Monday, 29 June 2015

'London War Notes' by Mollie Panter-Downes

Yet again, the ever-reliable Persephone Books delivers a cracking good book that should never have been left gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.

Regular Persephone readers will know Mollie Panter-Downes from her books Good Evening, Mrs Craven and Minnie’s Room, which the publisher has previously republished to huge acclaim. In London War Notes Mollie’s attention turns, as the title suggests, to World War Two, during which she was a London correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

Over almost six years, Mollie submitted 153 columns about the reality of London life during the war for the New York readership. But there is no sign of a woe-is-me attitude, instead the British stiff upper lip and resilient sense of humour shines through in Mollie’s glorious letters. 

Eschewing the grander, more publicised wartime events that hit the headlines, Mollie focused on the day-to-day realities of war life for Londoners: the excitement of receiving a bag of gumdrops, the uproar and criticism of the threatened milk cuts, and the bizarre anecdotes of trying to travel anywhere after the government painted over all the road signs (and presumably hoped the enemy would have “left its maps on the mantelpiece”). Much of this was due to what Mollie refers to as “the clampdown on genuine news” since there was so much censorship over what was broadcast during the war years.

Her phrases and personality are what make the letters so compelling and vivid, even to a reader almost 100 years after the events. Much of what we know now of the war years is what has been recreated for us in Hollywood films and BBC TV series – which, of course, have also largely been produced by people who also never lived through the war (for which we are, of course, all unendingly grateful). To read something so real from someone who was writing in the middle of the field is truly refreshing.

In his introduction, historian David Kynaston reveals that Mollie was not in fact The New Yorker’s first choice for the column – that honour went to American journalist Janet Flanner, who was already a correspondent for the title but was stranded on the “wrong side of the Atlantic” during the war. Mollie was known as a bestselling author and having recently written a piece for New Yorker editor Harold Ross he decided to take a chance and offer her the column instead. A risk that paid dividends. In the post-war years, Mollie continued to write for The New Yorker on a regular basis on all manner of subjects.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

'Get It Together' by Zoe Williams

In her typically enjoyable no-nonsense, forthright stance, Guardian writer Zoe Williams tackles exactly where society is going wrong in her new book Get It Together.

Why can’t you buy a house? Will your kids be able to afford to go to university? Has the NHS had its day? Does poverty still exist? Is it too late to avoid the apocalypse? Who got us into this mess anyway?

Zoe urges her readers to take matters into their own hands, and not wait for the powers that be to prevaricate and then mess it up anyway. “Irresistible power is when we all start going in the same direction,” she says, and I agree. 

As Zoe points out, we live in a country where many working families still don’t have enough income to pay for their basic accommodation, food and living needs. And that’s a seriously messed up situation. We need to cling on to our NHS and our service providers, no matter how hard the government tries to snatch them away from us in the name of ‘The Cuts’. And we need to do something about the terrible fact that the richest 100 people in Britain have as much wealth as the poorest 30% combined. 

The sum message of Get It Together is that Zoe believes we have the power to turn the situation around, so long as we work as one for our collective goals. And her book is a damn good example of why this is and how we get started.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

'Love For Love' at Bristol Old Vic

Back in 1766, when the Bristol Old Vic first opened its doors, recently deceased playwright William Congreve was still a popular draw with theatre goers. So it seems only fitting that his 1695 play Love For Love should be revisited in Bristol’s beautiful Old Vic and that much of the performance should be lit by candlelight - just as it would have been in Congreve’s day.

Performed by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and directed by Jenny Stephens, it is easy to imagine how Old Vic audiences in the 1760s would have felt as they sat in the gorgeous theatre (possibly more comfy now than it was then) and watched be-wigged performers under the gentle flicker of candles. And to them, none of this would have felt like a historical piece… it would have just been the way things were.

And the way things were, in the scheme of Love For Love, is not really that different to the way things are now: 249 years later. We still cheat and conspire against our loved ones, we still set up plots and tricks to entice the object of our affection away from someone else and towards ourselves, and we still worry about not having enough money to live the way we want to.

Valentine (Timothy Innes) is anxious at his mounting debts and his father’s promise to wipe out his debts if Valentine signs forms stating that he will receive nothing when his father (Karl Wilson) dies and instead it will all go to his brother Benjamin (Harrison Reeves). Throw in some complicated romantic twists from the various women in the circle who are deciding who best to align themselves with to achieve the most wealthy match and you have a truly ridiculous romantic and social farce.

There is plenty of silliness and lots of laughs throughout Love For Love, although the scene stealers are Ryan McKen as the OTT nurse and Matt Jessup as decrepit butler Robin. it’s easy to see why it was one of the most popular plays of the Restoration Period and why Bristol Old Vic chose to revive it to perform in their recently revived theatre space.

Love For Love is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 27 June. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

'Hot Feminist' by Polly Vernon

I haven’t heard anybody say that we need one but on the off chance that Feminism™ is looking for a PR person then Polly Vernon is putting her hand up. In Hot Feminist the Grazia columnist and Times writer spells out her own manifesto (missing a trick right there) for modern day feminism. And it is fun, girls, fun! *withering eye roll*

In Polly’s feminism, which makes you a ‘hot feminist’ by the way, women are primarily concerned with what they’re wearing and they're busy lusting after men. From time to time they remember that they should also say a few things about being ever so angry about the pay gap, abortion access and rape stats. But mostly hot feminists are interested in looking good and making sure that they’re justified it to themselves that it’s a matter of choice and not because they’re shallow.

Good grief!

