The Frontline Walk

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The beginning (my photo)

 

This is going to be a bit different to my usual posts, because I haven’t read very much over the last week or so but also because I need to write down how it was and my diary isn’t sufficient.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

Roomie – Millie, who I shared a room with
Robin, Amy and Helen  – ABF Staff Extraordinaire
Ed – Photographer in Excelis (all ABF photos, plus those of Bertie, are by Ed)
Steve – Historian and Diamond
The Two Daves, Ian and Pete – fellow walkers

The walk started at Lochnagar Crater… but if I’m accurate the whole experience started the day before, when we got on the coach with a load of strangers. I did my best to combat my fiercely British thou-shalt-not-mingle instinct and promptly walked into the gents’ loos at Wellington Barracks, mingling rather more than I had intended.

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Walkers assembled

 

Our first stop in France, on the way to the hotel, was the Faubourg d’Amiens British Cemetery. The Arras Memorial commemorates 34,785 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. The coaches, which had become quite jolly as people recovered from the Channel Tunnel and got to know each other, were subdued when we boarded. The cemetery had reminded us why we were all here.

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In the afternoon Roomie and I went to the Wellington Quarry. We toured underground, where men had talked and worked, slept and dreamed for three months, before they were sent over the top. We saw pictures they had drawn on the walls, initials, marks in the rock. The tracings of another generation in cold cream-coloured rock.

Towards the end of the tour we saw where the men would have gone up to fight. Up the carved staircase to the hell above. The brutal explosions, cruel flashes of light. The smoke and smell of cordite. The shouts and cries. An aural representation of Dante’s inferno.

Back at the hotel, we gathered for a briefing of the first day’s walk and a speech by the charity’s ambassador Andy Reid. Andy was so engaging, his sense of humour so sharp, that it took some time to notice that he lost both his legs and one arm in Afghanistan. He told us his story: his desperation to get into the army, his love of the job, and then the day he was injured. He then spoke to us about his slow, painful recovery. His determination to propose to and marry the woman he loved. Andy achieved everything he wanted to and continues to do so. The Army Benevolent Fund has been instrumental in helping Andy get back on his metaphorical feet and when he finished talking to us there was stunned silence followed by deafening applause. If we were walking in the footsteps of soldiers past, we were walking for the soldiers of the present and the future.

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Dawn at Lochnagar Crater (my photo)

 

Day One found us at Lochnagar Crater, 0630. This crater was formed by one of the explosions which marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The wind was razor-sharp and the crater wreathed in very thin mist. We were given a blessing by the padre, who repeated it in Welsh as we were heading to Mametz Wood. As we set off, the sun began to rise, settling in soft gold stripes on the land which had seen so much and could forget none of it.

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A blessing

 

At Mametz Wood I felt increasingly uneasy. The earth was covered in greenery but underneath it was churned up like whisked egg-white. I felt sea sick. 4,000 Welshmen died here. There was a memorial to one soldier; aged 91, he had wanted his ashes to be scattered where so many of his friends had fallen. A drone being used for aerial footage abruptly stopped working and would not operate until we had left the wood. My stomach starte29630666854_576c05e1a8_zd hurting and tears sprung into my eyes. We left the cool stillness of the woods for the sun-splashed fields beyond, and I felt relieved. The eyes of the fallen watched our departure through knots in the twisted trees.

This tortured country held a million memories, but now only bird song disturbed the peace. In the distance a farmer ploughed his field; 3 people are killed a year by disturbing buried armaments.

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We walked on to Thiepval Memorial, dedicated to the memory of 72,000 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. I thought the faint lines on the walls of the memorial were part of the design until I got closer and realised they were all names.

On to Mill Road Cemetery and the Ulster Tower, a memorial of the 36th Division.

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The Danger Tree (Millie’s photo)

 

Then to Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is in a park encompassing the scarred grounds where the Newfoundland Regiment attacked. How the earth pitches and rolls! This park also houses the Danger Tree- the only tree on this part of the Somme battlefield to survive the fighting of 1914-1918. In a way this was the most poignant memorial of them all, this crippled twisted piece of bark.

At the end of Day One we gathered at Hawthorne Ridge Crater where, like Lochnagar Crater, a mine was detonated on 1st July 1916. We walked to Sunken Lane, halfway between the two frontlines and where Somme footage was filmed. Again, the deafening silence of held breath. Steve described how he had calculated the point at which the soldiers entered the lane, and with it the war. Stills from the film – of real soldiers, many of whom died minutes after they were taken – were laid out along with poppies.

