I was pleased when I realised that I could read The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre for The 1977 Club as we have all of his books in the overflow bookcases in the garage. Jack read them at that time. But I have only read A Small Town in Germany by le Carre previously. I was even happier when it dawned on me that this book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, I have a bit of a personal project going on to read as many as those prize winners as I can get a hold of.
I loved this book although for me it was essential that I had the time to read it over quite a short period of time, it’s not a 30 pages at bedtime before you fall asleep sort of book. Also as I was reading it 41 years after it was published it has a distinct feeling of nostalgia and historical fiction now.
It begins with the British secret service (the Circus) being under a cloud as far as the American ‘Cousins’ are concerned as Bill Haydon has not long been unmasked by George Smiley as a spy for Russia, recruited when he was a student at Oxford 30 years previously. Haydon had so much influence he had been able to have good members of staff pensioned off or elbowed out, leaving a very much weakened Circus. George Smiley is in charge of putting together a team to investigate money laundering in Hong Kong which was still a British Crown Colony at that time. He manages to bring back some of those that Haydon had ousted. The investigations lead from Hong Kong to Cambodia and Thailand and drug smuggling comes into it too.
That’s all I’m going to say about the story, it’s quite convoluted as you would expect of a spy story, but I really enjoyed this one and the fact that I haven’t read any of the other Smiley books which were written before this one wasn’t a problem at all, although I had watched them on TV years ago. I must say that I think Alec Guinness was the perfect Smiley.
The Broken Road – from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor was published in 2013 – posthumously. Fermor didn’t manage to get the book finished before he died. He had walked from the Hook of Holland in 1933 when he was 18 years old, planning to walk to Constantinople. He wrote two really good books about his experiences A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. For some reason he couldn’t get down to finishing the trilogy off for years. I suppose that it was an awful long way to look back, also he had terrible bad luck with his notes and diaries being stolen more than once and also for some odd reason Harrods Depository apparently destroyed papers that he had lodged in their storage for safe keeping.
This one doesn’t quite match the heights of his earlier books but it’s still a great read. Again he’s hob-nobbing with all sorts of people from gypsies to aristocrats, sleeping in shacks and palaces and when he gets to Greece he walked from monastery to monastery, some of which were wealthy and others very poor.
He had studied ancient Greek while at school and was keen to learn modern Greek and it’s just as well he did as when World War 2 began he joined the British Army and his expertise came in handy.
Bizarrely there’s practically nothing about Constantinople, maybe it was a big disappointment to him.
The really sad thing about these books is that just about all of the people he writes about having met probably didn’t live that much longer as gypsies, Jews, Bulgarians, Rumanians and even Greeks obviously didn’t fare well during the war.
Fermor was a bit of a maverick and although as a youngster he had thought of joining the army the thought of the necessary discipline that that would involve didn’t appeal to him at all. When World War 2 broke out he joined the SOE and operated on German occupied Crete. He proved himself to be independent though – taking it upon himself to kidnap a German General Kreipe at one point. A film was made of that escapade – Ill Met by Moonlight.
Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 at the age of 96 and you can read his Guardian obituary here.
The weather has been lovely and bright with sunshine and blue skies here although the gritters are now around on the roads late at night due to falling temperatures, it’s amazing we’ve had no rain now for four or five days, I’m fairly sure that’s a record for this year! We drove up to Dunkeld, it’s one of my favourite wee towns, a scenic place to go for a walk and have lunch.
Then we drove a further ten miles or so north to Pitlochry, a much bigger town, it definitely feels like you’re in the Highlands there, it’s a bit touristy but for me the biggest attraction is the second-hand bookshop, situated in a building at the railway station, just a few steps away from the platform. The books are sold in aid of several local charities.
I’ve always been very lucky finding books there, but as I was going in a man was coming out, he had an armful of books and it turned out that the place was heaving with book lovers. I hoped that they had left me something to buy!
I needn’t have worried though. This is usually a good source of interesting old hardbacks for me, but those shelves didn’t have much in the way of fiction at all, but there were plenty of paperbacks, so I ended up buying:
1. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor
2. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer
3. The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens
4. Neither Fiver Nor Three by Helen MacInnes
5. Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes
Pitlochry is well off for second-hand bookshops as there’s another one in a street off the high street, it’s called Priory Books and I was really pleased to get Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy there, a nice old hardback with its dust jacket too. I couldn’t say no to a British Library Crime Classics anthology of short stories called CRIMSON SNOW Winter Mysteries. Perfect for reading around Christmas I think.
