of the book is a Folio edition with endpapers showing a map and inset of Northern France during World War 1.

Lest We Forget – Armistice Day

For Armistice Day this year I thought you might be interested to read the blogpost that Jack @ A Son of the Rock wrote about our visit to Essex Farm, Ypres, Flanders a few years ago. This was where Lt Col John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres (Ieper,) Flanders

Essex Farm Cemetery is located on the banks of the Ypres-Yser canal by the site of the Advanced Dressing Station where Lt Col John McCrae was serving as a medical officer when he wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” I have blogged about him previously in connection with the McCrae Memorial at Eilean Donan Castle in Lochalsh, Scotland.

The cemetery contains more than 1,000 graves. Unusually for a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery its Cross of Sacrifice is located right at the entrance:-

Essex Farm Cemetery Ypres, Cross of Sacrifice

Graves from northwest:-

Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

From southeast. Note Yorkshire Memorial on the canal bank:-

More Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

From northeast:-

Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres, Graves

From south. Again note Yorkshire Memorial (which I shall come back to):-

Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Graves from Yorkshire Memorial:-

View of Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Graves from north, Yorkshire Memorial to left:-
Graves at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

A tree trunk has grown round the gravestone of Private J MacPherson, Seaforth Highlanders, who died on 5/7/1917, aged 33:-

Commonwealth War Grave, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Symbolic of the fact they fought and died over the same ground the cemetery holds a German grave, Franz Heger, RIR, 238, 7/8/1916:-

German Grave, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Grave of Rifleman V J Strudwick, The Rifle Brigade, 14/1/1916, aged 15, said to be the youngest British Empire casualty of the Great War. (There may be some doubt about this.) It is nevertheless a focus for remembrance:-

Youngest Casualty, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

John McCrae Commemoration stone. Written in four languages, French, Flemish, English and German, with the poem itself also inscribed on the memorial along with a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript:-

John McCrae Commemoration, Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

The bunkers at Essex Farm Cemetery where John McCrae worked as a medic:-

Bunkers at  Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Bunker interior:-

Interior of Bunker at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Another bunker interior:-

Another Bunker at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Bunkers, looking back up to Essex Farm Cemetery grounds:-

Bunkers at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Information board with a photograph of how the bunkers appeared during the war:-

Information Board Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

Sally on the Rocks by Winifred Boggs

The setting is early on in the First World War. The village of Little Crampton is home to Miss Maggie Hopkins, she’s a spinster and her hobby is digging up the dirt on anyone she comes into contact with – then broadcasting it to all and sundry. When Mrs Dalton a young widow with a daughter moves into the village she knows that she’ll have to find a husband soon as her money will run out. She sets her cap at Mr Bingley the local bank manager who is reputed to have plenty of money. Maggie Hopkins decides to have some amusement at Mrs Dalton’s expense and writes a letter to Miss Sally Lunton who has been living in Paris, but had lived in Little Crampton earlier as she was a ward of the local vicar Mr Lovelady. At the age of 31 Sally feels she’s on the shelf and will have to find a rich husband soon, so with the war advancing on Paris she decides to head for the safer location of Little Crampton, especially as Maggie Hopkins has written to tell Sally all about the wealthy bank manager who is a bachelor.

This is a great read which has plenty of humour, with the rivals for the bank manager becoming friends in their honesty that neither of them really want him as he’s a fairly unattractive and ghastly man, and is absolutely full of himself, but needs must! They’re both head and shoulders above him intellectually, but as women their life choices are narrow.

Mr Bingley had had one of those mothers who was determined to ward off any woman who might look like taking him away from her. Knowing that she couldn’t live forever and with the future in mind she wrote a huge book of advice for him. THE BOOK which Mr Bingley consults constantly has such advice as: Never marry your social superior; she will look down on you. Never marry your social inferior, you will look down on her. His mother is orchestrating his life from the grave!

Added to that is Maggie Hopkins, a sleuth who thinks nothing of writing letters to people abroad to ferret out what she sees as scandal.

First published in 1915 I was really impressed that Winifred Boggs had written about how the war could devastate a soldier’s life, even if he looked unscathed to the casual observer.

As ever, there’s a lot more to this book than I’ve written about, but I’ll leave that for you to discover, if you fancy reading it.

Many thanks to British Library who sent me a copy of this book for review.

Painted Clay by Capel Boake

Painted Clay cover

Painted Clay by Capel Boake was first published in Australia in 1917 but my copy is the 1986 Virago reprint. The author’s real name was Doris Boake Kerr and she also wrote under the name Stephen Grey. She spent most of her life in Melbourne, Australia which is the setting of this book.

Helen Somerset is an isolated young woman, brought up in Packington a suburb of Melbourne, by a reclusive father who has home schooled her. Her father has told Helen that her mother is dead and he has nothing good to say about her. He thinks that Helen will turn out to be like her mother and he’s a cold and aloof father, it’s a miserable life for Helen. Eventually Helen strikes up a friendship with the young women who live next door, she could hear them through the wall, their music and laughter and she longed to be part of it.

