Tag Archives: Non-fiction

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Some brief thoughts on two excellent books I’ve been reading, both of which were published earlier this year.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)

Chosen by my friend, N, for our book group in early September, this is such a terrific novel – a sharp, pacy, whip-smart satire of white privilege, racial dynamics and wokeness set in modern-day Philadelphia. It’s very different from the usual types of book I read, both in terms of context and style; nevertheless, I raced through it in my eagerness to get to the end.

The novel opens with an incident, something that Reid cleverly uses as a catalyst, kick-starting a chain of events through which to explore these issues. Late one night, Emira Tucker – a twenty-five-year-old college graduate and part-time babysitter – is asked to take care of her employers’ toddler at short notice while the parents deal with an incident at their home. Emira, who is black, takes three-year-old Briar, who is white, to a nearby grocery store, just to keep the young girl occupied.

At the store, a nosy woman gets suspicious at the sight of a black girl playing around with white child so late at night. A tense exchange between Emira and the store’s security guard swiftly follows, all of which is filmed by a white bystander who is clearly trying to support Emira.

“You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.”

“Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny…” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question.

“Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?”

“Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” (p. 11–12)

Eventually, the situation is resolved, but only once Emira phones Briar’s father to come and verify her position. Emira is not trying to kidnap Briar; rather, she is the toddler’s regular babysitter.

From here, the novel spins off into very interesting territory covering topics such as racism amongst the white liberal elite, the fetishisation of black people and the shallow world of social media influencers.

Alix, Briar’s mum, longs to back in New York where she’d been carving out a successful career for herself as a brand influencer before motherhood intervened. In the wake of the grocery store incident, Alix tries her hardest to buddy up with Emira, showing an interest in the sitter’s life that feels way beyond the bounds of acceptability. Emira, however, is more concerned for Briar, with whom she has developed a very caring relationship, particularly as Alix has somewhat sidelined the toddler in favour of her new baby, Catherine.

There is so much that’s impressive here from the depth of characterisation – particularly the women – to the insightful observations of human behaviour and the razor-sharp intelligence and wit. Reid’s use of detail is excellent, especially in the construction of the novel’s plot. Key points are frequently seeded at various points in the narrative, only for their true significance to become fully apparent at a later stage. (There are some terrific set-pieces and showdowns along the way.) The dialogue is brilliant, too – from the naturalistic exchanges between Emira and her BFFs to the excruciating discussions between Alix and her upwardly-mobile friends.

Some readers might baulk at the fact that a key part of the plot hinges on a significant coincidence, something that reaches into Alix’s past; but I was more than happy to go with it given the quality and complexity of what Reid is doing here. All in all, this is a very clever debut, as thought-provoking as it is compelling – a hugely enjoyable read.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (2020)

Earlier this year, I wrote about Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease could be viewed as something of a companion piece to the Benjamin. It’s just as beautifully written, a book that brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another.

In the midst of the night, Harvey trawls through the remnants of her past, searching for clues on the cause of her insomnia, the trigger that has turned her from a sleeper to a non-sleeper over the past year.

When I don’t sleep I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life. I circle the arena of my mind, it’s shrinking perimeter, like a polar bear in its grubby blue–white plastic enclosure with fake ice caps and water that turns out to have no depth. I circle and circle. It’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It’s always 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I circle back. (p. 32)

So much of what Harvey says in this book resonates with me – from the differences between fear and anxiety, to her reflections on death and our own sense of mortality, to the humiliation we sometimes encounter when discussing a condition with a doctor or counsellor. I too have experienced that sense of dread and desperation when seeking a cause or label for a series of symptoms, the need to negotiate for further tests or investigations to be carried out. Moreover, the frustration of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice and lifestyle interventions, most of which have already been explored.

‘Also no lying in bed awake for more than twenty minutes – bed is just for sleep and intimacy. It isn’t for lying awake. Don’t eat too late in the evening, no alcohol, no caffeine after midday, cut out sugar, no hard exercise after 7 p.m., a nice warm bath before bed but not too hot and not too soon before bed, keep your room cool and ventilated.’

‘I do these things, they don’t help.’

‘Over time, they will.’

‘Over time, they haven’t. I feel unhelpable.’

‘Nobody is unhelpable.’

‘I am.’

‘Nobody is.(p. 139)

Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. There’s even a short story threaded through the book, a compelling piece about a gang who hack into cash machines, emptying them of their plentiful stash.

In summary, this is a beautiful, intelligent, poetic book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives – an elegant meditation on what it means to exist when deprived of sleep in an elastic continuum of time. I loved this one. 

Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury, The Shapeless Unease by Jonathan Cape; personal copies.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

The food and travel writer M. F. K. Fisher is turning out to be a wonderful new discovery for me – largely due to the sterling efforts of the Backlisted team who recently featured How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s wartime guide to keep appetites sated when good ingredients are in short supply, on their fortnightly podcast. It’s a timely read, particularly given our recent lockdown when planning ahead and making the most of store-cupboard staples swiftly became the order of the day. How prescient then of Daunt Books to have scheduled their lovely reissue of Wolf for the beginning of June, when many of us were still in lockdown. It’s a situation that gives Fisher’s insights into eating with ‘grace and gusto’ a whole new level of resonance, especially as *normal life* still seems somewhat fragile and uncertain in these challenging times. 

Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. The ‘wolf’ of the book’s title is the one at the door – a metaphor for hunger, particularly when money and other supplies are very tight.

In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal.

Amongst others, there are chapters on eggs (How Not to Boil an Egg), meat (How to Carve the Wolf) and fish (How to Greet the Spring), together with sections on more philosophical topics, e.g. How to Distribute Your Virtue – all culinary-related, of course. The book is peppered with various recipes; some straightforward and recognisable (e.g. Napolitana Sauce for Spaghetti), others more bizarre or idiosyncratic (e.g. War Cake, ‘an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children’ despite its absence of eggs). The infamous Tomato Soup Cake also warrants a mention here: ‘a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is’. I’m almost tempted to give it a whirl myself…

Refusing to be phased by the lack of a particular ingredient, Fisher is more than happy to suggest passable alternatives. ‘Substitute’ or ‘whatever’ make frequent appearances in her recipes. Bacon grease can be used as a replacement for shortening in the aforementioned War Cake as the use of cinnamon and other spices will hide the meaty taste; decent oil will do in place of butter in certain dishes, but only if absolutely necessary.

Never being one to waste precious resources, Fisher extols the virtues of slipping a pan of apples below whatever else is being cooked in the oven at the time, whether we fancy baked apples for supper or not. In essence, it’s a way of making the most of the energy needed to heat the oven; plus, the apples could be considered a future meal in themselves, particularly if supplemented by some buttered toast and tea. In a similar vein, vegetables should be cooked quickly in as little water as possible to preserve their vitamins and minerals. Moreover, the cooking liquor must never be thrown away; instead, it should be decanted into an old gin bottle and squirrelled away in the freezer for use in stocks and soups. Only an idiot would tip such riches down the drain.

It is best to keep it in an old gin bottle in the icebox, alongside the other old gin bottle filled with juices left from canned fruit. You can add what’s left of the morning tomato juice. You can squeeze in the last few drops of the lemon you drink in hot water before breakfast, if you still do that. You can put canned vegetable juices in. You can steep parsley stems in hot water and pour their juice into the bottle. In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool. (p. 26)

By now, you might be thinking that this all sounds rather dry and wholesome. However, that’s really not the case at all. Fisher is a prose stylist of the highest order. Her writing is glorious – a marvellous blend of the wise, pithy and perhaps unintentionally witty. I love this introduction to a recipe for An English Curry, a modest dish that lives or dies according to the capabilities of the cook who executes it.

There are always curries, of course, which are not really curries at all, but simply leftover meat served in a gravy flavoured with curry powder. [This is a horrible definition, and only the next sentence saves me from gastronomical guilt.] They can be very good or ghastly, according to the cook. The following recipe is uninspired, but dependable. (p. 137)

The quotes in square brackets are Fisher’s annotations to the original text, incorporated into the updated version of the book published in 1954. Some of these notes offer additional advice or revisions to recipes based on the increased availability of certain items in the 1950s, while others strike a more humorous or ironic note, such as the example in the passage on curries noted above.

Another thing I love about Fisher is her willingness to embrace a mix of high and low culture in her approach to crafting dishes. While Fisher clearly appreciates fine food as much as the best of us, she has no qualms about cherry-picking elements from the best French chefs and blending them with those from more rustic or homely sources – as evidenced here with this introduction to her recipe for Cream of Potato Soup.

Here is a recipe, a combination really of Escoffier’s Soupe à la Bonne Femme and one I found in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is excellent hot, but to make it into a mighty passible Vichyssoise it should have some cream [sour, or very thick] beaten into it and be put into the coldest part of the icebox for at least twenty-four hours. (p. 40)

If it’s not clear already, I adored this book. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. The book ends with a chapter on more extravagant dishes, occasions when something more luxurious is called for as a break from reality. It’s a fitting end to a volume devoted to practical advice for keeping the wolf at bay, thereby giving us licence to dream of such treats as Shrimp Pâté or Bœuf Moreno should the requisite ingredients ever become available.

Yes, it is crazy, to sit savouring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time. (p. 255)

How to Cook a Wolf is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers / independent alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

As someone whose childhood in 1970s Britain was soundtracked by the likes of Bowie, ABBA and The Jam, I was always going to fall squarely within the target market for Broken Greek, the glorious coming-of-age memoir by the respected music journalist, Pete Paphides. However, when Gordon, my music-obsessed neighbour, mentioned to me back in May that it was shaping up to be his book of the year, I knew I had to read it pretty damn quick. And he was right to praise it. This is such an engaging book, full of warmth, honesty and humour; it just might turn out to be one of my books of the year, too.

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares.

Back in the early ‘60s, Paphides’s parents – Chris, a traditional Cypriot with socialist values, and Victoria, an emotionally intuitive woman from Athens – move to England with little in the way of money or secure job prospects. When a potential contact fails to materialise, the couple fall into the fish and chip business, ultimately scraping together enough money for an outlet in Acocks Green. The move to Britain was originally intended to be a temporary one, with Chris harbouring ambitions to return to Cyprus where he would open a garage using profits from the couple’s time in England. However, a combination of the realities of working life and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the early 1970s ultimately puts the kibosh on any plans for that.  

