The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.

 

Toby at Tibbs Cross by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This book sees Toby, the heroine of The School on the Moor, working as a Land Girl (well, sort of) in 1940.   There are surprisingly few books showing Girls’ Own heroines doing war work, so this one is very welcome.  Toby isn’t with the official Land Army, but is effectively doing the work of a land girl on a farm owned by Charity Sheringham, who features in some of DFB’s other books.  There’s quite a bit of information about farming, but not so much as to be boring, and love interests for both girls, so that all works rather well.

However … in keeping with the the Raiders of the Lost Ark storyline in The School on the Moor, Toby soon finds that a disease killing local farm animals, and which nearly kills her dog – which, incidentally, is referred to as “Master Algy” by Charity’s maid – is being caused by the local vet, who is in the pay of the Nazis and is injecting all the animals with poison.  Right.  And the only person who is able to save the animals is a gipsy horse doctor.   It turns out that, whaddaya know, the gipsy horse doctor is none other than Toby’s admirer in disguise, trying to catch the baddie vet out.

Meanwhile, Charity’s beau has gone missing during the Dunkirk evacuation, but he returns in a German plane, which he was able to nick as its pilots had left it unattended whilst they went to the pub.  As you do.

There’s a dramatic conclusion in which Toby’s admirer is beaten up by the baddie vet, leaving Toby to do the catching and apprehending … and a very sad sub-plot which sees the vet’s disabled niece die.   Both couples get engaged, and presumably live happily ever after – the two men being exempt from further military/police service due to the importance of their farming.

I think it’s important to remember that this was intended as a children’s book.  A lot of children’s books written during both world wars feature spy stories and derring-do, and young readers would probably find a book which was just about farming and romance rather boring.  So, although it seemed rather OTT, it was probably right for the audience for which it was written – and the actual writing was very good.  Now I just need to get hold of the middle book in the “Toby” trilogy!

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay

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This is a companion novel to The Skylarks’ War, but could also be read as a stand-alone book.  It’s written for young children, and isn’t even as deep as The Skylarks’ War is, but it’s not bad.  It’s set just before and during the Second World War, and there are two sets of main characters – Clarry’s goddaughters Kate (daughter of Vanessa and Peter) and Ruby, and two German boys who become Luftwaffe pilots, Erik and Hans.   Clarry and Rupert also feature.  And there’s a grandfather.  And a dog.

It’s nice to read a book featuring evacuees who actually *aren’t* from London: Ruby is evacuated from Plymouth.  Three cheers for the scriptrwriters of the new Railway Children film – the evacuees in the said film are from Salford.  Ruby and Kate, although from different backgrounds, end up becoming best friends, and their world collides with the world of the two German lads when, somewhat unconvincingly, both German lads crash-land in the English countryside and meet up with the girls.

The book tries to show that not all Germans are Nazis and that Erik and Hans don’t want to be fighting for the Third Reich.  It also touches on the Holocaust, although not particularly convincingly, and I found it odd that Hilary McKay said that that wasn’t her story to tell because she wasn’t Jewish.  It’s everyone’s story to tell, surely?

All in all, I didn’t think that it was as good as the first book, but it wasn’t bad, and the first book was so popular that I’m sure that this’ll have plenty of readers.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Wartime Britain – Channel 5

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  The star of this programme, with all due respect to the family reconstructing life in wartime Britain, was a trilby-hatted potato being serenaded by Betty Turpin (sorry, Betty Driver).  “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, look who’s coming down the street.”  I love the wartime information cartoon characters – Potato Pete, Dr Carrot, and, also featured in the first episode of this two-parter, Mrs Sew-and-Sew.  So much better at getting the message across than the likes of the irritating “obesity tsars” we get now.  Nice mention of the work done by Guides and Scouts, as well: we don’t hear much about the important contribution made to the war effort by young people.

