Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Warning: Contains Spoilers.


This was one of Graham Greene’s first novels to win great acclaim.
Published in 1932, it is still a gripping read. His list of characters is wide, varied, and their depictions, like the overall storytelling, accomplished.

It does have major problems, especially for the modern reader. Remember the date of publication.

It is a classic ‘Orient Express’ story: characters trapped on the great journey to Constantinople, as it was then: a three day journey.
The book opens after the ferry crossing, in the Ostend dock yard, as passengers shuffled through rain to the train. We met there the main characters. The ferry purser wondered after their passing whether a big story had just passed him by. This sets us up: something is afoot.

Passengers joined, and left, as the train travelled through pre-World War II Europe. Chapters take us from Ostend, to Cologne, Vienna, Subotica, then Constantinople.
Who are they? Why this journey?
Graham Greene makes several attempts at giving credible female characters. The best perhaps is Coral Musker. She is a dancer, going the whole journey to join up with the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe. She does not reach there. Her journey was long and winding. The cold, for a start. Her background, for another: remember the date. Impoverished, underfed, thin and alone. Then she collapsed on the train from the cold. Weak heart, the doctor said.
Here we have a story in itself: a dancer, with a weak heart.

She was offered a bunk for the night, she could not afford one herself. She accepted; the man slept outside. In the morning she woke to the implications. There would be a price to pay; this was her life, as accessory, as a woman alone. And yet, we learn, on paying the price it was her first time. The man was aghast, after all, he had expected….
He hoped he had not hurt her – because, of course, at the time he would not notice the pain, blood; he would be enjoying himself.
And here Graham Greene gives her a classic line: ‘Well, it was no picnic.’

There is an anomaly in the story-line: Richard John, the schoolmaster, had joined the train at Ostend. He attended to Miss Musker when she collapsed. And yet he then joined the train in Cologne. Had he got off for a snack, and most importantly, a newspaper? It is not clear; he had been drifting off to sleep at the end of the previous chapter as the conductor announced the station arriving: ‘Koln, Koln, Koln’.

One of Graham Greene’s greatest failings is his naivete in certain matters. One of those matters is Mabel Warren, British journalist, based in Europe. It is she who recognises the person behind Richard John.
The problem here, you see, is that Mabel Warren is gay. A later conversation with her companion journeying to meet her uncle, centres on ‘But what can she do, a woman like that?’
The male prurience.
‘Kissing.’ Answers her companion, ‘Endless kissing.’ This sense of impotence is assumed of gay love.
And yet, it is also in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the fair youth, the sense of physical need but complete lack of means. Shakespeare, as the 1920s, was fully aware of the possibility of a complete gay relationship.
Graham Greene shows a degree of squeamishness with the physical. He counters this with a slightly over-the-top worldliness; but here, as we see, he was out of his depth.

So, what of Richard John, schoolmaster? And where exactly was he travelling?
He said Vienna, but Mabel’s news nose told her, Belgrade. And his real name was Dr Czinner. A medical doctor, hence his aid to Coral Musker, but one who had realised the people of his country needed greater help than medical. They needed political help.
The threat that was turning Europe upside down was the recently established Soviet Union. It was still  in its internationalism phase.
Richard John/Dr Czinner was returning to head an uprising. Only, it had already happened, and failed, he discovered in his newspaper. And he was trapped on this train heading into who knew what reprisals.
For Mabel here was a front page story.

