Reluctant Tommy

CAUTION: Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the material in this book, especially in the description of military events and actual persons.

If, like me, you are very tired of the commemorations / glorifications of the Great Futile War (1914-1918) which have plagued 2014 and 2015 (and there must be still more to come until the end of 2018!!!), then this is the book for you.

Ronald Skirth was born in 1897. He left home to fight as a volunteer when he was nineteen years old and served on the Western and Italian fronts. His book (edited by Duncan Barrett) tells of the experiences of a man who came to hate the killing and who came to find mechanisms for frustrating it,  and to write about why he was driven to such actions. He saw close-up the real horror and futility of what was happening around him and witnessed the appalling unconcern shown by the officer class for the men who relied on them for leadership.

One particular incident soured his view of war forever – the sight of the dead body of a teenage German soldier. There was no bloodstain, no bruise visible on his person or uniform. Leaning back his helmet had been tilted upwards revealing his face. It was the deathly pallor of that face which shocked me beyond my powers of description. Part of a lock of blonde hair was resting on his forehead above the two closed eyes. I thought Germans wore their hair closely cropped, – but not this one. There was the suggestion of a smile on the pale lips, – a smile of contentment.” That was the moment he resolved he would never again help to take a human life. The many other bodies he saw which, unlike the young German, were mutilated beyond recognition, only strengthened his hatred for this organised orgy of mass-murder and his contempt for those who  directed it so incompetently.

The process of the actual writing of the book is a story in itself, not least because Ronald meant at first to write a love story about his courtship of the girl who was to become his wife after the war.  However, the act of writing revived his war-memories and so he ended up providing the material for this fine book. He had kept a diary at the front and used it as the basis for several folders of recollections. He kept on revising and adding to these memories for some years afterwards, even after suffering two strokes. When he died in 1977, all these writings passed to his daughter, but she did not read them until two decades later. She then handed them over to the Imperial War Museum where they remained until discovered by Duncan Barret, again some years later, who edited them into this book.

Interestingly, one of the ‘blurbs’ on the cover of the book, supplied by Richard Holmes of the Evening Standard, reads as follows An important contribution to the literature of the war … whenever I get too misty-eyed about officer-man relationships I shall reread it to remind me of how badly things could go wrong’. I do not think that Holmes will ever re-read this book. Having nicely filed it away as ‘an important contribution to the literature of the war’ he will continue to enjoy his ‘misty-eyed etc., etc.’ He really has not understood what Ronald Skirth is saying. It’s not that things went badly wrong. Skirth is saying that the whole business was rotten from the start. I suspect that Holmes did not read the book entirely, or if he did, I am amazed he missed its main thrust.

Or am I amazed? No. When I see the present officer class (and political caste) laying wreaths at memorials for those who died in foreign wars I realise how far we have come from the time so many fine young men and women were sacrificed as cannon fodder. That is to say, we have not come very far at all. And I wonder how those American war veterans of the recent Iraq wars feel when they see on TV those towns that they ‘liberated’ which are now in the hands of ISIL (or whoever). And please do not misread me. I am appalled by what happened to these men and women and the wounds they suffered … and for what? It doesn’t help my mood to hear that many of them were badly treated when they arrived home.

If you harbour any notions about war being glorious, and that it is a duty to go killing people in other lands and other than in self-defence, and for the freedom of one’s own country, then you should read this book.

Ghost Map

The sub-title of this book is The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World’. The book comprises two sections: a detailed account of the cholera epidemic itself which struck a part of London south of the Thames in 1851 and raged for 20 months; and then a shorter section on what was learned about the disease and how this knowledge was used later to deal with it. Sound Boring?

Not at all. The scale of human tragedy described here is heart-breaking, as is the scale of the stupdity of the City Fathers in persisting with out-dated explanations of what was the cause of the disease. To be brief, the authorities stuck with the ‘miasma’ explanation which blamed bad air and smells for carrying the disease, even in the face of hard evidence that it was water-borne. This is the kind of explanation which seems just common sense today but back then in the mid 1850s it was a revolutionary concept.

Still sound boring? – Well, I think that if you start reading this book there’s a good chance you won’t put it down until you finish. It is far from being anything like a scientific treatise. In fact, It reads like a detective story – a few dedicated people trying to track down a culprit, all their efforts being spurned and derided by those in power who think they know all the answers.

'Death's Dispensary'
‘Death’s Dispensary’

The common people at that time took their water from neighbourhood pumps. Eventually one of the investigators, John Snow, was able to show proof that a particular pump in Broad Street (Soho) was the source of polluted water and managed to get it closed down. Even then, the authorities were very slow to admit they were wrong and very ready to rubbish the evidence he supplied. Sound familiar?

Another fascinating aspect of the book is its depiction of the parlous state of waste collection in London at that time and the disgusting work the ‘night-soil’ men had to do and the way they had to do it.The vulnerability of the water supply, given these methods, is starkly obvious and reading about them is inclined to make one think of ‘fracking’ its implications for the most precious resource (after clean air) that we have.