I’ve had it up to here with lockdown.  My respect for the generations who got through six years of war has always been high, but it’s gone stratospheric since all this started – and it was fascinating to see how, despite all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, so much attention was paid to looking after the nation’s mental health, whether it was putting morale-boosting music on the radio and encouraging employers to letting it be played in workplaces, or promoting the idea of “victory roll” hairstyles.  Or having a laugh with the Colonel Bogey “balls” song (you know the one).  And, of course, getting Betty Turpin to serenade a trilby-hatted potato.

It wasn’t the best programme I’ve ever seen, it has to be said.  Referring to the Second World War as “World War II” seems to be endemic now, and I suppose could be forgiven.  Referring to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” really couldn’t be forgiven, though, and saying that GIs were in Britain in 1940 was even worse.  And a lot of it was same old, same old – using gravy browning to draw on stockings, thinking that carrots help you to see in the dark (because RAF men joked about how that was how they were able to see what they were doing), etc.

But there were some fascinating snippets in there, which aren’t mentioned so often.  If the binmen noticed food in your bin, you could get into trouble for wasting food at a time of shortages.  (Potatoes were not affected by shortages, as so many of them could be grown in the UK, hence the Potato Pete song encouraging people to eat potatoes!)   Even growing up in the ’80s, we had the mentality that it was a sin to waste good food.  I never understand younger people chucking stuff out because it’s five minutes past its sell-by date, although I don’t think doing that’s as common now as it was twenty years ago.  And, whilst I think most people are familiar with the idea of “make do and mend”, we don’t usually hear about bemused servicemen coming home on leave to find that their clothes had been transformed into outfits for their female relatives 🙂 .

Another good point made was about the role of older children in the war – all the work done by Guides and Scouts, and the importance of young people aged over 14 in the workforce.  Also mentioned was how families made their own toys for little kids, because toy factories had been turned over to producing goods for the war effort.

And there was a lot about hair and make-up – and how part of the reason for focusing on this was to cock a snook at Hitler, who subscribed to the idea of “pure natural womanhood”.  Sanctimonious people going on about how people shouldn’t moan about hairdressers and beauty salons being closed during lockdown could do with watching this part of the first episode.  OK, if people don’t want to wear make-up or do their hair, that’s obviously up to them, but my eldest great-aunt, who lived through two world wars, was still slapping on a faceful of make-up every day when she was in her 90s and living in a care home, and I really do get that.  Anyway, I haven’t got the confidence to leave the house looking “natural” – it might work if you’re stunningly beautiful, but it certainly doesn’t for me!  Using beetroot lipstick, boot polish mascara and cornflour/calamine lotion foundation when you couldn’t get anything else … brilliant!

But the main thing that really came through was that, as far as possible – obviously not so easy with so many people away in the Armed Forces or doing other war work, and many children having been evacuated – people got through it together. Yes, all right, we all know about the people who broke rules on rationing and all the rest of it, but they were a minority, and things like sewing circle and dances were so important.  Even during air raids, you’d often be with neighbours.  It helps so much when people pull together.  And people understood the importance of keeping up morale.  Also, they had a trilby-hatted potato.  I’m going to be earwormed by that potato song for days …

 

 

 

The Bird Catcher

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Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  This isn’t a particularly good Holocaust film, or a particularly good film at all, but it deserves credit for telling one of the many lesser-known Holocaust stories.  It seems as if every month there’s another new book called The X of Auschwitz or The Y of Auschwitz.  I’m not for a moment criticising those books, but there’s a lot of focus on the death camps, and on what happened in certain countries; and there are other stories to be told as well.

The beautiful, historical Norwegian city of Trondheim is probably one of the last places in mainland Europe which you’d associate with the Holocaust, but it was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  In the October of 1942, it was placed under martial law.  Dozens of people were arrested and executed, and the entire Jewish population of the town rounded up.  In this film, our heroine Esther rather improbably escapes, and ends up disguised as a boy and working on a farm run by Nazi sympathisers … before blurting out her true identity in a sauna full of naked Norwegian Nazis (honestly), and escaping by sledge across a frozen lake to Sweden.  As I said, it’s not the greatest film ever, and the story’s more than a bit unconvincing, but it does draw attention to the little-told story of the Holocaust in Norway.

