Keep the Home Fires Burning, edited by Jen Edgar

home firesKeep the Home Fires Burning (World War II Stories from Swadlincote and Surrounding Areas), edited by Jen Edgar.

For several months I had this book on a wish list with a second hand book dealer, before I finally decided it was time to buy it.

I’ve long wanted to find out more about the wartime history of my family home-village, Newhall, where I spent my childhood. Swadlincote is the nearest town, and by the time I lived there, village and town had more or less merged into each other.

Located at the southern tip of Derbyshire, Swadlincote is close to the borders of Staffordshire and Leicestershire and was developed around the presence of coal and clay. My family had lived in this area for generations until we moved to Australia in 1971.

I’ve heard a few war time anecdotes from my parents, and I’ve been interesting in finding out more of that war time history beyond those family stories. Disappointingly this book didn’t provide what I’d been hoping for.

Based on personal interviews of residents of the area, the book has been compiled as a collection of memories that haven’t been given any context. They remain as separate, unrelated accounts that could relate to anywhere instead of having any particular local relevance.

For me the most significant aspect of the book was the involvement of students from my former school (William Allitt School, Newhall) in the interviewing process.

I’m sure there would have been many more interesting stories out in the community, sadly stories that are being lost as a war time generation dies out. There would also be a framework of historical events that could have given a collection of anecdotes and memories a logical context. Despite what I’m sure were worthy intentions, I found this book misses those opportunities

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View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley

I’ve mentioned this book in two earlier posts in which I said that it wasn’t an easy read and that it contains some the very coarse language. It would also fail almost every standard of “political correctness” with its references to “Nogs” (the Vietnamese locals) and “sluts” (local prostitutes).
But among all of the unpleasantness there are some very astute observations about the war in Vietnam and the Australia to which troops returned after their year long posting.

Let’s cut through all the media driven official bullshit. I owe you that much. This, we were told, was a war about a global conspiracy to destroy democracy as we know it. It was a war about the Devil leading the fiendish Viet Cong against the simple gentle peasants of this peace-loving little land, and slaughtering them barbarously.
This is bullshit.
This was in fact about ordinary people working a fertile, beautiful land and paying 90 per cent of their efforts to absentee landlords in Saigon or elsewhere, and was getting nothing in return.
This war was about ordinary people demanding a fairer go, and getting obliterated by the American war machine for daring to ask.”

The author’s year away, while fighting in this American war, made him particularly aware of societal changes that had taken place at home during that year.

That’s what shocked me about coming home. It was another country, another country entirely… it was being occupied: the people, the places, the very structure of our society were being eroded… I’d gone away, presumably to defend my country, and someone stole it while I was away…
the invaders continued to come and set up their tents, and our leaders talked prosperity and greatness ahead – and for them it was true. And they opened the halls of justice and our seats of learning and our offices of sacred trust to the invaders, for sale, for commission. And the people saw it was true and lined up for their share. And those who had no soul and no vision proved adept at bleeding the new system: they flourished and built a proud society around themselves. Based on money.

Crowley also makes this observation about the very vocal anti-war movement of the time, ending the observation with a question worth considering.

We had Moratorium marches here – probably well-meaning people organised them – many marched. But they didn’t march so much to stop the war as to make sure that they or those close to them were not dragged into it. Bullshit you say? Then why are they not marching still?

Old Habits

This month I’ve returned to a practice I’d recently abandoned; that is reading more than one book at a time.

For several months now I’ve stuck to reading a single book from beginning to end before starting another, but maybe two weeks ago I picked up a second, and then a third book, slowing down my progress while I try to juggle between the three.

The first was a book of short stories upon which the TV series Grantchester is based. I heard an interview with the author, James Runcie, and was drawn to the stories of a C of E priest who finds himself drawn into murder solving.

I’ve seen the drama series advertised on TV but didn’t like the look of it, but after hearing the author speak of the differences between book and TV versions, I thought I could give the books a chance. One of those differences seems to be the extent that the lead character pursues “romantic” relationships. The impression I got from the author, and also from the brief advertising clips of the show, the TV version leans more to sexual relationship than “romantic”.

