‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It took me a while to read this excellent biography of the author of The Once and Future King – not because it was lengthy or written in ‘difficult’ prose (quite the contrary), but because it often made me sad and I kept needing to put it down to have a bit of a think about what I’d read. Terence Hanbury White had an awful childhood – born in India in 1906 to feuding parents who frequently threatened to shoot one another, and him, and who then bitterly separated in an era when divorce was a great scandal. His father abandoned the family, and his mother alternately smothered and maltreated her only child. White was sent to a sadistic English boarding school, then worked as a private tutor until he had enough money to put himself through Cambridge, with his studies interrupted by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. After achieving a First Class with Distinction, he worked as a schoolmaster for a few years, then spent the rest of his life writing, interspersed with various short-lived enthusiasms – for hunting, fishing, falconry, gardening, flying aeroplanes, sailing yachts, making documentary films about puffins, learning everything there was to know about Irish Catholicism or Arthurian mythology or the Emperor Hadrian …

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend WarnerBut as passionate as he was about facts and technical skills, he was not very interested in most people (“How restful it would be if there were no human beings in the world at all”) and he lived a hermit-like existence in various remote cottages for many years. His friend John Verney (author of Friday’s Tunnel), who wrote the introduction to this biography, noted that, “With strangers he could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing him, still more so if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.” White himself admitted he was “a sort of Boswell, boasting, indiscreet, ranting, rather pathetic” and admitted to “trying to shock people” (to repel them?), although he also had very old-fashioned ideas about modesty, women and sex. Another writer friend, David Garnett, accused White of having a “medieval monkish attitude” and White didn’t disagree. He wrote to Garnett, “I want to get married … and escape from all this piddling homosexuality and fear and unreality.” He tried to fall in love with a barmaid who had a “boyish figure” but this was unsuccessful, as was a later engagement to another young woman. She (sensibly) called it off; he wrote her anguished letters, but his biographer says “his torment in so desperately wanting something he had no inclination for is unmistakable”. He tried psychoanalysis and “hormone therapy” as a cure for homosexuality, which also didn’t work; then he tried to blot everything out with alcohol (“I used to drink because of my troubles, until the drink became an added trouble”). Unfortunately, he wasn’t attracted to men (which would have been bad enough at a time when homosexuality was illegal) but to boys, and he spent years obsessing over a boy called Zed:

“I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy … The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on … What do I want of Zed? – Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time.”

He never told Zed of his true feelings, or acted on them (“I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved”), but Zed’s parents grew wary and eventually the boy himself broke off contact. To further complicate matters, White told Garnett that he (White) had managed to destroy every relationship he started because he was a sadist and “the sadist longs to prove the love which he has inspired, by acts of cruelty – which naturally enough are misinterpreted by normal people … if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.” Whether White actually acted on his “sadistic fantasies” is unknown (he had a great talent for self-dramatising and might have been trying to shock Garnett), but he blamed it all on his mother and his boarding school experiences.

The greatest love of his life, though, was Brownie, his red setter. She slept in his bed, was fed elaborate meals, wore a custom-made coat and accompanied him everywhere. (There’s a photo here of Brownie with White, the two of them looking as though they’re posing for a formal engagement portrait.) Brownie eventually became as eccentric as her human:

“She used to kidnap chickens and small animals and keep them as pets, and insisted on taking her pet rabbit to bed with her – in White’s bed. The rabbit bit him freely, but he submitted. She had geological interests, too, and collected stones which she kept under the kitchen table.”

When she died, he sat with her corpse for two days, then at her grave for a week, wrote her an anguished love poem, and forever after kept a lock of her hair in his diary, next to her photo.

White seems to have been a mass of unhappy contradictions. He railed against the British Labour government because he hated paying tax, and he moved to Ireland, then the Channel Islands, to avoid taxes, but he could be very generous with his money and time when it came to charitable causes. He claimed to hate people, but hosted week-long parties at his house in Alderney each summer and his friends all seemed to love him, despite his many faults. He was often miserable, but was “always capable of being surprised by joy” and his writing is full of humour. He announced in his forties that he was done with “forcing myself to be normal” and he gave up drinking – but not for very long, and he died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven of coronary heart disease, probably exacerbated by his drinking and chain-smoking.

This biography includes a discussion of each of White’s books, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work to find this book fascinating. I’d only read The Sword in the Stone (which I liked because it was full of animals), but I’m now curious about The Elephant and the Kangaroo, a satire set in Ireland. White, according to his Cambridge tutor, was “far more remarkable than anything he wrote” and his biographer seems to have agreed.

What I’ve Been Reading

Australia Under Surveillance by Frank Moorhouse was an interesting collection of essays about ASIO (Australia’s version of MI5 and the FBI) and the conflict between national security and individual privacy within a democracy. Moorhouse himself was targeted by ASIO when he was a young man because he was briefly a member of his university’s Labour Club, which was believed to have “Communist influences”, and he eventually acquired a thirteen-volume ASIO file. In this book, he provides evidence that Prime Minister Robert Menzies used ASIO against political adversaries – for example, Menzies ordered ASIO to investigate Australian writers, to prevent Communist-sympathising writers from receiving any Commonwealth funding. (This was after Menzies’ legislation to ban the Communist Party was overturned by the High Court, and after the 1951 referendum showed a majority of Australian voters agreed with the High Court’s decision. It’s never been illegal for Australians to belong to the Communist Party.) But all of this happened during the Cold War, when paranoia about “Reds under the bed” was rampant. Surely things are different now?
'Australia Under Surveillance' by Frank MoorhouseWell, certainly ASIO’s target has changed. Instead of Communists, it’s Muslims suspected of being terrorists, or of supporting terrorists, or of attending a mosque or community centre at which someone discussed something that might suggest support of terrorist activities, and Moorhouse outlines a number of cases where ASIO and the police have interrogated and detained innocent people without charges ever being laid, often due to inaccurate information or mistakes on the part of the authorities. He then interviews ASIO’s Director-General, David Irvine, who downplays ASIO’s historical abuses of power and emphasises ASIO’s current need for more legal powers and resources due to the “terrorist threat” (even though “less than 1000″ Australians have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks during the last fifty years, including the Vietnam, Korea, Gulf, Afghan and Iraq wars, compared to 134,548 people killed on Australian roads in the same period). I was also horrified to read about ASIO’s interference in the National Archives, with ASIO blocking access to or destroying decades-old historical records on the grounds of ‘national security’.
Moorhouse goes on to discuss privacy and censorship in Australia. He notes that the people fighting against censorship (Communists during the Cold War, Muslim fundamentalists now) are “often hostile to free speech in their own organisations, but need it to achieve other ends. Similarly, fundamentalist Christians are likely to advocate censorship of sexual and blasphemous material” but want free speech powers so they can attack Muslims. Moorhouse’s opinion is that even the most offensive anti-Western jihadist material should be freely available in Australia, because the public need to understand how terrorists think and exposing offensive material to criticism decreases its power. He has similar views on hate-speech laws (he agrees with Attorney-General George Brandis that people should have “the right to be bigots”) and privacy laws (he believes that keeping ‘private’ behaviour secret simply makes the behaviour seem more shameful and increases the stigma attached to it). He doesn’t seem aware that his perspective is that of a very privileged person in society – he’s not, for example, a domestic violence victim trying to hide from a violent ex-husband, or an employee who wants to keep his personal hobbies private from his employer, and Moorhouse is unlikely ever to be the victim of racist or sexist hate campaigns. Some readers may also be frustrated by the rambling, personal nature of the book – it’s certainly not for those who want a methodical, analytical approach (or an index) – but I found it a very interesting read.

