The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Standard

This book’s received a lot of attention, because it’s about the Spanish flu pandemic and, although the author began writing it in 2018, to mark the centenary of the pandemic, it ended up being published in early 2020, just as the Covid pandemic hit.  A book about a pandemic will be the last thing that some people want to read: others will find it intriguing.  It also seemed like a good book to review during Pride month, as it includes a same sex romance – rainbow pic instead of my usual pic to show support for Pride.  I’m afraid that I automatically assumed that this was going to be between the doctor and the nurse, but it was actually between the nurse and the orderly.  When I say “romance”, it’s only very brief, because they only know each other for a few days.  There are no happy endings in this book, but, if you can take all the misery, it’s well worth a read.

I don’t care for the style of writing – it annoys me very greatly when people write speech without using speech marks – but the intensity of it’s fascinating: the entire book only covers three days, and almost all of it’s set within one very small room.  The main character is Julia Power, a nurse in charge of a maternity/Spanish flu ward at a Dublin hospital, and the other two prominent characters are Bridie Sweeney, an orderly, and Kathleen Lynn, a doctor who was a real person and was well-known as a republican activist and suffragist as well as for her medical work.

There are a lot of talking points about the book – the Spanish flu and any parallels that readers may draw between that and the Covid pandemic are the obvious ones, but also everything that the book shows about what went on in institutions run by the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but it didn’t pull any punches, it portrayed nuns extremely negatively, and I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland.

During the course of the book, we’re told that the Catholic Church mistreats orphans in its care, allowing priests, nuns and lay staff to abuse them, putting them to work at an early age and taking their wages, and even sending young girls to stay with “holiday fathers” (a euphemism for paedophiles).   Disabled and illegitimate children in its institutions are neglected, and unmarried mothers are virtually imprisoned and forced to work to pay for their “care” whilst they were expecting.  And it takes adolescent daughters away from widowed fathers on the grounds that it’s immodest for girls to live with a man with no adult female present.   It’s also blamed for Ireland having a far higher rate of death in childbirth than the rest of the UK, by making the use of contraception taboo and encouraging women to have at least twelve children, and for women suffering a difficult labour being forced to undergo horrific processes such as the sawing in half of their pubic bone, as the priority is to avoid damage to the womb and never mind any other bits.

All of this is based on evidence given by people who were in the institutions concerned, so it’s not been made up, but I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland, because it really is very heavy on all this.

Also, those who participated in the Easter Rising are repeatedly described as terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, and those who supported it but weren’t arrested as being cruel for tormenting injured Great War veterans.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a valid viewpoint, just that I wouldn’t have expected to “hear” it from Irish characters created by an Irish author.  Kathleen Lynn is presented positively, but her role in the Easter Rising – she was the chief medical officer for the “Irish Citizens’ Army” –  is rather vaguely explained away as being because she thought it might bring about improved conditions for women: she mentions her plans to set up a hospital for women and children, with her friend (and probably her partner), the gloriously named Madeleine ffrench-Mullen – something that did actually happen.  When she’s arrested, the emphasis is on the fact that men are arresting a female doctor: the fact that this is about the Easter Rising is rather skimmed over.  That’s not what I was expecting.

To get back to the Spanish flu, If you’re looking for happy endings, or just any sort of happiness, this is not the book for you!  Of the five expectant mothers admitted to Julia’s ward, three die of the Spanish flu, one survives but her baby is stillborn, and the only one who goes home with her baby has got a violent husband waiting for her.   Julia’s brother has been invalided out of the Army due to shell shock (which doesn’t actually sound right to me – shell shock wasn’t a reason for being discharged during the Great War) and refuses to speak.  Dr Lynn is arrested and imprisoned.  The only person in the book who’s ever cheerful is a hospital porter, and we eventually learn that his singing and joking are just his way of trying to cope with his grief at losing his wife and children in a typhus epidemic.

The only bit of good cheer is that Julia takes the baby of one of the women who died.  This is after the doctor says that he probably won’t survive more than a few months as he’ll be handed over to Evil Nuns, who’ll neglect him as he’s illegitimate and has a hare lip.  An Evil Nun kidnaps him whilst Julia’s briefly out of the room, but Julia manages to rescue him.  The Evil Nun tells her that people will probably assume he’s the result of an incestuous relationship between her and her brother.

Oh, and be prepared for extremely graphic descriptions of difficult childbirth.   The medical information is fascinating, though, as are the general observations about the Spanish flu, including the public notices.  There’s a lot of talk about wearing masks and avoiding close contact, and the book repeatedly makes the point that saying that people should stay at home, and rest in bed if feeling unwell, isn’t very practical when people have got to work.  Some of the blame game stuff going on is very reminiscent of the patronising comments about the “hard work” of people in areas where Covid infection rates are low – mainly rural areas with low population density, and or areas where most people are able to work from home.

Don’t read this if you’re feeling down, because it’ll make you feel a million times worse!  But, if you can cope with all the misery, it’s a very interesting read.

Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

I read this book because the blurb said that it was “a bold tale of suffragettes”; but it was actually more about the Spanish flu.  Strangely few books cover the Spanish flu, and, under the present circumstances, it was particularly interesting to read one that did.  The women’s suffrage movement did come into it, though, as did the granting of universal male suffrage, the mental health impact of the First World War, and the complex political situation in Northern Ireland.  As one of the characters said, it was an awful lot for everyone to try to process at once – the war, the Spanish flu, the general election so soon after the Armistice, it being the first time that all men and any women could vote, and the issue of Irish independence.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in a book say that before, and it was a very, very good point.

This is 180 page book for children, so obviously it didn’t go into the depths than an adult book on the same subjects would, but it packed a lot in, and all in quite a quirky way, with Our Heroine keeping imagining that she was at the centre of big dramas and playing out scenarios in her head.  She was about 16.  I still do that now!

This was late 1918 – the Armistice was announced towards the end of the book – and our heroine Stella was moving from Manchester to live at her auntie’s boarding house in a seaside resort in Ulster, following the death of her mother from the Spanish flu.  Very impressed that the book had a Manchester connection 🙂 .  Suffragette City!   I do love reminding people, for the millionth time, that I went to the same school as the Pankhurst sisters.  Who apparently didn’t like the place very much, but the school doesn’t tell pupils that!

Anyway, back to the book.  She’d lived in “Eupatoria Street”.  I wonder if that’s near Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace 🙂 . We learnt that she was illegitimate and that that was why her mother had left home, and that her mother had been very involved with the suffragette movement.  She was very keen on the idea of women’s rights, but, although we saw her accompanying her late mother’s best friend to the polling station on the day of the 1918 election, there wasn’t much active politics going on …. but then there wasn’t anyway, because campaigning had been suspended due to the war.

Another of the people staying at the boarding house was a soldier who’d been invalided out of the Army and was struggling to cope psychologically – and that again was something which so many books about the First World War don’t cover, and it was good to see that as a major theme here.  The complex political situation in the north of Ireland was also a central theme, with opposing views expressed by different characters.  If it hadn’t been for the House of Lords, the whole of Ireland would have had Home Rule in Gladstone’s time and a lot of bloodshed would probably have been avoided, but you can’t rewrite history.

However, it was really the Spanish flu pandemic that dominated events. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to me, and I’d have felt differently had I been reading the book a year ago.  I usually get annoyed when people talk about historical events in the context of current events, but it’s impossible to read about the Spanish flu pandemic at the moment and not look at it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.  We think things are bad now, but at least we haven’t got healthy people suddenly taking ill in the street and dying within hours, funeral parlours struggling to cope, homes of infected people being viewed by frightened neighbours as houses of contagion, and little in the way of effective treatment for those worst affected.  The death toll was just horrendous, and this in a world already reeling from all the deaths and long-term injuries resulting from the war.

Despite all the serious subjects, there was quite a light touch to it, told in the first person by a teenage girl who, as you do at that age, took herself very seriously!   As I said, it’s a children’s book, not an adult book, but, as a children’s book, it was very good, and I would have loved to have had something like this to read when I was in the intended reading age group.

 

Wake by Anna Hope

Standard

This seemed appropriate for Remembrance Sunday.  It follows the lives of three women in London in the week leading up to the arrival of the Unknown Warrior’s cortege and the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, 100 years ago.  The prose isn’t particularly classy, and it’s written in the present tense, which is annoying; but, after a slow start, I really did get into it and found it very interesting.  It’s quite a bleak book: no ceremony and memorial are going to bring back Ada’s dead son or Evelyn’s dead fiancé, help Hettie’s traumatised brother to start rebuilding his life, heal the physical and mental injuries of the various other young men who feature in the book, or fulfil the promises of creating a land fit for heroes to live in.  But it does end on a positive note, as we see that the interment of the Unknown Warrior and the ceremony at the Cenotaph form an act of national memorial and closure, and help people to begin moving forward.

It usually annoys me when people talk about historical events in terms of what’s happening today – the BBC are particularly bad at doing this! – but it was hard not to keep wondering why there was no mention of the Spanish flu.  Also, one of the things which has been particularly hard about this year has been that people haven’t been able to attend funerals, and that the other religious and cultural rituals associated with death have not been able to take place.  Just a couple of thoughts.  But this is about 1920, not 2020, and it does say a lot about the legacy, the wake, of the Great War.

It’s rather disjointed at first, because are three different stories.  Hettie’s a 19-year-old girl working in a dance club, where men pay her to be their dance partner (but nothing more), struggling to assert her independence from her widowed mother.  Evelyn, despite being from a well-to-do family, worked in a munitions factory during the war, where she lost a finger in an accident, and is now working in a War Office pensions bureau, wanting to do something to help, and to fill her days.  Ada’s a working-class housewife, who keeps thinking that she’s seen her dead son, and even consults a medium – who, fortunately for her, isn’t a charlatan, and gently tells her that she needs to accept that he’s gone.  Eventually, it all comes together, and we learn that one of Hettie’s dance partners is Evelyn’s brother Edward, who was Ada’s son’s commanding officer.