And then we come to Carleton Myatt. Myatt was travelling all the way, on business. He was wealthy. Well, he would be, because Graham Greene takes every opportunity, and more, to tell us that Myatt is… A Jew.
I expected… I had to check the date of publication several times… that the atrocious Nazi race propaganda was at work here, seeping through into every aspect of professional life. But 1932, and written 1930-1?
Myatt cannot help his race’s splayed hands gesture, we read; he catches himself at it. At the end of the book he is asked to be charitable, he answers to the effect that I am a Jew, Charity is a Christian virtue.
What utter and obnoxious nonsense is this?
So why did he give his bunk, indeed his First Class ticket, to Coral Musker at the beginning? She assumed there was a price. That particular price. Because that was what was expected of a poor working woman. But he did not expect it; companionship would have sufficed. All to do with reading social expectations.
But what did Graham Greene give us with Myatt? A caricatured stereotype. He attempted to get inside the man, but could not get around this gargoyle he had made, and was busy shoring up.
More importantly, why did Myatt pay over the odds for a car journey back to Subotica, to search for her?

Because Coral, and Dr Czinner, were arrested at an out of the way station near Subotica.
Subotica was just over the border into Yugoslavia/Serbia. Next stop was Belgrade. The military were waiting for him. He saw them coming and slipped a letter to Coral. It was seen.

I suspect we are to read that Coral goes out of the frying pan into the fire, at the end. She is rescued, but by the newly deserted Mabel. Mabel wants the exclusive on the news story, naturally. But she was also quite taken with Coral.
Good luck to them, I say.

And that is an indication of how deeply the reader invests with the characters. So when we get such a crass caricature like Myatt, we either react against book and author, or we wonder about the moral responsibilities of the writer of realist fiction.
The anti-semiticism, I read elsewhere, is to reflect attitudes prevalent in Europe at the time. And yet the internal dialogues Graham Greene gives us is of one who’s very essence is based around this attitude.
Are we to read sociologically, here: is it that it is one’s environment makes one? It is difficult to determine how much of the public attitudes to his Jewishness en route is Greene, and how much observation.
Then what of Graham Greene’s Catholicism? It is shoe-horned clumsily into the story at points, that stretch credibility, like shoe leather. Does it make a fit?

That we are to read it sociologically is backed up by the character of Dr Czinner. He was the one who described Coral as having a bad heart. His reaction we then read in hindsight. She had a bad heart partly through poverty, poor and irregular meals, the circumstances of her trapped position in life. All these had turned him from a doctor to a political fighter.
It is from that initial kindness of his that she took the smuggled letter. She was subsequently held, questioned, and was to be deported. Back to the clamouring for bit parts again at stage doors. As it is….

There are humourous interludes in the book. One led to a brief legal case: was the character of cockney popular writer Q C Savory originally a poke at J B Priestley? He thought so. The character was re-written later.

Graham Greene described the book as a deliberate attempt to make money by tailoring it to popular reading, and film, taste. In succeeded on both counts.
Such a motive does indeed work in your favour sometimes.
We also read here the dangers of courting popular tastes: did Graham Greene reflect what he saw, or further promote bigotry by writing about it so pointedly, and without any form of condemnation? Once again, the question of responsibility.

The writer, publisher and all-round good man Richard Livermore has very pertinent comments to say on this issue:
There is nothing in the rule-books which says that to appreciate a good novel you have to be in agreement with the ideas expressed in that novel. In fact, you can even think the ideas are insane and yet thoroughly enjoy the novel in question. What’s important is the quality of the writing and the presentation of the characters and also the situations within it. Never forget that you are reading a work of fiction and as such it requires a suspension of disbelief. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth or reality requires it. Outside of the novel you can be as sceptical as you like, but if the novel holds your attention and makes you believe in it while you are reading it that is all that finally matters. That goes for whether you agree with the point of view of the author or not. Louis Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi, but Journey To The End Of The Night is nevertheless a really good novel.

For more on Richard Livermore, and I urge you to go, see:

There was a loud rat-a-tat-tat on her door. It was a warm Rome night; she looked up from her work – That time?
She tutted at the interruption, at the time, at another night without dinner. Was she really tutting at her own forgetfulness? She turned back to her work, the old manual typewriter.

