The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

The Golden Legend is another exquisitely written novel by Nadeem Aslam.

An enthralling view into a world of politics, religion, persecution, corruption, love, loyalty, and extremism. A story of  violence and tenderness, love and fear, hope and despair, in a nation wracked by political and religious inconsistencies.

There are times throughout my reading year when I need to sit down with a “page-turner”, a book impossible to put down. A book I can finish in a couple of sittings.

This book is not one of those – it can’t be rushed. It needs to be savoured, not only to enjoy the richness of the writing, but to absorb the realities it explores. It takes us into a world contrasting significantly from the familiar western reality most of us take for granted, a place where political and religious allegiances, no matter loosely held, can make daily life precarious depending upon the opportunistic agendas of others .

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While History Passed, by Jessie Elizabeth Simons

Knowing that I love to read, whenever I visited Gloria’s family, her dad would hand me one of his very few books.

He’d served in the RAAF in Borneo towards the end of WWII and as a result disliked the Japanese.

I always thought he wanted me to read the book so I’d know why the Japanese were so contemptible. The book was White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey.
As politely as possible I resisted his attempts to “indoctrinate” me, so after a brief flick through the book I handed it back unread.

220px-paradiseroad1997posterFast forward a couple of decades, and not long after his death, I realised the book was probably something worth reading. By that time I’d heard more about the events it described. Unfortunately no trace of it could be found among his possessions and I regretted the lack of interest I’d shown over many years. If only I’d foreseen the interest I now have in the lives of military nurses.

White Coolies is Jeffrey’s account of her time as a prisoner of the Japanese, captured after the sinking of the ship, SS Vyner Brooke that was taking her and other nurses away from Singapore and its imminent capture by the Japanese army.
The story was adapted into the 1997 film Paradise Road

I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Jeffrey’s book. Maybe I need to get over the realisation that I could have obtained a hardcover copy, old but in good condition, that also had a few relevant, period news clippings slipped between its covers.history But I have come across other accounts of the same events such as On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw, a book I’ve had for a while but haven’t yet read and While History Passed by Jessie Elizabeth Simons, who was part of the same group of nurses held prisoner by the Japanese. I came across a second-hand, ex-library copy a few weeks ago. Until then hadn’t been aware of the book’s existence, so was willing to overlook its condition. (It seems a child decided a lot of the pages were too plain without their addition of colourful scribbles).

Simons tells her story of evacuation from Singapore as the Japanese were moving in, of the sinking of the ship taking her to safety and of her subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Japanese after surviving some time afloat at sea.

Others weren’t so lucky. Many drowned and those reaching shore first were rounded up and murdered by the Japanese. Men were taken into the jungle and bayonetted. The nurses were forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Simons survived three and a half years of the malnutrition and disease that claimed the lives of many of those imprisoned with her. She wrote:

“…the death rate soared to a new record, daily broken.
We had to dig graves, construct rough coffins and bury our own dead, often at the rate of three a day in our own circle of acquaintance. For mothers who had sacrificed from their own rations for the past two and a half years to give their children a better chance of coming through, Muntok camp was a grim, never-to-be-forgotten last stand against their children’s starvation. Far too many of them fought a losing battle; one woman saw four of her five children die within a week from the accumulated effects of malnutrition. Total war!

Somehow there were always a few flowers for the funerals, pathetic little processions of a few friends paying respects to one who had “gone before” – a banal phrase that leapt to new life and meaning as the half-dead wondered whose turn would be next.”

This was posted on 12th February 2017. I had intended it to be on  the 75th anniversary of the Vyner Brooke’s sinking, but somehow along the way I mixed up the dates. The anniversary was the 14th.

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher.

Edith Cavell was an English nurse who helped establish a nursing school in Brussels, at a time when nursing practice in Belgium had low standards and little community respect. Cavell sought to change all of that by training young women to the same kind of standard she had learned during her own training in London and through her experience as a practising nurse in Britain. In 1907 she accepted the role of matron at the new training school in Brussels.

edith-cavellIn 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, thereby drawing Britain, allies of Belgium, into the First World War. Cavell chose to stay in Brussels with her trainee nurses and helped to look after wounded troops from both sides.

When wounded French, British and Belgian soldiers were in danger of being killed by the German invaders, she started to help the Belgian resistance to get them to safety across the Dutch border.
In August 1915 she was arrested and two months later was tried, sentenced to death and shot by firing squad.

This book tries to piece together a part of Cavell’s life that has probably been omitted from many other biographies: the way her Christian faith prepared her to face premature death.

The author looks at the religious routine Cavell followed throughout her life, first as the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and later as a continuing part of her daily devotions, following the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and readings from other devotional books known to be used by Cavell.

Apart from Cavell’s own story, the book touches on the role of religious practice across general society, particularly within a hospital environment, where it is said that prayer and bible reading were the essential starting point of each day in the wards.
How things have changed!