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith set me to wondering about how useful genre labels are. Is this book crime or literary fiction? Is it a thriller, or a psychological study, or a classical tragedy? I sat up far too late one night finishing it because I just had to see how the plot would play out, even though I was fairly sure how it would end (and was right about that), so it was certainly a success as a thriller, in my opinion. It is fairly typical of Highsmith’s novels, in that it features an American man, bold and shrewd but without much of a conscience, who has fallen into a life of petty crime, becomes involved in a murder, then spends the rest of the novel desperately trying to cover this up (and somehow the reader sympathises with him and urges him on, despite his lack of morals). This novel, set mostly in Greece, features two such characters, one older and out of his depth in a country where he doesn’t speak the language; the other younger, easier to like, but with murkier motives, which turn out to be related to his hated dead father. There is also a young, beautiful woman who doesn’t have a very large part to play in the book (also typical of Highsmith’s novels), some vivid descriptions of the European settings and a number of exciting chase scenes. Recommended for those who enjoyed the Ripley books (or the Ripley films, or Strangers on a Train, or any Hitchcock films, really).

'Haphazard House' by Mary WesleyHaphazard House by Mary Wesley was a strange, often beautiful, children’s novel about a family who move to a haunted house in a remote village where time proves to be “a bit askew”. The eleven-year-old narrator, Lisa, observes her mother and grandfather becoming younger; the family dog Bogus is recognised by a villager as Rags, the dog who’d lived in the house more than forty years earlier; someone is observed waving to them from the windows of a room that doesn’t exist; an invisible gardener supplies them with fresh vegetables, and an invisible maid rearranges the furniture, and the fire in the hearth never goes out. There is a lot of rich description of setting and character and some genuinely spooky moments, but the eventual ‘explanation’ is crammed into the last chapter and left a lot of my questions unanswered. The first few pages were also some of the most confusing I’ve ever seen in a children’s book, which I think was due to poor editing, rather than design. I suspect this would, unfortunately, put off some child readers who’d ultimately enjoy the book. I’d recommend it for fans of Diana Wynne Jones or those who’ve enjoyed time-slip novels such as Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Kate Constable’s Cicada Summer.

I picked up A Candle for St Jude by Rumer Godden mistaking it for The Kitchen Madonna, which I’d wanted to re-read, and then thinking it would be one of her lives-of-nuns books like In This House of Brede. It actually turned out to be the story of a small ballet school in London, celebrating the founder’s jubilee by putting on a grand performance. It was first published in 1948 and it depicts the shabby, war-battered reality behind the gilt facade very well. There are some lovely character studies, including those of the tempestuous ageing Madame, nostalgic about her once glittering career, now bitterly jealous of her talented pupil Hilda. Not being a ballet fan, I felt the passions and tumult leading up to the performance were somewhat misplaced, but I still found this an enjoyable read. I especially admired Godden’s technical skills as I read this – the way she managed to slip between Madame’s memories and the present day so smoothly, the adroit handling of multiple points of view, and how she ended the story at exactly the right place.

'The Girl Who Brought Mischief' by Katrina NannestadFinally, an adorable children’s book called The Girl Who Brought Mischief, by Katrina Nannestad. Set in Denmark in 1911, it’s the story of a ten-year-old orphan sent to live with her grandmother on the remote island of Bornholm, where nearly everyone is old and nobody is allowed to play or dance or have any fun. Inge Maria arrives with lopsided hair (a goat on the ferry ate one of her plaits) and a talent for attracting trouble, and she proceeds to knock out her grandmother’s turkey with a stray clog, pull a line of freshly-washed clothes into the mud, antagonise her stern teacher and scandalise the village churchgoers. I preferred the first half of the book, in which Inge Maria causes general mayhem. The second half, in which Inge Maria warms the hearts of all the grumpy old people, was far too saccharine for my tastes – but keep in mind, I’m a cynical grown-up! Children who enjoyed the film versions of Anne of Green Gables or Heidi but were daunted by the length and old-fashioned language of those books would probably adore The Girl Who Brought Mischief. And I did love all the descriptions of life on a Danish island a hundred years ago.

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s

Generally my Adventures in Research are not all that adventurous, given that they tend to involve nothing more arduous than a fifteen-minute stroll to my local library or second-hand book store and then some concentrated reading. This time, though, there is an actual story to go with the research. Well, not really a story, because it doesn’t have a conclusion. More of a series of events.

So – Sydney City Council has about a dozen branch libraries scattered around the centre of the city, each with a special collection relevant to the particular neighbourhood it services. For example, the Haymarket Library, in the middle of Chinatown, has lots of Mandarin books and DVDs; Customs House, near the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and other places frequented by tourists, has a large collection of international newspapers and magazines; my own branch has lots of LGBT fiction and non-fiction, handily marked with little rainbow stickers on the spines. Generally, these items can be transported between branches, arriving at your local branch within a day or two of your request – it’s really convenient and easy for library members. Anyway, a while back, I was browsing the library computer catalogue and came upon some potentially useful books about women’s lives in post-war Britain. There were histories, biographies and memoirs, including an intriguing book called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties. All of the books were marked as “Non-Circulating Reference Books”, located at Ultimo Library, which did seem slightly odd – why would Ultimo, of all places, have a collection of non-fiction about women, and why would such books, mostly paperbacks, be regarded as so precious that they couldn’t leave the library? Never mind, I would visit Ultimo myself!

So one fine autumn morning, I gathered up my notebook, pen, Gregory’s Street Directory, bus timetable, multicoloured Post-It notes, packed lunch, compass, water bottle, pith helmet and spare pen, and set off on my quest. Due to my excellent map-reading skills, I got off at the wrong bus stop and had to ascend Ultimo’s steepest hill (who even knew they had hills in Ultimo?) before arriving, puffing slightly, at Ultimo Library – the reference section of which turned out to contain a small shelf of books about local council history, but not much else. I searched the general collection, then asked the librarian at the front desk, who frowned.

