Sunday Salon: Catching up

The Sunday SalonThis is the blog post I intended to write last Sunday night, but I was exhausted from having such a full weekend so I curled up on the sofa with a book and fell asleep. It’s not a bad way to end the week!

And what exactly did I fill last weekend with? Well, I’m going to start with Friday morning because that way I get to mention something I’m super proud of: I ran 8 km before going to work last Friday. That is the furthest I have run yet, and marks the first time I felt actually confident that I will be able to run 10 km by early May, when the Bristol race that I’ve entered comes around. (I tried to repeat the achievement this week and managed 7.5 km, which is not to be sniffed at, but slightly disappointing when I now know I can beat it!)

Last Friday night, we went with my Mum and brother to the theatre to watch the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Othello. I really enjoyed it and thought the acting excellent. The local press have been a bit sniffy, and I do agree that some of the modern touches were a misstep. But I thought the central relationships – between Othello and Desdemona, between Othello and Iago, and between Othello and Cassio – were really well portrayed.

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Sunday Salon: Black History Month

The Sunday SalonHere in the UK, October is Black History Month. For more than 35 years, October has seen a “nationwide celebration of Black History, Arts and Culture throughout Britain”. Locally to me, here in Bristol, events include music, theatre, film, workshops and exhibitions, many of which sound fantastic. The month will end with Bristol Somali Festival, a week-long celebration of Somali identity and heritage.

While I am excited about all the arts and culture events, to me the heart of Black History Month is the history part, and for that I am inclined to turn to books. There are many to choose between, from important people in Black history, to the multitude of stories of Africa, to slave narratives, to the experiences of Black people and communities outside of Africa.

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The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic

BOV_Crucible

“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

This classic play marks 100 years since the birth of its playwright Arthur Miller by returning to the stage of its 1954 British première (its true première was a year earlier, on Broadway). Directed by Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, the production is largely traditional, with a few unusual twists. The cast gathers faces familiar to the Bristol stage with those from farther afield, but there are no star names, which is to its credit. This play works well as an ensemble, allowing each character’s importance to the story be highlighted in turn.

Continue reading The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic”

Unsung women kept the wheels of the war machine turning

fighting-on-the-home-front

Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One
by Kate Adie

This is a book that needed to be written, and Kate Adie seems like a good choice for it – a journalist whose own career blazed a trail for women to follow, but who is nevertheless rarely if ever controversial, not radically feminist and famously matter of fact. And arguably that’s exactly the book you get: competently written, comprehensive and factual. But is it the book I was hoping for?

This is the story of British women in World War One, from encouraging men to enlist, to stepping up to fill men’s jobs left vacant, to political campaigns for the vote and equal pay, to supporting the armed forces on the battlefields. It was a time of radical change throughout the world, but for women in Britain especially so. Adie takes a different war-time role per chapter and looks at it overall (including pre-war history where relevant) as well as showcasing specific examples of women in that field. She acknowledges that most of these are upper or middle class women, because even war did not erode class boundaries and generally the women creating new charities and organisations, from knitting drives to army hospitals, were those who had money and social clout. However, she does also include excerpts from interviews with many women from lower down the social ladder who can testify as to the reality of work in munitions factories, felling trees, delivering post, driving trams and dozens of other roles previously male-only.

It’s certainly an interesting read, with plenty of fascinating snippets and some surprising facts. There was real resistance maintained to women filling certain roles right up to the end of the war (they could clean, build, engineer and signal trains but never drive them, for instance) but also to the way women dressed when they took on these jobs – skirts 10 inches above the ground, or even trousers! Adie has clear admiration for all these women, from the ambulance drivers who went to war zones without official permission because they knew they were needed, to the maids who joined the Women’s Land Army and worked long hard days in mud for little money because they knew there was a food shortage. She depicts the good and the bad – explosions in munitions factories and the beginnings of women’s football; women working longer hours for less pay than the men they replaced and their winning the (restricted) right to vote in early 1918.

