Monday, 5 September 2011

Autumn reading at Watsonworks
Returning from a summer break, September 2011
Blog 24


*Number 4 in a series on
*Notes in Passing:
A Book from the Shadows
*Poems of Place…
1. Heptenstall for Sylvia Plath

Enemies Meet Face-to-Face
in the trenches of Catalonia

An edited extract from the Spanish Civil War novel
The Freedom Tree (Puffin, Collins etc.).

In the footsteps of his dead father, Will has joined British volunteers
to fight alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and
against the forces of General Franco. He finds himself, with his
companion Griff, in the bitterly cold trenches of Catalonia, northern
Spain. He has been sent out by the group leader, Candy Sam, to
gather brushwood. In the pitch darkness, Griff and Will lose their way.

In the dark, north, south, east and west wore the same featureless mask. The stars were over- clouded, and anyway neither Will nor Griff could read the stars. They left the limestone parapet of the home trench and dropped in to no-man’s land. ‘When you hear a shot,’ Candy Sam had instructed, ‘drop flat on your faces. It’s a thousand to one against being hit.’

Every footstep, for Will, was agony because he could hear his steel-shod boots designed to make the biggest possible noise over crackly limestone. And if he could hear them, so could the watchful enemy. He might as well have had bells tied to his feet.

Boulders were the chief hazard and Will duly tripped over one. He fell among firewood. ‘Roots!’
‘Drag them up, then.’
He was grateful to halt his progress towards the enemy lines. He hacked at the rough limb of stunted oak. ‘This’ll never burn in a month of Sundays.’ The tree took five minutes’ sawing. It quivered and fought for its survival until Will began to feel sorry for it. Yet he moved on, dragging his prickly victim with him.

The thought of crawling into a trench and finding not their comrades but a scowling enemy, made Will stop. ‘We need to take our bearings.’ Instinctively, they crouched down and at the very same moment the hill halfway up the sky burst into flames. An explosion raised the lid of darkness, and small explosions burst on the heels of the first.

There was one second of silence before the entire battlefront unleashed its armoury. Somehow the blackness made things worse. Distances closed in. Between a machine-gun barrel and the victim was sightlessness – no matter that in daylight you couldn’t see the bullets either.

Head down, smelling the bitter winter earth, hands clamped over ears. A bullet smashed stone close by. Another ricocheted off rocks to left or right. Will raised his eyes as the intensity of the gunfire – and got the very worst shock of his life. His gazes fell on another face.

The enemy soldier lay belly down, pointing in the direction of his own trenches as Will and Griff were pointing at theirs. He was as terrified as Will – and as young: wan faced, pop-eyed, immovable as though his limbs had been driven into the ground with wooden stakes.

If he was armed, there was no sign of it. At the sight of two of the enemy, he rolled sideways like a rabbit springing from the hand about to descend upon its neck. Will said, ‘Please!’ It was all he could think of: please – don’t do anything, don’t shoot, don’t run. But Griff cut words. This was the closest bang, the closest bullet and it drowned Will’s anguished ‘No, Griff!’

Too late. The bullet was straight. The enemy turned half in a circle. His hand was raised as if to some invisible support, some arm held out to him in the last flash of his living mind. His pop-eyed face fell before the rest of him.

‘There was no need!’
‘Him or us.’
‘He’d no gun.’
‘Beggar that!’
Will was across the body. ‘If he’s only wounded –’
‘Forget ‘im, he’s dead.’
The young Spaniard lay as only the dead lie. Yet Will would not let him go. Feebly, he bent over him, willing breath back into him. ‘Sorry. Sorry…’ He no longer heard the flying bullets. He did not care whether they struck him. The pop eyes were in his head. He could see nothing but them.

One life. Sixteen years of caring and loving and feeding, of laughing and crying and running and talking – turned, in a single moment to cold flesh. Will cocked his head. He lifted himself. Great waves of nausea drove upwards through him. He was sick in his throat, sick down his nostrils.

When the nausea departed it was replaced by anger and disgust. His mind had never prepared itself for this. It had imagined other, nobler pictures – all shattered. In these seconds, Will’s hatred was not for the Fascists but for Griff. The look in his companion’s eyes – which again and again reverted to the dead Spaniard – was of pride. He was glad of what he had done.

Will gathered up the firewood they had collected. He felt no fear, for he felt nothing. He was changed. Something – perhaps everything – of his past self lay with the young Spaniard. Back in the home trench with the others, he took out his pistol. He handed it to Candy Sam. ‘Give it somebody else, please. I want none of it.’

Will’s war moves to the Battle of Jarama, where he meets Molly, a medical orderly, and is then followed by a desperate journey north, to the Basque town of Guernica. Encounter 5 in Blog 25 will describe the blitzkrieg of the town on market day by German bombers.

Notes in Passing
A Book from the shadows: ordinary people in extraordinary times

To have lived through the 2nd World War and to have actually lived through the war years in Berlin, the epicentre of Nazi tyranny and eventual defeat, was a truly unchallengeable qualification for an author to pen an authentic fictional account of the ‘thousand year Reich’. Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, first published in 1945 and now in a fresh English translation by Michael Hoffman, is a remarkable achievement, historical and literary.

Alone focuses on ordinary people living in day-to-day terror of the Gestapo and the SS; people who were never asked to approve of, or support, National Socialism, who had too much to contend with in their own lives to feel any degree of patriotism, who delivered up their sons to the war effort because they had no choice.