With mum and dad working all hours at the chippy, young Pete and his older brother, Aki, have ample time on their hands to try and make sense of the world around them. As the book opens, Pete – or Takis as he is known at this point; the name-change to ‘Pete’ comes later – is in the midst of a long silent phase (a 3-year period that eventually ends through a well-judged intervention by Aki). It’s an astute opening, one that secures the reader’s emotional investment in the book’s protagonist right from the start. Pete – a quiet, emotionally sensitive boy at heart – finds something in music that speaks to him very clearly, a deep sense of connection/reassurance that touches a raw nerve. 

For a few years in the mid-late ‘70s, Pete becomes convinced that his parents are secretly planning to leave him, largely due to his inability to speak to anyone outside of his immediate family circle – a condition that causes his mother much embarrassment. As a consequence, Pete begins to line up a sequence of ‘fantasy childminders’ or ‘pop parents’ should the unthinkable happen with his real parents. ABBA, Kiki Dee and Brotherhood of Man are all high on the list of candidates, especially when BoM’s appearance on Top of the Pops (TOTP) results in a sort of epiphany for young Pete.

‘Save Your Kisses for Me’ was my prepubescent ‘Starman’ moment. But this was no alien gang leader exhorting me to help him overthrow the hidebound post-war torpor of my parents’ generation and invert this monochrome dystopia to reveal an iridescent post-apocalyptic ambisexual utopia. No, this was serious. I felt like Brotherhood of Man – the dark-haired bloke with the moustache; the sleepy-eyed, super-affable guy with brown shoulder-length hair, just the way I secretly wanted my hair to be; the kind-faced blonde woman; the only slightly less kind-faced looking dark-haired woman – understood me. 

As the years go by and the Paphides family move from one Birmingham-based fish and chip shop to another, Pete’s connection with music grows, deepening in intensity.

The memoir perfectly captures young Pete drawing on a litany of pop music, effectively using it as a means of creating a cultural identity for himself – one that is very much his own, independent of that of his parents. While Aki has a knack for discovering the coolest bands (The Clash, Echo & The Bunneymen, and The Teardrop Explodes, subsequently claiming them as his own), Pete puts more weight behind emotional connections, falling hard for the resonances stirred by ABBA, Olivia Newton-John and Janet Kay, whose hit single, Silly Games, is a song I adore. In short, pop music is akin to ‘a third parent’ for Pete; something that explains the world to him so that his real parents don’t have to.

In ‘Silly Games’, Kay’s vulnerability echoed the uncertainty of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘A Little More Love’. The other obvious point of comparison was ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game’, whose love-struck narrator edges by tiny increments towards emotional disclosure, ever wary that her feelings might not be reciprocated: ‘if I trust in you, would you let me down? / Would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you? / Could you feel the same way too?’

Given that my parents had little that corresponded to my somewhat idealised definition of a relationship, it probably wasn’t surprising that I was searching ABBA records for clues. 

ABBA prove particularly useful in imparting the harsh realities of love, their music effecting mirroring the dissolution of first Bjorn and Agnetha’s marriage, and then Benny and Frida’s, as one emotionally-revealing album follows another. Bowie too is another touchstone, one that only becomes fully apparent following his death in 2016.

Bowie’s vocal seemed to come from a place near the edge of life itself. Either awakening from a period of unconsciousness or about to enter one. Over time, I would come to realise that his ability to refract unspeakable, unknowable peril through the prism of melody was unsurpassable. It was there in ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. By the time he released Blackstar, knowing that he had weeks to live, it didn’t occur to anyone that Bowie might, this time, actually be writing about his own death. 

Cultural identity is a theme that permeates virtually every page of this book. From an early age, Pete is cognisant of the sense of tension between two very different cultures in his life: the traditional Greek-Cypriot heritage of his parents and the more exciting world enveloping him in Britain. Like many children of first-generation immigrants, Pete and his brother Aki soon begin to identify more strongly with the country of their childhood than their parents’ beloved homeland. In Message in a Bottle by The Police, Pete finds something that resonates with his own situation and the ‘looming identity crisis’ he is trying to ‘will out of existence’. More specifically, the fact that he doesn’t feel very Greek and cannot see himself fulfilling his parents’ expectations of a son – namely, someone who marries a nice Greek girl and settles down in the family business.

Even though I was no longer mute, an awareness was growing both in me and my brother that all the things that we found exciting were culturally alien to our parents. Rightly or wrongly, it increasingly felt as though it was our destiny to disappoint them. 

As the memoir unfolds, we learn more about the Paphides family back in Cyprus and Greece. The guilt Victoria experiences after leaving her mother and sister for a new life, one that turns out to be very different from the dreams she envisaged; the anguish of having to send baby Aki back to Greece for a couple of years, purely because childcare isn’t an affordable option when you’re trying to save for a business in the UK; and the grief Victoria ultimately has to deal with following the death of her mother, a woman whose life was defined by deference and hardship. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

On the music front, there is so much that resonates with me here, from the taping of pop songs on the Radio 1 chart rundowns, to the thrill of discovering a new band through a memorable appearance on TOTP, to the regular trips to Woolworths to buy the latest singles. As Pete looks to music to navigate the challenges of childhood, the musical references come thick and fast, covering a myriad of artists including ABBA, The Jam, Orange Juice, Duran Duran and Dexys Midnight Runners. While many of the issues touched upon here are relatively common childhood concerns – dealing with school, the fickle nature of friendships, irrational phobias, worries about not fitting in etc. – it is the wonderfully humane manner in which Paphides recounts his experiences that makes this book such an engaging read.

In Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too.  

Broken Greek is published by Quercus; personal copy.

Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.

Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

One of the perverse by-products of the current lockdown is the fact that I have more time to read and write at the moment, even if my ability to concentrate isn’t the best. So, in the spirit of trying to keep a record of my reading, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the books that have captured my imagination over the past few weeks.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994), tr. By Stephen Snyder (2019)

A haunting, beautifully-written novel about memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear.

The novel is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. […] I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbours were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything. (p. 10)

The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, an authoritarian group who go around looking for any remaining traces of ‘disappeared’ items. Moreover, the Police also play a role in tracking down any islanders who can recall erased items, rounding them up for further investigation.

The novel’s narrator is a writer; and her editor, R, is one of the few individuals with the ability to remember some of these things – namely, the existence of emeralds, perfume and other forgotten items. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the narrator’s attempts to conceal her editor from the authorities while simultaneously trying to work on her novel – the premise of which has a certain resonance with the broader story. 

Ogawa’s thoughtful, meditative novel has been widely reviewed elsewhere, so rather than wittering on about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how poignant it feels right now, at a time when so many of the things we have taken for granted for years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a very thought-provoking read, particularly given the current global crisis – definitely recommended reading.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (2020)

I’ll keep this one brief, not because of any concerns about the book – it’s actually incredibly good! – but for other, purely personal reasons. In short, I’ve always found it harder to write about non-fiction than fiction, especially when a book is as meticulously researched as this.

Square Haunting is a fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, primarily covering the interwar years. The women in question are:

  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) – modernist poet, in residence 1916-18;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers – writer of detective fiction, in residence 1920-21;
  • Jane Ellen Harrison – classicist and translator, in residence 1926-28;
  • Eileen Power – historian, broadcaster and pacifist, in residence 1922–40;
  • Virginia Woolf – writer and publisher, in residence 1939-40.

What I really like about this book is the way the author uses Mecklenburgh Square as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In addition to presenting a snapshot of each woman’s life, Wade also enables us to glimpse other notable figures of the day – writers such as D.H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, for example – on the edges of various social circles. There are some surprising connections between the lives of the various inhabitants of Mecklenburgh Square, relationships that make this location seem all the more intriguing.

In summary, Square Haunting is an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Excellent Women by Barba Pym (1952)

Finally, for this post at least, I’ve been revisiting Excellent Women, a novel I first wrote about back in 2016. The Backlisted Podcast team will be covering it in their next episode – due to land on Monday 13th April – hence the reason for my recent reread.

Once again, I’ll keep this brief – you can read my initial impressions of the book by clicking on the link above. What I will say is that it’s perfect lockdown reading. Reassuringly comforting and familiar, but with enough insight into the world of its protagonist to elevate it into the literary sphere.

In short, the novel is narrated by Mildred, a spinster in her early thirties, one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea when needed. The trouble is, Mildred ends up getting drawn into other people’s messy business, particularly as it is often assumed that she has no real life of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (p. 1)

It’s a charming novel, one in which the most pressing concerns involve flower arranging and making plans for the forthcoming church bazaar. If only real life were as simple as this; we can but wish…Anyway, do tune into Backlisted once the podcast is up; it’s bound to be a good one.

The Memory Police is published by Harvill Secker; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Square Haunting is published by Faber & Faber, and Excellent Women by Virago Books; both personal copies.

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

One of my current aims is to read more memoirs, largely prompted by some critically-acclaimed releases such as Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, a book that made my end-of-year highlights in 2019. Motherwell: A Girlhood is a memoir by the late Deborah Orr, the esteemed Guardian journalist who died from breast cancer last year. Rather than documenting Orr’s career in journalism, Motherwell focuses on the author’s childhood, mostly spanning the period from the mid-1960s through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, a time of significant social change in some regions of the UK. Moreover, the book’s title has a dual meaning, representing both the Scottish town near Glasgow where Orr grew up – Motherwell – and the nature of the relationship between Orr and her mother, Win – the latter prompting the question as to whether Win was able to ‘mother well’ when caring for Deborah and her brother, David.

Ostensibly, this memoir is an exploration of Orr’s fractured relationship with Win, the formidable woman who held the reins of power within the Orr household, much to the frustration of Deborah if not the rest of the family. A series of memories and reflections emerge, several of which are connected to ‘the bureau’ an imposing cabinet housing various objects and documents controlled by Win, a serial hoarder. (It is a highly symbolic object, an heirloom ultimately inherited by Deborah and installed in her London home.)

The bureau, like all three of my childhood homes, was the unchallenged domain of my mother, scrupulously well organised and governed by a surprisingly complex web of boundaries. […]

John [Deborah’s father] never delved behind the flap in the bureau. Win handled all the household’s paperwork, writing in her neat, cursive script or her neat block capitals. He would add his impressive signature where she told him to put it.

