Monday, 20 August 2007

What I've been reading: a mixed bag



I've been keeping the office ticking over this month as the family are home, which does have the useful side effect of letting me catch up on my reading. I was asked last weeks to identify a book (it was Three Great Pony Stories) which includes Joanna Cannan's They Bought Her A Pony. This, I suppose, as it was printed in a couple of anthologies was the easiest Joanna Cannan to get hold of before Fidra started their reprints, but it's never been my favourite.

Once I had dug out the copy I have I decided to read it again: I wondered before I started it again whether distance would have leant any enchantment (it took me a few years to appreciate K.M. Peyton's Fly-by-Night). Alas, it still left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. They Bought Her a Pony is the only title of JC's (I don't count Hamish) not written in the third person, and I wonder if that is why the book doesn't quite work for me. JC is much better, I think, at revealing nuances of character when she uses the first person. Angela Peabody, the rich girl who is bought a pony, doesn't really satisfy as a character: she shows a few sparks (she saves her tatty ornaments from her disapproving mother, and does briefly contemplate showing them to the Cochranes when they come for tea) but apart from that she is simply nasty, shallow and snobbish, and I don't find her decision at the end of the book to look for help with her pony from the Cochranes convincing.

JC's daughter, Josephine, tackles the same subject of rich girl meets comeuppance much more successfully in I Had Two Ponies, in which the vile Christabel, unmoved by her father selling the ponies she has ignored for months, has a much more gradual and realistic conversion to decent human being-dom by staying with the Westlakes.

The other stuff I've been reading is whole worlds away from pony books. I'm not quite sure where P A Reid's The Latter Days at Colditz came from - I must have bought it but I can't remember where. Still, it turned up in my bookroom and I started to read it and after I'd got through the rather purple introductory chapter (from which I can't quote as I've mislaid the book since I finished it on Sunday) it was absolutely riveting. I am old enough to have vague memories of the Colditz series on BBC1, but am extremely glad I have now, as it were, read the book. I was amazed by the inmates' constant ingenuity, and impressed by the sheer scale of their thieving when even the tiniest opportunity arose. The Germans decided to instal a barbers in Colditz, and a van and a man duly arrived to do the work. The van was guarded by four sentries, but despite this numerous vital tools inside the van went missing, and it was only due to lack of time that the prisoners failed to remove a wheel.

Most impressive of all (and apologies if you all knew about this anyway - I tend to switch off when family talk moves to matters military and what follows just shows I ought to cultivate a more open mind) was the glider the British built within Colditz. To do this, they managed to wall off a section of the attic above the chapel, despite regular searches, roll calls and German sound detection devices, and the glider was built. It was never flown as the end of the war was in sight. Alas, the glider itself disappeared after the war, but tests on a replica built from the original drawings show it would have flown.

The book I'm reading now is another wartime one, though this time it's the First World War, and is Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. I bought this a couple of months ago, but knew I was going to find it emotionally hard going so had put it off. Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth I read when I was at university: I remember sitting in the university library (which has changed quite a bit since my day, if this is what it looks like now) utterly engrossed in it, and entirely ignoring my reading lists. The book had the most tremendous impact on me at the time: I was the same age as Vera Brittain was when the events of the book were happening; and I found it only too easy to think what it would have been like if the war was happening to me, and it was my friends who were away at the front and me who was writing to them.

Hard going it is indeed: Vera Brittain's fiancé, Roland Leighton, was killed in 1915. Her brother Edward was killed in 1918, and her two friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow in 1917. Roland Leighton wrote, before he went to war of war being "something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling and very beautiful" but at the end, his family and Vera have to sort through his equipment, returned by the Army:

"Everything was damp & worn and simply caked with mud. And I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies - dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortaility and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of 'this refuse-heap of a country' or 'a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house.' And the wonder is, not that he temporally lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all - let alone nearly the whole."

I'm not normally lost for words, but typing that out, the utter dreadfulness of what happened to these people had me simply staring ahead, completely unable to find words to comment on the enormity of the tragedy.




3 comments:

Gillian said...

The Colditz books are fascinating, aren't they ? I don't reall remember the TV series, but my older brother had the board game, which me and my friends used to play. I still have that set now. I have 3 books on Colditz: "escape from..", "Latter days at.." and "The German story", written by the Commendant.
I don't think I've read 'Testament of Youth', but I think I may have read the other book you mention. The passage you quote is deeply moving; it's so difficult for us to comprehend the sheer ghastliness of what the men in the trenches went through.
And Sheffield University Library is much the same as you remember it. The building in that pic is the brand new Information Commons, at the corner of Upper Hanover Way and the Western Bank Flyover that leads from Brook Hill roundabout up to the Children's Hospital. The Information Commons is basically an additional study building, with the most in-demand library books, study areas and many computer terminals for the students.
The main library, overlooking Weston Park, is about five minutes walk from my home.

Jane said...

Ah - I see now. I'm glad the library hasn't gone. I do have fond memories of it, and the stacks, where I spent a lot of time! I used to live in Witham Road, not that far from you, I think. Thank you for the explanation of Information Commons - I don't think I'd have managed to work out what it was from the title...

The Colditz game rings a bell. I'm looking out for the other Colditz titles you mention, though alas didn't find any on a charity shop trawl today.

Gillian said...

I do live close to Whitham Road. I'm at the top end of Harcourt Road, with the Goodwin sports centre at the bottom of the garden. Further down the road, the houses back onto Crookes Valley Park, where the boating lake is. (Sadly it doesn't have boats for hire any more)

And yes, I used to spend time getting lost in the library stacks. It was just as well they had those lines painted on the floor that led to the stairs.