One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

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A selection of covers for a well established book. Curiously, I think the most recent one is the least enticing…

This is a 1952 book which looks back on the wartime year of a young woman who decides to train as a nurse to help the war effort. She does not need the money; she is not forced into the hospital by conscription, she “could not make up her mind what to be”. She finds many snags to each of the choices, A.T.S. requiring little work, the W.V.S involves ungrateful evacuees and the Land Army requires mangel- wurzel pulling in the early morning. The idea of nursing “Had always attracted me.” and she embarks on a journey to a hospital, any hospital who will allow her to start training immediately.

For those who may not relish the idea of a medical memoir, the writer is far more interested in her situation in the new way of life she discovers at the hospital. The other nurses of all ranks are discussed as some eat their body weight, others fall in love with local servicemen, some are determined to run the hospital on strict lines, or at least whichever ward Dickens is sent to in a haphazard way.  She works nights, fails to sleep during the day, and is occasionally invited away from the hospital for social engagements. One of the funniest situations is when she visits a school and is hailed as a source of a diagnosis of an odd rash. It is a funny book, despite or perhaps because of its setting. She assists at the last minute saving of a woman, and nurses private patients with their many and various requirements. There is a moment when the war seems about to intrude with extra patients, but as in many cases it is an anti climax, as is well suggested in the build up to the anecdote.

This is a well written, amusing book full of tales which have the suggestion of truth. It is not a sentimental tale, but more in the spirit of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” which is high praise.  As a tale of the Home Front it is almost modern in its humour, and is far from a grim recall of danger survived. Dickens emerges as an independent young woman with a keen flair for honest observation. It is of its time, but is well written and engaging, and given its subject matter, a surprisingly cheerful read. I found it a fascinating picture of war time life, cheerful in contrast with other books of the time, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the life actually lived by some of the people of Britain at a time of challenge.

At the moment life at the Vicarage is busy. Today Northernvicar and I went to Leeds to see a couple of museums as part of our M.A. course. We know how to live! Selwyn, the Vicarage cat, was so appalled by his abandonment that he fell down the back of a cupboard on our return…

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

In the busy build up to Easter, when family and friends are perhaps looming, today’s book may be a challenging read. I would recommend you do find time to read and enjoy it, even if it is not always comforting story or series of tales.

 

I was so keen to read this book that I invested in the hardback (that, and I was in a favourite bookshop just before we moved house). I am glad I did, partly because the cover of the paperback is a sad let down in terms of suggesting that this novel is only a wartime romance. There is romance in this book, but of a very down to earth type, full of the chat and understanding that make the various relationships between the characters seem real.

There is a lot going on in this book. Mary is a young woman who wants to be involved in the war from the very start. She believes and hopes that she has signed up for secret war work, but it is not a spoiler to say that she ends up in a classroom, and it is through this situation that she meets Tom, who soon becomes fascinated with her and her unlikely set of attitudes. She also encounters some children who for various reasons are not evacuated, and she becomes involved with their lives. Tom’s friend Alistair joins up, and his experiences of life in the army are described with the detail that reveals that, as Cleave mentions in his afterword, he based that section on his grandfather’s accounts.

The beginning of the blitz as well as one character’s progress at the front gives an intensity to this book that made me put it down at the end of chapters to understand what had happened. Cleave plays tricks on the reader as bravery, even survival, is completely at risk. While there are four main characters, there are the friends, relatives and colleagues who maintain the dialogue, sometimes the plain speaking, which makes for a sometimes painful realism. Not that this is a sad or cheerless book; indeed, sometimes the conversations between the main characters are laugh out loud funny. Maybe it is gallows humour, but it is the sort of humour that does happen at times of stress or endurance; it’s the first time I have seen it not only written down but maintained between so many of the characters.

I enjoyed this book, even though I struggled with some of the tragedies. The style is so confident, whether dealing with disaster or hope. The theme of racial discrimination is tackled as a fact, rather than a point for preaching. There is sadness at the difficulties some people, some children face. It challenges the assumptions that all children were evacuated away from the bombing, which many contemporary sources argue simply did not happen in a significant number of cases. There are disturbing images here, but also the hope and survival of the human spirit. The hysterical reaction to the bombing of London feels slightly drunken, as characters come to terms with loss and change to familiar landscapes in all senses. It is that element which remains with me as I recognise the dawn realisation that so much has changed, but much is the same.

So I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the Second World War, as well as vivid, human writing about life changing experiences. It is an intense read rather than a fast one, not gripping in the sense of a thriller but in the sense of human curiosity. This is not an easy read, but such a richly written book that I would suggest you get your hands on a copy you can keep for some time and relish.

 

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you will have noticed that I have an interest in life in Britain during the Second World War. I have picked out some of the Persephone titles which reflect the experiences of women such as Winifred Peck, as well as Furrowed Middlebrow’s offerings of fascinating memoirs like Chelsea Concerto. I have long enjoyed the books of Margery Allingham as her unusual hero Albert Campion solves mysteries in a wartime setting as well as introducing the foggy “Tiger in the Smoke”. So I was interested to track down a copy of The Oaken Heart  being  “The story of an English Village at War”. It is available to order from bookshops in a lovely edition by Golden Duck publishers, which look to be a small Essex business.

