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Posts from the ‘Research’ Category

Laughing at the Enemy

I have spent the last several weeks reading Home Office documents and scouring the magnificent – and exhaustively comprehensive – Hansard site for House of Commons speeches.  On a sunny day like today, I felt in need of something lighter.  I would imagine that audiences in the midst of war often felt the same – sure, you could hammer home to them the importance of the fight – but why not let them have a few laughs while they’re at it?  Anti-nazi propaganda served the purpose of letting off war-steam and fear through laughter.  Below are some examples I found and watched today:

Brainpickings introduced me to the animation of Jiri Trnka, whose “The Spring-man and the SS” brings to life the urban legend of the chimney sweep who became a nazi-fighting superhero.  You can watch this on my Tumblr, The Victory Stitch:

Walt Disney Studios made a number of war propaganda films following the financial flop that was Fantasia.  Funded by the government, Disney was able to keep his artists on the payroll by making such films as “Four Methods of Flush Riveting” as well as animated shorts featuring dwarves, pigs and ducks.  The only film I remember from this period is Donald Duck’s nervous breakdown film, Der Fuhrer’s Face, but today I came across the more earnest “Education for Death”, which seeks to answer the question:  what makes a Nazi?  In the film we see the education of young Hans from tender child to blinkered soldier, marching resolutely toward his own tombstone, marked with a swastika, topped with a helmet.  Beyond Hitler being smothered in a Ring Cycle heroine’s bosom, there aren’t a lot of laughs here.  For that, you have to turn to Popeye.  “Spinach Fer Britain” bolsters the “special relationship”, while “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” would come to be banned – not unlike the more racist cartoons of Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.  In times of war, it’s easy to lose your racial perspective and it’s easy to see why.  When we’re afraid we can make the enemy the Bogeyman and fear him in every closet, under every bed, or we can turn him into a clown and mock him, viciously.  Is it better to fear Hitler or laugh at him?  You decide.  If you want to see Education for Death yourself, you can download it from this Wikipedia page – it’s public domain.

Nazi Fairy Tales

If one is to write about Germany, there are two things one cannot avoid.  If one is Nazis, the second must be fairy tales.  The two of them are entwined in a number of strange and surprising ways.

The Brothers Grimm published their first book of folklore, collected from the villages and farms around the centre of the uncollected states that would become a unified Germany, in 1812.  “Children’s and Household Tales” contained the fairy tales we all grew up with:  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel – plus a whole lot more that haven’t made it into a Disney film, and probably won’t.  The brothers saw themselves as “patriotic folklorists”, intent on preserving the oral tradition and culture of rural Germany.  They did not see themselves as children’s writers and it was only the Victorian advent of childhood that popularised – and sanitised – the tales.

But the Brothers Grimm aren’t the only game in town.  And as my story begins in 1880s Berlin, I wanted to know what influence fairy tales might have on my characters, as they move from colonial Germany to Weimar to the Third Reich.  There is a “Fairy Tale Road”, one of the oldest tourist routes in Germany, should you wish to visit the castles and woods that inspired the brothers, from the turrets and climbing roses of Sleeping Beauty’s Sababurg Castle to any number of wolf-filled woods.  I haven’t visited them and neither would my characters.  They are only in my mind’s eye and imagination, same as theirs.  They belong to newly industrial cities and to the Germany of its colonies, where surely the education of the idea of Germany would have been very important for children.  I can find no references to books on culture for German colonial children, but I would be very surprised if the Brothers Grimm hadn’t been tucked into many a trunk.  Either way, the Grimm Brothers set the stage for the fairy tale format for children around the world – especially German children.

After WWI the rapid changes to society and culture of the Weimar period brought a change to the fairy tale as well.  If the Grimm’s tales had “helped children to develop full personalities” through stories of good and evil, post-war fairy tales were anti-social and anti-family, in such collections as Hermann Hesse’s “Marchen”, in modern settings that were a world away from a fairy tale wood.  Where traditional fairy tales often saw children endangered by parents due to hunger, adversity, envy or coercion, post-war and Weimar tales see family itself as the enemy, the bourgeois and conservative force that must be pushed against and escaped.  Hesse’s tales continued to be romantic, with the all the idealism of the individual who triumphs against all odds due to curiosity and wit, while later Weimar tales were overtly pessimistic, dealing with the breakdown of society and family in a fast-moving world.  Collections such as Zur Muhlen’s “Fairy Tales for Worker’s Children” pointed at injustice, discrimination, and exploitation among the modern world’s economies and races.   With the rise of the Nazi party, both this romanticism and this pessimism would be crushed and the “innocent” folktale become an ideological weapon.  As one party official declared, “The German folktale shall become a most valuable means for us in the racial and political education of the young.”  For more information on Weimar fairy tales, read Jack Zipes’ marvellous “Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.”  In fact, read any Zipes you can get your hands on.