The rules were Win’s – and the power – but John tended to be their enforcer. (pp. 4-5, W&N)

As the book unfolds, the subtle nuances of Deborah’s relationship with Win become increasingly apparent. For the most part, Win is tenacious and terrifying, a woman obsessed with the need to keep up appearances; and yet she is also spirited and sociable, hailing from a large, working-class family with traditions of its own.

Having moved to Scotland from Essex at the time of her marriage to John, Win has experienced much suffering during her life, a point that becomes clear as her backstory is revealed. Furthermore, there is the sense that Win is unable to break that pattern of hardship with her own daughter, thereby implying that Deborah must bear a similar burden and conform to the expectations of the local community and society as a whole. The principle of conformity looms large in Motherwell, a town with the power to crush individuality and aspiration, notions it considers to be either shameful or fanciful.

Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places I was a chimerical beast, an oddity. (p.43)

Unsurprisingly, Deborah longs to break free from the restrictions imposed by Win and by the town of Motherwell itself. In truth, Win would like nothing better than to keep Deborah with her in Motherwell, almost as an extension of herself – like an extra limb or appendage, the removal of which would lead to major trauma and grief.

Nevertheless, for all her pride, prejudices and other faults, Win is capable of occasional moments tenderness where a more loving relationship emerges between mother and daughter. There are recollections of shared experiences, instances of Win and Deborah lying in bed together, just like the members of any ‘normal’ family might do.

John, too, is anything but black and white. Initially seen as the more playful and supportive of the two parents (the young Deborah idolises him), John has his own demons in the form of drink, gambling and a capacity for occasional violence – factors that prompt a reassessment of his personality over time. As with other sections of the book, there is a striking sense of honesty in the way Orr writes about these aspects of family life, the gradual process of realisation that someone close to you may not be quite so perfect after all.

Alongside the author’s reflections on the nature of motherhood and family, there is another, equally compelling side to Motherwell, one of broader significance. In writing this remarkable book, Orr has given us a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the decimation of the steel industry – particularly on Motherwell and the surrounding community. At its peak, the steelworks employed more than half of Motherwell’s adults, many of them stationed at Ravenscraig, the beating heart of the local manufacturing trade. After years of financial starvation, Ravenscraig closed in 1992, with the demolition of its the iconic cooling towers following in 1996 – an eerie event witnessed by Deborah and her immediate family.  

Motherwell is the town I was born and bred in, a coal and steel town on the lip of the Clyde Valley. By the time I was thirty years old, it wasn’t a coal and steel town any more. Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do. (pp. 1-2)

Also running through the book is the theme of narcissism, acting as a kind of lens or filter through which several elements are viewed. The spectre of narcissism is present in many aspects of Deborah’s life, from the relationship with ex-husband, Will Self, to the politics within the Orr household during childhood, to some of the ongoing failings of wider society itself.

Because here’s the thing. Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you, whether in a family, a group or in the whole wide world, is a need that many people feel, especially in this age of individualism. (p. 208)

In short, Motherwell is a remarkable memoir – poignant, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. (I couldn’t help but feel some element of compassion for Win despite her terrible failings.) Orr weaves together all the different strands so brilliantly, moving seamlessly from memories of her upbringing to expressions of anger about the devastation of the steel industry to pertinent asides on the toxic nature of narcissism and its power to destroy. She is so candid in her analysis of a difficult childhood, unsparing in the visceral act of self-exploration. This is a powerful, humane and beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Motherwell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

Recent Reads – Lanny by Max Porter, Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Some brief thoughts on a few books I read towards the end of last year, all published in 2019.

Lanny by Max Porter

A relatively rare foray into contemporary fiction for me, but one that pretty much blew me away, both structurally and narratively. In short, this beguiling, poetic novella touches on themes of community, nurturing, difference and suspicion, blending the modern with the mythic in the most inventive of ways.

The titular Lanny – a wonderfully imaginative little boy – lives with his parents in a rural village somewhere in the home counties. Lanny’s mother, Jolie, stays at home to work on her fledgling novel, an activity which allows her to maintain a close bond with her son – something her commuter husband finds harder to sustain. Meanwhile, Lanny is allowed to roam freely amongst the woods and fields, exploring the natural habitat with all its inherent mysteries. Living alongside the family in the local community is Pete, an ageing artist who spends time with Lanny after school, encouraging his creativity and flourishing imagination.

Either side of us, woods. Ahead of us, hills. Counties lapping falsely at each other over the stone plates which rough-and tumbled to form this gentle landscape. Some very old trees round this way. Saints.

We tramp down the steep-walled chalk and moss run, tree roots like sea monsters lining our route, and we discuss the passing of time.

I tell Lanny about the ghost of Ben Hart who runs up and down this track trying to find his beloved. Headless Ben Hart calling out for his girl. I’m only teasing, trying to shit him up a bit, but he replies in all sincerity, Brilliant, I hope we meet him. (p. 31, Faber & Faber)

As this is a novella, I don’t want to reveal too much about the storyline – partly as it might spoil the magic for prospective readers. What I will say is that the book is brilliantly constructed, building very skilfully to an unexpected and moving conclusion; the final third, in particular, has a momentum all of its own. I’m not usually a fan of fables or stories containing elements of fantasy, but Lanny represents an exception to the rule. This is a thoroughly engaging novella, moving seamlessly between different styles, using language and imagery to great effect. Very highly recommended indeed.

Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall

An excellent collection of short stories from one of our most highly-regarded practitioners of the form. Here are tales of family ties, sex, vengeance, mortality, grief and loss, all conveyed in Hall’s characteristically lyrical prose.

Like Max Porter in Lanny, Hall occasionally blends the real with the imaginary in these pieces, transitioning from one mode to another to heighten the desired effect. This is particularly true of the opening story, M, in which a woman enacts her revenge on a series of abusive men.

Alongside the poetic beauty of Hall’s prose, there is a precision too – one that suggests an experienced writer who has honed her craft over several years.

Winter. It is colder than it’s been for years. Inside the walls of buildings water swells, turns rigid, splitting pipes, displacing bricks. Ceilings collapse with the weight of ice. The trees are black and stiff as railings. Long, productive darkness, but at dawn, and in twilight hours, there are great studios of teal above the city. She continues to administer, to those she didn’t reach, couldn’t reach, before. (p. 19, Faber & Faber) 

Fantasy also play a role in Orton, albeit in less fantastical form – the protagonist has been fitted with a pacemaker that can be deactivated by choice whenever she wishes to die. In this story, the central character chooses to revisit her past while contemplating her own impending mortality.

Other pieces are firmly grounded in reality, stories such as The Women the Book Read, in which a man living in a Turkish resort believes he recognises a woman from his past – presumably someone visiting the destination for a holiday. It is only once the man begins to follow this woman that their history becomes clear.

In a few of these pieces, Hall does that wonderful thing of upending our impressions of a character or situation partway through, causing us to question and reframe our initial assumptions. I love that about her work. It’s one of the things I most admire in a short story, where the narrative has to make a significant impact in a relatively brief window of time.

In short, this is a terrific collection of stories – sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsettling, always memorable. There is an elegance or delicacy to certain pieces, a quality that acts as a contrast with some of the visceral imagery. All in all, a very accomplished set of stories, vividly told.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

A luminous meditation on the interminable condition of insomnia, that shadowy hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness.

Anyone who has ever experienced the long-drawn-out restlessness of a night without sleep will almost certainly find themselves nodding along to various elements with this jewel-like book. Benjamin – a writer, journalist and editor by trade – writes beautifully about her intimate relationship with insomnia, punctuating her own experiences with fragments spanning the cultural, philosophical and artistic history of the condition in a way that feels both candid and immersive all at once. Her descriptions of insomnia are lyrical and lucid, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between disparate thoughts as the mind rapidly darts from one topic to another, like a pinball machine firing up in the subconscious.

Too often my insomniac mind is stuck in crud-chewing mode. It feeds me snippets of song, meshed with advertorial-type sloganising that might, in turn, trigger a memory from childhood before pinging back to a thought-of desire (a want) or to something I saw on the internet, or something someone told me – then on again, unpredictable, inconsequential, threading and worming inside my head. Nothing is more inimical to rest and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought. (pp. 85–86, Scribe)

The fragmentary structure of the book works very well, mirroring the disparate, almost dreamlike nature of the condition itself. At times, there are passages of heightened self-reflection, instances when Benjamin comes to question the impact of insomnia on her own existence – or, more specifically, her sense of self.

What time-bending tricks has life played on me? I have honoured every emotional contract I was signatory to and yet I seem to have lost myself. At moments such as these, everything that is closest to my heart, that generates the impression of gravity in my world, gets rudely pitched across the universe. (p. 94)

This is a beautiful, wise, insightful book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives. At its core, there is a deep-rooted yearning, a sense of longing for elusive restorative sleep, all captured in the author’s luminous poetic style. A book to keep on the night table for the bewitching hours between darkness and light, to dip into as balm for the soul.

(My thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing reading copies of Lanny and Sudden Traveller.)

Blitz Writing by Inez Holden

Born in the early 20th century, Inez Holden was a British author and bohemian socialite who became known as much for her cultural lifestyle as for her writing. (Esteemed writers such as HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Anthony Powell could be listed amongst Holden’s many literary friends.)

During her lifetime, Holden published a range of work comprising seven novels, two collections of short stories and an observational diary, the latter covering the early years of WW2. Two of these works are included here: Night Shift, a novella set in a London factory during the Blitz; and It Was Different at the Time, the diary mentioned above. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary, working-class people – many of them women – doing their best to support the war effort in Britain.

Night Shift is a wonderfully vivid piece of writing, alive with the sounds and rhythms of life in a busy factory producing camera parts for reconnaissance aircraft. The novella has a reportage feel, a strong sense of authenticity that stems from Holden’s closeness to this kind of working environment during the early years of WW2.

The novella’s narrator is unnamed, an omniscient presence who roves around the fictional factory, Braille’s, over the course of six days, observing the employees as they work through the night. The shifts feel long and monotonous, the only respite being an hour-long meal break at 1 am. Even then, it is often difficult for the workers – mostly women – to get any food due to a prolonged wait at the serving counter.