“However vital the [munitions] work was, it wasn’t glamorous – it was hard, undertaken in unpleasant conditions, boring and relentless…The press were not inclined to print stories about the downside of this vast industry. Physical stress, unhealthy conditions and increasing arguments about wages from those who could see they were doing the same as men was not the image that was projected: these were fit, patriotic workers.”

Suffrage features heavily because most suffragettes and suffragists (previous to reading this book I had no idea there was a difference) abandoned, or appeared to abandon, their political campaigns in favour of helping the war effort. In some cases this was itself a political act – by exercising their skills of organisation, marketing and fundraising in a field no-one could disapprove of, they proved their capability, not to mention that many of the organisations created by suffragettes were formed wholly of women doing “men’s work”, or filling traditional women’s roles but in dangerous territory so that the armed forces didn’t need to “waste” able men feeding, cleaning uniforms for and providing first aid to their troops.

There were many victories won, small and large, by British women between 1914 and 1918, but many were only temporary. The post-war section of the book is fairly short, but in general women were kicked out of their new jobs, often at the worst possible time for them to lose their income, as men’s deaths and injuries resulting from war left many women as the principal wage earners for their household. I would have liked a few case studies here, for Adie to have followed up with some of the women interviewed earlier to see how their lives progressed.

“The time and energy spent in travelling, acquiring supplies, sorting, packing and transporting them abroad are hardly recorded. It represents the most enormous amount of daily effort by an unsung and huge amount of women…Garnering no medals and mostly ignored by the official historians, it was small beer compared to the horrifying statistics of the military campaign; but every last little bandage and bar of soap kept the wheels of the war machine turning.”

In fact, this would be my overriding criticism – the narrative descends into generalisation a little too often. I wanted more facts – how many women did this job before, during and after the war? – and more first-hand accounts. I also didn’t like all the subjects Adie chose to concentrate on. There’s a whole chapter about women’s struggle to be allowed to read in church, which actually formed an amusing anecdote in the speech Adie gave about this book in Bath last year, but didn’t really have the substance for a whole chapter, and as a result it was an especially woolly chapter. I suppose as a feminist and occasional radical myself, I wanted more of those trailblazing women – Flora Sandes who joined the Serbian army as a soldier, Louisa Garrett Anderson who qualified as a doctor and ran hospitals near the front line so that she could get to injured men early enough to operate. And I also would have liked some personal accounts of men’s reactions, rather than just what was published in the papers.

Adie throws in her own family history during the war, which is fine, but there is also a very obvious slant to her home town of Sunderland. At one point I wondered if she’d bothered to do research anywhere else! She also throws in her own experience as a war reporter, which is sometimes perfectly appropriate and sometimes jarring.

I think “uneven” would be my one-word summary, but even so this is a very readable, enlightening book about many many amazing women.

Published 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: I bought this at a Toppings author event in Bath.

Order will come to your distracted mind again

Faces of Love

Faces of Love and the Poets of Shiraz
by Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani
translated from Persian by Dick Davis

This book was a bit of a serendipitous find. I was in West Hampstead to meet friends and had arrived early, so I thought I’d pop into West End Lane Books. I wasn’t looking for anything particular, just enjoying a good browse, and I spotted this book on a shelf of beautiful books. Clearly, I don’t need more books right now, but this was poetry, in translation and beautiful, all of which are things I’d like to have more of! Not only is it well designed (like all Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions) but the pages have been roughly cut in an old-fashioned style – I can’t tell if this is deliberate or a binding error, but I like it either way!

However, that’s not enough for me to consider it truly serendipitous. On the train home, I was reading this book (not that I hadn’t brought any with me, but new book often trumps old, let’s face it) and the guy sat next to me asked if I was reading Persian, as he recognised the style of art used on the cover. He seemed to know a thing or two about Iran and we had a really nice conversation about the book, even reading a couple of the poems together and discussing the oddness of Hafez’s style. Which was rather lovely.