Nazi stories were folktales, not fairy tales; they removed the literary “fairy” to focus on the Volk, marching together in solidarity behind one Fuhrer.  Dr. Albert Krebs wrote books for use in Nazi Germany’s schools.  He wrote that folk tales had a “healthy and organic” view of the world, while fairy tales were “artificial and decadent”, a leftover from “early Romantic writers … the product of a baroque and distorted view of reality … and should be kept off the children’s bookshelves.”  This didn’t stop the Nazis from appropriating classic fairy tales and rewriting them, however.  Googling about, I find numerous references to a Nazi “Cinderella” where the prince rejects the wicked step-mother for racial impurity and chooses the Nordic Cinderella as his bride, but I cannot find the source itself.  There are also numerous references to a swastika covered Little Red Riding Hood and the Nazi officer who knifes the wolf.

The Nazi party sought to invade every facet of a German life, altering history, culture, taste and language.  There was Nazi wallpaper for dollhouses, as above.  There were anti-semitic bedtime storybooks.  Nazi propaganda was itself a fairy tale told to a desperate Volk.  No happy endings there.  But, I suppose the good news is how little of it remains.  Germans can see through the Nazi invention of language.  It has made us all more suspicious of political jargon and words that seek to take the sting out of the situation.  None of the work created by Nazis is in circulation except for in museum collections, like the wonderful Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.  Nazis are only even rarely villains now and, more often, they are the butts of our jokes.  They have become their own fairy tale, perhaps, and haven’t remained the big bad wolf they hoped to be.  Is it because we have more wolves or worse wolves now?  Or is it because the story has been told so many times that we no longer fear it?  In the telling of Nazi tales, it must not do to be complacent.  There is much horror here.  One need only read the truth, not the fairy tales.  One must continue to look for all that was not left behind and know why it is gone.  One must always remember that this is not simply a story, even as one is writing it.  Of course.

The Power of Blurbs

Michel Faber made me do it. Such is the power of blurbs.

The cover of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Visitation” says, courtesy of Mr. Faber: “Extraordinarily strong… Erpenbeck is one of the finest, most exciting authors alive.”  He stops just short of an exclamation mark.  So far, so blurby.  But it wasn’t the blurb that caught my attention, it was his spiky review in the Guardian.  His opening made me sit up: “At its worst, the British literary scene behaves like a community of nerdy parochialists who imagine themselves to be cosmopolitans, fretting about whether there can be any great novels any more now that Amis is past it and Updike has died. The ongoing story of literature in foreign languages is barely noticed, a background pixel in the all-important anglophone display.”  He derides the appearance of a book that can only be Freedom, and wonders why the British “struggle” to understand, say, middle class American nuance, but seem to be disinterested in any works in translation – and particularly German ones.

As someone actively looking for German work in translation, I was grateful to Faber for pointing the book out to me.  As I had never seen it in a bookshop – and have yet to see it – I ordered in on line and was delighted that, when it arrived, slim in its cardboard sleeve, it was only 150 pages.  I do like a short book, especially when it is tackling 24,000 years of history on one piece of land.  (This, in and of itself is not remarkable. James Michner made it his speciality, and if there is a better history of one place from prehistory to the present than Centennial, I would take some convincing.)  But Centennial is a big book. A proper door stop. At page 150 in Michener’s, you might still be wandering around with dinosaurs.

The rest of this blog could go on to be a standard review of Erpenbeck’s book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I would tell you that I admired the device of the Gardener character who links the chapters that move through the history of a house, from inhabitant to inhabitant.  He never speaks.  We watch the land change through his eyes; we see the circumstances of the house change through his chores, which mark his eventual decline.  I would tell you that Erpenbeck is able to create fully realised characters in what might look to be quick sketches, but are actually careful and specific wood cuts, deep and dark.  But I’m no fiction critic.  I am a wholly selfish reader, looking only for what I want.  It limits my reading to be sure, at least the pleasure of reading, reading as I am through that filter or, perhaps, those cross hairs.

