They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?

 

Victoria Four-Thirty by Cecil Roberts (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I’m amazed that Cecil Roberts actually found time to write.  As well as having a wife, he had affairs with the Duke of Kent (the Queen’s uncle), tennis player Gottfried von Cramm, Laurence Olivier and Somerset Maugham.  Anyway, in between chasing after, or being chased by, famous blokes, he was a journalist, and also wrote several books.  They included this one, published in 1937, about a number of very different passengers on the 4:30pm train from London Victoria, the boat train which travelled through France and Switzerland to Austria, and then connected with the Arlberg-Orient Express and went on to Hungary, Romania and Greece.  You’d think that a journalist would have known that a) Salzburg was not in Tyrol and b) Russians had patronymics rather than middle names, but apparently not.  But, despite that, it’s really very entertaining.

It’s a strange mixture.  We’ve got a Ruritanian prince, but we’ve also got very harsh reality with a German actor who’s being persecuted by the Nazis because of his Jewish connections, and a number of passengers who lost loved ones in the First World War.  And, perhaps more in the spirit of the 1920s than the 1930s, we’ve got the romantic ideal of leaving the world behind and going off to live amongst “simple peasants” in little villages.  One lady has left London to become a nun in Transylvania.  As you do.  And one man is on the hunt for his errant nephew, who’s dropped out of his studies and is eventually found shacked up with a hunky cowherd in Alpine Austria.  It should be noted that the cowherd is actually from a well-to-do middle-class family, as otherwise they’d have had no money, and that would obviously never have done.  Oh, and there’s a bit of Orientalism as well – it turns out that a Turkish man with a French wife has a mini-harem hidden away in Istanbul.

It really is a very good read.  I know I’ve just been a bit sarcastic, but most of the stories are genuinely moving and serious, with the shadows of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the menace of Nazism, hanging over many of the characters.  It’s generally very well-written, and, as someone who much prefers lakes and mountains to beaches and swimming pools, I love the fact that the dream holiday destinations of the day are Tyrol and Ticino.

Obviously, this only applied to people with a lot of time and a lot of money: the comments about “everyone” heading off to the Alps in August are countered by a young porter who can only dream of taking his future wife on honeymoon to Lugano.  But, if you did have the time and money, how lovely to travel on this luxury train … and to wonder about all the other passengers.  Oh, and most of them are travelling alone.  Even better.

So, who have we got?  A young couple going for a Tyrolean honeymoon before taking up a posting in Burma.  An author who’s lost the plot and is looking for a new one, and finds inspiration from a woman with a complicated story about her husband being thrown in prison.  A single man who’s somehow ended up as a cash cow for his married siblings and their children, and has decided to leave them all behind and go and see the Pyramids – good for you, mate!   The man looking for his nephew.  The French-based Turkish man with the various wives.

Then there’s the elderly lady who’s a nun in Romania: this is a very moving story, because she’s come home to London to consult a doctor, who’s told her that she’s dying, and she knows she’ll never see her children, grandchildren or home city again.  And a very dignified man who was once a senior officer in the Tsarist army, but, following the Russian Revolution, now works as a tour guide driving rich American ladies round Austria.

It’s all very bitty.  I thought that, as with Love Actually, it would turn out that everyone was somehow connected, but they aren’t.  And, given that they’re all from very different backgrounds, it wouldn’t make much sense if they were.  There’s one chapter about each of them, and then we see them all briefly when they reach their destinations.  Some of the stories are very sad.  The German actor with the Jewish connections tries to gas himself.  A Greek waiter who’s been working in London arrives back in Athens to find that his sweetheart’s been hit by a car and will never walk again.

And then there’s the Swiss maid who’s been working in France and has been seduced by her mistress’s nephew, who was then killed in an accident (keep up!) and gives birth to an illegitimate child, with the elderly nun acting as midwife.  The baby is adopted by a widowed conductor who’s involved with the Salzburg Festival and decides that he’d like to have a child.  The poor maid doesn’t have much choice other than to give the baby up.

Last but not least, there’s young Prince Paul of Slavonia, who’s been at school in England but is having to return home because he’s now King Paul of Slavonia, his father having been assassinated.  If this is 1937 and he’s in his early teens, could he be the father of Leopold, Fazia and co in the Sadlers Wells books?  Principal Role was published in 1957, and Leopold must be at least 20 then … er, no, that doesn’t work.  Must be a different Slavonia!  Bizarrely, this Slavonia – and bear in mind that there is a real place called Slavonia, in Croatia – is actually set in a real part of the Balkans, in Serbia, with its capital at Nis.  That’s totally mad.  Having a Ruritanian prince in the middle of all the reality is also totally mad, but the story of the grieving, frightened young boy is very touchingly told.

There are a lot of different characters and different stories, and so it’s very bitty and there’s no proper ending.  There are that many characters that, by the time I’d got to the end of the first bit, I’d have been struggling to make a list of them.  But, if you can handle the fact that the book’s episodic and there’s no story running right through it, this is well worth reading.

I was about to say “Oh, what wouldn’t I give to head off on a train to Tyrol or Ticino?”, but the answer is probably actually not much, because Austria’s in lockdown and, with trains not running between Switzerland and Italy due to virus issues, it’s probably a bit manic at stations in Ticino at the moment.  But we can dream …