The Chaperone

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  I have to admit that I don’t know very much about Louise Brooks apart from what’s in the OMD song: I was quite into OMD in the early 1990s.  However, although this film involves Louise Brooks, it’s actually a fictional story about a woman who never existed but who, in the film, is Louise’s chaperone when Louise leaves Kansas for New York.  And is played by Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey.

It’s quite an involved and imaginative story: we learn that the woman was, as a toddler, left at a New York orphanage run by nuns, and was then shipped out to Kansas on a train carrying young children to be adopted.  It sounded so horrific, and the horrified woman, when she found out, said that it sounded like some sort of slave market.  The nuns pointed out that – like Anne of Green Gables, I couldn’t help thinking – she was taken in by a loving couple and given a good life.  But what if she hadn’t been.  Everyone knows the story of Anne, but somehow you never think very much about these children who were sent out across the US and Canada, and how it was all the luck of the draw as to who took them in.

She was hoping to find her birth mother, and she did find her, but none of it was very convincing.  And then we learnt that, after her adoptive parents had died young, she’d married a rich lawyer, but then caught him in bed with another man.  She ended up leaving him for a young German man who worked at the orphanage.  It was all extremely far-fetched, and didn’t really have anything to do with Louise Brooks, so I’m not sure why the story involved her at all.  But anyway, it was something to watch!

 

 

The First Actress by C W Gortner

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I was amused to read C W Gortner’s comment in the afterword about how he became interested in Sarah Bernhardt, the subject of this book, when he was being a melodramatic little boy and his grandma would say that he was “doing a Bernhardt”.  When I was being a melodramatic little girl, my grandad would say that I was “a Sarah Bernhardt”.  I used to think that it was just a quirky saying of his, but Gortner says that it was a comment made by a lot of parents and grandparents at one time.

Gortner is obviously a huge fan, and waxes lyrical about how Sarah can be credited with creating modern, natural acting, as opposed to the more overblown acting seen in earlier times.  I’m not quite sure how that fits with the idea of her as being melodramatic, but I’m not an expert in theatre so I’m not going to worry about that too much!

The book’s written in the first person, and it’s quite short: it doesn’t cover all of Sarah’s life, and omits some fairly important parts of it, notably her marriage and her strong support for Alfred Dreyfus.  But it does give you a very good sense of the person, and what a fascinating life she led.

She was the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan living in Paris.  No-one’s entirely sure whom either her father was or who the father of her own illegitimate son was, but Gortner’s taken a view on both.  We see her difficult childhood and the start of her theatrical career – and how it was disrupted by her slapping a well-known but very irritating senior actress, which Gortner repeatedly refers to as “The Slap” … which kept making me think of Darrell Rivers slapping Gwendoline Mary Lacey, but never mind.

There’s quite a bit about the plays, but most of the book’s about her personal life – her family, and her friendships with a wide range of people including the Prince of Wales, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.  There’s quite a bit about her lovers, too, but not as much as you might expect.

I think Gortner was quite keen to focus on aspects of her life with which he identifies – her Jewish background, her love of animals, and the possibility that she might have had a same sex relationship – but I think he just generally finds her very interesting and very admirable.  The book doesn’t go as far as her work during the Great War, but we do see her work during the Franco-Prussian War, which is obviously something completely different to her acting career: she was certainly an unusual woman.

As I said, the book’s quite short, and there’s certainly enough material about her to have filled a much longer book, but what there is makes for very entertaining reading, and I really enjoyed it.

Vienna Blood (series 2) – BBC 2

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Once again, we have lots of glamorous Belle Epoque costumes and lots of scenes of lovely Vienna, although there was an unfortunate absence of both Sachertorte and strudel.  It’s Vienna, OK.  I expect Sachertorte and strudel.