I am looking for German writers to tell me what I do not know about how it is to be German.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  It is a great expectation.  Do I really expect a writer to deal with the whole of their cultural history in any one book?  Sadly, for me, yes.  For me, a really good book is not only a window on a world but a lift shaft, going down.  I want to understand how the world of the book is affected by the history of the people and the place, and also to see how the world of the book will affect the future, whenever that is.  I do not want a book that is relentlessly “present”.  And I mean not only the back stories of characters and their parents, grandparents, but also their ancestors, their ghosts, their culture’s failures and race’s migrations.  I want to know how the uses of land have changed.  I want to know where the graves are.  The problem for me – you will have seen this one coming – is that I’m American.  I have no German ancestors.  Not a one.  My second book is a history that is not “mine”, and it makes me afraid, just a little, to write it.

Of course, I have written it.  I have a finished first draft.  I will begin the second draft on Monday.  And I will begin my rewrite without reading the first draft.  I don’t need to.  I already know what I wrote and that it is not “right”.  I have written a draft of what happens in the book, as if it is the story I would tell you in a pub.  It is all plot and story and characters doing what it is that they do and, sometimes, why.  What I don’t have is a history for them or their worlds that is deep enough, rich enough, to satisfy.  What I know and have written is “correct” but I know it is not – right, not enough.  I know who it is to be those characters, living in those moments.  But I don’t have the weight of their histories in me.  A marvellous exemplar of this kind of work is Louise Erdrich.  No doubt, she deserves a blog of her own. That will be for next time.

Suffice to say, I still have books of war that I am ploughing through.  I am still making sure my history is “correct”.  But I am also looking for – something else.  Something richer, deeper, darker.  Something I don’t yet know.  Erpenbeck got me some of the way there.  But I’m greedy. It wasn’t far enough.


Today I am starting a new phase of research, as my novel moves from the Isle of Man and back to Germany.  My knowledge is having to move on as well from where I left it, in 1939.  Now, it is 1944.  There has been a lot of water under a lot of damaged bridges while I’ve been beavering away, writing about kippers and barbed wire.

My character is currently on a repatriation ship, the SS Drottningholm, which worked throughout the war trying very hard to get people where they wanted to be or where they would have been, were it not for war.  When female internees left the Isle of Man in 1944, they sailed to Gothenberg and then to the Isle of Rugen, northernmost point of Germany.  The island is a very popular beach destination with Germans and has been throughout its history; it is also where Nazis of the future were meant to have their “paid vacations”.  The two-and-a-half-mile long resort now rots in Prora.  It was unfinished, due to the war, and even the Russians couldn’t make a dent in all the concrete.  Nazi architecture, unlike their politics, were designed to last.  You can see some wonderfully evocative photos on Martin van den Bogaerdt’s Panoramio site:

I am interested in architecture and how buildings are destroyed by war, but also in how the uses of buildings change as a consequence of war or party politics.  I have written before about Nazi pageantry, but I was interested today to find references to Thingplatze, newly-built outdoor amphitheatres designed to simulate/recreate ancient Nordic pagan gatherings called Things.  This project was the brainchild of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, but Hitler wasn’t a huge fan of it.  That is probably why only 40 were built out of the 1200 planned.  There is one such Thingplatz on the Isle of Rugen, at the capital, Bergen, according to the marvelous Third Reich Ruins site.  (The photo comes from their site, too.)  It was used primarily by Hitler Youth groups and still exists.  There is also one in Berlin, where my character is ultimately headed.  I have seen it before, of course, as it was used as an amphitheatre during the 1936 Olympics.  The Dietrich-Eckart-Buhne is now called the Waldbuhne and is used primarily for rock concerts, which might be yet another attempt to simulate and recreate an ancient pagan gathering.  Unless they’re showing David Hassellhof.

One mustn’t be a slave to research, and really, you can’t cram in everything you stumble across unless you’re aiming at a travel guide.  And I never know what I am looking for until it shouts at me, makes me see it.  Somewhere in these ruins, these creations, these pageants is the palpable, beating soul of a people who both intrigue and horrify me.  I am trying to look right at them, to see what I can see.

