It Does Not Permit Itself To Be Read – But It Must Be

This is a not well thought out post, mainly because it comes from the heart not the head and like most things which are guttural it is a bit messy and full of things that shouldn’t really be displayed to the public. But – I want it to come out, and my blog, my rules.

So. Today is a delicious snowy day. The bird-feeder on my window is being kept busy by little feathered bodies diving backwards and forth. The trees are dusted with frost and the air is crisply icy. I am making pancakes with berries, pears and creme fraiche. And I’ve just finished The War is Dead, Long Live the War by Ed Vulliamy.

In 1992 – when it all kicked off in the Balkans – I was going up to Big School. That’s what marks that year for me: wearing a different tie, going in a class with people I’d never met, going from being a relatively big fish in a small pond to a sprat. 1992 was the year of my last gym display at Bredon Hill. We all got given mugs with frogs in the bottom and we all sang the school song for the last time in Assembly and cried. (Well the girls did.)

And in 1992, genocide began. Genocide never admitted by the authorities, nor the international community who were sent to ‘keep the peace’ which meant not taking sides, which meant doing Nothing.

I have tried to get my head around what happened in Bosnia for a few years now. Mainly because, like Rwanda, it’s something that happened when I was young and I didn’t know what was happening. But when I talk to men at work, who were in Bosnia, they say that they were there, and they didn’t understand it. Neighbours and friends turning on each other overnight. Unspeakable tortures and mass deaths. Violations of the cruellest order. 20 years later, the Serbs, and many revisionists who I’m not going to give the dignity of naming, still claim that the genocide was exaggerated or lied about. Even the mass graves at Srebrenica don’t dissuade them from that.

I have tried a few books on Bosnia and got lost. But Vulliamy’s book is different; it is clear, calm, and intensely human. He quotes from Poe how some stories are so hideous they “do not permit themselves to be read”; thus his writing is not gratuitous, carrion for ghoulish vultures, but the horror is never muted as a result. In fact the grace and delicacy of the prose makes it starker.

Vulliamy, a journalist from the Observer, and Penny Marshall, a journalist for ITN, were the first people to enter the concentration camps of Omarska and Trmopolje and showed the world what was going on. The world had a meeting about it. And then they decided at that meeting, to have another meeting. And then decided that there was trouble on both sides and the Serbs and the Bosniaks were both as bad as each other, yer know, and that they shouldn’t offer refugees asylum because it was a ‘civilian matter’ and if the Serbs saw that civilians were being hurt they might stop killing them.

I’m paraphrasing. Badly. But that’s what I’ve read. I’ve seen photos of UN “Protection Force” Commander Sir Michael Rose laughing and shaking hands with General Mladic. Does he, like Lady Macbeth, try night after night to wash off the blood – “Out, damned spot”?

What about the Dutch UN ‘peace-keepers’ who stood and watch as the Muslim men were separated from the women, one side to go to death and the other to violation? Bad dreams anyone? (Incidentally I blame those who told them they couldn’t intervene rather than the individuals themselves)

I know I’m being simplistic. I know as a privileged white Westerner I don’t really have a clue what I’m talking about. But what I’ve read, and what I’ve seen, has affected me. That isn’t a bad thing incidentally. We can’t pretend these things haven’t happened – or aren’t happening – or won’t happen. “Never again” after the German Holocaust indeed; it happened over and over again and this time we had evidence and statements and witnesses and it was beamed all around the world through TV and on the radio (I remember hearing about it most days, like I heard about the Rwandan genocide, in which Chris Evans joked that one could not really be scared of someone called a Tutsi because it was such a silly word), and the UN knew about it and did piss all. I feel ashamed today of not doing anything. But what could I have done aged 13? What can I do now, 20 years later? What can we all do?

After finishing Vulliamy’s book I went on Youtube to try and find some of the footage I vaguely remembered being on the news. We would watch Neighbours and eat fish-fingers and peas and then do our homework with the BBC bumbling in the background. This time I looked at the footage, the faces. It’s very different to seeing black and white photos of Auschwitz or Treblinka; this is in colour, the footage is moving, and these are people look like someone you’d walk past in the street (only much, much thinner). This happened in our lifetime, and the world kept turning.