I’m thankful to be able to say that most of the gifts I got at Christmas were either books or book related, in fact I got so many I think I’ll be doing two posts on my haul.
I went a bit Dorothy Dunnett mad and decided to collect her Niccolo series, I hope I enjoy them.
As it gets towards Christmas I just tell Jack to wrap up any books that I buy in second-hand bookshops, most of the time I forget what the books are by the time it comes to unwrapping them at Christmas so it’s still a surprise, the kind I like. I really don’t enjoy real surprises as sometimes they turn into real shocks!
The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart
The Young Patullo by J.I.M. Stewart
The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
Papa La-Bas by John Dickson Carr
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
Mary Poppins in the Park by P.L. Travers
Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor
and by Dorothy Dunnett:
The Spring of the Ram
The Unicorn Hunt
I didn’t read the Mary Poppins books as a child and after enjoying the film Saving Mr Banks at Christmas about P.L Travers’s relationship with Walt Disney and the making of Mary Poppins I thought it was about time I rectified that and luckily I found an old copy in St Andrews.
This year I plan to concentrate on reading my own books!
Abducting a General by Patrick Leigh Fermor was published in 2014. A previous book about this escapade called Ill Met By Moonlight was published by W. Stanley Moss in the 1950s. He was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s SOE colleague and Ill Met By Moonlight was made into a film.
Fermor’s book is more of a straightforward account of what went on during the operation. The book also includes his intelligence reports.
There’s no doubt that the whole operation to kidnap a German general was fraught with danger, you could say it was absolutely crazy. This book tells how lots of Cretans put their lives in danger and Fermor was full of praise for them. Crete had been invaded by the Nazis and the Cretans were obviously on the side of anyone who could help get rid of them.
I couldn’t help thinking though that Fermor et al were completely naive in thinking that the Nazis would not take their fury over their abducted general out on the local villages. They left plenty of evidence about that it was a British force which had kidnapped General Kreipe, such as a British army overcoat and a Cadbury’s chocolate wrapper. However the Germans at first believed that the kidnap must have been performed by rogue elements within their own forces. Every soldier who had a poor discipline report was rounded up and in the end 30 German soldiers were shot. Eventually it was the surrounding villages which were razed to the ground and lots of Cretans bore the brunt of the Nazi fury.
The whole thing seems to have been one of those wizard wheezes dreamt up by some chap who was safely flying a desk back in the UK. It was something that army types often did to justify their existence I suppose. It’s that definition of war as : ‘five years of utter boredom interrupted by 10 minutes of sheer terror.’ Like something out of a Boy’s Big Adventure Book and I think that those taking part in it could only hope that there was a good outcome which would make it all worthwhile.
General Kreipe was eventually picked up off Crete by the British, but I doubt if they got much information from him that they didn’t already know.
Much is made of the fact that the general was uncomplaining despite having to climb up mountains and starving along with his abductors, but I suspect that General Kreipe must have thought that Christmas had come early as by that time things were going very badly for the Germans. The upshot seems to have been that because Kreipe was a prisoner of war in Canada first and then Wales, he was well out of it and avoided standing trial for war crimes, unlike two other Nazi generals who were on Crete.
I spotted this book in the library and borrowed it as I had really enjoyed Fermor’s pre war travel books which made you feel like you were travelling along with him, and he was a great friend of Deborah Devonshire (Mitford) inevitably. His travel books are still my favourites.
This is the first book which I’ve read by Bernhard Schlink and I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the word which I would use to describe my reaction to it, but as Judith, Reader in the Wilderness said, it gave me plenty to think about too. I warn you, maybe you should make yourself a cup of tea or coffee first and IF you reach the end of this meander – you might just need a drop of the hard stuff in it.
To begin with I was quite disappointed that the storyline follows that of The Odyssey because it seems quite a hackneyed one, in English anyway. There has even been a film starring George Clooney called O Brother Where Art Thou which borrows from it. That’s a personal moan though.
Peter Debauer has grown up in post war Germany with very little information from his mother about who his father was but she does send him to Switzerland to live with his paternal grandparents during the school holidays. Whilst reading one of the books which they publish he realises that the end of the story is missing and as an adult he’s still looking for the ending, it’s his quest.
In fact it’s a bit of an obsession and through it he does actually meet up with the man whom he believes is his father. He’s a man who has spent his life bending like a willow in the wind, a determined survivor who had written for both the Nazis and Communists.
I’m presuming that this book was written to try to explain how things like the Third Reich can come into being, because there is an experiment towards the end of the book which isolates people and puts them in a position where they are bullied and do things which they would not normally do.