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Soldiers, not actors (my photo)

 

Past the Memorial to the Accrington Pals Battalion. I thought of the three sets of brothers who shared my childhood in Overbury, and imagined them all going off to war never to return. A village losing all its boys in one day. This is what happened to Accrington and the towns and villages nearby.

We finished at Gommecourt Wood Military Cemetery, where 750 soldiers lie buried – most of them unidentified.

This whole day I felt like I was walking through a film made of sepia. Roomie and I agreed to put the light out at 2130. I slept soundly, and did not dream.

Day 2 was longer. The ground harder and drier. We started at Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Military Cemetery under a sombre grey sky; in contrast to the clean white of the Commonwealth cemeteries this felt grim and neglected. Sadness welled up in me. The German cemeteries are supported by charity, which means they are limited in what they can do to commemorate their dead. Each black cross has four names on it, every one of those a human being. A life ended. A son mourned. An Arras shop keeper had told us that a German visitor asked if they were allowed to visit the cemeteries, which to me is the saddest thing of all. I took the details of how to donate to these cemeteries, as I had no money on me. (Yes, I had totally forgotten to bring any Euros with me.)

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The German dead sleep (my photo)

 

Next stop was La Targette Memorial, then the Maroueil British Cemetery and the Ecoivres Military Cemetery. Again, crosses spreading as far as the eye could see, although these were Commonwealth memorials, bright and scrubbed. The scale is immense, indescribable. Every marker is a life lost, a ripple of broken hearts and shattered lives. We stopped for refreshment at the remains of an old monastery at Mont-Saint-Eloi which were reduced from 53m to 44m by WW1 shelling.

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Mont-Saint-Eloi ruins

 

At this point my chin started to droop. My soles were painful; whispering at first, then grumbling, then shouting at me to stop.  I focused on what was dead in front of me, not daring to look any further ahead, placing one throbbing foot in front of the other, not noticing Ian until he caught up with me (not difficult) and asked how I was getting on. Company stirs tired limbs and distracts from aching ones. Ian made me smile, then laugh. He showed the way (because, yes, I would have got lost otherwise). The worst bit was going up a very steep hill in woods where you had to physically pull yourself from tree to tree. Towards the top I grabbed at a branch to pull me up; it promptly snapped and I nearly tumbled right back down to the bottom. I gritted my teeth – really gritted them, like I’ve not done since aged 17 I broke my ankle and then had to walk on it – and got to the top.

We broke for lunch. Steve told us that 100 years ago men had flung themselves up that hill being shot at and having grenades thrown at them. I felt ashamed of myself.

We were now at Notre Dame de Lorette, the biggest French cemetery which is built on the site of several bloody battles between the French and German. There are 39,985 men buried here . A father, killed in WW1 and his son, killed in WW2, lie in the same grave.

Onward to the Cabaret Rouge Cemetery with 7,650 burials so far, more than half of whom are identified. Are these numbers meaning anything to you as you read them? It’s hard for them to make sense to me when I see them written down. But when you see them laid out in front of you, as people, then you understand the enormity of the loss. Imagine a man standing behind each grave and you start to be able to get your head around it.

Walking continued to be difficult. We kept our spirits up by singing Tipperary (badly). I remembered being taught this by Mrs Brown, our school music teacher who pounded the piano with great vigour during the hymns. We sang Pack Up Your Troubles and Tipperary in a round aged 10, having little or no idea where these tunes came from. Singing them nearly 30 years later (ouch!) I found they lifted my aching knees and my dwindling spirits. The tunes worked their magic and we arrived at Vimy Ridge.

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Here is a truly breath-taking memorial in marble to all Canadians who served in WW1 and particularly the 60,000 who died in France. The names of lost men are cut into every surface. A Madonna looks down in sorrow on a coffin topped with a soldier’s helmet.

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On the way to the coach I passed sheep grazing in an enormous shell crater. It looked so innocuous and yet for me summed up the Somme as it was then, and as it is now.

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Sheep may safely graze (my photo)

 

That night the medic attended to my very blistered feet. I was drowsy. The food provided by the catering company wasn’t sufficient, and the trek organisers called in pizza. I have never tasted pizza so good, with melting pulled cheese and hot dough and sharp olives.

