England’s Green and Pleasant Land

I have long wanted to write about John Lewis-Stempel. You can meet him rhapsodising about the English countryside, as shown by its fields and pastures or striding across the battlefields of the First World War.  Either way, he is, to my mind at least, a prose-poet.

lewis-stempel-1Meadowlands, which is where I first encountered his writing, is sub-titled The Private Life of an English Field. In a notebook which spans the twelve months of the year, he carries us into a field, an ancient meadow and watches what happens; who stumbles past – badger, hedgehog, fox, partridge and who flies above him, feathered or invertebrate, day and night. It is all rather marvellous and strange, especially if you have never actually done it yourself.

The intense scrutiny is rewarding, we learn through this detailed account a great deal about this one patch of soil, earth, humus and our connection to it as humans (the similarity is not accidental).  For Lewis-Stempel does not stop at using words for things, he explains where they come from and their relationship to us and to all linguistic development.

lewis-stempel-2His more recent book, The Running Hare, A Secret Life of Farmland is a threnody to a fast vanishing landscape. He has noted, haven’t we all, that in the neon-green fields of modern day farming, the treeless, hedgeless prairies of brilliantly coloured, nitrogen-fed, insecticide-drenched wheat, there is no life. No birds, no insects, no mammals, nothing but produce can be seen.

To see whether it is possible to revive the landscape before it is too late, he secures a short tenancy on a small holding, three fields and a copse. He is only permitted to plough one field and that for only one year.

We follow that plough. Using the oldest possible methods of ploughing, sewing and reaping with a non-GM wheat seed and some wildflower seeds he records the arrival of birds, bees and insects, mammals and all things natural. mary-1

This might sound like watching paint dry, but truly it is not. The language alone is enough to make your mouth tingle, it all grows in your mind. This whole book is filled with poetry, his prose-poem which is the body of the work and poems from other naturalists:  John Clare, William Langland, Edward Thomas and some of the naturalist-parsons of the eighteenth century – Gilbert White and others.

The naturalist-parson is a dying breed, along with much of the wild life that they so faithfully recorded. How can a parson with nine parishes, and an injunction to run them as if they were a business, share the intimacy with the flowers and trees of his acreage, when nine parishes might run from Bruton through Shepton Malet, Eversleigh and all points beyond. Gilbert White was only concerned with Selborne in Hampshire and his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is a classic of its kind.

The Running Hare is also an angrier book, dedicated to the vanishing wildlife of England – the brown hare, the corncrake, the poppy, and the partridge (grey and red-legged); all of them and a whole list more of butterflies, plants and other wild life that is fast becoming endangered.

housmanIn the same vein, but from a different angle Housman Country, Into the Heart of England looks at the life of the poet who wrote A Shropshire Lad, through the pictures painted in the poem, one of the most famous poems in the English language and through the other medium that it has inspired, largely music but also paintings.

Peter Parker has not set out just to tell the life of AE Housman, though clearly the life tells itself if you follow the poems carefully and read them with attention. This book is more about the landscape that inspired the poet, which like John Lewis-Stempel in the West Country. Housman did not live in Shropshire, that county was the vision that he had from the hills where he grew up; he lived in Hampstead, London. Lewis-Stempel’s county is Herefordshire.

A Shropshire Lad was an influential poem, many poets read it and were inspired by it. It paints a picture of England that is worth more than a hundred paintings, and it was no accident that early editions of the poem were deliberately cheap and of a size that would fit into the pocket. Those pockets, many of them, belonged to soldiers of the First World War, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. But not just them, many and many of the ordinary soldiers had copies, and many of them knew the whole series off by heart.mary-2 These exquisitely beautiful wood-engravings are by Agnes Miller Parker who was an engraver-illustrator, her works are used in this book to illustrate the vanished world of AE Housman.

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Poles Apart

I have no idea whether the words “if you like this then you will like…” make you shudder or make you take notice. I also have no idea when I pair up books, as per my last post, whether you think “I will try both of those” or whether you think “too much information”.

In spite of all these doubts, I am going to revisit a book that I read during the Man Booker long-list process and will recommend another book that has a distinct relationship with the first.

North You may recall that I was not particularly kind to this book when considering it as a possible candidate for the Man Booker prize, [Man Booker Longlist 2016-3]. I recommended it as a good read but thought it would not reach the coveted prize, so far, so right – as it is not on the shortlist.