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This is an unusual book in two ways; it is an unusual book for Allingham, who is known mainly for her murder mystery books, notably featuring Albert Campion. It is also unusual as a book in that it is almost a real time record of one village’s experiences of daily life in the Second World War. There is one suggestion that it was originally written for the American market, not just to earn its author money, but also to help with the effort to persuade the U.S. public to join in the war effort. The narrative ends in February 1941 when it was far from clear how the war would progress yet alone end, and there is a sense of controlled fear that everything and everyone is still very unsafe. Invasion of this country by enemy forces was still, after all, a very real possibility.

The author was living in a large house in an Essex village in 1939, and the stories and experiences reflect the lives of those around her as war looked increasingly likely, people were evacuated to the village from London, the outbreak of war and the departure of men and women into the Forces. There is a small railway, a school, shops and all the small businesses and concerns linked to a mid century British village. There are characters who behave well in adversity, and the general tone is of resigned acceptance of the imminence of destruction, whether personal, local or national. Thus there is the urgency of gas mask distribution, the preparations for evacuated schoolchildren who turn out to be mothers and children, and the reality of bombs falling in the area if not immediately on the village itself. There are the daily practical concerns of a large influx of people who need not only housing but also feeding and clothing. Book manuscripts must be hidden in biscuit tins, windows taped up and a place for London couples to argue provided. A straw shelter from bombs is built but is most used for cattle over winter. Various elderly people adopt a fatalism which means that they do not seek shelter; and the dropping of flares and incendiaries provide firework type entertainment.

This book is an account of life by a woman dealing with unprecedented experiences; her daily life and the departure of her husband and others to fight. It is reality finely drawn, as the foreword says “And The Oaken Heart    reflects her truthfulness on every page”. It is not a smooth, highly planned narrative, yet it is not a diary in the sense that it contains reflections on this war and those whose lives are being threatened and transformed by its progress. There are funny tales of the determination of one man to build a glass topped extension, but not to hit the last nail in as that is when it is bound to be destroyed. This is no bland ‘Britain can take it’ propaganda as it is too honest; it reflects the real fear as well as the determination to survive and flourish.

It perhaps feels wrong to say I enjoyed this book as there is an element of suffering and fear present. It is an eminently readable narrative, fascinating in its eye for detail and its honesty, when much of the writing about this time almost romanticises the romance of peril. This is the story of a woman who has to visit a bomb scarred London and misses buildings no longer standing, and also who confronts the potential ending of everything. It is also well written and personal, as she recalls and records the strange events and personalities that make up the village around her. The Golden Duck edition that Blackwells tracked down for me contains a short diary and other information, pictures and photographs which all add to the reality. If you have an interest in the Home Front in Britain I would definitely recommend this book.

House – Bound by Winifred Peck. A Persephone Classic

After reading the wonderful Bewildering Cares and Arrest the Bishop I was hoping for great things from Persephone’s reprint of House – Bound. I was not disappointed on my re read of this 1940s book. It is a book of the wartime home front in Edinburgh, where one of the main concerns is an actual house, stubbornly of another age; object of very mixed feelings for Rose Fairlaw.

The novel opens in an agency for finding domestic servants, which as a result of munition factory openings and a whole attitude change by young women formerly happy to work in genteel houses, cannot find and offer any staff. Rose meets up with her friend Linda, and discusses her intention to make her war work looking after the family house and cooking for her husband herself. This is a significant decision for a woman who has no clue about cooking, cleaning or any form of domestic work beyond the ordering of goods and services. Answering the door, the telephone and coping with dust will prove to be a full time occupation in a house built for a full set of servants, even though she is helped by a passing, organising stranger. Providing food for herself and her singularly unhelpful husband, especially in the face of rationing and shortages, brings her to her knees.

Another challenge is her grown up children. Rose’s family is what we would now call blended as she has a daughter, Flora, from her first husband killed in the First World War. Mickie is a much loved son from her husband’s, Stuart’s, first marriage to Rose’s friend who died tragically young. Tom is the son of this second marriage, and happily robust, down to earth and pacifies people with humour and understanding. Flora is very difficult, unhappy for so many reasons, a young woman with grudges against everyone, particularly her mother.

This could have been a family saga of gloom and doom, or a sad account of domestic woe. In Peck’s hands, however, it is an enjoyable account of what feels like real life. There are tragedies and challenges; after all this book was published in 1942 when the war was uncertain, dangerous and undecided. I felt for Rose in her domestic discoveries as she debates if vegetables need to be washed with soap and if dusting and polishing is essential when the room is unused. Her husband is icily isolated, feeling some sympathy for her exhaustion but unheeding that his routine causes so much work. There are some funny and appalling characters such as Grannie Carr Berwick, with her firm views and catch phrases.

This is a relatively short book but it packs a lot in, especially about the family dynamics which ring so true, especially in the tense setting of war.  I enjoyed it more on a re read, seeing far more humour and empathy in the writing. It is a very good read, and a worthy reprint from Persephone.

 

 

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The book with it’s endpaper; as usual a brilliant package from Persephone. I’m really looking forward to reading the latest acquisition, Long Live Great Bardfield,  no.119 which Northernvicar bought from the Persephone bookshop itself.  Another book written in 1942 apparently.