Tag Archives: Denmark

Man Booker Longlist 2018/4

2018 BLL BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns: I had heard and read a lot about Milkman before actually reading the book, and nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for how dense it was. It is a first person narrative, set in an unnamed town, fully of unnamed but identified people.

The time is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the place maybe Belfast, but if so it is not entirely recognisable, there is no mention of the docks or the sea, for example. The narrator belongs to a fairly large family: ma, da (deceased), first brother, second brother (deceased), third brother and fourth brother (run away over the border); there are also sisters and first-brother-in-law and third brother-in-law and the “wee ones”, three younger sisters.  There are neighbours, the maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody (not the boyfriend), the milkman and Milkman.

It is a narrative that begins at the end and circles back to the same ending. There is violence, suspicion, betrayal, death (violent and accidental). There are those “over the water” who are in this city: the soldiers and others; there are those on the side of those “over the water” like the police. Then there are the informers and the renouncers – both sides have these, both “our side of the road” and those on “the other side of the road”. And there is a great deal of menace and rumour and gossip.

There is one shocking episode that is scarcely credible, but must be true, I fear. Partly because it would be hard to make it up and partly because if you did, there would be an outcry and a lawsuit pending. It concerns the killing of all the dogs and runs from page 93 through to page 100, it involves the British soldiers killing all the dogs because they barked and gave away their positions, then having killed all bar one, they left them with their throats cut in “the entry”, presumably one of the safe roads into the “our side”.

The narrator explains, digests, digresses, thinks and reads while she walks, generally novels written before the nineteenth century. She is aloof but also considered; she thinks a lot about being a maybe-girlfriend and whether or not she wants to join coupledom; her maybe-boyfriend has the same thoughts but until now they have never coincided at the same moment, so it hangs in there unresolved.

Then there is a rumour that she is going with Milkman; she isn’t, although she has met him – or rather he has sidled into her life in a less than straightforward manner. He draws up beside her in his van, but she will not get in; he runs beside her in the park and makes threatening remarks about maybe-boyfriend and then he “runs into her” after a French lesson, but she thinks he must have been waiting for her unseen. He upsets her, she half knows what he wants but is repulsed. He is a known renouncer, a known terrorist and he is married (she thinks). He appears to know a great deal about her, her family, her habits and her maybe-boyfriend.

The writing is dense in the sense that the paragraphs are immensely long, they represent her thinking and her way of relating this to an imaginary friend (the reader probably); it is not precisely stream-of-consciousness because it is also actually narrative, without it we could not possibly know what was going on. There are six chapters but there could equally be ten or five, the breaks come slightly arbitrarily though generally starting with encounters with Milkman or post-Milkman encounters when she is trying to ingest what has happened.

Certainly the writing captures explicitly the tension which must have prevailed everywhere in Northern Ireland at the time; the local rules which if broken could end in tar and feathers, knee-capping, beating or death; the kangaroo courts held in out of the way sheds or hutments; the curfew; the suspicion of neighbours, of “the others”; the surveillance. It must have been nearly intolerable and then to add to the mix the innuendo, the rumour and the gossip. This is all there on every page, so that you must stop and take a breather.

Then finally there is a beautiful love story which lifts the whole tenor of the novel into another plane; wonderfully and delightfully revealed in the last chapter. Sheer joy and relief!

Do I think this will make it to the shortlist? The answer is yes.

My shadow book is an out-and-out love story; a debut novel by Anne Youngson.

YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel.  Initially Tina Hopgood writes to a Professor Glob, the finder of the Tollund Man but he is no longer there, being as it were 104 had he still been around. But the Curator of the Silkeborg Museum writes back and there develops over a period of about a year and a bit, an intense friendship.

In tone it is not unlike 84, Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir.  Helen Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London at this address and over time they created a warm and rewarding relationship, though they were never to meet, as Frank Doel died before Helen Hanff ever came to Britain, their correspondence lasted over several decades.

This novel is more intense, as the letters go back and forth by email attachment.

It also reminds me a lot of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, because Anders Larsen, the curator (who is fictional) writes quite a lot in his letters about the Tollund Man and the artefacts that are found that relate to his time.