These experiments are conducted fairly regularly in universities but they’ve always struck me as being unreal situations which have generally used young people (students) as the guinea pigs. The trouble is – I just don’t accept that everybody behaves like that. Some people might, a lot of people might, and after all the McCarthy era in the USA was a similar situation where peoeple were bullied and intimidated into denouncing friends and colleagues. For me this smacks too much of being a ‘don’t blame us – you would have done the same thing too’ situation, regarding the Nazis. I can assure you we wouldn’t, in fact we didn’t.
By coincidence I’ve been reading some travel books recently, which involved journeys by people who happened to be in Germany around 1930. One is Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s A Time of Gifts a well known book, amongst other things he writes about how people in Austria thought Hitler was something to laugh at, he just wasn’t taken seriously. The other book is Modern Germanies as seen by an Englishwoman Cicely Hamilton, published in 1931. Chapter 13 is titled Jew-Baiting. This is the opening paragraph:
The traveller for pleasure in Central Europe who confines himself to the taking of tickets, the paying of hotel bills and the sights and excursions advised by Herr Baedeker may meander through his holiday and return to his home without suspicion of a Jewish problem. But let him once get out away from his tourist beat into private houses and private lives; let him make personal acquaintance even of the slightest; and the chances are that it will not be long before it is made plain to him that here is a Jewish problem and that Anti-Semitism, in Central Europe, is a force both widespread and dangerous.
The whole problem was that Jews were despised in Germany in a way which they hadn’t been in Britain for centuries. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written between 1596 and 1598 and it is about Jews being the same as Christians, in Scotland we would say: We’re all Jock Thampson’s bairns.
In 1930s Britain, the British Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, with close links to Hitler went around marching and trying to stir up trouble, especially in the East End of London where there was a large Jewish population. The upshot was that the barricades went up and they couldn’t march, there were running fights in the streets but in the end Oswald Mosley the fascist leader spent World War II in prison at His Majesty’s Pleasure, as did his wife. If you want to know a wee bit about the anti-fascists in London’s East End have a look here.
Anyway, back to the book. It’s about missing information, people not having the knowledge which they should have, things being hidden, and that is something which has always worried me about Germany. I have to tell you that I’ve had a German pen-pal since I was about 10 years old and I was 12 when I went to Bavaria for the first time. I went on my own (!!!) but I was well warned by my parents not to mention the war, just think John Cleese in Fawlty Towers – as if I would! So it was something of a shock to me to see the Nazi war medals and various other things proudly displayed in the living-room. My parents were the generation who went off to war, as did all of their siblings, and my husband’s relatives too, and for that matter the parents of everyone I was at school with and not once in any house did I ever see anything war related in the way of medals. In fact we didn’t find my father-in-law’s medals until after he died, they were in a cardboard box, they’re still in it but we have it now. My own father was in the Merchant Navy during the war (North Atlantic convoys, regularly being torpedoed) and at the end of it all they had to apply to get their medals and he didn’t bother doing it! In fact he hardly mentioned the war until he was on his death-bed, in common with most men who had a particularly bad time during the war. So, I thought the swastikas were weird, but thought no more about it.
Over the years though I’ve been gobsmacked by the occasional barbs at the hands of the wartime German generation, who were obviously more than miffed that they didn’t win it. Like when we happened to be walking past a Bavarian village church – Your RAF bombed our church – it apparently had suffered a tiny bit of damage from a stray bomb. Did I say – Your Luftwaffe killed my great-grandmother? No of course not, I’m too polite – don’t ever mention the war! I sometimes really wish I wasn’t so well-mannered. Then there was: why is your country the only one which calls itself ‘great’- what’s so great about Britain? I had to explain that it doesn’t mean great in that sense. If you only say Britain then it means the main island whereas Great Britain includes all the many inhabited islands which form the country too, from the Channel Islands halfway to France to the Shetlands halfway to Norway. Great means larger, not better than.
Coupled with that is the Germans that I’m related to by marriage, who bring out an enormous life-time sized photograph album, but you aren’t allowed to look at most of it, the photos that we can see are all post-war. Oh how I want to see the Third Reich photographs.
So I’m more than a bit perplexed by Bernhard Schlink’s idea of the war as a burden for Germans, it isn’t to the war generation Germans that I know and what is most worrying to me is that the younger generation, certainly the ones who are about my age (53) are fairly clueless about the whole thing. This is where the gaping whole is in modern German life and it always worried me – even as a child, that if people aren’t told about past mistakes, they can’t learn from them. History is more likely to be repeated and I couldn’t help looking at all those very strange looking guys who used to wander around in gangs in Stuttgart, dressed in leather, with large chains hanging all over them. This was pre-punk and they were in their 30s in the 1970s, maybe it’s still like that but it looked more than evil that the children of the Nazi generation were still dressing like – well Nazis.
