Doreen by Barbara Noble

 Doreen cover

Doreen by Barbara Noble was first published in 1940 but my copy is a Persephone. I really enjoyed this one which begins in London during the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Walking to her work as an office cleaner through devastated streets Mrs Rawlings whose soldier husband has left her, decides that she’ll have to do what most mothers have already done which is to send her only child, nine year old Doreen away to the country for safety. After the previous night’s bombing she no longer has any faith that the bomb shelter will keep her and Doreen safe.

When Helen Osborne, one of the secretaries at the office finds Mrs Rawlings in tears she wonders if she can help by offering a country home to Doreen with her married sister Francie and her husband who are childless. They haven’t been allocated any evacuees because their home is seen as being too remote from a village for convenience. Francie quickly agrees to the plan and in no time she’s imagining what the little girl will be like.

After a shaky start Doreen settles down to life in a situation very different from what she’s used to. She has gone from a one room slum in London to living in a large country house and as she has been well brought up and she’s also quite clever and likeable, it isn’t long before Francie loves Doreen, she has always been sentimental about children. Geoffrey her husband has left the decision to take Doreen in up to Francie. He suffers from asthma and blames himself for not giving her a child. But inevitably Doreen’s mother is torn and visiting Doreen in the country she realises that Doreen has moved into a very different class from her poverty stricken previous existence and she doesn’t approve of it, she’s jealous and she knows that when the time comes for Doreen to go home she’ll never settle to life in a London slum again. It isn’t going to end well, but this is a really good read.

Considering that Doreen was written so early on in the war Barbara Noble must have quickly realised how evacuating the children to the countryside was going to make all sorts of problems for all concerned. It’s something that I’ve always known about as I’ve known people who were affected by it. One man in particular that I knew was very much surplus to requirement in his own large family and being evacuated to a loving couple was a definite plus for him and no doubt for them too. Luckily they did keep in touch after he had to go back home and they were the family that he had always wanted to be part of, I don’t think his parents were that bothered about losing him though.

A Woman in Berlin by anonymous

A Woman in Berlin cover

A Woman in Berlin by anonymous was first published in 1954 in the US in English and was subsequently published in several languages, including Finnish, but it was first published in the UK in 2005 by Virago. There’s an introduction by the historian Antony Beevor.

The anonymous author begins her diary on Friday 20 April 1945, 4 pm and her last entry is Friday, 22 June 1945 and she identifies herself as a journalist who had travelled widely before the war and had even been to Russia where she had managed to pick up some of the language, something which came in handy when the Russian army entered her neighbourhood. Obviously the women were dreading their arrival as they had heard so many rumours of their behaviour. Young girls were hidden away from the soldiers’ eyes in an effort to spare them from their attentions.

This is a grim read at times but not overly so, I’ve read far worse from Russian women writers writing about their experiences as political prisoners in Stalin’s gulags, and it doesn’t come close to matching what the Nazis did or for that matter the horrific things that are happening to young women abducted by armies in parts of Africa.

Rape occurred but the Russian soldiers spared the old, girls under 18 and young mothers. The author discovered that her neighbourhood had been taken over by what she described as elite troops, and other areas had it tougher with less refined soldiers, not that you could really call any of them gentlemanly. Yes the author was raped several times by various different men, then she realised that she must find an officer to attach herself to, in the hope that that would keep the others away from her. A lack of normal deference within the Russian ranks scuppered that hope to begin with but eventually she was seen as Anatol’s woman, unfortunately he was moved on though so she had to begin again.

But it wasn’t all bad news, the neighbours went from starvation to having plenty to eat, thanks to being able to loot the nearby German barracks and getting gifts of food from the Russian soldiers. The few German men who were around kept a very low profile, some of them had been demobbed from the army and they believed that the Russian soldiers would shoot them, but it was Herr Pauli who infuriated me. He was a lodger in the author’s building, lodging with a widow who lived on the ground floor. The author had moved in with them as her attic room on the fourth floor was dangerous while the battle for Berlin was ongoing. Pauli grudged every morsel that the author ate, and I just longed for her to say to him that if it wasn’t for her they would have had nothing to eat at all, but the German women must have been so used to seeing German men as superior beings that she never did give the lazy so and so a piece of her mind. She realises that looking back when all of the soldiers came home on leave they were pampered by the women, despite the fact that they had been living in areas of Europe that hadn’t been getting bombarded by bombs the way Berlin was.

Later in the book the author realised that if she had stayed on the upper floors of the building she would have been safe from the soldiers as they never went up to the higher floors, her theory on that was that as they were nearly all farm boys they weren’t used to stairs and didn’t like climbing up them.

The widow was eventually raped a few times, despite being 50, albeit a young looking 50, however she seems to have been rather pleased by the experience and went around telling everyone that according to her rapist she had a better figure than the Ukrainian women he was used to!

One woman states that if Hitler had been finished off on 20 July 1944, he would have kept some of his aura. That’s absolutely true as he still had plenty of supporters in modern Germany, if he had been a martyr it would only have made that situation worse.

Towards the end of the book the women discover that the Russian army didn’t give their soldiers home leave so many of the men had never seen their wives for over four years, they thought it went some way to understanding their behaviour, especially when they were drunk.

The identity of the author was obviously known to her publisher but she didn’t want this book to be republished in her lifetime as it had caused controversy when it first was published in Germany in 1954, presumably the women in particular didn’t want to admit to themselves what had happened during the Russian occupation. She outlived the publisher but his wife knew her identity and she apparently lived to be over 90 and died in 2001.

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