“Are you sure these books are here?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re in the Sydney City Libraries catalogue,” I said. “Listed as being held in Ultimo Library in the Non-Circulating Reference section.”

She summoned her colleague and I showed them the list of call numbers.

“Ah!” said the colleague. “Those books! No, they aren’t here. They’re in the National Women’s Library. I wish they’d take those books out of our catalogue, because we often have people coming in here looking for them.”

“Then…why are they listed in Sydney City Libraries catalogue?” I asked, quite reasonably. ‘And why does it say they’re here?”

Who knows? Although it turned out the National Women’s Library wasn’t far away – in the very same block, actually. The helpful librarians gave me a set of directions that sounded almost exactly like Arthur Dent in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy looking for the plans to demolish his house, which are on display at the council planning department:

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Except my situation didn’t involve a leopard. (Pity, it would have made this story far more exciting.) So I went down the stairs, turned right, went past the table-tennis tables and the courtyard and the kitchen and down more stairs and found the locked doors of the National Women’s Library. This was during its listed ‘opening hours’, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I spied another door at the back, so I went back outside and around the building and tried that door and it was locked too1. So I gave up.

As it was such a beautiful day, I decided to walk all the way home, which would give me a chance to do some sightseeing. Ultimo used to be mostly old warehouses and factories, but now there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters and the rapidly expanding University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). It was the latest UTS building that I was most interested in, because it was designed by Frank Gehry and the photos made it look so spectacular – a bit too spectacular, really, a bit show-offy and grandstanding, all wrong for a battered, industrial area like Ultimo, I’d thought. But that building was lovely. It nestled into its space, not overwhelming any of the surrounding buildings, and the famous ‘bulges’ in the brickwork made it look as though it was breathing. The bricks were golden-brown and glowed in the sunlight, and there were a lot of square, nicely-proportioned windows that reflected the blue sky, so the whole thing looked like a squat, friendly creature with a lot of big blue eyes. I didn’t go inside, so I don’t know how functional it is, but apparently it uses a lot of natural light and has loads of environmentally-friendly features. Officially, it’s named the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, because he gave the university twenty million dollars to build it, although I’m pretty sure all the students just call it the ‘crumpled paper-bag building’. Anyway, it’s a vast improvement on the main UTS building on Broadway, which looks like a Weetbix box covered in brown pebble-dash. Then I wandered up towards Broadway, noticing that a lot of the old warehouses along the way had been turned into trendy coffee shops and advertising agencies and such, and I had a look at One Central Park, which was recently named Best Tall Building in the World by someone or other. All of the outside walls are covered in vertical gardens, which I didn’t think would work out very well, given the vehicle fumes and the often harsh weather, but the huge variety of plants seemed to be thriving. It probably helps that it’s done nothing but rain in Sydney for the past six months.

When I arrived home an hour later, I went online and discovered that there were multiple copies of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties on sale for less than ten dollars from various British second-hand bookshops. This seemed a lot easier than trying to gain access to the National Women’s Library, so I placed an order. And waited. And waited some more. Then I gave the bookseller an extra couple of days, due to Easter. Then I emailed them, more than a month after I’d ordered the book. The bookseller was very polite and apologetic. The book must have been lost by the postal service. They would send me another copy. So I waited. And waited. Then I emailed them again. They were very, very sorry. The replacement book must have been lost in the post, too. They didn’t have any more copies of the book, so they would give me a refund.

I can understand that one book might get lost in the post, but TWO? I had a vision of their new office boy, keen but not very bright, being sent off with an armful of parcels and diligently posting each one in a rubbish bin instead of a post box. I waited another week for the refund to arrive, then used the money to order a copy of the book from a different bookseller. I’m still waiting. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? This one will get lost, too. Or all three copies will arrive simultaneously in my mail box.

'My Secret Diary' by Jacqueline WilsonAnyway, in the meantime, I bought a copy of Jacqueline Wilson‘s My Secret Diary: Dating, Dancing, Dreams and Dilemmas. This is an account, aimed at teenage readers, of the author’s life in 1960, when she was a boy-crazy fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in suburban Surrey. It included lots of great black-and-white snapshots, as well as some excerpts from her real diary, which are as hilariously earnest and angst-ridden as you’d expect. I took notes on the clothes and records and films she liked, and the food, and the ridiculous school regulations and horrible uniforms, although I’m not sure how similar her life would have been to an upper-class London schoolgirl. In fact, I couldn’t quite figure out just where her family fitted into England’s rigid class system. Jacqueline’s family lived in a small council flat, but in a ‘genteel’ new block, rather than the rough council estate up the hill. They had a car, a TV, a telephone and a brand-new record player, but no washing machine or fridge. Jacqueline walked several miles to and from school (she was in the grammar stream at the local girls’ comprehensive) to save on bus fares, but there always seemed to be enough money for new clothes, cinema tickets, hairdressing appointments, pocket money and Christmas presents, and the family went on holidays (although not abroad) once a year. I couldn’t figure out what her father did for a living – he worked “at the Treasury” in Westminster, but doing what? Her mother worked locally, as a book-keeper. So, maybe lower-middle class – but could you live in a council flat in the 1960s and be regarded as middle-class? Maybe aspiring, ambitious working class, about to move into the middle class?

I was also interested to read about her favourite books – The Diary of Anne Frank, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Rumer Godden’s The River and The Greengage Summer. She secretly borrowed Peyton Place from a friend and thought it was “sheer trash”, but was impressed with Lolita (“I wasn’t particularly shocked, just enormously interested”), although the author adds that “nowadays I find the whole story so troubling, so distressingly offensive, that I can’t bear to read it. I strongly recommend that you don’t read it either.” She was also determined to be a writer, so she bought a book called How To Be A Writer by Kathleen Betterton. This advised that “the writer for children must not attempt subtlety of character in which good and bad are blended”, so Jacqueline vowed, “If I ever write, I won’t write for children.” Fortunately for her many fans, she changed her mind, ignored that advice and went on to sell twenty-five million copies of her children’s books. (Teenage Jacqueline was also unimpressed with the writing advice doled out by Enid Blyton in her autobiography – “surely her books are not all that great”). I found this to be an entertaining, informative read – and if my other book about schoolgirls ever arrives, I’ll be able to figure out how typical Jacqueline’s experiences were.