Winning ways with vegetables

My neighbour is a keen gardener.  I watch him through the windows of the Blue House when I come out first thing in the morning to write.  I watch him pass again, after work, inspecting the vegetables of his labour.  When it’s dark and my blinds are down, I hear him sometimes, pacing the path in his oversized wooden clogs, slug hunting.

As I’m writing about World War 2, my characters should be keen gardeners, too.  The Isle of Man didn’t turn into allotment-world like London seems to, when even the moat of the Tower of London was filled in, but the elders and internees do remember their constant searches for greens and their longings for fruit.

Today, I am reading “Bombers & Mash” by Raynes Minns, which has a big chapter on the pains taken by the Ministry of Food, who brought the war into the kitchen.  The book has brilliant tips for turning one pound of butter into two by stirring boiled milk into creamed butter and how to make cakes without eggs.  I read today about a woman who was fined ten pounds for throwing bread to the birds in the garden – a wasteful act of treachery.  I learned about two brilliant egg substitutes, besides Bird’s Egg Substitute Powder.  One asks us to cook tinned apricots in bacon fat and serve, “as egg-like as possible” on toast.  The other says that tomato halves can be cooked in bacon fat, cut side down, and served, whereupon it will “resemble the yoke” of an egg.  Tough times, those for vegetarians.  I could go on about the benefits of swede and how, when it is grated into seedless jam, becomes a treat that any child might enjoy.  I could offer recipes for “snoek piquante”, thrushes in paper, or sparrow pie, which “is not encouraged by the Ministry”, but I will, instead, offer up a recipe for Parsnip Wine, as one of my internees is usually thinking more about how to get a drink than an egg-less cake:

PARSNIP WINE:  To each gallon of water take 3lb parsnips cut into 1/2″ pieces, 2 lemons and 1 orange, both cut small.  (How they got those lemons and that orange is anyone’s guess)  Boil until the parnips are soft, then strain and pour over 3lb. white sugar.  (3 pounds of sugar? You could only get 2lb on the ration!) Stir until dissolved and bottle while warm, adding to each bottle a small piece of German yeast, about the size of a marble.  (Hang on a minute – German yeast?  In war time?  When in my own country we renamed cooked potatoes and called them Freedom Fries?)  Keep the bottle full while fermenting; after fermentation has ceased, cork and wire.  “This is an excellent imitation,” says Bombers & Mash, “of champagne.”  Cheers, then!  Or as my internees would say, Prost!

Stringtown. OK?

You never know where your research will lead you.

You will know, if you read this blog, that my first novel is set in the Oklahoma Panhandle.  I’ve never actually been there, but I won’t let a little thing like that get in my way.  My second novel is set during WW2 in the Isle of Man and Berlin.  I’ve been to both, lucky old me, but I haven’t lived through the war.  That doesn’t stop me either but it just mean I hunt and peck facts on the internet.  Sometimes, my two worlds collide, such as in this click, which led me to the Records of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, INS.  Or La Migra, as we called them back home.  It was here I found a WW2 internment camp in Oklahoma, in Stringtown, Oklahoma.

Stringtown is a small place in the southeast of Oklahoma.  In the 2000 census their population was 396.  166 households.  I don’t suppose it will have gone up for 2010.  In fact, the population is steadily going down now that Stringtown can no longer raise funds by being a speed trap.  Its major employer, says Wikipedia, is the Mack Alford State Penitentiary, a spillover since 1933 to ease overcrowding at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.  It also served as an internment camp for mostly German men, though it did hold some Italians and Japanese, during WW2 with the same system of racial profiling that created the network of Japanese-American internment camps across the US as well as the women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man that is at the centre of my book.

The nifty German American Internee Coalition provides information on internment camps.  The photo comes from this site, as well as the information about how the camps were run.  Apparently, the camp commander ran a tight ship.  Attempted escapes were a cause for shooting.  Internees were housed in the prison cells and sought to keep them “as clean as possible” as well as “engage in meaningful hobbies.”  As with the women’s internment camp, “there was a small, vocal Nazi element at Stringtown, estimated to be less than 3% of the general population. This element had an unsettling effect on the atmosphere of the camp, especially for the few German Jews who were interned there.”  Nazi women were about 10% of Rushen Camp at its opening, 29 May 1940, but as Jewish internees were released and more Nazi women moved to Rushen from Holloway Prison, the percentage was soon much higher.   It is reported that two German internees died at the camp and are buried at Ft. Reno.