“O sorrow-stricken heart, your fortunes will revive,
Order will come to your distracted mind again
– do not despair

And if the heavens turn against us for two days
They turn, and will not stay forever in one place
– do not despair

Sweet singing bird, survive until the spring, and then
You’ll tread on grass again, deep in the flowers’ shade
– do not despair”
Hafez

As for the book itself, there’s a chance it was more educational than a discovery of a new favourite poet, but I’m not averse to a little learning. Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani were mid-to-late 14th century court poets from the city of Shiraz in Persia (now Iran). Shiraz is near Persepolis and at that time was not especially important politically but was home to some of Persia’s most famous poets – despite the spread of Islam, which then as now discouraged the music and wine that tended to accompany court poets (indeed much of their verse would have been sung). Most of the 14th century rulers of Shiraz generously patronised artists, including poets, so it was a safe haven for them.

Hafez is the most famous of three poets featured. His work is still studied today and many an academic has tried to unravel the layers of meaning in his work. In his time he was famous and well respected. Jahan Malek Khatun was a princess of Shiraz – her father and later her uncle ruled the city. While not the only female poet whose work has survived, it is likely that she had an easier time of being a female poet because of her royalty. Obayd-e Zakani wrote much more satirical work than the other two, often political, and though he enjoyed fame in his lifetime, he also made great enemies.

“How long will Heaven’s heartless tyranny
Which keeps both rich and poor in agony

Go on? The dreadful happenings of these times
Have torn up by the roots Hope’s noble tree,

And in the garden of the world you’d say
They’ve stripped the leaves as far as one can see.”
Jahan Malek Khatun

As you can tell from my ability to give you these summaries, Davis has written a good (extensive but not dull) introduction to the history and the poets, as well as the poetry. There are also end notes giving plenty of further analysis of the poems without interrupting the reading of the poems themselves.

I especially appreciated Davis’ notes on his translation, with explanations of the challenges (such as recreating the ancient styles of verse used), the things he was able to recreate in English and the things that are lost. I also enjoyed the appendix of three tongue-in-cheek poems Davis wrote about the difficulty of translating Hafez! I learned a lot, for instance that Persian pronouns do not distinguish between male and female, so most of the time it isn’t clear whether the subject of a poem is male or female. (From historical records and those poems that do make it clear – by referencing body parts, for example – we know that it was common for poets of the time to write admiringly of attractive youths of both genders.) It was also common (as with some western poets of a similar era) for references to a person to mean both a flesh-and-blood person and God, or to switch between the two.

“Here with our souls’ companions, bored to death
With hypocrites and all they claim they’ve done,

No pompous pride disturbs our minds, no thoughts
Of purity – no, not a single one!

We’ve drunk the poison of our indigence
And don’t want antidotes from anyone.”
Obayd-e Zakani

And my reaction to the poetry? Some I loved, some was okay, some I disliked. Hafez was my favourite – I see why he is the most famous of these three by some way. I wanted to like Jahan Khatun more, as the one woman featured, but there was a single-notedness to her verse, mostly talking about unhappiness in love, though that’s not to say I disliked it. Obayd I liked politically but not his sexual stuff (which there’s quite a lot of). I’m not a prude, I just didn’t find the verses sensual or sexy at all, instead they were distasteful – this might be the translation but as Davis did such a good job elsewhere I tend to think it was the original that I disliked.

I’m really glad I followed my whim and picked up this book. I’ll certainly re-read the Hafez, and maybe if I give the others a chance I’ll get something more from them as well.

First published in the US in 2012 by Mage Publishers.
This edition published in the UK in 2013 by Penguin Books.

Source: West End Lane Books.

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 7 May
Twisted Theatre

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

You can tell when you walk into the Studio Theatre, with toys and cider bottles strewn between the instruments on their stands, long-stemmed roses and little plastic figures arranged on the tables, that this is going to be an unusual night’s entertainment. It’s a musical cabaret, with some acting and storytelling mixed in. It’s different, and I liked that about it.

The theme is nursery rhymes – the dark side. Twisted Theatre have investigated the historical origins of those familiar childhood songs and from that research, written original songs (and a couple of poems set to music) that illuminate those stories with a sense of humour and pathos. I must say from the outset that the music that forms the basis of this show is amazing. Lead singer and compère Nuala Honan’s voice is incredible. In the first song there is a section where she is wailing, in the character of a mother whose baby has died, and I felt chills down my spine. She’s also funny. I liked her eye rolling imitation of a decapitated head. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

It’s certainly not all about the laughs. They allow the sadness of the stories to come through as well. The end of Jill’s monologue to Jack (styled as a series of text messages) is heartbreaking. And their retelling of “Pop goes the weasel” as a tale of poverty is moving both lyrically and musically.

