What Kind of War Girl Are You?
April 23, 2014
In My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, Riley Purfoy asks this question of his childhood sweetheart, Nadine. They haven't seen each other in two years since Riley left for the front and they've both had to grow up very quickly indeed. Riley teases Nadine that perhaps now she drinks pink gin and runs drugs in nightclubs as some of the volunteer nurses do in Paris. It's a recognition that the war has shaken up the rigid gender rules that kept women and men in their places for generations.
Though the war has turned him from a boy into a man, Riley's attitude to masculinity has softened. He's no longer so desperate to prove his own heterosexuality and he can understand why some of his fellow soldiers find physical comfort with each other rather than with prostitutes. Having seen so much suffering and bloodshed, he no longer finds the narrow morals of the past as holding much value. The only thing that matters is that he loves Nadine and she loves him back. They are able to talk to each other about sex in a way that would never have been possible for their parents. The war, which has kept them apart for so long, has ironically led to a closeness and an honesty between them that comes partly from the intensity of knowing they may never see each other again.
The same is not true for Captain Peter Locke and his wife, Julia. Julia tries to win back her husband's affections by being as sexually open as possible. 'She put on the lovely new things. She had never worn anything so racy. Did they look too dreadful, in this country bedroom? Did they look ridiculous on her?' The result is a disastrous encounter that leaves them both feeling ashamed. Julia believes the problem lies in her not being the kind of war wife her husband wants. She is starting to doubt her own physical attractiveness but in fact it's not that she's lost her looks. It's more that beauty no longer counts as a woman's most important asset.
Julia tells her cousin Rose, 'Well, I'm sure you think it's time I toughened up… I know my mother does.' Julia's mother is putting pressure on her daughter to contribute to the war effort by becoming an ambulance driver. But Rose has experienced the horrific conditions that British women working in France are enduring. She doesn't think it's fair that gentle, sweet girls like Julia should be expected to transform themselves into hardened war veterans.
When we think of World War One, we tend to focus on the horror seen by the men in the trenches but the character of Rose reminds us that women were also exposed to shocking scenes. 'The vehicles awash with gangrenous blood and bits of limb and coughed-up scraps of greyish-yellow gassed lung, which had to be hosed out every morning.' The female ambulance drivers and nurses are as much in a state of shock as the injured soldiers whose lives they are struggling to save.
The war has liberated Rose from the shame of not finding a husband and has allowed her for the first time to have some ambitions. Yet the heavy price for this is the struggle to 'look the unbearable in the eye' and not lose all capacity for compassion. Is it a good idea to toughen up? Does experiencing trauma make you a stronger person?
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How Hard Is It To Go Home?
April 18, 2014
In My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, Riley Purfoy spends his precious week's leave in a room above a pub on his own. He fully plans to go visit his family and the love of his life, Nadine, but he returns to the front without seeing them. He cannot bear to go home because he has no idea what he would say to the people he was once closest to. His experiences in World War One have left him feeling completely detached from his old life. It's as if the person he was no longer exists.
Captain Peter Locke suffers a similar deep alienation when he goes home to visit his wife, Julia, who he once adored. Although he knows it's not her fault, he finds himself thinking 'do you have the slightest idea what's going on out there?' Where once they had a passionate sex life, he now finds he cannot bring himself to touch her. It's not that he doesn't care about her any more but the memories of witnessing his men being blown to bits stops him from being able to make emotional or physical connections with anyone at home.
The only one who understands this is Locke's cousin Rose. As a VAD nurse, she has seen how men are returning from the trenches physically and mentally shattered. It's not something those at home who love them can begin to comprehend. Over sixteen million people died in World War I and over twenty million were injured. Some of the physical injuries were truly horrific involving loss of limbs and facial deformation. Yet the mental scars were possibly even deeper. There were 80,000 recorded cases of British soldiers suffering from shell shock but the true numbers were probably much higher as the army was often reluctant to acknowledge psychological injuries. The numbers suffering from nightmares, flashbacks and what is now known as post traumatic stress remain incalculable.
Many soldiers on returning from the war found it impossible to speak about their experiences to those closest to them. Harry Patch, 'the last Tommy,' never spoke about the war till he was a hundred years old, not even to his wife. The memories were too painful and in many cases, returning soldiers didn't want to burden their families with the horror of what they had been through. This must have been extremely lonely not only for the soldiers themselves, who had no one to confide in, but also for those who loved them who suddenly found themselves shut out.
Locke's wife Julia is devastated by her husband's rejection of her and blames herself. She thinks that if she can make herself more physically attractive then he will return to her properly. She doesn't understand when Locke tells her that she no longer has the ability to make him happy. It's a sad irony that though she can hold her husband in her arms, it's as if he's become untouchable. How many of those who physically came back from the trenches never returned home in spirit? Riley writes to Nadine 'there are more ways than the physical to die.' Is this true?
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What Makes A Suitable Boy?
April 14, 2014
In My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, Nadine's mother, Jacqueline, is the only one who's pleased that Riley Purfoy has enlisted to fight in World War One. She tells her daughter, 'It's probably for the best, darling. I know you liked him but you know he's not the sort of boy…' Nadine is hurt by the use of the past tense in describing the love of her life. Even though the war has come between them, Nadine believes she and Riley are destined to be together. 'And that moment when they had looked at each other, and then, just then, for that moment… wasn't he everything?'
Jacqueline would be horrified to know the depths of her daughter's romantic obsession. She doesn't think Riley marriage material because he is working class. He doesn't come from the right sort of background or have the right prospects that she believes essential to her daughter's future.
Marrying a boy who is also upper class is what Jacqueline considers to be the most important goal of her daughter's life. She doesn't consider her daughter's feelings to be of any relevance when it comes to matrimony. Nor does she have any concept that Nadine should be allowed to decide for herself how she wants to live. Jacqueline even goes so far as to lie and tell Nadine she has no talent at painting because she doesn't want her to go to art school where she'll meet 'artistic, immoral men.'
Prior to World War I, British women were largely defined by whom they married and their own talents and ambitions were considered irrelevant. The Suffragettes had begun to challenge this mentality by demanding the vote. Yet romantic love that crossed class boundaries was still considered shocking and likely to be met with enormous parental resistance.
Jacqueline is convinced that she knows what's best for her daughter and that her duty as a mother is to shield her from the temptation of falling for the wrong boy. She doesn't even want Nadine to volunteer as a nurse in case feelings of sympathy for the injured soldiers turn romantic. She only agrees to let Nadine volunteer for the VAD because 'the wounded, she decided, would be less attractive to her daughter than the artists.'
It's not that Jacqueline is opposed to art; she posed as a model herself in her youth. But the war has made her more conservative instead of less. It's partly because she feels that the lack of available men means that a girl 'needs a good reputation, these days more than ever.' Also she senses that the world is changing at a terrifying speed and the old certainties that she took for granted are crumbling away.
Jacqueline has nothing personal against Riley, who she has known since he was a boy. In fact she likes him and has always encouraged him. But the fact remains that the depth of her class prejudice is such that she'd rather see him killed on the Western Front than marry her daughter. How much do parents today feel they have the right to interfere in their children's love lives? Do women still consider class background and money when it comes to deciding on a life partner?
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Sloane Street 1919: the Peace Parade
April 11, 2014
Guest blog post by Dave Walker, Local Studies Librarian, Kensington Central Library.
Like many of the people who work in libraries, archives and museums I've been getting ready for the commemoration of the start of the First World War for many months, looking through archive material, going to meetings and workshops, working on exhibitions and events and answering the first flurry of enquiries on the subject. I've never experienced any preparation for a centenary like it. Raising awareness of a profoundly significant historical event and getting people interested in history is never a bad thing. But the First World War is not like other historical events. It's definitely not like the Second World War.
World War 2 was an unambiguous struggle against evil. We may have had some allies we felt dubious about afterwards, and we may feel regret about some of the methods and weapons used by the Allies but it was a necessary war. That seems to be the general consensus. And I know it from my own family. Both my father and my mother were in the armed forces and believed in the cause for which they were fighting.
But World War 1 is less clear cut. We fought an aggressor who was determined on the domination of Europe (and elsewhere). But the origins of the war are caught up in diplomatic machinations and expediency. And there are many areas of disagreement about the conduct of the war. Were our troops “lions led by donkeys” as Allan Clarke famously put it? Or were the allied commanders as competent as could have been expected given that the technology of warfare was changing so rapidly? Was the Great War a just war against an enemy of civilisation? Or simply the result of one gang of would be imperialists attempting unsuccessfully to supplant another? It wasn't as it turned out “the war to end wars”. But was it just a pointless period of unjustifiable blood-letting?
