Inside the Crown: Secrets of the Royals – ITV


Watching this was like spending an hour reminiscing with old friends – some laughs, some sighs. They had a nerve calling it “Secrets of the Crown”, though. What secrets?!  At one point, they produced a document from the archives, and announced that … ta-da … it had cost £50 to hire all the chairs for the Queen and Prince Philip’s wedding. Hold the front pages!   And they must have spent a good five minutes discussing the creases in Diana’s wedding dress. I wasn’t really expecting any great revelations, though, and it was easy watching. And they kept going on about what a wonderful team the Queen and Philip make, and how theirs is the longest royal marriage in British history. Bless 😊.   Unsubtle use of “the Crown” in the title.  I haven’t got a Netflix sub, so I’ve never seen “The Crown”, but I’ve never been sure that I want to.  But I do like things like this.

This was supposed to be about balancing love and duty. A few bits had clearly been hastily shoved in at the last minute, after Harry and Meghan jumped ship, but I assume the rest of it had been filmed a while ago and that the timing was just a weird coincidence. Out came all the old stories! Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and whether or not they sympathised with the Nazis. The establishment not being overly chuffed with Princess Elizabeth wanting to marry Prince Philip, and how she stood her ground. Was she ringing Philip from the telecommunications carriage on the train, during the 21st birthday tour of South Africa?  No idea, but I hope so. The much-told stories of how Queen Mary mistaking the traycloth that Gandhi sent them as a wedding present for a loincloth, and how people sent Princess Elizabeth their own clothing coupons – proving how wrong those grumpy MPs who said that people weren’t in the mood for a big royal wedding were. Never trust MPs!

The one part of the programme where they deviated from the traditional view of things was whilst discussing Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend.  Most people take the view that Princess Margaret decided she didn’t fancy giving up her royal status, but this showed documents agreeing that she could keep her royal status, and her Civil List income, and generally carry on as before, and that all she’d have had to give up was her place in the line of succession, which was irrelevant anyway because Prince Charles and Princess Anne were ahead of her. Their interpretation of events was that she just decided that Peter Townsend wasn’t Mr Right after all.   Who knows?  I don’t think anyone buys all that “mindful of the teachings of the church” stuff, though!

Then they brought up all the speculation in the late 1950s that all wasn’t well between the Queen and Prince Philip.  See, all the Royals get hassle from the press.  Remember all those headlines about “the Duchess of Pork”, “Sophie and the Fake Sheikh” and “Waity Katy”?  And it’s not just here – it happens to the royal families of other countries too.  How Harry and Meghan can be so self-obsessed as to make out that the media are picking on them in particular is beyond me.  Look at all the grief Camilla’s had to put up with.  It must be horrendous, but keep calm, be dignified, carry on, and it passes.

They were very even-handed, in this programme, with Charles and Diana, which I was impressed with – it annoys me when people try to vilify one or the other of them.  Can we just accept that it was a bad match?  They’re hardly the first people to have made bad choices of partner, and, if they’d been any other couple, they’d have split up very soon after the wedding.  It’s sad, though.  Easy to be wise after the event, but, looking now at the pre-wedding interviews, it was so obviously a disaster waiting to happen.  I’ve seen better chemistry between complete strangers.  Oh dear 😦 .

Finally, the latest generation of royal couples. High, and well-deserved, praise for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and especially for the Duchess. As for the Sussexes, enough’s been said about them over the last few weeks, and may they stay out of the headlines like they claim they want to.  But it was the Queen and Prince Philip who were the stars of the show.  As great royal romances go, theirs is right up there.

So, like I said, it was like reminiscing with old friends.  But there were definitely no secrets revealed!


Auschwitz Untold: In Colour – More4


On the day I visited Auschwitz, the sky was bright blue.  The red brick of the gas chamber chimney stood out against it, and it was quite striking.  That felt wrong, somehow, as if the sky should have been full of black clouds.  I wasn’t sure that colourising footage of the Holocaust – and, despite the title of the programme, this wasn’t only about Auschwitz, but also about many other aspects of the Holocaust, including the Einsatzgruppen massacres, the ghettoes and the destruction of centuries of culture – would work, but it did.  It also included interviews with sixteen survivors, including a female Jewish resistance fighter who escaped from the Vilnius Ghetto, and a Romani man who spoke about the decimation of his community in France.

A considerable number of TV programmes are being shown to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The BBC are showing “The Windermere Children” tonight, as well as coverage of the actual Holocaust Remembrance Day service in London, and there’s a programme on tomorrow about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  Several Holocaust-related films have also been shown, and special episodes of both Holby City and Songs of Praise have been made.  The specialist history channels have also shown Holocaust-related programmes; and More 4 brought us this, the first in a two-part series.  It’s harrowing stuff, but most people seem to agree that the 75th anniversary needs to be marked on a significant scale, whilst there are still survivors with us to tell their stories first-hand.

I’m not sure what I make of the idea that a younger audience won’t be able to “get” the full horror of the Holocaust unless the footage is in colour, but there’s no denying that colour adds something to historic photographs and film, as with Edwardian Britain in Colour and some of the First World War footage which has been colourised.

I thought the inclusion of footage from several different parts of Europe worked very well, in getting across the scope of what happened. One of the first people interviewed spoke about his childhood in a shtetl in the Carpathians. The deportation of people to ghettoes can create an impression that the Holocaust was all about the destruction of urban populations: the word “shtetl” usually creates a picture of an earlier time.  There had been a lot of emigration from the shtetls to Western countries, or to Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow and other cities, but it was the Holocaust that destroyed that way of life, not urbanisation and not the pogroms.

Another survivor spoke about Lithuania – and a point was made about the armed resistance in the ghettoes. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is familiar, but armed resistance in Vilnius, Krakow, Minsk, Bialystok and Krakow was also mentioned. We were reminded of the Einsatzgruppen massacres – including some very harrowing footage, now colourised, of a mass grave. I know I’m always saying this, but there can be a tendency to focus on the concentration camps at the expense of the massacres carried out in so many places. The people of the Vilnius ghetto were shot outside Vilnius, not deported to Auschwitz.  It was fascinating to hear this lady, who’d been a teenage girl when she escaped from the ghetto, the day before it was liquidated, talk about her experiences as a resistance fighter.  There’s a film about Jewish resistance fighters, Defiance, but it’s not particularly good.  Maybe someone could make a better one.