Day 3. We were a little sombre today, despite the fact that the sun was back. Andy left us. He had been our beacon, our reminder of what we were doing this for, pushing himself on a specially adapted bike with one arm while we went on two feet and grumbled about sore toes. He had been an example for us all – a reminder of what real hardship is. He left us with the words “What the mind believes, the body achieves”.

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A man in a million – Andy Reid

 

We started at Ploegsteert Memorial which commemorates over 11,000 servicemen with no known grave. One of the named is a 15 year old boy who must have joined up aged just 13.  On to Prowse Point Military Cemetery, named after Brigadier Prowse who was killed on the first day of the Somme. On to the Khaki Chums Christmas Truce Memorial where the famous football game is believed to have taken place. The Island of Ireland Peace Park was full of beautiful poetry carved on slabs of gentle grey granite. The words of the men who witnessed this violence and slaughter sum up the atmosphere better than mine can.

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Never a truer word (my photo)

 

We walked on and on.The graves kept coming and coming. There was little, if any, time for reflection or close scrutiny. We paid our respects and went forwards.

We broke for a rest. I had to wee behind a blackberry bush.

I was then taken off to “meet” Bertie Ambrose, my great-great-uncle, who lay buried in Messines Cemetery, aged 19. I was accompanied by Amy, Steve and Ed. I was glad that I was with friends, as I found myself feeling nervous.

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Thank you for being with me!

 

Steve helped me trace his grave, and Ed walked up the row, gesturing gently to the headstone. I faltered for a moment, then went slowly to meet my uncle. I found I was

overwhelmed with sadness, loss of someone I had never known and relief at having come all this way to find my ancestor. I didn’t know what to say, so I said hello to him and introduced myself. I felt he knew me already, as I knew him. Steve had given me a cross, and I wrote on it before placing it on his grave next to the picture I had brought. I had briefly lost it that morning and had a complete meltdown, sick with disappointment that I had brought it all the way from England for it to disappear only miles from its final destination. I’d let Bertie down, and all those who had supported me to come here. Now I had paid tribute to him. In a few quiet minutes I had stepped backwards 100 years and put my arms around a 19 year old boy who died alone and frightened in the horror of war.

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On to New Zealand Messines Ridge Memorial and then the Pool of Peace (the Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater). This was the largest of the 19 mines to explode on 7th June 1917 and the sound was apparently heard in Dublin and Downing Street itself. It is incredible how something so destructive and violent can create an area of such extreme stillness and beauty.

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A pool of stillness (my photo)

 

On to the Wytschaete Military Cemetery where 1,002 servicemen are buried or commemorated. Then – of course, I got lost; it wouldn’t be right if I hadn’t. Fortunately I wasn’t on my own, and Pete, my stalwart companion, was the one who noticed we hadn’t seen any markers – or any other walkers – for a good twenty minutes. We turned around and in the distance saw a whirlwind of dust as Helen – rather like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python’s Holy Grail – pounded towards us, despite having cycled and walked about twice as far as everyone else. My heart sank into my dusty, muddy boots, where my feet were wrapped in barbed wire. We had gone the wrong way. To my eternal shame – but I’m being honest because I don’t believe in not being honest – my bottom lip began to tremble. The thought of slugging all the way back from whence we had come was not something I could countenance. Thankfully the support team descended from on high in a blazing chariot – or to be more accurate screeched up the road in a grubby white van – and took us back to the spot where everyone else had just enjoyed a break. Pete and I crammed Penguins into our mouths and were then taken to the pub where we all had a drink before the final march to the Menin Gate.

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What a sight we must have made as we walked down the road – all different ages, shapes and sizes, all of us in ABF T-shirts. Our feet were lighter, our steps stronger. Cars beeped in support. Traffic stopped to let us cross the road – we should have hurried, we should have attempted to run maybe, but we were beyond that, and there was solemnity in the occasion.

The drivers, knowing something special was going on, waited patiently. We were on paved streets, going past Ypres Cloth Hall which loomed in Gothic splendour into the pale blue sky.

30145814212_4c98498994_oThe pace picked up. A few unwitting shoppers were swept up in our crowd, clutching their bags helplessly. I feared we might take them through the Gate with us. People standing on the bridge we went under applauded. As we got ever closer to our destination the tramp of our feet was as rhythmic as that of a marching army. Customers at a cafe stood up and start clapping. I gulped down the emotion brimming in my throat. Here was the Menin Gate, gleaming in the evening sun, the names of the missing engraved for eternity on its stones. Two ex-servicemen walkers donned their berets and, with backs straighter than any had been in the last three days, turned their heads sharply right and saluted their fallen comrades. That did it for me: I burst into tears and sobbed all the way through the Gate.