It's harder when the event being remembered is reaching the point of being almost past living memory. As far as my own family is concerned there are a few photos of men in uniform seen in old photo albums and I know about my great uncle John James Williamson who died towards the end of the war too late to travel home on compassionate leave when his mother died. (His brother George made it home and survived the war.)
When it comes to what is being commemorated we can agree that it was the courage and sacrifice of ordinary men and women that we want to remember and the details of ordinary lives. The historians and politicians can argue over the rest.
There is no doubt about the suffering and trauma which ended the long Edwardian summer and propelled us into the 20th century. But if it feels disheartening to contemplate pain, misery and injustice we can remember that this is history. We have the whole span of the war to examine, which is why I have chosen these pictures.
This was the Peace Parade of 1919. Men and women who served in the armed force or in auxiliary forces, marching down Sloane Street (just a part of the whole route) to commemorate the end of the war.
We're rightly avoiding the word celebration this year. But I think it's right to say that these men and women were celebrating one thing – their own survival. They marched in front of cheering crowds to celebrate the peace, proud of what they had done but glad it was over.
Home at last. War is over.
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What Makes The Perfect Wife? My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
April 9, 2014
In My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You when Captain Locke thinks of his beautiful wife Julia, he remembers how she made their home 'into a kind of heaven.' She supported him when his father died and made him feel that she was always on his side no matter what. She was good at choosing colours, arranging cushions and making things look pretty. But now that World War One has broken out and the world has turned ugly, there is little call for Julia's traditional wifely skills.
What Julia is not good at is waiting. She doesn't understand why her husband insisted on enlisting and she feels abandoned. The problem is not just that she's madly in love and misses him terribly. It's that her whole life she has been taught that her role is to look beautiful and be a good wife. 'What was the point of doing anything without your husband to do it for?' She attempts to volunteer packing explosives but she doesn't fit in with the other women who she finds 'terribly coarse and vulgar.' She also can't bring herself to help with nursing the wounded as she can't stand the sight of blood.
Yet for many women, World War I opened up a world of opportunities that had never existed before. With so many of the men away, women were needed to work in factories, shops and offices. Before the war, the only jobs open to working class women were as servants where pay was low and the conditions often extremely harsh. The new forms of employment on offer meant that women could step outside the domestic sphere for the first time and enjoy a certain amount of economic independence. Trade unions could no longer completely ignore the issue of women workers and began to look at women's rights; particularly for those who had been widowed or whose husbands were no longer able to work.
Contributing to the war effort gave women a confidence about their role in society that added momentum to the suffragettes' movement. Women increasingly argued that if they were supporting their families financially and keeping the home front strong then they should have the right to vote. The war meant that men could no longer claim that politics had nothing to do with women.
The war also challenged the notion that the only thing that mattered about a woman was her looks. Julia's cousin Rose knows 'that nobody had ever really expected her to be a wife.' Because she is plain, no man is likely to be attracted to her and therefore she had counted for nothing in a society where women were only judged as assets to their husbands. Before the war, her options were 'china-mender, correspondence maintainer, ageing wallflower' but she seizes the opportunity to join the voluntary aid detachment. She receives training in basic nursing and suddenly her intelligence, courage and determination to be useful are of value.
Where Julia wastes her time stitching beautiful sandbags, Rose 'had identified a different type of woman that she was able to be.' Rose finds herself pitying Julia's beauty and self-obsession. What Young makes clear though is that Julia is not stupid or particularly vain. She is simply a product of a society that taught women that being attractive to men was the definition of achievement. How much do women today rely on their looks? Did World War One bring equality or just a temporary shift in the gender power balance?
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What Does It Take To Be A Leader? My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
April 7, 2014
Check out Karen Rubins's guest blog here
In My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, Riley Purfoy finds himself being promoted to Second Lieutenant whether he likes it or not. He believes there are better men for the job only they don't know how to put on a posh accent like he does. He's also suspicious that his old benefactor has given money to his regiment so that Riley can afford to keep a horse. It's clear that the British Army during World War I is very far from an equal opportunities employer. They're only considering promoting those who aren't from an upper class background because they're getting desperate for officers with some experience of battle.
As Captain Locke points out to Riley, 'I would much rather have you than a nineteen-year-old direct from the school OTC.' This is quite a radical thing to say. At the time, being a gentleman was what counted when it came to the distinction between privates and officers. Leadership skills were considered to be a matter of breeding. They were innate qualities developed by a public school education that had little to do with experience or individual character. To suggest that a working class boy like Riley might inspire more confidence in his men than a proper gentleman was to question the whole class system. Riley's only half joking when he asks 'Isn't that a bit, ah, Communist, sir?'
Yet Locke is quite secure in his own privileged background and is not a snob. He sees that intelligence, courage and a concern for others are what is needed in the chaos of the trenches. Riley himself points out that while being an officer does offer some advantages, it's no protection from being killed. Yet after WWI ended, many generals were accused of sitting in safety, far from enemy lines, whilst sending thousands upon thousands of young men to their deaths. Some of them had accused soldiers suffering from shell shock of being malingers and had them shot for cowardice. This lack of understanding and empathy with their own men seems quite shocking but at the time, it was believed that real leaders needed to be tough and merciless. What do you think makes a proper leader? In Britain today, do people succeed mainly because of their talent or because of their background?
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Letters from the front: how the post office delivered letters to a world at war
April 4, 2014
Guest blog post by Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer at the BPMA.
The British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) has been working with Cityread and other heritage organisations across London to deliver school workshops in local archives and libraries.
Private Peaceful, this year's Cityread month of reading book for children is set in the First World War. Part of the plot unfolds through letters sent back from the front line which offered a great link to the BPMA story of the Post Office at war.
Post Office communications were vital to every day life in the First World War - not just to deliver letters – the Post Office also ran the telegraph and telephone systems. In 1914 the Post Office, as one of the biggest businesses in the world, contributed to military operations on a scale never seen before, providing a vital means of communication between the fighting fronts and the home front. Tens of thousands of Post office workers fought in the war and over 8,500 were killed.
At the peak of the War over 12 million letters were sent from the home front to soldiers fighting abroad and back again. All letters had to be sent via the Home Depot in Regents Park to be sorted and censored. The Home Depot was built in December 1914 to cope with the growing volume of wartime letters and parcels. At the time it was the largest wooden structure ever built in the world. Over 2,500 postal workers, many of them women, worked tirelessly sorting the mail – in fact often it took just two days for a letter to reach its destination.
You can discover more about the Post Office in the First World War on the BPMA's online exhibition The Last Post: remembering the First World War.
Cityread Letter Exchange workshops
The BPMA has been delighted to share the postal story in recent Cityread school workshops. Here's a photo of Sally, our Learning Officer talking to students from Hampstead School in Camden.
Just one of the tragic and poignant stories I shared was about Rifleman Harry Brown. This photo of Harry shows him in the uniform of the 2nd Kings Royal Rifle Corps, taken just before he set off for France.
After writing to her son on 12th July 1917, Harry's mother, Mrs. E.M. Brown, had her letter returned with 'Missing 10-7-17' written on the envelope. She immediately wrote to the Red Cross asking for information and had her letter acknowledged on 30th July, with the promise that enquiries were being made. In August she received a standard letter sent via the Red Cross to relatives of a number of soldiers missing, presumed killed in action after a battle at Nieuport les Bains on 10th July 1917. In fact Harry had been captured, not killed. On 31st August he wrote a postcard from a German Prisoner of War camp reassuring her of his good health and saying 'Don't worry about me as I have finished with the war'.
Subsequently Harry was moved to another camp at Bayreuth. However, the story does not have a happy ending. A letter sent to Mrs. Brown on 17th February 1919 gave her the awful news that her son had died of inflammation of the lungs at Bayreuth on 27th November, just 16 days after the end of the war.
The students will take inspiration from real stories like Harry Brown's to write a letter about the First World War in their area to a student in a school in another part of London. In turn, students from that school will reply with their own letters about the war in their area. This is a fantastic way for schools across London to share and reflect upon the human experience of the First World War.
The BPMA is also excited to be taking part in Saturday's Cityread Family Day at the Museum of London in Docklands.
The BPMA has plans to open two new heritage attractions in 2016 - The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. The Postal Museum will showcase curious objects and reveal fascinating stories from the human story of communication - from the sinking of the Titanic to the work of James Joyce and Mail coaches to underground railways. There will also be a dedicated zone telling the story of the Post Office in Conflict.