Actually, as Hilary Mantel writes on the cover, it is a fast-paced historical thriller. It covers a period when one industry is dying, along with its principal prey and another is being found it its place. All taking place against a backdrop of the cold waters around the Arctic Circle, where the loss of a ship spells mortal danger.

The other book, which I read more recently, is of another order all together. This book, part human love story and part environmental love song, takes us to Antarctica where a young woman, Deborah (always called Deb) guides tourists around the penguin colonies and the icy cold waters around that continent.

Although she acts as a tour guide, she is also a research assistant to the Antarctic Penguin Project (fictional) and helps with the counting, recording and tagging of penguins, especially Adélies, whose lives, habitats and habits are steadily being eroded as more and more tourists visit this area.  Once in single figures, then in the hundreds, it is now in the thousands: Antarctica is accessible and on the “bucket list” of wasteful things to do before you die – and some people die trying [not unlike Everest].

midgeMy Last Continent by Midge Raymond, her first novel, is an elegy to a part of our planet that should be pristine and yet isn’t; should be protected and yet the protections are failing; is a clear indicator of climate change and yet the facts are dismissed as anecdotal.

All this, by way of a very real and terrible experience of love, bravery and frailty, combine to make a wonderful book. The narrative is not obscured by the plea for attention to the environment, or for the information about penguins, whose comic appearance belies a lifestyle of patience, fortitude and loyalty (which is, I know, to anthropomorphise horribly) in the pursuit of survival; it sweeps us up into a backwards and forwards life adventure of this young naturalist who has a passion for penguins.

Both books encounter and share a dangerous symmetry – boats, cold water and possible disaster. Page-turning and un-put-downable, they tear you apart one minute and relieve you the next. They are not great literature – but both are a rattling good read.



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A Crossover

I was reading a new book published in 2016, a fascinating and intimately researched look at how international law, and crimes that are recognised internationally, were agreed upon and found that there was a distinct and noted crossover with another book, which I had also read, published in 2008.

I am going to deal with them in the order of publication, because it makes sense both of the books and of the crossover.

clara Clara’s War, jointly written by Clara Kramer nee Schwarz and nobly assisted by Stephen Glantz, is the astonishing and heart-warming story of a Jewish girl, one of only 50 Jewish people who survived out of 5000 Jews who lived in Poland, in a town called Zolkiev (now called Zolkova), before 1942.

In 1942, Clara and her parents, sister Mania and several other people had to hide, and they were taken in by Mr and Mrs Beck. Valentin Beck, his wife Julia and his daughter Ala took an extraordinary and unselfish position, they allowed 18 Jewish people to hide in a hand-dug bunker under their house, the house that had previously been owned by the Melmans (and then confiscated because they were Jewish) for over 18 months; during that time several Nazi personnel actually stayed in the house, two trainmen (drivers of the trains carrying Jews to their death); four ordinary soldiers and finally the Becks had to house some SS men whose car had broken down.

These men, whose aim for the Jews was annihilation, lived not feet away from a small group of terrified, near starving families – the Shwarzes – mother, father and two daughters, later joined by two other members of the family, the children of Clara’s aunt Uchka: Zygush and Zosia; the Melmans and one son, the Patronasches and one daughter, and the Steckels; other fleeing and frightened Jews joined them – Gedalo Lauterpacht, Artek, Lola and Klara who was also related to the Patronasch family.

All but one of these, Mania, survived.

The book, like Anne Frank’s Diary though with a different ending, is based on the notebooks that Clara aged 14 rising to 15, wrote in blue pencil in exercise books supplied by Valentin Beck while hiding beneath the floorboards. These also survived and are now held in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. They too had a part to play in the story, because in the seesaw between death by starvation and the arrival of the Russians, the Russians arrived first, and all Volkdeutsche were taken into custody, including the Becks. Clara took the diaries to the [Russian] Party Secretary and asked him to read them, the diaries were returned wrapped in brown paper with no note; the Schwarzes were in despair, their saviours were about to be deported to Siberia, but imagine the extreme joy when a few days later the Becks turned up on their doorstep.

This is a story of extremes. Fear, despair, hope, untold grief, horror, deprivation and joy and these different phases can happen even in one day, as more and more news trickles through of deaths, of survival, of cruelty and of generosity. It is both terribly difficult to read and wonderfully uplifting.

Clara Kramer survived and made it her mission to tell the world, especially the young, what happened, who did it and why it must not happen again. This book is just one way, of many, that she has accomplished her mission.