The door was knocked – banged – again. With great annoyance she stood but sitting so long had not been kind to her hips and she stumbled, hobbled, towards the door, holding onto her old, scant furniture.
She became aware of the noises around her for the first time, noises from the other apartments she was housed among. There was the next door radio again, and the other side the harassed voice of  mother of two little girls. Upstairs for once was quiet. Odd that, she was thinking. And then the door banged again.

‘Who is it?’ she called in her still-inflected Italian.
‘The Police. Open up please.’
Still she paused, the particular emotions this roused racing through her like long-lost family. She opened the door a crack, then more as she recognised the older man’s face.
‘Hello again,’ he smiled sardonically.
‘Upstairs?’ she asked. He nodded. Without being asked they walked in. They looked round the small, cramped apartment.
‘You would think,’ the younger of the two men was saying, ‘with all these papers, books… they’d sound-proof.’
‘Sound, like hot air, rises.’ The other motioned to the ceiling above, still strangely quiet.
‘This is the third time your neighbours have complained,’ the older man said, not unkindly.
‘I have to work.’ she said.
‘I know, I know….’

‘We need to see your papers.’ It was the younger man, he did not like the way his older officer was being easy with the perpetrator. There must be respect for the law.
She showed him her passport, permits.
‘German ?’ He was unsure now, the old enmity was still alive
‘Austrian!’ She was suddenly very much awake.
‘The older man moved in front of his comrade, gently returning her papers to her.
‘It is late, though,’ he said, ‘people need to rest after a long day.’
‘But I need to work,’ she repeated; or I’ll go mad, was running through her head.
The younger man was trying to claw back the ground he’d just lost,
‘What are you working on?’ His tone was a little too authoritative; he realised it and could not keep eye contact.
‘Just… just some poetry, a novel.’
The younger man was leafing through her papers. She looked anguished. The older man sighed, tired and in need of some cooler air after the stuffy room.

‘It is such a… little thing.’ the younger officer said, holding up the poem she had typed out already. He looked disappointed. They were moving towards the door at last.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘such a little thing.’



Based on a real event.


THE FLOATING CASTLE, by Karen Margolis, 2012. £3.59.


The Pretoria Castle

This ebook is a must.

I invite all to spend time with the wonderful, warm Litinsky family.
A modern Jewish family relocates from their early life in South Africa to London. It was the beginning of the 1960s: This country is no place to bring up children… after Sharpeville.
And already we see the bigger picture, the extra dimensions: we do not live our lives in isolation. Ever.

The book begins with the young family moving from Cape Town to the Transvaal. It ends with the family arriving in Portsmouth, and moving onto London.
They start new lives each time, with all the wrenching upheaval, the breaking away from years laid down in the memory, and to learn new ways of living, speaking, thinking even, this entails.
But more, the books begins and ends with the gathered family remembering itself and  celebrating the Passover ceremony in each new home. Who remains? Who has gone?

And what is the main prayer of the Passover? Next year, in Jerusalem.
One has to learn to fit in, integrate, yet all the time some part keeps one separate – we witness the attitudes of the new Church of England school in London belittling the Jewish holiday traditions, where a holiday  is indeed a holy day.
But there are also the challenges of new ideas and ideals as left wing politics, feminism, find homes in the hearts and minds of the growing children.

I would like to invite you  to meet, spend time with, Isaac and Verena Litinsky, their twin daughters Davida and Sarah, younger siblings spoilt Raphael, and Alicia. But then, of course, there are the extended families of both mother and father’s side, their own experiences of a shocking century.

The family unit is a wide and internationally based web of relationships.
The family unit touches the people they live among, with, beside. In the Transvaal there are the black Africans working in the household: Susan, the nanny, who cooks the specifically Jewish food, and lives by choice apart. Her wedding…. No, you must read for yourself.

