Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

stalin_poster

This has to be one of the best Persephones I’ve read in a very long time. In the 1930s, Eugenia Ginzburg was a prominent young member of the Communist intelligentsia, entirely committed to the party and its vision for Russia. She lived in the small city of Kazan, had risen to the position of head of the department of Leninist history at the city’s university, edited a communist newspaper and was married to the city’s mayor. She had an idyllic life, surrounded by friends and colleagues who shared her beliefs and utterly satisfied in her work and in her young family. However, in 1934, everything began to change. The assassination of Kirov, a prominent member of the party, led to Stalin instigating what would become known as the Great Purge, ridding the Party of any member who could potentially pose a threat, though the vast majority of those imprisoned or murdered were entirely innocent of any crime. Elvov, a colleague of Ginzburg’s at the university, was accused of leading a counter-revolutionary group and arrested. For three years life became difficult for Ginzburg as she came under suspicion and found herself regularly questioned and accused of being a part of Elvov’s fictitious counter-revolutionary group. The nonsensical nature of her crime, which was in failing to notice that Elvov was a counter-revolutionary, had Ginzburg convinced that the trouble was all a misunderstanding and would soon blow over. Her naive belief in the Communist Party and its leaders made it impossible for her to realise what was really going on behind the scenes, but when she was eventually expelled from the party, Ginzburg began to understand that her life was in danger. In 1937, she was arrested and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. She had not had a chance to say goodbye to her family before being arrested; she would never see her husband, parents or son again.

Ginzburg spent the first two years of her imprisonment in solitary confinement, though she was enormously lucky to have a cellmate through necessity, as Stalin’s obsessive purging of anyone who could potentially be a threat had led to major overcrowding in prisons. Conditions were primitive and Ginzburg and her cellmate were kept strictly separate from their fellow inmates, though this did not prevent them from communicating with one another. Through a tapping alphabet, the prisoners managed to pass news and gradually understand how serious the situation had become. Senior and well known officials were amongst those in the cells, and at night, the screaming of prisoners being tortured could clearly be heard. Practically starved, forced to live in airless, damp conditions, with only the occasional treat of a book and a daily solitary walk around the yard to look forward to, Ginzburg and her fellow inmates lived in hope that soon the madness would end and they would be released. They were treated with kindness by some wardens, but mostly with cruelty, and were regularly interrogated by officials who tried to make them incriminate themselves in all manner of absurd, trumped up crimes. Despite the horror of her situation, Ginzburg tried to remain positive and even began to appreciate the benefit of the smallness of cell life; the chance to think, to study novels closely, to appreciate the small moments of unexpected pleasures, made life somehow more immediate and treasured. Even so, the fear of further punishment and even death was always on the horizon, and when the two years of solitary confinement were up, Ginzburg had no idea what would be waiting for her as she embarked on the next stage of her imprisonment.

This is such a powerful and gripping account of the sheer horror and pain of losing your freedom and all control over your life, and of how strong people can be under the most awful of circumstances. Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners showed such bravery and tenacity in the face of their long sentences and uncertain futures, and took enormous risks to help one another survive their ordeal. Rather than falling apart, their imprisonment made them more resilient and determined, refusing to allow themselves to become broken by the treatment they received. Despite this, however, I was surprised that so many of the prisoners remained loyal to their party and to Stalin, unable or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge that he was directly responsible for their imprisonment, and naively believing that ‘if Stalin knew’ what was happening, he would put a stop to it. Ginzburg herself admits that at the time, she did not associate Stalin with her situation, and did not blame him for it. It was a challenge for me to understand this mindset, and also for me to understand how Stalin was allowed to get away with treating so many hundreds of thousands – even millions – of his own people like this. I was absolutely infuriated by the end, perplexed as to how, as with Nazi Germany, this horror was not stopped by other countries. How could thousands of people disappear and the world not have noticed? Why do so few people still not know about the atrocities that were committed by these 20th century dictators, and why do we still allow dictators who are decimating their citizens in nations all over the world today to get away with their crimes? Eugenia Ginzburg’s incredibly moving and unflinchingly honest memoir should be required reading by every schoolchild. Its revelation of the evil humans are capable of inflicting upon one another, as well as how lucky we are to have our freedom, are two lessons all of us should fully learn before we become adults. Ginzburg’s retelling of her experiences deeply affected me, and left me determined to find out more about this period of history. Don’t let this one pass you by; it’s truly compelling reading.

 

Beautiful Bath

IMG_7985

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last weekend, I set off on a day trip to Bath with my fellow Old Fashioned Girl Miranda, her lovely mum Donna and our mutual friend Rachel. I last visited Bath about four years ago, so it was high time for another visit in the city that is so well known for its beautiful Georgian architecture, and, for us literary types, its connection with Jane Austen. Just over an hour on the train from London, and you are in a different world entirely. From a distance, Bath unfolds before you as if in a fairytale; its streets are golden ribbons encircling the green hills on which they are perched, and the city sits enthroned above the surrounding countryside. When the sun strikes the buildings, they glow softly, adding to the sense of enchantment and ethereality that pervades this magical kingdom. I was wonderstruck as we pulled into the station, having forgotten just how beautiful it all was.

IMG_7995

IMG_7993

Our first port of call was The Crescent, which sits at the top of the city and has a breathtaking view down into the valley below. This street, along with The Circus just behind it, are architectural marvels, their tall, perfectly proportioned terraces curving gently around to provide not only visual beauty but also a sense of whimsy in their playful challenge to the monotony of straight lines. We loved walking these wide and airy streets, our feet striking the worn pavements that hold the echoes of so much history. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the swishing of dresses and the clicking of horses’ hooves as Regency men and women hurry from lodgings to assembly rooms, in pursuit of the next party. We wandered down from The Circus into the centre of town, bustling with shoppers. On our way to get lunch, we passed the Pump Rooms and the beautiful Abbey, and I also spotted a wonderful original painted sign for the Circulating Library; I wonder if Jane Austen was ever a customer?

IMG_8010

IMG_8047

After a delicious three course lunch, which was at the outstanding Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen, we popped into the Abbey. I remembered from my last visit that it was quite unusual in my experience of such churches in that its walls are literally lined from floor to ceiling with memorial tablets, many of them very elaborate. I assume this is because so many people came to Bath for health reasons and unfortunately died during their stay. Alongside the memorials, which make for very interesting reading, there are many gorgeous stained glass windows to enjoy. Once we had looked around, we rushed off to the nearby bus stop to catch the American Museum in Britain’s free shuttle bus to its location just outside of the city, which gave us some lovely panoramic views of Bath on the way and took us past some seriously beautiful mansions built on the hillsides.

IMG_8028

 

 

IMG_8033

The American Museum in Britain is one of my favourite small museums in the UK. Situated within a very pretty Georgian mansion, it has a range of historic rooms from American houses as well as a wonderful collection of textiles, particularly patchwork quilts. We were so keen to visit on our day trip mainly because of its current exhibition of Kaffe Fassett’s stunning textiles, which were imaginatively displayed, creating an absolute riot of colour inside the museum’s dedicated exhibition space. Looking at Kaffe’s beautiful designs and inventive colour combinations, I felt inspired to get my quilt back out and resume with my never ending hexagons…definitely a summer project! Outside, the huge tree by the entrance to the museum has been hung with fabric lanterns and blanketed with crochet, which is such a bright and fun sight to see on arriving, and is representative of the museum’s ethos of giving visitors an exciting and unique experience. Alongside the museum and the exhibition, there are also many acres of garden to enjoy, which offer astounding views across the surrounding countryside. It’s a truly wonderful place to visit, and a must-do if you are in the neighbourhood. Bath once again proved itself to be a remarkably fascinating, varied and beautiful city that has so much to offer. I’ll definitely be back again soon!

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Image

After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Runaways, recently brought back into publication as part of Hesperus Press’ lovely Hesperus Minor collection, I was determined to find and read more of Elizabeth Goudge’s work. Some online research revealed that many fans of Goudge cite The Little White Horse as their favourite, and so I thought that would probably be a good place to start on my voyage through her extensive list of novels. Serendipitously, I managed to snap up a lovely original hardcover online for a bargain price, and when it arrived, one look at the adorable dustjacket told me that I was in for a big dollop of escapism with a generous side of charm. As I opened the cover, I put aside my reason and my scepticism and allowed myself to approach the story with the unquestioning attitude of a child, otherwise the magic would be utterly ruined. Consider yourself duly warned; this is not a novel to be approached with a rational mind!

Maria Merryweather, her guardian Miss Heliotrope and her dog Wiggins arrive at Moonacre Manor, their new home in the middle of the Devonshire countryside, on a moonlit night. Maria has been orphaned, and with no money due to her late father’s spendthrift ways, she has had to leave behind her luxurious London townhouse and come to live with Sir Benjamin, her only surviving relative. Maria, a stubborn, pampered yet good hearted little thing, is not convinced about her move to the country, but upon arrival at the mysterious, beautiful Moonacre, she soon changes her mind. Sir Benjamin proves to be kind and gentle, and his home is more than comfortable. Maria is shown to her bedroom in the tower of the Manor, and is instantly overcome with emotion at how fitting it is to her personality; its ceiling is covered in moons and stars, and the silvery furniture and beautiful bedspread speak of delicacy, refinement and beauty; everything Maria values. Maria and Miss Heliotrope are made instantly at home, but very soon it becomes clear that Moonacre and its village, Silverydew, are very far from ordinary, and are going to change their lives in ways they could never have imagined.

Their first day at Moonacre reveals many a mystery; Maria wakes up to find clothes laid out for her, and fresh flowers, and delicious food is presented at mealtimes. However, there are no servants at Moonacre other than the ancient coachman, Digweed. Who is providing all of these things? The animals at Moonacre, such as Sir Benjamin’s huge dog, Wrolf, appear to have lived for generations, and Maria is convinced that she has seen a white horse that apparently doesn’t exist running in the garden. The house is decorated with feminine touches, but no woman has lived there for 20 years and no one will tell Maria anything about the last occupant of her room. The little boy who Maria used to play with in her London garden appears again at Moonacre, and instead of being the imaginary friend Miss Heliotrope always said he was, he is perfectly real. Moonacre appears to be a place where the impossible becomes possible, and where all is not as it seems. As idyllic as it all looks, there is much sadness and danger at Moonacre, with the community threatened by the malevolent ‘Black Men’ of the woods and the Manor haunted by the mystery of its missing Moon Princess. To bring about peace and harmony once more, Maria will have to find a courage she never knew she had, and take all the help she can get, because it will not be an easy journey…

Every page of his novel is a delight. It is a story very much of its time: goodness and evil, religion and sin and manners and morality are its watchwords, and its purpose is to educate as much as it is to entertain. However, this doesn’t mean that it fails to enchant; far from it. Moonacre is filled with delightful characters, all of whom come to life on the pages and create a vivid, fantastical world where everything is beautiful and all’s well that ends well. Adults can easily see the connections between characters and events long before they are revealed, but I can imagine that if I had read this as a child, I would have been shocked and surprised by most of the coincidental happenings. It is a story, in its essence, about redemption and hope; at Moonacre, no sin is too great to overcome, and no-one, no matter how wicked their ways, cannot change. It is simplistic, even idealistic, but we all need a little idealism in our lives now and again. The Little White Horse is a marvellous vision of a world where courage and kindness can overcome all ills, and while at times it may be a little saccharine and twee, I loved every minute of it. If you need to escape for a little while, this will be just the ticket!

London in the Sun

chelsea

beautiful building

One of my favourite parts of London is Kensington and Chelsea, mainly thanks to its architecture; the streets of lavishly beautiful Victorian homes are a true sight for sore eyes. I have been meaning to explore the area in more depth and take a trip to Brompton Cemetery, West London’s version of Highgate Cemetery, for some time, but the weather has been so unpleasant of late that there hasn’t been much opportunity. So, when I woke two Saturdays ago to Mediterranean levels of sunshine, I knew that it was going to be a perfect day for a cemetery visit  - obviously. Thankfully my friend Emma agreed, and so off we set, via King’s Road, to Brompton, which is about a twenty minute brisk walk down the Fulham Road from South Kensington tube station. On the way, we passed ridiculously lovely streets of houses, of the type you normally see in romantic comedies that like to pretend that everyone in London lives in gorgeous squares of redbrick townhouses with their own private gated gardens in the middle. Just like all films set in New York have their main characters working as waitresses who somehow manage to live alone in a four room Brooklyn brownstone apartment that costs $2000 a month to rent. These waitresses have got to be getting some good tips. Anyway, I digress!

thanks

brompton cemetery

Once you reach the slightly more down-at-heel end of the Fulham Road, you know you’re nearly at the cemetery, and a very grand entrance off the street is the gateway to an enchanted land that feels entirely out of place in its surroundings. As it is owned and managed by the Royal Parks, it is far more well kept than Highgate, and its lack of much interesting topography lends it a rather more manicured and conventional air. Nonetheless, it is still sufficiently overgrown in places to feel mysterious and slightly eerie, and there is a very pretty colonnaded area in the middle, alongside a Grecian chapel, that make it a cut above the ordinary cemetery. What I found most interesting about Brompton is the number of architecturally unusual gravestones. There are some particularly beautiful art nouveau monuments, including the cemetery’s only listed monument, a beautiful floral copper casket made for the prominent shipping magnate and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, Frederick Richards Leyland, which is the only funerary monument ever made by Edward Burne-Jones. There is also a good crop of art deco memorials, including a fascinating one that tells the story of a soldier who defeated a zeppelin raid in 1915, and much to my delight, Emmeline Pankhurst’s gravestone, which is notable for its fresh flowers; I’m glad to see that she is still so highly appreciated.

fancy grave

emmelinepankhurst

After a good long stroll through the cemetery, we caught the bus back to South Kensington and dropped in at the V&A to soak up the sun in its beautiful gardens. We then fancied a change of scene, and so headed off to Southbank, where we browsed the book market, sat and watched the world go by, took in a wonderful exhibition of actor photographs in the free gallery at the National Theatre, and saw the sun go down over the river. The city was bustling with people out enjoying the sun, and there was a real holiday atmosphere in the air. I almost felt that I was back in New York, and it was a welcome reminder that summer is finally on its way.

vam

 

hayward gallery

Wake by Anna Hope

Image

This is such a brilliant book; one that is both beautifully written and emotionally involving, with a fascinating plot and wonderful characters who pluck at your heartstrings on every page. There are plenty of modern novels out there that try and recreate the experience of war, and many of these have become modern classics – Birdsong and the Regeneration trilogy probably being the most well known. However, what makes this revisiting of WWI so interesting is that it sets itself just after the war, in 1920, in the week leading up to the burial of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The battlefields here are not those infamous mud-sodden tranches of France and Belgium, but the homes of three London women who have lived through the war and are still fighting with its aftermath. This is a time and an experience not often written about, and I found it absolutely fascinating and thought provoking to consider the profound change that the war brought to so many people’s lives, whether they lost someone they loved or not. Hope explores the impossibility of resuming a normal life after the emotional and physical toll of living through such horror and grief for so long, and through drawing together the lives of three seemingly disparate women dealing with very different circumstances, she allows us into the world of a battered country whose people were still reeling from the shock of the war, two years after ‘victory’ had been won.

Ada is a middle aged housewife in Hackney, her world seemingly preoccupied with her cleaning, shopping and husband Jack, who spends most of his time at his allotment. She has lived her entire married life in her house, content with the little she has, happy in her marriage and in her close circle of neighbourhood friends. However, the visit one morning of a door-to-door salesman, a former soldier, reveals the deep tragedy of Ada’s life. He seems to want to tell her something about her only child, Michael, who never came home from the war, but he leaves, frightened, before Ada can question him further. Three years on, she still doesn’t know how he died, and this haunts her; she sees him everywhere she goes, and cannot let go until she knows his fate. Across town, in leafy Primrose Hill, Evelyn, a 29 year old ‘spinster’ from a wealthy family, shares a flat with her best friend and works in the Pensions office responsible for handing out money to ex-soldiers. She is deeply unhappy, still grieving the death of her fiance at the Front, and unable to move forward with her life or take any joy in her existence. Her job, dealing with the emotion and anger of soldiers reduced to nothing to live upon, depresses her even further. However, one day, a man comes asking not for money, but for information about his old Captain. Evelyn is shocked to hear him name her brother, who survived the war but came back an utterly changed man, and seems to spend most of his days soaked in whisky. Initially Evelyn refuses to help, but horrified that her brother may have committed an atrocity in battle, she determines to seek out answers. Meanwhile, Hettie, a teenage dance instructress at the Hammersmith Palais, is trying to find love and laughter amidst a world of broken men and despairing women. Her father is dead, her brother incapacitated by the horrors of what he experienced and her mother lost in grief. Her home in Hammersmith has lost any life and she is desperate to escape, but the strict confines of her mother’s rules and the financial dependence her family now has upon her prevents her from living the life she wants. One night, however, a handsome man asks her to dance at a shady nightclub in the city. Attracted by his cool, mysterious demeanour, Hettie can’t resist the chance to get to know him better, in the hope that he might be a ticket to a new start.

Meanwhile, the process of choosing the body of an unnamed soldier and bringing it back home is ongoing in France, and the anticipation in London is building. For so many people who have never seen the bodies of their dead, or where they are resting, this is a deeply personal event; a chance for them to say goodbye, to grieve afresh, to experience the funeral they never got to give their boys. For the men who served and returned, it is a chance for them to weep for the comrades they lost, and acknowledge their grief publicly, perhaps for the first time. A nation in mourning looks to the body of this poor soul as a way to achieve a collective catharsis; a chance to put the lid on the war once and for all, and to move on, together, to a better future. For Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, The Unknown Warrior has an indidivual significance, and each will wrestle with their desire to both go and watch the ceremony, and to stay away, as they confront the grief his burial resurfaces, and consider how to allow themselves to find happiness again.

This is such a remarkable book that brings the period to life through its troubled characters and the drab, dismal setting of a scarred and dirty post-war London, filled with unemployed men and grey-faced women lost in a world that has become so different from the one they used to know. It is beautifully and inventively written, adding something unique and genuinely enlightening to the canon of contemporary historical fiction. I was delighted by how much I enjoyed it, and it is particularly promising that this is Anna Hope’s debut novel; I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Wake is not one to miss, and in the centenary of WWI, essential reading.