There’s some class stuff going on, as we see that a lot of men coming into Evelyn’s office are struggling for money and that intensifies as we learn that Edward ordered the shooting of deserters, by their personal friends.  But then we see that he had no choice, that he was just obeying orders, and that he’s traumatised as well.  Everyone’s suffering.  Ada’s relationship with her husband, who’s accepted that their son is gone, is suffering.  And neither Evelyn or Hettie know how to help their brothers.

The contrast between the lives of the two younger woman is fascinating.  Hettie, despite everything, is able to enjoy her youth: even though she’s working, she’s enjoying the dancing and the music, and her life’s ahead of her.  Evelyn, although she’s hardly old, feels that she’s missed out, that the war has stolen her life, that young people feel that they’re entitled to enjoy themselves but that that joy in life’s gone from her.  But, at the end, we see her accept a date with a work colleague, who lost a leg in the war but has been able to adapt, and we’re left to hope that a happy ending lies in store.

I suppose we think of the 1920s as being detached from the Great War, whether we associate it with the General Strike, flappers, jazz music, Prohibition, or umpteen other things.  But, obviously, it wasn’t.  And it’s fascinating how the first anniversary of the Armistice seems to have been a day of celebration, but, by the second anniversary, the mood had changed, and it became the season of Remembrance … as it still is, a century later.

 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

 

We will remember them.

 

The Moon Field by Judith Allnatt

Standard

This is a fairly basic (if there is such a thing) but poignant and reasonably well-written First World War novel, which I picked because much of it’s set in the Lake District, in and around Keswick.  Although it ends before the war does, the emphasis isn’t so much on the war as on the longer-term effects, particularly on the bereaved and those left with life-changing physical and mental injuries.  In particular, it addresses the effects on those with facial injuries, and makes some good points about how people who’d lost limbs were seen as heroes but people didn’t know how to react to those whose faces had been severely disfigured.

The main characters are four young people from the Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite areas – postman George, his lifelong friend Kitty, squire’s daughter Violet, and Violet’s fiancé Edmund.  The link between the two pairs is George’s crush on Violet.  Conscientious objection is addressed, with George’s father being opposed to the war on religious grounds, but George chooses to join up, and finds that Edmund is his commanding officer.  When Edmund tries to shelter him from a shell but ends up taking the full force of it himself and being killed, George blames himself for Edmund’s death and Violet’s devastation, and has to cope with that as well as with the serious facial injuries that he’s suffered.

It’s not written in a particularly deep and meaningful way, and it’s not exactly an epic love and war novel, but it is very touching, and the characters are all convincing.  Violet leans on George for support but soon accepts that she isn’t doing either of them any favours and asks him to stay away, and there’s no happy ending for her: we’re left not knowing how her life will turn out.  But George finally realises that Kitty, who’s always seen him as more than a friend, is the one for him, and they get together.

There’s often a feeling that the years leading up to the Great War were some sort of Golden Age.  Think of the song Mr Banks sings – “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910”.  This book doesn’t really go for that angle.  Violet’s got it good insofar as she’s got wealth and position and no need to work, but her parents’ marriage is unhappy and she doesn’t have a good relationship with either of them.  George comes from a happy home, but his family have to work hard to make ends meet.  But the lakes and the fells are there, and bring comfort to them both, and to Kitty with whom George explores them.  And, after everything else has happened, the lakes and the fells still there, as they always have been.  I stayed away from the Lake District for nearly four months from March to July this year, because first we weren’t supposed to travel due to lockdown, then they asked people not to come back yet, and then it kept pouring down at weekends.  I never want to stay away again.

And there’s something … I don’t know that “inspiring” is the word, but there’s something about war novels at the moment, reminding us that bad times have come before but that they never last for ever.  This isn’t one of the great epic war novels, but it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

Standard

What a truly lovely book this, aimed at readers aged between around 9 and 11, and telling the story of a group of children growing up just before the First World War and their experiences during the war, is.  I didn’t think that books like this existed – a recently-written, old-fashioned, traditional-style children’s book, adapted to modern sensibilities but without ever being anachronistic.

Each of the five main characters has so much to tell us – bright, ambitious Clarry, who wants the educational opportunities which her father doesn’t think are important for girls; gentle, friendly Simon, whose love for another young man is so sensitively handled at a time when same sex love so often met with hostility; golden boy Rupert, who’s shattered by his experiences at the Front; light-hearted Vanessa who leaves her studies to become a war nurse; and Peter, who can’t serve in the Armed Forces because of a self-inflicted childhood injury, but becomes a doctor instead.

It’s written for children and the style of prose reflects that, but it’s beautifully-written in a way that adults will appreciate too.