Father Isaac flew to London earlier to find work and look for accommodation. The family followed later, by boat.
Here we see where book title, The Floating Castle, begins to throw wider and wider shadows and shapes on the canvas of our reading.
We see how the family arranges itself into at times autocratic, at times capitalist and democratic relationships; we see how other cultures, the travelling companions, the ship-board relationships, impinge, threaten the stability of the family unit: is Verena really taken with that other man? What of Davida’s developing relationships outside the family unit?

At times the Jewish ceremony can seem as strange to the children as the others around them. They visit a Christian Church in Johannesburg with their nanny. Sarah concludes that it’s bunk, if the messiah had really come then they would all be in paradise by now, and they are plainly not.
We see the characters from the inside, through unreliable narration like this. It gives us insights, it provokes empathy. The tone of voice is caught seemingly effortlessly

The background stories fill in, and we see the sense in madness, the folly in sense, as ordered and disordered lives worked themselves out to unforeseeable conclusions. Human, all so human.

The book shifts locale and time giving us the later stories of the character’s lives, and their earlier experiences. And how they reflect in each other.
It gives us, for instance: What does it cost to borrow a ride on a bike? Enough to say, Nanny Susan saved dignity, and the day.
We read into this how one learns bargaining; how the body can be a bargaining counter. Here is the beginning of gender politics, body consciousness; it shows how natural curiosity can devolve into objectification, given a background of gender inequality.

‘Faith’, we say easily, and yet we discern in this story, how the word goes deeper. We discern here how it can permeate every part of one’s being, one’s experiences, one’s interactions with the world. It can colour one’s whole view:
The London Jews… They’re not real Jews, not in the way we understand.’ was Isaac’s verdict.
But we also see Isaac’s Jewishness held up for examination, where the holes show through, and the patches.
We should have gone to Israel, he said, we have lost something staying too long in London, We have stretched the thread of tradition too far.
But Israel, itself, volatile, threatened, and threatening: was that a place for the children? We see Aunt Masha after her parent’s died, living perpetually alone. She was a constant fount of vitality, but duty and  tradition tied her heart, hand and foot.

And on the other hand there’s Molly. She was a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa, a fighter for black rights. Molly is a splendid character; she is full of the contradictions of her place and time: comfortable and white interloper fighting for the impoverished and black indigenous peoples. She is passionate, brave, puts herself on the line constantly.

The book is strong and yet flexible, the characters all well realised, warmly depicted, and all so likeable. For all their faults, short-comings. The writing is finely nuanced, crafted; a joy to read.

I have really enjoyed my time with the Litinsky family.

I really must go back and re-read from the beginning.


I have been caught up in writing a novel for the past, oo, several months now.
I went through a stage of trying out different fonts for the different voices telling/re-telling the story of the novel. It got too messy as the novel has grown and grown.


Here it is: it became unworkable due to scale. this is a taster:




Now, I want you to remember this: I am Sin-li-unni, and currently, though I expect not for much longer, Under-Under-Secretary for the Minister for Home Affairs. I am great-great-great grandson of Lugal, recorder of these events. Lugal was, family tradition records, an inner member of the ruling party in the city at that time. He was not, I repeat, not, a member of the ordinary city people. This is a gross distortion and slander. And I want to quash it once and for all. Those reports are Wrong. They are part of the great injustice and distortion done to our noble nation’s illustrious history and culture.

The following report is the True report, passed down in my family for generations. The Minister himself was very impressed when I could present him with my own chronicle. He had demanded a new publication of the heroic deeds and acts of our great ancestor Gil Games, to create a sense of pride and manly honour, in this time of troubled affairs in this Great Nation.

I could provide him with the true version. I expect to be elevated to a higher position in the Ministry any time now.

Here then, is the True account of the illustrious life of our great ancestor, Gil Games.



Let it be said, dear reader, that the fraudulent, biased and recessive account here presented to you as truth, is a gross distortion of the facts of the case.

We can never know, now, the thinking processes, bases for decision making, and judgements, of the period in question. We can be certain that the account, presented by Sin-li-unni as authentic, is anything but that. It is a version, no more. 

