Hazel McHaffie

World War II

When reading’s a struggle …

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
So said Somerset Maugham. But this week I’ve certainly identified a few that aren’t on the list!

Now for something completely different … : that was my approach in selecting Caught by Henry Green from my shelves. No opportunity for growth if we stay within our comfort zones, huh?

Published in 1943, this was Green’s fourth of ten novels. Did you know he was a contemporary of George Orwell? Me neither. But we studied him at school, so I have a context. Furthermore Green was born on the same date in October as me, and grew up in the south west like me … OK, I’m starting to get interested …

During World War II he served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service, and it’s this personal experience that’s echoed in Caught. Should have depth and insight into life during the Blitz, at least. He had very definite opinions of what writing should be: Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations … It should slowly appeal to fears unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone. Okkkaaaaay …

What’s more significant, perhaps, is that this author is sufficiently rated to have scholars analysing and teaching his work, so I ought to know something about him. But … oh dear, I laboured with this one – which might say more about me than him, of course. And in his defence, I should say, there were occasional flashes of insight and humour that appealed!

The story’s written in the rather stilted short sentences of a different era, with an omniscient narrator, and sudden switches between people and places without a pause, which for me sit uncomfortably today with so much emphasis on consistent point of view.  As does the relentless strong dialect with little discernible difference between characters – even a Welshman has a cockney accent! The rhyming cockney slang strewn through the text stopped me dead in my tracks to decipher it too, necessitating going back to re-read that section each time.

The setting is largely a London fire station during the war – promising a different angle of fighting fires in the Blitz, I thought, but no, it’s the minutiae of everyday life during months and months of inactivity, and the humdrum lives of ordinary people, rather than the war, that Green aims to capture. As a professor of English at Oxford says in his introduction to the book: if at times the novel reads like Eastenders, that is partly what he was aiming for. You have been warned!

Given the sheer banality, it’s surprisingly hard to summarise the plot, but I’ll give it a whirl. When war breaks out, Richard Roe, a well-to-do widower with a 5 year old son, Christopher, decides the boy should stay with his grandparents, aunts and cousin in the country, but his own duty is to return to London and join the Fire Service as an Auxiliary. Christopher has a nurse, and a nanny, he’s surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege, and is being raised a gentleman (like Green himself). Returning to his parents’ house periodically to see his son, Roe is haunted by the memories of his own childhood and more poignantly of his deceased wife. But he and his son become remote, and Roe feels only irritation when he hears the boy has been abducted by a woman in a store. However, an awkwardness arises at work when the woman turns out to be the disturbed sister of the professional fire officer responsible for training Roe, one Pye. She has ‘some kink, or misfortune‘, as Pye puts it, which makes her not quite right in the head.

Pye himself cuts a sorry figure. Internally he has tortured memories of an adolescent inadvertent act of incest against his sister, and is wracked with guilt that Amy is now in an asylum. He rarely visits, and he refuses to pay anything towards her care. In his role in the fire service, Pye is inept as a manager, unpopular with his team, proving himself time and again singularly unfit for his role, suffering humiliation and defeat at the hands of his superiors. His attitude to women is crude, and he’s summarily ditched by the girl, Prudence, with whom he’s having an affair. He remains unmarried and childless, which is partly why his befriending a boy he finds in the street, taking him back to sleep in his room, is fatally misinterpreted, and drives him to suicide.

Though beneath Pye in rank, the widowed and well-heeled Roe is more successful. He manages to sustain a relationship with WAF driver, Hilly, and curries favour with his fellow firemen by spreading gossip, always on the lookout for self advantage – he loved himself so well that he was afraid. By the end of the book, he has been invalided out of the war into the country, suffering from nervous debility, shocked and exhausted by nine continuous weeks of fire fighting when the Blitz finally materialises. Back with his family, he recovers, but remains self obsessed and needy, leaving the care of his rather brutalised son to his long-suffering sister-in-law.

Happily it’s a slim volume! It will not return to my shelves amongst treasured possessions.

 

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Unsung heroism; disturbing challenges

I guess a lot of us have had more time for reflection and introspection during the last six months. I certainly have. So this was exactly the right time for me to read the kind of book that challenges me to think about my own moral compass and motivation and limits.

Under what circumstances would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life, or more importantly, my child’s life, to save a stranger? Would I let my young daughter starve to prove my loyalty to my country? Would I endure terrible deprivation, face imminent execution, to uphold my ideals? Would my faith in God survive seeing men, women and children being massacred needlessly; a whole race systematically eradicated? Could I live a life which meant I must lie to everyone I love, and always be afraid, never feel safe?

