Just a bee (I think)

I wanted to review this great book (which has a purple cover and is not out of focus),

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and I hoped to write about POWs, and I even planned to write about writing (which is a thing I should have been doing, but spring and greenhouses have intervened). Now Easter has caught up with me and my guests are here, so I shall be off for a few days. Here is a picture of what I think is a bee of sorts, but it may be one of those clever flies masquerading as a bee. DSCN5517

Hercules Editions – small and mighty

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On Thursday night I attended the launch of a small book, The Heart Archives, by Sue Rose (a poet with a published collection to her name and another due later this year). Sue has photographed things meaningful to her and accompanied them with a series of sonnets, many relating to her own family. The poems have a sweet rhythm and a deep undertow, with mortality lurking in the background. Each is titled with a number in reference to the heartbeats recorded by Christian Boltanski and played continuously for his installation, Les Archives du Coeur. Sue’s book is one of two published by Hercules Editions (http://herculeseditions.wordpress.com), a press that came about to fill a need – the combination of photos and poetry.

DSCN4805The other book, Formerly, records disappearing London in photos by Vici MacDonald and poetry by Tamar Yoseloff. If you have ever wandered those streets of the city that have lost favour or are due for ‘redevelopment’, you will recognise in the photos the traces of the people who once lived and thrived here. The poems are sharp, bright, funny and heartbreaking. I love the verbal high jinks within them and the way they capture the flavour of what has now  disappeared (http://formerlysonnets.wordpress.com).

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One poem and photo, The Rose, took me back to my time as a struggling sculptor when my flatmate and I rented two bedrooms and a studio in The Rose and Crown in Deptford (long since demolished). The Studio was in the old strip bar (complete with appropriate murals). One of our bedrooms had to be given up to the Great Dane (who lived there too) to occupy with her puppies. I remember one day being told to stay away from the bar for a few days as Mick would be out (of prison) tonight. The barman then hid the rifle that used to hang above the bar. Exciting times!

First real news after 3 years – POWs 23

Some time at the end of April 1945, Phyllis, with the dossier of information and photos of Barry’s men, interviewed a Sergeant Smith, from the Royal Signals. Smith had been a prisoner of the Japanese and was rescued after the sinking of the transport ship Hokofu Maru. He knew Barry and other men from 27 Line Section. In her notebook Phyllis  scribbled entries for each man who Smith remembered having seen. For example:

Appleton. Saw him in June ’44. Excellent condition. Down ? Tech. Party due for Japan but hadn’t left [‘Japan party’ are the groups of men selected to be shipped to Japan]. Worked with Smith as Cook after completion of railway in Tamarkan hospital camp. One /or 2 attacks/malaria but survived them well, often spoke of his children and wife.

Bridge

Jim Bridge

Bridge. Died 1943??

Canning. Tropical ulcers on leg in Thailand sanatorium. April 1944. Ulcers healed unable to straighten his leg. Very clean. Mentioned wife & mother. Health otherwise O.K.

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Hugh Canning

Dawson. Seen end Jan 44. Condition pretty fair. No party for Japan then.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Douglas. June 44. Sick in 1943 but recovered. Worked in Japan cookhouses as servant which gave him extra. Mentioned both wife and son. Kept out of trouble.

Jack Earnshaw

Jack Earnshaw

Earnshaw. 1944 June. Health quite good. Mentioned fiancée a lot. (sister?) Packed up on railway in 1943 August. No party for Japan.

Farrell

Henry Farrell

Farrell Plumber? Friend of Walls? Last seen June 44. Health fair. Trouble with asthma. Kept bright & cheery. In hospital October 43. Down for new San. (?) Looked after by Thai Red X.

Garrod 43. Last August 1943 Condition quite good – bright & cheery. Not due for Japan. Mentioned wife.

Graham June 44. Quite good health. Pelagera [pellagra – lack of vitamin B3] – but recovered by June 44. No party for Japan.

Harrison. Early 44. Quite well.

Jennings June 44. Quite well. Not on railway.

Reginald Jennings

Reginald Jennings

(In September 1943 The War Office had written to Mrs Jennings to say that her son, Reginald, had died of beri beri malaria on 18.7.43. Scepticism had long since set in among the relatives and she had still sent a photo and information about her son to Phyllis for the dossier. The War Office had been right and Smith must have thinking of another Jennings.)