Friends and relatives were waiting at the end of the walk, clapping and cheering. We stopped, rested, but only for a second; there were people to hug, to congratulate, to share the moment with. There were tears of relief, joy, triumph and  achievement.

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The bath that I soaked my poor macerated feet in that evening was the best bath I have ever had in my life. The service at the Last Post, when we were positioned behind the bugler, was respectful and dignified. It was the pinnacle of the entire event and the focus was on “those who grow not old”. Silent pride swelled for Robin, the ABF chief of staff who read the commemoration, and the three walkers chosen to lay a wreath on behalf of the charity.

The food we ate at the celebration dinner was the best I have eaten (even though nobody could tell if it was pork or chicken). I drank wine, and vodka. I chatted with pals and made friends with strangers.

The next day I went with The Two Daves and Roomie through the Flanders Field museum. We were given a discount at a local chocolatier so we went to buy gifts for friends. The cheerful little Belgian had put a sign in the window welcoming us.

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We got on our coaches home, tearful farewells were exchanged, and we all spilled out into London several hours later like a dropped bag of marbles.

Now it’s over. Feet have recovered. Toenails have started to grow back. I keep peeling dead skin off my soles like wallpaper. We can’t bear to stop talking to each other. We post photos and memories, share articles and book reviews. The first week back was especially hard; I didn’t know what to do with myself without my comrades.

So, my friends, I succeeded. I did it. I walked with ghosts, learned histories, met incredible people and forged unique friendships. This event was much more than a physical challenge for me: when I signed up nine months previously I knew I could not baulk at it. Alone, I might fail myself, but I would not fail the charity and those who had sponsored me. By choosing to sign up, I chose to live; to remember those who died so that I could. Thank you, every single one of you, who believed in me and donated to help me do this. I didn’t let you down.

http://www.justgiving.com/ellythemoo

Sour Milk

Have decided to make shorter posts, because they are easier to write and a damn sight easier to read. 

So. I read Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. It’s on the Booker list, so I felt I would be enriching my mind by reading it. But I found my mind didn’t want enriching as it kept wandering.

Levy paints a good picture of Spain, and I enjoyed reading about the weather and the heat and the smells. But I didn’t care much about the people who inhabit this particular bit of it. Sofia’s mother is unable to walk and suffers from a variety of ailments, including an aversion to ‘certain types of water’. So to distract herself she gets into bed with a couple of weird people and flies off to visit her dad and his new wife who is 40 years his junior. None of which is particularly interesting.

The book is possibly supposed to be funny in places, but left me poe-faced. If I were stung by a load of jellyfish and had to race across the beach for aid I would still notice if my bikini top had fallen off. Perhaps Sofia is not as blessed as I am.

Like when I read Anne Tyler, I feel like I am missing something, and am somehow less intelligent by not getting why a book is so good. I have stumbled across another writer who (in my opinion, not that that counts for much) is trying too hard to be a writer – who is so aware of prose, literary reference and being Deep and Meaningful that she forgets plot.

Barbara Erskine’s latest, Sleeper’s Castle is due back to the library next week. Here is a lady who knows how to tell a story! So to date I am still unMount!ed. ‘Twas ever thus…

The Final Word

I have spent the entire time since my last post reading this book.

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Hefty tome, isn’t it? I was reading it in the local fish & chips shop as I waited for my order and a gentleman commented “That looks like light reading.” Indeed – over 3lbs of it, sir.

David Cesarani died months before Final Solution was published. To my mind this is the definitive work for not only those who want to study the Holocaust and the rise of anti-Semitism but also the psychology of us all: how quickly humans can turn on their brethren. How easily we transform from the epitome of civility into creatures more bestial than animals.

I started reading this book before I went on holiday and I had to hand it back to the library (a) because someone else wanted it, (b) because it was way too heavy to take with me and (c) because I needed a break from the horrendous truth of what people can do to other people. I am glad I have finished it though. It is immensely readable, even though the subject matter is such agony. It is painstakingly researched and no sin is left uncovered. It was as difficult to read as you can imagine and more so. In some paragraphs my eyes skidded away from the text and on others they were hooked onto words as if on barbed wire, unable to believe what they were seeing. At one point I had to put the book down and do something else because I couldn’t take what I was reading – but I always returned to it. If people suffered unimaginable cruelties the least I could do was read about it, and bear witness to it.