The workers often chat amongst themselves during shifts, mainly to relieve the boredom of the routine. In general, their talk consists of gossip, personal snippets, and the latest news on air-raids over the city, often revealing striking insights into the challenges of everyday life during the Blitz.

‘My husband didn’t want me to come here on nights,’ Mrs Chance said. ‘He wanted me to be at home, but he’s working up at a big ambulance station Tottenham way himself, so I don’t see why he should grumble. Still, he’ll be better pleased when I’m on the day shift. After all, we haven’t got the home we had. We used to have a big house, down Kilburn way it was; we let out some of the rooms and we had a good living, but it got bombed. The ceiling fell in on the piano. You never saw such a mess. We’re still there, but of course we can’t let the rooms now, so I came here…’ (p.10, Handheld Press)

There is a sense of social barriers being broken down by the impact of war, a feeling of all-being-in-it-together in spite of minor differences in prior social status. A new girl, Feather, has recently joined the factory; and even though her gracious speech and manners suggest a refined lifestyle, she is soon accepted by the broader group without any noticeable animosity or resentment.

Naturally, there are some tensions between the workers and the management, frequently revealing the inequalities between pay for women and their male counterparts. Promised bonuses fail to materialise; wage packets are often light – issues that leave workers feeling exploited and short-changed but with little power to fight back. (Many are not part of the Union which seems to be reserved for skilled workers rather than their semi-skilled colleagues.) Individual workers are reluctant to complain in isolation, fearing that they will lose their jobs – a concern only exacerbated when a young girl is dismissed and sent home in the middle of the night on the grounds of inefficiency.

Holden has a journalistic eye for detail, from her humorous observations on the minutiae of the working shift – e.g. the tea urns that always get mixed up, meaning nobody gets their tea quite the way they like it – to her poignant reflections on workers in the unit. In this scene, the narrator is observing two factory girls wearing trousers (both former Land Girls), who are promptly assigned the following nicknames: ‘Grey-pants’ and ‘Green-pants’.

They came from Folkestone, but they had been working on the land before taking the Government training course. The mannishness had a sort of sad innocence about it as if they had given up softness because they thought it would be of no use in a tough world. (p. 12)

Sound too plays a vital role in the novella, from the thrum and hissing of machines inside the workshop to the cacophony of noises filtering through from outside. The hum of aircraft overhead, the sound of shells bursting, the sirens from ambulances and fire engines – all act as regular reminders of the dangers of the Blitz.

By early morning, the workers are frequently drained – physically, mentally and emotionally – keen to return home where they can rest before another night shift begins.

The extremes of fatigue brought about by long hours in the workshop and air bombardment could make an individual into another person, a half-conscious creature removed a little way from the things which were happening. All through this night people had been killed, buried, suffocated, made homeless, burnt and trapped beneath buildings, but as soon as the All Clear sounded all those no longer concerned with active civil defence work went to their beds and slept. Tiredness took over. (p. 81) 

The novella is followed by It Was Different at the Time, a diary-based text that very much complements Holden’s earlier fictional work. The entries span from April 1938 to June 1941, documenting the author’s observations at certain points in time. In particular, Holden focuses on her roles in support of the war effort – initially as an auxiliary nurse in a suburban hospital and first-aid post, then as a worker in a government training centre. There is also a spell as an occasional broadcaster with the BBC.

Holden’s experiences as a nurse are particularly sobering, highlighting the suppression of imagination many such individuals must employ to counteract the emotional impact of the role.

All nurses are continually confronted by happenings of great horror, but this ghastliness is yet made endurable by a routine so exact that it can dull down suffering, pain, and death. So, in spite of everything around, the hospital seems like a large and closed place of safety, and a nurse’s life, in a sense, a very sheltered one. (p. 136) 

As with Night Shift, the diary is peppered with chatter – not only amongst the nurses with their talk of food, friendship and plans for upcoming time off, but amongst the patients too.

Her night work at a first-aid post in London brings Holden into contact with many of the city’s residents – ordinary, working-class people, heading towards air-raid shelters with their rugs and blankets tied up with string or bundled into prams to lessen the load. As Holden reflects, the sight of this parade is profoundly affecting, highlighting the grace and humanity of these individuals in a time of adversity.

The sight of this procession of people with their bundles of bedclothes at sundown in the London streets is deeply touching. Although one is struck by the force of misery, at the same time some of these people have a great dignity in misfortune, so that the humiliation is very suddenly shifted from the sufferer to the onlooker. (p.151)

When viewed overall, Blitz Writing offers an illuminating portrayal of grass-roots Londoners during the early years of WW2. It is by turns insightful, vivid, humorous and poignant, a wonderful account of life during wartime, particularly for working women.