Twisted Theatre
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

The troupe’s musical style reminded me of Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band, which is the highest praise I can give, but I don’t just mean that they’re good. The combination of instruments (cello, viola, violin, drums and occasional glockenspiel) and the blues style of singing had the definite feeling of a New Orleans jazz club, though the stories being told are thoroughly European. Though Honan very much led the performance, all the musicians are great singers as well as being excellent at their own instruments. There’s a brilliant section when the four women descend on the one man on stage, drummer Robert Burgess, ousting him from his seat, and the women proceed to drum altogether, with cellist Jessica Macdonald doing a fine job of leading the rhythm.

This is not a slick, neat show. In fact, it’s a little…rough. I got the impression that the cast know they tend to the chaotic and decided to make a virtue of that, and their plan worked better in some places than others. I loved the meat cleaver chopping celery (I mean, it was slightly scary, in a frantic crazed way, but it was also funny and impressively rhythmical) but the pantomime of the electric leads getting tangled every time violinist Elizabeth Westcott and violist Emma Hooper moved around the stage got a little bit tiring. It’s good to see that the cast are having fun and that they grasp that what they are doing has its silly side, but a tiny bit more polish might not hurt.

They will certainly have plenty of time to add that polish before the end of their run as this show is touring for the rest of the year. Do check www.twistedtheatre.com for details of dates and venues. To get a flavour you can listen to their song “Baby plug hole” on Soundcloud. I quite fancy a second helping myself.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

That we came out of it is a miracle

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank
by Willy Lindwer
translated from Dutch by Alison Meersschaert

This was a tough read, in more ways than one, but it was also an enlightening and occasionally reaffirming one and I’m glad I have read it, so thank you H (who gave this to me as a present).

The title is to be honest misleading. This is not a book about Anne Frank. Rather, Anne Frank is a loose link between six Dutch women who tell their stories of the war and their experiences of concentration camps. More accurately what they have in common is that they were all arrested by the Nazis toward the end of the occupation of the Netherlands and taken to Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp, and from there were transported to Germany or Poland – to Auschwitz-Birkenau or to Bergen-Belsen, where they had contact with Anne Frank and some other members of her family. But for the most part Anne Frank’s role in this book is small. Really, these are the stories of six remarkable women who survived not only the war but also the Nazi concentration camps.

“I always envied the birds who could fly away. It seemed so fantastic to me to be able to fly, to go wherever you wanted to…You saw the birds everywhere; everywhere, there were birds, even in Auschwitz, even in Birkenau, and certainly in Bergen-Belsen, where it was so beautifully green and, at the same time, so gruesomely grey.”
— Rachel van Amerongen-Frankfoorder

Five of the women were, like the Frank family and other occupants of the Secret Annexe, arrested in summer 1944 and they met the Franks at Westerbork (only one of these five had half known the Franks beforehand, as she was at the Jewish Lyceum with Anne and Margot, but not in either of their classes). Their late arrests are the result of them having been in hiding. Three of them worked for the Resistance, helping others to hide, producing pamphlets or false papers, getting food or ration books to where they were needed, and they were arrested for this rather than for being Jewish (though they all had Jewish heritage).

The one story that is different from the others and most strongly adheres to the book’s title is that of Hannah Elisabeth Pick-Goslar, who had been a close friend of Anne Frank’s (in the diary she was originally given the pseudonym Lies Goosens but more recent editions use her childhood name Hanneli Goslar). She had a very similar background to Anne, born in Germany to a respected Jewish family in 1928, they moved to Amsterdam in 1933 as a result of anti-Jewish legislation and her father, a lawyer, set up a firm to advise refugees. She went to all the same schools as Anne and lived on the same street. Their families even went away together a few times (a postcard from one of those holidays is still on the wall of Anne’s room in Anne Frank House). As the Goslars were more religious, the Franks would go to them for Jewish holidays and Hannah would go to the Franks for national holidays (New Year and Sinterklaas). Hannah was one of the first to find out that the Franks had disappeared in 1942, but she was told the false story that the Franks had gone to Switzerland (where Otto Frank’s mother lived). Hannah writes about Anne as a good friend who was charming, beautiful, flirtatious and already considered a talented writer, but also as someone who was often sick and, as anyone who has read her diary knows, stubborn.