Springtown was an internment camp for little more than a year.  Then, the men were transferred elsewhere and the site was reserved for German prisoners of war, captured all around the world.  Previously, Bonnie & Clyde started their crime spree from a dance hall in Springtown and afterward a tornado set down in the middle of town, destroying a community centre.  Springtown hasn’t had an easy ride of it.  But I’m glad to know about it, nevertheless.  And as the birthplace of Reba McIntyre, it’s not all bad news.  Unless you don’t like Reba.  And then there’s probably not a lot to recommend it to you.

Berlin’s Degenerate Art

Early 20th century Germany is well known for its art – both how it was celebrated and how it was persecuted.  I have blogged earlier about the social realist work of Kathe Kollwitz, whose spectacular house museum I visited in Berlin.  The modern art museum, Neue Nationalgalerie, also featured a number of artists, among them George Grosz, Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch, who were visible yesterday at Another World, the Surrealism exhibition at the Dean Gallery here in Edinburgh.  Strangely, I never thought of such artists as surrealists, but the exhibition was brilliant for putting the work of artists into context with global art trends, as well as showing the links between artists who inspired and were inspired across countries and art forms.

Dada seems to have originated in Zurich, where the term was coined and the first venue, Cabaret Voltaire, began publishing and producing the irrational and nonsensical art that responded to the  irrational and nonsensical First World War.  Dada was launched in Berlin in 1917 at Club Dada, founded by George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Hannah Hoch.  Other Dada groups emerged across Germany, with such artists as Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters. But by the early 1920s the work was already shifting towards sur-realism from Paris, defined by Andre Breton as “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true functioning of thought.”  Where Dada was created from the anarchic and ridiculous, Surrealism sought to delve into the intellectual and psychic realms of dreams and chance.  Germany’s modern artists responded to Dada and Surrealism in a variety of ways and methods, and their artwork would be more openly political and satirical than any other city’s, particularly in the New Objectivity movement.

George Grosz’s sharp and satirical cartoons of post WWI life in Berlin have made his artwork, alongside the work of Otto Dix, synonymous with the Weimar period, but it was the first world war itself that first honed his draughtsmanship and his politics, following his discharge from active service and a brief stay in a mental hospital.  His line drawing, Fit for Active Service, shows a doctor approving a new recruit – a skeleton.  Grosz’s early intention was to become the German Hogarth; Hogarth’s paintings of the perils of gin would be echoed in such works of Grosz’s as Dedication to Oskar Panizza, or The Funeral.   Grosz also created a number of collage “corrected masterpieces,” pasting photographs onto old masterworks to lampoon politicians and figures of authority.  Grosz introduced Otto Dix to Dada, and both would, in turn, start the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, a form of post-Expressionism in the 1920s and the leading Weimar art form that would fall only in 1933, when the Nazi party rose to power.

Hannah Hoch is best known for her collages, created while she worked as a designer of crochet, knitting and embroidery pattern books.  Some of her collages feature the embroidery mesh used in her designs.  She also created photomontages as in the collection From an Ethnographic Museum, which places the head of an African sculpture onto the body of a child, along with a giant woman’s eye.

Max Ernst would continue to use Dada forms such as collage, in both his art work and in his published “collage novels”, but would also develop a new interest in chance and the natural world in his “frottage” work, a kind of brass rubbing on rough surfaces from wood to stone. A lovely example of his transitioning between Cubist, Dada and Surrealist work is “Woman With an Umbrella”, a painting using pre-existing advertisement images on card.  He also worked with frottage in his paintings, but found the canvas too thick to use for rubbing.  Subsequent paintings would incorporate “grattage”, using forks and sticks to scrape through heavy paint, relying on chance, rather than technique, to make the painting.  His work is always diverse, but I am drawn to it for the themes running through, from the romantic notion of German forests to the cut-and-paste fairytale picture books he made from conventional 19th century engravings, where giant birds embrace bustled maidens and streams run through domestic lounges.  Kurt Schwitters is known for his collage work, incorporating strips and snips of newspaper, ticket stubs, feathers, found objects and textiles. He also created “sound poems”, aural collages, and 3D wooden collages.

The spookiest example of German surrealist work has to be Hans Bellmer, whose life-sized, articulated dolls, all trunk, appendages and genitalia, most often sans heads.  He ritualistically posed and photographed his dolls in woodland settings.  The work was made in the mid 1930s, but I defy anyone to look at it and not think about the horrific experiments upon bodies that were to follow, come the war.