Thank you, Professor Cesarani. Rest in peace; God knows you deserve to.

Coming up next:

Mount! by Jilly Cooper. My copy arrived 2 weeks ago and I was desperate to start it but I needed to finish Final Solution first. I wrote to Jilly to inform and she promised she understands!

Season of mists …

I feel like I’ve been lazy, but in fact it’s the entire opposite. I’ve been doing stuff: so much stuff that I have scarcely had time to sleep. I have to factor that into my diary along with everything else. My two weeks in gorgeous Greece feel like a very, very long time ago. Back then I was able to read until words spilled out of my eyes like tears. I’ve been tickled into laughter on the beach, scared to death on a boat, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken – occasionally bored – and above all entertained.fbf8wubgur6ilmt_rect2100

I have also started writing again. A chance outing to Southwold made something click in my brain. Or rather, not my brain, but the bit behind the brain where all the creating takes place. Like Frankenstein’s laboratory. It is exciting, like a reunion with an old friend whose company you have missed for years. More of that later. A lot of my time is taken up with work, and when not working I’m training for a sponsored walk. It’s ridiculous how long miles turn out to be when you have to walk more than 5 of them.

Autumn appears to have come on us overnight. You can smell it in the air: leaf mould and damp grass. The country getting ready to hibernate for winter. The brambles are bending low with blackberries.  The sun is thinner, more tentative.

I’ve picked the wrong time to plant a load of herbs, obviously.

I’ve had TONS of messages asking when my next blog post is coming. (Well, three.) So as promised – and I also promise I won’t leave it another 4 months for the next one, here is my holiday reading list:

John Connolly – A Time of Torment

The latest in the Charlie Parker series. Classic Connolly – funny in places, spine-chilling, deliciously dark and all too believable. He never lets you down.

Amy Hempel – The Dog in the Marriage

I read these stories after a recommendation in The Week. Some of them were dull but some of them really hit home. This line in particular sums up a feeling I’m still hoping to have:

“Not touching for so long was a drive to the beach with the windows rolled up
so the waves feel that much cooler.”

Isn’t it gorgeous? And – right?

The Shipping News – Annie Proux

Kevin Spacey was by far a more attractive Coyle than depicted in this novel, but it’s very readable and quite amusing in parts.

Nancy Goldstone – Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe

Girl power in the 14th century, looking at the Queen Consorts Eleanor, Beatrice, Sanchia and Marguerite in 13th century Europe. Unfortunately it wasn’t very well-written and I spotted several continuity bloopers. An interesting subject but I wouldn’t use this as a basis for any proper research.

Robert Nye – Mrs Shakespeare

A bit odd. Not convinced Shakespeare got his inspiration from what Nye claims. I would be interested to know if anyone feels similarly having read it.

Joan Didion – The Last Thing He Wanted

Story of a woman who tries to do her father’s dying wish, with catatrophic results. OK, but rather dull with none of the raw emotion of The Year of Magical Thinking.

Walter de la Mare – The Return

I had high hopes for Walter de la Mare’s prose but I much prefer his poetry. This story of a man who falls asleep on a gravestone and wakes up with the dead man’s face doesn’t really go anywhere.

Nick Griffiths – In The Footsteps of Harrison Dextrose and Searching For Mrs Dextrose

These are the books which made me laugh out loud. They’re a bit crazy and quirky but they were most amusing.

Mark Edwards – The Magpies, Because She Loves Me, What You Wish For

I gobbled up these books by the author of Follow Me Home. Mark is the male Lucie Whitehouse: intelligent, original thrillers.

Michelle Paver – Without Charity, A Place in the Hills

I loved Dark Matter by the author, which is a chilling ghost story. These were very different: both very enjoyable romances with depth. A Place in the Hills in particular was so good I started to research the poet Cassius which Paver writes about before realising she’d invented him. I don’t normally like romance stories but I did like these.

Oliver Potzsch – The Werewolf of Bamberg , The Poisoned Pilgrim

These aren’t great literature but they are enjoyable.  The story of the hangman, Jacob Kuisl, his assertive daughter Magdalena and their various escapades are always good fun.