In the first episode, a Hungarian countess who’d been consulting our Freudian friend Dr Max Liebermann was found dead in the bath.  It was initially thought that she’d taken her own life, but it then turned out that she’d been poisoned.  Max had discovered that she had a son who’d been sent to an asylum in childhood due to his bad behaviour and, once he’d found out that it was murder, assumed that it was the son whodunnit.  He tried to arrange a meeting with the son, but the son planned to murder him … but ended up mistakenly murdering a mugger who’d stolen Max’s coat.  Is everyone with this so far?

The son insisted that he wasn’t the murderer.  The plot thickened.  So was it actually the countess’s young male companion who’d done her in, in the hope of getting her money?  No.  Further investigations suggested that the countess had been poisoned by accident, and that the poison had actually been intended for her male companion.  Who’d been discharged from the Imperial Army for being gay, and was only hanging around with the countess as a cover, whilst she was presumably hanging around with him because she saw him as a substitute son.  His boyfriend, a rank and file soldier with no officer mates to protect him, had taken his own life, and the killer was the boyfriend’s mum.  Who then turned up and shot him.  Then shot herself.  Do keep up.

So four people ended up dead, included the mugger, who’d probably only been after a warm coat.

I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous.  But it was actually rather good.

 

Forged in the Fire by Ann Turnbull

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Large gatherings have been banned, places of amusement have been closed, travel restrictions have been imposed, health-related certificates are required in certain circumstances, and anyone in a household where there’s infection is required to isolate.  Some people advocate restrictions, whilst others are concerned about the loss of their liberties.  And there are grave concerns about the effect of it all on the economy.  Not to mention a lot of conspiracy theories.  No, this is not 2020 or 2021: it’s a book written in 2006 about life in London in 1665/1666.  But doesn’t it all sound strangely familiar?

This is the sequel to No Shame, No Fear.  It’s not as good as the first book, but it’s not bad.  Three themes – the persecution of Quakers, Will and Susanna’s romance, and the outbreak of plague – all intermingle.

Will’s gone off to London, to try to find a decent job which will enable him and Susanna to marry.  Going to London to seek your fortune’s a bit cliched, and I’m sure he could have found a job in Shropshire, but anyway!  The persecution of Quakers is continuing and, when he protests against some of his friends being deported, Will is thrown into prison.  Meanwhile, it’s difficult to get post out of London due to concerns about infection.  Panicking about his safety, Susanna goes to London to look for him – but gets the wrong idea when she founds out that he’s moved in with a wealthy man with a beautiful daughter.  (He’s actually working as the man’s librarian.)

I didn’t find this as good as the first book, as I said.  Will explains that Susanna’s got the wrong idea, but each of them refuses to speak to the other, and they both do a lot of sulking, and they come across as two 13-year-olds having strops rather than a couple who’d been on the verge of marriage. Then Susanna suddenly realises she’d got it all wrong when an old letter of Will’s, which has been backwards and forwards in the post for months, turns up, and, hey presto, all is forgiven, and it’s haste to the wedding.

Then the Great Fire breaks out, and there’s a detailed description of the characters’ escape from it.  Interestingly, it also makes a point about the number of books destroyed in the Fire, something which you never really think about.   And it all gets even cornier as Will’s estranged dad is so relieved to find his son alive that he decides he doesn’t mind about him becoming a Quaker and marrying a lower-class girl.  It really is a bit corny, but it’s a young adult book, not an adult book, so maybe I was expecting too much.  And I suppose it’s no cornier than Elizabeth Bennet completely changing her mind about Mr Darcy after reading his letter, or Scarlett O’Hara suddenly realising by Melanie’s deathbed that Rhett Butler’s her true love!   So maybe I’m being a bit too critical – I probably wouldn’t have worried about it being corny if I’d read it when I was 11 or 12.

So, like I said, not as good as the first book, but certainly not bad.

 

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

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I quite liked the idea of this book, about three young orphaned evacuees hoping to find a new family during the Second World War.  There was a bit of a Noel Streatfeild feel to it, and I loved the fact that the children were always reading and that a lot of the action centred on the local library.  Also, the snowball fight with forts and snow angels sounded distinctly Chalet School-esque!  The characters were mostly very convincing, and it could have been a very good book with a bit more attention to detail.