When her father dies Helen is only 16 and is in a sticky situation as she has to get out of what had been her home. Luckily she is taken in by the mother next door and her daughters Bella and Irene encourage Helen to get a job in a shop selling china. The work is dire as are the wages but Helen is happy to be out in the world. Eventually she’s encouraged to take evening classes in shorthand and typing to enable her to get a better job in an office.

As Helen’s life opens out and she makes friends with people who lead a more Bohemian lifestyle, living among artists she falls for an older man which is not exactly surprising since she had lacked a real father figure, but the relationship goes further than would be expected for the times, not that Helen feels guilty about that, she can’t see anything wrong with it, although knows that society would feel differently.

This is a really good read which deals with the changing attitudes of society and the changing lives of women who are more able to lead an independent life, but the men in their lives aren’t always as adaptable to the changes. Towards the end of the book the First World War breaks out which is obviously going to advance the cause of women’s independence albeit at a horrendous cost.

Capel Boake wrote three more novels and some poetry, but I don’t think the others have been reprinted which is a shame as I’d definitely read them if they were.

1917 – the film

It’s just typical that there are no films out that I want to go and see at the flicks for a year or so – then two come along at the same time! The same thing happened last year with Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite.

This year it’s 1917 and Little Women, so I’ve seen two films in two days, 1917 was the first, it’s a subject that I’m well acquainted with although I’m more interested in the social aspects of it and how it all affected society, not so much on all the strategy involved.

The film is directed in a way that makes you feel almost as if you are actually there, jogging along the length of a busy trench, it’s all very realistic. The mud, blood and decaying bodies. The rats, rats and yet more rats. The crazy expectations of those giving out the orders, the ordinary Tommy’s determination to obey and save the day. Well, they had no option I suppose as one way or another they were going to get shot at.

The differences between the British and German trenches are stark, with the German ones being made from concrete and bags of solid cement. I was quite disappointed that no makers mark could be seen on them as it should have been Blue Circle cement who dodged an embargo, according to WWI British soldiers of the time. Yes, the German trenches were solidly built, not the mud and wooden slat constructions of the British trenches.

Two lance corporals have to take orders to Colonel MacKenzie which tell him to stop an impending attack, as it’s a trap, but they have to travel through German territory to reach the Colonel. It’s not an easy journey!

The film has a great cast, although Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth have very little screen time, but the rest of the acting talent is just as good. This isn’t exactly uplifting viewing but I’d watch it again, given the chance.

The director Sam Mendes based the film on stories he heard from his grandfather and decicated the film to his memory.

Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge

Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge was published in 2014 and it’s subtitled The Story of Testament of Youth. The author is quite an authority on Vera Brittain as he has written a biography of her and in the past has worked as an assistant to her daughter Shirley Williams.

I read Testament of Youth years ago, probably around about the time that the BBC dramatised the book in 1979, but I didn’t watch the more recent film because I didn’t see how it could possibly do the book justice in such a short time. The BBC serial is very good but I suppose it might seem a bit dated now, acting styles do change over the years.

I think that some people might be a bit disappointed by this book as it is an honest portrait of Vera’s life which if you have only read Testament of Youth might come as a bit of a shock. She did have a habit of re-writing history to put herself in a better light, or to make herself seem hard done by within her family.

The fact is that her brother Edward hadn’t intended to join up straight from school but Vera who was by this time 20 years old seems to have been so influenced by the jingoism of the newspapers and some politicians that she persuaded him to enlist – her argument seems to have been that people of their class should be patriotic. Their parents were completely against their only son joining up and Vera was such a snob that she told her father that that was his attitude because he hadn’t gone to a public (posh private) school and therefore wasn’t as patriotic. I think she was one step away from being one of those dreadful females who handed out white feathers to men. Edward seems to have quickly regretted his decision to join up when the reality of the trenches hit him. It’s easy to see why Vera re-wrote history as she should have been consumed with guilt.

Much was made by Vera of her difficulty in getting a university education, claiming that her parents were against the idea when in fact she was encouraged to go to Oxford and was financed by them. Perhaps she only wanted to make her story seem more interesting but it had the effect of putting her parents unfairly in a bad light again.

At Oxford she had her apparently usual reputation for being earnest and conceited and also had no sense of humour, something that was a drawback when the book was being turned into a TV series, but she did make some friends there before she decided to become a VAD nurse and do her bit in the war. Her experiences eventually led to her writing her famous book, aided by some diaries that she had written in the first years of the war.

It might sound like I’m being a moaning Minnie – I’m not, it’s just that Vera was quite a flawed human being, she was a feminist but a terrific snob, the sort of woman for whom women’s rights were only for upper class women, certainly not for her own servants.

This book also gives some information on the making of the film and BBC series and also of Virago reprinting the book which led to them. There are also quite a few interesting photographs.

The author does seem to have got to the bottom of the strange circumstances of Edward Brittain’s death at the front. This was an interesting read with Vera in reality travelling from jingoistic euphoria at the outbreak of the war to pacifism a few years later.