The relationship between Esther, or, as she calls herself, Ola, and the family on the farm is complex.  She’s originally taken there by the son of the family, Axsel, who’s got cerebral palsy.  Axsel and Esther form a close bond.  Axsel’s father, Johann, sees Ola/Esther as the strong son he always wanted … apparently not noticing that she’s actually a girl, even though they’re in close physical proximity for a lot of the time.  Johann’s wife Anna is having an affair with a Nazi officer, but, when she finds out who Esther really is, is quite sympathetic towards her – and, at the end of the film, when Esther returns to Trondheim and Anna is there, being spat at by locals as a Nazi sympathiser, Esther shows her sympathy in return.

The Nazis are around all the time – the German Nazis, and also the members of the Norwegian far right party led by Vidkun Quisling.  There’s no mention of the Resistance.  There’s no mention of anyone helping Jews to escape: Norway didn’t see the mass rescue that Denmark did, but about two-thirds of Norwegian Jews were still able to leave.  Nobody’s wearing paper clips attached to their clothes.  There’s no mention of Telavag, the town destroyed by the Nazis in a horrific atrocity which saw all the men either executed or sent to a concentration camp and all the women and children imprisoned.  There’s certainly no reference to the brave Norwegians who sailed from Bergen to Scotland in little boats, to be trained by British forces and return as saboteurs.

That’s very unusual for a story set in wartime Norway: the extent to which there was collaboration is still controversial, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the film to show so many characters as being pro-Nazi, with barely a mention of any who weren’t.  It’d be interesting to know how this film was received in Norway, if it’s been shown there.

To get back to the story, after the bit with the naked Nazis in the sauna, Esther and Axsel flee together but, sadly, the ice cracks and Axsel drowns.  Esther makes it to Sweden, survives, and returns to Norway after the war.  You do wonder why, if neutral Sweden was so close, she didn’t try to escape across the border sooner.  But a lot of things about this film don’t bear up to too much scrutiny.  The best thing about it is all the glorious shots of snowy Norwegian scenery.  But, as I said, it does show one of the many little-known stories of the Holocaust.  There are a lot of them.

 

The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine Bruce

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Pity the Coronation Street scriptwriters, who’ve tried so hard to reflect the reality of Covid-era Britain but, not having crystal balls, couldn’t foresee the imposition of Lockdown Two and Tier bloody Three.   And so the episodes we’re seeing now, filmed three months in advance, are sadly a long way removed from what’s actually happening.  Now pity, a million times more, Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), who moved the Chalet School and Jem Russell’s Sanatorium from post-Anschluss Austria to the safety of Guernsey, only for the Nazis to occupy the Channel Islands almost as soon as she’d put down her pen.

The need to get the School and the San over to the British mainland in the next book meant that EBD didn’t have much chance to write about their time in Guernsey, and this new “fill-in” … well, fills that in.  It includes quite a lot of detail about life and restrictions in the early part of the war, which is fascinating from a social history viewpoint.  The Armada editions of the wartime books, the ones in print when I was a kid, annoyingly had a lot of the detail specific to wartime cut out of them.  It’s good to have so much included here.  Our favourite characters may be fictional, but they live(d) in a real place, in a real time.

Fill-in authors do, obviously, have to work with what EBD wrote.  And, as much as I love the wartime books – The Chalet School in Exile really is a very special piece of writing – , it does have to be said that some of what’s in them is a bit bonkers.  Karen, Anna, Frau Mieders and her sister, Herr Laubach, and Emmie and Johanna Linders all somehow escape from/”get themselves smuggled out of” the Third Reich, and a whole gang of people, two of whom have escaped from a concentration camp, somehow all end up meeting up in Bordeaux.  Too many escape stories told in detail would have just been too unconvincing, but I’m delighted that the one we get here is Karen’s … even though I maintain that Karen wasn’t actually a Pfeifen but a family friend (yes, I know that everyone else thinks she was a Pfeifen), and that Anna was Marie’s cousin rather than, as stated here, Marie’s sister (but the books are rather unclear on this).  I’d love to know just how EBD thought they all managed to escape, and indeed to enter the British Isles without the necessary visas, but never mind!

A gripe.  It traumatises me when people use “England” instead of “Britain” or “the UK”, and “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union”.  I am a pedantic historian.   I always pick up on that.  Moan over!

Then, getting back to what EBD wrote, there’s the rather unlikely coincidence of Bob Maynard just happening to have a friend who just happens to have an enormous house to let, which just happens to be close to where Paul Ozanne’s just got a new job.  But, again, never mind!    Ernest Howell’s appearance at the School is one of the scenes which overlaps with The Chalet School Goes To It/The Chalet School At War; but there aren’t many of them, and it wouldn’t have made sense had that one not been included.

It’s nearly all original stuff, other than that.  Some things which never quite get explained by EBD are explained here, which Chalet School fans will enjoy –  notably Rosalie Dene’s job change and Evvy Lannis’s comings and goings.  It’s also great to see a positive portrayal of Marilyn Evans, who’s vilified in the “canon” books without ever actually appearing.  I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, the Head Girl who put her school work ahead of the vast array of duties which the Chalet School expects from its prefects.  She was actually at the school to get an education and some qualifications!  She appears in this book as a new girl, and her hard work is actually appreciated at this point.

As much as I love the books, I do get quite frustrated by the attitude towards Marilyn, and the attitude in the wartime books and immediate post-war books towards education, qualifications and university entrance in general.  They don’t say anything very positive about women’s place in life, and that ties in with the very strange scene which we see at the beginning of the The Chalet School in Exile, in which it’s Jem Russell, rather than Madge Russell, who turns up at a staff meeting to say that the School’s going to be moving to the Sonnalpe, and Jem who makes all the decisions about moving to Guernsey.

Until then, Jem hasn’t really got involved in the running of the School.  Why would he?  He’s got more than enough to do with the San.  And he respects the fact that it’s Madge’s school.  Then, later on, Gay Lambert’s brother writes to Jem, rather than to Madge.   And Jack Maynard orders Miss Bubb about, and in front of a pupil to boot!   Miss Bubb’s the acting headmistress, and he’s only the owner’s brother-in-law.  It’s rather odd, in a series which starts with a strong young woman making her own choices and decisions, and shows women managing perfectly well to run a school without any male input.

Anyway.   In this book, Jem and Jack don’t deliberately take over, but we see Hilda Annersley coming to speak to Madge about leaving Guernsey, only to find that Madge is out … and talking it through with Jem and Jack, who both just happen to be around, instead.  It ties in with what EBD wrote, but I do wish EBD had let Madge be the one to decide – or, at least, Madge and Jem jointly, given that the San was affected too and they obviously had to move together.  But, hooray, in this book, Madge does go to the staff meeting at which all the details are discussed.

Before then, there’s a wonderful original, and wonderfully original, chapter in which we see some of the older girls taking part in a rehearsal/role play scenario of what might happen in the event of an invasion.  It’s based on real life events, and it’s fascinating –  a real taste of wartime Guernsey, and a reminder of how frightening those times were.

And there’s also a lot about Melanie Kerdec, a character who appears in the wartime books without it ever being made clear whether or not she’s the same Melanie Kerdec who was part of “The Mystic M” in The New Chalet School.  Presumably she was, but we’re never told.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, in case anyone’s reading my waffle – is anyone reading my waffle?! – and is getting the book as a Christmas present, Melanie is a prominent character in this, in a classic “troublesome new girl eventually settles in and decides the school is great” storyline.

This is the second wartime fill-in in a row, and it’s really interesting to see our old friends – the characters are our friends, aren’t they 🙂 ? – against the background of such a difficult time, and in a setting which is firmly rooted in a particular time.  We know what lay ahead.  EBD didn’t.  And the characters didn’t.  What did EBD have planned for the Chalet School in Guernsey?  We’ll never know, and it’s sad that she never got the chance to write it, but maybe this was some of it.  And any Chalet School fill-in is always a good comfort read, and that’s something which I think we could all do with at the moment.

 

My Family, the Holocaust and Me, episode 2 – BBC 1

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I think part of the idea behind this series was to show that the events of the Holocaust, whilst they were 75/80 years ago, are still having a big impact on perfectly ordinary British people leading perfectly ordinary lives; and it got that across very well.  The lady whose family were arrested by the Nazis only a few hundred yards from the safety of the Swiss border, near the ironically idyllic setting of Annecy – it sounded like a story from a book or a film, but it was real life – spent her teenage years in Manchester and went to my old school, so that was certainly pretty close to home for me.  We also saw Bernie Graham, who featured in the first episode, and Robert Rinder’s mum Angela Cohen saying memorial prayers for uncles and aunties who’d been killed in concentration camps, and being overcome with emotion: these were immediate relatives whom they should have known and loved and who should have played a big part in their lives.  

And we saw Robert and Angela meeting Leon Ritz, the last survivor of Treblinka, and hear him saying that anger wouldn’t do any good and that you had to look to the future.  Finally, we heard Robert say that he’d feared Treblinka would rob him of his optimism, but that he was still able to feel hopeful.   

These two programmes really were very well done.  Personal history programmes can sometimes be more effective than ordinary documentaries, and these were a prime example of that.

We learnt last week that Bernie had always been told that his young uncle had taken his own life in Dachau.  This week, we learnt that that wasn’t the case: he’d died in the terrible conditions there.  At that point, the ashes of Dachau victims were being sent to their friends and relatives, and so there was a grave for Bernie to visit, in Frankfurt where his uncle had come from.  He was able to say the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, there, as Angela was for her aunts and uncles at Treblinka, and it clearly meant a lot to both of them and to Robert … but so, so distressing.

The mum of Noemie Lopian, the lady from Manchester, who’s still alive and whom we met later on in the programme, had been a young child in France during the war.  She and her siblings had been sent away by their desperate parents, in the hope that the Resistance could get them into Switzerland.  They’d been part of a group of 32 children accompanied by young Jewish French Resistance member Marianne Cohn.  Only a few hundred yards from the border, they were arrested and imprisoned in the border town of Annemasse.  We saw Noemie actually visit the prison where they’d been held.

Marianne, who’d already saved the lives of many children by getting them into Switzerland, was raped, tortured and murdered.   The children were eventually freed, due to the intervention of the local mayor, and were helped to escape to Switzerland.  Noemie’s grandparents survived in hiding, and were later reunited with their children.  So that was a positive story, but, as she said, her mum had been through a horrific ordeal, and she felt that hearing the detail and seeing where it had happened gave a new dimension to her feelings for her.  

It really was a very emotional programme, all in a very natural way about very unnatural events.  I don’t always have a lot of praise for the BBC these days, but well done to them and to Robert Rinder and everyone else involved.  These two programmes were superb.

 

My Family, the Holocaust and Me – BBC 1

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Family history programmes are becoming increasingly popular, and they do work very well: they personalise and humanise history in a way that text books and ordinary documentaries can’t do, especially when talking about the murder of millions of ordinary people.  Many Holocaust survivors, and Second World War veterans, went to their graves without talking about what had happened: there was so much that the people in this programme didn’t know about their own grandparents and great aunts/uncles.

A lot of Holocaust programmes only focus on the death camps.  That’s understandable, but it means that other aspects of what happened are overlooked.  This programme didn’t: we did hear about the horrors of the camps, but we also saw Robert “Judge” Rinder visiting the site of an Einsatzgruppen massacre on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, and we saw Louisa Clein (Maya in Emmerdale) and her sister Natalie looking into their grandmother’s involvement in the Dutch resistance, and how she gave her children up to foster parents for their own safety.  And it really was very well done.

The mass grave where hundreds of people, including some of Robert Rinder’s relatives, were buried, some of them still alive, is still there.  There’s something particularly sad about those little villages.  I’ve been to Babi Yar/Babyn Yar, but so many of the Einsatzgruppen massacres took place in little villages, or in forests, and nobody goes to visit the sites: how many people go to visit small villages on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border?  And that way of life, going back to the Middle Ages, was wiped out for good: communities in cities were to some extent rebuilt, but not those in villages.

This is highly recommended, and there’s another episode next week, which I’ll certainly watch.

We had three family stories in this.  Robert Rinder himself was looking into the history of some relatives on his father’s side.  His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but his paternal grandfather, who featured in the programme but sadly died with coronavirus earlier this year, was a Cockney born and bred.  However, some of his relatives died in … ah, the wonders of Eastern European moving borders.  It was part of Russian-ruled Lithuania, which was in Poland in the inter-war years, and was then split between Lithuania and Belarus, even though most of the surviving population’s Polish … so the village where they actually lived is now in Lithuania, and the village 20 miles or so away, where they were murdered, is in Belarus.  He was able to speak to an elderly lady who actually remembered the massacre, remembered hearing the screams.  She talked about how the ground was still moving as they covered it up: people were still alive.  And the grave’s there – and it’s huge.  So many people, just gunned down.

We also saw a man called Bernie Graham visit Frankfurt, where his grandparents had come from.  His grandfather had survived, and been reunited with Bernie’s mum, who’d come to England on the Kindertransport: his grandmother hadn’t.  He’d never been to Germany before, because he’d felt uncomfortable about it. There’d been some sort of family rumour that his grandmother had died after the liberation of Auschwitz, but she hadn’t: she’d died in Sobibor.  He heard her story, and he also heard about the brutality suffered by his grandfather.  His grandfather had lost an eye, and he’d often said about how that was down to the Nazis, but hadn’t talked any more about it.

Bernie, named after an uncle who’d taken his own life in Dachau, said that he felt that he’d been born into a state of bereavement: his friends would talk about their grandmas and aunties and uncles, and he didn’t have any.

And we saw Louisa Clein and her sister Natalie visiting Amsterdam, to learn about their grandmother, and her sister who hadn’t survived.  The grandmother’s story was not what you’d expect at all: she’d been involved with the Dutch resistance.  They knew that, because she’d received a certificate from Eisenhower after the war, but they didn’t know the detail, and they heard about how she’d helped Allied airmen to escape, which was fascinating.  And she’d given her children up to foster parents, and that saved their lives.

But her sister had died.  She’d been taken to a transit camp in Westerbork after refusing to wear an “S” symbol, and then deported to Sobibor, where she’d been killed.  They were able to speak to a man whose father had been this great-aunt’s boyfriend, and had actually gone to Germany to try to find her after she’d been deported.  There was a system whereby some Dutch Jews were sent to another place in the Netherlands, at Barveneld, where they were able to live relatively normal lives and she’d have stood a good chance of survival.  Having been a teacher, she was considered important enough to be put on this list – but the news came one day too late.  She’d been deported the day before.  You couldn’t make it up.  So sad.

They said that they’d known very little about her: their grandmother didn’t talk about her.  And that now they felt that at least they knew about her life, and what she was like.  And that was what this programme was really doing: it was taking individuals, it was humanising the worst period of human history.  This was their grandma’s sister, a teacher, a dancer, someone who was stubborn enough to refuse to wear an “S”, who had a boyfriend who was so devoted to her that he went into Nazi Germany to try to find her, and at least now they knew all that.  It was very powerful.

This really was an excellent hour’s TV.  Not everyone feels comfortable watching programmes like this, but they are very well worth watching.