Unfortunately, the American author seemed to have done very little research into her subject.  There were irritating errors such as the school summer holidays taking place in June and July, when it’s July and August in England.  There were frequent mentions of rationing, but I honestly don’t think that she quite understood what it meant, because everyone always seemed to be eating cakes, biscuits and chocolate.  And we were informed that the wireless reports about air raids gave out so much detail that listeners were even told exactly which streets had been hit.  Hardly.

The use of American language by British characters grated as well, especially as I’m not sure that terms such as “students” and “assignments”, rather than “pupils” and “homework”, would have been used even in the US in 1940, but, OK, the book’s aimed at young American readers, and I accept that children of that age might be confused by unfamiliar terms such as “autumn” or “nappy”.  But the errors about the war and the school holiday times were disappointing.   And it was a shame, because, as I said, the characters worked very well and it could have been a very good book had a little bit more effort been made.

The plot was actually pretty daft, but I suppose it was no more unlikely than those in a lot of older books for young children, and this definitely had a pleasantly old-fashioned feel to it.  Our three children, two brothers and a sister, were orphans from a well-to-do family, living with their grandmother in London.  Oh, and that’s another thing.  Why are fictional evacuees *always* from London?!   You’d think that no-one was ever evacuated from any other city?  Gah!

Anyway, when she died, they apparently had no other relatives, family friends or anyone else to take them in.  They were at boarding school, so the logical thing would have been for them to spend their holidays at those hostel type places for children whose parents were in India etc, and for their solicitor to act as their legal guardian.  But, OK, children’s books aren’t always logical, so the rather bonkers idea which the solicitor came up with was to evacuate them to a village in the Midlands along with the pupils from a nearby state day primary school (er, even though the eldest boy was 12) and hope that the family with whom they were billeted would adopt them.  Er, right.  But not to mention the fact that they had money, so that they wouldn’t attract any gold diggers.

Of course, they had a couple of disastrous billets, and various problems at school, but did eventually end up with a very nice lady who was happy to adopt all three of them.   It was a lovely ending, and it was a lovely book in many ways, but those errors about Britain in general and wartime Britain in particular really were rather annoying.

No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull

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  This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “tender teen romance”.  So I read a book about the persecution of Quakers during the early years of the Restoration.  It’s a tender teen romance, OK!  Will is 17 and Susanna is 15.  And it’s very hard to find historical fiction with tender teen romances which *doesn’t* involve someone getting killed in the Great War.

This is a “young adult” book (what used to be called a “book for older children” in my day) so it doesn’t go as deep as a book for adults would, but it’s still very interesting.  We tend to think of the Restoration as being a very positive time, after the repression of Cromwell’s era, but, of course, it wasn’t.  This book’s set in 1662, so we only get part of the Clarendon Code, the big clampdown on Dissenters/Nonconformists, but we get enough of it to see life made very unpleasant for our characters – they’re subjected to assaults in the street from local hooligans, to the authorities invading their homes and businesses, and then to imprisonment even for children.

This *is* a tender teen romance, as I said, set in Shropshire, and we see Will, the son of a well-to-do Anglican family, being attracted both to Quakerism and to Susanna, the daughter of a lower-class Quaker family.  Their romance and Will’s religious conversion take place against the background of oppression and the opposition of his family.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with Will going off to London to seek work, but we know that they’re going to get married and live happily ever in the end.

It’s not a pleasant time – and, of course, it’s so ironic that the official view of 17th century England was that it was Catholics who persecuted religious minorities.  Both Britain and America are still fighting the battles of the 17th century, in many ways, and this is how things could be for people before the Glorious Revolution.  It’s worth remembering that.  Having said which, look at some of what went on under Pitt the Younger.  But that’s getting off the point.  This is a very interesting young adult book, and offers a very different perspective on a time which is generally associated with – apart from the Great Plague, which we possibly don’t want to dwell on too much at the moment! – jollity and theatres and Charles II’s love life.  It certainly wasn’t like that for everyone.

