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

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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.

 

The Moon Field by Judith Allnatt

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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

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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.

 

 

Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

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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

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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.