A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

golden ageI read this over two days during my Christmas break and I’d love to write something that could express how much I enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want my own expressive shortcomings to diminish anyone’s impression of the book through any “review” I wrote.

The story is set in the early 1970s during the civil war that led to Bangladesh winning independence from Pakistan. A brief glimpse of that time and its human cost is given through the experiences of the Haque family (mother, daughter and son) and their neighbours.
It’s a period of history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, apart from remembering that George Harrison had arranged a benefit concert and album on behalf of Bangladesh when I was a young teen.

I found the book had a slight similarity to the work of Nadeem Aslam, one of my favourite writers, exploring political ambiguities and occasional brutality in a vividly poetic way through an intimate human story.

My disappointment at coming to the end of the book and leaving the lives of the Haques has been tempered by the knowledge that the family story continues in another book The Good Moslem.

The final part of what I’ve heard is intended to be a trilogy has yet to be released.

Tobruk by Peter Fitzsimons

tobruk Recently I’ve been reading Peter Fitzsimons’ Tobruk. It’s the second of his books that I’ve read and it’s been a helpful way of learning about a significant part of Australian military history that has been overshadowed by the more well-known Gallipoli campaign.

Fitzsimons makes history readable, using colloquial language and style and incorporating personal anecdotes picked up from the men involved.

In Tobruk he follows the progression of events via the personal experiences of combatants from both sides of the conflict and, where possible, their loved ones at home. Like in his Gallipoli he provides a lengthy section of notes to provide references pointing to diaries, letters and documents as sources for the personal experiences he describes. His books aren’t about war and battles, they are about the men and women affected by war and battles.

History Mine: a personal history of history (3)

This year I renewed research into my family tree after stumbling across a website giving free access to basic genealogical records. Through that site I was able to track my ancestry back to the mid-1700s to a time before white settlement in Australia, making my PERSONAL history older than the official history of my adopted country.

Tamworth CastleFinding those more distant ancestors helped me make sense of something I recall from my childhood.
Tamworth in Staffordshire is about 25 kilometres from where I lived, but I only recall going there once. My only memory of the place is an outdoor public swimming pool where I braved a high diving board. Around the time of that visit I’m sure I heard something about a bible associated with my family being held in the Castle museum, but I was told no details.

Over time I began to think I must have dreamed up that story or misunderstood. Why would a bible associated with my family be in a museum in that town?

I was surprised when I discovered that part of my family on my paternal grandmother’s side had strong links to Tamworth in the mid-late 18th century. That finding gave some support to the bible in the museum memory, and the possibility of the claim being true. I’m now waiting on a reply from the museum, to see if they can give any confirmation of the story. I’ve supplied my ancestor’s names to see whether there is any match with the several family bibles they have in their collection.

One family story I was able to confirm was that one of my forebears was the bailiff at a large country house. I made that discovery through Census records where the house was listed as his residence. It was only after seeing that record that I remembered that my grandmother had mentioned it in a letter more than 30 years ago, in which she’d told me the little she could about our family history.

That house, owned by the same family for the last 600 years, is now a venue for conferences, concerts and a variety of other activities. I contacted them about my ancestor who worked for their family, but received no reply.

Calke AbbeyHe wasn’t the only family member to work for a large estate. My great, great grandmother was apparently a seamstress at Calke Abbey in South Derbyshire.

Again I’ve tried to find more information. At first things seemed hopeful, but after an initial promising, prompt reply I’ve heard no more. A lot of the work at the property is done by volunteers, so it’s not as if they have someone designated to help with enquirers like myself.

I’m sure it would be much easier if I could visit these places in person, but that brings me back to the point I made in an earlier post: the problem of becoming interested in the history of a place and people after moving to the other side of the world.

photos from Wikipedia:

History Mine: a personal history of history (2)

I’ve now been in Australia for almost 45 years after my parents brought the family half way around the world. They saw a potentially better future for my sister and me outside of Britain, so they made the decision to leave their own parents (my grandparents) and everything they’d known, to follow that hope of better opportunities.