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  1. Later I discovered the National Women’s Library is run by volunteers, so it’s understandable that the opening hours would be limited and unpredictable. And I guess the books aren’t allowed out because they’re all donated and many are out of print and not easily replaced.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover: The Obscenity Trial

I’ve just been reading about D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in Britain for more than thirty years. In 1960, Penguin attempted to publish a mass-paperback, uncensored edition of the novel, but the British government charged them with publishing obscene material. The Crown prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, opened the trial with words that quickly became famous:

“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D. H. LawrenceGirls can read as well as boys! I should add that he was addressing a jury that included three women (all of whom were required to read the book). He was also horrified that the novel seemed to treat sensuality “almost as a virtue”. In reply, Penguin argued that the book had genuine literary merit and was neither obscene nor depraved. Penguin asked more than three hundred literary figures to appear as expert witnesses, and among those who agreed to defend the book’s literary merits were Rebecca West, E. M. Forster, Cecil Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot, with Sylvia Plath watching excitedly from the press gallery. A few, though, declined to help, including Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, as well as one particular bestselling female author. Guess who said the following:

“I’d love to help Penguins but I don’t see how I can. My husband says ‘No’ at once. The thought of me standing up in court advocating a book like that … I’m awfully sorry but I don’t see that I can go against my husband’s most definitive wishes in this.1

It was ENID BLYTON! Oh, Enid.

Penguin, of course, won the case. Their initial print run of 200,000 sold out immediately and more than two million copies were snapped up in the first year. I feel I ought to have a go at reading this book, given its historical significance, but Kangaroo was so dreadful that I don’t think I can face any more D. H. Lawrence.

You may also be interested in reading:

Book Banned, Author Bemused

Lois Lowry on Book Banning

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  1. All quotes are from Modernity Britain, Book Two: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 by David Kynaston.

What I’ve Been Reading: The Elizabeth Edition

Well, I’ve mostly been reading 1960s non-fiction (currently David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, which is excellent), but I’ve also read some other interesting books, all Elizabeth-related. The first of them was The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt, recommended to me by Sarah during my search for 1950s schoolgirl literature. The review quotes on the back of the paperback edition I acquired were fairly ominous and included the following from the Financial Times:'The Virgin in the Garden' by A. S. Byatt

“One to be reckoned with. It cannot be glibly praised or readily dismissed; it is, massively, there …”

Which I can’t disagree with – it is certainly both “massive” and “there”, “there” being a small town in Yorkshire in the early 1950s, as the community gathers to perform an elaborate verse drama about Queen Elizabeth the First, in order to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Frederica Potter is the seventeen-year-old schoolgirl chosen to play young Elizabeth, and she’s an apt choice. Frederica is clever, fierce, self-obsessed and hilariously obnoxious, convinced that she is superior to her peers in every way yet secretly hurt that they don’t appreciate her specialness. The other Potters – her bullying father, beaten-down mother, odd and fragile little brother, and a sweet older sister who throws away her Cambridge degree to marry an unintellectual clergyman – are also fascinatingly portrayed. The problem I had with this novel was that I had to wade through a lot of tedious, overwritten prose to get to the good bits. At one stage, a character says, “If we were in a novel, they’d cut this dialogue because of artifice” and I found myself wishing they HAD cut that dialogue, as well as most of the adjectives and all of the page-length sentences. The long sections in which Frederica’s brother and his creepy teacher discuss their peculiar pseudo-scientific theories about the universe were particularly difficult to get through. I wondered if even the author had lost track of where she was going with her story, because the final sentence was: “That was not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, it is as good a place to stop as any.” And yet, I kept turning the pages, because the author had so many thoughtful observations to make about family relationships, class conflict, women’s roles in society, religion, education, Elizabethan history, art and literature. This is the first in a quartet of novels about Frederica and I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue with it (I saw a very spoilery review of the next book, which indicated that the sole sympathetic character dies in a very stupid manner, which was not an encouraging sign).

My second Elizabethan read was The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford, a sentimental account of the childhood of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and her little sister, Princess Margaret, as told by their former governess, Marion Crawford. Apparently it caused a sensation when it was first published in 1950, because it was the first ‘insider’ account of a family treated as minor deities 'The Little Princesses' by Marion Crawfordby most of their subjects and all of the press. Nowadays, of course, we’re used to the British royals exposing themselves (in various unflattering ways) in newspapers and on television, but at the time, the Queen Mother was furious at ‘Crawfie’, as the governess was known, for breaking the code of silence that surrounded the royals and as a result, poor old Crawfie was ostracised1. But actually, Crawfie seems to have gone out of her way to flatter the family in this book. She appears very fond of Elizabeth, a serious, anxious child with a “very high IQ” (not that anyone actually administered an IQ test), while Margaret is described as bright, fun-loving and charming. Mind you, even Crawfie admits Margaret could be “wilful and headstrong” (which seems to be code for “a spoilt and uncontrollable brat” – for one thing, Margaret enjoyed tormenting the servants with unpleasant practical jokes, knowing they could never complain about her behaviour). I was interested (and horrified) to see how limited the education of the princesses actually was. Even though it was known that Elizabeth would eventually become ruler of the entire British Commonwealth, she never attended school and the lessons she had with Crawfie were limited to English literature and (family) history. Teenage Elizabeth did attend some individual history tutoring sessions at Eton, but mathematics, science and economics were deemed unnecessary. It was more important that she learn to sing, dance, make polite conversation in French, and ride a horse. This book covers Elizabeth’s life from the age of six, when Crawfie first arrived, to Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip and the subsequent birth of their first child, Charles. The anniversary edition I read had an introduction by Jennie Bond and contained some great photographs, including one of a young Princess Elizabeth in Girl Guide uniform, learning how to tie knots (with Henry FitzOsborne just out of shot, peering over Elizabeth’s shoulder and shouting, “You’re doing it ALL WRONG! Here, let ME do it!”).

'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont' by Elizabeth TaylorAnd finally, a novel written by an Elizabeth – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (the English novelist, not the Hollywood star, although the novelist frequently had to deal with people who’d confused her with the actress). This is a brilliant, but bleak, look at ageing and death in genteel English society in late 1960s London. Elderly Mrs Palfrey is not rich enough to stay in her own home with servants to look after her, not poor enough to move into a state-assisted home for the elderly, and not ill enough for a private hospital or nursing home, but is too polite and independent to impose herself on her middle-aged daughter in Scotland, so she decides to set herself up in a respectable London hotel to wait out her final years. There she meets the other permanent residents, including bitter, arthritic Mrs Arthbuthnot; dim, timid Mrs Post; Mr Osmond, who keeps himself busy writing outraged letters to the newspapers and telling disgusting jokes to the waiters; and mauve-haired, drunken Mrs Burton (named, according to one review I read, after the actress). When she has a fall in the street, Mrs Palfrey is rescued by a young, impoverished writer called Ludo, which leads to a strange sort of friendship between them. Each is using the other – Mrs Palfrey now has a handsome, charming ‘grandson’ to show off to the hotel residents and someone to make her feel needed, while Ludo gains a more satisfactory ‘mother’ than his real mother, and also accumulates a lot of useful material for the novel he’s writing (about old people living at a hotel, entitled They Weren’t Allowed To Die There). Elizabeth Taylor’s observations of character are astute and very funny but also very sad. The residents are all bored, lonely and frightened, but feel unable to admit to this, let alone try to help themselves, so they spend their days obsessing over the hotel menus, spreading spiteful gossip, and complaining about modern life. The author has been called a twentieth-century Jane Austen and for once, that’s not an exaggeration. Mrs Post, for example, is described as “too vague, too bird-brained to achieve real kindness. She had always meant well – and it was the thing people most often said about her – but had managed very seldom to help anyone”, while snobby Lady Swayne manages to irritate even mild-mannered Mrs Palfrey, with “all of [Lady Swayne’s] most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements prefaced with ‘I’m afraid’. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. (Someone had just mentioned Brompton Oratory.) I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.” I won’t provide any plot spoilers, but I will say that if you’re hoping for a sweet, sentimental look at old age, this is not the book for you. I loved it, but it was rather depressing. And now I’m off to find some more Elizabeth Taylor novels to read.