The account we present here we do under great duress. Should any of the contributors be unmasked…. Let it be known that we risk out lives to give the fullest version that we can.

Indeed, we would have preferred the story remain untold, than told in Sin-li-unni’s gross distortion. The real tale is a tale of the people’s lives, not of overbearing, cruel and preening overlords.



I came across this strange document late one evening in the library at Alexandria.

As you can see there appear to be two different hands at work here. Whether they muddy the waters further, or, as the second suggests, clarify the story to any extent we maybe now can never know.

Both writers seem unaware of what to us are now basic facts about the story and time. One of these concerns the claims of their leaders’ ancestry to Games. It is well-attested, and backed up by records from the time and proceeding times, that he never married nor sired any children. Indeed, his inclinations were elsewhere.

Our best researchers can now perhaps fill in some of the gaps in the story, and new tablets and documents by other hands that have come to light in recent years can also give a fuller picture.

I have taken the liberty in presenting the documents as a fictionalised story. This is to demonstrate that the early account is wholly unhistoric. It had been revered and re-published over time as factually correct, and as an authentic record.

To preserve something of the narrative structure of the story I have interleaved the earlier version with other versions of the tale, and filled in gaps in the narratives in line with our enlightened attitudes to diversity and equality. I think you will agree this version is far superior and acceptable for our enlightened times.


FALLING INTO GLORY, by Robert Westall. Methuen Books, 1993



This is a young adult book, written later in Robert Westall’s writing career.
My son had been suggesting I read it for ages, and so I eventually got around to it.

It is basically the story of a love affair between a seventeen-year old student and a teacher. It is a full, passionate and consummated affair. What makes the story remarkable is the life the author brings to it, and the levels he navigates here.
– Take the setting: it is Tyneside, north-east England; it also takes in Hadrian’s Wall, but is mainly set within thirty miles of Tyneside.
– Take the period: it begins in the last year of the Second World War and the years immediately following. It covers a seven year period, but mostly concentrates on the last two years, which would place between 1944 and 1950 to 51. This is very important.

The story opens with ten year old Robbie glimpsing Miss Harris in his junior school playground; she looked young, full of life and promise, full of the future and possibilities.
He joined the local grammar school, an unprepossessing boy; he was overweight and ungainly. As he grew this changed with puberty: he became big built but muscular, tall. From unprepossessing he transformed into burly, but also intelligent, and quick witted.
Then Miss Harris joined the school. In the intervening five years she seemed to have lost everything. What happened to her?
We must remember the period, it is all important.
We learn she lost her fiancee in the last year of the War; they had everything before them. He lost his life; she lost him, and with him all chance of a future: few young men returned whole from that war. From any war.
In post-War gloom, rationing, a broken economy, a country barely managing to keep on, any kind of future for the survivors was going to be a long, hard fight. People had to be tough, a little ruthless, to get on. They were fighting over a limited amount of openings, and that was not going to get better for some time to come.

This helps explain Robbie’s character more. At first I found him loutish, rough, crude. Wouldn’t the better term be gauche, perhaps? This also points up the skill of Robert Westall’s writing: he pulled few punches with Robbie’s character; he made him a very plausible period study.
Emma Harris was losing her future, she was ageing in a thankless profession; and a new generation was emerging, pushing for a new future, with all the hopes and energy she once had. Her options were severely limited, as a woman, unmarried, after the War, in an impoverished area.