Sarah Perry – After Me Comes the Flood

Weird, enticing and utterly heart-breaking story of a man who goes to a house and is mistaken for a guest who never turns up.

Helen Oyeyemi – Mr Fox

I am not intellectual. I did not enjoy this. I didn’t really enjoy White is for Witching either, which is a shame as I feel it says more about me than it does about the author.

Sarah Hall – The Wolf Border

The narrator of this book about a woman trying to set up a nature reserve in Scotland annoyed me a lot, but that’s because one of the men she slept with was married. Other than that, it was an enjoyable read.

Joanne Harris – Different Class

What I love about Joanne Harris is that she turns her pen (if one still uses pens!) to many different styles and voices and does so well. OK so Different Class sounds slightly self-aware but it’s immensely readable and there’s a real twist in it which makes you go “ooh!”

It says a lot that I can’t remember anything about these two beyond that they weren’t very good:

Darcy Coates – The Haunting of Blackwood House

Helen Moorhouse – The Dead Summer

So don’t bother looking at them. Kindle freebies – they never tend to be worth the paper they’re written on. (Yes, that is a deliberate pun.)

This is bitty. Not great. Allow me to get back into the swing of things. My mind has been on its own summer holiday. Let me quote Amy Hempel again:

“If it’s true your life flashes past your eyes before you die,
it is also the truth that your life rushes forth when you are ready to start to truly be alive.”

Bring on the sea.

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Hydra, after a storm

Not drowning, but waving

(The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed on stormy seas)

My reading list has been eclectic to say the least recently, as I’ve been working with Casemate, a military history publishing company, on a series of WW1 military fiction. My brief was to research the books written and see what novels could have new life breathed into them. I’ve enjoyed this foray into a different industry and will update as to which novels are chosen when they are published, but in the meantime anyone wanting to read the first four in the series can find them here:

http://www.casematepublishers.com/index.php/subject-categories/historical-fiction.html

(as was I)

In the meantime this what has been bobbing on my bookshelf:

Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe
I do love Jonathan Aycliffe’s ghost stories. This is a dark tale of a young couple who move into a new home, and the disappearance of their little daughter. There are a few plot holes but they don’t distract from the delicious chill given by the story.

The Ice Twins by S. K. Tremayne
This was a rather nasty little story about a couple struggling to keep their marriage together after the death of one of their twin daughters. If you ignore the plot, it’s very well-written with lots of description to sink your reading teeth into.

Ignorance – Michele Roberts
Michele’s prose is pure poetry. This is a difficult story to read, the tale of two one-time schoolfriends who deal with the German invasion of France in very different ways. Michele, like Lesley Glaister, is one of those authors you keep in the back of your mind as a favourite and then totally forget until in a panic you seek out her latest work.

The Loney – Andrew Hurley
I feel bad for The Loney as I have waited for it so long it could never have lived up my expectations. And yet I hoped it would, you know. A Gothic story set on a stretch of coastal land in Lancashire. A body undiscovered. A childhood secret long kept. The ingredients were all there but someone left the cake out in the rain … a rather dull, overstretched mess in which not an awful lot happened. I might read it again, once I have recovered from the disappointment of it being not what I hoped for.

Keep You Close – Lucie Whitehouse
I do enjoy her stuff. Marianne and Rowan were best friends but they haven’t spoken for 10 years. Marianne is discovered dead in suspicious circumstances, and as Rowan moves into the family home to keep an eye on it she starts to untangle a very dark web of lies and secrets. Lucie Whitehouse is an author who doesn’t lose her pace: this was another really enjoyable story with a startling twist.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Columbine by Sue Klebold
A searing open, honest account of what it was like being the parent of one of the Columbine killers.

This House of Grief – Helen Garner
Garner is a journalist, writing sensitively about a father accused of killing his three young sons in an attempt to get back at his ex-wife and the twists and turns of the case.

(To be more accurate, I was a ripped, punctured and deflated dinghy
half-submerged in a millpond covered in duckweed. )

Anatomy of a Soldier – Harry Parker
Tom is a soldier who is blown up, for want of a better word. His story is told by the inanimate objects around him – his bag, his hat, his belt. It’s an unusual and very effective narrative device as these expressionless items tell a very human, painful story. Excellent stuff.

Daddy Love – Joyce Carol Oates
An odd little tale about a young boy kidnapped by a paedophile and the relationship which develops between them. It left me with a bit of a nasty taste in my mouth, like when you are haunted by a bad dream.