You can find out more about the exciting plans for The Postal Museum and Mail Rail on the BPMA website.
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Does Music Make Us Human? My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
April 3, 2014
Check out Stellar Libraries director Andy Ryan's guest blog here
In My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, Riley Purfoy finds that singing loudly and cheerfully with his fellow soldiers helps him to cope with the horrors of the Western front. It allows him to keep hold of a grim sense of humour and comradeship in the midst of hell. Yet he soon discovers that music reveals who we really are as much as it creates a sense of solidarity.
When Riley hears the German enemy singing 'Silent Night' beautifully, he has to be careful not to 'let sentiment rise.' To be a good soldier he needs to be loyal as well as brutal. When the new CO, Captain Locke, invites Riley's friend Ainsworth to play the piano they've found in the cellar of their new headquarters, Riley jokes that Lenin believed music 'softens the heart and brain.' This prompts Locke to ask him if he is a communist. Riley's disillusionment with the class system has given him some communist sympathies or at least made it difficult for him to remember his place as a working class private speaking to an officer.
Riley doesn't admit to Locke that he has any knowledge of classical music, as he doesn't want to reveal that he has been educated and once dreamt of rising above his lowly station in life. Yet when he sees Locke listening to Chopin, he can't help but call out to him as a fellow human being because he is moved by the other man's loneliness. He reminds Locke of his own advice 'to lay off the Chopin.' For a moment they are not officer and private but two music lovers caught in a war that has forgotten the civilizing, healing power of great music.
Captain Locke refuses to dismiss Bach just because he happened to be German. For him, music is above any nationality or hatred of the enemy. Listening to music reminds him how much he loves his wife, Julia. She has helped him to develop sexually and emotionally after a very male centred public school upbringing. Like Riley, Locke has far more interest in love than he does in violence and hate.
What convinces Riley of Locke's essential decency is how he tries to save a patch of gooseberry bushes. Like the surprise of the piano in the cellar, they are a symbol of hope because they represent a world back home that is far more human and kind. Riley and Locke feel 'the same lurch of loss and love and beauty' for what they are trying to protect. Yet Riley recognizes that the brutal savagery involved in fighting the war is in danger of destroying not only their ability to appreciate music but love itself. Listening to Bach and Chopin on the Western Front is not an indulgence or a nice distraction from the war; it is a fundamental reminder of their humanity. If they lose this, they will have lost everything.
What piece of music reminds you of what really matters in life? What music from the First World War would you recommend?
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How Hard Is It To Write The Truth? My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
March 31, 2014
Check out my guest blog post for Foyles here.
Though the title of Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, sounds like the opening of a love letter, much of her novel is about the difficulties of written communication. Riley Purfoy cannot face seeing the look on his mother's face when he tells her he's enlisted to fight in World War One so he posts a letter instead. He signs it 'yours faithfully' rather than 'yours sincerely' because he feels more faithful than sincere. Even before he reaches the trenches, he realizes that it is very difficult to put honest emotions down on paper.
The note Riley leaves saying goodbye to the love of his life, Nadine, is even more inadequate. All he manages to say is that he's bringing A Tale of Two Cities with him to the front and that he'll write soon. He doesn't though. He leaves Nadine's letters unanswered and only barely manages a card at Christmas. This is not because he doesn't care or has forgotten about her. In some ways, it is their very closeness that makes it harder for him to confide in her. The horror of what he has witnessed and what he has found himself having to do is more than he can put into words. Yet he knows that if he's not honest with his soul mate, he will lose all sense of who he really is and their relationship is doomed. 'He could not tell the truth, because it was disgusting. He could not lie, because that was fatal.'
Nadine sends Riley a letter in which she says 'I haven't the least idea how to be a soldier's correspondent. But then I really can't imagine that you have the slightest idea how to be a soldier.' This is the crux of the problem; they are both cast in roles that are utterly unfamiliar and alien to them. Even though they've been best friends since childhood, they are no longer living in the same world and this makes it difficult to connect. Nadine is unsure what tone to strike and wonders whether she should be witty or tragic. Riley will receive training in how to be a soldier but there's no training in how to be a civilian who can do nothing but wait and pray that the most important person in the world to her survives.
Both Riley and Nadine end up adopting a kind of false cheeriness in their correspondence that neither of them really feels. Nadine is so unimpressed by Riley's Christmas card that she writes back 'so glad you're having such fun.' It's impossible for Riley to convey the gallows humour that keeps him and his comrades sane. He cannot explain that they laugh because if they didn't, they'd fall to pieces weeping at the tragedy and waste of it all.
Of course many soldiers in World War One did write beautifully moving letters to their loved ones, despite the difficulties of describing their situation and the official censoring of their correspondence. The censors removed much of what was negative or critical to avoid lowering morale as much as from fear of the Germans finding out information. Often soldiers censored themselves because they didn't want to worry their loved ones and because they knew their commanding officer could read what they'd written. Still writing did allow soldiers separated from the families to have some news of what was happening back home and to let others know they were still alive. Their letters contained small and precious truths even if they couldn't be honest about the war. Have you or your family kept any correspondence from World War One? Have you read any WWI letters that particularly moved you?
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What Does It Mean To Kill A Man? Aoife Mannix on Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
March 19, 2014
In Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, Riley Purfoy asks 'how have we slipped so easily, apparently so easily, into this bayoneting, murderous, foul-blooded maelstrom?' He is a young man who is far more interested in art and love than he is in violence. Yet he enlists in the British Army to prove that he has what it takes to fight for his country in WWI.
'The Hun' are the enemy who threaten to destroy all that Riley holds dear. He pushes aside thoughts of an individual German he once knew as it's easier not to think of them as human beings. He recalls instead the tales of Arthurian knights from his childhood. Yet the reality of the trenches is very far from his romantic ideas about honour and bravery. For a start, he does not see the face of the first man he bayonets even though the combat is up close and personal. Riley finds it necessary to pull the blade out and plunge it in again. It's a gruesome task that has none of the chivalry of a duel or joust.
Yet Riley doesn't find it hard to take another man's life in the heat of battle. He describes a red mist that descends over him so that far from being a coward, he behaves like a ruthless killing machine. What really shocks him is that men like him, who have never seriously physically hurt anyone, can suddenly find themselves doing things they never imagined themselves capable of. It's as if in killing a stranger, he has somehow turned himself into someone he no longer knows. There is a disconnect between the person he thought he was and the one who is capable of this violent savagery.
Riley sees another soldier 'weeping and shaking, like a Spartan after battle' and describes as 'the shedding' the process by which soldiers let go of what they've witnessed and what they've done. Yet will Riley really be able to rid himself of what he has experienced? After his first fight, he is still able to believe that the politicians will work something out very soon because no one can seriously expect human beings to murder each other on such a massive scale for any length of time. He has underestimated the insanity of war and how long he will be required to behave like a killer.
I once met a Croatian playwright who told me that during the siege of Sarajevo, she wasn't at all frightened even though just going out to buy milk she was at risk of being killed and she witnessed her neighbor being shot by a sniper. Then after she moved to London, one day she was waiting for a train and the whistle of it coming into the station sounded like a rocket. Suddenly she was drenched in sweat and shaking uncontrollably. Even though she knew logically she wasn't in danger, it was as if all the fear had finally caught up with her.
Do people in war suffer posttraumatic stress because they are able to emotionally detach themselves from their actions at moments of great danger? Does the true impact of what's happened only hit them later? Does killing someone else fundamentally change who you are?
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What Does It Mean To Be A Man? Aoife Mannix on Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
March 4, 2014
Check out my guest blog post for the good web guide here.
In Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, the artist Terence observes that 'people are saying it's awfully romantic and noble… to fight for your country.' Yet he's worried that it's not for him because of his artistic temperament and the admission that he's 'a bit of a coward.' Young shows the pressure that was on men to enlist for World War I so as not to be seen as weak and effeminate. It's a matter of macho pride to prove that you have the courage to kill the enemy. The recruiting posters display Belgium as a beautiful woman about to be raped by German demons. The need to protect women was a key part of the argument for why British men should go to the front.
Yet this same society that claimed that saving women was so important, also treated them as second-class citizens. Young's main character, Riley Purefoy, realizes that Nadine, the woman he loves, will never be taken seriously as an artist or have access to a studio like Terence's, even though she's considerably more talented than him. He also points out to Terence that if there was female succession, Queen Victoria's daughter would have become Queen of England. Given that she is also the mother of William the II, the German Kaiser, this would have meant that Britain fought on the side of the Germans in WWI. It took nearly a hundred years before a law was passed last April so that royal brothers no longer precede their sisters in being in line for the throne.