The other book is Philippe Sands‘ history of international law, though not only that.east-west-street

The writer of East West Street is a professor of Law at University College, London and a practising barrister, especially in the international courts.

It is in this role that the genesis of this book lies.

International law is a tricky business, for obvious reasons many different countries have good and very bad reasons for agreement or disagreement on matters of law that cross boundaries; Mr Sands began to think about how these laws came into being and when.

The first internationally recognised trial, where the nation’s top legal minds addressed the questions of international crime, was that of the Nazi murderers at Nuremberg in 1946.

This famous trial of the infamous was the start of a movement that has continued to this day, taking down criminals of all sorts from all over the world who are deemed to have committed crimes against humanity and genocide. But when did these crimes first become formulated as part of international criminal justice? At Nuremberg.

Sands forensically follows the minds that created the rules that govern these two very similar, but intricately different, crimes. “Crimes against humanity”, a phrase or description that was first implemented at Nuremberg is a crime committed by a person for the State against an individual; “genocide” (a word that did not exist until Nuremberg) is a crime by an individual for the State against a group.

Who then, invented these terms?

To his astonishment, Philippe Sands discovered that the two lawyers had both trained at Lviv ( at various times also called Lemberg, Lvov, Lwów) Law School, at different times but under the same professor. Furthermore, he also discovered that they both came from a city, Lviv, where his own family had once lived. His unravelling of this legal history is both personal and international.

The work that the two lawyers put into these two concepts is extraordinary.  Hersh Lauterpacht (recognise that surname) was anxious that the rights of the individual victim should be recognised by an international court; Rafael Lemkin, however, felt that it was also necessary to recognise the effects of group-victimhood, where a State had targeted a group, because of ethnicity, religion, or practice. His target was, at the time, concentrated on the mass extermination of the Jews, the treatment of others – Communists, homosexuals and other groups was less pronounced, but nevertheless implicit.

As more and more detail came out from the defeated German lands, Lauterpacht began to focus on one man in particular, his draft for the closing speech of the prosecuting British judge named Hans Frank who was Governor-General in Nazi-occupied Poland, as an exemplifier par excellence of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity.

It was however, Philippe Sands 70 years later, who discovered that these two men had been themselves victims through the many deaths of their own families left behind in Poland, in both Lviv and Zolkiev (now called Zolkova) of that very man. Hans Frank had more or less personally, destroyed nearly everyone in Hersh’s family and nearly everyone in Rafael’s also.

In their different ways, these two men also had a mission – that nation states could never again get away with crimes against the individual or against an identifiable group; Nuremberg was the start, and the work they started there has never ceased.

The crossover then? Gedalo Lauterpacht and the Melmans were both distantly related to Hersh Lauterpacht; all of them, Hersh and Rafael as well, had at one time lived either in Lviv or in Zolkova, as had Philippe Sands’ maternal grandparents and forebears, and all on one street, or near each other.

The search and the answers reveal an extraordinary synchronicity, of the survivors that Philippe Sands tracked down and interviewed one thing seemed universal – a complete silence on the past.

Philippe Sands, with the son of Hans Frank and another son of a Nazi father went on to make a film which was shown in last year’s London Film Festival (and has recently been shown on television) called My Nazi Legacy – What our fathers did.




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Man Booker Prize 2016 – Shortlist

Well I never! (Or bien je jamais – as my mother-in-law used to say). How do you put Coetzee on a long-list and then leave him languishing? Well, the judges have done just that; so here is the list:

MacraeGraeme Macrae Burnett – His Bloody Project: this I opined was part of the gore-fest that made up so many of the long-listed titles. While excellently capturing the horror of this random deed rather in the way of Truman Capote‘s – In Cold Blood, it did not really seem to me to be a winner.

LevyDeborah Levy – Hot Milk: This one belonged in the mother-daughter section of the long-list, of which there was more than one and if I had been forced to choose I would certainly have put Elizabeth Strout ahead with My Name is Lucy Barton. Which just goes to show how very perverse these prizes can seem to be.

ManDavid Szalay – All that Man Is: No comment, I do not really accept that this is a novel at all, merely a themed collection of short stories and if this can be considered where is Alice Munro, for just one example?


ThienMadeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing: This is my outright winner then. Though don’t rush to the bookies as I have very seldom been correct in my personal choice.

This is also almost in the mother-daughter category, although there is more than one mother and it also involves sons as well as daughters. Exceptional crafting has gone into the relationships and how they combine in different spheres and at different times as the developing catastrophe washes over them, scattering them and then bringing them together again. It brought to mind another Oriental writer Kenzaburo Oe, whose novels about his Japanese author with writer’s block also has these complicated and sometimes circular relationships with people (family and other) and things.

This is a book I will definitely and gladly read more than once, in due course. It is a many-layered and intricate tale of love, music, musical careers, records (played and written) and betrayal set against the Cultural Revolution in China with all its concomitant excuses and reasons for not being brave.

EileenOttessa Moshfegh – Eileen: this was an interesting and alternative take on aspects of caring, that is in: who is responsible for caring when the parent has hideously neglected the child, but who now needs to be cared for? Who exactly is responsible in a young persons’ reform prison situation for caring about the inmates, and for making sure decent and responsible people are looking out for them?

Eileen is a very curious, twisted and amoral character, with some depressing side issues about ownership! Her fantasy world, though, leads her into a tangled infatuation which evolves into a situation from which she may escape but not in quite the way she expected.

Humiliation looms fairly large and often in this amoral tale written, looking backwards over her own life, by Eileen; without any sense of self-criticism or remorse – amoral – as I said. This would be my second option as a winner if Ms Thien does not achieve the prize.

BeattyPaul Beatty – The Sellout: I think I made it pretty clear at the time what I thought of this book. I assume it is on the short-list because it is edgy, controversial and different. Great literature it is not!


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A break from Korolev

For anyone waiting with bated breath for the further adventures of Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev from William Ryan, the new book may come as a disappointment. However, all is not lost, for at the book signing last night the author distinctly told me that the next Korolev novel was in progress…

Be not afraid though, the new novel The Constant Soldier is as good, I would say even better, than any of the previous three novels. And yes, I say that as one of the unashamed admirers of the Korolev series.

This is a departure, not only from skulduggery in Stalin’s Russia, but also from nearly every novel I have ever read about the closing years of the Second World War. It is about “the camps”, it is about soldiers – German and Russian – as the tide has turned, it is brutal and unflinching and brilliant.

ryanPaul Brandt, a highly decorated but wounded soldier, is returning from the Eastern Front, his fighting days are over; after treatment in a German hospital he is discharged and lacking any other place to go returns to his own village. Much has changed.

His family have farmed here for generations, his uncle Ernst also farms in the same valley. A valley in Upper Silesia that has been successively German, Polish, Czech, Bohemian and Moravian – back and forth since the 9th Century. Now, since Germany invaded Czechoslovakia it is again German, the Polish families have mostly be replaced by Ur-Germans, the Jewish families – well they are not there either. The rolling fields are largely covered by factories, prison camps and a seemingly delightful and incongruous holiday camp, the function of which is somewhat belied by the barbed wire, guard towers and the SS man sitting on a wall.

Paul is met at the station by his father, both of them much altered by the four years apart. On the way to the farm, such conversations that they have are sporadic but full of meaning: the Glinztmanns have moved away; Pavel Lensky now works on his father’s farm; Pavel’s brother Hubert has disappeared but Paul’s sister Monika, who was engaged to be married to Hubert is still at home.

Brandt ponders these things, worries at them and thinks. Then passing the ‘rest’ hut, he sees someone he knew in a different place and at a different time and so begins this fascinating study of loyalty, guilt, love, fear, danger…

This is as thrilling and intense as anything I have read before, it paints a different picture of the camps, no less horrifying because it is set on one of the many ‘resting’ camps for those Germans on the front line of the horror, not of the battlegrounds but the extermination or labour camps that were all over Germany and its conquered territories.

We should all know the names of the infamous ones, but how many people knew that there were literally thousands of camps, the evidence rapidly and comprehensively destroyed by their Commandants as the Russians advanced, with the inmates being marched further and further west, to fill camps at a greater distance from the advancing front line – not all these were extermination camps like Auschwitz, though even that had a nearby ‘rest’ camp.

Many were simply labour camps for mining, ammunition factories, armament factories and they had to be manned by someone, not Germans because they were needed to fight for the Fatherland; so these were the untermensch: Jews, Roma and Slavs (ethnic Poles, Serbs and later Russians) all of whom could be worked to death without fear; underfed, maltreated and shot on sight if they fell over from exhaustion and they could no longer work, what did it matter there were plenty more.

The Russians are now coming back, and Brandt and a few other people know full well what this promises for them and their people.

The genesis for this book, which William admitted was very difficult to write, was a packet of innocuous looking photographs which were purchased in 2005 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Unless you look at them searchingly, they might appear to be holiday snaps, men and women together playful and happy.  But closer inspection shows that these uniforms are those of the most notorious of the German hierarchy, the SS. It is clear too, that these are identifiably camp guards – in fact one is Karl Höcker, adjutant to the last Commandant of Auschwitz, Richard Baer.

Some of the scenes shown in the photographs are replicated in this book, indeed two of the actual photographs are reproduced in the Author’s Note and others have been reproduced in review pages in various newspapers, but The Constant Soldier is a work of fiction, the historical background is based in fact, but the village in the valley and the people in the novel are all characters created from the agile and fertile mind of the author.

You may wonder how, if I only got the book yesterday, I have already read it – but I consume books the way many people consume chocolates – a box at a time. I, however, retain the memory of plot and character for many years. I sat down as soon as I got home and started to read…

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My favourite book site

It is no secret that my favourite book blog is A Little Blog of Books. Many of the suggestions and reviews have led me to read books that might have slipped under my radar.


YanagiharaThis, the first novel by Hanya Yanagihara, is one such. It is a darkly, rich memoir by a disgraced scientist, with an introduction and footnotes by another scientist who continues to admire him.

Norton Perina, a somewhat unassuming science graduate is invited to join an anthropological expedition to a Micronesian island, distant and unvisited by the West, its distance adding to its mythological status.

The People in the Trees, is both the title of this book and the title of a fictional account of the expedition by its leader, Paul Tallent.

The memoir, Norton’s own, is written after everything that he has discovered and done has been discredited by a drastic and ill-judged action involving some of his adopted children. It reaches publication with an introduction and footnotes by Ronald Kubodera, one of the few people who is still prepared to have anything to do with Norton after his arrest and imprisonment.

This is a penetrating, deft and imaginative book. Less robustly provocative than A Little Life, for which she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, but no less intense.



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Parris Two great houses, two kingdoms, two countries poised on the brink.

Conspiracy, is the fifth in a series of narratives about Giordano Bruno by SJ Parris.

Bruno is an absconded Dominican monk, an Italian and a spy, he was first met in the earlier books where he worked assiduously for Queen Elizabeth’s master-intelligencer – Walsingham, but now he is in France trying to gain access to the court of Henri iii, but before he can do that a priest is foully murdered.

The wonder of this book and all the others like it, is the historical background. The 1580’s were pivotal years in both England and France as the two great religions, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, vied for supremacy. Queen Elizabeth has still not controlled (or killed) her cousin Mary Stuart, so plots abounded as fervent Catholics tried to prize the throne away from the Protestant Elizabeth and put a Catholic Queen on the throne in her place.

The Babington Plot had recently been uncovered and the plotters dealt with; this occurred in a previous book and Bruno was involved (naturally) but as a result he was rather hot property in England and had escaped to France.

Roman Catholicism and French Protestantism (Huguenots) had found no way to become gentle bed-fellows and the French Wars of Religion, which had been raging on and off since 1562, were still destabilising the monarchy and the Church. Between two to four million people had died by the end. It exacerbated the rivalry between the aristocratic houses of France (Bourbon and Guise) and considerably weakened the authority of the monarchy particularly under the Valois Kings – Francis ii Charles ix and Henri iii.

Paris was seething with plots and counter-plots of a slightly different complexion.  Like Elizabeth, but for different reasons, Henri iii had no heir. So he represented the last of the line of Valois kings; his natural successor, his younger brother Francis, Duke of Anjou died and the Wars of Religion raged on.

The St Bartholomew Day Massacre has occurred only thirteen years earlier, in 1572, when the streets of Paris and the river Seine had run with blood. Memories were therefore fresh and atrocities between the two disciplines still an ever-present danger.

In Conspiracy, The Catholic League, led in France by Henri, Duke de Guise and supported by Spain, were thought to be implicated in the murder of the priest; the supposition being that they had killed their own priest and would blame it on the king and thereby spark a riot in Paris.

Giordano is tasked by the king to find the murderer, in order to prove the opposite. Several deaths later the truth is out, but it is not the outcome that anyone expected and could have other ramifications…which will affect Giordano Bruno’s future – where will he run to next?

Hovering over the King and pulling the strings is the Italian Queen-Mother, Catherine de Médicis, by now an elderly but still forceful woman, whose endless child-bearing had seen three sons on the throne of France, all now dead except Henri iii. She continued to dominate him until the last few months of his life, dying in January 1589.  Henry himself was assassinated in August the same year.



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