We also saw pictures of Jewish life in Vilnius before the war. It was such an important cultural centre: the term “Lithuanian Jews” is still used to describe religious people who emphasise the important of studying. About 13% population of Lithuania was Jewish at one time, the highest in the world, and – depending on which books you read! – 50%, 65% or even 75% of the population of Vilnius itself was Jewish. There’s very little left of that culture now. As the programme said, the Nazis aimed to destroy so much historic culture. We were shown colourised footage of Kristallnacht and, 5 years earlier, the book-burnings- the flames colourised in bright orange. They burned books. Then they burned buildings. Then they burned people.

It’s a shame, really, that the title of the programme didn’t make it clear how much this was going to include.  We saw footage of huge German tanks rolling into Poland … and the Polish Army riding out to meet them on horseback, as if it were the Napoleonic Wars.  They didn’t stand a chance.  We also saw a lot of footage of the Lodz ghetto. Lodz, the textile city, the “Polski Manchester”. Dead bodies lying on the ground. Nooses in a row, ahead of a mass public hanging. And hundreds of small children, 4,000 in all, being marched off for deportation to Chelmno, to be gassed to death … the test runs for Auschwitz. Little kids. One survivor, who’d been living in Amsterdam before the war, spoke about how, after his political activist Jewish father was arrested, the Nazis came into his primary school to arrest him. He was 5 years old. His teacher tried to tell them that he was off sick, but they got him anyway. 5 years old.

The shtetls were an Eastern European thing: in Central and Western Europe, it was more of a destruction of an urban population. And such an essential part of every country – in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, everywhere. Think Einstein, Freud, Mahler and, hey, Franz Sacher, the man who created Sachertorte. Budapest even used to be nicknamed “Judapest”. The programme – the title really didn’t explain just how much it encompassed – went back to the time just after the First World War, and explained how Jews were made a scapegoat for defeat, as if they’d been working again their own countries, the countries to which they belonged. It talked about Germany: it could also have talked about Hungary. And then there was everything that went on in the “Ukrainian People’s Republic”.

The programme made the point about what utter rubbish this was.  Two of the survivors spoke about how their fathers had fought in the First World War, one for Germany, one for Austria-Hungary, and how they’d both been decorated. They spoke about the number of Iron Crosses awarded to German-Jewish soldiers. With the shtetls, I think identity tended to be religious. Not just with Jews – in Austrian Galicia, before the First World War, Ukranians seem generally to have identified as “Orthodox” rather than as “Ukrainian” or “Ruthenian”, at least until the late 19th century. But, elsewhere, identity was national, not religious.  And then, as one survivor, deported from Budapest said, thousands of people were marched along the main streets into the ghetto, and other people passed by and didn’t even look at them.

People would have been too scared to do anything.  And there were people who tried to help.  The BBC spoke to a German woman who, as a young girl, along with her mother, provided shelter to a Jewish woman – and they also spoke to the British descendants of the woman they saved.   And, just as an aside, Songs of Praise spoke about the vital work done by British Quakers in organising the Kindertransport. But still.

One of the survivors was a French Romani man, who made it quite clear that it was officials from the Vichy government who arrested and took away most of his relatives and other members of his community.  I’m so glad (if that’s the right word) that the programme included the Romani Holocaust, because it’s not given as much attention as it should be.  We saw pictures of some of the camps in which Romani people were imprisoned – and, of course, many Roma and Sinti people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It also covered the horrible irony of Jews taken to forced labour camps having to build the railway lines which would later be used to help the Nazis to deport people to the death camps, and also to invade the Soviet Union.  Most of those alive now were children at the time.  One lady spoke about clinging to her mother’s hand as they were marched away in Budapest.  One man spoke about how he associated the word “camp” with tents and jolly outdoor eating – until he got to a forced labour camp, where he had to help to build railways, and many of those working alongside threw themselves in front of trains because they couldn’t take it any more.  One lady spoke about asking, shortly after arrival at Auschwitz, when she’d be able to see her mother – and being told that her mother had been gassed to death.  Another spoke about her father putting his hand on her head in blessing, the last time she ever saw him

The juxtaposition of the testimony of the survivors and the colourised footage worked very well.  It doesn’t always work when you’ve got a bit of film and then a bit of talking, and then a bit more film and then a bit more talking, but it did in this case.  It really was a very interesting hour’s TV.  My only quibble is that the title of the programme didn’t show just how much it encompassed – they made a big effort to include aspects of the Holocaust which are not always discussed.  Well done, More4.  This was excellent.


Happy 80th birthday to Puffin Books



I was excited to see that Puffin Books are celebrating their 80th anniversary this year.  O halcyon days of the Puffin Club and Puffin Post!  From little kids’ books like “My Naughty Little Sister” and “The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark”, to lifelong Girls’ Own favourites like the Little House books, “Ballet Shoes” and the Kingscote series, to Puffin Classics such as “Little Women” and “Heidi”, to Puffin Plus books like the Kevin and Sadie series and “Fifteen” … life would have been very different with no Puffins.  Even schools approved of them, which they rarely did with Armadas.  Our lovely third year infants teacher used to read us Roald Dahl books and Puffin short stories, and we did “Carrie’s War”, “The Crown of Violet” and “Across The Barricades” in our first two years at secondary school.   Happy Oak Anniversary, Puffin!

I read zillions of books when I was a kid, and I’d be lying if I said I could remember exactly which ones were Puffins, which were Armadas, which were Granadas, which were Fontana Lions (sounds like a rugby team) and which were Piccolos, or indeed anything else, but certainly an awful lot of them were Puffins.  Quick look at the bookshelves … as well as the ones I’ve already mentioned, “Charlotte Sometimes” is a Puffin, as are the Carbonel books, as is “Anne of Green Gables”, as are most of the Noel Streatfeilds; but there were hundreds more that I read back in the day.  Penguin Books have played such an important role in developing the paperback market and making literature affordable, and Puffin Books, their children’s section, have played a big part in many children’s lives over the past 80 years.  Long may they continue to do so!

I write a lot because it helps me to deal with anxiety.  If I can’t actually be writing but I’m finding things difficult, usually because I’m Trapped at work where there’s no quiet, people-free space to go to, I can think about what I’m going to write.  Then I feel guilty about spending ages writing things that hardly anyone’s going to read, worry that I’m annoying people by posting too many things on social media, and panic that I’ve said something that the few people who’ll read it might take offence at, but you can’t have everything!   Books help you to escape without having the guilt/worry/panic issues, but it’d look a bit obvious if I whipped a book out of my bag at work.

However, in childhood, there’s a lot more time to read.  Well, there isn’t if you’re a super-active kid and or a super-social kid, but there was if you were me.  It wasn’t just about escapism: it was about learning, and it was also about simple enjoyment.  Now, in the days of internet fora, it’s also about bonding with other book-lovers.  Children’s books are so important, and so many of the ones I read – and, in some cases, still read – were/are Puffins.  Thank you, Puffin xxx.  And happy birthday.