Berlin lost most of its modern artists with the rise of the Nazi party, with artists arrested, interned, or forced into exile.  But, ironically, the most interesting exhibition of all of this work would be put on show by the Nazis themselves in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibit in Munich, 1937.  Designed to turn audiences off modern art altogether, the Nazis rounded up and displayed over 5000 pieces from Germany’s museums and galleries that they found most offensive, work that did not match the rural “blood and soil” paintings and landscapes favoured by Hitler and his crew.  After four months the show had attracted over 2 million viewers.  “Degenerate artists” included George Grosz, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters and Otto Dix.  The works displayed were destroyed, of course.  But a mock-up, in dollhouse form, can be seen at Deutsches Historisches Museum, and my very poor quality photo.

I am not writing about Weimar per se.  We meet my main character in 1940.  But just as history begets history, characters are formed from their histories and the choices they make based on past experiences and the ghosts they bring with them.  I am working on my character’s ghosts, of which she has many.  But the biggest ghost of all is Berlin itself.  Of course.


Britain has been rediscovering its love affair with domestic dramas featuring domestics.  Recently we have enjoyed the spectacular Downton Abbey, which ended on the brink of war with Germany, and the recent updated version of Upstairs Downstairs, which finds a penniless debutante flirting with Mosley, Ribbentrop, and Nazism.  BBC4 even did a survey of this history of fascination in last night’s “Maid in Britain”, exploring the differences between lives of domestics on and off TV.  For me, currently writing about German domestics, fascism, and racism in wartime Britain, this is right up my street.  Maybe it’s a little too close to my street.

Novelist Amanda Craig tweeted today about “Maid in Britain” and commented that domestic servants were still working in Britain, but that now they were all immigrants.  Of course, there have always been immigrant domestics.  Upstairs Downstairs offered us a Jewish parlour maid who was previously a lecturer in Frankfurt, made unemployed by the antisemitic Nuremberg laws and unmarried by the politically-motivated arrest of her husband.  (She soon comes to a sad and convenient end once she begins to notice all the fascists in the house)  My book is set in the women’s internment camp during WW2, when thousands of German women were arrested for being – German.  It didn’t matter how long they had been in Britain or why they were here, but one was more likely to be arrested if living near a coast or working as a domestic servant.  Due to the notorious fear of “Fifth Columnists”, the Daily Mail whipped Britain into a fearful frenzy, convincing all that Hitler had planted plaited Nazi girls into service throughout the land.  At his signal, each German maid would whip off her apron and show her true colours.  At the time, I’m sure it seemed a realistic fear.  War makes us all fearful of our enemies.  Perhaps having someone live in your house and do your work who is not family will always make for a nerve-wracking relationship, especially if war is declared and they are suddenly your enemy.  Whether or not the wholesale internment of a race was justified would be debated in the House of Commons throughout the war, and rightly so.

The other side of the story is that these German domestics were also sometimes Jewish, as in Upstairs Downstairs.  Tribunals in 1939 had tried to process and assess German women, but their categorisation was often based on who vouched for the woman in question and what the judge’s own biases were. The mother of one former internee recalls the judge in her mother’s trial saying to her, “Aren’t you a little bit Jewish?” so that he could say that she was a “genuine refugee from Nazi persecution” on her ID.  Simply being Austrian, Catholic, and anti-Nazi wasn’t enough.  These women were interned as well, and housed alongside Aryan German women.  And so, my book begins.

Bloomsbury House in London is well known as a source of support for refugees arriving in Britain. They also published a variety of manuals to ease the transition.  My personal favourite is  “Mistress and Maid.”  It featured helpful chapters such as “Make Yourself Familiar with English Ways” and “Rules for the Home,” detailing the types of uniform that maids should expect to wear and offering tips like, “You will notice that the Mistress usually states her requirements in the form of a request.  These are not requests, and should be carried out as orders.  It is not correct to argue with the Mistress.”  This is in the 1930s.  To be fair, the Mistress of the house was also given guidebooks to help her work more effectively with her new bewildered staff.  Her booklet was entitled, “Entertaining our Refugee Guests.”  Which makes it all sound quite charitable until the question of who was a refugee and who was not made relationships far more complex.  For more on the history and economics domestic servants, there is a new book Migration and Domestic Work by Helma Lutz.  But I wouldn’t advocate googling “German maid.” It leads to some quite nasty pop-ups.