Friday on my Mind – Nicci French
I hope that this is the last Frieda Klein story, as she leaves me cold. In this one, she’s accused of murder, and I found that I didn’t really care apart from wanting justice obviously to be done. I really want to read more from the wonderful partnership of Nicci Gerard and David French; I much preferred the stand alone books like The Memory Game.

(Thank you to those who grabbed my tow-rope and
pulled me back safely into harbour.)

boat

Woteveritis – Bletherings

Spring returns, but not my love…

but huzzah, my concentration does! I’ve managed to get through some decent reads in the last couple of weeks.

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

This was given to me as a gift, and it is an ideal present for a book-lover. You can read through it as I did, or flick to the relevant section to find the book which will cure you of your specific ailment – loneliness, divorce, hypochondria; you name it, it’s in here.

Benedict Ashforth – pretty much everything he’s written

Thesitewotdaresnotspeakitsname recommended this chap to me alongside Jonathan Aycliffe and I am pleased it did as he is another great writer of spooky stories which slip oh so easily onto ones Kindle.

Beneath the Boards by David Haynes

Thesite recommended this book as well, but it made a boo boo. This was not a scary book; it was thoroughly nasty, so much so that I stopped reading and deleted it from my Kindle.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

Johnson goes slightly overboard in his enthusiasm for Churchill, but aside from his hyperbole if you look at his evidence you can kind of see why. This is an immensely readable biography of a great man. I presently spend my days wishing I could be more like Churchill and then more like Terry Wogan (but alive).

Follow You Home by Mark Edwards

I stayed up way too late polishing off this story of a couple who go travelling. In Romania their plans fall apart when they experience something so dreadful they cannot speak of it to each other. Their troubles do not stay behind them when they leave, however. Gripping stuff. I was very impressed as this is this guy’s first book.

The English Girl by Katherine Webb

The title is as dry as the desert where this book is set, but don’t let that put you off this enjoyable story of Joan, an archeologist in the 1950s, and Maude, a pioneering explorer in the late 19th century, set in Arabia. Their unlikely friendship plunged Joan into danger.

We Were Liars by E Lockhart

I read this story of four cousins and one difficult summer in one sitting, gulping it down, and the twist, when it came, was so violent that as soon as I read the last page I opened the book at the beginning and read it all again through fresh eyes. Very, very clever. This will be going on my “books to buy people for their birthday” list.

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Kate Morton studied Gothic literature at university and the influences show in her books, which are great reads. Dollops of mystery and romance, all carefully plotted out. I finished this in the waiting room at the surgery, and was glad the doctor was late. I said a real live “ooh” aloud at one point when something unexpected happened (in the story, not in the waiting room).

Before the Fall by Juliet West

Set during WW1, this is based on the true story of a woman who fell in love with another while her husband was away, and the events which unfold could not be anticipated by the reader let alone those involved in the story. Beautiful, gentle and horrific. Not often that a book can be all three!

Behind Closed Doors (again) – a different one this time by Elizabeth Haynes

A teenaged girl disappears during a family holiday in Greece. Ten years later she turns up in England. I keep hoping Elizabeth Haynes won’t go the way of Sophie Hannah, who I don’t look out for any more, but it appears that she is. I don’t feel drawn into the books. Not interested. I am saddened by this, but the stories don’t live for me. Enjoy Into The Darkest Corner, her debut. It won’t leave you.

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

Carys Bray is like a poetic Lisa Jewell. She writes honestly and is easy to read but that doesn’t mean she skimps on beautiful prose and while her stories are appear simplistic they are anything but. This is the story of Clover who, in the summer holidays, decides to unpack the room where her father keeps the memories of her dead mother. Little by little, Clover unpicks her past trying to find out more about her parents, and also herself. Like A Song for Issy Bradley, this is a warmly written and uplifting book which doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Carys Bray now joins the ranks of those privileged authors I am desperate to see more from.

 

STOP PRESS!

For anyone interested in Elizabeth/Liz Rigbey, I have searched fruitlessly for more of her books as the last one was published in 2003. Eventually I emailed her agent asking if she was still writing, and got a positive response which said that she is, but not as fast as they would like her to – so they hope knowing she has fans waiting for work will spur her on! It was really nice to hear from them and to know that Rigbey is working on another book as her previous works were so enjoyable.