The Children’s Block by Otto B Kraus



This book, based on the author’s real life experiences, is about the “Czech Family Camp” which existed at Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and July 1944.  When I first started reading it, I was trying, because the first few chapters were written in quite a simplistic style, to work out whether it was aimed at adults or children; and I decided that it had to be aimed at adults because a book for children wouldn’t go into so much detail about the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  Then I remembered reading Judy Blume’s “Starring Sally J Freedman as herself” (which I’d been thinking about only recently, because it came up in a discussion about, bizarrely, party lines on telephones,) which, although it’s set in the safety of post-war Florida, makes repeated references to allegations that the Nazis made lampshades from human skin*, in the context of the Freedman family having lost relatives in the Holocaust. I was still at primary school when I read that.

There wasn’t a lot of Holocaust literature available back then, but there is now, for readers of all ages.  I sometimes think that number of novels set at concentration camps (as opposed to actual memoirs) is possibly beginning to get a little OTT.  I genuinely can’t decide whether having a load of concentration camp novels on a “2 for £8” offer at the supermarket, three days before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is good because the books raise awareness of the subject, or a bit tacky.  Possibly both?

Some of the books are better than others.  This one started slowly, but I was absolutely engrossed in it by the end.  And it’s definitely meant for adults.  Partly because some of the content isn’t for children, and at the same time, because some of the prose in the later chapters is so lyrical.  And some of it goes very deep, as the characters try to make sense of what’s happening, and to make sense of history.

This “Czech family camp” seems to have been established as a sort of show camp in the event of a Red Cross visit being agreed, and to enable prisoners to send letters back to Terezin/Theresienstadt, from where they’d been deported, to dispel reports that being sent to Poland meant being murdered.  The prisoners there were kept in slightly better conditions than those in other blocks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and those in the children’s block got better food, and were allowed lessons and games of sorts.

The camp was liquidated in March 1944, and most of the prisoners were sent to the gas chambers, with most of those who survived the liquidation being sent to the gas chambers a few months later.  Only 1,294 of the 17,517 (figures from Wikipedia) people who were in the Family Camp survived, including around 80 teenage boys.

The protagonist, Alex, is one of the teachers/supervisors in the children’s block.  He’s been told by one of the clerical staff that the family camp’s going to be liquidated at a particular date, so he knows, all the time, that he hasn’t got long to live, and that none of the children are going to grow up.   And yet there’s this amazing humanity there.  The children draw pictures, and put on plays.  When they have their heads shaved, the prisoners manage to get hold of some wool, and knit caps to cover their heads with.   They even joke on April Fools’ Day that rations are going to be increased.  I don’t know how true any of this is, but it is based on the author’s own experiences.

Inevitably, there’s an overriding obsession with food.  But there’s also a lot of talk about books – the author eventually married “The Librarian of Auschwitz” – and about art, and about music.  Music’s important from a practical basis, in that getting into the orchestra meant better rations and better treatment, but it’s not just that: it’s about remaining human.  Despite everything, many of the prisoners have not been brutalised: they retain a lot of who they were before.  Quote from Viktor Ullmann, who was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz and was murdered there, and whose music was played at the Holocaust remembrance event held in Jerusalem yesterday, attended by Prince Charles and many other senior dignitaries – “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”.

Relationships are formed.  In the case of our guy Alex, it’s a genuine romance, with one of the other teachers.  She’s an artist.  She takes art lessons with the children – and earns extra food rations by drawing family trees and pictures of naked prisoners for Mengele to use in his “research”.  In other cases, however, it’s coercive, either the trading of sexual favours for extra food rations, or because a woman has taken the fancy of one of the guards.  There are also strong suggestions of rape being committed by some prisoners against others.  Not all the prisoners have retained their humanity.

Most of the children aren’t brutalised, but they’re inured to death, because they’ve been seeing it for so long.  They’re even keen to watch the trains arriving, carrying thousands and thousands more people to the gas chambers, because it’s something to do.

I said “despite everything” – the book doesn’t go into graphic detail, but it doesn’t shy away from anything.  It talks about people being shot for leaving their labour groups because they need the toilet, about groups coming back from their day’s work carrying the bodies of those who’ve died during the day, and it talks repeatedly about the gas chambers, and the never-ending stream of people going into them, more and more arriving every day, how for every one person murdered it seemed as if another ten were coming in right behind them.

Yet people want to live.  When those who weren’t gassed on arrival are inspected, people try to stand out straight, to puff out their chests, to make themselves look stronger than they are.  They’re enduring inhumane conditions, and they know that death is probably inevitable and that it’s just a question of when, but still they want to live.  Some of the women even go willingly into relationships with the guards for that reason alone.  Some of the men are happy to work as Kapos for that reason alone.

There are things you don’t think of.  There are no birds, because any that come near tend to sit on the fence … and are electrocuted.  There are hardly any flowers, only a stray one here and there.  Many of the children, too young to remember life before Terezin, have never seen a flower.

And Alex and the others try to teach the children right from wrong.  Alex wonders about this.  In those conditions, what sense does it make to teach children not to steal from each other, or not to cheat at marbles?  There’s quite a lot of philosophy, and historical theory, as the characters try to find some sort of rationale for what the Nazis are doing, and to make sense of history.  Why do people spell Khmelnytsky’s name the Polish way, Chmielnicki?  It annoys me!!  They also talk about possible ways of trying to change the course of history.  Communism?  Zionism?

There are plans for a revolt, or for escape, but they know that, realistically, they can’t succeed.  But they wonder why the outside world’s doing nothing.  There’s an interesting discussion when a new group of people arrive, and the existing prisoners say that they can’t believe anyone’s so stupid as to believe that being deported east means being sent to a labour camp rather than being murdered, because how could labour camps possibly require so many people, including young children and the elderly.  The new prisoners say that they’d heard rumours about the mass murders in the gas chambers, but couldn’t believe them because it was just too much to comprehend, that such things could really happen.

It’s a lot to think about.

We don’t find out what happens to the main characters, in the end.  Lisa, Alex’s girlfriend, disappears.  Has she been killed?  Has she been moved to another camp?  Has she simply been moved to another block?  The reader will probably assume that she survives, because Mengele admired her drawing so much, but we don’t actually know.  Alex isn’t sent to the gas chambers when he expects to be: he’s selected to be transferred to another camp, because he’s young and strong.  But we don’t get as far as the liberation, so we don’t know if he lives that long.  We can but hope.

There are so many of these books now – the Tattooist/Librarian/Pharmacist of Auschwitz, etc etc etc.  That’s good, in that it raises awareness of the subject, but some of the books have had poor reviews, and some people have raised concerns about fictionalising events at the concentration camps.  This one is very good, though.