I recall the author saying something along the lines that in reality the minister would have been driven out of his position in the church if his actions had been discovered.

So far I’ve finished the first of the stories in the first Grantchester book, originally titled Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. The story introduces Sidney Chambers, the Anglican priest, and how he was introduced to the world of detection. The mistress of suicide victim asks for his help, being convinced he hadn’t taken his own life. Chambers reluctantly makes some discreet enquiries and becomes convinced that she’s right. But how does he take that conviction to his police detective friend?

The story itself is reasonably simple. It’s length doesn’t allow for too much complexity, so the murder is solved with relative ease. While enjoyable as a short read, it didn’t draw me in and keep me hooked in the way that my previous crime reading has done. I also see it being in the Miss Marple and Jessica fletcher (Murder She Wrote) line of murder mysteries, that to me stretch credulity too far. How many murders does the average person come across? And is it credible that they could actually solve the countless murders that they somehow attract into the sphere of their daily lives?

My crime fiction preference therefore leans to police centred murder enquiries where the protagonists are more likely to come across crimes of this nature.

I’ve now put that book of short stories aside while I tackle the two other books currently on my reading list.

I’ve written a little about the second book in a previous post, View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley. It’s not an easy book to get through. It is episodic, with Crowley taking the reader on a journey through various aspects of his time served in the Vietnam War. He addresses his reader as a companion being shown around his various haunts and activities. While the surface has a veneer of humour, there is also a clear undercurrent of the horrors and degradation to which he and his fellow soldiers were subjected. It is clear that he recognised (or has come to recognise) the war’s futility and contradictions.

I repeat an excerpt that I used in my earlier post:

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

It’s not a “pretty” book. It’s no literary gem. It’s very uncomfortable reading due to its style and the bluntness of its very coarse language, but it comes across as a disturbingly honest account. At times Crowley appears to relish in sharing some R-rated [extreme coarse language], boys own adventures, but he also paints a disturbingly vivid backdrop that brings those “adventures” into the context of a bloody and unnecessary war.

 

And on to the third…

The Hanging Valley is another in Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks series.
A body is discovered in a remote valley near the village of Swainshead. What seems to be the murder of an unknown tourist develops into a story of a village where everyone has something they want to hide; but to what extent will covering up their personal secrets hinder Banks’s investigation?

I started this as an escape from the slow progress I was making through the Vietnam memoir. I was eager to get back to a good page turning read, and I haven’t been disappointed yet by anything in this series.

The only problem with this approach is that I can’t read both at the same time, and I have to decide which one to pick up and therefore, by default, which one gets neglected.

While I enjoy the entertainment value of an excellent crime mystery thriller, especially one where character development is given equal weight, I’m a person who likes to learn – so, while they may not have the same page turning nature, I’m also eager to dive into books that potentially aid my understanding of topics of personal interest (currently the Vietnam war)

If only, after that initial dive, the actual reading was easier than swimming through rough waters against the current.

 

“My War”

At one time I considered the Vietnam war to be “my” war.

Not because of any real personal or family connection, but because it was going on when my family decided to migrate to Australia, and Australia was one of the combatants; taking its usual stance to support the USA in all of its major military ventures, whether that support was justified or not.

So, at the age of 13 we moved to a country at war, where conscription was practiced.

I was still 5 years away from what I thought was conscription eligibility, but at that time who knew how long the war would continue? (Conscription was actually from age 20, so I was two years out in my expectations). If it continued long enough I could have found myself being sent away to fight.

Then in December 1972 Australian conscription was brought to an end by the new Labor government within days of their taking power. They also stopped Australia’s involvement in the war.

Recently I watched a 10 part documentary series about Vietnam,; a fascinating insight into the history behind it, how American involvement came about, and the political lies that helped perpetuate it.

The series also looked at he increasing opposition to the war within the USA at a pivotal time of cultural change.

Some of what was going on in America was no less disturbing than what was happening in the war itself, with Government violence on American soil leading to tragedies like the killing of students at Kent State, a well-known event I’d heard about decades ago, but not an isolated or unique case of its type.