 

And now for something completely different.

I saw a TV programme about bipolar disorder (which I don’t have) and in it a young woman described depression as a panther. She wrote how she woke up to find it lying on her chest. This is one of the best metaphors of depression I’ve read – her blog by the way is www.rapidcyclistwordpress.com.  (and you should check it out, it’s better than this one). Cordelia’s panther swiped me with its paw almost lazily last week, twice in succession with a strength that took my breath away. Once when I was in the shower, of all places. I could do nothing but to put my forehead against the cool tiles, watching the water run down the drain, over and over, drop after drop, down, down, down. The desolation I felt was beyond words, beyond description, beyond sense. Like the feeling you get of having bad news, but on an uninterrupted cycle. Later that same day I was in Waitrose, staring at shelves of food, suddenly unable to move. I had come out with a purpose, but I had lost it. I didn’t know why I was there. I didn’t know what I was thinking. I didn’t even know what I did and didn’t know. There was no way of describing what I felt beyond that it was hopeless.

This wotevertitis is a shape-shifter, a changeling. You try to strike it with one weapon and it dodges, morphing into something else and mocking your attempts to beat it. Over the winter it was a grey cape, clinging to my shoulders with the strength of the Ancient Mariner’s albatross. It made me over-heat; it suffocated me and made me itch but I was incapable of discarding it. Last week it was the sea. I stood in it up to my waist, fully clothed, soaked and shivering. The waves withdrew from me, left me exposed and vulnerable, before pummelling me, covering me in salt and seaweed, knocking me off my feet and planting me face-down in the sand. Grit in my eyes and mouth, sticking to my eyelashes. My drenched clothes clinging to my overly sensitive skin. I scrabbled at them in a vain attempt to pull them off, scrub off my life, scrub myself out of existence.

Back in the shower. The water runs. I want to wash myself down the drain with the suds into sweet warm blackness.

 

I don’t, though. I get out, dress and prepare to face the day. I find myself laughing at something on the radio. I leave home late because I am entranced by the sight of my sleeping gerbils breathing in unison, their warm little bodies pulsing gently.  I walk to church yesterday and take brief, unexpected pleasure at the lightness of the spring air, as clear as water. That’s one of the good things about this woteveritis: you forget that life can be quite beautiful, and then it surprises you.

In the traditional story (much as I love the Shrek version), Puss in Boots tricksPussboots an ogre into turning into a mouse, and promptly eats him up. I hope to do the same with my woteveritis, to trick it into diminishing itself, so one day it becomes woteveritwas.

Little Things

Blimey, my last post before the one this week was 4 months ago. It feels like an age since everything turned into grot and ashes, but at the same time I can’t believe that it’s been so long.

My head is like an empty room with a fly buzzing around in it desperately trying to find a way out. I wrote a bee originally, but I think a fly is more accurate. Bees are fuzzy and bumbling and cute, and that in no way is an accurate description of my mind. You can imagine flies for yourself.

Anyway. I’m not able to concentrate, and I have An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan which is well-written and funny and interesting, but I can only do a few pages at at time. My concentration is shot. I turned to Whispers in the Dark by Jonathan Aycliffe, who is my new love – it’s shorter and easier to read, and it’s gripping me because it’s fast-paced. I’d usually be enjoying Morgan’s delicate build-up of character and plot, but right now I need easy reading and it’s a pleasure to discover easy reading does not = trash (I don’t normally do “easy”). In addition to this I’ve discovered Aycliffe and his taut, gothic ghost stories. This is the second of his I’ve read and I’ve just put the rest of the titles on my wishlist. As I did so suggestions of other authors popped up – on the site of which we dare not speak – and I felt like that bloke who discovered a new planet. There are hundreds of stories I haven’t read yet; stories which are all my ravaged brain can deal with.

When I popped into town this afternoon it was predictably dreary. Colourless, cold, and miserable. People doing battle with umbrellas. I walked past a coffee shop which had put up several shelves and filled them with second-hand books, next to a leather-look armchair, to make a customer imagine he was in an old library. Despite the fact that on the other side of the bookshelf sat House of Fraser, I wanted to curl up in that sticky chair and while away the afternoon with a hot chocolate and Jonathan Aycliffe. Reading is such a simple sweet pleasure, yet it feels like such decadence. I’m glad I’m remembering how to do it.

Enjoy Mr Aycliffe, and whoever else pops up.