(*In the interests of those historical accuracy, it should be said that those particular allegations probably weren’t true.)

I don’t usually read so many Holocaust books in one month, but the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau has focused many historians’ attention on the subject.  It’s unfortunate that Poland and Russia have seen fit to have a spat over it, it’s unfortunate that Messrs Macron, Pence, Netanyahu and Putin decided to use their speeches at the commemorations in Jerusalem to make digs about current political issues, and it’s unfortunate that the BBC have offended people with an inappropriate report by Orla Guerin, but I thought that Prince Charles spoke very well.  As he said. “We must be vigilant in discerning these ever-changing threats; we must be fearless in confronting falsehoods and resolute in resisting words and acts of violence.  And we must never rest in seeking to create mutual understanding and respect.  We must tend the earth of our societies so that the seeds of division cannot take root and grow. “

Great British Railway Journeys, the Battle of Cable Street – BBC 2


I really want Michael Portillo’s job. As well as the current series of Great British Railway Journeys, we’ve got Great Asian Railway Journeys and another series of Great American Railroad Journeys coming up, and we’ve not long since had Great Australian Railway Journeys.   And, as well as seeing some fascinating places, he also gets to meet some fascinating people, like Beatty, 102-year-old East End matriarch and veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

Like the Jarrow Crusade, which took place the same month, and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, four years earlier, the Battle of Cable Street showed how ordinary people, many of them living in extreme poverty, and labelled as troublemakers by the authorities, came together to stand up for themselves. In this case, especially with the use of the “No Pasaran” slogan famously used during the Siege of Madrid (I’ve recently acquired a book about British volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, but haven’t had time to read it yet), it also showed how well aware people were of what was going on in Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, and how determined they were to prevent it from happening here. What a wonderful lady – 102 years old, broad Cockney accent, so very eloquent. We need so much to listen to the stories of people like her whilst they’re still here to tell them.

The Jarrow Crusade’s already been covered during this series, and it’s an interesting take on the 1930s, talking about that and the Battle of Cable Street, and also about seaside resorts, the development of television, the growth of car production and the popularity of the cinema, as well as the horrific poverty caused by the Depression.  I’m in the middle of reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and every single thing it says about the 1930s is doom and gloom.  Awareness of the Battle of Cable Street was raised about a year ago by, of all things, an episode of EastEnders, in which Dr Legg talked about how he met his future wife there. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the East End. Locals protested to the Home Office, to no avail, and the marchers were given a police escort. Demonstrators built barricades to block their way, all sorts of things from stones to rotten vegetables to the contents of chamber pots were thrown, and the marchers were forced to turn back.

The police then clashed with the demonstrators, and around 150 people were arrested … but it’s the demonstrators who are remembered as heroes. Let all those who claim that the working-classes don’t understand anything about politics watch this, and learn … and, hey, also learn that there was a time when left-wing groups, which were heavily involved in organising the resistance to the march, actually opposed anti-Semitism.  And how wonderful was Beatty, talking about her experiences that day – how horrified she was actually to see Oswald Mosley in the flesh, how many people turned out to resist the march, how determined she was to play her part.

Many different sections of the community came together to organise the resistance to the march. People can do a lot when they pull together – whereas, now, too many people seem interested only in hurling abuse at others, making nasty generalisations about anyone who doesn’t agree with them, or turning everything into party politics and point-scoring.

We could really do with getting back to the more community-minded culture of the 1930s.

Michael said that it’d been a privilege to meet Beatty.  It was also a privilege for viewers to hear what she had to say.  I love these programmes so much!   You wouldn’t think that watching an ex-politician going around on trains could be so interesting, but it really, really is!


Spiderweb For Two by Elizabeth Enright (Facebook group reading challenge)


It must be at least 35 years since I read the first two books in this series, and I hadn’t realised that there were two more until someone recommended this one for a reading challenge.  It’s quite slow-moving, but it makes a refreshing change to read a book in which the children have to wait, frustratedly and oh-so-realistically, for the weekends before continuing with their adventures, rather than having seemingly endless school holidays like the Famous Five, the Swallows and Amazons et al do!

It’s a very mid-20th century British upper-middle-class set-up, in which the mum has died, the dad works away a lot, and the kids are left in a large house with a housekeeper-cum-nanny and handyman-cum-chauffeur until they’re old enough to go to boarding school … but we’re actually in upstate New York.  The three older kids have gone to boarding school, and the two youngest, Randy (Miranda) and Oliver are missing them.  They do go to day school and have friends of their own age, but the book, as the title suggests, is all about the two of them.  In order to keep them entertained, the older members of the family have set up a treasure hunt for them.

Paula Danziger’s Remember Me To Harold Square involves a treasure hunt which shows us the sights of New York City, but this one, in a quiet small town, is mainly set in the family home and nearby.  And it goes on for about nine months, because they can only do a bit at a time, which is unusual but realistic.  I do sometimes wonder how the kids in adventure/mystery books by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and Lorna Hill ever got an education: they were always either on holiday from school, off school due to recovering from illness, or off school due to being in quarantine!

Not very much actually happens.  And the clues are really hard!  And the book goes off at a complete tangent twice, once with a story about the housekeeper’s childhood and once with a story about the dad’s childhood.  There are no robbers, kidnappers or smugglers, and no-one gets caught in a storm or stranded up a mountain.  But the relative normality of it is appealing, as is the fact that it shows the impact on the rest of the family of older kids being sent off to boarding school.  It’s just … nice!

My copy, which I got on eBay, is an old school library copy, from Potterville Middle School in Wisconsin.  The library card, with the names of 10 borrowers between May 1972 and May 1975, is still in the back!  I’d love to know what happened to the 10 borrowers, and I’d love to know what happened to the book between May 1975 and now.  How did it end up in England?  Probably via Amazon!  Had it been in storage for years?  Had it been sat on the school library shelves for decades without ever being borrowed again?  Presumably the library had a sale/clearout, and it then sat in someone’s house for decades, but I’d love to know!  Some books must have very exciting lives. Maybe someone should write a book about them!




The Keeper


This was a rather romanticised and Roy-of-the-Rovers-ised version of the Bert Trautmann story, and it certainly wasn’t historically (or geographically) accurate, but it was an entertaining film and all the main points were there. In summary – I always thought everyone knew this story, but I gather not everyone does! – Bert Trautmann, a 22-year-old German soldier, was taken prisoner in 1945 and brought to North West England as a POW. He chose to remain here rather than be repatriated, and began playing for St Helens Town as a goalkeeper. In 1949, he was signed by City, and there was an almighty row: people were genuinely very shocked and distressed that a top-level club, especially one in a city with a large Jewish community, had signed someone who’d fought for the Nazis. There were big protests, a lot of letters of complaint were sent, and season tickets were returned. Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who’d come to Manchester as a refugee and lost both his parents and many other relatives and friends in the Holocaust, wrote a very courageous letter to a local paper, urging people not to blame one man for the war and the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.