One thing that stood out in one of the early episodes, was the sense of deja vu I had when I learned how America had backed Ho Chi Minh and his rebel forces during WWII when the future North Vietnamese leader was fighting to free his country from the Japanese invader. Apart from the “irony” of the US later usurping that role as invader, the similarity to another situation a few decades later was obvious; when the US financed and trained the future leaders of Al Qaeda in their attempt to free Afghanistan from  Russian invaders, and then went on the be the invaders themselves, under attack from the very people they had trained and armed in the past.

Watching that series inspired me to return to a book I’d put aside a few years ago. View From A Low Bough by Barrie Crowley, is about the author’s personal experiences in Vietnam.

Vietnam Campaign Medal
Vietnam Medal awarded by the Sth. Vietnamese Govt. to US and Australian personnel after 6 months service

 
Once again I’m not finding it an easy read, but I’m determined not to give up this time. Crowley tries to write as if he’s taking the reader on a personal tour of events and places, to see hear and smell the war he experienced. The style doesn’t always work for me, but I appreciate his interesting insights into life in camp and out on patrol. Enough to make me very grateful that it didn’t become MY war.

The book is also full of “Strong Coarse Language” – as it would be described on an Australian DVD censor’s classification. But that seems appropriate in the context of young men thrown together in a harsh environment, witnessing, or involved in some of the worst aspects of human behaviour, for reasons they could never hope understand.
If they understood would they have gone along with the corrupt political hypocrisy that had sent them there? Even so, they were not blind to the ineptitude and irrationality of those directing the course of the war.

From View From  A Low Bough

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

A third journey I’m taking into 1960s Vietnam is through the 1980s series China Beach. I’m sure I watched some of it when it was first screened 30 or so years ago, but apart from a couple of the characters I don’t remember much.china-beach-season-1

I saw it described as M*A*S*H without the laugh-track – but I don’t think the comparison is fair.

So far I’ve only seen the 90 minute pilot and the first episode and it hasn’t really jogged my memory of any previous viewings.

The opening sequence of the pilot is very evocative in portraying the absurdity and incongruity of the conflict. It starts with a young woman in a red bikini, sitting on a beach. Her solitude is disturbed by the increasing volume of an approaching helicopter. She rises and starts walking away from the beach, firstly through tropical beachside bushes, that start giving way to sandbags, barbed wire, armed soldiers in uniform, and eventually the landing helicopter bringing its cargo of dead and wounded. The woman grabs a surgical smock and puts it on over her bikini…

One clear similarity with M*A*S*H, and the main reason for my interest in the series, is that it’s main character is a nurse in a military hospital, and there’s a regular influx of dust off helicopters bringing casualties to be put back together. Last year I read a few books by (or about) former Vietnam war nurses, and through their eyes got a very different perspective of the war and its human cost, and it’s that aspect that most interests me, so I’m looking forward to having time to watch more of China Beach.

 

nurse badge

Australian Vietnam nurse’s collar badge from my collection.

 

The Costs and Pitfalls of Book Buying.

I have far too many books – and still I buy more.

When I develop a new reading interest, or a new interest in general, I’m not satisfied to dabble around the edges, I jump right in and obtain as much as possible related to that interest.

In recent years I became interested in some aspects of military history. At first I just wanted to find out why Anzac day was such a big deal in Australia. Like many Australians, my knowledge and understanding of the Gallipoli campaign at the heart of Anzac day was minimal. As the centenary of the original Anzac day (25th April) came around in 2015, I decided to put an end to my ignorance and I read several books about the campaign that attained mythic status in Australian culture.

From there my curiosity about other aspects of WWI was sparked, and my reading widened to other battles and their historical consequences.

But that wasn’t enough. I moved on to WWII when I discovered some family involvement in the North Africa and Sicily campaigns of 1943.
I was able to untie some of my dad’s tangled childhood memories to find the facts behind the tragic loss of his cousins Albert and Horace during those campaigns; even being able to track a report of Horace’s desperate cries for help, followed by the sound of his drowning, after his glider crashed into the Mediterranean.