In recent years we’ve become used to hearing about what women did in wartime and I have tended to have taken for granted that women’s contributions had always been appreciated, so I was really surprised to read in this book that in the BBC documentary The Great War (made to commemorate the 50th anniversary) which has a total running time of over 17 hours only minutes were devoted to recounting women’s experiences. I’ve watched that whole series at least three times, and that had never dawned on me! This book is a good read.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

A Great Reckoning cover

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny is the latest in her Three Pines series and if you decide to start reading the series then make sure you start at the beginning and read them in order for maximum enjoyment. I’ve come to realise that although I ‘ve enjoyed them all my pleasure in them depends on how much the inhabitants of the village of Three Pines feature in the storyline, the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.

There’s a mystery involving an old map that has been discovered in the bistro. It’s very strange because the Quebecois village is unusual in that for some reason it appears on no modern maps and has no mobile phone signal, so it must feel a bit like it has fallen off the edge of the word in some ways. But it’s the place that former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie have come to love, so much so that they have bought a house there.

Previous investigations have left Gamache damaged both physically and mentally, but he isn’t quite ready to retire from public service yet and after pondering over several job offers he has chosen to be the new commander of the Surete Academy. In recent years that training college has become corrupt and the young recruits are being taught that brutality is normal and that they are above the law.

Gamache is determined to clean the place up but he makes some surprising decisions as to which teachers to get rid of and who to hang on to. Has Gamache bitten off more than he can chew? This is a cracking read.

The story involves village men – boys really who went off to fight during the First World War and who got caught up in the horror that was the Somme. This year – 2016 is of course the centenary of those battles and I’m sure that Louise Penny wrote this book in remembrance of the many Canadians who died there.

We were in Ypres earlier this year and photographed the massive but very moving memorial to the Canadians there, see the photo below.

Canadian War Memorial, Saint-Julien

With Wings Like Eagles by Michael Korda

With Wings Like Eagles was first published in 2009 and it’s a history of the Battle of Britain. I’m not a stranger to reading history but I haven’t read much about World War 2. It was Sandy McLendon a commentor on ‘Pining’ who recommended this book, and I’m glad she did as it’s very interesting and is so readable, and very far from being a dry and dusty history. Luckily I was able to borrow it from my library.

I didn’t know a lot about the details of the Battle of Britain or the men involved in the decision making so it was all new to me. As is my wont I was reading out what I found to be interesting snippets of it to Jack, such as the fact that one cabinet member, Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, pointed out that a German company which was mooted as a possible bomb target was private property meaning it shouldn’t be bombed! but Jack has read a lot about the subject and so I gave up on that as annoyingly he was finishing off what I was reading out to him before I could! I think that even he would find some new details in this history though.

One thing which we have all always known is that history is written by the winners and of course Winston Churchill wrote his well known Second World War series which is mainly why he received a Nobel prize for Literature in 1953. According to With Wings Like Eagles Churchill did a fair bit of rewriting of history to put himself in a better light during this period of the war, when he was less than supportive of Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, whose plans and decisions led to us winning the Battle of Britain and consequently the war.

This book points out that it wasn’t only the air crews who were heroes there were also merchant seamen on tankers (my father being one of them) and the young women of the WAAF who continued to call in radar positions whilst bombs rained down all around them.

The RAF was riddled with jealousy and spite amongst those near the top, so much so that when the official history of the Battle of Britain was published, of which 6 million copies were sold, Dowding didn’t even get a mention. That led Churchill to complain that: the jealousies and cliquism which have led to the committing of this offence are a discredit to the Air Ministry.

Blackie’s Children’s Annual

I have a lot of collections of ‘stuff’, often completely useless and worthless but just pretty, such as shells and stones and there are the books and china of course, old brooches and boxes, old postcards… the list goes on and on. But I’m absolutely not going to start a collection of Blackie’s Annuals although I believe they are collected by a lot of people.

Blackie's Children's Annual

I just came across this one at the weekend whilst looking for something completely different – a set of pine shelves which I want for the kitchen but am having no luck finding. In fact today I just bought wood to have a go at making them myself, with Jack’s help. I wish I had been able to take woodworking classes when I was at school, I would have loved that.

Anyway, I’m rambling, back to Blackie’s Children’s Annual, I couldn’t resist buying this one but unfortunately it doesn’t have any clue inside it as to when it was published. It must have been sometime during World War 1 because of the endpapers, beautiful wee soldiers, in kilts too albeit rather short ones.

Front Endpapers

Back Endpapers

Also the very first story in the book is about a father going to war, he’s in the Special Reserves and the family’s ‘fraulein’ is having to return to Germany. So I’m plumping for Christmas 1914 for the publication date although Jack thinks they wouldn’t have had time to get it published in time for Christmas 1914. I think it was probably all ready long before Christmas and they just added the first story about the war and the endpapers to catch the spirit of the times. After all – the war was going to be finished soon wasn’t it?!

Actually I’ve just realised that the front cover was almost certainly designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh as he did a lot of work for Blackie’s books as well as designing Hill House in Helensburgh for him.

If you’re interested there are more images of Blackie’s books here.