Things calmed down here, although for a while Trautmann continued to be abused at away matches, but eventually he won widespread respect, especially after he famously played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final, which City won, with a broken neck. Tragically, a few months later, his 5-year-old son was killed in a car crash. Despite everything, he carried on playing, is regarded with great respect in Manchester by City fans and we United fans alike, is seen as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was awarded an honorary OBE for his work in improving Anglo-German relations. It’s a hell of a story even without film-makers romanticising it! Very watchable film, and wonderful use of Abide With Me, the Cup Final hymn which means a lot to so many people. I missed this at the pictures, but it’s out on Sky now, and is recommended viewing.

The timescale was all a bit bonkers in this – one minute it was VE Day, then the next minute the prisoners were being repatriated, and a minute after that it was 1949 – but, OK, you can only fit so much into a two-hour film, and I understand that they didn’t want to spend ages showing him in three different camps. It was all very romanticised, though! In this version of events, he was showing off his goalkeeping skills at the POW camp (as you do!) when his future wife and future father-in-law turned up to deliver some goods from their shop, and his future father-in-law talent-spotted him for St Helens Town, and invited him to work at his shop and move in with his family!  Then drove home through miles and miles of stunning open countryside, up hill and down dale … between Ashton-in-Makerfield and St Helens.  The East Lancs Road does not look like that, believe me! It is, however, true that he played for St Helens Town, and married the daughter of the club secretary. And, OK, it was all very Roy of the Rovers this way, especially as they had him saving the club from relegation, so I suppose it made for good viewing.

Then he signed for City. There’d been some unease at St Helens Town, but they, with all due respect, were a small non-league club.  City were a First Division club, and one with thousands of Jewish fans to boot.  The film did show the protests, and it did mention the rabbi’s letter, and show the famous scene in the dressing room in which the club captain said that there was no war there, but … well, whilst we all know what happened during the war, I thought it should still have made it clearer just why people were so upset. Some clips from the radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials would probably have been the best way of doing it, along with some shots of the damage done by the air raids.  It did, to be fair, show flashbacks to him witnessing a young child being shot dead in the Nazis in Ukraine – but, in fact, he saw a full-scale Einsatzgruppen massacre.  Maybe it would have been too much to have shown a re-creation of that in the film.  And yet maybe they should have done – as much to show how much he had to cope with as to show how much City fans and everyone else had to deal with.

They did mention his having won the Iron Cross, and there were some vague references to “war crimes”, but I just didn’t feel that it fully got across the depth of anti-German feeling in the UK at the time and the reasons for it. I don’t know how people at the time came to terms with the Nuremberg Trials, with the details of what the Nazis did. I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a war documentary, but I thought it could have tried harder to show the effect that that hearing about the Nazi atrocities had on people, and why that made it so difficult for everyone to accept a former Nazi soldier joining a leading club. There was a lot of very 21st-century sounding talk about forgiveness and someone trying to find a new home, but I did feel that some more explanation was needed.

And I think they could also have done with, rather than just going on about how he had no choice, talking more about how he went into the Hitler Youth at the age of 9.  Because of Jojo Rabbit – although obviously this film predates that one – there’s quite a bit of talk at the moment about the indoctrination of children.  Lads like Trautmann joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth as if it were like joining the Cubs – it was somewhere where they could get involved in sports, have fun with their friends.  So they were indoctrinated from a very early age.  It’s important to understand that.

However, you can only get so much into a film.  And it wasn’t meant to be a documentary.  And, as I’ve said, the main points were there.  It was a difficult time.  It was brave of Trautmann to stand his ground, when he was getting death threats, and being abused at every match.  And braver yet of Rabbi Altmann to get involved, after everything that had happened to him. He really was a hero.

Anyway, after that, we got lots of football, some of it actual film from the time. I think there was a bit of Bertie Magoo-ing going on here, though! Come on, how do you make a football film set in Manchester in the 1950s and not even mention the Busby Babes?! They could at least have shown Trautmann’s testimonial, when he captained a combined United-City XI. Or maybe it was just that the film didn’t have much sense of Manchester at all. Most of it was filmed in Northern Ireland!

I’ve always been quite sad that I was born too late for that era, when many United fans would go to watch City when United were away, and many City fans would go to watch United when City were away, without the unpleasantness that developed in the rivalries between different clubs later on.  We still get that Wider Football Family feeling sometimes, especially in times of trouble, but it’s not like it was then.

Heigh-ho!  But the way they showed the legendary 1956 Cup Final was great. And then … I could hardly watch the bit where the little lad was killed, knowing what was coming. Then … well, there was a strange scene in which Trautmann had a fight in a cemetery with a sergeant from the POW camp, whose wife and children had been killed in the Christmas Blitz, and who persuaded him to carry on playing. And then it showed flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Ukraine, and showed him telling his wife that he felt that their son’s death was his punishment for not intervening to stop the murder of a child there.

I don’t know where the idea that he felt it was karma came from, and I’m assuming it was fictional, but it was very powerful, especially with “Abide With Me” playing in the background, and it was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for those who fought for the Nazis to deal with it all.  There’s a lot of tension over Holocaust remembrance at the moment, and the authorities in some countries seem keen to play down aspects of what happened.  That’s wrong in so many ways.  We need to keep talking about it.  All aspects of it.

The film didn’t tell us that the Trautmanns’ marriage sadly ended as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of one of their children, but it did tell us about all the awards Trautmann received, both for his football and for his work in the community.  His story really is incredible.  Carrying on playing in a Cup Final with a broken neck would be story enough, but the story of the Nazi soldier – and he was initially classified as a Nazi whilst he was a POW – who became a hero in English football is something that you just couldn’t make up.

Football can do that.  It can bring people together.  It’s not always Roy of the Rovers.  It’s often anything but.  But it does throw up some absolutely amazing stories, and this is one of them.  Don’t go expecting historical accuracy, or indeed geographical accuracy, but, if you get chance, this is still a very good film to see.

