Friday, 16 January 2015

Fragments from the forties

I’ve been reading a lot about the 1940s lately. It’s research for an upcoming book, which I have been writing for nearly four years now. The book is in fact half-done, but now and then it seems it will never be completed; every word seems reluctant to come, and it feels like giving birth to a brontosaurus.

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But if the book I’m writing is driving me mad, the ones I’ve been reading have been most absorbing. I’ve already written about one or two on this blog – for example Elizabeth Bowen’s collection of wartime short stories, The Demon Lover, and J. B. Priestley’s wonderful Bright Day. (See To Seville, and to Kôr  from March 2013; and To Pagford, From Bradford, June 2013.)  Some have had hard subject matter – for example, The Cruellest Night, on the evacuation of Germans from the Baltic regions at war’s end, and the publisher Victor Gollancz’s In Darkest Germany. Both will be the subject of a post here in the near future. There have also been some splendid oddities and I’ll be writing about those too.

I thought I’d kick off with three books about, or set in, the 1940s that most people wouldn’t now think to read, but might enjoy more than they would expect. The first is a fine postwar novel by a writer who is still remembered, at least by the middle-aged. The second is a book of war dispatches by someone who was once very famous indeed, but whose sons are now better known than he is. And the third is an obscure romantic novel set in the 1940s that just happens to be rather good.

Monica Dickens died in 1995 at the age of 80. She is probably not as much read as she once was, but she still has her admirers, and her work was praised by such heavyweights as J.B. Priestley, Rebecca West, A.S. Byatt and John Betjeman. The Happy Prisoner, published in 1946, was one of her most successful books, and has now been made available for Kindle. 

It begins on an autumn night at the end of the Second World War. A moth flies in through the ground-floor window of an old manor house in Shropshire. Trapped, it struggles with the light. It does not know that it is being closely observed by a man who lies in a bed in the window alcove, keenly aware of the moth’s texture, its colours, and of its struggles. “This moth, which had seemed such a nuisance... was really a show-piece, a miracle of skilled craftsmanship prodigally squandered on a single night’s existence. ...If this pattern had been on a shawl or tapestry, it would have taken months or years of painful, eye-straining toil.”

It is, we gather, not something the man in the bed would have noticed before. But Oliver’s leg has been blown off at Arnhem, and a shell splinter has damaged his heart; he is immobile in this bed, in its alcove, a little raised above floor level, comfortable, at the heart of his family. No-one really knows when he will be well enough to leave the bed. He has time to observe the behaviour not only of moths, but of humans. And he does so in a way that he has, it seems, never quite done before. Over the course of Monica Dickens’s quite long book (it’s over 100,000 words), the reader watches a family through the Oliver’s eyes, and sees a broad and beautifully-observed range of human behaviour. Better still, as Oliver’s powers of observation grow, our understanding of these human interactions grows along with his own. At the same time, the long shadow of the war slowly recedes as the family members reunite, retrench and begin their lives anew.

There is plenty of human material. Oliver’s American-born mother, constantly attentive, hides her fears for her dreadfully wounded son as best she can. Oliver’s youngest sister, Heather, awaits her husband, repatriated from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. In the meantime she converts to Catholicism, a move that leaves her family somewhat bemused, as indeed it would have done in 1945 (Vatican II was years in the future, and the distance between Anglicans and Catholics was far greater than it is now). When her husband does return, her feelings about her marriage force her up against her own character; and, in a well-drawn episode, Oliver learns not to meddle in things he does not understand. Meanwhile Violet, the tall, bony, asexual, horsey elder sister, discombobulates the household by suddenly marrying “beneath” her, to a local farmer.

The love interest, albeit tentative, is provided by Elizabeth, Oliver’s nurse – self-possessed, attractive, massively competent and glacially detached. One senses all along that there is something about her that is hidden from Oliver and thus from the reader, and late in the book this turns out to be true. How, and why, and how it ends, for her and for Oliver, brings this humane and gentle book to a very satisfactory conclusion. 