It's quite a disturbing thought that if men and women were considered equal in 1914, the entire history of WWI would have been different. It also raises the question of what patriotism and nationalism actually mean. Purefoy's own mother, far from wanting her son to go to war to protect her, warns him against the army as 'just another trick they play on us.' 'They' being the upper classes who exploit and manipulate working class men like Purefoy's grandfather who died as a colonial soldier somewhere in Africa.
However against his mother's wishes, Purefoy does end up enlisting. His reasons have little to do with a wider political sense of fighting for his country; they are far more personal. He is driven by anger at a class system that won't let him see the girl he loves and anxiety about his own sexual identity. He wants to prove that he is a 'real man' in a society that looks down on those who are gay or female or working class. It's hard not to wince at his naivety when he signs up for the duration of the war rather than a year because he's so sure the war won't last for nearly as long as twelve months.
The same social pressures that were used to oppress women were also used to send millions of young men to their deaths. What does it mean to be a man in 2014 as opposed to 1914? Have our ideas around male and female identity fundamentally shifted or are men still under huge pressure to be protectors and providers?
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What Is It Like To Be In Love?
February 20, 2014
This is the question that Nadine asks her father in Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You. Her father tells her, 'The Romans saw it as fit of madness that you wouldn't wish on anybody.' Yet Nadine's first love is full of joy and innocence. She has fallen for her childhood friend, Riley Purefoy, and can think of little else. The grown up chatter about murdered dukes and Serbians and war seem vague and unreal compared to her excitement at Riley putting his arm around her waist.
Riley feels the same way, believing any war will be long over before their planned trip to Amsterdam to see Van Gogh's paintings. His love for Nadine is full of the vibrant colours of the Impressionist art they both admire. Yet just as this new class of painting isn't approved of by traditionalists, Riley himself poses a threat to the established way of representing the world. He is a working class boy who has his sights on a wealthy young lady. His dreams of love are about to get a rude awakening by the very people who have encouraged him to better' himself.
In 1907, when Riley first meets Nadine, social mobility is still very much frowned upon as everyone is expected to know their place. Riley is only allowed into Nadine's home because her family is 'arty' and therefore bohemian enough to allow a common boy from the streets into their home as a guest. Despite his mother's reservations, Riley is instantly drawn to this glittering world of posh people. He makes himself useful in every way he can think of and strives to learn all the words they use that he hasn't heard before. He even manages to get sent to grammar school.
Yet Nadine's family's social openness has strict limits. There is of course no question of sending Riley to public school and no question that he would be allowed to marry their daughter. The class system is as deeply entrenched as the soldiers who find themselves on the Western Front. That Riley is ambitious and wants to move beyond his parents' world shows that change is already afoot. However it was arguably the First World War, and the carnage that resulted, which led many in Britain to question whether the country should be run by an elitist group of public school boys. Is this a question we still need to ask today?
We perhaps like to think that love conquers all but Young's novel demonstrates that social pressures, like class and war, can come between even the truest of loves. The education that Riley receives thanks to his connections with Nadine's family gives him a love of art and wins him the heart of a very talented, courageous young woman. Yet what the war has to teach him is an understanding of hate, of class snobbery, and of a system that treats the ordinary soldier as so much cannon fodder. It is an education of a completely different kind.
Is love made greater by the obstacles society puts in its path? Or is family disapproval always destined to lead to Romeo and Juliet style tragedy?
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Can Tomorrow's Generation Understand the First World War? Aoife Mannix on Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful
February 11, 2014
This year for the first time Cityread London is including a 'younger' read alongside Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You. We've chosen Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful which tells the story of two brothers fighting in the trenches.
The horrors of World War I might seem difficult to explain to children yet the sad reality is that many of those who enlisted were only young boys. Morpurgo's main character, Private 'Tommo' Peaceful, is just fifteen when he joins up. He lies about his age but it's clear that the army is so desperate for soldiers, there is little attempt to question those who may be under age. Tommo is at first teased about his fresh face and his unbroken voice but once they reach the frontline, his youth is soon forgotten. The experiences he goes through force him to grow up very quickly indeed.
Morpurgo's strategy for the book is to show us Tommo's childhood in flashback. We gradually come to understand all that he has lost in going to war. The rural Devon where he and his brother Charlie ran wild in the woods and fields is evocatively described. Yet this is no sentimental, nostalgia trip. Tommo's father is killed in an accident when Tommo is a small child and the family face eviction and extreme poverty. His brother Joe has learning difficulties and is tormented by bullies. Tommo wrestles with feelings of guilt and fear of being a coward long before he ever picks up a gun.
Nor does Morpurgo shy away from the more gruesome details of life in the trenches. There are vivid descriptions of rats and lice and dead bodies.
The sordid misery of a war where ordinary soldiers were often treated as so much cannon fodder is powerfully portrayed. Yet in the face of so much hate, there is also loyalty, bravery and mercy. Tommo adores his older brother but he is also jealous of him. Morpurgo never patronises nor simplifies human complexity for a younger audience. As a result, the book is a gripping read for any age. Yet is the horror and mass destruction of young lives in WWI a suitable subject for children to read about?
Over the summer, I was on holidays in Jersey. One day on the beach a group of young soldiers set up a tent just beside us. They stripped off their uniforms and were soon doing cartwheels in the sand in their swimsuits. To the delight of my nine month old son, they spent the afternoon building human pyramids and taking photographs before collapsing in heaps of laughter. They looked like such absolute kids until I overheard one of them joke, 'Don't worry, I'll come to your funeral.' It was chilling to realize in a few weeks' time these young people could be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq or the latest threat of Syria. I looked at my baby son and couldn't bear the thought that he might one day have to face anything so dangerous.
Yet perhaps it is precisely because it's so often the young who end up fighting our wars for us that they need more than anyone to understand what is at stake. Many of the soldiers who rushed to sign up for the First World War were terribly naïve in believing that war was a great adventure that would be 'over by Christmas.' No young person who reads Private Peaceful will be under such illusions. To build the future we need to understand the past and rather than shielding our children from history, perhaps they are the ones who most need to come to terms with what previous generations have done.
What makes a great children's book? What did you read as a young person that made a lasting impression on you?
What Do We Hear of War? Aoife Mannix on Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
February 3, 2014
Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You opens with a bang. 'The shattering roar of the explosions' is felt not only in the trenches but also across the water in England by Nadine, Julia and Rose. A great deal has been written about the First World War and much of it, understandably, from the point of view of the soldiers fighting on the front line. Yet Young makes clear from her opening pages that the war also reverberates through the lives of those left behind. Their bodies may not suffer a direct hit but the women waiting for their loved ones to come home experience their own forms of trauma.
The Great War, also once known as the War to End All Wars, was in fact merely the beginning of modern warfare. It completely transformed British society at the start of the 20th century. One hundred years later, it continues to echo through our understanding of what it means to go to war and what it means to come home.
Young's novel, published in 2012, has been chosen as this year's Cityread London's book to mark the centenary of World War I and also because it is, from the opening paragraph, a brilliant, compelling read. I say 'mark' instead of 'celebrate' because it feels odd to somehow imply that the death of over sixteen million people, an estimated 10 million of whom were soldiers, is a cause for celebration.
Our understanding of World War One is still arguably an open wound. Michael Gove, the education secretary, recently provoked considerable controversy by suggesting that left wing academics were promoting 'myths' based on TV programmes such as Black Adder that suggested the war was an avoidable mistake. He felt this undermined the heroism and sacrifice of those who died. Is this true?
Now that we can no longer hear the voices of those who fought, Harry Patch 'the last fighting Tommy' died in 2009, we perhaps need more than ever historical fiction that can give us personal insights into the complexity of war. This is not just to help us understand the past. Yesterday on the radio, I listened to how the UN is attempting to broker a deal to get starving women and children out of the besieged city of Homs. The Syrian government has apparently agreed to let them go but the rebels fear it is a ploy to retrieve the names of men fighting against the regime. Having said they wouldn't take any refugees, the British government is now considering taking a small number. The issue of how civilians and soldiers should be treated in war still very much needs to heard as the heartache and suffering is still with us.
How has the First World War reverberated through your family history? What stories of war have you heard that particularly struck a chord?