Clifford’s Blues by John A Williams


This is another novel about some of the less well-documented victims of the Holocaust.  In this case, the protagonist is a gay black man, imprisoned in Dachau from 1933.  He comes under the protection, of sorts, of a Nazi officer he’s met before, in return for sexual and musical favours.  The book’s in the form of a diary, which I wasn’t sure would work, but which does because it means that a huge amount can be included as notes on what he’s witnessed or heard about.  The horrific medical experiments carried out in the camp, the forced sterilisation of mixed-race people in the Rhineland, individual executions, mass executions, outbreaks of disease, deportations to “the East”, new groups of people arriving.  It also refers to so many different groups of people, many of them groups whose experiences at the hands of the Nazis tend to be overlooked.  That makes it sound really harrowing, but it’s actually very readable.

On a different note, it spends a lot of time comparing Nazi attitudes on race to those in the southern states of the US, which I believe caused a lot of controversy when the book was first published.  And it talks about the Evian Conference of 1938, at which 32 countries failed to agree to take in Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s got messages that’re worth reading, especially in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Our guy is an African-American called Clifford Pepperidge, and he’s a jazz musician – so I’m wondering if the World on Fire scriptwriter had read this.  He’s been working in Berlin in the “Cabaret” world of the Weimar Republic … but then, in 1933, he’s found in bed with a male American diplomat.  The other guy claims diplomatic immunity and flees the country, leaving Clifford to his fate.  At Dachau, Dieter Lange, a man he knows from the Berlin scene, now a Nazi official, arranges for him to be classified with a green triangle, as a criminal, in there for drug-dealing, rather than with a pink triangle, as a gay man, which would have meant his being treated far worse, and also arranges for him to work in his house.  In return, he’s treated as a sexual plaything by Lange, his wife and her lover.  He’s also expected to play at a Nazi social club.  (Would a Nazi social club have had a black musician playing?  It does in this, anyway.)

There’s a lot in the book about the different concentration camp badges, and the different categories of prisoner which they denote, and the double triangle badges which were used to denote someone falling into more than one category.  It also talks about groups of people coming in and being moved out, and how they interacted with each other, which is quite unusual for a Holocaust novel, and makes you think.

There was no official classification for black prisoners, because, probably due to the very small numbers of black people in Germany at that time, they weren’t rounded up and sent to camps in the way that Jewish or Roma or Sinti people were, so it’s hard to know how many people were affected, but it’s thought that many black people, were arrested as alleged criminals or political prisoners.   Certainly there was a programme of forced sterilisation in the Rhineland, for mixed race children fathered by black French soldiers during the post First World War occupation, and the book does refer to that.   We also see something of how gay men were particularly singled out for ill-treatment, and as the subjects of medical experiments.

As to the comparisons with the US … much of the book’s set in the 1930s, before the very worst of the Nazi atrocities, and there are undeniably some parallels in terms of banning mixed marriages, and classifying people according to what percentage of particular ancestry they have.  It’s a very controversial area, though, and I’m not comfortable with people drawing parallels between the Nazis and any other regime.  But the author has got a point, in some respects.  And what’s said about the Evian Conference is most certainly valid.  I’m not entirely sure that a concentration camp prisoner would have heard quite so much war news, but, for the purpose of the book, the reader needs to accept that he hears rumours from newly-arrived prisoners and that he’s sometimes able to listen to the radio.

There are a few bits which readers might need to Google. I’d assume most people are familiar with the names of top black musicians and sportsmen of the 1930s, but maybe younger readers might not be. There are couple of sentences in pig Latin, which I haven’t read for years – thank you, Beverly Cleary, for teaching me pig Latin! And references to Haitian voodoo.

It’s not particularly well-written.  Although the book’s written in the form of a diary, is there really any need for quite so much swearing and crude language?  Also, the author repeatedly uses “English” for “British” and “Russian” for “Soviet”, which is very annoying.  However, it packs a lot into 300 pages, especially as regards groups of Nazi victims who do not always receive that much attention, and it gets better as it goes along.

Towards the end, when he hears about the liberation of Auschwitz and what the Soviets found there, Clifford (who, despite being in the home of a Nazi official, manages to listen to the BBC World Service in the radio, which doesn’t seem very likely but you just have to accept that, or else the book won’t work) says that now he can think about how big and how evil everything that’s happened is, and how he heard all about evil from preachers in church but none of that could ever have prepared him for this.  Maybe that’s why the focus is on the death camps, because mass shootings and mass imprisonments, even if not on that scale, had happened before, so people could get their heads round them.  But there are other stories to be told too. 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, there are still many Holocaust stories to be told, and the experiences of black people and gay people, and indeed black, gay people – this book did make a lot of reference to people with more than one “badge” – are amongst those which we still need hear more about.

And, at the end, it mentions a man who Joseph Nassy, who really existed – a Surinam-born mixed race American, working as an artist in Belgium at the start of the Second World War, who had Jewish heritage.  He was held in internment camps which were close to Dachau geographically but where the rules of the Geneva Convention were honoured, and drew many pictures of life there.  It’s a unique story.  So is everyone’s.




This was both absorbing and exhausting – it held my attention for the entire two hours, but I felt shattered by the end of it, even though I’d just been sat in a cinema seat!  It was all, as we keep being reminded, filmed in one take, and it was so big, and so intense, and, although the action took place over the course of several days, so “in the moment”. Some of it, it has to be said, felt more like an Indiana Jones film than a portrayal of events during the First World War, but other parts, and especially the ending, had me reaching for a tissue. It’s a very powerful film, which is attracting huge audiences and a huge amount of attention, and there’s certainly going to be a lot of talk about it for some time to come.

A lot of the talk’s going to be about the fact that it’s all in one take, and about the special effects. I’m not technologically-minded, so I was more concerned about what was going on than in the cinematography, but the lack of breaks certainly made it all the more intense. We were with our boys – Schofield, played by George MacKay from Sunshine on Leith, and Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, and then Schofield on his own – all the time. We didn’t see anything that was going on elsewhere. We weren’t told anything about where Schofield was from, or what he did in civilian life, and it was only at the end that we found out about his family. It was only just before the end that we even found out his first name.

We weren’t even given any background information about the war, except being told at the beginning that it was April 6th, 1917. OK, hopefully everyone knows about the First World War, but I would have expected a few lines to flash up on the screen just explaining whereabouts we were in terms of both the progress of the war and the geography of the area. I’m not sure why that wasn’t there, but maybe we were just meant to be completely “in the moment”. The storyline was that a regiment, in which Blake’s brother was serving, were preparing an attack, thinking that the Germans had retreated, but that they were walking into a trap and 1,600 men would be going straight to their deaths. Schofield and Blake had to walk through dangerous territory to carry a message that the attack was to be stopped.