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  1. Although this article suggests that the initial idea of writing magazine articles about the little princesses came from the Queen Mother herself.

Dated Books, Part Nine: Friday’s Tunnel

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney falls mostly into the charmingly nostalgic category, with the dated bits generally being amusing, rather than annoying. It was recommended to me by Debbie during my search for 1950s schoolgirl books, so thank you, Debbie – I thoroughly enjoyed this book (and took careful notes on the schoolgirl slang, hobbies, clothes and other useful information contained therein). But first I ought to show you the lovely old hardcover I purchased from Rainy Day Books:

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

This was once a library book at the ‘City of Collingwood Junior Library’ and the following letter to ‘Junior Borrowers’ is pasted in the front:

'Junior Borrower' letter

I wish all the adults who borrow books from my local library would follow that advice.

I should also point out that my 1959 (first?) edition includes lots of great illustrations by the author, as well as a detailed map (which certainly came in handy, given the complicated plot).

Friday’s Tunnel is narrated by February Callendar, who we learn is “stuck in bed for ages with a broken nose, a broken pelvis and a broken several other things” and is therefore at leisure to write down the extraordinary story of how she managed to save the world during her summer holidays, when she’d actually planned to spend all her time practising show jumping for the district gymkhana and improving her overarm tennis serve (both of which turn out to be very useful skills when dealing with the villains). She also explains that she intends to write “the sort of book I like to read, which means one with a map and drawings, and talk on every page and not one with long descriptions about the sun’s early rays touching the feathery beech-tips with gold and gossamer quivering in the dew, because I think dew is soppy and anyway I’m usually still asleep when all that sort of thing is going on”.

February’s adventure reminded me quite a lot of the Tintin books, even though she herself never actually leaves England. It involves, among other things, a world crisis triggered by a (possibly fake) coup d’état in a small island kingdom called Capria, a mysterious mineral that might be capable of blowing up the world, a millionaire businessman and his vulgar wife, a mysterious plane crash, a missing journalist, a dead body in a canal, a celebrity racing car driver, secret tunnels, a sinister sweet shop owner and a newspaper cartoon strip that may (or may not) contain vital coded messages.

And as with Tintin, the attitudes are from the 1950s. The villains are all swarthy and “foreign-looking”, even if they’re British. The Caprian President, Umbarak, however, was educated at Harrow, so he is “a Christian and a highly civilised man with Western ideas who had enabled the Caprians to live free of fear for the only time in history”, whereas his half-brother Zayid, the coup leader, is “just a bandit like his Moslem forefathers . . . mixed up in every racket in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”. Umbarak has “a gentle, beautiful face like a prince in a fairy tale” and is described as a “saint”, while Zayid looks “splendidly fierce”. I don’t think Zayid is actually Muslim, though, because he drinks alcohol, gambles, sells dope and smuggles “Jewish emigrants into Palestine”. It must also be noted that February and her brother Friday are much more sympathetic towards Zayid (February thinks he sounds “more fun” and she “rather sympathised with him for shutting Umbarak up in the Jenin Palace”, while Friday thinks Umbarak sounds “wet” and that one of Zayid’s more ingenious dope-smuggling rackets is “a wizard idea”). A friend of February’s father, a Very Important Man in the War Office, later gives a pompous speech about how Britain ought to take charge of all the stock of the mineral caprium because “England is the only Great Power who could use caprium as it must be used if the world is to survive”, although his view is countered by the newspaper editor who says, “We happen to believe that if the world is to survive, Great Powers simply must stop grabbing everything they think they can get away with and try behaving openly for a change.” (Sadly, the current leaders of the Great Powers do not appear to agree with this last viewpoint. And I think the characters in this book are being overly optimistic to describe Britain in 1959 as a “Great Power”.)

But it was all the science-y bits that had me either groaning or laughing at their dated-ness. I’ve noticed during my recent 1950s reading that fiction writers of the time seemed obsessed with the notion that science was about to annihilate humanity (which I guess is understandable after nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) and that all scientists, but especially physicists, were believed to be secretive, incomprehensible and slightly deranged. So I was not surprised to see that science plays a large role in this book. A schoolboy friend of February’s is “mad on chemistry” and is constantly doing dangerous experiments (which, by the way, cause no concern to his parents, even when he burns off his sister’s hair with acid). He buys a lot of different cigarette brands (one of which is supposed to be “non-cancer”) to test, and wonders why one is wrapped in paper that won’t burn. His father, the village doctor, thinks the paper is probably made of asbestos:

“No reason why it shouldn’t be used instead of tin-foil,” he said. “Perhaps it preserves the cigarettes better in some way.”

Then he wanders off (probably smoking his pipe). Mind you, this is the same doctor who cheerfully discusses his patients’ details with February, explaining that the old woman he’s about to see only has a fever because she “gets herself so excited with all the things she thinks are wrong with her” so he’s going to give her “the nastiest tasting medicine I can think of, which is asafoetida and bromide”. Which is probably an accurate description of the behaviour of doctors, in the days before anyone paid much attention to ideas like “patient confidentiality” and “evidence-based medicine”.

But the funniest part was when the War Office bigwig gave a solemn lecture on physics, explaining that uranium is “the heaviest” element1 and that Britain’s “top nuclear physicist has had a nervous breakdown” because the mysterious mineral caprium has “upset his confidence in himself” and he’s been forced to accept that “all his knowledge is no less ludicrous than was the flat earth theory in its day”. I’m pretty sure “top nuclear physicists” don’t usually go “round the bend” when they come across a new, interesting element (isn’t that what they hope for?) and in any case, the reported properties of caprium don’t actually seem to prove that the atomic theory is wrong. (Also, despite no one understanding what caprium does, the War Office bigwig straps a bag of (possibly radioactive) caprium to his abdomen to cure his duodenal ulcer, which, of course, has been caused by the stress of dealing with the caprium crisis.)

Overall, though, I enjoyed February’s story very much. Her voice is lively and often very funny, her eccentric family and friends are entertaining, and the dated bits are quite amusing. Recommended for fans of Tintin or for those who wish the Famous Five books had had more plausible characters and more complex plots.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

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  1. I was pretty sure that heavier elements had been synthesised during or just after the war, so I looked up the history of the periodic table, and yes, by 1959, there were at least five discovered elements heavier than uranium, with even heavier elements that had been theorised and were later observed. But then again, the author couldn’t Google this information in thirty seconds, as I just did.

‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I feel slightly foolish rhapsodising about this novel. It’s rather like saying, “I saw this great play last night! You should see it! It’s called Hamlet!” because apparently, The Leopard (or Il Gattopardo, the Italian title) is one of the most famous novels ever published in Italy. However, as I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago, when I read a reference to it in a travel article1 about Sicily, then I’m guessing at least some of you may not be familiar with it, either, and you ought to know about it because it’s WONDERFUL.

'The Leopard' by Giuseppe Tomasi di LampedusaThe ‘Leopard’ is Don Fabrizio, the head of an ancient noble family of Sicily in 1860, which is not a very good time to be a Sicilian prince. Should Don Fabrizio continue to prop up the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or should he support Garibaldi and his Red Shirts as the rebels attempt to unify Italy? Don Fabrizio’s handsome, charming nephew, Tancredi, has no doubts. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” declares Tancredi. Then he rushes off to join the Red Shirts, gains a heroic (but not very serious) wound, and swaggers back to the family’s country estate, where he falls in love with the mayor’s beautiful daughter, to his cousin Concetta’s dismay. A further dilemma for Don Fabrizio! Should he permit, even encourage, this marriage? The mayor, Don Calogero, is vulgar, devious and violent, the very opposite of a nobleman, but he’s rich and powerful and the marriage would allow ambitious Tancredi to prosper in this new regime. But what about poor Concetta’s broken heart? Will she continue to spurn Tancredi’s friend, the shy but devoted Count? Will the hapless family priest, Father Pirrone, ever manage to convince Don Fabrizio to take religion seriously? Will Paolo, Don Fabrizio’s useless son, ever turn into a worthy heir? And will Bendicò, Don Fabrizio’s affectionate but destructive Great Dane, ever stop digging up the flower beds?

The plot provides no great surprises, but the delight of this novel lies in the rich descriptions of characters and settings and particularly, in Don Fabrizio’s droll, sardonic reflections on life and the decline of the aristocracy. Imagine if Anthony Trollope had written a Sicilian version of Brideshead Revisited and you’ll get some idea of the tone of the novel. Don Fabrizio observes the rebels with mild interest, too intelligent and cynical to believe they will benefit Sicily, but too fatalistic (and lazy) to try to stop them. When they offer him a post as senator in the new government, he turns it down, saying, “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all”, going on to claim that “Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery”. He winces at Don Calogero’s vulgarity but reluctantly comes to admire the mayor’s ability to solve problems, “free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners”.

I loved Don Fabrizio’s descriptions of the stark, arid Sicilian countryside where he spends summers at one of his immense, deteriorating palaces, Donnafugata, in which there are “apartments and corners not even Don Fabrizio had ever set foot – a cause of great satisfaction to him, for he used to say that a house of which one knew every room wasn’t worth living in”. There are also gorgeous descriptions of his palace near Palermo and of a grand ball at a friend’s mansion, at which Tancredi anxiously introduces his future wife and father-in-law to Society.

The Leopard seems such a glorious nineteenth-century kind of novel that it comes as a shock to read that the grand ballroom, with its ceiling painted with “eternal” gods, is destined to be destroyed by “a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn” in 1943. The author, the last Prince of Lampedusa, wrote this in the 1950s, after his own palace had been destroyed in the war2. The character of Don Fabrizio is based on his own great-grandfather and the settings of the novel are so beautifully, authentically described because they were the author’s childhood homes. As David Gilmour writes in the introduction to the English translation3, “So much of Lampedusa’s life, his wisdom, his learning and his sensibility, were distilled in its pages that it is doubtful whether he could have written a second novel of similar quality and intensity. The Leopard is a masterpiece because its author waited so long before writing it.”

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  1. In which, from memory, the travel writer stayed in a palace belonging to Lampedusa’s family and actually met his adopted son, who served as a model for Tancredi.
  2. Lampedusa died before his novel found a publisher, so he didn’t ever see The Leopard become a bestseller, win the Strega Prize and become an acclaimed film.
  3. I read the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, who seems to have done an excellent job, apart from a couple of jarring phrases coming from the mouths of peasants – but I expect it’s pretty difficult, translating Sicilian slang into English.

Book Recommendations, Please

I know the people who regularly visit this blog are widely read, highly intelligent and have excellent taste, so could you please recommend me some books? But not just any books. I am looking for some very specific books – namely, books set in England, preferably London, in the 1950s or early 1960s, about middle-class or upper-class schoolgirls. The books can be novels, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies (or chapters of biographies or autobiographies) – I don’t mind, as long as they centre on the lives of schoolgirls and the author really knows what he (or preferably, she) is writing about. To be even more demanding, I’d prefer to read about girls at day schools, rather than boarding schools. A 1950s or 1960s version of A Long Way From Verona or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, set in London, would be perfect.

Here are some of the books I’ve recently read, or re-read, that didn’t quite meet my requirements:

An Education, a memoir by Lynn Barber, included some chapters describing how Lynn, a bright but naïve schoolgirl, was courted by a much older con man who convinced her (and her parents) that she should leave school and marry him. It was also made into an excellent film, written by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan.

Girlitude: A Portrait of the 50s and 60s, a memoir by Emma Tennant, looked promising, but wasn’t really about her life as a child. It’s about how the author, a spoilt, rich member of the aristocracy, drifted through the fifties and sixties, picking up and discarding husbands, lovers, friends and houses, dumping her child on her long-suffering parents, and occasionally deigning to work for a few months at a time at some fashion magazine or other (the jobs arranged for her by her family, as she’d left school at fifteen and had no qualifications or apparent skills).

I also read, or re-read, a few Noel Streatfeild children’s books, including the ‘Shoes’ novels (Apple Bough/Traveling Shoes remains my favourite), Caldicott Place (which was okay) and Gemma (which was dreadful). Then I read some grown-up novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, All Change and Love All, as well as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which included schoolgirls as minor characters.

Any other suggestions, readers? Has anyone read the World’s End series by Monica Dickens or any of Mary Treadgold‘s children’s books, and would you recommend them? My only other proviso is that I’d prefer the books to be readily available. (For example, I’ve been intrigued by reviews of Antonia Forest‘s Marlow books for a while, but they’re in copyright yet out-of-print, and the last time I went online looking for a second-hand paperback copy of End of Term, it was listed for SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS, which is beyond my book-buying budget.) Thanks, everyone!