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Planning for Cityread 2014: on the joys and challenges of my work
November 28, 2013
I am Dr Maite Usoz de la Fuente, Cityread's PhD-in-residence since early September. Working on the project over the last couple of months, I have grown to know some of the ins and outs of working in the creative industries, an experience quite far removed from my daily existence as a lone researcher holed up in different libraries and archives across London and beyond. One of the great things of my role at Cityread is that it involves a great deal more human interaction. Another nice thing is the comparatively faster pace at which things move and develop: as an academic, it is not unusual to spend days researching a specific detail that might or might not make it into a footnote of a final draft (or, indeed, agonising over a comma); working on Cityread, there is a much stronger sense of urgency, of things needing to be done and decisions having to be made on a daily basis.
Assisting with the fleshing out of next year's programme is an exciting process that involves a significant amount of research, countless phone calls and emails, and an ever-growing list of potential partners, venues and projects. One key challenge at this stage is the amount of unknowns we have to work with, for while we know what we'd like to see in next year's programme, making it happen depends on a range of variables that are not entirely under our control: authors' willingness and availability to take part in events; availability of funds and resources (largely dependent on the outcome of funding applications and sponsorship deals currently in the process of being finalised); the legal/health and safety/logistical implications and ramifications of some of our more ambitious (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) ideas: can we persuade local librarians to dress up for Cityread?; can we get Boris to lead one of our reading groups and come up with something outlandish-yet-eminently-quotable about this year's title?; should we get a Cityread mascot for next year, and if so, who or what, and how do we go about anointing them?
Of course, as an academic, dealing with uncertainty is something I am fairly used to, both in terms of my own research (that is, not knowing, at the outset of a project, where my work will lead me) and in terms of the current climate of job insecurity, particularly for those of us working in the arts and humanities. Working with, or rather working around, such constraints or unknowns is something I am more than familiar with. However, whereas as an academic such questions generally only have a direct impact on me –how much time I can allocate to research, or the resources I will have at my disposal–, when working on Cityread the potential implications seem more far-reaching, or at least they have a more immediate knock-on effect, because of the number of individuals and institutions involved in making the festival happen.
Driving forward the many strands of next year's programme requires enthusiasm and energy, but also a high level of flexibility and inventiveness to adapt our plans as circumstances change and we gradually gain a clearer picture of the resources at our disposal, and what can be achieved with them. Throughout this process, it is also paramount to keep partners in the loop, so that they can feed into our planning. In our case, this involves liaising with, amongst others, 33 local library services across London – a logistical challenge not only because of their sheer number, but also because of their wide geographical reach (we can now say we have been to Zone 6 and beyond!) and their different needs, sizes and priorities. Bearing all these variables in mind requires a careful juggling act, and can feel somewhat overwhelming at times, but then, we wouldn't want it any other way: no two days in the office are the same, and the joy of seeing things gradually take shape after months of planning, and of watching Londoners get drawn into the festival keeps us going.
There are some details of next year's programme we can already unveil: Cityread London 2014's title will be Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, a touching love story set in London and the Western Front during the Great War. Cityread will be working as part of the First World War Centenary partnership, managed by the Imperial War Museum, and our programme will focus on how Louisa's book offers glimpses into the impact of the war upon Londoners' everyday life: for instance, the changes the conflict led to in medicine, fashion, and art, as well as in gender and class relations. For the first time, we will also be running a children's title in conjunction with our main title, Michael Morpurgo's moving Private Peaceful. Morpurgo's novel offers a stark first-hand account of a young soldier's experience of war, and will allow young audiences to engage with themes such as the effect of propaganda and peer pressure on children and teenagers of the period through our wide offer of events and activities. If there is anything you would particularly like to see in next year's programme, please leave your suggestion or comment below, and we will do our very best to deliver! And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get regular updates of what we are planning for next April and beyond.
Do You Know What Hate Is? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December
April 30, 2013
In A Week in December, Shahla questions whether falling head over heels in love is all it's cracked up to be. She feels her passion for Hassan is more like an illness, one that is all consuming. 'They called it 'love', but it felt more like confinement.' Yet she is still able to function normally on the outside. 'No one would have known, she believed, that her mind was wholly occupied elsewhere. ' Love is a torment but not one that's destroying her life. Indeed the main reason Shahla finds being in love such torture is because she hasn't been able to share her feelings with the person she cares so deeply about. For all its challenges and frustrations, Faulks ultimately shows true love as a force for redemption, the one source of hope in our dysfunctional and destructive society.
It is when love becomes twisted by ego and selfishness that it has the power to poison. Parallax player Radley Graves can't understand why Jenni Fortune is not impressed by his enormous virtual genitals. They've never actually met apart from on line but his fury at her rejection in a video game displays a deep hatred of women. Faulks shows us that this misogyny has nothing much to do with Radley's experiences of the opposite sex. Rather it springs from his frustrations as a school teacher struggling to discipline his class. Radley takes a pathetic macho pride in intimidating two teenage boys. It's clear that playing Parallax is not a way for him to chat up women but a chance to express his deep anger at not getting the respect he believes he deserves.
Another character eaten up by jealousy and hatred is critic Ralph Tranter. He also suffers from a deeply held belief that the world fails to appreciate his talents and instead rewards others. His egotism has no limits to its pettiness. Not content with trashing his rival Sedley's novel in his reviews, he goes along to one of Sedley's readings and disrupts it by yawning all the way through. Both Radley Graves and Ralph Tranter are amusing in their hatred because they have such a ridiculously inflated view of their own self-importance.
Yet when it comes to hedge fund manager John Veals, a man of considerable power and influence, Faulks shows us a different kind of hatred. Veals is not angry or frustrated. He is not struggling with his own insecurities and feelings of failure. In fact he is full of confidence about his place in the world. When he takes advantage of the ignorance of newly emerging capitalists in Eastern Europe, he takes pleasure in 'trading Polish credulity; he was trading Czech naivety; he was trading stupidity.' But this isn't exactly racism because Veals despises all of his fellow human beings more or less equally. Apart from admiring those who are as good at avoiding tax and ripping off others as he is, he has no compassion or sympathy towards humanity. Other people exist purely to be exploited.
Veals's hatred isn't personal and that's what makes it so chilling. Rather like the producers of the reality TV show his son watches, he takes a certain abstract sadistic enjoyment in the suffering of others. Virginia Woolf wrote 'the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him.' Veals has no interest in imagination or love, his only interest is money. Is this the ultimate form of hate?
On Community: Jay Bernard, Cityread's Young Writer in Residence, discusses A Week in December
April 29, 2013
A Week in December closes with an argument. John Veals, the villain of the novel, a banker, who more-or-less single-handedly initiates the book's pending financial crash, is cut down by an ex-investor. He knows that the basic mechanisms behind finance are simple, and that the complicated mathematics is fancy icing on a basic layer cake, and he knows that his actions high in his office above the city will do a lot of damage. But he doesn't care.
What responsibility does Veals have to the people in the streets below? Dr. Parker's last blog post invited us to discuss the line between reality and fantasy. I'd like to take it a stage further and discuss how the novel deals with our responsibility towards others. This responsibility is coloured by our fantasies and shaped by our reality: we like the idea of helping others but we are too financially restricted to make a difference. To say that we don't care, or to admit to acting in a way that harms others is taboo. Yet, as the novel shows, the mechanisms for doing so are open to anyone who wishes to exploit them. And since actions speak louder than words, to manipulate money in a way that destroys the financial security of millions is a loud Fuck You to the idea of community. Yet even Veals – a psychopathic husk of a character with no hobbies, pleasures or empathy – thinks of himself as good.
Communities tend to exhibit the same behaviour. A community might sanction rape, murder, slavery and inequality – indeed, might depend on it – yet hide from the reality of these actions by equating criticism of them with criticism of the community. To criticise slavery was to hate white people; to interrogate 9/11 is to hate America; to hate the monarchy is to hate Britain. Worse, to criticise the irresponsible rich is dubbed the politics of jealousy, as though you might do the same if you had enough money. The fact is, every single social group on earth is prone to unsavoury behaviour but it is very difficult to isolate that fact without being accused of tearing a group apart. And this might be because community has exclusively positive connotations, even though the word itself is a general term meaning everyone.