I’m not technologically-minded, as I said, but the detail was incredibly impressive. The mess!   I know it sounds stupid to be impressed by mess, but this really was something.  We all know about the mud and the trenches and the craters, but to see it all recreated like that – and, by contrast, the beautiful green fields which had escaped being touched by the war being recreated next to it – really did hit home. Dead bodies, both human and equine, everywhere. Flies. Rats. Abandoned buildings. Burning buildings. The desolation, for miles and miles. And, as we kept being reminded, the story of the Great War – months of fighting over a few feet of land here and a few feet of land there.

It was a bit too Indiana Jones-ish for a serious war film, though. First of all, a roofed German trench collapsed in on our heroes after an unfortunate incident involving a large rat and a booby trap. Blake having fished Schofield out from under the rubble, they then had to leap across a chasm to safety. Then a German plane crashed just yards from them. Out of all the places it could have crashed. And it burst into flames. Schofield, going on alone, jumped across a broken bridge, ran through a load of burning buildings, in a scene which began to feel as much like a computer game as an Indiana Jones film, and then plunged into a river where he was whirled along between dangerous rocks by a raging torrent. When he finally got to the people he was trying to warn, he couldn’t get through the crowds in the narrow trench, so he went over the top by himself and ran along out in the open, amid German fire. It was all very dramatic, and I’m not saying that messengers during the First World War didn’t face great danger, but this did go a little OTT.

There were no females, not even nurses, and no civilians of either gender, featured, except in one scene in which Schofield found a woman and a baby girl hiding in a damaged building, and stopped to help them.  Other than that, it was all about soldiers.  That’s fine, in a war film: I’m just saying.  And there was something of an old-fashioned Boys’ Own feeling to it in that our guys were clearly the goodies – not only were they determined to fulfil their mission, come what may, but they helped the German fighter pilot who crashed near them, and Schofield offered all his food to the woman and child in the damaged building – whereas the Germans played dirty. Not only did they (the Germans) booby-trap their abandoned trench, but…. MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, JUST IN CASE ANYONE’S READING THIS! … the German pilot whose life our guys saved, by getting him out of his plane moments before it all went up in flames, stabbed Blake to death. I don’t think this was meant as some kind of big nationalist statement. It was just that the film was told from the viewpoint of the British lads, so they needed to be the heroes, so they needed to be the goodies. But I bet some Guardian reader from Islington complains about it!

There was some class stuff going on too.  The ordinary soldiers spoke in a wide range of regional accents. (A strangely wide range – I appreciate that not everyone was in Pals’ battalions, but even so.)  However, we got some officers with braying posh voices sitting in shelters, or complaining when their vehicles couldn’t move because trees had been so inconsiderate as to fall in their way; and, when our boy Schofield finally got to where he was going, and tried to get to speak to the commanding officer, he was initially denied access.  Again, I don’t think it was meant as some sort of statement, it was just the way things were then, but it was certainly noticeable.

It wasn’t a “lions led by donkeys” film, though. People of all ranks were shown being deeply distressed by the loss of the life, and frustrated by the endless waiting and fighting over a few feet of mud here and few feet of mud there. No-one apportioned any blame to anyone. Was it an anti-war film, as a lot of people are saying? One man made a sarcastic comment about a medal being a lot of comfort to a widow. Schofield’d swapped his medal for a bottle of wine. But Blake thought that medals were important, because they recognise what you’ve done. There was no attempt to persuade the viewer towards any one viewpoint, but none of the men had any enthusiasm for what was going on.

How could they have done?

It was the waste. “That’s what all this is, sheer waste,” to quote Rhett Butler. The waste of life. The waste of time. The waste laid to the land and the towns … you wonder how they ever even began to recover. There was no sense of politics, no mention of politics, because what could a muddy French field possibly have had to do with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, German ambitions in Africa or access to the Dardanelles? It was all such a waste. Not to mention the rats and the flies. I don’t know that I’d call it an “anti-war” film, but it most certainly isn’t an “If I should die, think only this of me,” film. But nothing is, not now. Everyone knows that wars are hell. But people still start them anyway.

Incidentally, an interesting point was made in one article I read, about this being a 15-rated film. Leaving aside the fact that no-one waits until they’re 15 to see 15-rated films, what’s that about? You can join the Army when you’re 16, but you can’t even see a film about war until only a year before that? How does that make sense?  And how are schoolchildren meant to learn about history if they’re banned from seeing war films?

In amongst all the whirling along by raging torrents stuff, there were some truly moving, emotional moments. One was when Schofield stopped to help the woman and child. One was, of course, when Blake died … his life ebbed away in his friend’s arms, and Schofield promised to write to his mum and to tell her that he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t afraid. He took Blake’s personal effects and, later on, gave them to his brother, having had to tell him that the younger Blake is dead. And he had to leave the body there, alone, in the middle of nowhere. A life snuffed out, just like that.

On a different note, there was a scene in which Schofield stumbled into some woods and found a load of fellow British soldiers sitting on the ground in silence, whilst another soldier sings a beautiful, haunting song – an interesting choice, an American folk/gospel song called “The Wayfaring Stranger”. You think of First World War songs, and you think of upbeat songs like “Pack Up Your Troubles”, “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, or “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, or romantic songs like “Roses of Picardy”. One of my grandmas always liked “Roses of Picardy”, for some reason. This one was an unusual choice, and an unusual scene. It worked beautifully.

Then there was the “hankies at the ready” scene at the end. After all the action, and all the drama, the film ended with Schofield, whom we now knew was called William, Will for short, managing to find somewhere quiet to sit down by himself, and taking out a photo of his wife and child, of whose existence we were learning for the first time. On the back of the photo was written “Come back to us x”. I’m welling up again just writing about it!  We’ve got a photo like that, from the First World War. It’s of my grandad as a toddler, with his two sisters, and there’s a note on the back from my great-grandma to my great-grandad. All those men separated from wives, children, sweethearts, mums, dads, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends, colleagues … and so many of them, like Blake, never came back.  It was a very poignant and very human ending to a film that did sometimes stray into the realms of Indiana Jones or James Bond, or even computer games.

My mind wanders.  It takes a lot to keep it occupied for two hours.  This film did that.  It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly one I won’t forget.  And it’s got everyone talking.  I’m sorry that George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman haven’t been nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars: I think they deserved to be.  But this is topping the box office both here and in America, and that says a lot too.  Very impressive film.

Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon


As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was pleased to find a rare book on the neglected subject of the Romany Holocaust.  The book also draws attention to the also difficult and little-discussed subjects of the removal of Yenish children from their parents by the Swiss authorities, and psychiatric treatments in the inter-war years.  Unfortunately, much of it just isn’t very good.  It jumps about too much, parts of it are written in a strange made-up dialect, and some of the storylines seem to belong in a Victorian penny-dreadful rather than a Holocaust novel.  However, parts of it are genuinely moving and powerful, and there are just so few books about the Romany Holocaust that I’m still glad to’ve found it.