I didn’t realise at first that this had only been published in 2018, because the setting is so traditional.  Clarry (Clarissa) and Peter are motherless, which is typical of early to mid-20th century children’s books, although this one has a sad sub-plot in which Clarry blames herself for her mother’s death shortly after childbirth.  Their cousin Rupert’s parents are in India.  They all spend the entire summer holidays with their grandparents in Cornwall.  Rupert goes to boarding school.  We do see Clarry having to get a job after school hours, but that’s more because her dad’s so mean than because the family are short of money.

I’m very impressed with Hilary McKay for writing a book like this, because there’s a very nasty attitude now – “privileged pain”, anyone? – that going to boarding school and having names like Rupert and Clarissa is some sort of crime.  It really isn’t.  Everyone comes from somewhere.  There are a few gentle gibes about parents who dump their kids and go off abroad, and we’re told how hard the servants work – as I said, it’s attuned to modern sensibilities – but there’s none of the spite against well-to-do people which certain people seem to think is acceptable.  It isn’t.  Well done, Hilary McKay.

Everyone hero-worships Rupert, and I didn’t entirely get that, but maybe it works better for readers in the intended age range.  However, Peter doesn’t want to go to Rupert’s school, and jumps off a train in order to injure himself to get out of going.  He ends up going anyway, and is left with a permanent limp.  At school, he becomes best friends with Simon, and the three cousins become very friendly with Simon and his sister Vanessa – who, by some weird coincidence, appear to live in the same town as Peter and Clarry.  Vanessa goes to the local girls’ grammar school, and, with help from her and Peter, Clarry is able to go there too, despite her father’s lack of interest.

It’s interesting that we see both schools.  That’s very unusual in children’s books, which are usually either set in one school or else are about a mixed gender group of children whom we only see when they’re on holiday from their separate schools.

And everyone’s obsessed with Rupert!   Clarry hero-worships him.  So, to some degree, does Peter.  He and Vanessa seem to be quite involved at one point: there’s even a remark about the extent to which she went to try to cheer him up when he was on leave during the war, although nothing’s actually spelt out.  And Simon adores him – which develops from a younger boy’s hero-worship for the cool older boy at school to something deeper.

Simon’s feelings for Rupert are very well-handled.  Hopefully we’re now at a point where having gay characters in children’s books is completely normal and not a big deal, but, with historical fiction, there’s also a need to show the issues of the past, without doing it in a way that will normalise those attitudes for the young readers.  One of Rupert’s friends makes fun of Simon, but Rupert quickly turns the attention away from him.  And an unkind neighbour says something about it being better if “boys like him” die in the war: Clarry is shocked and disgusted.  But Rupert, although he’s straight, isn’t uncomfortable with Simon’s feelings, and the rest of the gang aren’t either.

War breaks out.  Rupert and his best friend join up, and the best friend is killed..  Vanessa becomes a nurse.  We do see some of the action on the Western Front: it isn’t too graphic, but it’s made pretty clear how horrible it is.  The wartime stories aren’t overly realistic, but it is a children’s book.  Simon joins up so that he can be with Rupert, and, hey presto, they’re posted to the same place.  Vanessa and Simon’s dad is taken prisoner by the Ottomans, but escapes and makes his own way home.  When Rupert’s injured, having lost his dog-tags, Clarry tracks him down by sending photos of him to every war hospital in Britain, France and Belgium.  It’s meant for primary school kids, OK!   And it’s all very well-written. Also, in a presumed nod to War Horse, there’s a lot of concern about the family horse (owned by the grandparents of the three cousins) having to go to war.

And it tackles the issues of shell shock and survivor guilt, which were swept under the carpet after the First World War.  Rupert survives, but he’s deeply traumatised, cuts himself off from the other surviving members of the gang, and isn’t able to resume a normal life for several years afterwards.  Meanwhile, Peter, who succeeds in qualifying as a doctor, and Vanessa marry, and have five children.  Clarry graduates from Oxford, and becomes a teacher, and also publishes a book with Peter.

But, in war books, someone always has to die, and it’s Simon.  I know that some people feel that gay characters are too easily killed off, and that there’s a trope about tragic same sex love, but it is a book about the First World War, so one of the two soldiers had to die.  I’d assumed it would be Rupert: I was very surprised when it was Simon.  And that’s part of the reason Rupert feels so bad: he thinks that Simon, who was too young to join up legally or to be conscripted, and lied about his age (as Rupert himself had done) was only there because of him.

It is a children’s book, though, and there has to be a happy ending – unless it’s one of those 19th century religious things where someone sweet and angelic dies!   Rupert returns, and I think we’re meant to assume that he and Clarry get married and live happily ever after.  I’d think it’d be rather weird to marry a cousin with whom you’d grown up, but I suppose it’s not really any different to marrying a childhood friend.  And their reunion takes place in Cornwall, where they spent all those happy, golden childhood summers.