My kind of questions, you might think. But actually this was the kind of thinking that prompted Kristin Hannah to write her novel, The Nightingale.

She was researching World War II stories, and became fascinated by the women who had put themselves in harm’s way in order to save Jewish children, or downed airmen, some of whom paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. She simply couldn’t look away, and felt the underlying questions to be as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. As indeed they are.

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol lose their mother to TB when 14 and 4 respectively. Consumed by his own grief, their father abandons them to the care of others. Outspoken Isabelle rebels everywhere she goes, is expelled from several schools, refusing to be either contained or controlled, and aged just 19, joins the resistance movement, initially delivering propaganda, then risking her life over and over again, escorting British and American downed airmen out of France across the Pyrenees to safety. Her code name is The Nightingale. Quieter Vianne marries her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, and after three miscarriages, gives birth to her daughter Sophie. She becomes a schoolteacher, and in the face of an ugly war and occupation of her beloved town in France, finds a courage of her own, rescuing Jewish children even whilst billeting German officers in her home.

We’ve all heard so much about the atrocities committed by the Nazis; much less of the heroism of the women of France. This book sees the 1940s through the prism of one family – totally harrowing, profoundly moving, reducing me to tears. And by homing in on the intensely personal, it seems somehow to shine a spotlight on the enormity of the whole monstrous period in history. It captures poignantly the contrast between the pain and suffering and barbarity, and the bravery and compassion, loyalty and selflessness of these courageous women, so often unseen and unsung.

The war forced people to look deep inside themselves; to examine who they were and what sacrifices they were prepared to make, what would break them. Asking ourselves those same questions 70+ years on is a challenging exercise. Even drinking a delicious cup of real coffee, knowing these women were enduring a vile brew made from acorns, made me feel chastened. Smiling and chatting to people I met out in the street felt like a luxury, when these women could trust no one – not even relatives and friends. Would I have had the courage to do the honourable thing? Or would I have found a way to argue that I had a greater duty to protect my own? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this book is a compelling read, though certainly not a comfortable one. At no stage can we have any confidence that there will be happy endings. Children die, women kill, men betray, families are ripped apart, suspicion is rife, humans behave barbarically. ‘Grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.’

The Nightingale is superbly written, and I loved the occasional flashes forward to the present when one of the sisters is returning to Paris for a reunion of her compatriots who worked for the resistance, accompanied by her son who knows nothing of her past. We don’t know which one has survived, so this nicely preserves the tension. Whatever the outcome, these valiant women and those they represent, have my profound admiration and respect.

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Alone in Berlin

Having just read a book about the German side of the Second World War and posted a review last week, I segued smoothly into another one about German resistance to the Nazis, which I bought at the same time.This one is Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (translated by Michael Hofmann).

The author’s own biography reads like an exaggeration but he is generally accepted as one of the foremost German writers of the twentieth century. However, after allegedly writing this book in twenty-four days, he died before Alone in Berlin was published, the victim of his own abuse of alcohol and drugs, but not before he had informed several relatives that this was a ‘great novel’. It was in fact a reworking of a real-life case to which Fallada had been given access. His contention in the book is that morality under Nazi rule was not measured by the size of the effort made to stand up against tyranny and atrocity, but by doing something, rather than simply capitulating and accepting evil. But as the afterword explains, though ‘there was substantial and heroic resistance to the Nazi regime at all levels of German society, from aristocratic officers in the army to brutalized inmates of concentration camps … this resistance was unsuccessful, in the sense that the regime was destroyed by the foreign armies which conquered it rather than by internal rebels who overthrew it.’

The book recounts numerous small acts of defiance and rebellion on the part of many anti-Nazi dissidents, but the main story centres on the Quangels. Otto Quangel is an insignificant taciturn emotionally-stunted man working as a shop foreman in a furniture factory (now given over to producing coffins) and living with his wife Anna in a run-down tenement block in Berlin. When his only son is killed in battle during the invasion of France, he hatches a determined plan to fight back against this unjust war that has robbed them of their family and future: he will write and secretly distribute postcards, decrying the government, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage. It’s an unspectacular and unsophisticated effort, limited to a small area, but as Anna says, whether acts are big or small, no one could risk more than his life. The main thing was: you fought back in whatever way you could; tried to stay decent, have no part in the evil being perpetrated and promoted all around you. Otto tries to be vigilant, not get caught, firm in the conviction that the longer you could fight, the longer you were being effective against brutality; there was no value in dying early. Besides, he wanted to be there when the regime fell, to be able to say: we were there; we were fighting our own war.

Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo, immediately deduces the writer of the anonymous propaganda is a poorly educated workman who recently lost his only son. Give him time, and he’ll reveal more details about himself. It just requires patience and alertness and he will hunt down ‘the Hobgoblin’. But as the months go by he develops grudging admiration for this wily person whose postcards arrive in his office every week.

Two years on, 233 cards and 8 letters have reached the Gestapo. Escherich has been removed and tortured; Inspector Zott has taken over the investigation. Zott’s methodical approach leads him to very similar conclusions to his predecessor but he is convinced the postcard writer works with the city trams. This certainty allows the Quangels to avoid capture the first time they fall under suspicion, but then Otto makes a fatal mistake. And after a long patient vigil, the now-reinstated Inspector Escherich pounces, determined not to let any irregularities in procedure abort his moment of glory. By this time his painstaking mapping shows 259 cards have been handed in; and he is confident in his profiling of the sender.

But Quangel is appalled when he learns not only that a mere 18 cards have been left in circulation, but that his actions have terrorised the very people he wanted to free. ‘I never wanted that! I never thought that would happen! I wanted things to get better, I wanted people to learn the truth, so that the war would end sooner and the killing stop – that’s what I wanted! I didn’t mean to sow terror and dread, I didn’t want to make things worse than they are already! Those wretched people – and I made them even more wretched!’

The Inspector points out he didn’t stand a chance; he is a gnat pitting himself against an elephant. ‘You, an ordinary worker taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA. The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous!’

Nevertheless, it’s Quangel who emerges the moral victor. When he points out to the Gestapo officer, ‘You’re working in the employ of a murderer, delivering ever new victims to him. You do it for money; perhaps you don’t even believe in the man. No, I’m certain you don’t believe in him’  – it’s the inspector’s gaze that is lowered. He has become Otto’s only convert.

As one dissident tells a rather complacent colleague who seems content in his personal happiness with his wife and coming baby, ‘You’re robbing mothers of their sons, wives of their husbands, girlfriends of their boyfriends, as long as you tolerate thousands being shot every day and don’t lift a finger to stop the killing. … your apathy made it possible.’ Real decency demands protest. And somehow the quiet dignity and courage of this ordinary couple, even under severe provocation in prison, convey a powerful message. 

It’s a substantial tome and the English is a tribute to the translator. The rather unusual switching of tenses, points of view and perspectives, owes more to the author’s style than the translator’s, I suspect. But, to my surprise I found it held my attention effortlessly in spite of the slow pace, minimal action and limited plot. Oh, and I had to smile at Otto’s description of reading: ‘something superfluous that only high-up people went in for, people who did no proper work.’ Hmmm!

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Maritime disasters

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’m at the stage of saying: If this is Plymouth it must be Sunday! But in zooming from the Outer Hebrides to Devon with trips to assorted cities in between, there’s been ample opportunity to appreciate what a beautiful country we live in. With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, everything lush and flowering, the countryside is glowing in its prime.

But one evening stroll brought me back to earth in a quite unexpected way. It was Monday: then this much be Lichfield!

Lichfield is a place I’ve never visited before and expected only to overnight in, but events required a second day there leaving an evening free to explore. And what a lovely city it is – especially when the cathedral bells are peeling out during Monday night practice! My footsteps took me to the parks and there I found a statue of Commander Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. We’ve all heard of the ship of course, but how many knew its captain, I wonder? Not I.

My thoughts unravelled to a book I’ve just finished reading: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. The Titanic, the Lusitania … yes, their names are embedded in our vocabulary. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And yet this ship was at the centre of the worst disaster in maritime history. Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went down; 9400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland in 1945.

This historical fiction breathes life into a neglected tragedy. It’s a young adult novel set during World War II, beginning in January 1945, as the Third Reich was beginning to collapse. The Russians were gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, got underway. Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region migrated to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans.

Four young people lie at the centre of this tale; four very different characters, all bearing haunting secrets, all seeking to flee from those who hunt them. Emilia is a shy pregnant Polish teenager pretending to be Latvian. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse full of compassion but weighed down by guilt. Florian is a Prussian with a ruthless agenda, carrying a priceless stolen artefact. German Alfred is bent on showing the world he’s a hero, though in reality a coward at heart, living in a fantasy world. No one knows whom they can trust. Their disparate circumstances bring them together on the Wilhelm Gustloff as they join the teeming masses desperately seeking safety and freedom.