The eponymous Jakob is an 8-year-old boy, described (repeatedly) as “a half-blood gypsy child of Roma and Yenish”, living in hiding in Austria in 1944.  He’s become separated from his parents and two younger siblings, and was on the run when he was taken in by a farmer, who is also hiding two Jewish men.  It’s a promising idea for a book, and some of the descriptive narrative is excellent – although some of it is really OTT purple prose – but it’s just not very well put together.

It’s not coherent, for a start: it jumps about confusingly between “the present”, which is written in the present tense, what happened the previous year, Jakob’s mother’s past, and Jakob’s father’s past.  On top of that, Yavy, Jakob’s father speaks in an utterly bizarre dialect which sounds like a cross between Cockney gone wrong, Yorkshire gone wrong and West Indian gone wrong.  I have no idea what the author was trying to achieve with that – presumably to create some sense of him being an outsider?  All the narrative involving him is also in this bizarre dialect, making it quite hard to read.And there are too many bitty storylines, none of which are properly developed – which is a shame, because each of them is quite interesting by itself.

I initially took “of Roma and Yenish” to mean one Roma parent and one Yenish parent, so I got very confused when it turned out that Jakob’s mother, “Lor”, short for “Glorious” (??), was from a well-to-do family in Somerset … except that her parents weren’t as upper-middle-class as they made out.  her dad was the son of a butcher from Newcastle (one attempt at Geordie dialect, all wrong!) who’d inherited a huge tobacco firm from a distant cousin.  As you do.  The book said that the West Country was the centre of the British tobacco industry.  I didn’t get that at all … but the author’s based in Bath, so must know Somerset a lot better than I do.   Lor’s mum was the daughter of a Polish heiress who’d drowned herself.  And presumably a British father.  It was all just too complicated for a 300-page book that was supposed to be about something else.

Lor (the name really didn’t work at all)’s mother took her own life.  When Lor tried to do the same, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Austria.  The accounts of the strange and deeply unpleasant treatments there could have been very interesting, if difficult to read, but they were skipped over in a few pages – before Lor ran off with Yavy, who was working there.  Posh woman is sent to an institution abroad and runs off with a gypsy?  It sounds like something out of a Victorian penny dreadful.

Yavy, not Jakob, is the one who’s half-Yenish and half-Roma.  Yenish on his mother’s side.  The Yenish are a traveller group living mainly in Germany and Switzerland.  Between the 1920s and the 1970s, and especially in the 1930s, many Swiss Yenish parents were put into institutions and their children taken away.  We learn that Jakob’s father was one of those children.  We’re also told that his father fought in the First World War – presumably for Austria-Hungary, as he (the father) seems to have grown up in Austria – and that he remembered often seeing him tending war graves.  I’m not sure what that had to do with anything.  We learn that Yavy was born in Switzerland, but it’s not clear why they were then living in Austria, and then were living in Switzerland when the children were taken away.  Maybe it’s just meant to reflect a traveller lifestyle, but the way it comes across as muddled and confusing.

The book scrapes surfaces but doesn’t go deeply into anything – which is such a shame, because, as I’ve said, each of the storylines could have made such a good book.  We get a few tantalising glimpses of Yavy’s life as a child taken away from his parents, first sent to an orphanage and then put out to work,  first at a farm and then at the hospital where Lor was being treated, but not enough to tell us much.  Why the Swiss authorities would have sent him to work at an Austrian hospital makes about as much sense as the rest of the random moving about; but the horrific story of a child being taken away from his parents as part of some sort of cultural re-education programme, like the Lost Generation in Australia, could, like Lor’s time in the psychiatric hospital, could have been very interesting … but we only get a few pages of it.

We also hear little bits about the two men being hidden at the farm, and about the farmer who’s hiding them, but, again, not much. It dips into so many storylines, but doesn’t develop any of them.

It’s only at the end where we see how good the book could have been, where there are very powerful passages telling us that Roma children were killed by the Nazis either by dashing their heads against a tree or by drowning, or by being torn to pieces by dogs.  And we learn that Jakob suffocated his baby brother, to save him from a worse death at the hands of the Nazis.  We see that he was sent with the adults to face the Einsatzgruppen, told to dig his own grave.  We can only assume that his parents both died, but that somehow he escaped from the pile of bodies – there are stories like that, from Babyn Yar and other places where massacres were carried out.  I was expecting to hear that his parents had died in a concentration camp, but I’ve often said that more attention needs to be paid to the killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.  It was a very powerful chapter.  It just showed how good this book could have been.  But it was just too bitty.

Then it jumps back again, and we find that Lor and Yavy hoped to get their children out of Austria, into Switzerland and on to England.  Lor talks about Vimto … which would have been quite touching had she not said that it was fizzy.  Vimto is not supposed to be fizzy, and you certainly couldn’t get fizzy Vimto in the 1930s and 1940s.  Minor point, OK, but it annoyed me!!   But it’s quite a touching section about the idea of a green and pleasant land, and, how, instead of ending up there, four of the five family members ended up being murdered.

Or maybe five, because we don’t know what happened to Jakob.  The Nazis came to the farm where he was hiding, and he fled.  The reader is left to wonder whether or not he survives, and also what happens to the two Jewish men and the farmer.  It’s not a satisfying ending, but it’s a well-written one.  Parts of this book are so good.  It had a lot of potential, but there were too many bits of too many different things, and so the book as a whole didn’t really work for me.

But, because of the importance of the subject matter, I’m still glad to have read it.  No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide … I don’t like to use the word “Porajmos”, because some people find it objectionable. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Total estimates of those killed usually vary between 220,000 and 500,000, and some historians put it even higher, maybe even as high as 1,500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.  And not much has been written about it – although I’ve read that that’s because Roma and Sinti culture doesn’t place much emphasis on history and memoirs, not because of lack of interest or lack of concern.  There doesn’t seem to have been the same persecution of the Yenish people, but there are certainly some documented cases of deportations.

We’re now coming up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and of the other camps.  There are still some survivors left, and it was good to see some of them being recognised in the New Year’s Honours List for their work in sharing their stories, but, as time goes on, we’re just going to have to learn their stories from books, be that text books, memoirs or novels.  When it comes to the Roma, Sinti and Yenish people, there aren’t many of those written accounts around, so even a fictional one is precious.  I just wish this one had been better.  It could have been: it had potential, and some bits of it were excellent.  But it was just too bitty.  Oh well.  Still worth reading.