The war hasn’t taken everything.  I keep thinking about how coronavirus has taken this spring, but, just as there were other summers for Clarry and Rupert, hopefully we’ll all stay safe and well and there’ll be other springs for us, with daffodils and bluebells, lambs and laburnum arches, and tennis and football.

This is a lovely, lovely book.  99p on Kindle!  That’s the best 99p I’ve spent in ages.

 

 

Tolkien

Standard

This film’s had poor reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Dead Poets Society (well, sort of) in an English provincial city grammar/high school, with everyone drinking lots of tea. Sounds like heaven!   There are very few books or films set in the sort of school I went to.  Schools in industrial towns and cities tend to lack romantic mountain backgrounds, or seawater-fed swimming pools.  And pupils are expected to do quite a lot of, you know, work, and passing exams, that kind of thing, which authors tend not to go for – The History Boys being the notable exception.  But here’s a film set in a school with which I can actually identify – although, obviously, mine was a girls’ school, and I wasn’t there in Edwardian times!  Don’t get me wrong, I love boarding school books, but the idea of secret tea parties in the library (people in books very rarely even set foot in school libraries, and get made fun of if they do) at a school like mine, or discussion groups meeting up in nearby tea rooms … ah, bliss!

The school in this case was King Edward’s, Birmingham.  Shame it wasn’t a school in Manchester 🙂 , but, having been to university in Birmingham, I do know King Edward’s.  I don’t know JRR Tolkien’s books, though.  They’re just not my thing.  A teacher at primary school tried to get us all into The Hobbit, but it really didn’t hold any appeal for me.  So I think I probably missed a lot of the references in this film – I could see that they related to his books, but I didn’t quite get how.  And I think some people have got annoyed because they thought it was overplayed, that every incident in the film was shown as foreshadowing something in the books.  But, because I didn’t get them, I didn’t get annoyed by them!

Tolkien’s early life, the subject of this film, was fascinating.  He sadly lost his father at an early age, and he, his mother and brother moved to a small house, supported financially by relatives until they fell out over religion.  His mother then also died, and a priest arranged for him (his brother didn’t feature much) to attend King Edward’s, and for the two boys to live at a boarding house – where they met Edith Bratt, JRR Tolkien’s future wife.

Edith, also an orphan, was a few years older than Tolkien, but, as scriptwriters don’t like girlfriends to be older than boyfriends, in this they seemed the same age.  Edith, brilliantly played by Mimi Keene from EastEnders, spoke about how scholarships at schools and universities were arranged for middle-class boys who’d fallen on hard times, but, as a girl, she was stuck acting as a companion to a boring old woman.  It was a very interesting point.

At school, Tolkien palled up with three other boys, and they formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, meeting up in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores tearoom, talking about arty stuff – as opposed to the down to earth, job-related subjects on which they were meant to be concentrating.  There was a definite feeling of Dead Poets Society there – and this was a true story, 80 years before Dead Poets Society!

The film did actually start with the Great War, though, and jumped backwards and forwards, showing Tolkien at the front during the Battle of the Somme, then going back to his schooldays and, to a lesser extent, his university days at Oxford.  He was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, interestingly.  The university days and his experiences during the war weren’t done as well as his schooldays, unfortunately.  We just saw that he broke things off with Edith because he was pressurised into concentrating on his work and because the priest didn’t approve of her.  It was also suggested that he got into trouble and nearly had to leave due to losing his scholarship: I’m not sure how true that’s is, but I don’t see why they’d have made it up.  And we didn’t see much of his Army life apart from him sitting in a trench and, later, lying in a hospital bed.  The school stuff was definitely the attraction of this film.

Tolkien and Edith got back together, got married, had four children and lived happily ever after, but, sadly, two of his three schoolfriends were killed in the war.  The effect that that must have had on him didn’t come across brilliantly – the film didn’t quite seem to know what to do with itself after he left school.  It didn’t do particularly well at the box office, and the Tolkien Estate’s made it clear that it doesn’t endorse it.

But, for all that, I really liked it.  I don’t know that much about Tolkien, and, as I’ve said, I’m not into his books.  And, if there are historical inaccuracies about his life in this, then that’s not good.  But, as a film about a group of boys at a grammar school in an English provincial city, and as a romance between two people who’d both had difficult starts in life, which was what much of it was about, it worked very well, and I enjoyed it.

Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Standard

This book, about the experiences of a group of Australian nurses during the First World War, is superb.  It’s not for the squeamish, because it doesn’t pull any punches in getting across the horrors of working in military hospitals in wartime – first in Egypt and on the Greek islands, during the Dardanelles campaign, and then in France -, nor of the Spanish flu with which the book ends, but it doesn’t half get the message across.

Today is, of course, Gallipoli Day, Anzac Day.  The usual commemorations in Australia and New Zealand will not be taking place this year, and the march through the centre of Bury, headquarters of the Lancashire Fusiliers who were so heavily involved in the campaign, will not be taking place either.  I know that it’s a very, very important day for our friends in Australia and New Zealand, and that alternative ways are being made to mark it during this strange time.