In any case, the story structure in A Week in December questions our notions of community. At the same time that it brings these fictional characters together, it plays them off each other, and the differences between them are magnified. The lime pickle merchant versus the Polish footballer. The banker versus the fickle literary critic. Surely the strength behind the term community is that it implies loyalty to the group despite the group's composition? But isn't it also about being able to express the darker side of our nature without (too many) repercussions? You might say, no, there's rough music, or the charivari – groups who would start fires, bang saucepans and let off fireworks outside the home of a wife-beater for example – but even those were outlets for a kind of grim vigilantism, and were used to reinforce oppressive social norms. Once upon a time we couldn't survive without a community. We still can't, but now it's become a creative enterprise.
No surprise then that during a discussion at the Free Word centre last week, to launch Spread the Word's new short story prize, the panel (Bidisha, Isabel Hilton, Tom Chatfield and Marina Benjamin) quickly moved from an abstract idea of community to one rooted in the internet. The usual list of terrifying practices were relayed, among them, the idea of people gravitating towards those who agreed with them. A dangerous trend, but I wonder how true it is. And I wonder if the phenomenon of unfriending, unfollowing and deleting is part of the unconscious meaning of community. That is, to be in a community is simply to be among people; and people, as far as I know, have always treated each other badly and formed new communities. A community is not the definition of a good, safe life, but the condition of all life.
So rather than trying to come up with ways of making communities more cohesive, shouldn't we find ways of making disagreements more bearable? Rather than critical theory, how about a theory of criticism? The thing about real-life communities is that we are forced to do what the community expects because of the reaction to our behaviour. The problem with 'agreeing to disagree' is that nothing happens. It's a wet end to a heated debate. And the problem is, people like John Veals find themselves free to do as they please. A created community that is honed over time, such as the ones we create online, are not immune to disputes, but the apparatus they depend on means that small issues are unlikely to grow. (How many of us have ended friendships on the basis of who does the washing up?) The question is, when was it ever different? At what point in the history of humanity have people ever been wholly in agreement with themselves let alone others? And even if we can imagine a world without war or seedy financial transactions, can we imagine one without people with whom we disagree?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 26, 2013
Fourth instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
Love is all you need?: Love and Redemption in A Week in December
The important theme of 'reality versus fantasy' in A Week in December has been discussed in the last two Cityread blog posts, by myself and Aoife Mannix. Yet I would argue that love and redemption are two other major, though perhaps less obvious, themes of the novel. The power of love to redeem us becomes particularly prominent as the novel draws towards its denouement. As Cressida Connolly wrote in her review: 'The conclusion is suitably nail-biting and, pleasingly, love triumphs' (http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/5288138/daily-grind/).
But does love triumph at the end of the novel? For the bulk of the narrative, Sebastian Faulks presents us, at least on the surface, with an entirely loveless world. Many of the reading groups I have visited over April have commented on how much they dislike the cast of characters, on how irremediably unpleasant they are (with the exception of Jenny Fortune). Faulks presents us with a world in which people are utterly alienated from each other – more at home in virtual-reality nightclubs than they are in talking to one another. Parents neglect their children, husbands ignore their wives, and lonely individuals wander hopelessly through a hostile urban landscape.
However, perhaps we can argue that deeper connections are achieved – or in the process of being achieved – by the end of the novel. From the random and certainly inauspicious circumstances of their initial encounter, Gabriel Northwood and Jenny Fortune manage to forge the beginnings of a hopeful relationship. This union combines the elements of old-fashioned romance (dinner dates, sharing memories and books) with newer technologies; indeed, the final word on this new bond is a text message: 'One word was all he needed anyway, so he risked it: 'Heaven'. He was startled when a few moments later [...] his phone buzzed back and told him: 'X'' (383).
Parental love also comes gradually to the fore in the novel. Following Finn's breakdown, Vanessa Veals resolves to become a more engaged parent, collecting her young daughter Bella from a late night sleepover. Vanessa's love for her misguided son also parallels that of Nasim al-Rashid. Unlike Vanessa, however, Nasim is shown to be a loving parent throughout the novel, worrying about her son's increasing isolation and trying her best to reach him. Faulks describes her powerful love for Hassan: 'The mother's love for her boy was intense; and if there was sometimes a trace of sentimentality in it, then that was necessary, she thought, as a kind of protection or socialising of the dangerously visceral passion that underlay it' (217-218).
Finally – without giving too much of the plot away – at the end of the novel, Hassan himself discovers that love is the key to overcoming his feelings of anger and alienation. For those who have finished the novel, do you find this conclusion convincing? Perhaps the idea of love is used to rather hastily tie up all the loose ends of the plot? Or do you think personal connection really is the solution to the problems of these lonely, amoral twenty-first century Londoners?
- Does love conquer all at the end of the novel? Or are we, the reader, still left with a bitter taste?
- What different forms of love can you identify in the novel?
- Can you find any examples of failed love in the novel?
Do You Want to Read the Truth? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December: Chapter Three, Part Three
April 24, 2013
A Week in December is described as a novel, so by definition a work of fiction. Yet its contemporary setting and very close resemblance to actual events tempts us to speculate on how much of it is true. Margaret Atwood in her book 'On Writing' wryly observes 'It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography – but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.'
In A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks argues that this narrow interpretation of realism is particularly challenging for the British novelist. Great American writers such as Philip Roth or John Updike are able to tell stories with specific realistic detail and yet be understood to be expressing the wider human condition. 'Culturally, it had remained impossible for a realistic British novelist to transcend Leicester or Stoke; the place names alone seemed to laugh at the idea.' Is this because the British lack the confidence of the American immigrant story, the dream of the little man conquering the wild West, that permeates their understanding of themselves? Or are the British just less gullible and more suspicious of what constitutes universal experience?
It is an irony that what makes A Week In December seem so real is the amount of fantasy it reveals in contemporary British life. The closest thing to a human emotion that Faulks's hedge fund manager John Veals seems to experience is when he looks at Olya on soft porn site babsesdelight. Yet his sexual fantasies are far less sinister than his financial ones. As he plots to bring down a bank, he realises with glee that he will force it to suspend credit to farmers in Africa thereby destroying the value of their crops. He explains to his younger colleague, Wetherby, just how unreal the entire system of subprime mortgage bonds has become. 'This is Fantasy Finance. It wasn't enough to have poor people borrowing money they couldn't repay to buy houses they couldn't afford. By writing credit default swaps, the banks could leverage the real market many times over. That's why the overall losses are going to be so much greater than the losses on the actual mortgage loans they reference.' Veals seems to find this kind of economic obscenity far more of a turn on than internet porn.
I don't have a great grasp of economics and though I've attempted to understand the banking crisis by reading countless newspaper articles, I must admit I find it baffling. A Week In December has helped me to finally properly understand what I suspected all along; namely that the world of finance is screwing the real world that you and I have to live in. Faulks explains in chilling detail how this has happened and what the consequences are. It seems to me that whether Veals is based on a real person is largely irrelevant, what matters is that the financial system Faulks is describing is not just a dystopian product of his imagination. It is how our society actually functions or rather has failed to function.
Perhaps what Faulks is demonstrating is that great fiction has layers of fantasy and reality. Reading it should be like the pleasure Faulks's lawyer Gabriel takes in completing a crossword puzzle. It should fulfil his definition of an anagram, 'Every word worked its passage, yet the surface meaning was fluent, unimpeachable; it passed the ultimate test – that it could be read not as a cryptic clue but as a normal statement.' Is the truth of a novel deeper than just how closely it mirrors real people and events? What kind of truths do you look for in a work of fiction?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 19, 2013
Third instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
A Week in December: A Mirror to Reality?
One of the key themes of A Week in December is the thin line between reality and fantasy. Many of the characters occupy what might be called 'a world of their own': from Jenny Fortune's obsession with the alternative reality game 'Parallax', to Adam's schizophrenic pseudo-religious mythology, to John Veals's immersion in the world of figures and market movements. Even we, whilst reading the novel, are transported to a fictional world which is not our own, and yet so closely resembles contemporary London and twenty-first century life down to such small details that it gains a considerable degree of verisimilitude.
Sebastian Faulks manages to increase this sense of reality by basing many facets of this fictional world on aspects of our own. Consider, for example, the Café Bravo prize which R. Tranter hopes to win – obviously a major book prize sponsored by a popular coffee chain echoes a real-life prize, the Costa Book Award. In a similar fashion, A Week in December combines real-life place names – for example, Emirates Stadium or Upton Park on the very first page – with made-up places, people and things that nonetheless, are closely based on real-life counterparts. One of my favourites is the fictional girl band 'Girls From Behind'. One member, Lisa, is now a judge on the popular reality TV show, It's Madness. No prizes for guessing who they might be based on!