We are still at war

And I think I forget that.  I say, quite off-hand, “Oh, I’m writing about the war,” as if there is only my war, my book war:  World War 2.  Of course, there is not.  We are at war.

But, no war stands alone.  Each war is the horrible child of a war that came before it, however far back.  There is no egg or chicken.  We have, somehow, always been at war.  As I get to grips with my war history, I am constantly thrust back to WWI, which planted the seeds of resentment alongside the economic environment that made Germany ripe for Nazism and made the British begin to question their “special relationship” with Germany.  When I began this project, writing a community play on the Isle of Man about women’s internment, I was pretty sure how I felt about “the war” – it was a good war that needed fighting.  I was proud that both my home country and my adopted country fought against Nazi Germany, albeit in different years.  The propaganda for WW2 is particularly fantastic.  I adore the artwork and the iconography, though I do giggle a bit at such sentiments as, “Children are safer in the country: Leave them there,” and “To dress extravagantly in war time is worse than Bad Form – it is Unpatriotic.”

The more I learn about “my war” the more I learn that nothing is as simple as I thought.  But then, when we started our current war I still saw things quite simply.  I waited for Hans Blix to tell me what was the right thing to do.  It was never about Tony or George for me, but I did believe that some wars had to be fought and if Hans Blix said we needed to go to war, that was good enough for me.  I can see now that I was blind-sided.  I bought the white wash.  I bought the propaganda.  Shame on me.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know how struck I was by watching John Pilger’s film, The War You Don’t See.  Truly harrowing viewing, but essential, if only to bear witness.  There were a number of arresting statistics in the film, but this one in particular has stuck with me:  In WWI civilians were 10% of total deaths.  For WW2 it was 50%.  Vietnam, 70%.  This war, now:  90%.  I’m no good at maths, but even I know that figure is obscene.

John Pilger has also been in the news discussing Julian Assange while he was being held in HMP Wandsworth and hoping for bail; Assange features in Pilger’s film as well, for it is Wiki Leaks who is attempting to poke a pin in the rhetoric and justification of this war and to show the truth lurking behind the propaganda.  If there is any form of Wiki Leaks for WW2 it is Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II/The End of Civilization” published in 2008.  Using primary resources, Baker juxtaposes newspaper and radio propaganda with memoirs and diaries to lay out the arguments for starting the war, both in the UK and the US.  I am using primary resources for my own research, from the Hansard House of Commons sitting notes to interviews made by myself and by the Imperial War Museum, so I am doubly grateful for Baker’s authentic and holistic approach to supplement the history books.  Further, I am grateful for his critical eye.  There is no good war.  That is what I know now.

If you want a better perspective on today’s war, please visit John Pilger’s site, where you can read about The War You Don’t See and find a link to watch it again on or hear a recent interview on Radio 4 – sorry, UK only.

Chapter 1

Now that we have settled into our temporary, snowy home I have begun my second novel, again.  I was about 25K in to the last draft when I went back to rewrite the first one again, then came back, looked at what I had and that – nope, that’s not it.  Scrapped.  Now, with an updated Scrivener programme and a new outlook, mainly onto a snow-covered Edinburgh street, I am ready to write.  Today I finished the first chapter and have hit 5K.  Whoopee or big deal?  It’s not a novel yet, but I know, roughly, where I’m going.  And for me only knowing where I’m going gets me going, even if I change my route as I write.  My next target is 10K and if I hit it I will take myself to see a Czech animated “Alice” that has been on my to-see list for a long, long time.  Maybe that will get me through Chapter 2?  My first novel has really short chapters because I’m bouncing around in different heads and time periods.  Maybe this one will be different.

This picture is a location for my first chapter.  Maybe the best part about writing is the researching, and certainly when you’re telling a story that is “true.”  Today I got my main character from a police cell to the locked compartment of the toy steam train in the Isle of Man, via police-lined streets and the Liverpool Stadium, where thousands of women were kept awaiting ferries in May 1940.  The Stadium was opened in 1932, became a famous rock venue in the 1970s and was demolished in the 1980s.  I wonder what it will have been like, entirely filled with frightened, exhausted women and no men there to thump one another or cheer?  But then, that wondering is the other best part of writing.

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