 

The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

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I’ve been waiting for decades to find a novel featuring the Tsarina Elizabeth as the main character, rather than as a minor character in a book centred on Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, so thank you to Ellen Alpsten for writing this, and thank you to Amazon for making it available on a 99p Kindle download.

However, it was quite an odd book: it couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be.  Much of it was a historical novel, which was what I wanted, but there was a very odd fantasy (a nod to Game of Thrones?) passage about Elizabeth wandering into the mysterious Golosov Ravine and being attacked by evil spirits, quite a lot of very slushy romantic/sexual passages, and one bit, about Elizabeth making sweet bread with salt instead of sugar, which read as if it’d been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinor M Brent-Dyer and really did *not* seem to belong in a book about 18th century Romanovs.

All in all, it was a good read, though.  The Age of the Empresses is a fascinating period, but people just tend to jump from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great and ignore everyone in between.  However, Ellen Alpsten’s previous book focused on Catherine I, Elizabeth’s mother, and much of this book covered the reign of Anna Ivanovna.  It ended when Elizabeth deposed Anna Leopoldovna, Anna Ivanovna’s niece and regent for Ivan VI, but I think there’s a third book to come, which will cover Elizabeth’s own reign.  It’s fascinating that all these women ruled the vast Russian Empire in a man’s world.  And, indeed, that they all had lovers – in Anna Leopoldovna’s case, lovers of both genders – , which would have been considered very shocking at most European courts, but wasn’t in Russia.

Some of the lesser characters had been merged together, to keep the cast list down, but the author did explain that.  And Praskovia Ivanovna, the third surviving daughter of Ivan V, wasn’t mentioned at all, but, again, I suppose the author was trying to keep the number of characters down to levels she felt were manageable.  My one big gripe in terms of historical accuracy or inaccuracy was that the book suggested that Ivan V wasn’t actually the father of any of his daughters, which isn’t something that’s generally believed.

It even gave that as the reason why Elizabeth launched her coup, which I didn’t get at all. She launched her coup because she wanted to rule, and because the two Annas made a mess of things and were seen as allowing a German takeover of the court and causing great suffering amongst the Russian people.  Why not just stick with that?  Anna Ivanovna was absolutely vilified here, which is very much the Russian view and not always the international view; but the book was written from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, in the first person, so that fitted.

Despite the odd mishmash of styles, I did really enjoy this, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series.  As I said, it’s wonderful to find books focusing on the women who ruled Russia in the period between the two “great” reigns.  Elizabeth made a huge contribution to Russian history, and indeed to European history, and she doesn’t deserve to be neglected in the way that she often is.  It really does annoy me how practically every book and TV programme on 18th century Russia just jumps from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great!  Well done to Ellen Alpsten for breaking that trend!

A Guernsey Girl at the Chalet School by Amy Fletcher

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This is an excellent wartime-era Chalet School “fill-in”.  As much as I love the Chalet School books, I *am* sometimes to be found grumbling in discussion groups about the characters not really “doing their bit”.  So I’m delighted to see Amy Fletcher addressing that issue in this book, set in the spring term of 1945, in which we see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the local community and some of the adult female characters without jobs doing important voluntary work with the Red Cross.

It’s very much a Chalet School book, though, with weather-related mishaps, plans for a Sale, prefects’ meetings, and ridiculously unlikely coincidences.  Oh, and there’s a parrot, which is a bit more Blyton or Ransome than Brent-Dyer, but it’s a very cool parrot.  However, it’s specifically a wartime Chalet School book, and it’s obvious that a vast amount of research has gone into it.

The “Guernsey girl” – no, not “Jersey girl”! – is Jacqueline Le Pelley, who’s mentioned briefly in two of the “canon” books.  At one time, no-one seemed to talk much about the occupation of the Channel Islands.  It was years before I realised that a lot of children evacuated from the islands had spent the war years in our local area, especially Oldham and Stockport.  However, in recent times, it’s become the subject of a lot of attention; and, without wanting to post any major spoilers, we learn a lot about the experiences of Jacqueline’s family.