This aspect of Faulks's novel has prompted some speculation that certain characters may be based on real people (see for example this article in The Guardian entitled 'Who's really who in the novel world of Sebastian Faulks?'). Some even refer to the novel as a 'roman à clef': a novel 'with a key' that links its fictional content to real-life counterparts. However, the Acknowledgements to Faulks's novel contain the usual assertion that 'similarity between any of them [the characters] and any real person, living or dead, is coincidental' (p. 392). This of course protects the author from libel cases, but we also need to ask ourselves: are we too quick to apply real-life characteristics to fictional subject-matter?
The Café Bravo prize itself, that R. Tranter longs for, is awarded for non-fiction books. Tranter has written a biography of the nineteenth-century novelist Alfred Huntley Edgerton. But Edgerton himself is not real. In spite of this, his works are referred to in A Week in December alongside those of real authors such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. This is reminiscent of A. S. Byatt's novel Possession (1990), which features made-up Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
In this sense, then, A Week in December is itself is a meditation on real versus imagined or alternative worlds. It considers the thin line between reality and fantasy via its characters, nearly all of whom occupy some space that is not quite fully engaged with 'real life'. But on another level, the fact that A Week in December itself is fiction means the very form of the novel explores these questions too. Gabriel Northwood, the well-read lawyer, and Jenny Fortune, have a brief exchange about reading. Jenny states that books are 'an escape from the real world' (p. 197), in a similar way to her Parallax. Gabriel disagrees: 'surely it's just the opposite [...] Books explain the real world. They bring you close to it in a way you could never manage in the course of the day' (p. 197).
- Did you notice aspects of 'real life' in A Week in December?
- Did you find yourself matching up real people, things or events with those in the novel?
- Do you see reading as an escape from reality, or do you think reading fiction brings you closer to reality?
Cityreaders: Top Tip!
Check out Book Drum, an amazing website that brings reading to life!
The profile for A Week in December can be found here:
The site contains everything you need to bring the novel to life, including maps and photographs of relevant locations, notes that explain obscure references, and reader reviews.
Events Coming Up!
Cityread London has a number of exciting events coming up:
Lewisham Friday 19 April – Tonight! (6pm-7:30pm), Deptford Lounge
Poetry workshop using their poetry collection curated by Jacob SamLa Rose.
Adults. To book Jay Bernard Please book with staff at Deptford Lounge 020 83147299 firstname.lastname@example.org
Lambeth Friday 26 April (4:30pm-5:30pm), Brixton Library
Workshop for the Brixton Teen Club. With Femi Martin. To join Teen Club contact
Stephanie Wilson SWilson6@lambeth.gov.uk
Sutton Saturday 27 April (10am-1pm) Sutton Central Library
With Femi Martin. Creative Thinking workshop. For adults. Booking http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/event/6229409331
Ealing Saturday 27 April (2:30pm-4pm)
Panel debate on A Week in December
Does Blogging Prove You Exist? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December: Chapter Three part 2
April 17, 2013
In A Week In December, Sebastian Faulks's potential suicide bomber Hassan turns to blogging as a response to a profound identity crisis. Confused and alienated, Hassan starts his blog to try to express some of the doubts he feels about his place in the world. This is in spite of the fact that he considers blogging 'the last resort of the loser' and begins his first post 'Blog blog blog blog feel a bit funny doing this. Blog blog blog. OK what am I trying to say?'
People used to keep diaries in order to express their feelings and the vast majority of these diaries were never published or read by anyone but the author. Therefore they could express the writer's innermost thoughts with an honesty and openness that came from being completely private. Even if they were full of self deception or pretentiousness, it didn't matter because they were not intended for public consumption. The internet has changed all that. Now with a simple hit of the return key, we can broadcast everything from our darkest secrets to the minutiae of our daily lives.
Perhaps the explosion of popularity in blogs is because rather like talking to yourself, writing that no one reads can feel a bit pointless after a while. Most of us want to feel like we're communicating something. Yet unlike a normal conversation, blogging is a bit like shouting into the void. You have no way of knowing if any is listening. It can feel a bit like keeping a diary that completely random strangers may flick through.
In Hassan's case, he is not attention seeking, he is simply trying to figure out why he feels so let down by the society he lives in. He asks 'Who on earth will read this? I'm talking to myself, aren't I? God I'm like a fifteen-year-old locked up in his room wondering if he EXISTS!' He worries that he's being self indulgent and that no one will take his concerns seriously. Unfortunately someone does. The mysterious Grey_Rider clearly uses search terms to trawl blogs for potential recruits to a fundamentalist version of Islam.
There is no denying that the internet has allowed potential terrorists to connect and organise in a way that would have been far more difficult in the past. Are some thoughts left better off unexpressed? Should blogs that promote fundamentalism be shut down? Yet it seems to me that what Faulks is showing us through Hassan's blog is that this young man is not an evil, hard hearted religious fanatic. Instead Hassan writes 'The thing is I feel confused… I had principles, I had passions and I knew what was right. Trouble was I just couldn't put it all together, I couldn't find a scheme that explained everything.' Perhaps the problem with Hassan's blog is that not enough people are reading it or attempting to engage with why some young Muslim men feel so disillusioned with the Western world. Is blogging a dangerous, navel gazing waste of time or an exciting way to connect and understand different points of view? Why would you want to keep a blog?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 12, 2013
Second instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
What are the Seven Deadly Sins of 21st Century Londoners?
Several of the central characters in A Week in December behave in ways that are at best, morally-dubious, at worst downright criminal. In this sense, the novel paints a picture of contemporary life in which temptation lurks around every corner: greed, pride, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth and wrath can be assigned to each of the characters. For example, teenage son Finn wastes away in his room watching reality TV, smoking weed, and eating pizza, while Sophie Topping, the politician's wife, views money and looks as more important than anything else. R. Tranter, the book reviewer, is consumed with jealous bitterness over another writers' success, whilst John Veals, the hedge fund manager, is driven to lay all morality aside by a heartless greed for acquisition.
The concept of 'sin' carries a condemnatory tone, seemingly at odds with our supposedly secular age. Beyond the reach of the law, 'morality' may be seen as fairly relative in our culture. However, notions of temptation, restraint, naughtiness, shame and guilt – for example, the oft-used term 'guilty pleasures' – are persistent features within twenty-first century discourse. We are constantly being reminded that we are imperfect beings, liable to stray off the 'correct' path, whether in terms of the food we eat, how we choose to spend our money, or the way we conduct our relationships. If we don't regulate ourselves, these warnings imply, we will become utterly abandoned, to the detriment of our health, our wellbeing, our relationships and society in general.
A Week in December, in part, seems to endorse this view of society, by hinting at the ways in which twenty-first century London living has corrupted our characters, as they strive assert their own power, or secure their position at the top of the social ladder. John Veals is an utterly callous character, to the point of being barely human. He sues the African government and pockets their debt refund (p. 67); he believes all trade is driven by 'greed and fear' (p. 64). Faulks delves into Veals's soul and finds an empty shell:
Somewhere in the passageways of John Veals's mind, beyond the thoughts of wife, children, daily living, carnal urges, beyond the scar tissue of experience and loss, there was a creature whose heart beat only to market movements (p. 14).
Veals is a slave to financial markets, to the point that he has destroyed all human feeling that might reside within him. He can no longer experience happiness or love – the nearest he comes to that is his infatuation with Olya, a pornographic internet fantasy.
Veals's son Finn also embodies the 'sins' of the twenty–first century, or is rather a product of them, as his loveless, uninterested parents leave him to turn to addictive substances in order to fill the gap. As consuming drugs and junk food, Finn slumps in front of 'It's Madness' each night; a reality TV show that exploits those with mental health problems. The activities of the 'Barking Bungalow' clearly parallel those of the Big Brother house. The programme turns others people's suffering into entertainment and the implication is, by merely watching it, young Finn is corrupted in some way, and loses his grip on reality, as he longs to return to 'what as a child he'd called 'true life'' (p. 98).
Other characters are equally flawed, such as Sophie Topping, who exhibits vanity and pride: 'motivated by the desire to win the competition with the other wives and mothers of North Park' (p. 333), or R. Tranter, who hates Alexander Sedley with a fierce, all-consuming passion. Hassan, of course, strays into incredibly dangerous territory by joining a terrorist group. However, I would argue that he is never depicted as a 'bad' character in the way John Veals's is – instead, Hassan is depicted as misguided, lost and searching for a solution to the corruption he sees around him – the kinds of corruption we see in the other characters.