And here is another great thing about this book: how the author depicts the English and their class system. Robert Westall shows us the fine gradings and levels of class. Robbie attends a grammar school, but the intake is mostly from the local lower class. Robbie is a rugby player, because he has the muscle, the power, but also the energy for the rough and tumble. It was considered a ‘posh-boys’ game, rugby, compared with football. He became in his last year unspoken captain of the school team, and led them into victory for the first time in school history.
It is not all ‘school story heroism’, because he managed all this by craft and deviousness. As I said above, these were the skills needed to survive and thrive in that post-War world. This is exemplified to a great extent by the games master’s constant refrain to play for the pleasure of the game, not for the winning. Old attitudes and the sense of fair-play had gone, the younger generation aimed to fight tough for what they could get.
Having said that, one of Robbie’s developments is seen in his relationship with William Watson. He was poor, and greatly bullied by Robbie’s group. Robbie was part of the ‘game’ to begin with, but he grew increasingly concerned over the persistence of the bullying. The story ends with Robbie and William finding an ease of relations, after their initial disdain and distance.
The writer distinguishes between the poor of the lower class. Take Wilf, head boy. His was a very poor background. Others like him were avoided, ostracised almost, because they were poor.
All were poor, but true poverty was feared as the worst level a person could attain. The truly poor in those days had no chance whatsoever. We find this in Benny Jobling, a father at seventeen, working in the shipyard for the rest of his life. He was misery incarnate.
This perhaps helps explain why many lower class people supported Conservative ideals: the Conservatives gave the impression of the possibility for advancement through hard work and merit.
And so we find Robbie’s family connected with the upcoming Socialist town mayor. They were fighting for, if a better life was not possible, then a fairer life. Politics fights viciously way in the background of the book, but the fall-out happened everywhere.

What we witness with Robbie’s learning experience, his use of Joyce Adamson, his manipulation of Emma, his little lies, maneuvering of skilled players on the rugby team, is a growth into self awareness. Without that, none of his abilities would have come to anything, he would have remained a small-town tough.
Robbie’s character finds analogues, as the current trendy term is, with such as Arthur Seaton anti-hero of Alan Silitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), perhaps more closely with Joe Lampton of ’Room at the Top’, by John Braine (1957).

The book takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. It is very much Robbie’s story, but his discovery of Emma, in every sense, is a discovery of life; she embodies that for him. She was ‘a drink of dark wine’ with all the madness, risk and addictiveness the image carries.
Emma Harris had her reputation, which was her only true valuable in that world, to protect at all costs. She also lived with her widowed mother, who had a weak heart. They were part of a connected community: Robbie’s grandmother knew Emma’s mother, they meet and talk occasionally. Emma had everything to lose by the relationship with a pupil; indeed, this is painfully spelled out in one part of the book.
What had she to win? Everything she had lost: passion, hope, most of all, love.
She invited him to stay the night, her mother was away. How the author shows Robbie’s dread of consummation is finely done. That was the last barrier, the last reserve. Robbie still had the body-image of himself as a hulking brute, ugly, huge, clumsy. She helped him discover himself in her eyes.
In her eyes also he vacillates between that of school boy , his hair to be tousled, and that of a young man full of danger and huge energy: ‘you must understand how other people find you, your parents. They are scared of what you are becoming. Growing away from them, having your own ideas, your own life’, she more or less says to him at one point.
What else does she help him discover? His dreams. She finds him moved by a particular piece of music, a hymn from a piece by Elgar. What was it made him cry? Instantly the barriers were up. But he was learning trust, the unique loyal trust of two people who bonded. It was his yearning for a better world, a better life, than the hard rough and tumble they had to endure day in day out.

The growth into outwardness is finely handled. We also see this in his relationship with Joyce Adamson, a girl his age. Emma encourages him to continue in a relationship with her, it would give them cover, but also take off some of the tension. The relationship changes from crude fumblings, awkward kisses, to tenderness, genuine affection. She in turn changes from monosyllabic class-mate to loyal and loved, a glass of cool refreshing water, next to Emma’s ‘dark wine’. Both essential; but, maybe the suggestion is, one is more sustaining than the other.
This sense of manipulation of others to cover themselves occurs again in the novel. The author shows us the levels to this: this is where words in themselves are inadequate. On one very feeble level they manipulated others, but only for a fleeting moment, before realisation set in, conscience connected, communication and interaction changed the relationships completely.