This includes her mother’s work with the Red Cross. As much as I love the Chalet School books, I do get rather irritated by aspects of the wartime ones.  In Exile and Goes to It, admittedly, people seem to be trying to do their bit for the war effort, bot not after that: why do we not see Madge getting involved with the WI or the Red Cross, or the Chalet School Guides doing any sort of war work?  And, when people are doing their bit, it doesn’t always make sense.  Why on earth have Shiena MacDonald, primary carer for her two young sisters, and Sylvia Leigh, primary carer for her niece, been directed into the Forces, rather than doing one of the many other forms of war work?  Robin even suggests that Joey, who at the point in question has three children under the age of four, could be conscripted!

It’s at least acknowledged that Sylvia Leigh wasn’t called up until Lavender was fourteen, but Bride Bettany remarks that she was able to “get off” war service until then, and the unknown Jean McKenzie suggests that Joey take in Flora and Fiona to avoid having working-class evacuees from inner city areas billeted on her. And, at one point, someone – Nell Wilson? – even moans about how inconvenient it is that young women are doing war work rather than applying for jobs as Chalet School maids!  Yes, I’m sure that there were people who thought like that, but it hardly fits with the ethos of the Chalet School.   Or, indeed, the general ethos: many women who were exempt as they had children under fourteen volunteered to do their bit anyway.  It was during the Second World War that “school dinners” became a thing, because so many mothers of school age children were out at work during the day.  I wouldn’t particularly expect the mothers of the Chalet School girls to be signing up to work in munitions factories, but I *would* expect them to be doing the sort of voluntary work which Amy shows here.  I like to think that Madge was busy doing all sorts as part of the WI, but, if she was, Elinor M Brent-Dyer never tells us about it!

Elinor’s insistence that every single Austrian and German character is anti-Nazi just isn’t realistic.  Nor is the apparent absence of food shortages.  And don’t get me started on how the main reaction to Bob Maynard being killed in action is a lot of moaning about the inconvenience of Jack inheriting Pretty Maids!

Rant over!  I love the Chalet School books to bits, and I admire Elinor M Brent-Dyer greatly for her brave writing in Exile, highlighting the way in which the Nazis were persecuting Jews such as the Goldmanns and political opponents such as Herr Marani, but aspects of the war books really do get on my nerves!   What we see here is much more how I like to think of the characters of the Chalet School world behaving

We see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the community, and hear quite a lot about the challenges posed by rationing.  There’s also a chapter devoted to the death of Hilary Burn’s fiance.  TBH, I think that EBD just forgot that she’d mentioned that Hilary was engaged: some years after the war, Hilary becomes engaged to and eventually marries Phil Graves, and what happened to the first fiance seemed to be a mystery until a reader actually asked about it!   But his loss is covered here.  We don’t actually see Hilary hearing the news, but we hear some of her thoughts later on.  The stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on response, which sees Hilary returning to work within a few weeks, fits with the times – and also with Hilary’s character, as it’s pointed out that people deal with grief in different ways.

I was sorry not to see more of Grizel in this book, but that’s just my personal feeling.  I was also sorry not see more of Madge.  We see quite a bit of Jo, but much of that’s in the context of Charles Maynard being ill: we don’t see Jo barging into the school uninvited, or being consulted about difficult pupils with whom the staff and prefects are apparently unable to deal without her, which can get rather irritating!  Daisy; who’s one of my favourite characters, is Head Girl in this book and a friend of Jacqueline’s, so she plays a big role.

More typical Chalet School plotlines include a group of girls getting lost in the mist and, you guessed it, finding a hut to shelter in, and work being done for the Sale.  So it is very much a Chalet School book, but it’s a wartime Chalet School book.  The war permeates everything.  And that’s how it would have been.   There can’t have been any pupil who didn’t have friends and relatives on active service, living with the constant fear of hearing bad news, and this book does reflect that, as well as the general effects of was on everyday life.