I haven’t read anything else. I will do, but I can’t quite think about anything else at the moment. I should ‘rinse’ my brain with some Wodehouse but I don’t want to forget about what I’ve read either, or the impact it’s had on me. I get told off for reading ‘dark’ stuff, but sometimes you do need to know what happened, because so many people are trying to pretend it didn’t.

By the way, my pancakes would have been delicious; but by the time I got round to eating them, they were stone cold.

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A Catfish in the Kalahari?

or

How pissed off would you be to be a giraffe and still have to stand on tiptoe?

Good evening, Gentle Reader. I am of course watching David Attenborough’s Africa, and loving it quite immensely. Not just because Attenborough is one my most favourite men ever, because everything is quite alright at the moment. I’m not saying it’s perfect, Gods of Fate, if you’re listening, so you needn’t accuse me of complacency – but it’s just nice.

Let me tell you about the oddest thing that happened to me this week which has made me extraordinarily happy. The story starts when I am approximately 3 years old, playing in my grandparents’ garden. When my mum’s at work this is where I spend most of my time. It’s in Ye Olde Days, which means that summer is hot, fiercely hot, grass-scorchingly hot, and I’m doing something with the dog, dressing her up in Great Auntie Min’s shawl I suspect. My gran is in the kitchen, probably bashing a crab with a mallet or putting clothes through the mangle (yes it was a while ago) and she has Radio 4 playing. I half-listen to it and then my ears prick up because the story is about a little girl who goes missing, and her name is Christine – which is my mum’s name.

The shawl slips off the dog. I stop paying attention. Even at this age I’ve got an interest in the unusual and the spooky and I creep closer to the kitchen window so I’m standing on the patio, right underneath it. The story ends with the little girl never being found, and the odd involvement of a boy named Harry. The last lines are “And that name. Harry.”

It frightens me, and fear is something I’ve not yet learned to rationalise or contain. I struggle with my cold prickling dread for a while, but eventually it overwhelms me. I burst into tears and run inside to tell my gran that I’m frightened that my mum will be kidnapped by this ‘Harry’ because her name is Christine, too.

The best thing to do when something frightens you, no matter how old you are, is to tell someone Grown Up so they can put their arms around you, press your tear-stained face into their flour-dusted apron and tell you everything is just fine.

That story stays with me. Every so often I try to track it down. I spend a lot of time ordering old copies of the ghost story collections I remember from primary school in case it’s in there. With the advent of the internet I log on forums to ask if anyone knows the story, and google the lines to no avail. I did this as recently as Christmas 2012. My fascination with the story and longing to know what ‘Harry’ did has never abated.

Last week I decided to treat myself to a few things on my Amazon wishlist, and I got Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories which had been on my list for about 4 years. When it arrived I idly flicked through it to get an idea of what was in it; and it opened on the last page of a story called ‘Harry’. There was the final line:

And that name. Harry. Such an ordinary name!

I couldn’t believe it. I looked frantically to the story’s beginning and yes, there’s Christine, a little girl with red hair. I’d found the story I have spent nigh on 29 years looking for and it is far more spine-chilling and dark than I’d remembered. The anthology in itself is a masterpiece; Dahl says in the introduction that he thinks he has chosen the best ghost stories ever, having read about a billion, and I don’t think he’s far wrong. I’d like to see If She Bends, She Breaks by John Gordon or The Shadow-Cage by Philippa Pearce in there (as a starter) but each story in there is a real gem and I encourage anyone who enjoys being spooked to have a look.

SO. What else have I been reading, I hear you cry?

The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur – Jean Claude Ellena
I ought to start this review by saying I am a bit of a perfume fanatic (Jean Claude Ellena created my favourite ever scent L’eau d’Hiver) so it might not interest those who aren’t. The book explains the origins of some very popular scents and how synthetic fragrances are built from certain elements. I’d never really thought before about the complexities of creating a new perfume, and how long it takes: not just the fragrance itself, but the bottle, the name, the advertising. Ellena says something about how the advert makes you want to be the woman in the perfume and only the fragrance itself should make you want to wear it (I haven’t got my copy to hand so forgive me if I misquote that line) and the history of fragrance is also touched upon.