The Goslars were rounded up by the Nazis in June 1943 and thanks to political connections spent eight months in Westerbork before moving on to Bergen-Belsen, where they were kept in relative comfort (and stayed together as a family, which was extremely rare). When Hannah found out that Anne and Margot were in another camp on the site, separated from her by a barbed wire fence, she arranged to speak to Anne regularly and threw small packages of food over. It is clear from Hannah’s description that Anne’s side of the fence suffered far worse conditions and that Anne herself was desperately changed, had basically given up, but it is the testimonies of the other women in this book that really fill in how awful those conditions were.

Perhaps the most touching part of Hannah’s story comes after the war ended. She and her sister, now orphans aged 16 and 5, had returned to the Netherlands and were waiting to see who would adopt them, when Otto Frank showed up. He had seen their names on a list and travelled a long way to come and help them (considering he himself had only recently returned from Auschwitz). He took them first to Switzerland, where they had an uncle, and then helped Hannah apply for Israeli citizenship. They stayed in touch until he died and Hannah describes him as being like a father to her. Her words made me look on Otto Frank very differently, as a man who despite all his work around Anne’s diary actually did move on and find happiness and fulfilment.

The other five women’s stories are quite different, to be honest much darker, and I think it does them a disservice to make it all about Anne Frank. But to a certain extent this is acknowledged by the author’s introduction. Lindwer writes that he interviewed these women in the 1980s for a documentary about Anne Frank and that afterwards he felt it was a shame that such small snippets of their testimonies were used, because telling their stories had been so painful for them but also because they were important stories that deserved to be told. And so this book was born, containing the full interviews, serving (much like the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s diary) as a historical record more than as a work of art. It appears as though little has been edited, including facts, as there are multiple points on which these testimonies disagree, but then they are recalling the most painful experiences from 40 years later.

“Auschwitz was really the end of everything; the clay soil always with standing water; a huge quagmire without a sprig of green…There was nothing, nothing that looked alive, no flower, nothing, absolutely nothing. It was the end of everything, really the end. That we came out of it is a miracle. Very religious people understand it better than I do, because I never understood that a higher being – if one exists – could let all of this happen.”
— Lenie de Jong-van Naarden

They are clearly all amazing women and they deal with their past and their survival in different ways. My favourite story (and I’m guessing Lindwer agrees as it gets by far the most pages) is that of Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper who along with her husband Bob worked in the Resistance from 1939, and later at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen volunteered as a nurse (she had some first aid training, though with the almost complete lack of supplies there wasn’t much could do for the sick except clean them with only a little water, but she did keep them company and sing songs). But they are all incredible stories and I learned so much, good and bad, from this book.

I suppose it is true that this has taught me more about Anne Frank, but mostly it has made me think of her death differently. It always seemed such hopelessly tragically bad luck that she was on the last Nazi prisoner transport from Holland, that she was moved from Auschwitz just weeks before it was liberated, that she died at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before that too was liberated, even that she died from illness and not from being selected for extermination. And of course it was tragic, but it was sadly not unusual. That last transport train carried more than 1000 people to Auschwitz, of whom just 127 survived the next eight months. The conditions at Bergen-Belsen were so bad that the majority of the inmates died of illness – typhus, starvation, pneumonia – shortly before or in the first few weeks after liberation. It was all awful and I am saddened and disturbed but also glad that I have learned a little more about it.

“I have told this because I want to make it very clear to a large number of people that all discrimination – whatever form it takes – is evil and that the world can go to pieces because of it…It only takes one person to say, ‘He isn’t as good as I am, because he has—’ You fill in the rest…We have to make sure that it will never happen again.”
— Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper

Die Laatste Zeben Maanden: Vrouwen in Het Spoor Van Anne Frank published 1988 by Gooi & Sticht.
This translation first published 1991 by Random House.