Cavell was shot at dawn on the 12th October 1915.

“Her last glimpse of life on earth would be the gloomy mists of an autumn dawn in Belgium. Her expectation was that in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ she would be in the presence of Jesus.”

Glider Pilots in Sicily by Mike Peters

gliderFifteen years before my birth, in the events described in Mike Peters’ Glider Pilots in Sicily, my cousin died.

He was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, travelling in a glider taking troops to the first stage of the allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943

During the night approach to the designated landing zone near Syracuse, the tow-plane pilots panicked and released the glider too far from land. His glider was one of 69 out of 144 gliders to crash into the sea. More than two hundred and fifty crew drowned.

This book starts with the inadequate planning, training and deployment of the forces involved with Glider operations related to the early days of the invasion of Sicily, showing the inevitability of the disastrous outcome.

And yet, despite the disastrous start, the invasion as a whole succeeded.

Peters takes the reader through each stage of the glider operation as a whole, providing individual stories of participants to show the stories human cost. While my cousin’s individual story isn’t given here, the book reveals the general circumstances experienced by him and the other participants.

A Rose for the Anzac Boys

a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys

In A Rose for the Anzac Boys  Jackie French vividly depicts the horror and heartbreak of battle at the Western Front during WWI. While not glorifying the violence, she doesn’t compromise at all with the gruesome truth of it.

The story concentrates on Margery (Midge) MacPherson and her experiences in France, serving tired and wounded troops near the front lines.

When war starts, Midge is away from her New Zealand home and lives at a school for girls in England. She and her English school friends decide to leave school so they can play their part in the war effort by setting up a canteen for the troops in France, not realising how much their lives will be changed.

Partly told in the form of letters, the realities of war are made clear, as Midge corresponds with family and friends at home and at the battle front. I found the letters to be a powerful and convincing part of the book, fitting in naturally with the ongoing narrative of Midge’s story. They had an authenticity comparable to the real letters and diary entries I’ve read before and were some of the more moving portions of the books. Maybe my desk at work during tea and lunchbreaks wasn’t the best time and place to read these sections.

While the book is set behind the lines, some of the letters from soldiers give us a glimpse of life and death at the front, while Midge’s experiences take us into the world of the many volunteers who worked as caterers, ambulance drivers, VADs and nurses. We see that few were left unaffected by the cost of the war and that the effects continue through following generations.

After the story, French includes a 19 page “author’s note” to give some historical  context to Midge’s story, bringing to the reader’s attention the neglected, but significant role women played during World War I.

How many women fought in World War I?

We’ll never know. But there were thousands, or even million – as many, perhaps as the men who fought there too.

Few women in World War I carried weapons. But these days we say a soldier ‘fought’ in World War I or II if they were in transport, or administration, and not just one of the relatively small portion of soldiers who actually faced the enemy. The women of World War I fought in other ways, and often in battles as hard as the men’s. And most their war was unrecorded.

 

VAD

With a degree of poignant synchronicity, I read the last part of the book on the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles, probably the most tragic single day in Australia’s military history, where almost 2,000 Australian troops lost their lives and many thousands more were wounded. There were more Australian casualties on that one day than in all post WWII campaigns combined.

 

(see my other blog for more about Fromelles: https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/battle-of-fromelles-centenary/  )

The author’s web page related to the book:  http://www.jackiefrench.com/#!a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys/o3kat

Publisher’s page :  http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780732285401/a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys/

 

Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's ArkThis is my 300th book read, since starting this blog in November 2009.

I wanted to mark my triple century with something of significance and worth, and thought this book met those conditions.

As a Booker prize winner it has literary recognition. As the inspiration for an Oscar winning film it gained a wider appreciation and appeal.

And the book’s topic and themes make it worthwhile representative of many of the books preceding it on my reading list.

Literature, war, Jewish history and the extremes of human nature;  some of the significant characteristics of the other books I’ve read in the past (almost) 7 years.

Schindler's ark 2

I’ve had this book for a long time, firstly in a paperback released as a movie tie-in, with of course the changed title of Schindler’s List. And then I came across the first (Australian) hardcover edition illustrated above. I bought it and gave the other one to my mum.

The book then sat on my bookshelf for a few years unread – until now.

In the beginning Keneally makes it clear that his book is not a history book, but a novel based on historical research and personal interviews with many of the people who appear in it as “characters”. I’m not entirely sure of the distinction he tries to make. It doesn’t seem any different to many of the military histories I’ve read over the past year. Maybe he wanted to distance his book from potential readers’ assumptions about the dryness of history telling.

Now that I’ve committed myself to making this my 300th book – it’s restricting me from starting something else alongside it, just in case I forget myself and finish that “something else” first.

 

 

 

schindler

 

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.

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photos from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamworth_Castle
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catton_Hall
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calke_Abbey