However, the novel also contains more subtle indictments of contemporary living, for example, the artist Liam Hogg's 'Cash Cow, 2007' implies the thoughtless excess and vapidity of meaning at the heart of the contemporary art world. This object, a 'mixed media piece made from sterling bank notes and lutetium, the rarest metal in the world' can be clearly linked to Damian Hirst's 'For the Love of God', a crystal-encrusted skull worth $10 million – also produced in 2007 –combined to some degree with his formaldehyde cow.
Art, according to Faulks's novel, degenerates when it becomes excessively linked to capitalist value. And life itself also depreciates in value when we lose the meaningful division between reality and fantasy. One of the least morally-dubious characters in the novel, Jenny Fortune the tube driver, is guilty of one of the more obscure sins of the novel: detachment from the 'real' world. Her commitment to 'Parallax', the alternative reality computer game, means she risks letting life pass her by. Gabriel, the lawyer, is guilty of the same thing: living in the past, rather than embracing the present. This division between reality and fantasy will form the focus of my next blog post. Meanwhile, have a look at the questions below and let me know what you think!
- Which character do you consider the most immoral in the novel? How would you rank the characters (e.g. from good to very bad)?
- What different 'sins' do we encounter in the novel? Is this a reflection of the 'sins' of our contemporary society?
- What do you consider are the 'seven deadly sins' of modern Londoners? What kind of behaviour really makes you despair?
- Can you identify any similarities between crimes or bad behaviour you have seen in the news, and the kinds of acts committed in the novel?
Do you still love your husband? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December: Chapter Three, Part One Tuesday, December 18
April 10, 2013
This is the question Sophie Topping asks Vanessa, wife of John Veals, in A Week In December. Vanessa isn't sure how to answer as she feels her hedge fund manager spouse has become so detached from the world of human emotion that love no longer has any meaning for him. 'I could forget the lack of fun,' said Vanessa, 'or his dread of parties or holidays or romance, I could forget everything if I could just once see him laugh.' What would it be like to be married to someone who never laughs?
John Veals cares deeply about making money but has absolutely no interest in spending it. He has no hobbies or interests or even a desire to show off what he can buy. He seems to have no feelings for his family or sense of pleasure. He treats his wife and children as if they were strangers. However Faulks isn't just giving us an insight into a disturbingly cold marriage. He is arguing that society has allowed the John Veals of this world to take over. For his wife isn't the only victim of Veals's lack of connection with humanity. Vanessa feels that far from being a freak, her husband seems 'so exactly suited to the modern world.'
This is because bankers no longer believe that they are connected to a reality in which things that people need are bought and sold. Instead their money has become so far detached from production that they believe it exists in its own sealed bubble. It doesn't represent jobs or goods or anything other than their own ability to play with it. This is Marx's fetishism of commodities taken to the ultimate capitalist extreme. Faulks writes 'Instead of being a 'service' industry – helping companies who had a function in the life of their society – banking became a closed system. Profit was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining; and in this semi-virtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became unhitched from normal logic.'
It is not that this new breed of bankers is without beliefs. Faulks portrays them as fundamentalist fanatics with a tunnel vision that makes suicide bombers seem open minded. They have no doubts about what they're doing because they feel utterly detached from those who will suffer the consequences. The only time John Veals shows the tiniest qualm is when the Prime Minister thanks him saying 'What you have done for the City of London, we now intend to do for the entire British economy.' That is turn it into a system where workers count for nothing, where all that matters is the surreal gambling of the market. It's a game with incredibly high stakes but when it all comes crashing down, it's not the bankers who have to pay the price.
The chilling tragedy of the Veals's marriage is reflected through the destructiveness of the banking crisis. Through Vanessa, Faulks asks how as a society have we become so blinded by materialism that we've allowed ourselves to be robbed by those who no longer have any basic understanding of love or compassion or decency?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 5, 2013
First instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
Introduction to the Online Reading Group:
Welcome to the Cityread 2013 Online Reading Group! Over the next few weeks, I hope you will use this virtual space to think about and discuss this year's chosen novel, A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Set in one week in December 2007, the novel depicts a London on the brink of a devastating financial crash. The novel also features a diverse cast of characters that find themselves at various transformative crossroads, as the tightly constructed narrative progresses.
A Week in December also deals with many contentious contemporary issues, including drug abuse, religious extremism, celebrity culture, reality TV, wealth and corruption. I hope you will find it a stimulating and thought-provoking read, and look forward to hearing you opinions and reactions on this website!
Throughout April, I am going to be posting a series of blogs intended to: highlight the key themes of the novel, discuss the main characters and their development across the novel, unpack significant quotations/passages, and to provoke further discussion. In terms of the latter, I encourage you to comment via Facebook (https://en-gb.facebook.com/cityreadlondon), Twitter (https://twitter.com/cityreadlondon) or by leaving comments below. The ultimate aim of this blog posts is to provoke debate and conversation about the book, so do please participate in the discussion!
This is the Online Reading Group schedule for April:
Friday 12 April:
Online Book Group 2: The Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Londoners
Friday 19 April:
Online Book Group 3: A Week in December: A Mirror to Reality?
Friday 26 April:
Online Book Group 4: Love and Redemption in A Week in December
Tuesday 30 April:
Online Book Group 5: Concluding remarks
Getting Started: Discussion Questions
Here are a few general questions to ponder whilst you start reading the novel:
- Why do you think Sebastian Faulks decided to set the novel's action in one week? Have you read any other novels with such a condensed timeframe? What affect does this have on the narrative/our view of the characters?
- Why do you think this particular cast of characters were chosen? What might Faulks be telling us about contemporary London, by creating these specific characters?
- Read just the first page of the novel. What picture is Faulks trying to build of modern Britain/London life?
- Have you read any other novels with a London setting? How does A Week in December compare?
Cityread 2013 launches with a musical mash-up!
April 4, 2013
Last night, Cityread London 2013 launched with a bang – or should that be a beat? – as over one hundred London librarians, borough councillors, publishers, writers and Cityreaders – not to mention this year's author, the acclaimed novelist Sebastian Faulks – gathered to celebrate the beginning of this year's Cityread with a 'DJ Slamdown', featuring London-themed songs chosen by all 33 London boroughs.
The Free Word Centre provided an ideal venue for this launch event, with turn tables spinning in one corner, and colourful wall projections displaying the eclectic artists nominated by each borough and the reasons they were nominated. These reasons included 'The Who developed their instrument smashing techniques at a pub next door to Harrow's Central Reference' and 'Sid Vicious was born in Lewisham Hospital'. You get the picture.
At 6pm, speeches officially declared the beginning of Cityread 2013. Eleanor Lang, the Executive Director of the Free Word Centre welcomed us all. Then Andy Ryan, Director of Cityread, took to the podium, telling us all about the reasons why A Week in December, this year's Cityread novel, was selected. Following last year's selection, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, she explained that it was time to bring literary London bang up to date this year, with a novel set in December 2007, on the verge of the banking crisis that brought the city to its knees. She also gave us a flavour of the exciting and diverse programme of events planned for this year, including an evening with Sebastian Faulks at the British Library (http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event140410.html), comic book workshops led by Karen Rubins, guided walking tours, lectures on the history of the Underground, competitions, treasure hunts, and much much more. To view the full programmes and to find out what's happening at your local library, visit the events calendar at: http://www.cityreadlondon.org.uk/calendar.html.
Finally, the special guest for the evening, celebrated author Sebastian Faulks, treated us to a passionate speech about his motivations for writing A Week in December. Inspired initially to document the lives of London's super-rich, he had no idea at the time of starting writing that the banking crisis was, in fact, about to strike. The hedge fund manager John Veals, one of a cast of diverse central characters (including a tube driver, a lawyer, a student and a bitter book reviewer) at the heart of A Week in December, represents the heartlessness of bankers gambling with other people's money. Faulks's speech made clear that this is, at heart, a moral book, that urges us to care about the exploitative actions of these bankers, as well as a novel about interconnection – a significant message for a city in which people so often feel strangers to one another.
After his speech, Sebastian Faulks's chosen London record, 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks, got the party started. After this auspicious beginning, London's librarians danced the night away, to artists from Kate Bush from Bexley, to The Wombles from… well, I'm sure you know!
To find out more about Cityread 2013, visit: http://www.cityreadlondon.org.uk/.
Don't forget to take part in this year's Cityread Online Book Group – starting this Friday 5 April and running throughout the month! See http://blog.cityreadlondon.org.uk.