The book sees two sisters, daughters of a “cow cocky” (small dairy farmer) in a rural part of New South Wales, leave their jobs in Australian hospitals to become Army nurses.  We follow them and their friends/comrades as they work in different places.  We also see them narrowly escape with their lives after their ship is torpedoed –  based on the real life sinking of the SS Marquette, in which 10 nurses, from New Zealand, were amongst the 167 people who lost their lives – and again when the field hospitals come under fire.

There are also several sub-plots involving religious and ethical issues – possibly reflecting the fact that the author was at one time intending to become a Catholic priest.  Is it OK to use excess morphine to ease the passing of someone who’s not going to survive anyway?  Should the Quaker fiancé of one of the sisters, who volunteered for the Medical Corps, be obliged to move into a combatant role when ordered to do so?

And, whilst the descriptions of wounds and treatment are in many ways specific to war, and in particular to the Great War, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of washing hands and of wearing clean scrubs, and of whether or not wearing face masks can help to prevent infection.  There are also bizarre rumours that the Spanish flu was created in a German laboratory.  Does this sound familiar?

The style of writing takes some getting used to – there’s an awful lot of speech with no speech marks, which I found quite annoying – but it really is an excellent read.

The two sisters, Naomi and Sally, have recently lost their mother.  Sally had a stash of morphine, and thought that Naomi used it to help their mother, who was terminally ill, to die.  It later turns out that she didn’t, but Sally feels guilty that the issue arose.  They both answer the call for nurses to join up, and sail initially to Egypt, working first in Cairo and then in Alexandria.  In Alexandria, they’re based for most of the time on board hospital ships, moving between there and the Greek island of Lemnos.  Initially, they’re mainly treating syphilis cases, but then the Dardanelles campaign starts … and the descriptions of the war wounds and the desperate attempts to treat them are harrowing but fascinating, and very well-written.  Later, they work on the Western Front.

It’s not all blood and gore.  They’re able to do plenty of sightseeing in Egypt, in Lemnos, and at the ports where they stop en route to and from (Naomi at one point returns to Australia, accompanying soldiers who’ve been invalided out), and later in Britain and France.  The Pyramids, Rouen Cathedral and Table Mountain are amongst the trips described.  There’s also a lot of flirtation and romance – all the nurses seem to get umpteen marriage proposals!   Sadly, not all the men are romantic: there’s one very distressing sub-plot in which one of the sisters’ friends is raped by a hospital orderly.

Another friend becomes engaged to a soldier, but he’s then killed in action.  Another suffers serious injuries when the ship sinks, then contracts TB, and is then killed in a road traffic accident.  And … well, the book ends with the devastating effects of the Spanish flu.

There’s a lot to take in.  A considerable amount of emphasis is put on the rivalry between the different Australian states, reminding us that this was still very soon after federation and that people were still getting used to it.  There’s also a lot about religion – I’m not sure why, but we’re told what religion practically every character is.  Maybe it’s just to emphasise that those who served came from many different backgrounds.  Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Anglicans and Quakers all feature.

In particular, there’s quite a lot about the dilemmas faced by Quakers in relation to active service, as already mentioned.  Another of the Quaker characters is a woman from Manchester (hooray!!) who’s married to a viscount and is using his money to fund a private nursing initiative – many of which existed during the Great War, playing an important role.  Naomi joins this voluntary hospital, whilst Sally remains in base hospitals, so we see things from both angles.

It’s also supposed to be about the relationship between the two sisters, but I’m not sure that that came across as well as it was meant to.  That’s my only criticism, though.  This is a superb book.  Highly recommended.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.

 

 

1917

Standard

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.

Pack Up Your Troubles by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Standard

This is the final book in the “War at Home” series – taking us into mid-1919, and reminding us that the Great War didn’t end with the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles wasn’t signed until June 1919, and the treaties concerning Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire weren’t signed until the summer of 1920. It was many months before all the troops were able to come home, and, of course, there was the Spanish flu pandemic to cope with as well.

Many people had lost loved ones. Others had to cope with life-changing injuries and what we now call PTSD. Relationships had changed for ever, jobs that had been left often weren’t there for those coming home to return to, the role of women had changed considerably, and, despite the joy of peace and the return of those who’d survived – and most of those who served did survive – it wasn’t easy for anyone to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on.

But there was happiness too. New starts. Marriages. Babies. A lot of different aspects of how people dealt with the end of the war are covered in this book, and it’s an interesting read. My main quibble is that, as she did with the Morland Dynasty books, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles created too many characters for her to be able to deal with satisfactorily in a fairly short book, and some of the people we got to know in the earlier books merit little more than a few lines here. Many of the loose ends are tied up, but others aren’t. Most of the characters get happy endings – or happy new beginnings. Others don’t. But that’s pretty realistic, isn’t it?