At the time we were labelled migrants, or “ten pound Poms” – a reference to the token 10 Pound payment each adult had to pay to be included in the Australian immigration scheme of the time. Today, if we were from a different racial background, our reason for making the move would have us considered as “economic refugees”, and we’d be spirited away to a detention centre.

The move excited me. It was a big adventure. But I didn’t really appreciate the finality of it all. How I’d suffer for years from homesickness, wishing I could again see the people and places associated with the first 13 years of my life; and how my desire to learn more about where I came from would grow.

here to there

I was born in Burton-on-Trent and until our move to Australia lived on the Derbyshire side of the river Trent.
I knew nothing about the history of the area until I was in my 20s, when I was able to learn a little from a few books I was able to track down. Finding those books wasn’t easy in pre-internet years. It took a lot of letter writing to British libraries, museums, and local government offices trying to find someone to point me in the right direction. I then had to find a bookseller able to mail out the books I’d discovered, IF they were still in print.

It was many years ago, so I don’t remember who gave me the most help, but someone sent out copies of documents relating to the village where I grew up: documents that included a reference to my great grandfather who had been a men’s barber within that town as well as the local truancy officer. There wasn’t much detail about him, but seeing his name on a document dated in the 1800s gave me a small sense of connection to the town’s history.

Three of my Grandparents were still alive, so I asked them to tell me what they knew about our family background. I still have the few letters in which my Grandmothers told me what they knew; mostly names, but occasionally a cryptic piece of information that at the time didn’t mean much.

Using all of the names and dates, I drew up a family tree dating back to the 1870s, the point where my Grandmas’ memories (and a family bible) ended. The only addition after that point came when my sister went back to England for a few weeks. I asked her if she could get copies of the birth certificates of the two most distant ancestors I knew about.
She came back with two documents. I found one of them wasn’t for the right person, but the other one was – and I was able to extend the family tree back another generation thanks to its information about the parents of the baby being reigstered.

And then my research came to a stop again. For the next 30 years.

History Mine: a personal history of history (1)

My interest in history developed too late: after my parents moved our family from England to Australia. It was only then that I started to regret not taking a greater interest in the historical landscape of the place I’d left. Wishing that I could again visit castles, churches, cemeteries and grand houses that I’d taken for granted as a child.
They were only old buildings to my pre-and early teen self. I’d had no awareness of (or interest in) the people and events associated with them. That only came when they were no longer accessible.

It was hard to get excited about the “history” of my new country. In England I’d been to houses older than Australia’s recorded history*.
Maybe it was partially “home-sickness” that started to draw my mind back, reminding me of what I’d lost and giving it a significance I’d not previously considered.

If only I could see Tutbury Castle again, now knowing of its connection with Mary Queen of Scots. And the nearby St Mary’s church, parts of which date back to the 1100s, where my friends and I raced around the graveyard to see who could find the oldest grave.

Then there was Kenilworth Castle and Stonehenge, visited on different school trips – and the Tower of London where my family seemed to queue for hours to catch a glimpse of the crown Jewels, and where I was very unimpressed when I saw the Bloody Tower, which wasn’t really tower, and didn’t have people sitting around swearing at each other as I’d imagined as a young child.

I could probably list more of those places I visited without appreciating. And I could look back at things closer to home – such as the WWII air raid shelters alongside my school, the entrances of which were all sealed, apart from one, which no-one dared to enter beyond the first few steps, for fear of what may still be down there.

So, separated from those physical reminders of centuries of history, I’ve had to make do with books about that history.

Unfortunately those books can only provide a distant view that lacks some of the thrill of seeing and touching where history was acted out. And that distance is greater when it rarely touches upon the local links I recall, when local histories of places I lived aren’t easily accessible.

The First Casualty, by Ben Elton

the-first-casualtyI haven’t read a lot of fiction this year. Most of my reading has been First World War non fiction.