And so, what happens?
Robbie got into university, one of the new generation the first of their families to attain this. Emma applied for head of department at a school far away. Her mother moved with her. Eventually she became Head of school. How? Because of all she had learned of young people through Robbie. She remained single, alone. All her energy went into fighting for position.
The author knew all about this: head of the Art Department, then Careers Master. He didn’t go for Headship, though; he retired to write full time.

This is not a book about a sordid teacher-pupil relationship.
He gives us plausible personalities, with depth and rawness to them. And so we must question this ‘sordid teacher-pupil relationship’ phrase. The focus of the book is on the energy of life seeking fulfillment and expression in truth and honesty. All relationships are similarly of plausible personalities.

This is what good, worthwhile books do: make us question the tabloid clichés, the easy-fit descriptions, the lazy and mindless blaming of people.
This is a good, worthwhile book.

Robert Westall, 1929 to 1993



Posted: March 21, 2015 in Chat
Tags: ,

Olaf stared out of the kitchen window; the garden had grown out, all the work he had done this past year was undone by the continually fertile energies of what was left of nature in this overdeveloped area.

His dressing gown was scutched here and there, coffee and tea stained his lap, front, cuffs. He caught sight of himself in the window’s reflection, superimposed on the wild garden; his hair looked erratic, too short, and grey now, but it still stuck up all over the place, no order, no system. The bags under his eyes, the pallor of his cheeks; another night of broken sleep.

On his kitchen table partially buried by cups, mugs, plates and used cutlery the corner of an official looking letter was just visible, the insignia of the city hospital, Oncology Department. The room was centred on it, and it tethered Olaf like a dog on a leash; he moved around the room from cupboard to sink to chairs; at one time he paused by the back door, hand on the handle, but couldn’t open it. If the door had come open just then, would he, more to the point could he, have gone through and out of this, out to where there were options? Outside there were stars, distant, remote, and untouched by any of this. Outside a lone plane was riding its light across an arc of night sky; the passengers would be asleep, racked back in their seats. Maybe there would be one person awake, one presence there in the sky, looking down on the silent city, maybe even glimpsing this one lit window, and just for a second wondering, even idealising a kind of perfect alternative life for themselves here. If they only knew. If they only knew then they would know that there is no escape, no alternative, no possible way out. Maybe they would load up with tablets: maybe they would have that courage, because it certainly was missing down here.

The doorway to the hall was open, dark and anonymous; he could hide in the dark there; but the letter held him. This had gone on for days. The chair he slept in, the mop bucket he used as a toilet….

And then out in the dark of the hall, the phone rang.

Current reading is THE HEAT OF THE DAY, by Elizabeth Bowen,


a story set in World War 2 London. This line arrested me:

She was lucky … in being left with Chilcombe Street: few wives of men called up remained placed as they were before.(p16, 20th edition, 1998, Vintage Books)

It was one of those moments when it was as if something had suddenly become very clear. And the drop from where my ignorance had been to where the reality lay was giddying.
I searched around and found evidence:

The mortgage still had to be paid, war or no war, so the house in Whitton was rented out in order to keep up the payments, and my mother moved back in with my grandmother, who was by then very elderly and infirm and living alone.(by Edith Lambourne,

How on earth did they manage, on a woman’s wages? Their wages were a fraction of a man’s wage, and still the mortgage companies had to be paid. Oh yes, the money-men still expected the full amount no matter what; no special rates for Servicemen’s wives and families.
The first quote begins:

… they had taken out a 25-year mortgage, but before they could move in the War broke out and Dad had to return to the Army. As an older, experienced NCO he was kept back from active service, and spent his war training new recruits 

Her father died early, in 1955. There was still ten years probably more on the mortgage to pay as a single mother.