It isn’t perfect. Oliver’s situation is a very obvious plot device (although, oddly, he seems to know that himself). And the book is very much of its time; Dickens was from a well-to-do family and it shows. Everything’s seen from an upper-middle-class perspective. (Also evident are the attitudes of 1946; a character is said to have “worked like a black” – not a phrase that sits well today.) But Dickens may have understood this; because Oliver’s mother is American, she is shown to be a little detached from the class system of the time, and it’s interesting that Dickens later married an American and spent much of her later life in the USA. In fact, Dickens’s other books show an awareness of this aspect of British life that isn’t always evident here.

In any case, all books need to be seen as their products of their time. This book is a beautifully drawn contemporary picture of the way an English family coped with the aftermath of war. Its impact on British civilians in no way compared with that in (say) Italy or Poland, and it is easy to forget that, for many people, it was still real enough. Oliver’s family have got off lightly, but they are still left with a daughter whose marriage is shaken and a son who will never completely recover from his injuries.

In the end, however, what strikes you about The Happy Prisoner is its wonderful character development; you can hear Oliver’s family speak, each in their own way, and by the end of the book you know them all well – and none of them has acted out of character or struck a false note. Monica Dickens’s great-granddad Charles knew a thing or two about character development too, and I think he’d have been quite proud. A good book.

One of my childhood memories is of sitting at the family dining-table on a winter's day in 1965, watching the coffin of Sir Winston Churchill being borne downriver. The commentator was Richard Dimbleby, by then a familiar senior broadcaster who took the microphone on big state occasions. This was his last; before the year was out he would be dead himself, much too early, at the age of 52. He isn't forgotten today; his name lives on in the Dimbleby lectures, among other things. But his sons, David and Jonathan, both broadcasters, are better known now than he is, and if he is remembered, it is either for his commentary on state occasions, or for his wonderful April Fool "Spaghetti Harvest" broadcast in 1957. This is a pity, because he was a cracking war reporter.
The title of his 1943 book, The Frontiers are Green, refers to the green fringes of the Mediterranean theatre of war. In it, Dimbleby recounts a series of extraordinary journeys to the fighting front. He goes to Greece, where an under-equipped but determined Greek army is pushing the invading Italians out of their country and liberating Albania. He goes south, and reports on the savage battle for Keren in what is now Eritrea. Both were important battles often forgotten, at least in Britain; to read this book is to feel them being brought vividly alive. In between he makes a tense journey through Vichy Lebanon and Syria into Turkey. 

As the book comes to an end he is with British troops facing defeat, having been driven back nearly to Alexandria. It is, he observes, not often that a book ends with its heroes facing defeat. "But this one must," he says, for the Brits and their allies had their backs against the wall, having been forced back to within 70 miles of Alexandria but standing their ground at an obscure dump called El Alamein. 

Dimbleby went on covering the war and was eventually the first journalist into Belsen. That isn't in this book, which finishes in 1942. Yet it is a valuable historical document, for two reasons. One is that journalism is the first draft of history, and if you want history, The Frontiers are Green is packed with it. It's the sort of book that some wretched academic will one day make their name by rediscovering. They will then tell us that we have got it all wrong about the Middle East theatre, or have misunderstood the true role of Turkey. Never mind. Because even more important, somehow, is this book's immediacy; it reminds us that the war was fought not in black and white as we see it now, but in colour.

To finish off, a rather nice book that I read many years ago and have somehow just not forgotten. Who was Sylvia?  by Judy Gardiner is a little-known novel from the 1970s.It's now been republished as an e-book by an outfit called Piatkus Entice, a publisher of romances – though it doesn't appear to be available for Kindle everywhere; a pity. But I believe it is available in the UK. 

A young British woman, Kit, wonders why her far more glamorous older sister vanished from home suddenly just before the outbreak of WWII, and continues to wonder, and to pursue clues, throughout the war, during which she herself serves in the Forces. Bit by bit Kit unravels the mystery - fast enough to keep the reader engaged, but slowly enough to keep up the suspense to the end. As she does so, her own story, of war service, love and air raids, unfolds too. The solution to the mystery is bizarre yet somehow believable, and there are some interesting undercurrents - class, sibling relationships, and more. 

Who was Sylvia? won't have been meant as great literature - it's a romantic thriller. But good books are where you find them, and this is a rather good book. Recommended; and more power to those who have decided to republish it.

Mike Robbins’s own latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), or to the author.

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