I sought out and bought as many books as I could find that might increase my knowledge of Albert and Horace’s experiences of war. A lot of the books were out of print so I needed to track down second hand copies. A helpful resource was https://www.bookfinder.com/

Through that site I was able to find books covering my topics of interest that have been long out of print. Unfortunately some were outside of my comfortable price range, but most weren’t.

As I’ve written in several recent posts, my current interest is crime fiction, a very popular genre with far too many reading options. The only way I could realistically launch myself into reading crime was to find someway to limit those options. I chose to be selective with the authors I read.

So far I’ve followed two paths. Firstly there are the two authors who helped me get into the world of crime in the first place. I’ve already written about Lynda La Plante and Ann Cleeves.
Secondly, because my greater interest has been fuelled by the strength of character and place in Cleeves’ books, I looked around for British writers basing their work around Derbyshire, the English county where I spent my pre-teen years. I’ve also written quite a lot about the three writers I’ve been following.

To date Sarah Ward has three published books, Steven Dunne seven, and Stephen Booth at least seventeen. It would be a very costly exercise to get all of them, so when available I’ve helped the process through purchases from charity and second hand book shops, while keeping an eye on the prices of new books in online stores. Occasionally books will be discounted and a little money can be saved if I’m viewing the right site at the right time.

book list 2Ideally I’d be able to find all of the books at a local bookshop, giving them support instead of some overseas mega-store, but they rarely (if ever) have the kind of books I want, that cater to my sometimes obscure tastes (how many Australian readers are looking for Derbyshire crime writers?).

I now own all of Sarah Ward’s books.

I have the first three of Steven Dunne’s books. The first I could only find second hand online, the second I bought new and the third I also found second hand in a Canberra bookshop.

Stephen Booth’s books have been a mixture of new purchases from The Book Depository , Some from charity shops and two I bought online through the book finder address cited earlier. Those latter purchases have been examples of the perils faced when buying used goods on line. When I received the books they weren’t the editions that had been illustrated (they were older) and their actual condition didn’t match that of the written description on the website.
Bringing the problems to the attention of the supplier doesn’t always lead to the customer finding a satisfactory outcome.*

After two disappointing experiences, I’m now reconsidering the buying of second hand books online unless they are completely out of print and can’t be obtained any other way. In the recent cases I only resorted to the second hand orders because the number of books in the Stephen Booth series pushed the overall cost of new ones into uncomfortable territory, and I was eager to get his earlier books for an affordable prices as soon as possible.

At the moment those early books are some of the more expensive, unless I compromised by buying American editions. However an American version of a Derbyshire book, with American spellings and the possible “translating” of Derbyshire turns of phrase into Americanised approximations… well it kind of defeats my purpose of choosing Derbyshire based stories.**

I’m resisting the temptation to order more books for a while.  Over the Christmas break I could be away from home from time to time, so won’t be around to make sure any book deliveries are received securely.

Anyway, I have more than enough crime fiction to keep me going for a few weeks before I need to order again in the new year.

Apart from filling in some of the existing gaps in my collection, next year there will be at least two new books to look forward to: Sarah Wards fourth DC Childs book The Shrouded Path is due for release in the UK autumn, but before that will be The Devil’s Dice, the debut book by Roz Watkins released around March 2018.

_____________________________________

The image illustrating this post is part of the book list I keep in my wallet to help me keep track of what I already have so I don’t double up on any title.

*Although one bookseller went above and beyond my expectations to sustain their reputation for good service – sending me a book autographed by the author as a replacement for a copy that had been an ex-library book and was marred by stickers and ink stamps)

 

** To keep things in balance, I have no problem buying American editions of books by American authors, where American-English is in keeping with the authors intent.

The Commando (the life and death of Cameron Baird VC. MG.) by Ben Mckelvey

The Commando, is a biography of Cameron Baird the 100th (and to date last) Australian Victoria Cross winner who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2013.

It was quite a disturbing read, although I’m not sure it was intended to be so in the way I found it. It was written to honour a ‘hero” but (to me) it did more to expose a lot of uncomfortable issues related to Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan and what it did to the special forces troops trained and posted to serve there.