The books I’ve read have included comprehensive histories, biographies and the diaries of participants in the war. Maybe I needed a break from history books, so when I came across The First Casualty by Ben Elton in a second hand shop, I thought it could give me a short break from my ongoing heavy reading program, without moving too far away from the historical topic.

This is only the second Ben Elton book I’ve read, the first being Stark, his debut novel released in 1989. I enjoyed that book at the time, but I recall how reviewers commented on Elton’s habit of preaching through his fiction.

There are clear moments of preachiness in the The First Casualty . Occasionally dialogue seems to be like mini lectures on the politics of the time, expressing views on the war’s causes and how it was being fought. Views that may perhaps be more obvious now with the hindsight we have. I assume some of those views align with Elton’s (considering the little familiarity I have of the author). While some might see that as a negative, its not something that bothers me.

Despite that political commentary, I find the book also shows there are no neat answers. Even the best of intentions, with every attempt to do the right thing, don’t always work out in the desired way in the middle of armed conflict.

Passchendaele burial party

Passchendaele burial party

The book is set at the time of the battle of Passchendaele in November 1917. It follows a London police inspector Douglas Kingsley and his undercover investigation into the murder of a British officer serving in France. It seems to be a cut and dried case. The murderer and the weapon used have been determined, so why the need to investigate further?

The murder investigation gives the story a framework that allows Elton to explore the moral ambiguities and contradictions of war through Kingsley’s experience.

Things aren’t going well for Kingsley when he is introduced. His opposition to the war on grounds of “logic” instead of the usual conscientious objector’s appeal to pacifism aren’t being viewed kindly in the court where his case is being heard. Almost half of the book takes us through the process of his journey from that court house to a posting in the war zone that his conscience had driven him to avoid.

The brutality and futility of war are central themes of the book which is at times graphic in its portrayal of the violence of trench warfare. After reading so many histories of WWI I found that depiction of violence necessary. Apart from one incident in the book I didn’t find any of the violent episodes excessive. But even that single incident, that I felt hovered on the border of being gratuitous, had a purpose within the plot, playing an important part in Kingsley’s gathering of evidence.

A scene that I found less redeemable was a sex scene, that in the overall story had no role in the story’s progression, apart from giving Elton the chance to portray “liberated” suffragette attitudes. With that scene I felt Elton was following an overused formula but tried to give it a politically correct twist by using suffragette references.

After an extended diet of history, The First Casualty was an enjoyable snack that didn’t stray too far from the rest of my current reading habits.

I appreciated the break it gave from books that can often be a struggle to get through, books lacking the page-turner character of a well-paced fiction story. Elton’s book DID have that “can’t put it down” quality, with an intriguing but flawed protagonist thrown into a progression of interesting situations, and rather than being a distraction from my WWI studies, it has been an enhancement.

Goodbye Cobber God Bless You, by John Hamilton

goodbye“Goodbye Cobber, God bless you”, are the last recorded words of Trooper Harold Rush prior to him being sent to an inevitable death in the battle of the Nek.

That battle occurred 100 years (and a few days) ago and was one of the most futile events within the greater Gallipoli campaign of World War I.

Australian troops were ordered to leave their own trenches at a site named “The Nek”, armed with bayonets fixed on rifles*, and capture Turkish positions only 30 or so metres in front of them. To do this they had to cross a narrow patch of land about the size of 2-3 tennis courts. Either side of this area, the land fell away steeply.

Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent later described the event as being like “trying to attack an inverted frying pan from the direction of its handle.”**
The attack at the Nek would be familiar to many people without them realising it. It formed the climax of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli, in which its futility was highlighted.

Four waves of troops were ordered to charge one after the other, even though the massacre of the first wave made the tragic outcome clear. Attempts to have the charge of subsequent waves halted were rejected and line after line of troops were mown down by Turkish machine gun and rifle fire almost as soon as they raised themselves above the parapet of their own trenches.