Instead of a map you might be able to use Richard Ford’s ‘The Sportswriter’ to getThe Sportswriter around some parts of New Jersey, so topographically exact is his writing. Or maybe it’s all fiction? If so, it’s very convincing fiction indeed. He has a real feeling for place and precise location.

Frank Bascombe (also a major character in Ford’s later work) has something of the Holden Caulfield’s about him: the naivite, the endless introspection, the itchy desire to be always on the move, traits somewhat understandable in Salinger’s young adolescent but a little misplaced, it would seem, in a man of 39.

There are reasons. Frank is haunted by the death of his 12 year old son. It happened some years before the start of the novel but he is still haunted by it when we meet him. In his own words: ‘For a time – this was a period after Ralph died – I had no idea about it myself. and in fact thought I was onto something big – changing my life, moorings loosed, women, travel, marching to a different drummer. Though I was wrong.’ This loss is at the heart of the book and  is achingly at the heart of the novel’s first scene where he and his ex-wife get together on a Good Friday morning at their son’s grave. The other great loss Frank has suffered is his marriage. As we read through the book it is impossible not to like Frank, but it’s also impossible not to see why his marriage broke up.

The book tells  a rather sorrowful story, but is far from being a sorrowful book. It is in fact hilarious in parts, especially those parts where Frank finds himself in situations where he has to deal with people whom he has (unwittingly) upset. As well as this, Ford’s wry humour is a constant undercurrent, as is his wisdom pertaining to humans and the reasons why we do what we do to each other.

And the story is Frank’s story, as told by Frank himself in an almost Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ way, but not quite as strict as with Joyce (thank God: I prefer some filtering). He is always ‘seeing around’ things and getting a good hold on how other people think, and especially as to what they think of him. The book benefits too from being set in a short time span (Good Friday, Easter Sunday) which allows a sharp Joycean forensic analysis of the events.

Certainly one of the best books I have ever re-read.  If you like John Cheever (who gets a mention) and Raymond Carver, you will love this book. Absolutely recommended.

[I met Richard Ford when he gave a series of talks to the participants in a course I was doing in 2012. He is an amiable man with a strong sense of humour who wears his fame lightly. We all liked him very much.]

Red FoxSon of the Sioux and nephew of Crazy Horse, Red Fox was a leading spokesman for the Indian legacy. In his long life (1870-1976) he heard the guns at Custer’s last stand, was only twenty years old when news was brought of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and survived to see the newsreels of the Vietnam tragedy. This book is based on notes he made late in life of what he had witnessed and is fleshed d out into a very readable account by Chas Asher, of whom I know nothing except he was a news reporter and published some books in the 1930s.

This book was first published in 1972, though in his introduction Asher says that he first met the Chief in 1969 and began to talk with him then about his long life and experiences. Any account of the fortunes of the Native American indigenous peoples over the last two centuries is heartbreaking. Red Fox takes us through some of the atrocities perpetrated on them by the beneficiaries of ‘manifest destiny’ and attempts to detail them in a factual, non-emotive way, though this of course is not always possible, given the horrors he has to recount. The Native American journey (or rather, ‘forced march’) from being proud nations to being outcasts in their own lands is well told in a wonderfully brief and to-the-point little book (152 pages!).

Besides being an important figure with his own people, Red Fox also became something of aBuffBill Poster personage among the whites through his involvement with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He got on well with Bill, who understood Indian ways and, whatever about using them for profit, treated them well enough and gave them some much-needed employment. Interestingly, the show did a tour of Ireland around 1905, doing performances Dublin, Cork and Galway.

Of course Red Fox knew that the Wild West Show shenaigans was ultimately little more than the Indian being exploited and exhibited as a ‘savage’, a curiosity from the Wild West past. As regards being seen as a savage, he says: “… that was the only way the White man could justify his acts as he swept across America shooting everything in his gunsights” (p.137)

But he made the best of the situation. What else he could he do? He wasn’t a man to sit and mope in his teepee. In fact he comes across as a pragmatist. He knew the game was up as regards the Native American battle to save their lands. At the same time, he comes across as a man who never lost his sense of his own worth, nor of his people’s worth.

Anyone with an interest in the history of the North  American native peoples should read this book.



FerraroIn retrospect, and even at the time, Geraldine Ferraro had very little chance of being elected Vice President of the United States in 1984, up against ‘the great communicator’ and the first George Bush. But she gave it her best shot and made history by being the first woman to compete for the second highest political office in the land.