It shows how Baird and his regiment lived to kill and were always impatient to be sent out on a mission to hunt down the “Taliban”. (The author notes at the beginning of the book that he used the term “Taliban” as a kind of generic name for any hostile Afghan – who weren’t necessarily associated with the religious group, but were assumed to pose a potential danger to western troops).

At one stage Baird and his Australian colleagues were used as the weaponised arm of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, with the aim of destroying Afghan drug cultivation and manufacture: basically as guns for hire, because apparently the US Government wouldn’t allow US troops to be used for that purpose.

Among his colleagues Baird was considered lucky because he died in action on one of the last missions in Afghanistan. Those surviving colleagues have found it hard to settle back into everyday life. One of the men interviewed for the book killed himself not long after giving the interview.

I’ve read or seen accounts of the other three Australians awarded a Victoria Cross for their service in Afghanistan and I was left in no doubt why they were deemed worthy of the award. However with this account I wasn’t so sure about the reason for Cameron Baird’s award. The book just didn’t make it clear why his final action stood out from what his colleagues had also done to earn his posthumous VC.

I feel some discomfort writing this because it might come across as being critical of Cameron Baird, a man who gave his life in service of political decisions made by his country’s leaders. That’s not what I want to do. He was clearly a very likeable man, fully committed to whatever he set his mind to – whether that was football during his youth or his military career as an adult. He wasn’t a man willing to compromise to make do with a second rate effort or to be happy with anything less than a first rate outcome.

Any deserved criticism needs to be directed at the political and military systems that train men to become killing machines but do little to help them return to normality when those “skills” are no longer required.

Beersheba and “God’s Work”

Paul Daley (see previous post) wrote an interesting historical account of the Beersheba charge in today’s Guardian, which includes the following observation:

The charge, coincidentally, narrowly preceded the British war cabinet’s proclamation of the Balfour declaration in support of a Jewish state in Palestine. Such was the alignment of these pivotal moments in Middle East – and global – history that some evangelists and Christian Zionists have claimed that the light horsemen were somehow doing “God’s work” in re-establishing a Jewish homeland, as biblically prophesied.

This has always seemed utterly fanciful to me. While some horsemen certainly knew of the places they were traversing (Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem) from the Bible, there was nothing to suggest in the hundreds of letters and diaries I’ve read that any saw themselves as actively doing God’s work.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/postcolonial-blog/2017/oct/30/beersheba-centenary-lets-remember-that-story-is-not-the-same-as-history

 

I find Daley’s view expressed in the above quote is extremely naïve.

It doesn’t surprise me that the participants would have no idea of what role they may have been playing in God’s purposes and their ignorance of it can’t be offered as evidence of the claim’s lack of validity. Man’s knowledge and complicity aren’t determining factors of truth.

Mankind increasingly sees history in political and cultural terms, driven only by man’s decisions and actions, that the future is in our own hands, governed by our own choices. Any thought of God or any Divine intentions are mostly ignored or ridiculed.

Even many who acknowledge God’s reality tend to sideline Him, making God more of a spectator than someone with an active interest in His creation. They overlook the possibility that he may actual have a very defined purpose in mind for this world and its inhabitants, and that man’s actions will not and can not change that ultimate purpose. Instead, God is more than capable of using any of mankind’s actions (including the evils of war) to move towards His purposes being realised.

 

 

As I wrote elsewhere:

Mankind wasn’t driven along an unavoidable predestined path to war. War came about through choices, freely made by sinful mankind. The extent of man’s sin was displayed in the horrific acts committed and the resulting conditions arising from those acts; some of which I’ve described quite graphically in an earlier post.

God did not cause or ordain those acts, but He was more than able to USE those acts to further His purposes. He is more than willing to give mankind over to the consequences of our own choices, and will even give us a helping hand in achieving or obtaining what we’ve chosen in place of Him. (refer Romans 1:24-32 and 2 Thess 2:11-12)

What mankind meant for evil, God could turn around for His good, to move a few steps towards the fulfilment of His eternal plans.

https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/anzacs-and-wwi-part-5-the-part-god-played/