Arandora Star

Finished the Arandora Star (Maria Serena Balestracci) at last. A very moving account of the less than glorious rounding up of enemy aliens in WWII, sending them to camps in or around England or even to Australia or for the most unlucky to Canada on the Arandora Star. The ship was torpedoed. It was unmarked, had too few lifeboats and rolls of barbed wire impeding escape. A large proportion of the enemy aliens were Italians, they had emigrated and settled in Great Britain, many had children born in England, Wales or Scotland, some of them serving in the British Armed Forces. They were often middle-aged or even elderly. Some of the other aliens were Germans and Austrians, many of them elderly, many of them refugees. No attempt was made by the British authorities to determine if any of these men posed a national security threat. 446 Italians lost their lives leaving widows and children behind who never had an explanation, or apology, or a body to bury. Balestracci has researched the whole subject over many years and bought some comfort to the still grieving relatives.

One of the strongest consequences of such a catastrophic piece of mismanagement and injustice, especially for relatives left without explanations, is the lasting pain and knock on effect on communities. It is now 70 years since the event, yet it is clear that people are still suffering. It is difficult not to feel depressed about the new resentments and years of suffering being created under the umbrella of war on a daily basis.

Sad post, but I am glad I read the book and for those relatives Balestracci contacted, there have been great benefits in making sure the Arandora Star and its victims are not forgotten


On the TV last evening a program about a right-wing group at the beginning of the WWII. The consequences of their treasonable behaviour are linked to the rounding up of all ‘enemy’ aliens and their internment. At the same time I am reading the sad story of the Arandora Star (Maria Serena Balestracci), torpedoed on its way to Canada while carrying 2000 or so German and Italian internees, many of whom lost their lives. These internees were for the most part harmless individuals well-integrated into British life. They had been given very little time to leave home, with minimal goodbyes and often even the arresting officer thought they would be back the next day. Such unnecessary suffering, lives torn apart pointlessly, it is maddening how often humans create misery for each other.

too many books again

2.3.13 Picked up the new book that EG gave me at Christmas, 1853 A Year in Music, by Hugh MacDonald for my morning tea-in-bed read. I am once more involved in too many books. I still have 40 odd pages to go of the Scott Fitzgerald, which I am now reading in my after lunch research slot. I should be reading the Arandora Star at this time about the interned British Italians lost on this ship in July 1940. This will unwind over the next few days.

too many books

23 February 2013

I am reading too many books at the same time. Midge Gillies The Barbed Wire University, Maria Serena Balestracci’s The Arandora Star (only started this) and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They all, rather depressingly, deal with man’s inhumanity to man, and almost exclusively the ‘man’ dealing the inhumanity equals men. The receivers can be either men or women. The first two are non-fiction and everything within them is well-researched and as true as the author’s can make it. Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller is fiction, but there is no doubt that the gross crimes he depicts happen, though probably in a less sensational manner.

As a human I am weary of the failure over historical time to reduce, never mind eliminate, the appalling things people do to each other. I also, admire the constant thread of of decent, courageous men and women whose lives and actions throughout these stories.

As a writer I am fascinated.

The Gillies book, is rather solid, scholastic reading. All the mundane detail of how men tried to survive prison life in Europe and the Far East in WWII are gathered together and laid out with methodical and humane clarity. This is not always exciting, but it is psychologically telling. We have voracious brains, we cannot cope with doing nothing (see Daniel Bor’s The Ravenous Brain). Except when reduced to dying skeletons, men and women compulsively seek to feed their brains by some means or other. Even the dying skeletons appreciated being read to as they lay rotting on bug-ridden bamboo slats in unimaginable heat and pain.

I am curious that music played such an important part in men’s survival (see Daniel Levitin’s Your Brain on Music). In every forces prison camp (Gillies book does not deal with the Concentration Camps) in WWII in both Europe and the Far East men cobbled together musical instruments and sang, even in the worst of times. Both Guards and men listened to music.

The Larsson book has a lot of lessons for a writer. The dry journalistic style makes every word sound so true. The content is also often mundane e.g. all the contents of a bookshelf methodically listed, but the hanging threads of the stories and the sensationalistic content of some of the protagonists’s behaviour, make it a heart-beating, un-put-downable read. It is also an emphatically male style of writing. The good guys (and girls) have sex on tap without any strings attached, mostly initiated by the women. The girl with the dragon tattoo has skills beyond any normal human – she can masquerade as anyone, with any accent, obtain any document, or crack any computer. I don’t quite buy her, but all is fair in fiction.

My own writing, in contrast, comes across as mild and optimistic. I abhor cruelty and violence and detest aggressive people. I don’t really enjoy reading books which cause my heart to beat at double speed, or make me feel sick. I think the mostly decent people I write about exist and are as real as the people in Gillies or Larsson’s book. I think there is immense courage needed in, say, caring long-term for a sick person or living with a mental illness. I think making music or art that makes individuals feels better about life is as worthwhile as, say, chasing and catching criminals.