Those who had to give up their homes and move into rented accommodation, the book makes clear, put what furnishings they owned into storage. Storage rent then, also had to be paid.

A further source states that women called into war work had to

cope with children AND a job when the husband is away on active service.

  • try to do the shopping AFTER finishing work at 5pm when all the shops had closed.
  • manage on much less than the men were being paid for the same job – AND suffer the hostility of the men who thought they were taking away men’s jobs and helping to depress men’s wages.(

Women were inducted into factories and industries to keep the fabric of the economy ongoing. This was not always such a straight-forward hand-over: workers waiting to be called-up were often resentful of the women inducted in to take their places. There were instances of refusal to train the women, or train so poorly it only covered the description and contributed little to the skills needed.

We need to consider this:

By 1942 more men, women and children had been killed at home than soldiers in action.
(Caroline Lang, Keep Smiling Through: Women in the Second World War (1989))


And this:

I was seriously concerned myself as our factory is an old shabby place and its sanitary arrangements of a very low standard.   Our canteen is not good.  Lavatory accommodation such as most factory hands use without a qualm will revolt these girls.
(Comment of a factory manager to Mass Observation)

Going off at a tangent here, this comment reminded me of a conversation years ago with a S American management student on a work placement. He complained loud and long at the laziness and lack of care of the workers. I asked about the factory; he replied It was old, filthy; a mess. I drew his attention to the effect of working conditions on work morale.

The men are assumed to put up with shocking conditions. There have been many occasions where women have moved into once male-only work; the men have been shocked to realise just what conditions they had put up with all that time, when the women brought it to their notice.

One off-shoot of the women-in-men’s jobs was a subsequent radicalisation of Unionism. I am a staunch Union member but readily admit that Union attitudes to women have been utterly deplorable in the past; with the embattled work position has gone a supposedly threatened gender position. Male chauvinism in Unions has been poisonous, rife and deeply embedded.

To continue: for the women not in industry or the often lethal munitions work, there was always the Women’s Land Army:


for someone in the WLA over the age of 18 was £1 12 pence a week after deductions had been made for lodgings and food. There was an agreed maximum working week – 50 hours in the summer and 48 hours in the winter

The work was relentless, hard, physical labour. The women were usually billeted where they worked. The one’s in hostels fared better – companionship eased a lot of the pain of being away and amongst strangers.
These strangers were not always honest or understanding:

there is evidence that WLA members were paid less than the accepted rate by some farmers who tended to overcharge for accommodation and food. Also during harvest time, many WLA members worked from dawn to dusk and easily eclipsed their 50 hour week.

The ongoing distrust of farmers and farming, and likewise farming people of town people was even more exacerbated by this.

The mortgage still had to be paid, in full. Just after the War the economy of course was in ruins; exports had been hugely disrupted, and rationing was rife. Returning servicemen had priority on what work there was. What did they return to? Rented accommodation of poor quality, rationing, and ruined superstructure to services.
The European market was ruined, and overseas markets the same.
Then the American loan fell through.

Large-scale loss of life of skilled workers, as well as bad training (above) led to:
Recruitment and training of workers was disrupted – there were long-term bad effects on the quality of British workmanship and management.

One major outcome of all this was the Beveridge Committee Report and its contribution to the setting up of the Welfare State, a breakthrough in terms of modern social issues.

Going back to the book, THE HEAT OF THE DAY.
It is a slow read; the writer qualifies nearly every point. But as a writer aiming for psychological and historical accuracy, as well as artistically. This approach sets the reader up for insights and angles on time and place it would have been difficult to glean any other way. Her writing allows a richness of phrase that lifts the book into something quite distinct, and uniquely Elizabeth Bowen:

from hesitating to feel came the moment when you no longer could. Was that the war’s doing? By every day, every night, existence was being further drained — you, yourself, made conscious of what was happening only by some moment, some meeting such as tonight’s.

(page 55, ibid).

Elizabeth Bowen: