Saturday, January 31, 2009
The sensationalist title and Mail on Sunday recommendation were almost enough to put me off, but the blurb on the back was fascinating:
'When Helga Schneider was four, her mother Trudi abandoned her to pursue her career. In 1998, Helga received a letter asking her to visit Trudi, then 90 years old, before she died. Mother and daughter had only met once before, on a disastrous visit where Helga first learnt the terrible secret of her mother's past.
Trudi was an extermination guard in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck and was involved in Nazi 'medical' experiments on prisoners. She had never expressed any remorse for her actions, yet Helga still hoped that at this final meeting she would find some way to forgive her mother.'
I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, beginning with Primo Levi's If This is a Man and thought that I had become pretty unshockable. However, in this short memoir, there is more horror than some of the most harrowing concentration camp memoirs. It is not just Trudi Schneider's lack of remorse that shocks the reader, but also her undiminished hostility towards the Jews:
'Those Jewish whores had to understand where they were and why...they were always tired and difficult, and at night they whined for the children they had lost along the way...'
Today, we are familiar with the horrific photos of mass graves and emaciated prisoners standing behind barbed wire fences, but few compare to this image in its ability to convey vast, industrial scale of the camps:
Astoundingly, in the midst of this genocide, Trudi and her colleagues were having the time of their lives:
Trudi's proud recollections of her work in the camps make this a harrowing enough read, but there is one element of horror that makes this book particularly shocking, in a way that no Holocaust memoir can match:
'How long did it take for the victims of the gas chambers...' I can't go on.
'The gas took between three and fifteen minutes to have its effect,' she replies in a detached and technical tone.
'And is it true that after a certain point the exposure time was shortened?'
'Well, they had to get through 12,000 Stück a day; they'd raised the quota.'
'So it was possible that when you opened the doors of the gas chambers, there might have been some people who weren't quite dead?'
'Of course! It often happened with the children. Sometimes those little bastards were more resistant to the rat poison than the adults were,' she adds with a sarcastic chuckle.
Earlier, Trudi is asked if she ever felt sorry for the children:
'And why should I have? A Jewish child would have become a Jewish adult, and Germany had to free itself of that loathsome race. How many times do I have to repeat that?'
Holocaust memoirs take the reader to the edge of death, but they are written by survivors. Let Me Go is a harrowing but vital account of what happened to those who didn't live to tell the tell.
The charitable view of Helga Schneider's mother is that in order to maintain her sanity, she could allow no room for doubt and compassion. Before going to the camps she underwent a 'dehumanisation' process and it could be argued that Trudi was brainwashed into participating in these atrocities. However, the fact remains that Trudi Schneider was a volunteer, abandoning her young children for the greater glory of the Third Reich.
For Trudi Schneider there is no redemption and as their meeting draws to an end, Helga knows that she will never return.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The screen in the background is slightly obscured by a bald Dutchman, but you get the general idea:
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Instead, five years on, I have been out of work for a year with no immediate prospect of employment.
I try to spend my time productively. I work as a part-time magistrate and am also studying web design, with further courses to follow, but nothing can alter the fact that being unemployed is grim.
It's not just the social stigma - those moments of awkwardness when people ask me what I do - but also the lack of a sense of purpose. Having young children is a distraction from moments of existential angst, but it's also important to experience new things, even if it is merely travelling to a different town.
It was in this spirit that I drove to Rochester yesterday. Although Kent is next to Sussex, I have only been there three or four times; usually either to Dungeness or Royal Tunbridge Wells. The rest of the county is completely alien to me and, ridiculously, I have spent more time in California .
I could have driven almost anywhere, but Rochester appealed because it has a second-hand bookshop that claims to be the largest in England.
Like many cathedral cities, Rochester is actually a small town. Sandwiched between two towns of unremitting ugliness - Strood and Chatham - and hugged by a busy A road and railway line, Rochester feels as if it is under siege. With its cathedral, castle and Charles Dickens connection, the town does attract some tourists, but I suspect that most drive past it on the way to Canterbury.
Before visiting England's largest bookshop, I went to one of its smallest:
This is not a shop for large people. The gap between the shelves is so narrow that it feels like a literary wall of death. I edged my way in slowly and was greeted by a greasy-haired man in his fifties who looked like a child molester. He had a Quilp-like manner of being menacingly ingratiating and spoke in a breathy, gurgling voice. I asked him where the paperback Penguins were. He led me to the back of the shop.
'I'll just move this ladder away for you sir. The Penguins are here and these ones underneath, sir, are what you might call, the racier books.' He pointed to a shelf of novels that ranged from the saucy to the pornographic:
'Of course' he gasped, 'These are mild by today's standards.' I could imagine him as a younger man, selling 'under the counter' publications for discerning gentlemen.
There were two tables outside the shop, one of which had a display case containing Roman coins and this rather strange wooden sign:
I asked the owner if he wasn't taking a risk leaving Roman coins outside the shop. 'Oh no sir. I'll go after 'em and if they try and attack me I've got a couple of ballbearings in each pocket. They're like bullets.' I almost felt as if I was being warned.
I bought two books, one by Max Beerbohm, which contained this bookplate with the motto Love Conquers All:
The other book was by an author I'd never heard of:
I left and walked toward Baggins Book Bazaar, but on the way there I was distracted by a plaque on the wall of a building:
Was there really a man called Sir Cloudsley Shovel? It seemed hard to believe.
With its deceptively narrow front, this didn't look as if it could possibly be the largest second-hand bookshop in England, but true to its claim, the inside seemed to go on forever:
This upstairs corridor led off to a number of rooms, each of which were packed from floor to ceiling with books. Unfortunately the stock was a little disappointing. There were, perhaps, too many titles that deserved to be out of print and although part of the pleasure of browsing is finding hidden gems, I didn't have much luck. However, this book caught my eye:
A truly awful cover, but the blurb on the back was intriguing, as was the author's biography:
I had to buy it.
A few doors along from Baggins I discovered Rochester's Guildhall Museum, which has to be one of the best small museums in the country. The first item on display was a 200,000 year-old axe which visitors can touch. This dramatic introduction set the tone for some really imaginative displays. There were the usual cabinets of Roman and medieval artifacts (which I always try to make myself interested in but never quite succeed), but there were also some excellent walk-through galleries.
One room had a mock-up of a ship and you could climb between decks and get a real feel for what life must have been like in a dingy, rat-infested hulk. Another gallery had a Victorian drawing room:
This room led to a staircase, which had beautiful Arts and Crafts wallpaper and some paintings by local Victorian artists:
But my favourite exhibit was a portrait of our old friend, Sir Cloudsley Shovel:
Apparently, Sir Shovel was one of the most respected naval commanders of his day. Unfortunately, in 1707, Admiral Sir Shovel met an untimely end when he wrecked his entire fleet off the Scilly Isles, after ignoring a warning from a junior officer. Poor Cloudsley actually survived the accident, but as he was lying on the beach he was beaten to death by an old lady who had taken a fancy to his rings.
During my visit to the museum I only saw two other people, one of whom was listening to death metal on his MP3 player.
If you're remotely misanthropic or just want to lose yourself in the atmosphere of an historic building, it makes sense to visit them in the depths of winter on a weekday (if they're open). I didn't even have to contend with groups of bored schoolchildren.
I left the museum and walked to Rochester Castle, which was a minute's walk away. There is a website published by the 'Friends' of Rochester Castle which, rather strangely, warns visitors that they might find it 'disappointing'. However, from the outside it looked pretty impressive and was bigger and better preserved than Lewes Castle. Some friends.
Suddenly, there was a loud roar and a helicopter landed next to the castle wall. It was an air ambulance. Had there been an accident, or had a 'disappointed' visitor jumped? I wondered whether it would be grossly insensitive to start taking pictures, but at that point the pilot climbed out and started taking photos of his helicopter in front of the castle:
I ended my visit to Rochester in the cathedral. Like the museum it was free and almost completely empty:
I wonder how many post-war buildings will inspire the same degree of awe in 800 years' time (if any of them are still standing):
The Isle of Grain (for it is an island, apparently) is unremittingly bleak: a desolate landscape of mudflats and heavy industry. This is probably why I was the only car on the road for the last four miles. After passing an oil tanker depot, a power station and a factory, I finally reached Grain, a coastal village of poorly-built new homes. I carried on driving until the road ended in a car park facing the North Sea:
At first sight, I saw what looked like a shingle beach, but on closer inspection it was made up of thousands of small shells:
In the background I could hear the continual hum of industry, punctuated by the rattling of lorries and the sound of dogs barking. Why the dogs? I wondered what it would be like to live with the constant drone of machinery.
By the beach, an elderly man with a port wine stain on his face sat in a car, staring at the sea through a pair of binoculars. His wife sat next to him, drinking a cup of tea from a flask. Travel to any desolate seaside town in England and you will see old people sitting in cars, staring out at the sea.
This was a lonely place and although I could hear the noise of human activity, I only saw one other person, walking in the distance.
I shall not be returning to the Isle of Grain.
At that point I drove home and thought that the day was over, but as I went through a village called Hadlow, something caught my eye:
I walked through the entrance and saw a sign that read 'Strictly Private'. I carried on walking and found this:
I later discovered that it is called May's Folly, a Gothic tower built in the early nineteenth century. It used to have a 40 foot octagonal lantern at the top, but this was destroyed during the Great Storm of 1987. Today, the tower is crumbling and needs at least £4,000,000 spent on it to preserve it. It is one of a number of historic buildings that are never mentioned in guidebooks or tourist brochures.
So in conclusion, although it is hard being out of work, I also have an opportunity to do things like this. Time is such a precious commodity and I suddenly have plenty of it. Until I find another job I intend to use it wisely.
If you've read this far, thank you for persevering. This is probably the longest post I've written and I apologise. I will ensure that future posts have a greater brevity.
NB - Richard at the superb Grey Area has posted some more Shovelrabilia in response to the post.
This is the enduring image I have of Richard Yates whenever I read his novels. Most publicity shots feature Yates in his sixties, looking like a hairier, unhappier incarnation of Gore Vidal.
Thank you to the Guardian for publishing, last weekend, this photo of the young Richard Yates, when he still had something to smile about:
Monday, January 19, 2009
Don't count on Heaven, or on Hell. You're dead. That's it. Adieu. Farewell. Eternity awaits? Oh, sure! It's Putrefaction and Manure And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot, As you regress, from Zoo. to Bot. I'll Grieve, of course, Departing wife, Though Grieving's never Lengthened Life Or coaxed a single extra Breath Out of a Body touched by Death.
I bought a copy of Crace's novel a couple of weeks ago and loved it. If you haven't read the book, it can be summed-up fairly succinctly: a couple in their fifties are murdered on a beach and what follows is a post-mortem of their lives and the physical processes that occur between the moment of death and the discovery of the bodies.
In the hands of a lesser writer, a description of the putrefication of the victims' bodies would be repugnant, but Crace's breathtakingly good prose finds a poignant beauty in the natural processes that occur. This is the atheist vision of death: meaningless, loveless and hopeless, but also without evil. For Crace, death is not the undiscovered country, but a process that can be chronicled with scientific precision. Crace's undiscovered country is life and memory.
However, there was one thing I found difficult about Being Dead and although I've searched extensively on Google, I haven't found a satisfactory answer. Where is the novel set? A sense of place is vital in a novel and even if the setting is a fictitious one, it is usually dovetailed into an instantly reconisable landscape. We know that Trollope's Barchester Chronicles are set in a southern English cathedral city, whilst David Lodge's University of Rummidge is clearly a thinly-disguised Birmingham. But where is Being Dead?
At first I assumed that Crace had set his novel in Britain, but I soon became aware of incongruities that was increasingly distracting as the narrative progressed. A mention of the 'local manac beans (and) green milk' was rather confusing, as were the references to drinking gleewater and Boulevard liquer. I went through a list of possible suspects: the West Indies, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and even Spain, but nothing fitted.
There was no gleewater or Boulevard liquer anywhere. Neither was there a poet called Sherwin Stephens. For some reason, Crace had decided to set this novel in a fictitious, unnamed country that contained elements of recognisable landscapes, but juxtaposed in a way that was unlike anywhere on earth. For me, that was the greatest mystery of Being Dead.
Hence the title of this posting: The Undiscovered Country. I apologise in advance to anyone who was hoping for a critique on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
For me, as a literary experience, they are akin to sloppy seconds, a salad bar in a staff canteen at the end of a hot weekday, or a recently-vacated cubicle in a public toilet. Let's be clear: I don't merely have a mild preference for buying brand-new. No, I'm digestively squeamish about used books. It's all those stains, thumbprints and creases that get me so queasy. I'm far from a gentle reader and by the time I've taken in the first few chapters of any brand-new tome, it will often be creased and coffee-stained beyond recognition. But they will be my creases and my stains, and that's what matters.
I've lost count of the amount of times that I've been confronted by the dried-up bogey of the previous owner, smeared across one of the pages. Nice. Most of these mucus moments occurred while I was reading books I'd borrowed from the library.
I completely agree about the library books. I also used to wonder why so many books contained dried snot, but I was surprised that Chas Newkey-Burden didn't mention the other curse of library books: pubic hairs. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of pubic hairs to appear in the most improbable places and in the case of library books, I wonder if there are lots of naked readers.
I suppose they could be the beard hairs of sage bibliophiles, but I know a pube when I see one.
However, I think there is a big difference between library books and second-hand ones. Library books have been pawed by a variety of people. Second-hand books have usually had one careful owner. I have never discovered any unsavoury bodily products in a second-hand book, but I have been pleasantly surprised in other ways.
Yesterday I went to Tunbridge Wells and discovered the wonderful Hall's Second-hand Bookshop where I bought this book:
Later, flicking through the pages, I discovered an unusual bookmark: a 1940s London Underground ticket:
I immediately felt connected to the original reader, for whom this was contemporary fiction. The ticket was an added bonus, as was this bookmark, which I posted in the summer:
A Google search on Gay Foam yields very different results these days.
But it's not just unexpected bookmarks that make second-hand books such a joy. During the last month I have bought several books that turned out to be signed copies, including this paperback:
When I paid two quid for this at a charity shop, I had no idea that I was getting a signed copy. Thank you, Cancer Research.
Yesterday's trip to Tunbridge Wells also yielded the following results:
Ever heard of this author? I hadn't, but when I read a recommendation that compared this trilogy to Patricia Highsmith, I had to buy it.
I hadn't heard of this novel either:
I'd heard of the poem Babi Yar by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, because it was the inspiration for Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, but this was new to me. Apparently it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
I can understand Chas Newkey-Burden's objections to the used book. I used to be the Howard Hughes of books and would often reject brand new books if they weren't absolutely perfect. But the message is more important than the medium. I stopped being precious about my books when I had children and life became too chaotic to be anal about the condition of my possessions.
These days I'm not that bothered if a book looks as if it's been around the block a few times. What matters is the text (although I still draw the line at public hair and snot).
Ms Baroque has quite rightly taken me to task on the issue of royalties and that is something that needs to be addressed, but after enduring two years of Waterstone's bland 3 for 2 promotions, the random selection offered by second-hand and charity shops is a liberation.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
If I could control the weather, I would have a short, extremely cold winter, beginning in mid-December and ending in late January. The rest of the year would be warm. I want heatwaves and frost fairs. What I can't stand is the dull, grey, mild weather that seems to have replaced the seasons for much of the year.
The graveyard belongs to St Michael and All Angels' Church, Berwick. On the outside it is a pleasant, 12th century church. However, the interior is quite unlike anything else in Britain:
Before the Reformation most church walls were covered in murals and during the 1940s, Bishop Bell of Chichester sought to revive this tradition, commissioning works of art from contemporary artists like Chagall and Piper. The result was a triumph, in which masterpieces of modern art sat alongside their medieval counterparts.
Bishop Bell also commissioned members of the Bloomsbury Group to decorate the church in Berwick. During the next few years, Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Quentin Bell and Angelica Bell embarked on a series of murals, paintings and decorations:
There paintings aren't great works of art, but the sum is greater than its parts and it's interesting to see a contemporary interpretation of the medieval church. If you're in the area it's well worth a visit and Charleston, the home of the Bloomsbury group, is only few miles down the road.
Friday, January 09, 2009
I was reading about Le Mesurier earlier today and in addition to the usual anecdotes about his marriage to Hattie Jacques and his drinking sessions in the demi monde of 1960s Soho, I was also surprised to discover that he was a huge fan of Earth, Wind and Fire.
Le Mesurier's third wife, pictured above, recalls that 'he was very fond of the band and had most of their records'.
The image of an English gentleman, born in 1912, popping out to buy the latest Earth, Wind and Fire album is an endearing, if somewhat surreal one.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
I watched all seven episodes of this short series yesterday and found it as compelling ever. The writers made few concessions to their target audience and I imagine that they were responsible for a few juvenile neuroses.
The intro sequence sums up the series. The close-up shots of the stone circle at Avebury and Sidney Sager's terrifying choral music set the scene perfectly:
And this was shown at teatime!
Monday, January 05, 2009
As a former bookseller I’ve seen far too many self-published collections of appalling poetry in cheaply-bound paper, so it was a great pleasure to read a new book by a real poet – Me and the Dead by Katy Evans-Bush, an author you may already know through her excellent blog Ms Baroque.
I’m completely out of my depth talking about poetry, but the words that instantly spring to mind when thinking about Me and the Dead are: evocative, profound, sensual, elegiac, witty and compassionate. I shall be savouring this beautifully produced Salt Publishing book for a long time to come. Here's a taster:
To My Next Lover
All weekend I kept thinking about you :
Katy Evans-Bush is currently in the middle of a virtual author tour and has kindly agreed to stop here to answer a few questions.
First of all, thanks for visiting. This is the first author event I’ve had that hasn’t involved ordering several dozen wine glasses from Oddbins, so I shall have to improvise. I’ll start with a virtual cheesy nibble...
Q – I’d like to know how you ended up moving to London...
I heard they had loads of wine at their author events! No, really. I came over for something to do, really. Imagine it: an aunt in Finsbury Park, and Kings Road there for the taking only a few years too late… I studied English Lit for a year, hooked up with a boy, and stayed.
Q – And how has this shaped your identity as a writer?
For many years it confused the hell out of me. I wasn’t in America and I wasn’t yet properly in England. Even though both countries ostensibly speak the same language, it was like being transplanted into a foreign one – but I didn’t even have my original language to myself, everything was mixed up and muddied. Slang, accents, figures of speech, frames of reference. It took me about nine years – and two babies – to sort all that out, and even then when I first began writing again it was “in American.” It was another five years before I really owned my geographical space, as it were. Now I just feel like a Londoner, but as so many people have pointed out about the book, I really do have a foot on each side of the Atlantic, and people often tell me how very New York I am... I grew up reading American poetry, of course. As well as Pound and Eliot. Oh, wait...
Q – I’ve always liked RS Thomas, but it was only when he did a reading at my university that I felt that I truly understood his writing. Do you think poems are best read aloud?
I know that goes against the orthodoxy. Well, I think some poems might be best read aloud! Maybe “James James Morrison Morrison” – the favourite poem I share with Jonny B – or even something like “Kubla Khan” – but not The Waste Land, and not Frost at Midnight. I think poems work best if read alertly to oneself in that private inner voice we all have that isn’t as crude as a real voice. A real voice locks the poem down so much; and so many poems are aso complicated, you need to be able to see them and think about them and read them slowly.
Having said that, Radio 3 recently played Anton Lesser’s reading of the entirety of Paradise Lost, an hour a day, and it was wonderful. Even though I don’t like his reading. I thought Tom Baker would have been better. And it would have been better if I’d had the book to hand.
The poet George Szirtes talks about the “intimacy” of reading aloud, the history of reading things aloud to small audiences, and the very best poetry readings can be like this. Though that is very rare. You want to feel like someone is really telling you something – like the Ancient Mariner, that they’re almost buttonholing you with it.
Q – As a bookseller I found poetry impossible to sell. Are you frustrated by the degree to which poetry is marginalised in contemporary society, or do you feel that the internet offers some hope for writers to find readers?
Well, hope is a thing with feathers. Here I am on the internet!
But yes: tremendously frustrated. I always have been, ever since I found out – though I had a sheltered childhood, and never knew till I became a bookseller myself, at the Penguin Bookshop in Covent Garden. (Ah, those heady days! Peter Mayer was head of Penguin then, touting his pile ‘em high & sell ‘em like carrots philosophy everywhere; shortly after that computerised stocktaking came in, Books Etc. ate London and the rest is history.)
Seriously, I think people are deprived of words, which is like saying they’re deprived of meaning. Many people say they like poetry, or would like it, or used to like it. But the way things are set up nowadays you practically aren’t allowed to like it. Thank God I grew up in a house full of books, in a family of people who loved words. And I have such exciting, deep, intense ideas for things I want to do, I plan to make some really beautiful poems this year, and it’s terrible to think hardly anyone will want them…
Q – This may be an impossible question, but how long would a poem like ‘To My Next Lover’ take to write?
That one took half an hour. I swear to God. I sent it to a magazine editor, Michael Mackmin at the Rialto, throwing it in as a makeweight among a load of poems I thought were really good. He took that one. And none of the others! It’s so often the case… So it wasn’t till it was published and everyone was telling me they loved it, how funny, how bittersweet, how fucking tragic to admit to watching EastEnders, that I looked at it and saw that it was okay. And it really was the best storyline they ever had! Nothing can beat the beauty of that, except maybe the time Phil framed Den Watts for murder, throwing that gun down on him through the skylight…
Sometimes writing is really fun. It feels like telling yourself jokes. That was one of the times.
Q – On your website you mention that you’re working on a novel. Can you tell me anything about it?
No. I’d have to shoot you. I said that in a moment of insanity. I said it to make myself do it.
Q – Finally, I notice that growing up in the USA you must have watched The Osmonds. Are you a little bit country or a little bit rock n’roll?
Sweetie, I’m a little bit country AND a little bit rock n- roll. And I also used to watch the Jackson Five cartoon.
Me and the Dead is published by the wonderful Salt Publishing.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
At first appearance, St Andrew's is a typical Sussex church:
But a closer look reveals an ecclectic mixture of styles and materials and although the original church was founded around 1,200 years ago, the building we see today is largely Norman.
However if you look carefully you can still find parts of the original Saxon church, like this sundial, which is at least a thousand years old:
Rather than bore the arse of you with any amateur ecclesiastical history (gleaned, naturally, from my Ladybird book 'What to Look For Inside a Church'), here are some photos:
Historic buildings are usually expensive to visit and it can be hard to savour the atmosphere when you're jostling with hordes of tourists. However not only is St Andrew's free, but you can enjoy having a thousand-year-old building all to yourself.
I like to listen to the silence and imagine the generations of people who've used the church in the past, but I suppose if the mood took me I could also perform a routine from Flashdance (What a Feelin'). In fact I think that's what I'll do next time.
After a few minutes ruminating about whether a better father would have gone to see Madagascar 2, I decided to explore the graveyard:
I must remember to invest in a weather-proof gravestone.
As much as I love churches, I'm afraid that I don't believe in the supernatural. However, as I turned a corner in the graveyard, I witnessed a strange apparition emanating from a sarcophagus:
It reminded me of those strange photos of 'ectoplasm' that were supposedly caught on camera by ghost-hunters? Was I witnessing a supernatural event?
The white mist came towards me and swirled around my feet, like a Hammer Horror fog. I wasn't alarmed, but experienced that slightly unsettled feeling you have when you know that there must be a simple explanation, but can't think of one.
Then I found my answer: the outflow vent of a condenser boiler, fixed at the bottom of a wall next to the sarcophagus. Someone must have been doing some washing-up.