This ‘phenomenon’ of being the ‘first woman, etc’ was both an advantage and a disadvantage. It got her publicity and made her something of a novelty act, but it also brought a type of intense scrutiny that a male contender would not have attracted. On the matter of dress: “… there are things that happen … for instance, if you’re walking along in a parade and you raise your arm and your slip shows, people might be critical of you. No guy has a problem like that …” And those constant boquets of flowers on arrival – “On the one hand, there was Geraldine Ferraro,  a person who loves flowers. On the other hand, there was Geraldine Ferraro, the vice-presidential candidate who was not going to walk around looking like a bridesmaid. So I’d thank the donor very much and instantly  hand the lowers to Eleanor [her assistant].”

More serious was the way her husband and his business affairs were brought into theFerraro2 frame in an attempt to find something irregular. And of course, business being business,  something was found, which although rather minor, was magnified in the context of his wife’s drive for  the VP office. Serious also was her weakness on issues like abortion because, although a practising Roman Catholic, she was, like many American female practising Catholics, pro-choice. Needless to say this brought her into conflict with her Church and seriously damaged her among co-religionists. Hardened two-term congresswoman though she was, she felt personally hurt by this, quoting President John F. Kennedy: “I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.”

Geraldine Ferraro died in 2011 at the age of 75  after a long battle with cancer. She didn’t make it to the White House but she did make history. This is a well-written account of one of the toughest and most demanding campaign trails in the world. All the tougher when you’re a woman, but Geraldine was up for it. Her fighting spirit and warm personality is well served by this book and the roller-coaster nature of the whole adventure is fascinating. Recommended reading.

Bk Paradise LostWhen one visits a place there is often the urge to find out more about it. So it was with me when I stayed a few holiday days in the Turkish city of Izmir, formerly Smyrna. A wonderful, vibrant city with lots to see (the fabled Pergamon not far away). One often hears about places ‘that have a great history behind them’ and it’s a bit of a truism. However, with Izmir one can sense that it is a place of great deeds and adventures, some admirable, some reprehensible. So I picked up Giles Milton’s book ‘Paradise Lost’ (subtitled ‘Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance’) to get a bit of backgrounding.

Milton desribes a city founded in ancient times and in which a veritable hodge-podge of nationalities lived side by side in tolerance and harmony over the centuries. It is not enough to say that this was due in large part to the fact that it was an important commercial centre and that all latent hostilities were buried under the idea that ‘business is business’ and no ideologies or spiritual beliefs should be allowed to interfere. Doubtless this was one of the reasons for peaceful co-habitation but I believe that living in close and friendly terms with people of different religious persuasion can breed mutual respect, provided there is good will on both sides. The destruction of all this tolerance, and the city itself, makes for sad reading.

Nationalist activist and social advocate, Halide Edib, addressing the protest rally against the occupation of Smyrna in May 1919

Halide Edib, the great woman writer and social advocate who played such a prominent role in her country’s developing history and she is pictured in one of the book’s photos in fiery pose, high on a balcony, her cloak dramatically flying in the wind, addressing a protest rally against the occupation of Smyrna in May1919. G

ood book, well written. Recommended.

In a very short review by Robert Gale Woolbert in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’  (Jan. 1947) I read: ‘The author of this informative volume is said to be a lady who was in Rome continuously during the last days of Fascist rule. It is in the form of a diary running from April 1943 to June 1944, and combines a lot of chitchat with some really interesting items.’  Another review in the Spectator by Robert Hale of 1946 makes a few comments on the book but adds nothing about this mysterious ‘lady’.

Flour for liberated Romans
Flour for liberated Romans

I can find little else about the author of this fascinating book. It is well worth reading by anyone interested in the period, or anyone interested in how it feels to living under occupation by a foreign power. These months of living under constant aerial bombardment by the allies and with their country in the hands of their former German partners-in-arms are tellingly chronicled by M. de Wyss, whoever she was. She seems to have have good access to well-placed sources on both sides and a knack of getting ordinary people to talk freely to her. I thought for a while that maybe she made some of it up, but it’s just too full of real situations not to be anything but a true account.

American troops driving through Rome in British trucks
American troops driving through Rome in British trucks

She is obviously very fond of Italy and Italians but that doesn’t prevent her from having a rather jaundiced view of things now and then. She finds it amusing  the way that the Italians, having by now (August 1943) given up the fight, are so very impatient for the English and Americans to invade and finish the job of getting rid of the Germans. She remarks: ” This is a good example of a wide-spread Italian attitude. Responsibility does not exist for them. The Allies are to do all that the Italians need without the slightest effort on their part! But the country and even the people are charming – charming and childish”. Not a comment that would please her Italian friends! But that’s the sort of book it is. One person’s close up view of an extraordinary time in Rome ‘under the terror’ and her unvarnished views on what is going on around her. I am strongly reminded of Victor Klemperer’s book ‘I Shall Bear Witness’ (Phoenix, 1999) in which he describes what it was like living as a citizen in Berlin in the final months of the second world war and seeing it collapsing all around him. As with his book, the privations of ordinary people are described in telling detail and the constant fear of death from the skies or on the ground is everywhere in the writing.

It is books like these that show us how much we take for granted our lives spent far away from war zones.