Harold Rush of the 10th Light Horse died in the third wave, after his commanding officer had tried to put an end to the attack that he knew would see his men slaughtered. That officer’s plea was rejected by the senior officer at the site.

John Hamilton’s book Goodbye Cobber God Bless You follows the men involved in the battle from the time of recruitment through to the tragedy that took the lives of most of them. It’s a subject that he briefly touched upon in his more recent book The Price of Valour about Hugo Throssell. Throssel was one of the few survivors of the attack whose involvement in another battle soon afterwards earned him a Victoria Cross.

I found the book on Throssell was a much easier read than Goodbye Cobber Following the life of one man was easier than keeping track of many men whose names were mostly unfamiliar. The book would probably benefit from a second reading, which may give clarity to the earlier references to men whose names grow more recognisable as the book progresses.

The difficulty I had reading Goodbye Cobber wasn’t really the fault of the book or its author. By the time I started I’d already ready many books about the Gallipoli campaign and maybe a kind of battle fatigue had started to set in. My reading time was also limited so I didn’t have large blocks of time available to devote to the book. The short reading periods available didn’t really give me the chance to settle into it, and each time I picked it up was like starting over again.
grave stone

* Some reports claim they were sent with unloaded rifles, but accounts given in Hamilton’s book speak of Australian survivors returning fire occasionally while stranded in “no-man’s land”.

** Goodbye Cobber God Bless You, John Hamilton page 243


Also see my short article here: https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/anzacs-and-wwi-100-years-on-7th-august/

The Other Anzacs, by Peter Rees

Other AnzacsThe Other Anzacs is the story of some of the ANZAC heroes of World War 1, who weren’t given the official recognition they deserved.

They are the nurses who travelled across half the world to do what they could for the “British” war effort. Unable to take up arms, they dedicated themselves to saving the lives of the victims of battle and disease, and were confronted daily by countless deaths and unspeakable battle wounds.

The book draws heavily on the personal accounts of the nurses, using their diaries and letters to find a way into their experiences and their emotions.

The book was adapted into a recent TV series Anzac Girls, and a paperback edition of the book was released under that new title. I bought the paperback edition and then watched the series before reading the book. Before I was able to get around to the book I found a hardcover edition, signed by the author, in an antiques and collectables shop. I bought it and gave the unread paperback to my mum.
anzac girls
The series chose to concentrate on only five of the nurses from the book, but they gave a good representation of the general nursing experience throughout the war. Watching the series didn’t detract at all from the later reading experience.

One aspect of the book that interested me was finding out the many local references. I found several of the nurses had links to nearby places I know. That gives me some interesting possibilities for further study. I even found that one of them lived nearby after the war and is now buried in the cemetery less than half a kilometre from my home.

While the men they nursed recognised the worth of their work, from the beginning the nurses had to contend with a bureaucracy that didn’t want women involved in that kind of war work. And yet the women soon had an effect, at times having to literally build up hospital facilities from scratch with very limited supplies.

Grace Wilson's medals

Grace Wilson’s medals

Matron Grace Wilson (see photo on book cover) found patients having to lie out in the open on the Island of Lemnos when she and her nurses were transferred there to establish the closest hospital to the Gallipoli battle front. The nurses even had to resort to tearing up clothing to provide bandages.

Peter Rees writes that on Lemnos “The conditions were probably the worst experienced by any nurses during the war.” But despite that Wilson and her nurses were able to create a hospital that was able to keep death rates to a minimum.

Despite their essential work the sacrifices they made and the dangers they faced, the nurses (considered officers in rank) were only paid a fraction of what the orderlies working for them received. Likewise, after the war they were denied any of the entitlements that were offered to returned servicemen which included financial help with housing loans. Rees writes ” Authorities in Australia saw the nurses’ role as secondary to that of the soldier.” He later adds “Australia was slow to acknowledge the nurses who served in the war. This was belatedly rectified in October 1999 when a memorial to Australian nurses who served in all wars was unveiled on Anzac Parade in Canberra.

nurses memorial, Canberra

nurses memorial, Canberra

Gallipoli and the Anzacs

gallipoli seriesIn 1915 British and French naval forces tried to force a way through the Dardanelles Strait, into the Sea of Marmara and then onwards to Constantinople, intending to end Turkey’s involvement in the war (WWI). Their ships found too much resistance coming from Turkish gun emplacements along the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula so ground forces were sent to shut down the Turkish defences.