Tina Hopgood describes her life on an East Anglian farm and he describes his life as a curator and widower. Their letters gradually draw out more detail and become more intimate and then right at the crux Tina has to make a serious decision.

Will their relationship on paper survive, and will she go to meet him at the Museum?


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Denmark and the SOE

Having been lent a book about Danish resistance in the Second World War, I trawled through my shelves to get at the bigger picture. The book I was lent is a new title by Elizabeth Buchan called I can’t begin to tell you, a novel about Kay Eberstern, an English woman married to a Dane and happily living on a beautiful estate near Copenhagen who gets caught up with conflicted loyalties two years after the Second World War brought the Germans.scan0005

Historically, what happened in Denmark is even more extraordinary than the rest of Europe. Germany simply annexed the country with some co-operation from the government and a huge number of the population. Many of the larger landowners having signed The Declaration of Goodwill in which they had effectively signed over the land to the Germans for the duration. The fighting in 1940 lasted for ten minutes, the Danish Government refused to give the order for the army to resist. The Germans landed in Jutland and quickly made their way south, while at the same time invading by sea at Copenhagen, as result of the swift capitulation the occupation began as a relatively benign affair and the population were slow to realise the implications. As well as the occupiers, there were the usual unpleasant crew of collaborators and Gestapoman (German police) who made life difficult for the resident population.

The Danish King, Christian X remained in Copenhagen and insisted on making his way about the capital unaccompanied by guards as often as possible. Ultimately he became a symbol for the resistance, and it is known that he financed the escape of many of the Danish Jews who were transferred to Sweden when in 1943 the Germans demanded that they be sent to the East. He wrote in his diary:

When you look at the inhumane treatment of Jews, not only in Germany but occupied countries as well, you start worrying that such a demand might also be put on us, but we must clearly refuse such this due to their protection under the Danish constitution. I stated that I could not meet such a demand towards Danish citizens. If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David.

In fact, Germany demanded a huge effort on the part of the farmers, many of whom were tenants and quantities of Danish farm produce was sent to Germany to feed the armies. All pigs were supposed to go to Germany, most of the dairy produce and some grain, the accumulation of these demands was slow but after about two years the Danish people were feeling the effects of the shortages. At first Britain was so busy in other fields that no assistance or encouragement was given to anyone in Denmark who might have objected, but by 1942 Special Operations had started to drop supplies and agents…which is where this novel begins.

In fact, although the derring-do is interesting, a more gripping aspect of the novel is the description of the lives of the women on the Home Front, the decoders and the listeners. So while the action takes place in Denmark, it is the Marys and Rubys in London, the ones listening for the wireless transmissions, and the ones decoding the messages that were really intriguing. The barriers of secrecy being so strict that the line “if I tell you this, I will have to shoot you” was more of a reality than one cares to think about too closely. The team that inculcated the agents with their codes and the team that received the encrypted messages and the ones that decoded them were strictly quarantined and everyone had signed away their secrets for life.

At the beginning of the SOE training and actions, the agents were given a code based on poems, generally doggerel that was made for the purpose or obscure poems such as the one made famous in Carve Her Name with Pride. The idea being that you chose five words from the poem, hopefully known only to you and your handler and giving them the relevant coordinates you passed important messages in and out. This system was far from foolproof, as this novel demonstrates and later on a more sophisticated system was devised. Meanwhile…the Germans were using the Enigma Machine.

We read such a lot about the French Resistance and about agents in France and Belgium, that it is refreshing to read about Denmark. scan0006 There is a very good film Flame et Citron and several other very good books. I would hope that there will be more in future.


But if it is really the cryptography and the science of it, the foundation of the SOE and such like, the book to read is really the masterly spy volume by Leo Marks called Between Silk and Cyanide. This is the story written by an insider and gives a unique picture of the extraordinary outfit that was the Special Operations Executive. There have been many books and films, both fiction and non-fiction about the agents and their handlers in World War Two, but none such as this, a book which celebrates individual courage without losing sight of the tremendous cost and the utter horror and brutality of war.

I had the privilege of meeting the late Leo Marks once at the funeral of another person who was intimately involved in SOE. I will never forget either of them.

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