Although it’s called the “War at Home” series, a lot of the characters haven’t been at home at all for much of it. When the book starts, plenty of them are abroad, on active service or as volunteers. Edward Hunter becomes part of the British delegation to the peace conference – and it’s great to see that included in a historical novel, because it very rarely is. And one thing that often gets forgotten is that a general election was held on December 14th, little more than a month after the Armistice. With the huge increase in the electorate, and that fact that millions of voters were still abroad with the Armed Forces, it must have taken an incredible amount of organisation. It’s good to see that mentioned here, especially in terms of some women being able to vote for the first time – and the Irish Question being addressed as well.

Most of the book is set “at home”, though – with the various different members of the Hunter family, and their servants. I don’t want to say too much in case anyone’s reading this and is planning to read the book and doesn’t want spoilers, but we see a range of issues raised. How will men returning from the war fit back into civilian life? As we sadly know, they’re not returning to “homes fit for heroes to live in”, or really any sort of society fit for heroes to live in: there’s widespread unemployment, and social unrest. What effect will their return on their families? Can marriages damaged during the war be saved? Will couples who got together either before the war or during the war go on to marry? How will women whose lives have changed beyond recognition due to the war adapt to peacetime?  What should be done about war memorials?  I thought that there could have been a bit more about the changes in society as regards the class system, but I suppose that the author could only fit so much in.

That’s the only problem with it, really – the author could only fit so much in. The book really needed to be longer. Some of the characters outside the “core” family featured quite prominently in earlier books, but are barely mentioned at all here. Even Diana Hunter, who was arguably the main character in the first book, only appears here through the eyes of others. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I was left wanting more. That’s a sign of a good book, but it’s a bit frustrating when it’s the end of a series! Maybe a series about the same characters during the Second World War will follow? I’d certainly be up for reading it.

My grandad used to tell me a story about the day his dad came home from the Great War. They were going to meet him at the railway station. Grandad was only a little boy at the time: he must have been just coming up for 4. My great-grandma dressed him in his best clothes, and warned him severely not to get himself mucky before his dad had seen him. They were just about to set off when the door opened and my great-grandad walked in: he’d managed to get an earlier train, but hadn’t been able to let them know. I always liked that story, when I was a little girl. I never really thought much about what happened afterwards – how Grandad, who can only have been a baby when his dad went away, got used to having this strange man around, and how my great-grandad had to adapt back to civilian life, and how they all had to cope with their grief for the relatives – three close family members – and friends who’d been killed. Ask anyone when the First World War ended, and they’ll say it was on November 11th 1918. But its effects carried on. They still do.

The story of this book is that the war didn’t really end.  Its effects – and some of those were good, with the role of the women and the relationship between the social classes changed for ever – continued to be felt by those who lived through it for the rest of their days, and it was well after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 before people could even start trying to resume any form of normality, or find a new normality.  And this was in Britain – how much harder must it have been for people in areas where the actual fighting had taken place?  This is quite a short book, and it’s bitty because there are so many different characters involved, but there’s a lot to be taken from it.  Well worth a read.

Edwardian Britain in Colour – Channel 5 (second episode)

Standard

Whilst the first episode focused on daily life, the second episode was more about big events – starting with tramway inaugurations and football matches (and I am so put out that, when I was expecting the Burnley v Newton Heath match, they showed Burnley v Spurs instead!), and then moving on through crime scenes and protest marches to the harrowing film of Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal injury at the 1913 Derby, and finishing with poignant scenes of young men waving cheerfully as they went off to fight in the Great War, probably thinking that they’d be home by Christmas. There was far more chat than in the first episode, which was annoying – I’m sure we all know what the First World War, the suffragette movement, the police force and the FA Cup are, without needing to have them explained to us! – but the films themselves were absolutely fascinating.

It started with the opening of the tram system in Wigan, and it was interesting to see the huge crowds there. These days, we only get excited about historic public transport, but you could see what a big thing it was for the people of the town.  It must have made such a big difference, to be able to get about your town/city without having to walk everywhere.  I remember my grandad telling me stories about him and his friend getting the tram to work, which must have been in the early 1930s: only 35 years earlier, that wouldn’t have been possible.  Changing times.

Then we got the Burnley v Spurs match, in the Cup. As I said, I am extremely put out that they didn’t show the film of the Burnley v Newton Heath match, even though I’ve seen it before!   But it was still exciting to see the players and the crowds, and to think about how incredibly important football had already become to people … and to heave a little sigh of nostalgia for simpler times, before money played such a big part in the sport.  Next up, an open water swimming gala in Tynemouth, with the commentators apparently very amused by the Edwardian swimming costumes.  Did we really need quite so much talking, though?  I wanted to see the films, not modern day presenters chatting away in a studio!

This was followed by film of the police – here in Manchester, hooray! Just like you imagine Edwardian policemen, with truncheons, notebooks, whistles and handcuffs.  It was interesting to hear that policemen had to be of a minimum height, so that they’d look imposing, and that they weren’t supposed to have more than two children and, as late as the 1980s, had to get the police force’s permission to marry – but, again, more film and less talking would have been nice!