Landing on the Aegean coast, they faced more sustained opposition from the Turks than expected, and the terrain was found to be far more rugged and difficult than had been thought. British troops found themselves entrenched and held at bay in small coastal areas, unable to advance far to achieve the intended goal. A significant part of this invading army was the ANZAC force (Australian, New Zealand Army Corps). Their involvement with this Gallipoli campaign became central to ideas of Australian and New Zealand identity even though they were fighting a war as British and for the British.

The initial landing took place on 25th April 1915 that date has become known as Anzac Day, a day of commemoration when the dead of that campaign and subsequent wars are remembered in the Anzac nations. This year is the 100th anniversary.

Australian TV has recently screened Gallipoli, a TV series graphically depicting the experiences of the Australian and New Zealand servicemen at Gallipoli. There has also been a re-release of one of the modern classic books covering the topic, Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli from 2001, which was one of the guiding authorities behind the program; and several other books about that conflict have been released.

CarlyonI started my own “Gallipoli Campaign” (attempting to understand what Anzac Day is really about) by reading Carlyon’s book. It’s a sizable brick of a book, a solid 540 pages with another 50 pages making up the notes, bibliography and index. It was quite daunting to pick up at first because I know what an ordeal I’ve found history books to be; but most of this was quite easy to get through, with character studies of the major participants interwoven with excerpts of letters and diary entries written by officers and soldiers, and the author’s personal experience of visiting the various battlegrounds of the Gallipoli peninsula almost a century later. He gives a very raw and graphic account of what the men went through and the conditions they had to endure. He also makes it clear that the senior officers in charge of the campaign were completely unsuited for their roles, and the men under them suffered for it.

The only difficulty I had was trying to keep up with the many different battle venues and the various regiments and their officers. I think part of my problem was my ignorance of the geography. Until reading the book the only locations I’d ever heard of were Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, the places at the centre of Australian Anzac mythology. I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the many names of people and places. At times it was hard to remember who was who, where was where and who was where at what time.

When I neared the half-way point of the book I bought a similarly sized volume, also called Gallipoli, by Peter Fitzsimons. To get a foretaste of that book I read Fitzsimons’ introduction where he advised the reader to use the book’s maps to become familiar with the geography of the region before starting to read. Following that advice would have probably helped me through parts of the Carlyon book, and might have prevented me from imagining the events taking place on the peninsula’s eastern coast instead of the Aegean coast to the west.

MasefieldI also found another book with the same title, written by John Masefield. Having recently read Les Carlyon’s highly respected account of the Gallipoli conflict I was keen to read a contemporary view. Masefield wrote his short book in 1916, the year after the Gallipoli campaign.

When I saw that he had dedicated his book with the inscription: “deepest respect to General Sir Ian Hamilton” I suspected his view might be a little different to the one expressed in the Carlyon book which had been very critical of the British leadership of the campaign, and my suspicion was soon confirmed.
Compared to the Carlyon book, Masefield’s gives a different sense of the horror of what was experienced. Carlyon’s view is grittier, giving a stronger sense of the soldier’s daily life surrounded by death, decay and omnipresent flies. Masefield doesn’t hold back the details of death and sacrifice, but his descriptions seem more sanitised and palatable, having an aura of honour and glory, vivid but with a poetic grandeur. And while he does mention the plague of flies he writes: “Our camps and trenches were kept clean; they were well scavenged daily. But only a few yards away were the Turk trenches, which were invariably filthy: there the flies bred undisturbed”. Unlike Carlyon he gives no mention of the countless decaying bodies between the trenches that were the more likely breeding ground for the flies.