Source: This was a present from my friend H who bought it at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

I want to go on living even after my death

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl
by Anne Frank
edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler
translated by Susan Massotty

This Definitive Edition of the diary of Anne Frank is not, according to the publisher’s note, intended to replace the earlier version edited by Anne’s father Otto shortly after her death, but instead to serve as a more accurate historical record for those who have already read the (quite heavily) edited version. It is in some ways quite a different book and almost makes me want to refer to the Critical Edition, which compares Anne’s original diary, her own edits and her father’s edits.

This is one of the aspects of the diary that I only learned this year – Anne Frank edited and rewrote the majority of her own diary in early 1944 after hearing on the radio that the Dutch government wanted after the war to collect eyewitness accounts of Dutch people who had lived through the German occupation. Otto Frank’s edit combined material from both versions of Anne’s diary and even some accounts she wrote about life in hiding that had been thinly veiled as short stories. The Definitive Edition is almost entirely composed of Anne’s self-edits, which I like because that is what she intended to have published herself – it’s why she went to the effort of doing all that editing.

“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death…When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!”

The Definitive Edition is quite a bit longer (30% apparently) than Otto Frank’s edit, because he cut a lot of stuff out. Partly this was because the original publisher was aiming at a young adult audience and therefore wanted something short and without any references to sex or puberty. And Anne, pardon the pun, could be very frank with her diary, which she called Kitty and spoke to like a friend (she even, in some places, writes as though she is addressing questions that Kitty has asked her). But the thing that struck me most reading this edition is that most of what had been cut out was material that might be considered unflattering or even outright cruel about the other occupants of the annexe, especially her mother.

I should probably include a summary of Anne Frank’s story for those who don’t already know it. Otto Frank was a successful businessman in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, which is where Anne and her older sister Margot were born. In 1933, when Anne was four, changes to German law regarding Jews led to the family moving to Amsterdam, where Otto continued his business, Opekta. In 1940 the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, who immediately introduced anti-Jewish laws there. Otto and his business partner Hermann van Pels signed their business over to a trusted non-Jewish colleague and the girls had to move to a Jewish school, but Otto and his wife Edith anticipated worse to come and soon began planning a safe hiding place. In 1942 a summons arrived for Margot and within days the Frank family was installed in the Secret Annexe – a building attached to the back of the Opekta warehouse that had formerly served as a laboratory and extra office space. The Van Pels family joined them there (Anne gave them pseudonyms in her edited diary, so you may know them as the Van Daans), as did family friend Fritz Pfeffer (Albert Dussel in the diary). They remained hidden for two years, until 4 August 1944, when the SS arrested all eight occupants of the annexe. They were taken to various concentration camps and only Otto Frank survived the war. When he returned to Amsterdam, one of the Opekta secretaries who had helped the families to hide gave him Anne’s diary, which she had retrieved from the annexe and hidden.

“[Miep] brings five library books with her every Saturday, We long for Saturdays because that means books. We’re like little children with a present. Ordinary people don’t know how much books can mean to someone who’s cooped up.”

The diary really is a mixture of many things. It’s an open, honest account of being a teenager, and the joys, frustrations, changes and experiences that most girls will have between 13 and 15 years old (the diary was given to Anne on her 13th birthday, in June 1942). It’s also a record of someone learning to be a writer, from before she harboured that ambition, through discovering it, to beginning to refine her work and identify what kind of writer she might be. It is of course a historical record of being a Jew under Nazi occupation, of Amsterdam in wartime, with all the food shortages and the thefts and suspicion that follow on from privation. And it’s a study of people under intense pressure, squeezed into a fairly small space physically but of course it’s the psychological pressure that made it really claustrophobic.

“I’ve been taking valerian every day to fight the anxiety and depression, but it doesn’t stop me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian drops, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh. Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth will permanently droop at the corners.”

Having been to the building itself, at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, helped me to visualise a lot more of the diary this time around. The annexe was in effect insulated from the warehouse (where none of the workers knew anyone was hiding upstairs) by the Opekta offices, where all the regular staff knew about the occupants of the annexe and helped them a great deal. The neighbouring buildings were all businesses, and therefore empty at night. But although this allowed them to make at least a little noise, they still had to be extremely careful not to ever be seen, so blinds or curtains were kept drawn and windows could only be opened a little overnight, but had to be strictly closed during the day. Outside of business hours they did sometimes leave the annexe and use the rest of the building – most of them took their baths in the office or the office kitchen and they sometimes used the office kitchen to cook – but as break-ins became more frequent this became ever more dangerous.

“I see the eight of us in the Annexe as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter.”

I don’t remember from my previous reading of the diary there having been so many break-ins and other near-misses and I found myself, in the last couple of months of the diary, thinking each time – was that it? Was that time they forgot to unbolt the warehouse door, or that time the warehouse manager spotted an open window, or that time they actually chased off burglars from the warehouse, the time that someone realised people were hiding there and reported it? It’s genuinely chilling to read Anne describe them as near-misses when maybe one of them wasn’t a miss at all. (Though it could just as easily have been more mundane. A lot of people knew they were there, from food suppliers to official Jewish organisations, and a slip of the tongue or a beating from the police could have betrayed them.)

I realise I’ve written a lot without really reviewing the book itself. Partly that’s because it’s impossible for me to separate the book from the wider story that it’s part of. But of course I do have responses specific to the book. Despite Anne’s edits it is still brutally honest because that is who she was. She records her joys, her rages, her depressions, her contemplations and above all she judges herself. Often she will make a proclamation that sounds ill-thought-through and childish (that she is too independent to need her parents, for example), only to tear it down a few days later, berating herself harshly, especially when she has upset her father, who she doted on. But then there are also passages that are beautiful and/or insightful. She says a few times that she has had to grow up too fast, that going into hiding effectively stole her childhood, and of course she’s right. At 15 she is better read and much more politically aware than I was at that age, but it’s more than that. She becomes quite astute when it comes to understanding people and their motives. Where in 1942 she simply dislikes most of the annexe occupants (her father and Margot are really the only exceptions, and even they come in for criticism), over time she learns to understand them all and be on better terms with them, though the relationships all remain volatile.

For the first half of this reread I didn’t think I had fallen for Anne the way I had previously. The extra material criticising her mother and Mrs van Pels/van Daan turned me off a little. But of course I was won over and if anything the change in Anne over time was more apparent and the ending more poignant. This wasn’t just yet another girl who dreamed of being a writer, this was someone capable of great things who sadly (that word is so inadequate) was only able to give the world one great thing, but what a gift it was.

Het Achterhuis first published 1947.
This translation first published by Doubleday in 1995.
Revised with extra material in 2001.

Kate Adie on women in World War I

Kate Adie
(CC-BY Joanna Penn)

A Topping & Co author event
Christ Church, Bath, 10 December

As I mentioned a while back, one of my heroes in life is Kate Adie, so when Topping Bookshop sent me its list of upcoming events I got very excited about this one. Adie is a proper serious broadcast journalist. She was a rare female face on TV news outside of the studio back in my childhood and when I aspired to be a journalist she was a natural role model. But my failure to become a journalist hasn’t stopped me from admiring her, so I willingly braved the cold, dark and steep hills of Bath last night to see her in the flesh.

Unlike the other author events I’ve been to this year, Adie wasn’t interviewed for the crowd, she simply stood at the front of the big old church and spoke to us. She was lively, engaging and full of enthusiasm for her subject. Essentially her talk was background to and highlights from her new book Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One.

Adie held forth knowledgeably about the legal status of women 100 years ago and how World War I changed everything. She consummately related the points she was making to Bath and Bristol, as well as dropping in some related anecdotes from her own life. But most of all she exuded passion for her subject and admiration for the women who stepped up, not only those who filled the gaps left behind by men who had gone to war, but also the women who went to war themselves and those women who had to fight hard for the right to fill those gaps, even as Britain was creaking desperately with need of them.

Adie also spoke a little about her own career, about how her school teacher was so eager to get at least one pupil into university that Adie found herself “shunted into university via the catflap”, and how a reporter has to have an ordinary life to go back to between assignments: “You have to live an ordinary life in order to understand disorder.” She also had a lot to say about the strength and resilience of human beings.

I enjoyed Adie’s autobiography The Kindness of Strangers back when it came out and greatly look forward to reading my autographed copy of her new book.

Dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning

The Most Remarkable Woman in England

The Most Remarkable Woman in England:
Poison, celebrity and the trials of Beatrice Pace

by John Carter Wood

I think I first heard about this book in the Guardian, which goes to show that I do still occasionally read newspaper review pages and like something I see there. Now, I mostly liked the sound of this book because it’s about a historical event (okay, a death that may or may not have been murder) in the Forest of Dean, but it’s about so much more than that, tapping into issues around celebrity, poverty, gender equality, domestic violence and depression.

The history being recounted here is that of Harry Pace, a quarryman and sheep farmer who died in 1928 slowly and painfully, aged just 36, and his wife Beatrice Pace who was accused of murdering her husband by poisoning him. The long-drawn-out inquest and subsequent trial were the sensational news story of their day, not just locally in the Forest of Dean but also nationally, with details both revealed and (amazingly) kept hidden about infidelities, domestic violence and other dark secrets.

“[Harry Pace’s death might have] remained as obscure as that of any other working-class person. But investigations by the local police were soon accompanied by dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning. The local coroner’s decision to postpone the funeral and order an urgent post-mortem suddenly made Harry’s demise newsworthy, especially when it was later proven that he had died from a large dose of arsenic. Precisely how it had gotten into his body was anything but clear, but there were only three obvious possibilities – accident, suicide or murder – and, at first, no way of deciding among them.”

You might think that a book about a mysterious death in (or very near to) my hometown back in the 1920s sounds a bit gruesome and/or specialised. But while the setting was certainly the reason for my initial interest, it was the way the story was told that kept me hooked.

Because this is a really well written book. Wood, a historian, acknowledges himself on his blog that he was trying to write for both a general audience and an academic one, and I think that shows, but not at all in a bad way. I have tried to read a few historical books written for a popular audience and generally I’ve struggled. Even the super successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which it’s hard not to compare this to, didn’t entirely get it right in my view.

The way in which Wood does get it right is, to begin with, his identifying what it was about the case that made its players instantly famous. He has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture being tied to social and political changes, such as women’s liberation or distrust of the police force. Wood quotes extensively from original sources, which serves two purposes: you are left in no doubt as to where each fact/opinions comes from, and you get a real flavour of the time and place. Papers quoted Beatrice and other key witnesses extensively (and indeed both Beatrice and her oldest daughter had their stories serialised in the national press) so there’s lots of material to be drawn from and Wood has done an admirable job picking out the right lines to tell his story.

“The ‘seemingly interminable’ inquest stretched through April and May, attracting ever more attention. By mid-May, the World’s Pictorial News observed: ‘Throughout all these months of inquiries, throughout all the ten hearings before the Coroner, the widow has been called upon to face the gaze of curious eyes. Crowds flocked into Coleford from villages for miles around to see the woman who had become such a figure of public interest.'”

Because this is after all Wood’s story above all. He works at the Institute of European History in Germany, specialising in the history of crime, policing, violence and media; and those interests are very much at the fore. Which is in many ways what makes this book interesting – it doesn’t just lay out the facts and then have a stab at “solving the case”, instead it uses the case as a detailed case study. And they’re all fascinating subjects that are still relevant now.

I know that this book worked in a narrative sense because for most of the time I was reading it I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that I only get from a good crime book, whether true or fictional. It really is a very readable book, despite its extensive references. I’ll keep an eye out with interest for the next research interest Wood decides to expand into a whole book. I’d also like to thank Wood for e-mailing me with the genuinely interesting fact that the journalist most involved in covering the Pace case, Bernard O’Donnell, was the father of Peter O’Donnell, who created (and wrote the many many stories about) the character Modesty Blaise, who I really like. That’s a good fact.

Published 2012 by Manchester University Press.

Source: Christmas present from my Mum.