Charlie Johnstone

Charlie Johnstone

Johnston. June 44. Might be sent on draft to Japan. Always speaking of his wife and children. Well & cheerful. Knew Barry. Kept going very well.

Jones. June 44. Working in hospital dispensary. 2 camp. Not changed – keeps well.

Kittwood Last seen early 44. Very seriously ill – malaria.

McDonald June 44. Good health. Worked on railway 10 months – Then hospital orderly in Tamarkan camp. In original 27 Line in France.

Neil McDonald

Neil McDonald

Parker. Same cargo boat for Japan. Probably killed.

Russell June 44. In quite good health – quite cheery. Always speaking of wife & 2 boys.

Walls  Speaks of wife and son. June 44. Well and cheerful. Pretty good health.

The Glass Room

I have just read Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

DSCN4746 - Version 2As a writer I am gagging with envy. As a reader I am one satisfied customer. The book is set in Europe between 1928 and 1990, with the meat of the story taking place during WWII. The frame of the story is a dream modern house (which actually exists), built in the 1920s for a private family, during the short-lived Czech Republic. Although the style of the house and the spaces it creates are central to the story, it is the characters that grab you, entertain you and make you care about their fate.

The language is immensely rich, graphic and easy to read. It is haunting, but never sentimental. It depicts some of the richness and beauty of the spaces we live in. If I have a caveat, it is one I often find in male writers, an inability to resist depicting one or more women as a vamp. Mawer’s particular vamp is one of the most interesting and entertaining of the characters, so I am not really complaining. Her very boldness allows him to say things that most characters would not get away with.

I can’t work out if this is a heartbreaking story or one of hope, which sounds strangely indecisive*. The coverage of war experiences, however fictional, is in essence true and devastating. The longevity of an idea, embodied in the Glass House and persistence in survival of the human race under a variety of repressive regimes as well as war, are elements of hope.

*My discussion group are in no doubt that it is heartbreaking.

Another snake, another ladder

Yesterday I received another rejection for my novel Border Line. They are stacking up nicely now.

Last night I found an email from a friend. The subject line read: did you write this??? or where did I HEAR IT?

The text read: “Not even purgatory would feature a sing-along bar in Ljubljana. ”

This is a quote from Border Line, which my friend must have read well over a year ago. He may have remembered the line because he hated or was irritated by it, BUT at least he remembered it. He may even have liked it. I have to hang on to all forms of encouragement.

Birches in Anglesea Abbey gardens Winter Walk today.

Birches in Anglesea Abbey gardens Winter Walk today.

writing magic

A few weeks ago a friend lent me a book she had been unable to put down.

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John William’s book Stoner sets out from page one to kill expectations. The tone is matter-of-fact, and the novel opens with Stoner’s death at the end of a clearly unremarkable life. This life is led almost entirely within the walls of an American university, though, crucially, Stoner is the only child of a small farmer.

So why has it become a bestseller here in the UK? The prose is mesmerising in its clarity and simplicity. The life it unfolds is unpromising in modern terms; bare, unambitious, and with few happy contributions from chance. Yet, this is an extraordinary and moving novel. I have rarely felt more sympathetic towards a protagonist. This remains true, in spite of the fact that much of his experience is marred by the limitations of his own personality. His background and upbringing are hidden shackles which the reader continues to hope (and not in vain) will crumble just a little some day.

It is also a story about the ordinariness of love and the magic of the written word.

A Time to Talk

I read this book just after Christmas and it made a happy contrast to some of the bleak writing I had waded through in the run-up to the festivities.

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A Time to Talk is written in the style of a memoir and the voice is engaging, with a delightful turn of phrase and an often original way with language. There is also a self-deprecating tone, which allows the reader to feel both sympathy and mild exasperation with the protagonist as he flounders among the ‘slings and arrows’. Max Frei, a freelance counsellor with nothing but the good intentions towards his clients, finds himself in conflict with the law and in debates with not only experts in his own area, but criminals outside it. All of this is accompanied by his bewildered but happy reactions to his own love affair.  The story is told at a gentle pace giving the narrator plenty of time for introspection, while events unfold around him.

Within this story there is much thought about the serious subject of mental health and the treatments available, but all told with humour and insight that I found refreshing. It is rare to find such serious debate wrapped in such an easy conversational package with much laughter alongside.