Hot Feminist is just what feminism does not need. Just as tireless campaigners like Julie Bindel, Caroline Criado Perez, Finn Mackay, Laura Bates, Nimco Ali et al work their socks off for women to be recognised in society as people not sex objects, for FGM to be criminalised, and prostitution and sexual violence against women to be taken more seriously and for the importance of women-only spaces (among many other issues)… someone like Polly Vernon comes along with fluffy Fun Feminism™ urging women to dress well (she gives a lot of fashion advice in her book), love men all of the time, and drink Diet Coke ‘cos that’s feminist (how?).

Sample quote: “Pick your lipstick the way you pick your women… Sorry, sorry, not women… Racehorses! The way you pick your racehorse. Go for the ones with the good names!”

Not a joke. This is on page 150 if you don’t believe me.

In Polly’s world, you should definitely call yourself a feminist because it’s fashionable to these days and nobody will judge you anymore and if they do then hey, you’re a hot feminist so that’s OK (!). In Hot Feminist she shoehorns in one or two brief mentions to abortion rights and the pay gap, as if to justify hitching her book to the Fun Feminism™ bandwagon. She recounts details of her sexual assault when she was a university student but does so by making light of the attack, which really and truly confused me. What was her message here? That sexual assault is something to laugh off? That it’s not so serious because it happens to so many women? I honestly and truly don’t know. And I despair.

Monday, 15 June 2015

'Naked At The Albert Hall' by Tracey Thorn

Reading Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen was a treat. A thoroughly enjoyable trip through the world of real independent music in the 1980s (as opposed to the sterilised indie we are fed these days, which is really just a slightly edgy offshoot of a major label) and Tracey’s narrative voice gave the book a wonderful presence.

But reading her second book Naked At The Albert Hall is an entirely different experience. Less memoir and more, as the subtitle suggests, ‘the inside story of singing’, we now have a rather dry, potted history of singing through the decades. It’s clunky and flows badly, and feels all the more of a disappointment after the unbridled pleasure of Bedsit Disco Queen.

Part-way through reading Naked At The Albert Hall I attended an event with the Bristol Festival of Ideas where Tracey was talking about the book, what she learned from writing it and her own wide-ranging experiences of singing. In person, she brought the subject to life, she illuminated it and made it funny and fascinating. The section she read from the book was, in her voice, wise and witty… and I left the event wondering what I was doing wrong.

So I returned to the book and I started reading the second half with renewed energy, trying to channel Tracey’s voice as I read it and to envisage the passionate woman I had listened to as the narrator of this unwieldy and slightly turgid book. But no joy. This may be a book I need to return to in a few months and see with a fresh perspective.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

'Hitler's Forgotten Children' by Ingrid Von Oelhafen

The children of the Lebensborn are, for many people, another barbaric part of life in Nazi Europe that we in the 21st Century are blessed to know little or nothing about. That was the case for me until I was offered a copy of Ingrid Von Oelhafen’s book Hitler’s Forgotten Children to review.

Ingrid’s book is part memoir and part history lesson about the Lebensborn: an unutterably cruel and heartless strand in Hitler’s campaign to create a pure ‘Aryan’ race of blue eyed, blond haired, white skinned leaders. Regardless of the cost to anybody. 

Lebensborn was the name given to the scheme, which was led by Hitler’s second in command Heinrich Himmler, in which babies and children were brutally stolen from the arms of their parents, assessed to see if they were ‘racially pure’ and, if they passed the test, fostered by approved German families to be raised as German citizens. There were also the German women and girls who were persuaded (forced?) to have children with SS officers to ensure the continuation of ‘good blooded’ Germans. And a lot of other awful strands to this barbaric scheme, all of which are catalogued in Hitler's Forgotten Children.

In an age when it takes a lot to shock Western audiences (we are immune to horror films, to grotesque acts on reality TV), there is still shock to be found in true stories. And Ingrid’s story is a true one. 

As a baby, she was stolen away from her Yugoslavian family, deemed to be racially pure, and fostered by a German couple along with another stolen baby: they were both children of the Lebensborn. Enduring an awful childhood of cruelty, abandonment and an aching lack of love (the reprinted letters that teenage Ingrid sent her foster mother begging to be brought home from her cruel foster father’s, where she was staying, are heartbreaking - even more so since they went ignored), Ingrid was in her late 60s before she finally found out who she really was: a journey that took 15 years to uncover.

Ingrid’s story is truly awful. The casual way in which young children were ripped from their loving parents, measured and prodded by SS officers, sent on unendurably long and unpleasant journeys with no food, and offloaded into Nazi children’s homes before foster families were found… it is all truly sickening. That so many people complied is even more horrific, although when the alternative to compliance is death perhaps the worn-down behaviour of the victims was less appalling. However, when Ingrid does finally find out what happened to her biological family and what they did on the day she was taken, it is extremely hard to understand how she manages to retain such calm dignity towards her true mother.

Upwards of 20,000 babies were born into Lebensborn nursing homes, and this is in addition to the countless children like Ingrid who were snatched from their families for ‘Germanisation’: to be raised as good German citizens to build 'the master race'. Like Ingrid, the surviving Lebensborn children are in their 60s, 70s and 80s now and many, like Ingrid, have been denied loving families, stability and the ability to form caring partnerships of their own. That so many thousands and thousands of young lives were ruined before they had even begun is truly heartbreaking, and yet another awful chapter in the Nazi regime.

Hitler’s Forgotten Children is not an easy or pleasant read and it will stay in your head for a long time once you close the final pages. But it is important to read, especially if - like me - this was a part of our recent history that you do not already know about.