From then on, it was mainly coverage of big news events. The Siege of Sidney Street – with Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, turning up in the middle of it all, instead of leaving it to the police to deal with.  We think of today as being the age when everything’s captured on camera or film, but would anyone be allowed to film that sort of situation these days? The presenters focused on the presence of Churchill, possibly not wanting to go too much into the difficult subject of East End gangs and some of the more extreme press reaction at the time.

Another subject which is difficult to talk about, because you don’t want to risk saying anything that might be open to misinterpretation or misuse, is that of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. We saw coverage of Unionist marches in Belfast.  I still think that, if Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1893 hadn’t been scuppered by the House of Lords, things could have turned out differently in Ireland.  By the end of the Edwardian period, it was probably too late.  And, by then, there was so much uncertainty, especially for Unionists in Northern Ireland.  Uncertainty is a bad thing.

Easier to discuss were the protests and demonstrations by striking workers calling for better wages and better working conditions, some of them holding placards demanding a reduction in working hours from their present fourteen hour day.  They were brave enough to strike even though they could well have been sacked for doing so.  This was the age of the Taff Vale case, and then the 1906 Trade Disputes Act.  It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come since then.  Trade unions and the Labour Party stood for something important and inspiring in those days.  Sorry, I seem to be in a ranty mood today!

Another area in which we’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go, is that of women’s rights. It’s always inspiring to see film coverage of the WSPU marches.  Nice banners, like I was going on about last week.  And the hats!  I know it sounds silly, but the hats really grabbed my attention.  We also saw film of NUWSS marches, with men (nice to see that some of them were local, from Radcliffe!) as well as women holding banners in support of women’s suffrage.  And some shocking film coverage of police attacking WSPU protesters – nothing I hadn’t seen before, but it was still shocking to see it again.

Too much talk, though!   I didn’t need to hear a load of different presenters going on about women “reclaiming” things and using “PR” and a load of other modern-day terms.  The pictures spoke quite well for themselves.  Especially the very powerful film of Emily Wilding Davison being struck by the king’s horse as she tried to attach two suffragette flags – it was made clear that, contrary to what’s often said, she probably didn’t intend to die – to his bridle.  The presenters, including Dr Helen Pankhurst, did a lot of talking about “bravery” and “sacrifice”.

I’m a great admirer of the suffragettes, and always going on about how proud I am of the connections of my old school and the city of Manchester in general with the suffragette cause, but I found what the programme said about Emily Wilding Davison all rather one-sided. It was tragic that she lost her life, but she could easily have caused the death of the jockey, who had nothing to do with politics, as well.  Not to mention the horse – they were all very scathing about the fact that the press seemed so concerned about the horse, but it was hardly the poor horse’s fault that the government wouldn’t give women the vote, and why should he have been put in danger?   It also showed the coverage of her funeral.   It was very impressive that 5,000 suffragettes walked behind her coffin and another 50,000 lined the streets of London to watch the funeral procession pass, but there was something uncomfortable about how stage-managed it all was.  Emily Wilding Davison was a very brave woman who played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent time in Strangeways and was one of those subjected to the horrific process of force-feeding, but I would like to have seen more balanced discussion about the events surrounding her death.

That was in 1913. I forget the exact wording he uses, but I think RL Delderfield says something about the summer of 1914 being the end of the old world.  The outbreak of the Great War seems to have taken most people completely by surprise.  Its causes have been debated long and hard, and will carry on being debated long and hard, but there’s no way that most people could have seen it coming.  The focus switched back to Lancashire for this, and we saw happy, cheerful pictures of a sports event at a Southport college in the July, no-one dreaming of what was to come all too soon.  How many of the lads taking part in the events were to be killed or injured over the next four years?  Then we saw, in Morecambe, men marching off to war, crowds cheering them as they went, and then men on trains, excited looks on their faces, waving handkerchiefs out of the windows.  And then film of people working for the war effort, pulling together.

It can’t all have been like that, even in the early days. It wasn’t all wild enthusiasm.  Plenty of people must have realised that, as Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.  For all the talk in this episode, they didn’t really have any proper discussions/debates about any of the issues raised.  But, certainly, all the accounts at the time talk about there being a great deal of enthusiasm, and of most people genuinely believing that the war would be over, with victory gained, in a matter of months.

The first episode and the early part of this episode focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, so often neglected. And it wasn’t so long ago, was it?  I’m actually getting a bit upset, thinking that it is actually over 100 years ago.  Those lives, everyone’s lives, were turned upside down by the outbreak of war.  The war to end all wars – if only it had been.  A very interesting point was made at the end – that the Edwardians are sometimes remembered as a lost generation, because of the war (slightly muddled theory, because more than one generation lived through the Edwardian era and the Great War, but you get the idea), and that, instead, we should remember everything that they fought for – women’s rights, and workers’ rights.   Very good point.  And two very interesting hours of TV.