“Touched upon” sums the book up really: there’s nothing deep about it, and it’s a little thin. I suppose it is as hard to pin down the beauty of fragrance, just as hard as it is to pin down the beauty of music without experiencing it, so perhaps the best thing to do is read the book and sniff some of the perfumes Ellena writes about when you next pop into DutyFree, letting one element complement the other.

The Sick Rose – Erin Kelly
Oh rose, thou art sick! And Kelly, thou art good. If you enjoyed The Poison Tree on TV, get the book by Erin Kelly out. It’s about a billion times better than the TV series based on it and Kelly just gets better in The Sick Rose, the story of two very damaged people coming together. This book reminded me of Barbara Vine which is about as high an accolade as you can get (from me).

A Christmas Carol (on Christmas Eve!)
Of course.

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton – Diane Atkinson
Mr Norton decided to sue the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, over his alleged adultery with the aforementioned Mrs Norton. Caroline Norton, nee Sheridan, turns out to be one of the first feminists, fighting her husband and the law to get her children back. A devastating book and a story which should be much better known than it was.

Still Standing – Paul O’Grady
Paul O’Grady’s autobiographies are laugh-out-loud funny and this one, about the birth of Lily Savage, is no exception. I’d really like to go out for dinner with Paul who I think is fabulous, followed by a nice cup of a tea in a pub somewhere. So Paul, if you’re reading, drop me a line.

A Possible Life – Sebastian Faulks
This is more a collection of short stories which have very slight interlocking elements. Some of them are better than others. The story of a POW during World War II is very disturbing; another, set in the near future, is not so gripping. But it was a gripping read nonetheless.

I am not going to link to these books as I feel a bit embarrassed that I didn’t finish either of them – Swimming Home by Debra Levy, which was just rather dull, and Not Me, by Joachim Fest, about a childhood in Nazi Germany which wasn’t very interesting either. I am sure that this reflects worse on me than it does on the authors. So I moved on to

The Prince of Mist – Carlos Ruz Zafon
This is a really unusual and beautiful book. It’s written for young adults but I am a not-so-young-adult and was captivated by this sinister story of magic and the supernatural. It’s set during World War II when a family move into an old house and discover some disturbing old films.

Into That Darkness – Gitta Sereny
This was the story of Franz Stangel, who started working on the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme and then became commander of one of the four extermination camps. It’s written as a study on human behaviour rather than the Holocaust and, as with all Sereny’s work, is carefully observed and written to examine rather than to shock. By the end of it though I had made a decision – no more dark books for a while. I felt ill and unhappy. I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around the dreadful things people are capable of no matter how much I read or attempt to understand – so, after finishing it, I ‘cleansed my literary pallette’ with dear Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody.

I then went onto

The Origins of Sex – Farmerz Dabhoiwala
No it’s not Adam, Eve and the snake who went places he shouldn’t. It’s about the sexual revolution, enlightenment, and so on. How we went from being madly prudish to madly relaxed and then the other way around and where we are now. It’s historically very interesting and most amusing without being obscene.

One on One – Craig Brown
Craig Brown has taken small incidents in history – meetings between famous people like Rodin, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Hitler, Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and others – and written entertaining little stories around them. He’s obviously done a huge amount of research and it pays off. This is the kind of book you might find in someone’s loo. I mean that as a compliment, incidentally. The loo would have a warm mahogany seat and carpet; the kind of bathroom where you decide to spend the afternoon because you don’t really want to join everyone else making polite conversation in the sitting-room.

Anyway. The Kalahari has a great lake in it and in the middle of it, in the pitch black, are blind catfish, swimming around, hoping that something might fall in the lake by mistake so they can eat it. What a way to live. Also, giraffes (giraves?) have to stand on tip-toe sometimes. What’s the point of having a long neck if it isn’t long enough? Sometimes I’m glad I don’t live in the Kalahari. Quite a lot of the time, actually, come to think of it.

Oh by the way – that story, Harry, was by Rosemary Timperley, and now I know what it’s called it’s bloody everywhere. It’s in about sixteen different languages. Someone is reading it on Youtube in Swahili.