Judges in the UK are well known for being rather outside normal society and clueless as to how the rest of us live, so I’m wondering if it’s the same in Germany. Bernhard Schlink was a judge in Germany and according to his interview in the Guardian he knows Germans who try to hide their nationality, perhaps it’s something only done by academics such as himself. The less cerebral ones don’t care. I see no reason why any German who wasn’t involved with the war as an adult should feel any burden for their parent’s mistakes. I’ve never met a German who tried to hide their nationality but I do know a chap from Texas who lives in Scotland and tells people that he is Canadian! Each to their own but I can’t imagine any situation in which I would not say I was a Scot, and woe betide anyone who calls me English – nothing against the English.
I’m glad to say that although my pen-pal of more than 40 years was brought up by strange parents who were obviously less than happy about the outcome of World War 2, she has none of their outlook. For obvious reasons Hitler doesn’t/didn’t feature on German TV, he’s never off some channels here and I think that Germans have to go out of their way to find out about that episode of their past. I used to collect ‘peace’ mugs/cups – which were sold in the UK to celebrate the end of the Great War but I also have one very small German cup which I hoped was from the first war but wasn’t sure. Yes, it’s the 14-18 war my friend said because it is so strongly patriotic!! Honestly, you have to laugh because they weren’t exactly less patriotic in the second war. It does make you wonder though, especially when she says that her father had a terrible time at the hands of the French as a prisoner of war. Not for long surely.
She’s gone a bit off her trolley I hear you say – but, neo-fascists have been rearing their ugly heads in Europe for quite some time now, and you can’t afford to ignore them! Austerity such as we are experiencing now is likely to be used by extremists to whip up support for despicable political parties. Today there were strikes and demonstrations in 25 European countries, that’s all very understandable, we just don’t want any modern day Mussolinis, Francos, Greek colonels or Hitlers taking advantage of the situation.
Well, did you get here? Yes, well then – whisky, vodka, beer or I have some lovely pear cider? Oh all right then, lets have a bit of poor Basil who has concussion and can’t stop mentioning the war.
I’ve read quite a few books now by both of the writers of these letters and it seemed the right time to read a book by the two of them together in the shape of letters which they had sent to each other over a period of 53 years from 1954 to 2007.
Whilst it isn’t a book to read if you don’t know either of the two writers, you’ll definitely find it interesting and entertaining if you do know them and at least some of the people who feature in the letters. That’s giving you quite a lot of scope because so many people are mentioned, obviously not in any sort of name dropping way, it’s just that they knew/know so many well known and influential people.
Deborah Devonshire is the youngest of the Mitford girls and is related by marriage to both Harold MacMillan (British Prime Minister) and John F Kennedy and people like Evelyn Waugh and Ian Fleming also have parts in the letters. It is mentioned that Mary Russell Mitford, author of a book called Our Village about rural life and published in the 1820s was actually a distant relative of the Mitford girls.
That’s all interesting in itself but there’s just as much written about unknown private people as there is about royalty or war heroes. Sometimes it’s mentions of people they just come across in life which have amused them and they feel the urge to share it with each other. They both had a good sense of humour, veering towards the daft, like when Debo asked Paddy for suggestions for spoof book titles, he gave her a long list, she only needed 28, but here are a few of them to give you an idea.
Reduced to the Ranks by D. Motion
Haute Cuisine by Aga Khan
St Symeon Stylites by A. Columnist
Intuition by Ivor Hunch
Dipsomania by Mustafa Swig
In the Soup by A. Crouton
The last one is The Ruined Honeymoon by Mary Fitzgerald and Gerald Fitzgeorge.
As you would expect from a correspondence over so many years there are ups and down in their lives and in common with Letters Between Six Sisters – it gets quite sad towards the end as the family, friends and latterly even their respective spouses disappear, much to their chagrin.
I’m wondering what to read next in the Devonshire or Fermor line. Any suggestions?
I’ve recently enjoyed reading some of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel books and I have a habit of trying to read everything by an author once I’ve ‘found’ them, so when I saw this book in a shop in Great Malvern I had to buy it, even although it’s a novel, his only one actually.
It was originally published in 1953 and is set in the Caribbean, a place I would never want to visit, being a cold country person. I usually avoid ‘hot climate’ books when I can, I know – daft but true!
Anyway, I did enjoy the book but not nearly as much as Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. There is the same sparkling descriptive prose of course and if you want to ‘experience’ a volcanic eruption in safety then you couldn’t do better than to read this book.
To begin with I found myself thinking that it seemed to be exactly like one of his travel books but when Fermor befriends Mademoiselle Berthe de Renne a very elderly artist who is living in Mitylene in Greece, he becomes entranced by her stories of life on the Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques before the Great War. Berthe is looking back to her youth but this book is more than descriptive decadence. If you want to go deeper I suppose it’s about disappearing worlds and loss.
It has plenty of interesting ‘by the byes’ such as the fact that the French Revolution shenanigans extended to the French colonies, something I hadn’t realised before but I suppose it is obvious they would. The really heartening thing though is that when a guillotine was erected in Saint-Jacques and the first Royalist head hit the basket, the negroes who witnessed it were horrified and broke through a cordon of guards to tear the guillotine to bits. The same thing apparently happened in Haiti, thus proving that the negroes were more civilised than the French if you ask me. I believe that yesterday (16th October) it was the 220th anniversary of Marie Antoinette being guillotined and there was an auction of some of her possessions, if you’re interested have a look here.
If like me you’ve been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books recently, then you might be interested in this article which was in the Travel section of the Guardian on Saturday. It’s about Kevin Rushby’s visit to Greece’s Mani peninsula, where Fermor lived for many years.
Artemis Cooper’s biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor, An Adventure will be published by John Murray on 11 October.
Fermor’s unfinished third volume of his walk across Europe in the 1930s will be published by John Murray in 2013.
You can see an audio slideshow of the Mani peninsula here.
It looks really lovely but, even if I could be bothered with the journey there, I think it would be too hot for me.
I enjoyed reading A Time of Gifts so much that I decided to just bash on and read the next part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey from Rotterdam to Constantinople (Istanbul), although of course he actually begins his journey in England. That book ended on a bridge over the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary and this book picks up where he left off.
It’s almost 1934 now and although he had intended spending a lot of his nights sleeping under the stars, when the weather permitted, he was more often housed in comfort in large country houses. This came about because quite early on in his travels he had his belongings stolen, including all his money and his passport. This led to him having to visit the British Embassy where one of the staff members was incredibly kind and helpful and ended up giving him introductions to many of the ‘best’ families in eastern Europe. So as sometimes happens, what seemed to be a disaster became a stroke of great luck.
In the end I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the previous one. Partly I think because as far as I’m concerned I was completely off the map whereas lots of the places in the western Europe of A Time of Gifts, I had actually visited.
The other thing which I couldn’t help thinking about was the feeling that most of the people which he made friends with were going to come to grief in the not very distant furture, given what Hitler was up to at the time. Fermor often met Gypsies and sometimes Jews and I really doubt if any of those people survived the coming disasters. He’s very knowledgable on all the many tribes which fought over this part of Europe and that in itself is quite depressing, especially when he mentions the tragic area of Kosovo, which of course has suffered horribly even in recent years.
But there are plenty of moments of comedy and it would seem that almost all of the aristocrats whom he befriended had had British nannies, and more particularly Scottish ones. Count Eugene, a Hungarian aristocrat had a great Scottish vocabulary learned from his nanny and he habitually came out with things like: a hae ma doots – sit ye doon – I’ll dree my own weird – I dinna ken and so on.
One of Fermor’s interests was language and so he often tried to learn words from the various people he met and that is very interesting, when he compares the similarities between words of different races. He was even able to question Hasidic Jews on the exact meaning of some passages from the Old Testament and they were amazed that their sacred words had spread so far, all the way to England.
When he came across a group of gypsies using a sheep’s fleece to sieve gold from a mountain stream he wondered if that was the meaning of the mythical ‘golden fleece’.
Anyway, I find that I could go on and on because this book is full of interesting bits and pieces and I had decided to buy the next one in the series as this book ends at the end of Middle Europe, the Iron Gates of the Danube. He never did finish writing about his journey to Constantinople and of course he died last year, but I think someone else has finished the book and it’s due out next year sometime.
Fermor had been reconstructing his journeys from the diaries which he wrote at the time, one of which had gone missing during World War II and turned up years later. So although he was writing about the 1930s this book wasn’t published until 1986. Lots of his memories about people and places did come back to him as he re-read his notes and it must have been a great time for him to be re-living his youth with young girlfriends all those years later. He must have been an awful procrastinator though as he still hadn’t finished writing about his experiences, and he was 96 when he died.