There’s one other storyline which is specific to the wartime era, and that’s the introduction of Anna Steiner, a young Jewish Austrian girl who’s come to Britain on the Kindertransport.   She isn’t a pupil at the Chalet School.  Hmm, now that’d would have been an interesting storyline.  My old school, along with some others locally, made a number of places available on scholarships to Jewish girls who’d come to Britain as refugees … but I suppose that what worked for a day school in Manchester would probably not have worked quite so well for a boarding school in rural Herefordshire with a strong Christian ethos.  Anyway, Anna is staying with a family in the area, and we see some of the Chalet School girls going round to meet her and to talk to her in her native German.  However, there’s an utterly ridiculous coincidence as it turns out that Anna is from Tyrol and that her elder sister was best friends with the sister of one of the Chalet School characters.  But, hey, those sorts of coincidences happen an awful lot in the Chalet School books, so I suppose it’s authentic from that viewpoint!

Unlikely coincidence aside, the inclusion of the character of Anna Steiner is a lovely idea, and fits in very well with The Chalet School in Exile.  Some of the wartime Chalet School books just don’t: it’s hard to think how you go from the girls rushing to help a defenceless elderly man being attacked by a Nazi mob to talking about “getting off” doing war service.  But everything about this one does.  And yet, although it’s so different to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s wartime books, it always feels like a Chalet School book.  Bravo, Amy!   A very, very good book.

 

 

Royal B***ards: The Rise of the Tudors – Sky History

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  OK, this was interesting.  Kind of the Wars of the Roses meets Shameless (I need a Yorkshire equivalent of Shameless, but can’t think of one).  Apparently, nearly everyone who was involved in the Wars of the Roses spoke in a broad northern accent, spent most of their time getting into brawls in pubs, and swore their heads off.  How stereotypical is that?  They’d never have shown people with Oxford accents getting into pub brawls.  Anyway.  Richard of York, whom I kept expecting to put on a Leeds United shirt over his armour, barged around looking thuggish all the time, even when he wasn’t in the pub, and failed in his attempts to become king because people thought he was … er, too thuggish.  The future Edward IV was also a thug, but apparently he did it in a medieval kingly way, so that was OK.  And they both had the wrong colour hair, which was really annoying.

Margaret Beaufort, who looked about 8, didn’t have a pronounced northern accent and didn’t swear, but still hung around in the pub (well, at some sort of drunken gatherings, anyway).  Marguerite of Anjou did not hang around in the pub, but did swear, a lot, in an ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque French accent, calling everyone “pieces of sheet”.  The only person who sounded like an English aristocrat (OK, accents in the 15th century would have been different to today’s anyway, but we can only go off today’s) was Jasper Tudor –  which was rather odd, given that he was Welsh.

Having said all this, Richard of York and the Earl of Warwick probably *did* have pronounced northern accents.  And probably did swear a lot.

Also, there were no historians.  Instead, we had Philip Glenister, Sophie Rundle and Sheila Atim.

The whole thing was fairly bonkers – but, to be fair, the actual facts in terms of politics and battles (as opposed to Margaret Beaufort being in the pub) were pretty much spot on, and it was good to see the vastly underrated Margaret getting so much attention.  And it was certainly different!!  If we’d been shown this when we were doing history A-level, it would *definitely* have got our attention.  Possibly not quite as much as the Lady Jane film with Cary Elwes as a ridiculously romanticised Guildford Dudley did, but that’s beside the point.  It was actually quite cleverly done – it managed to put a populist twist on events without turning them into a load of nonsense.  Not what I was expecting, but I rather enjoyed it.

 

The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

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  This is a different sort of family Holocaust memoir, partly because it’s got recipes at the back, and partly because it’s about Innsbruck.  Not Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kyiv, Minsk, Vienna, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Prague or a little shtetl somewhere, but Innsbruck.  And I was going to say that this is the first time I’ve come across a Holocaust book about Tyrol, but, of course, the first ever slightly Holocaust-related book I read was The Chalet School in Exile.  And, for nearly 40 years, I have tied myself in knots over Austria – land of the Chalet School (which has played and continues to play a big part in my life), The Sound of Music (which I’ve seen 85 billion times), Sachertorte (which I like to have on my birthday, and at various other times during rhe year), strudel, coffee houses, lakes, mountains, waltzes, white horses, grand palaces … and, in the not too distant past, Nazis.  I’ve got photos dotted about the house of myself in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.  Hey, I scoffed a huge piece of apple strudel from an Austrian stall at the Christmas market in Manchester last weekend.  But I still tie myself in knots over it all.

Most people probably know that, until recently, The Sound of Music had never been shown on state Austrian TV, because of Austria’s issues with itself.  And just to wander a bit off topic, Tony Warren, the late, great, creator of Coronation Street, addressed this issue in The Lights of Manchester, in which a character gets spooked during a romantic weekend in Vienna.  I even wrote a Chalet School fanfic to try to sort it all out in my head, but it really is difficult.

In this, we’ve got a British author inheriting a large amount of family papers from her Tyrolean-born father, who escaped from Innsbruck as a schoolboy in 1938, and looking into her family history – centred on the Cafe Schindler, the very popular coffee house on the Mariatheresienstrasse which was founded by her great-grandparents.  It was seized from the family after the Anschluss, but they did eventually get it back, but then sold it on in the 1950s … and it still exists.

The author seems to have started her research because she had questions about her dad and her complicated relationship with him.  I’m not sure that she needed to be so negative about him in a published book, but that was her choice.  The questions about him are never really answered, but there’s a lot in this, going back to the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and how the various members of her family came to be in Innsbruck, or elsewhere.

There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction subplot about a relative by marriage, Dr Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor in Linz who treated both Hitler and his mother before the Great War, and got some sort of special protection in the 1930s because Hitler had always liked him.   But the main character ends up being Hugo Schindler, the author’s grandfather – a proud Tyrolean, proud Austrian, who sometimes wore lederhosen and a little green hat, fought for Austria-Hungary in the Great War … and was badly beaten by people from his own local community on Kristallnacht, and lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law in the concentration camps.

The book takes us through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the awarding of South Tyrol to Italy, and shows us the Schindler family setting up their cafe and how it became very popular in a city coping with the shock of everything that had happened.  Innsbruck wasn’t Vienna: there were very few non-Catholics there, and there were no “Jewish areas” – everyone lived together, one community.  But then, and this was something I found out myself when doing some research a few years ago, the events of Kristallnacht were particularly brutal in Innsbruck … and it has to be said that Tyrol has a history of intolerance of religious minorities.

And yet, after the war, the Schindler family chose to return.  The author talks about the complexities of the post-war era and how it suited everyone to cast Austria as a victim, when in fact Austria had welcomed the Nazis in.  There’s a lot of personal stuff in this book, which is, after all, a family history – family feuds, different members of the family ending up in different places, etc, but the main focus is on the Cafe Schindler, and they did eventually get it back.   The story isn’t always set out in the clearest of ways, but there’s a moving end in which the author ensures that “steine”, memorial stones marking the place where a Holocaust victim lived – I saw quite a few of them in Budapest in 2019 – are placed for her great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle.

Then there are recipes for Kaiserschmarm, apple strudel and Sachertorte.  I made sure that I had all of those when I went to the Vienna Christmas markets in 2019.  In fact, pretty much the first thing I did after leaving my luggage at the hotel was to rush off to the Cafe Sacher to have genuine Sacher Torte on its home patch.   Austria, land of coffee houses.  And Nazis.  But time moves on, and, as the author says, very few of the people who had anything to do with Nazi atrocities are still alive.  And the Cafe Schindler’s still there.  I very much hope to go back to Innsbruck one day, and, if I do, I’ll be calling in.