By the time the deadly torpedoes are unleashed we know something of the scenes of horror and destruction these young eyes have witnessed, we know their private burdens, we’re willing them to reach their goal. Unlike them we know what lies ahead, but that foreknowledge takes nothing away from the tension of Sepetys’ writing. Extremely short chapters, brisk sentences, one voice at a time taking its turn, sparse language, everything conveys the perspectives of youth and tentative lives lived minute by minute.

Salt of the Sea was loaned to me by my youngest granddaughter, aged thirteen, herself an avid reader. It’s written for her age group but well worth the attention of any age. And a sobering reminder of the tragedy of war and how quickly sacrifice and hardship can be forgotten. Our present day comfortable lives are built upon the sacrifice of others; let’s not forget.

 

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Truth stranger than fiction

Normally I stay clear of religion and politics in my blog, but this week I just can’t ignore the craziness bombarding us. There comes a time when staying within the safe and respectable writerly world, simply won’t do.

We’re rather inured to improbable happenings on our screens in dramas, aren’t we? Professors of neurosurgery who beat the living daylights out of a colleague who taunts them, and then walk straight into theatre and perform some intricate ground-breaking surgery on a patient to widespread acclaim. High ranking detectives who get suspects into quiet corners and extract information by foul means. All without repercussions. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And yet, reviewers are wont to criticise authors quite harshly if their characters don’t ring true; a person in that position in those circumstances just wouldn’t behave like this, wouldn’t say that.

Well, if I were to include in my novels some of the real-life activities in the news recently, I’d be accused of writing unbelievable fiction too. Or dubious hyperbole, at the very least. I ask you.

Mature (in years) men, MEPs, indeed, brawling … abroad  … when they are supposed to be representing their country …?

High ranking ministers promoting harsh discriminatory ideas completely opposed to views they themselves expressed as their deeply-held beliefs when they were lower down the food chain … ?

A last-lap US presidential nominee, bidding to lead the largest and most powerful free country in the world, who has already openly scorned many minority groups (eg muslims, immigrants), now admitting he has sexually abused women …, seeing them as the entitlement of any ‘alpha male’ … especially ‘a star’ …?

Hugely important questions about Brexit being decided by a tiny cabal with neither MPs or the people having a say …?

Large numbers of high-earning BBC employees being accused of dodging taxes …?

Hmmm. Looking at this list I note they’re all except one about politicians. Houses of ParliamentOK, I could develop that theme but it could get nasty, so instead I’ll share my thinking about the matter of credulity.

Decent civilised people living in decent civilised communities tend to assume the integrity and honesty of public and professional figures. We want to trust doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, clergy, royals, social workers … we want our children to be able to trust them. But coming on top of all the scandals exposed by the media in recent years, these current horrors challenge our credulity. Can this really be happening? How is it possible? The more I thought about this, though, the more I realised that this is the stuff of thrillers. When apparently trustworthy people step outside the boundaries of the acceptable and believable. Unreliable narrators, unscrupulous colleagues, immoral perpetrators.

Shutter IslandFor example, this week I watched the film Shutter Island, a disturbing glimpse inside the world of insanity. US marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) is sent to Boston’s high security prison for the criminally insane, on a remote hurricane-blasted island, to investigate the disappearance of a female murderess. Daniels himself has a traumatic past having witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities at Dachau and lived through his wife’s murder. But on the island he is determined to gain access to the ward where the most dangerous patients are housed, a ward in a lighthouse to which the medical team are denying him entry. It’s a film that challenges received wisdom, professional facades, and the limits of humanity. What is believable? Can I trust what I’m seeing and hearing?

Nor is it just thrillers that do this. I’ve also been reading All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a beautifully written, haunting novel about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan German boy, Werner, whose paths cross in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It’s by no means a thriller, but inevitably there are troubling scenes that make us question just how far humans can sink and still retain their humanity. Happenings which Marie-Laure’s great uncle says ‘sound like something a sixth-former would make up.’ In other words, unbelievable. But of course we today know about the atrocities of that era, and much as we might inwardly recoil and think, Surely not, we know these things were real and do/did happen. They become utterly credible in a spine chilling kind of way.

Spine chilling. Now that’s what I’m pondering in my own writing at the moment. I’ve always worked consciously to make my characters believable. For each book I’ve asked a raft of experts as well as discerning readers, to check the manuscript for credibility before it goes for publication. But I’m starting to wonder if any of us can predict how low human beings can sink, or how unlikely any extreme behaviours really are. And now that I’m experimenting with thriller-writing, perhaps I can push the boundaries further in my writing about a young mother who exhibits pathological behaviour, without being condemned by the literary critics. Certainly I need to keep pushing that ‘What if’ button. See how far I can go.

 

 

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