This beautiful edition from Handheld Press comes with an excellent, comprehensive introduction by the editor and academic, Kristin Bluemel. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

First published in 1946 (and now back in print courtesy of NYRB Classics), More Was Lost is a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, editor and keen gardener, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Eleanor Stone is just nineteen years of age when she is captivated by Zsiga, an unconventional, liberal man with a keen interest in people. At thirty-seven, Zsiga is somewhat older than Eleanor, but personality-wise he is a good match; so, following a short courtship and engagement, the pair marry and ultimately make their way to Zsiga’s Ruthenian estate at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was no Eastern European Versailles. It was small, and infinitely lovable. It had a sort of touching elegance. And there were little barbaric bits here and there that were particularly pleasing in a building meant to be so classic. For instance, the water spouts, which were fierce little mermaids wearing crowns. (p. 121)

While the Perényis have little money to speak of, their assets are substantial as the estate comprises 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest. The baroque property itself is characterful but dilapidated and in significant need of repair – there is much work to be done to make the dwelling comfortable for the newlyweds.

While the Stones are fearful for their daughter’s future in an unfamiliar land, Eleanor herself is much more optimistic, buoyed by the richness of her new life with Zsiga. Money is of little importance to her, particularly compared to the pleasures of the estate.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything. (p. 45)

The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on Eleanor’s adjustment to her new world, situated as it is on the shifting borders between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At the time of her arrival, the area surrounding the estate is under the auspices of the Czechs; however, as Zsiga speaks Hungarian, this is the language she decides to learn, aided by the trusty Györffy, a long-standing employee of the Perényi family and manager of the estate.

Alongside her lessons, Eleanor must also get to grips with managing the household, the gardens and ultimately the orchard, all of which need regular care and attention. There is little time for her to feel bored, especially as there are several renovations and refurbishments to be made around the house. With her flair for colour and interior design, Eleanor sets about rearranging and furnishing the rooms, rescuing past glories including paintings, maps and a collection of old books, many of which belonged to Zsiga’s grandfather, Alexei. With most of the ground floor given over to the kitchen, office and storerooms, the Perényis establish their living quarters in the upstairs rooms of the house, complete with a new library furnished by Eleanor.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. (p. 130)

This section of the memoir reads like a sequence of vignettes – snapshots of the Perényis’ lives as they lovingly restore the estate. There are local dignitaries to visit, traditional festivities to host, and strange customs to uphold, all of which Eleanor handles beautifully – she doesn’t seem phased by any of it. In one particularly evocative episode, the couple cross the border into Hungary to stay with Zsiga’s cousin Laci, a larger-than-life character with an enormous bushy beard. Eleanor is captivated by Laci and his dashing friend, Bottka, with their enduring stamina and thirst for enjoyment.

All too soon, however, developments in the outside world begin to impinge on the Perényis’ existence, and their position in the liminal zone between borders becomes all too perilous. Eleanor is acutely aware that if Czechoslovakia were to enter the war against Germany, Zsiga’s status as a Hungarian national would lead to his internment as a foreign subject. The situation in Europe is changing fast; too fast for Zsiga to arrange for Czech citizenship to secure his position. So, after much soul-searching, the couple make a dash for the border in the hope of making it into Hungary and back to Budapest.

We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. (p. 168)

They make it, but only just – crossing the border at the last barrier where the frontline defences are in the process of being established.

Back in Hungary, the Perényis find themselves caught up in the schizophrenic, illogical nature of Hungarian politics. As the disputes over the Czech territories rumble on, the couple dearly hope that their area will be returned to Hungary. (While a continuation of life under the Czechs would be perfectly acceptable, all hopes for the nation’s survival are rapidly ebbing away; it seems merely a matter of time before the capitulation occurs.) Alternatively, the prospect of being ruled by the Ruthenians is unthinkable, a situation that would leave the Perényis exposed to the whims of barbarians.

We would have been quite happy to go on living under the Czechs, but if in this nearly final partition of Czechoslovakia we were left to the Ruthenians, we knew it would be very bad news indeed. There was all the difference in the world between the enlightened civilized Czechs and the savage Ruthenians. If that happened to us, we would be left without any competent authority, lost in a remote province. For there was no doubt that the Ruthenians were going to demand and, with the Czechs reduced to complete impotence by this latest blow, get complete autonomy. (p. 178)

I won’t reveal how the decision on these territories works out for Eleanor and Zsiga; you’ll have to read the memoir yourselves to discover the outcome. Suffice it to say that there are testing times ahead for this couple as they try to navigate the turmoil of war.

More Was Lost found its way onto my radar when Dorian wrote so enthusiastically about it back in 2016 (do take a look at his posts which you can find here). It is by turns beautiful, illuminating, poignant and sad; one of those rare books that feel expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once. There is a sense of lives being swept up in the devastating impact of broader events as the uncertainty of the political situation begins to escalate. The pivotal decisions that Eleanor and Zsiga must take are conveyed with clarity and openness, qualities that make their story all the more moving to read.

Perényi is a wonderful writer, describing her life on the estate and the changing of the seasons with great attention to detail. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book, from the snowy landscapes of the surrounding areas to the grand portraits and photographs of Zsiga’s ancestors – the last remnants of an idyllic vanished world.

The book comes with a lovely introduction from J. D. McClatchy, an author and close friend of   Perényi, which outlines what happened to Eleanor and Zsiga both during and after the war. Like many introductions, it is probably best left to the end to avoid any spoilers.

All in all, this is a superb memoir written in a thoroughly engaging, straightforward style. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in the period.

More Was Lost is published by NYRB Classics. Huge thanks to Dorian for kindly gifting me a copy of the book.