‘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

Adventures in Research: Some Books about the 1950s and 1960s

I’ve been plodding on through the 1950s and 1960s, which has included reading books written about the period in more recent times. (This, by the way, did not involve much adventure. I just borrowed all these books from my local library.) First was Family Britain: 1951-1957 by David Kynaston, which was a thoroughly researched sociological history, examining issues such as housing, entertainment and food, as well as taking a close look at a few significant political events, including the Suez crisis. There’s lots of detail about the experiences of working class and lower middle class people, told in their own words (often thanks to the interviewers from Mass Observation) so the book was often very interesting – but it was slightly disorganised and repetitious, so this is possibly not a book for the general reader.

'Never Had It So Good' by Dominic SandbrookThose looking for a more entertaining read about the period may prefer Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, 1956-63, by Dominic Sandbrook. This is also very detailed and carefully researched, and it was particularly good at summarising important political events (for example, the resignations of Prime Ministers Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan and subsequent political manoeuvrings). There are also interesting discussions of popular culture (film, television, music and books), although the author’s personal biases become apparent here. For example, he devotes more than an entire chapter to Kingsley Amis, who Sandbrook believes is “brilliantly funny”, with Lucky Jim considered to be “a work of tremendous influence”, “emblematic of a post-war literary trend”, with an immense number of imitators (Really? Did Amis have more imitators than, say, J. R. R. Tolkien?). Meanwhile, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, John Fowles, Anthony Burgess, Mervyn Peake, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien are collectively dealt with in three sentences. Similarly, women are nearly absent from this book. There are a couple of pages about Christine Keeler (the young woman at the centre of the Profumo scandal), a few references to a young Tory politician named Margaret Thatcher, some anonymous housewives buying washing machines and a horde of anonymous teenage girls screaming at the Beatles, but that’s it (and don’t expect much about topics such as fashion, either). Otherwise, this is an entertaining, informative read about the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Eager to find out more about women’s experiences, I turned to Sheila Rowbotham‘s Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties. Goodness, it was dull. There are a few interesting anecdotes about her personal experiences as a young academic and political activist, but mostly it was pages and pages of tedious squabbling between various Left factions – trade unionists versus Marxist academics, Leninists versus Trotskyists versus Maoists, and so on – with every single participant named and none of them actually seeming to achieve anything useful. Most of the men are appallingly sexist and the book becomes more interesting when the women start to object to this behaviour and begin ‘consciousness-raising’ groups to share their experiences. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen until the final chapter, and the book ends with the author and others planning the first Women’s Liberation conference in Britain, which was held in 1970. The author does make an interesting point, linking the 1960s hippies to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies:

“The ‘do your own thing’ sense of individual liberation was turned into a justification of living completely for yourself. Elements of this self-absorption were also to persist, transmuting into the ruthless selfishness which would come into ascendancy in the late eighties.”

Jenny Diski, author of The Sixties, agrees and takes this idea further:

“There are two accusations: that we caused the greed and self-interest of the Eighties by invoking the self, the individual, as the unit of society and setting up individualism for the Right to pick up and run with; or that we caused it by being so permissive, so soppy about matters that needed hard, firm handling, that a reaction was inevitable if the West wasn’t to sink into a morass of self-indulgent chaos.”

'The Sixties' by Jenny DiskiOtherwise, this is a very different sort of book, a collection of entertaining personal essays on the topics of consumerism, drug-taking, sex, revolutionary politics, education and mental health in ‘the Sixties’ (which is defined as circa 1965-1974). It wasn’t particularly useful for my research purposes, as Jenny Diski’s experiences were so outside the ‘norm’ (for example, she was expelled from school at fifteen for sniffing ether, was incarcerated in various mental institutions, then lived in a commune with drug addicts and then, while still a young trainee teacher, set up her own school for disadvantaged children, run on ‘alternative education’ principles). However, I found it fascinating and often very funny. (Jenny Diski is a novelist, and Sheila Rowbotham an academic and historian, and it shows.) (Oh, I just found Jenny Diski’s review of Sheila Rowbotham’s Promise of a Dream in London Review of Books. Ha!)

To give myself a break from politics and drugs and mental asylums and so on, I then read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, a charming and very funny collection of correspondence between Miss Hanff, an irreverent New York writer, and Mr Doel, a stuffy London bookseller. The letters began in 1949 when she wrote to order a book from the antiquarian shop where he worked, but soon the correspondents included the bookseller’s colleagues, wife and neighbour, as well as the writer’s friends, with books, recipes and gifts being exchanged across the Atlantic for the next twenty years. If you love books, you will adore this.

Helene Hanff on Books

'84, Charing Cross Road' by Helene Hanff

“I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.”

Helene Hanff in 84, Charing Cross Road

You may also be interested in reading:

Doris Lessing on Reading

Goatbusters, Or How The Writerly Mind Works

When people find out I’m a writer (and if those people are not writers themselves), then, nine times out of ten, their next question will be about where I get my ideas. At one stage, this became a running joke with a writer friend of mine, as neither of us ever seemed to be able to come up with a good answer to this question. It may have been truthful to say “From everywhere!”, but this never seemed to satisfy our questioners, so we invented a lot of really silly responses that we were never brave (or rude) enough to use in real life. The problem was that I was assuming that everyone had a mind that worked in a similar way to mine – that is, that given an old photograph, a piece of historical trivia, an anagram, an unusual occupation or even an oddly shaped cloud, anyone’s mind would instantly use that to spin off into half a dozen questions, some jokes and, given enough time, a novel-length story. Working on that assumption, asking where writers get their ideas was, to me, like asking most people how they managed to breathe. Why would you require an explanation of something so obvious and instinctive?

Of course, people’s minds don’t all work in the same way, which is a good thing, because we need a variety of human skills and talents to make society interesting and productive. I remember having a conversation with a very intelligent, articulate and polite teenager who asked me ‘Where do you get ideas for writing?’ with genuine bemusement and some anxiety, because her curriculum required her to do lots of ‘creative writing’ and she was finding it a struggle. I think part of the struggle was due to the poor girl being forced to produce pieces of writing following strict guidelines, in a limited amount of time, in the hope of pleasing her teacher, in order to attain a good assessment mark, which would count towards her final Higher School Certificate score, which would define her ENTIRE FUTURE1. However, I suspect it was also because she had the sort of mind that did not instinctively and incessantly ask questions such as, “Are there really only two options here? Can I do both? Or neither? Why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this? What would happen if . . .?” That is, she did not have a mind that was constantly flying off at (possibly unproductive) tangents. Or perhaps she had once possessed that sort of mind, but ten years of formal education had trained it out of her.

I don’t mean to suggest that only writers have minds that constantly ask “What if . . .?” Research scientists, for example, are brilliant at asking those sort of questions. Anyone who has a job that involves identifying and solving problems needs to be able to think this way. And I don’t mean to suggest that having an enquiring, imaginative mind is the only quality needed to produce, say, a hundred-thousand-word novel. You also need organisational skills, persistence, self-confidence, an ability to ignore distractions when necessary, time, money and a lot of other things that may not be easy to acquire. But I do think that most writers, of fiction or non-fiction, are especially attuned to those tiny details in everyday life – things that are slightly odd or amusing or mysterious – that have the potential to be transformed into a poem, a story or a book (or a blog post).

For example, on Saturday, I was browsing the pages of the weekend edition of The Sydney Morning Herald when I came across an article intriguingly entitled Cemetery Calls in the Goatbusters, with an even more intriguing photo of some blurry white goats posing on some tombstones. It appears that four “white Boer goats” have been spotted in the Jewish section of Rookwood Necropolis2, Sydney’s largest cemetery, and they are now stubbornly avoiding capture. Fiona Heslop, the cemetery’s chief executive officer, was quoted as saying,

“I have looked out of my office on numerous occasions to see the goats leaning against headstones, only to look back a moment later to find they are no longer there.”

Ms Heslop added (possibly in ominous tones),

“They are not doing any harm at this stage, but they do show up in the strangest places at the strangest times.”

Surely even the most unimaginative reader would be wondering by now about how the authorities managed to identify the exact number and breed of the goats, if the goats are so amazingly elusive. CLEARLY THE AUTHORITIES ARE HIDING SOMETHING FROM US. (The idea of animals living at Rookwood, on the other hand, is not all that mysterious, given that Rookwood Necropolis consists of three hundred hectares of mostly untamed bush, including a entire ironbark forest. It would not surprise me to learn that somewhere in the depths of Rookwood, there’s an elephant that escaped from a circus in the 1970s, or a couple of Tasmanian tigers, or a flock of pterodactyls.) But what are the goats doing there? As I read the article, several possibilities immediately sprang to mind:

1. They are highly trained lawn-mowers, being used by the authorities to keep the grass under control after budget cuts forced the redundancies of most of the human gardeners. (Then why would the authorities claim to be trying to catch the goats? Well, obviously, some cemetery visitor saw them and made an official complaint, so the authorities now have to pretend to round up the goats. Then, whenever the RSPCA inspectors arrive, the gatekeeper blows a warning whistle and the goats sprint off to the café, where they don aprons and caps and pretend to be waitresses until the coast is clear.)
2. They are patrolling the cemetery with webcams strapped to their horns, because the authorities are worried that modern-day bodysnatchers might be using the cemetery to supply the anatomy labs at Cumberland College of Health Sciences, which is right across the road from Rookwood.
3. They are the descendants of the original scapegoat, which was unfairly burdened with the sins of humans and banished to the wilderness by a long-ago Jewish high priest, and now these modern-day goats are hanging round the Jewish section of Rookwood in order to have their revenge, by pushing over a rabbi in the dust or some such nefarious action.

Feel free to leave your own theories in the comments. It is obvious the goats are up to something, anyway. Goats are always up to something. You only have to look into their eyes to see that they’re very suspicious characters. Or maybe it’s only people with overly vivid imaginations writerly minds who think that way.

Portrait of a goat

Portrait of a goat. Creative Commons Licensed image by 4028mdk09

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How to Write a Novel
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  1. For any senior high school students reading this, I’d like to emphasise that the success or failure of your life does NOT depend on the marks you achieve in the HSC or VCE or whatever exams you have to do at the end of high school. I know you won’t believe me, but it’s true. I am speaking from experience here.
  2. In keeping with this blog’s everything-is-related-to-books theme, I should point out here that Dorothy Porter wrote a Young Adult novel called Rookwood, set in this cemetery. Unfortunately, the book’s not very good, so I can’t recommend it, but she did write some really interesting verse novels for adults.

The ‘Aha!’ Moment and Three Things That Didn’t Happen in The Montmaray Journals

Working my way through my towers of 1960s research books last week, I finally had an ‘Aha!’ moment – one of those moments when I come across a reference (often a fleeting one, sometimes a mere footnote) to a fascinating real-life event that seems to fit perfectly into my planned story. “Aha!” I cried, clapping my hands in great excitement.1 Ideally, an ‘Aha!’ historical event will involve some bizarre element but not be widely known, because I like the idea of my readers saying to themselves while reading, “I never knew about that! Did that really happen?” On the other hand, it’s helpful (for both me and inquisitive novel readers who want to learn more) if there’s a fair amount of information available about the event. This particular event I’ve discovered appears to fulfil all these conditions, which makes me very happy.

'The Bookworm' by Carl Spitzweg (1850)

The historical novelist may need to read a LOT of books before an ‘Aha!’ moment arrives . . .

Of course, there’s the possibility that this will turn into an ‘Oh no . . .’ moment, which occurs when I dig further into the research, unearth an inconvenient fact and realise that the event is not actually going to fit into my story the way I’d hoped. Sometimes the dates don’t match my planned story; sometimes there’s a complicated backstory to the event that will lead my story somewhere I don’t want it to go. Here are three scenes that didn’t appear in my Montmaray Journals trilogy, due to ‘Oh no . . .’ moments:

1. Fascists Storm the British Embassy in Madrid!

I came across this thrilling tale in the memoirs of Sir Samuel Hoare, Viscount Templewood. Hoare was a fervent appeaser of Mussolini and Hitler in the years before the Second World War2, and so, not surprisingly, lost his ministerial job when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. Churchill sent Hoare to Spain to keep him out of the way, figuring Hoare couldn’t do too much damage there and might even get along quite well with Franco, Spain’s Fascist dictator – maybe even persuade Franco to renounce Hitler. Of course, Franco paid no attention to Hoare whatsoever and continued to co-operate with the Nazis whenever it was in his interests to do so, turning a blind eye when his Falangist supporters, with the help of Nazi agents, attacked the British Embassy:

“The attack had in all respects been methodically planned in the true German manner. It was to begin with the burning of the British staff cars standing outside the Embassy. It was at this point that Spanish forgetfulness frustrated German efficiency. Matches were then very scarce in Madrid, and either no one had a match or no one wished to sacrifice one in a street battle. The cars, therefore, escaped burning though several were seriously damaged by stones.
The next move was an attempt to break into the Embassy. At this point we [Embassy staff] were in a strong position. For not only were we protected by our regular force of British guards, but we had within the precincts sixteen of our escaped prisoners of war who were burning for the chance of a battle with the enemy . . .”

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought to myself, if Toby FitzOsborne, recently escaped from Nazi-occupied France, could be one of those men in the Embassy battling the Fascist invaders! With Veronica fighting beside him, knocking out a few Falangists with a well-aimed chair! Alas, the dates just didn’t work out. The Embassy attack occurred in June, 1941, when Toby was still flying in combat as an RAF fighter pilot and Veronica was working in the Foreign Office in London. Anyway, Hoare was not exactly a reliable memoirist, so I suspect the British response during the Embassy siege was a lot less brave and glorious than he described.

2. Sophie FitzOsborne, Lady War Correspondent

I carefully added some references to Sophie writing newspaper articles in the second Montmaray book, so that once war broke out, I’d be able to turn her into a newspaper reporter and send her overseas, in order to describe lots of important battles. But when I started researching the lives of actual war correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn3, I realised this was never going to work. Sophie just wasn’t tough or experienced enough – no British newspaper editor would ever employ her as a reporter, not even to report on the London Blitz. It wasn’t even likely she’d get a job as a women’s columnist – British newspapers were severely curtailed during the war, as a result of both paper shortages and official censorship, with only essential news being printed. In the end, I decided I preferred her to have a humdrum job during the war, to emphasise that war, for most participants, is the exact opposite of a noble, exhilarating experience. And Sophie did get to write some Food Facts, which were published to help housewives cope with rationing. Also, did you know that Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s wife, worked at the Ministry of Food during the war? I tried to arrange a friendship between Sophie and Eileen, so that Sophie could have a discussion about totalitarianism with Orwell, but unfortunately, the two women worked in different departments.

3. The Spy, The Cryptographer and The Poet

During the war, the Special Operations Executive sent Allied agents into occupied Europe, with the agents communicating using codes that were initially based on well-known poems. Unfortunately, these poem ciphers were very easy for the Nazis to break. Leo Marks, a British cryptographer in charge of SOE agent codes, made a number of changes to ensure the codes were more secure, including using original poems. Aha! I thought. Maybe Sophie and her friend Rupert, with their flair for poetry, could meet to write poems for Leo Marks! Unfortunately, introducing another real-life character and his complicated backstory would have made my book even longer than it already was (that is, far too long), so that plot line was dropped. However, I did manage to sneak in a reference to Leo Marks – the Colonel mentions an anonymous friend who is “one of our best cryptographers” but has failed to decipher a sample of Kernetin, the FitzOsborne family code.

Incidentally, Leo Marks was the son of Ben Marks, one of the owners of Marks and Co, the famous bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road – and an employee of that bookshop just happens to be related, in a very tangential way, to that exciting thing I discovered in my 1960s research. Aha! The plot thickens . . .
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  1. Probably only historical novelists would describe this sort of discovery as ‘greatly exciting’.
  2. For example, in March, 1939, after the Nazis had invaded Czechoslovakia, Hoare stated that he remained optimistic that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would become “eternal benefactors of the human race”.
  3. I was also tempted to have Veronica meet Martha Gellhorn’s close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, during the First Lady’s visit to England in 1942, because I figured those two would have a very interesting discussion. But there were just too many other events going on in the plot at that time.

Adventures in Research: Americans in Post-War England

'Rhubarb' (1951 film poster)

The cover of my edition of ‘Smith’s London Journal’ is very boring, so here is the poster from the 1951 film of ‘Rhubarb’

My apologies for the lack of blog posts recently, but I’ve been reading ALL THE BOOKS and haven’t had time to write about them till now. Next in my Adventures in Research comes Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith, an American journalist who seems to have been the Bill Bryson of the 1940s and 1950s, selling “millions of copies” of his humorous books. Among Smith’s best-selling books were (I am not making these titles up) Lo, the Former Egyptian!, Larks in the Popcorn and Life in a Putty Knife Factory, with his novel Rhubarb being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Ray Milland and Orangey the cat.

Smith’s London Journal describes his visit to England in the autumn of 1951. His trip was partly for the purpose of attending the British premiere of Rhubarb, but also to study the “English character”, which he’d heard was the most admirable in the world. He sails over on the Queen Elizabeth, taking careful notes on the manners and accents of his fellow passengers, including the (mostly unintelligible) Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden (clearly, this was pre-Suez crisis, because Eden is described as “one of the world’s most skilful diplomatists”). On arrival in London, life becomes even more confusing for Mr Smith, but he does his best to cope with English money (“thrupnys and sixpuntses and arf crowns and bobs and double bobs”), English vocabulary (“A saloon is a sedan. Thus it is possible to be arrested in England for driving while drunk in a saloon.”) and English club etiquette (strictly no women allowed, not even Queen Mary). He happily follows in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson and Pepys; pores over English newspapers; watches a cricket match, a snooker tournament and the dog races; attends a session at the Bow Street Courts and an election candidate’s campaign meeting; buys a “weatherproof” from Burberry’s and tries to purchase the tie of the National Playing Fields Association because it’s the favourite of the Duke of Edinburgh; attempts to master the art of talking Cockney and asks how to address Lords and Ladies (as the only other titled people he’d previously met were “Grand Dragon Wimble of the Klan and Miss America of 1937″). Meanwhile, his wife Nelle visits historical sites, tries to start up a conversation with a King’s Guardsman (“CAN YOU TALK TO PEOPLE?”) and gets into arguments with monarchists (“I still say that the kind of adulation and worship you give to those people over in Buckingham Palace ought to be given to someone who has accomplished something”).

Mr Smith, unlike Nelle, is full of admiration for nearly all aspects of English life, although he does struggle with the meals, which tend to consist of either Dover sole or “flat chicken” (“apparently the poultry chef takes the meat and gristle from a chicken and flogs it with a mallet before cooking; either that or the British chicken is unlike any fowl in my country – a sort of feathered saucer walking around on chicken feet”). He fails in his quest to convince his new English friends that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (this theory is based on “an accumulation of knowledge in recent decades”, although it’s “most unfortunate that the man who did this enormous job of research and then wrote the book has the surname of Looney, so I didn’t mention that fact and was happy no one asked about it”). However, he does achieve his long-held ambition to visit Jeremy Bentham at University College1. Smith’s London Journal not only provided me with a lot of (possibly useful) facts about London, it made me laugh and laugh. Highly recommended, if you happen to share my sense of humour.

'Here's England' by Ruth McKenney and Richard BranstenLess ridiculous, but still entertaining, is Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. This is another American-tourists-in-1950s-England guidebook, but this one ranges a bit further than London, travelling as far south as Cornwall and north to Yorkshire. The authors believe England is “the most beautiful, wonderful, exciting country in Europe”, but they caution their fellow Americans:

“There is a mistaken notion . . . that just because we speak the language (or some approximation of same) and are brought up on Dickens, Keats and Shakespeare, England is therefore easy. On the contrary, England is complicated, more obscure and difficult than Brazil or Abyssinia . . . Alas, a standard sight in the English summer-time is the harried American tourist, dismally trotting about the Tower of London or old St Bartholomew’s, afraid to ask what is Perpendicular, when was the Dissolution, and what happened for the eight hundred odd years after 1066?”

Accordingly, for each historical site, the authors not only tell readers how to get there and what to look for when they arrive, but also provide excellent potted histories of the events and people associated with the site, as well as clear explanations of architectural styles. There are also descriptions of various aspects of English life (an entire chapter on cricket, for example), all written in an engaging, informative manner. In addition, there are maps, a family tree for “The Kings of England”2, a chart of notable dates in English history, a glossary of architectural terms and a lot of charming illustrations by Osbert Lancaster (see below). I haven’t finished reading this one yet (I’ve been distracted by my piles of library books), but so far, Here’s England gets two thumbs up. (If my opinion has changed by the end of it, I’ll come back and edit this post.)

'A Corner in Soho' by Osbert Lancaster

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  1. Mr Bentham, author of Auto-Icon, or the Uses of the Dead to the Living, died in 1832, but provided very specific instructions in his will regarding how his body was to be preserved.
  2. Although they do include The Queens of England. I noticed they fail to acknowledge Lady Jane Grey as a Tudor Queen, presumably because she didn’t last long in the job and didn’t have a coronation, but then, neither did Edward VIII, and he’s in there. I am willing to overlook this because lots of other writers follow their reasoning about poor Jane and the rest of the book is so carefully researched.

Doris Lessing on Reading

'Girl Reading' by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty – and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.”

Doris Lessing in her 1972 Preface to The Golden Notebook

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