Berlin, for working-class people, was a tyranny of surveillance, ruled by fear – of crossing those in authority, of being reported by neighbours, friends or even family to a hierarchy of monsters in uniform, themselves in terror of those above them.

Otto Quangel and his wife Anna have lost their son in the war. Their bitter response to what they both see as a pointless and tragic conflict is to fight back. They do this by writing postcards condemning the Nazi regime and leaving these in public places; their hope that from acorns oaks of resistance might grow.

It is, from the start, a hopeless aspiration, yet it is one requiring a stubborn courage. In a free society such protestations would be seen as trivial, as amusingly absurd. In the totalitarian state of Hitler’s Germany, where nothing is disproportionate, such protests prompt a remorseless manhunt, equally absurd: there will be arrest, there will be interrogation and torture; and anyone with any connections with the ‘traitors’ will be caught in the trap.

Though the Quangels become an increasingly isolated, withdrawn couple the ripples of their activity sweep wide and darkly. Merely to have known or met them draws the innocent in to the abyss.

The novel teems with characters that could have been drawn from The Beggar’s Opera – petty thieves, bullies, drunks, rarely honourable never heroic; while those in authority, police, Gestapo, judges are straight out of George Grosz (see his ink and water colour on paper, Interrogation recently acquired by the London Jewish Museum of Art, supported by the Art Collection Fund).

Alone in Berlin is a brilliant and gripping narrative, terrifying in places but also verging on the comical as the villains of the piece live a ‘truth’ shot through with insanity and brutality, at once unbelievable and actual. A dull couple in any other circumstances, themselves to a degree unhinged by their hopeless campaign of protest, the Quangels find themselves capable of strategies of resistance far more successful than their postcards; or if not resistance, survival in face of the most horrific treatment.

The reader is offered a glimpse of hope at a personal level, but no assurance about the potential of people-power. Of the many postcards they leave in public places in the belief that they will be taken away, read, noted and perhaps acted upon, the majority are handed in to the authorities immediately on discovery.

Hans Fallada’s novel is loosely based on real characters who campaigned very much as the Quangels do in Alone in Berlin and whose fate paralleled that of Fallada’s characters. He took a mere 24 days to write 586 very readable pages; alas he did not live to see the publication of his book.

Geoff Wilkes in the Afterword to the novel writes that whereas Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) dissects and analyses ‘the banality of evil’, Fallada’s book ‘comprehends and honours the banality of good’.

A five-star read.


Poems of Place….1


They do not bury those
Dead by their own hand
Outside cemetery walls these days.
So I searched for you among those
Who bore their agonies
More stoically than the poet often does.

For what, I wondered, should I look –
What stone, what shape, what last words
Suitable for one whose brief lines
No overdose could kill?

Not, surely – Much Remembered.
Not – Dearly Beloved.
Not floral with white lilies
Or soothing angels
Eyes fixed on confident eternity.

I guess by now there will be a sign
Saying ‘Sylvia Plath lies this way’
(in Aldeburgh Ben and Pete and Imogen
All lie together in grey-marble convenience
Close enough to play nocturnes and trios
Under the baton of the sea wind).

I am glad I walked in vain
The parade of marble, glad I failed,
Despite a skylark’s company
And rooks reciting their own laments
In the deep thunder of the sycamore,
To find you written up
As ordinary mortals are.

For in truth my search
Was your epitaph
And a little of my own.



"I just finished reading your book Ticket to Prague for the third time, and I wanted to tell you how much I love it. You described Prague in such vivid language, I want to get my own ticket to Prague!! I won Ticket to Prague in a book quiz at my local library last year and like I mentioned before, have read it several times. I'm a young writer myself, and books like Ticket to Prague give me something to aspire to. I'm waiting for school to start again, so I can hunt down some of your books in my school library, and I can’t wait!! I suppose you might get this a lot but you are a brilliant writer Mr. Watson and I love your work. ST."

Thanks, ST. It’s always a relief for a writer to learn that somebody has dipped in to his or her work (and kept going to the end!). Blog 23 featured an extract from Ticket to Prague under the Encounters series – DISSIDENT GIRL MEETS DISSIDENT POET.

Dear Jim,
It’s me, Ned Baslow again, just to thank you for agreeing to find space for one (or more) of my Letters to Celebrities. As I’ve explained, I think important people could often do with some feet-on-the ground guidance from the likes of us ordinary folk. It’s been my recent experience that a word of advice from the rank-and-phial is often appreciated by those dazzled by their own greatness or with their heads in the cloud as a result of hangers-on flattering them to the nines.

Anyway, you’ll get my first missile, sorry, missive, in good time for your next Blog (which my Betty says is improving). However, neither of us can make head nor tale of Miro who you seem to admire. For us, a good plain landscape with a cottage, some Derbyshire sheep among the Derbyshire Peaks is more to our liking, though if it’s squiggles you want Benjie, our nine year old, could knock out those till the cows come home. Takes all sorts!

I look forward to your contribution, Ned. As for Miro, I read in a magazine lately that Miro actually visited Belper on the A6 with the intention of drawing the East Mill that overlooks the Derwent, but gave up on account of the rain and, as he termed it, ‘problems with perspective’.

How sad that letter writing has been on the decline:
why not join Ned in a campaign to cultivate the fast-disappearing art of correspondence?
PS: You don’t have to be from Derbyshire.