Maybe that sanitising is predictable considering Masefield was writing in 1916 and there were still men “gloriously” dying in the trenches of Europe at the time and there was a constant need to recruit replacements. A true picture of what they would encounter might make them think twice. Instead Masefield emphasises the bravery of the men fighting. The men and their actions are portrayed in an elevated and mythical way. “All that they felt was a gladness of exultation that their young courage was to be used. They went like kings in a pageant to the imminent death”. Such a portrayal would likely appeal to young men seeking an adventure to prove themselves.

Masefield’s strength is that he strips everything back to the basics to give a good “beginner’s” introduction, uncomplicated by analysis of character and strategy. He doesn’t go into complex detail but describes what happens at a few select locations, and through his poet’s eye adding vivid images like this, describing the landing at Anzac Cove:

“All the blackness was shot with little spurts of fire, and streaks of fire, and malignant bursts of fire, and arcs and glows and crawling snakes of fire, and the moon rose, and looked down upon it all”

But despite the poetic view he gives, and despite the clarity he gives to a series of events, he also gets carried away with strange interpretations of events, that are clearly coloured by the romanticised and mythic viewpoint encompassing his account:

“At Bulair, one man, Lieutenant Freyberg, swam from a destroyer towing a little raft of flares. Near the shore he lit two of these flares, then, wading to the land, he lit others at intervals along the coast; then he wandered inland, naked, on a personal reconnaissance, and soon found a large Turkish army strongly entrenched. Modesty forbade further intrusion.”

Would it be “modesty” that prevented a solitary naked and unarmed man from wandering around and confronting “a large Turkish Army” or the fact that naked or otherwise, he was in no position to achieve anything by engaging that army by himself. The implication that I read into Masefield’s account, is that Freyburg wouldn’t have withdrawn from the situation had he at least been wearing a pair of speedos to protect his modesty.

To me that example betrays a sense of unreality where the actual horrors of war are obscured by the same kind of heroic rhetoric used to recruit the war’s countless willing participants. The difference between the experience of the men on the ground and the mythicised images of glorious battle is as wide as the gulf between the conditions endured by the average soldier who couldn’t keep flies out of his food and drink and those experienced by the senior officers, away from the death and decay, sipping their port or whiskey each evening as they consider the day’s events.

Blood, Paint and Marble.


I have watched from the dirt ramparts of the base at Tarin Kot…
I have heard the noise of battle in the distance; taken the radio call…
I have awaited their return and tended their wounds…
I have worn their blood.
So many of us have worn their blood.

(excerpts from an address given by Wing Commander Sharon Bown before the Anzac Day Dawn Service, 2014)

A few months ago I visited the Australian War memorial in Canberra to see an exhibition of paintings by Ben Quilty based on his visit to Afghanistan as an official war artist. https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/quilty/


Near his work was an exhibition of sculpture by Alex Seton, commemorating the Australian servicemen who lost their lives in the Afghanistan conflict. https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/seton/


Also during that visit I came across a quote very similar to the one above, taken from a speech given by Wing Commander Sharon Bown. The evocative sentence “I have worn their blood” stayed with me afterwards and I tried to find where it came from.
I found it in a transcript of the speech, found here: https://www.awm.gov.au/sharon-bown-anzac-day-2014/

Through the combined effects of Ben Quilty’s paintings, Seton’s sculptures and, Sharon Bown’s statement, an interest in the human cost of warfare was stirred, as well as a desire to learn more about those who deal with that cost.

I started by read a couple of military autobiographies from participants in the Afghanistan conflict. I wrote about the first of them in my previous blog post.
I’ve also been reading about the events behind the Australian commemoration of Anzac Day.
April 25th this year will be the 100th anniversary of those events .

I’m sure that few Australians know the reality behind those legendary Anzacs (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) so I’ve decided to deal with my own ignorance and will try to share some of the journey in the weeks leading up to that approaching centenary.