Adventures in Research: Secrets and Spies During the Cold War

As part of my research into 1960s England, I decided I needed to learn more about British intelligence agencies, and in particular, MI5. Firstly, though, I had to figure out the difference between MI5 and MI6. Right, that’s simple enough! MI5 (now known as the ‘Security Service’) deals with threats to domestic security, while MI6 (the ‘Secret Service’, also known as ‘the one that James Bond works for’) deals with international issues. No, wait – it’s not quite that simple. ‘Domestic’ was historically defined as not just England, Scotland and Wales (and Northern Ireland, after 1920) but the whole of the British Empire (which was a considerable chunk of the world until the 1960s). This meant that MI5, supposedly a domestic intelligence agency, had agents stationed all over the planet, from Aden (now in Yemen), the Sudan and Cyprus, to India and Malaya, as well as throughout the Dominions (Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Plus, MI5 needed to know a lot about their Soviet enemies behind the Iron Curtain, in case a KGB spy popped up in London (which seems to have happened roughly every five minutes during the 1960s). But hang on, weren’t Soviet Union spies the responsibility of MI6? And what about the role of the British army, navy and air force, especially the military’s code-breaking and technological development teams? And what about the police – Scotland Yard, for instance, and local branches in places where spies were hiding? Well, I guess they must all have worked together harmoniously for the good of the nation, sharing all their information and technology.

Ha, ha. No, actually, they spent a great deal of their time squabbling over resources, jealously guarding their information and pointing accusing fingers at one another whenever a spy within the ranks was unmasked or news of a particularly inept piece of bungling reached the public. I learned about this, and more, from several books about MI5. The first was The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, which intrigued me because why on Earth would a secret service publish a thousand-page volume explaining their inner workings, including a map containing photos and locations of all their offices?1 But actually, this book turned out to be less comprehensive than I’d hoped. 'The Defence of the Realm' by Christopher AndrewThe author, a British historian, was given limited access to MI5’s archives and then the final manuscript was vetted by MI5 to remove anything that “would damage national security” or be “inappropriate for wider public interest reasons” (that is, anything that might make MI5 look bad). The book does provide a good overview of the early years of MI5 (which was founded in 1909 to deal with the threat of German imperialism) and of MI5’s work during the two world wars. However, the closer it gets to the current day, the more guarded the author becomes. He’s reluctant to criticise any of MI5’s actions during the 1950s and 1960s, which included helping the CIA overthrow the democratically elected government of British Guiana (on the grounds the Prime Minister had Communist sympathies, although ironically, the man they put in his place actually strengthened the country’s links with the Soviets), plotting to assassinate inconvenient people (Colonel Nasser in Egypt, for instance) and spying on ‘friends’ (bugging the French Embassy during European Economic Community negotiations and eavesdropping on African leaders during independence talks). At most, Andrew is mildly disapproving when Guy Liddell, an MI5 Director, vehemently opposes independence for the colonies because the “niggers” (Liddell’s term, used in official correspondence) aren’t capable of governing their own countries – but then Andrew excuses this on the grounds that everyone thought that way in the mid-twentieth century. The author also apparently has no problem with MI5 targeting British citizens regarded by the (Conservative) government as ‘subversives’, including such dangerous people as trade unionists, members of the Labour Party and suburban grandmothers campaigning for nuclear disarmament. (Communists, the lot of them! They deserve to be spied on!) He also goes to great lengths to accuse Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who believed MI5 was bugging his office, of paranoia and outright insanity. But MI5 did keep a file on Wilson! MI5 had previously disseminated false information to discredit Labour politicians during an election! And for much of its history, MI5 was exclusively staffed by members of a tiny section of right-wing British society – men who’d attended the same exclusive schools and universities, who’d usually worked in the colonies, and who were, even by the standards of their day, incredibly sexist, racist and anti-Semitic (even active members of Fascist organisations, in at least one case). Although this book was often very interesting and occasionally quite entertaining, I became so frustrated at the author’s bias, the gaps in the record and the lack of verifiable sources that I ended up skimming the final two hundred pages. There’s a good review by Bernard Porter, who has read the entire book, here at the London Review of Books.

'Spycatcher' by Peter WrightNext I turned to a more controversial book, Spycatcher by Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer. Australians may remember that the British government tried to ban its publication in Australia, with the book successfully defended in court by none other than Malcolm Turnbull2. Turnbull managed to make the British government look completely ridiculous during the Spycatcher trial and the book received lots of free publicity and went on to sell millions of copies around the world. It’s at its most interesting (and plausible) when Wright discusses how he and his colleagues “bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way”. He describes the technology they invented to eavesdrop, and detect eavesdropping, and how they managed to keep track of the Soviet spies who were based in the UK during the Cold War. The book becomes less convincing when Wright describes his “freelance” campaign to uncover the ‘moles’ within MI5. His suspicions were mostly based on accounts provided by a (very unreliable) Soviet defector, but also on Wright’s own “intuition”. He attempted to prove the mole was Roger Hollis, then MI5 Director-General, which turned out to be quite difficult for Wright because there was no real evidence (possibly because Hollis wasn’t actually a Soviet spy). Then Wright went on a witchhunt within MI5, scrutinising dozens of staff, causing breakdowns, resignations and suicides and destroying office morale, before he finally gave up, resigned and moved to Australia to write this book. It seems partly motivated by revenge – he was peeved that his MI5 pension wasn’t much larger – but he also seems to relish revealing lots of important secrets, including code names and agent identities, secrets that he’d been trusted to keep. So I think it’s a bit much for him to treat Soviet spies like Anthony Blunt with such contempt in the book – how is Wright’s own behaviour much different? Surely he signed some kind of secrecy agreement when he joined MI5? And after all, for most of the time that Blunt was working as a Soviet spy, the Soviet Union was Britain’s ally – they were both fighting the Nazis (in fact, the Soviets were doing far more of the fighting than the British), so wasn’t Blunt just handing over information that Britain should have been sharing anyway? And how is what Blunt did much worse than Winston Churchill covering up Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre, in which more than 20,000 Polish prisoners, mostly civilians, were murdered and dumped in mass graves?

Stella Rimington, the first female Director-General of MI5, knew Peter Wright when he worked there, and her autobiography, Open Secret, describes him as obsessive, paranoid and self-important, with an “over-developed imagination” – in fact, she and her colleagues used to wonder if he was a KGB spy, placed within MI5 to cause maximum disruption to the service. Furthermore, she says MI5 did not cheat him out of any of his pension (although she wishes MI5 management had given him more money to ‘buy him off’, given how much damage his book ended up doing to MI5’s reputation). She does, however, thank him for drawing attention to one of MI5’s problems – that, until the 1980s, MI5 staff had no legal protection for their work. (Eventually, legislation was passed to allow MI5 to intercept telephone conversations and postal correspondence and eavesdrop on private conversations, with oversight by a parliamentary committee.) 'Open Secret' by Stella RimingtonHer book also provides an interesting account of how MI5 was forced to change in modern times – to become more professional and accountable to the public, and to recruit more diverse staff. She’s particularly good at describing the challenges faced by women working within MI5. When she joined in the 1960s, women were not thought capable of doing anything other than administrative tasks, and her managers were bemused and sometimes hostile as she battled to become an officer and progress up the ranks to become a director (although she insists she wasn’t one of those “aggressive feminists”). Her work was made even more difficult because she was a single parent. At one stage, when child care arrangements fell through, she ended up taking her young daughter with her to a ‘safe house’ where she’d arranged to meet a contact. On another occasion, she was about to leave to meet a possible Soviet defector when her nanny called to say Rimington’s daughter was being rushed to hospital, suffering convulsions. (Rimington ended up going to the hospital after the defector meeting, but having to borrow money from the potential defector for taxi fares to the hospital. Perhaps that’s why he decided against defecting.) Family life was further disrupted when Rimington became the first Director-General to be publicly named, which caused a media sensation and meant that she and her daughter (and dog) had to leave their home and hide in an MI5 ‘safe house’ while her daughter was trying to do her A-levels (their dog, however, quite enjoyed this because he got to go on patrols with the security guards and was made an honorary member of the security team, with an official pass attached to his collar).

While Rimington has some issues with the way MI5 used to work, she says these problems have now been overcome and she seems very loyal to the organisation, vigorously defending its more dubious behaviour. For instance, she denies that MI5 behaved badly when it targeted the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest movement – after all, CND was clearly part of a Soviet plot to weaken the West because it wanted Britain to ban the bomb! Similarly, she denies that MI5 worked as “tools of Mrs Thatcher” to break the miners’ strike in 1984 – after all, the unions were full of Communists who hated Thatcher, so by definition, they were “subversive” because they were opposed to the government (and it’s pure coincidence that Rimington’s husband John, a senior Whitehall official, was, at the time, locked in bitter negotiations with the miners’ unions about cost-cutting measures and job cuts). She acknowledges that a lot of MI5’s “fevered activity” during the Cold War was “unsuccessful because the other side very frequently saw us coming” but that “it is a mistake to ridicule all this activity [because] the Soviet bloc presented a serious threat to our national security” and she’s proud that MI5 was “helping to preserve democracy against the forces of totalitarianism”.

For my part, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if both sides, Soviet and Western, had directed all the time, money and effort they poured into spying on each other towards humanitarian causes. They could have ensured every child in the world received basic literacy and numeracy education. They could have provided clean water and sanitation to every community that needed it. They could have wiped polio off the face of the Earth. Instead, they chose to devote a huge amount of national resources to activities that achieved almost nothing, except loss of life, for either side. But no doubt Rimington and her colleagues at MI5 would regard such ideas as the ravings of a loony idealist, of someone quite possibly a Communist – maybe even one of those dreaded “aggressive feminists”.

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  1. There seems to be a trend for this sort of thing. The Australian version of MI5, ASIO, has just authorised its own history – The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963, Volume 1, by David Horner, which Robert Manne described in his Sydney Morning Herald review as “clearly organised, comprehensive, fair-minded and slightly dull”. Also Frank Moorhouse, author of the Edith Campbell Berry trilogy, has recently published Australia Under Surveillance, a more personal look at the subject of domestic surveillance.
  2. For the benefit of non-Australians, Malcolm Turnbull is famous for a lot of reasons, including: being extremely rich; marrying Lucy Hughes, from the famous and powerful Hughes family; being a cabinet minister in the Liberal (that is, conservative) Australian government; and, at the moment, being touted as the person who should replace Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, on the grounds that Turnbull is more intelligent, articulate and in touch with the values of twenty-first-century Australians than Abbott is. (Although I would just like to remind Turnbull fans about the Godwin Grech debacle and that Turnbull, MP for one of the gayest electorates in Australia, who got elected by promising his support for same-sex marriage, voted against same-sex marriage in 2012. And don’t forget his claim that he understands ordinary Australians because he himself grew up in conditions of terrible, grinding poverty – reduced, at one stage of his childhood, to living in a rented flat in Double Bay! Okay, that last one is probably only funny to Sydneysiders. For non-Sydneysiders, Double Bay is the equivalent of Belgravia in London or Park Lane in New York.)

My Favourite Books of 2014

I know there’s still more than a week until the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2014 (so far) that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I finished reading 84 books this year, which doesn’t include the two awful novels that I refused to keep reading, the memoir I’ve just started or the small pile of 1960s non-fiction I’m hoping to get through before New Year’s Day.

Types of books read in 2014

Author nationality for books read in 2014

Although this doesn’t take into account the author’s ethnic background, simply where they were living when they wrote the book.

After that, I got a bit bored with pie charts.

Author gender for books read in 2014

Another year when women authors dominated my reading list.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books
'Ramona Quimby, Age 8' by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby! I hadn’t read this series by Beverly Cleary before, and it was such a treat, getting to hang out with Ramona and her family. Ramona tries to be good, but grown-ups are so confusing and unfair and just don’t understand how difficult life is when you’re the youngest . . . and yet, no matter how much Ramona sulked and lost her temper and created havoc, she was always an endearing, sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Totally Joe by James Howe, and Dogsbody and Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (but loathed Fire and Hemlock – sorry, DWJ fans).

My favourite Young Adult novels

Does A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam count as Young Adult? It was probably my favourite book of the year. I also loved The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, about the differences that emerge between two sisters, one thirteen and awkward, the other sixteen and beautiful, when they’re left alone to look after their younger siblings on holiday in France. The characters are so real and interesting, and the setting so beautifully described. I didn’t have as much success with contemporary YA reads this year – I must have been choosing the wrong books or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for them.

My favourite fiction for adults

I continued to admire Alice Munro’s books, particularly her collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and I was highly entertained by E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. I don’t tend to read much crime fiction, but I did enjoy The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson (which, coincidentally, featured a fictional version of Josephine Tey).

My favourite non-fiction and memoirs
'Wesley the Owl' by Stacey O'Brien

I read so many interesting non-fiction books this year. My favourites included Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and two very funny books written by Americans about 1950s England – Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith and Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. I am such a sucker for Scientist-Adopts-Injured-Wild-Animal books 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' by Jeanette Wintersonand Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl by Stacey O’Brien was a good one – injured owlet Wesley grows up to regard the author as his ‘mate’, trying to push dead mice into her mouth at dinner time and viciously attacking anything that he sees as a threat to her (including her boyfriend and her own new bouffant hairdo). In the Depressing Lesbian Memoir category, I found myself engrossed in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (which definitely wins the year’s Best Book Title award).

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2015 brings you lots of wonderful books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013