If This is a Man/The Truce by Primo Levi

If This is a Man/The Truce cover

If This is a Man by Primo Levi was first published in 1958 and I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but to be honest I’ve been avoiding anything like this that I thought might just be too grim a read. My mother was like many of her generation who were teenagers when the war began – obsessed by the war, obviously it was the biggest event in her life and she never really moved on from it. It’s no exaggeration to say that every conversation she had ended up back at the war somehow. I wasn’t told fairy tales as a youngster but was told of war atrocities instead! Honestly it’s surprising that I grew up so ‘normal’.

Anyway, If This is a Man turned out to be not as harrowing a read as I thought it might be. This is mainly because as a chemist Primo Levi was regarded as being a useful prisoner. His expertise was needed to help with the manufacture of synthetic rubber for the German war effort. But before that could happen he and others had to build the factory within Auschwitz.

Poor diet, freezing conditions and the heavy work involved whittled the men down over time and those who hadn’t been selected for instant departure through the crematorium chimneys often ended up there anyway.

Eventually the Russian army broke through the German defences and the Nazis fled, taking 20,000 prisoners with them. Luckily Primo Levi was ill and in the hospital at that time so he was left behind. Most of the 20,000 prisoners disappeared as they died of exhaustion during a forced march away from the advancing Russian army. He was one of only three survivors from the original 650 prisoners who had been taken to Auschwitz from his area.

The Truce is a sequel which was written in 1963 and in it Primo Levi tells of what happened to him after the Russians reached Auschwitz. I had always hoped that any camp survivors would have been cossetted by the allies and their problems would have been over but of course, advancing allies didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with them. It wasn’t possible for prisoners just to make their own way home. Another long march was the upshot with the only real difference being that they actually got fed this time. Truce is interesting though as Levi met so many interesting characters amongst the other survivors.

Another reason why I was put off from reading Primo Levi was that I had been under the impression that he had committed suicide in 1987 and that seemed unutterrably sad given what he had experienced, however it seems that many people believe that his death was an accident as he had been suffering from dizzy spells and he had lots of projects on the go at the time.

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword cover

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith is the story of the World War 2 Dig for Victory Campaign. Originally it was called Grow More Food which as I’m sure you’ll agree wasn’t a terribly inspiring name for such a campaign. It was apparently Michael Foot who went on to become the Labour leader who came up with the name Dig for Victory when he was a journalist for the London Evening Standard in 1939.

Memories of the food shortages during World War 1 were still fresh with many people and it was realised that the outcome of the war would rely on having a population that wasn’t literally starving. So began the campaign to encourage people to dig up their lawns and rose beds and replace their flowers with vegetable plots. It was amazingly successful and people who had never even thought of growing anything before became quite obsessive about their vegetable growing. As I’ve rarely been able to grow anything beyond herbs and potatoes I’m amazed at the success of it all, although in those days people were using an awful lot of poisons on their crops, including things containing cyanide! However it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.

In fact after six years of war it seems that the population had thrived on their rationed diet and they had never been so healthy before. It was however a boring diet and people rarely felt that they had had enough to eat although there were people such as Marguerite Patten developing recipes to help housewives with feeding their families.

This book features quite a lot about the politics of the times, but it’s always interesting. I really enjoyed it and it has inspired me to try out some more of the wartime recipes that I have in a book. I must give Woolton Pie another go.

One mild annoyance is that whiling away is spelled wiling away. No doubt this is partly because English people pronounce ‘wh’ as ‘w’ – which causes them confusion with words such as which and witch sounding the same – or whales and Wales. I wonder when they gave up on ‘wh’ sounds as it must have been sounded at some point otherwise they ‘h’ would never have been in those words.

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

 The Greatcoat cover

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore was published in 2012. When I read the blurb I thought it would be a good book to read around about Halloween – and it was, I really enjoyed it. Having said that, this might be a disappointment to people who are really keen on very creepy tales, of the spine-tingling variety, they’ll probably find this a bit tame.

The setting is Yorkshire, the winter of 1952. Philip Carey is a young doctor just setting up in his first job as a GP and he and his wife Isabel haven’t been married long. He has trawled the area looking for a place for them to rent, until they can afford to buy a house of their own. The post-war housing situation is desperate and he feels lucky to have found the two rooms with a tiny kitchen and shared toilet that they end up renting. Isabel isn’t so impressed though as the place is freezing, dark and depressing and as Philip doesn’t want her to work she’s stuck in it on her own while he works hard – often night and day. The landlady lives upstairs and constantly walks around, every footstep being heard downstairs, and Isabel is sure the landlady goes into their flat whenever she goes out to the shops.

Philip is one of those people who hogs the bedclothes, one night Isabel wakes up freezing and decides to get up and look for something she can put over her side of the bed to warm her up. In a high cupboard she finds an old RAF greatcoat, it’s perfect for her purpose.

The next night she’s woken up by the sound of stones rattling off the window and when she opens the curtains there’s an airman standing there and so begins a gentle haunting although Isabel thinks he’s just an airman who might have known someone who lived there previously.

This is a very quick read, just a novella really because although it has 256 pages the margins are large as is the print. I think in what I think of as a normal paperback this would probably only have been about 90 pages.

Sadly Helen Dunmore died earlier this year but she left behind twelve novels, so I have nine more opportunities to enjoy her company.

Dunkirk – the film

This afternoon we went to see the new film Dunkirk. It has been getting rave reviews but we would have gone to see it anyway as Jack’s father George was one of the soldiers lucky enough to be rescued from the beaches. Which is just as well because if he hadn’t been then there would have been no Jack!

The film is very tense, there’s no preamble, it begins with soldiers running through French streets under fire then switches to one of the small rescue boats being kitted out for the journey over to France – to save the British army. The action keeps cutting between that boat, the beach at Dunkirk and the battle going on in the air. There’s really very little dialogue, compared with most films anyway and that probably adds to the atmosphere. Mark Rylance is particularly good as the small boat owner but all the acting is good.

The only thing that sort of annoyed me was that there seemed to be a distinct lack of soldiers on the beach. I’ve seen photographs of it and it was absolutely packed out, as you would expect with up to 330,000 British men waiting to be evacuated, and later 150,000 or so French soldiers. If they didn’t want to pay for so many actors they could have computer generated them easily.

The Guardian film critic wasn’t impressed by the film although he was mainly annoyed by it focusing on one small boat rather than on some of the more dashing real life stories involved, but I don’t agree.

You can see the official film trailer here.

The photo below is of my in-laws George and Nancy on their wedding day which was arranged very quickly when George thought that he was going to be part of the D-Day invasion force four years later. I suppose they thought that the odds were against him surviving and as they had been going out with each other for years and years it might be now or never.

A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively

A House Unlocked cover

I’ve been enjoying reading some of Penelope Lively‘s novels this year so when I saw A House Unlocked sitting in the biography section of the library I just had to borrow it.

Actually I was expecting something quite different from the title of the book, I thought it would be about the house she had grown up in, but the house of the title is her grandparents’ house, a large and very grand place which was run with the help of umpteen servants and gardeners. Lively grew up in Egypt but was sent back to the house for holidays, she was an only child of divorced parents so there were no reminiscences of the things that she and siblings had got up to in the house. She tells the story of the house through objects that were in it, but at times it’s more about social history, as an embroidery sampler stitched by her grandmother reminds her of the evacuees that had stayed in the house during the war. But instead of writing about those specific children Lively chose to explain how the evacuation of millions of children and some women had been achieved, and the consequent shock to all concerned. That may be news to some readers I suppose.

The locals were appalled to discover that all of the city children seemed to have lice and Lively comments that that is something that has changed since her younger days as now even middle-class children have nits, including her grand-children. That was news to me as I’m very thankful that I’ve never had to deal with such things, despite having had two boys. Prevention is best, comb their hair with a fine toothed comb at least four times a day and you’ll have no problems is what I suggest!

The hymn book reminds her of the church and that leads her to go into detail of the statistics of the church attendance of the Church of England over the years, it has dwindled drastically although church going was never in a healthy state, not even in Victorian times. Although she herself is a non-believer, she attends the church more to support the actual upkeep of the building and stop it from being deconsecrated and turned into flats or a wine bar.

I found the parts detailing the garden most interesting, how such a huge place was set out and planted. As she freely admits, if it hadn’t been for the very many Scottish plant hunters of the 19th century lots of the trees and plants would never have arrived in Britain’s gardens and estates.

It wasn’t until almost the end of the book that Lively explains what financed the very comfortable life style. Her family name was Reckit, which I immediately recognised as the well known manufacturer of household cleaning/laundry products such as Reckitt’s Blue, Silvo, Brasso and Robin Starch – do you remember that? It was obviously a very lucrative business although as the family was ‘trade’ they wouldn’t have fitted in with some snooty people’s idea of high society.

Social mobility that came about post World War 2 meant that her husband Jack Lively had been able to get to Cambridge despite being brought up in a council house and in an earlier generation she would have been very unlikely ever to have met him, never mind married him. I found those observations quite depressing as over the last forty years or so things have definitely gone backwards, with first evening classes having to be paid for and more recently university education no longer being free.

So as I said, I found this book to be a wee bit disappointing, I think fiction writers often don’t hit the right spot with me when they turn to memoirs, I suspect some of them hold too much back. But I might be being unfair as I immediately started reading Diana Athill’s book Alive, Alive Oh! after this one and for me that one was much better – but that’s for another day!

A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other by Ralph Webster

A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other cover

Ralph Webster’s parents had the misfortune to be caught up in the horrendous happenings in Germany that led up to the beginning of World War 2. It was a subject that Webster’s father had been rather reticent about, as so many people are when they have been traumatised by events, but as Ralph Webster and his wife Ginger witnessed the plight of refugees on their recent trip to Europe from the US where they live, it made him think more about his own family’s history. The upshot is this book A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other which I must say is a cracking good read for anyone interested in that era. The author says that most of the story is based on fact, with just a few bits of fiction – to join the dots. He asked me to review the book as his father had found refuge in the west of Scotland as a teenager and was eventually able to join the British army – the Pioneer Corps.

There are two narratives running in tandem in A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other. One relating the experiences of the Wober family in Prussia in the Nazi era as told by Gerhard Wober and the other the told by his son Ralph Webster as his father’s life draws to a close.

The story begins with Gerhard Wober (Webster’s father) describing his family, he’s the youngest and has three very much older sisters. The family is well off, his father is a businessman, selling farm machinery and he also owns a farm. They have several servants who are like part of the family, and life is good, but as time goes on the rise of the Nazi Party was to change all that.

The trouble was that although the Wober family were Lutherans who regularly attended church and the children had all been baptised Lutherans, Gerhard’s mother had actually originally been Jewish, although not a particularly religious one. Gerhard’s father had been adopted and he later discovered that his parents had also been Jewish.

Living in a rural area in Prussia they had been fairly sheltered from what was going on in the cities, but when members of their extended family phoned to warn them what was going on in their town it was no longer possible to ignore the facts. The fact that they had completely assimilated and didn’t think of themselves as Jewish wasn’t going to save them from the horrors. The mayhem of Kristallnacht in 1938 woke them up to the fact that the Nazis weren’t a passing phase. It wasn’t long before the locals joined in with the violence of the National Socialist thugs and the Wober family home was trashed. Obviously unknown to the Wobers there had been a lot of jealousy over the years in some quarters.

It was time to move out. It might be safer in a city and they would have to think about escaping. With everything they had owned having been trashed or confiscated escape wasn’t going to be easy. By this time Gerhard is a teenager and his father’s top priority was to get him out of Germany to safety, but with no money and not having any friends abroad to sponsor him it seemed a forlorn hope.

The fact that as far as the family was concerned they were Lutherans, not Jews, only complicated things further. Taking advantage of the Kindertransport would have meant Gerhard would probably have been fostered to a Jewish family, but his father wanted him to hold on to his Lutheran upbringing.

Eventually Gerhard finds a sponsor and makes it to the west of Scotland where he gets a job working on a farm in Balfron, Stirlingshire – not that far from where I grew up actually.

When war actually breaks out all foreigners in Britain were interned in various places. Those in power naturally worried that some of those people might have been German or Italian spies. Jerry – as Gerhard was now known, was moved to the Isle of Man but when it was decided that he was no threat to Britain he was able to join the British army and do his bit. It was at this point that he changed his name to Webster as it was thought that if those in the Pioneer Corps had been captured by the Germans they would be likely to be killed as traitors.

I found this to be a really fascinating read and for me it answered some questions that I had always had – such as – Why didn’t they all just get out as soon as they realised what the Nazis were like?! But of course it wasn’t that simple.

Ralph Webster contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in reviewing A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other, mainly because of the Scottish connection. His father had always been grateful that he had been welcomed in Scotland, his sponsor had probably saved his life. I had to laugh though when it became evident that the farm workers that he had been working with were obviously rather rough in their speech, as many rural people are. So the Scottish dialect that he learned from them was quite different from the English that was spoken elsewhere in Britain, that must have been quite a shock to him. The blighters might have made an effort for the foreigner as certainly where I was brought up we were all bilingual with one dialect for in the school playground and ‘correct’ speech for in the classroom!

I rarely accept books review requests but the subject matter of this book was right up my street. My thanks go to Ralph Webster for giving me the chance to read his book.

As it happens today – the 9th of November is the anniversary of Kristallnacht – when any Jews who had been in denial about all the restrictions that had been going on in their lives could no longer have any belief that the Nazis couldn’t possibly mean people like THEM – normal law abiding people.

I thought that I knew a lot about this subject but I hadn’t realised that German birth certificates had a space for ethnicity/religion. So it would seem that that information was something that had always been important to those in power, long before the Nazi party reared its ugly head. There was no need for them to wait for jealous neighbours to denounce people as Jews, they had all the information already.

I wonder if German birth certificates still have that information on them. British birth certificates definitely don’t have a space for anything like that, it’s unimportant. It’s the child’s name, birthplace and the parents’ names and address only.

I know that South African birth certificates did/do have space for ethnicity. But that’s another weird country, and midwives in the past have been known to just decide that a baby was of black descent, causing all sorts of problems to the family.

I do wonder though if the nasty anti-foreigner post Brexit and let’s face it – pre Brexit attitudes to foreigners by some people nowadays were at all prevalent in 1930s Britain. Has our relative affluence made some people more hard-hearted towards people fleeing war and mayhem. It makes you think!

This one counts towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Enigma by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Enigma – The Battle for the Code by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore was first published in 2000, again it was Sandy McLendon who recommended I read it, and I’m glad that I did.

I didn’t know much about the subject other than what I learned by watching the similarly titled film so I learned a huge amount of details from this book.

I hadn’t realised that the effort to break the Enigma code went all the way back to 1931 when a German called Hans Thilo Schmidt had his first meeting with a French Secret Service agent. Although Schmidt had a job in the Cipher Office, the galloping inflation in Germany at the time meant that his pay barely covered his living expenses, never mind those of his wife and young family. He was interested in selling information to help his financial situation. His brother Rudolf Schmidt was high up in the German army and Hans got a lot of information from him too.

Meanwhile, the Poles were actively trying to break the German codes, a cryptology course had been set up in 1929 at the University of Posnan near Warsaw. The best of the students ended up being employed by the Cipher Bureau in Warsaw and they were the first to be able to crack some of the German codes. It was the beginning of a long allied struggle to be able to read Enigma and it seems amazing that they ever did manage to crack the codes. Although I had not realised that it was an ongoing struggle, as when the Germans changed the settings of their Enigma machines it meant that the coders at Bletchley Park had to start again to figure out the changes, meaning that the allies were again in the dark as to what was going on in Germany. In some ways that was a blessing as obviously the Allies didn’t want the Nazis to know that their messages were being read by them, and those “periods of silence” from Germany – the times where information couldn’t be retrieved from the codes – let the Nazis think that their codes were completely safe.

Everyone will have heard of Alan Turing now, but the Enigma story is so much more than one man and from a personal point of view I was very interested in all the details of U-Boats and the merchant ships which were involved in the Atlantic Convoys and were being torpedoed by the U-Boats. I needed my Dad beside me to talk to him about it as he was one of those Merchant Seamen being torpedoed there, but in common with most of the men who had terrible experiences – he never spoke about them, apart from saying it was an awful feeling leaning over the side of a ship and watching a torpedo coming through the water at you.

At the end of this book there are appendices giving lots of diagrams of the details of how the Enigma machines worked, about Cillis and Rodding and wheel positions and I must admit that I didn’t tax my brain with all that, but there is a section which gives the details of what happened to the main participants in the book and nicely ties up all the ends. A very interesting read.

We Serve by R.M. Neill-Fraser

We Serve by R.M. Neill-Fraser was published in 1942 and it’s a humorous account of life in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). I can’t find out anything about the author but the book is listed in this article from the Imperial War Museum website.

I was lucky enough to pick this book up for a couple of quid from a secondhand bookshop recently and it was really the illustration on the title page which attracted it to me, it looked like a fun read, and it was.

We Serve 1

It begins:

Our draft was born in Winterleigh and we felt very small and weak when we gathered at Headquarters that morning. We stagggered under our heavy suit-cases. We trailed rugs and pillows and clutched paper bags from which sandwiches and fruit already straggled. Some of us came grandly in cars with anxious parents looking their last on soldier daughters. It didn’t matter how we came; when we entered the barrack square we were all the same – soldiers.

I think that this book must have soothed the qualms of many parents at the time. Up until then young women usually only left their home to get married, it must have been such a worry to hand daughters over to the army, where the parents couldn’t keep tabs on them.

On the other hand what an adventure for the young women who according to this book, and what I’ve been told myself from those who experienced the life, had a much easier time than the men who had been conscripted, as you would expect. It might sound terrible but for a lot of them it was the time of their lives, and something they looked back on constantly as a great experience.

Whether We Serve was written with the purpose of placating parents – I have no idea, but it does give the impression that the women were being well looked after and were having an enjoyable time going to dances and meeting suitable men, who they were well able to handle!

A fun read, especially if you’re interested in women’s experiences in World War 2.

Unfortunately there are only two illustration in the book. This is the other.

We Serve

More Flitting and Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

It has been a very busy week for us as we’ve been helping Gordon and Laura move into their new home, until now they’ve had to rent, like so many people nowadays but it has been worth waiting for and not only do they have a lovely house, they have a beautiful view of rolling green hills from their front path. I’ll get a photo of it soon, I was too busy humphing stuff to stop and click. The next time they move (not for a long time I hope) they will definitely be employing a removal company, we’re getting too old for it all!

Apparently everyone where Laura teaches was saying to her – are you flitting tomorrow? – and she had never heard the word before as although she has lived in Scotland for years she is from what she calls the grim North, meaning the Manchester area – which is definitely the south to us.

Anyway it’s great to see them settled at last. I have been reading although you wouldn’t think it because I’m way behind in my Goodreads Challenge updating. I hope to get back to normality, or what passes for normal here anyway – soon.

One book which I finished recently is Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. It’s a Puffin Modern Classic and when I saw it in a charity bookshop in Edinburgh I thought it was about time I got around to taking a squint at it. Some parts of it seemed quite familiar though and I think I’ve probably heard snatches of it on the radio over the years. The BBC has also adapted it for TV in the past and you can watch it on You Tube.


The book is an enjoyable read, you probably already know that it’s about a young brother and sister from London being evacuated to Wales to avoid the Nazi bombs. I can only wonder what I would have done as a mother in that position, somehow I just can’t imagine packing my children onto a train and waving them off to an uncertain future with strangers. But then – there were all those bombs to contend with …

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

My husband recommended that I read this book recently and I must admit that it quickly jumped to the top of my book queue, simply because it is a very slim volume at just 91 pages. The temptation to tick it off quickly was just too much for me.

It is set in 1945 and the 18 year old Milos Hrma is an apprentice on the State Railway. He is finding life difficult to cope with and has already attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He was driven to such despair when his first attempt at sex was a flop and he is now obsessed with proving himself to be a real man.

The closely observed trains are German ones and they have to be kept punctual otherwise the railway workers will have to answer to the Gestapo.

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this is quite a funny book in parts and Milos is such a likeable character, you really want things to work out for him.

This was my first foray into Czech literature and I’ll be reading more, whenever I can find some.