Audiobook of the Month – One Summer 1927 by Bill Bryson

Instalments of Audiobook of the Month have been a wee bit thin on the ground of late. There is a very simple reason for this, namely, I don’t sit at a desk staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day anymore which means my audiobook listening time has been sorely culled. I still sit at a desk every day but now it’s for more like eighteen hours and I’m reading about dead people rather than scheduling television channels, which let me tell you takes a darn sight more concentration. So I now have about two hours a week to listen to radio/podcasts/audiobooks and that just about gets me through the Archers Omnibus.

However after about three months I’ve finally finished one. I was listening to The Secret Listeners by the brilliant Sinclair McKay; however in a move entirely out of character for a completionist like myself I broke off about two thirds of the way through because this came out…

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I like Bill Bryson’s work very much. I rank him alongside David Attenbourgh and Michael Palin as one of a breed of humans put on this planet to point out interesting things to all of us who are too busy trying to upgrade our phone contract whilst simultaneously buying an M&S meal for two to notice. These are lovely people. They make the world a better and more fascinating place. When I feel truly dispirited by the modern world, say after reading about total tools threatening to rape women on Twitter for having the audacity to, you know, say something, I’ll think about Bryson and the like and remember that somewhere in a jungle in South America there is a species of frog who wave to one another. Or that atoms in my body would once have also been contained within Shakespeare’s. Or that in 1879, at the age of fifty-four John Merridew left his profession as a local baker to become the world’s leading authority on rare tropical diseases. That last one I made up, but similar wonderful characters seem to crop up in Bryson’s books frequently. In fact, it was listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything at my desk in the spring of 2008 that inspired me to not simply spend my evenings watching Kath and Kim on an endless loop (although a noble pastime) and go back to university instead. ‘If Mary Snelly can discover 243 new species of newt with no formal training whilst working as an Edwardian parlour maid, I can get another degree’, I didn’t say to myself because I just made her up too, but very nearly kind of did.

So I was pretty chuffed when I discovered that old Bryson had written a book, using his similar format of, ‘ooh look over there! An interesting thing!’ but centred solely on the year 1927.

Charles-LindberghLindbergh with his trusty stead.

1927 in America was apparently one of those years when lots of things seemed to coalesce and converge in the cultural landscape. I suspect London in 2012 will have similar books written about it in 90 years time by another eternally curious member of our fair breed. This was the year that saw the race for transatlantic air flight go bananas and completely consume much of the world’s imagination; it was the World Cup, F1 and Wimbledon final all rolled into one. Bolstered by the lure of the Orteig Prize, (a $25,000 pot awarded to the first team to complete a non-stop flight between New York and Paris), teams from America and France pushed their planes, wallets and physical selves to the limit. Many men and women lost their lives during this year of air travel frenzy and Bryson tracks in his usual sympathetic style, the stories of many of these doomed missions. Of course as we all know, a lanky, slightly strange chap from Minnesota eventually succeeded in the task after setting out from Roosevelt Fields on the 20th May 1927, making it all look positively easy and immediately becoming an international Godhead in the process.

During the same summer, the first female prisoner on death row was killed by electrocution, President Coolidge announced he would not be standing for re-election, The Jazz Singer was released, a wave of bombings occurred, apparently in a show of support for the imprisoned Sacco and Vanzetti and the New York Yankees had their best season on record and secured their place in history as the greatest team to have ever lived.

BBabe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

CWings.

dCoolidge holidaying in 1927, in the cowboy outfit he used to like to wear.

There are coincidences and crossovers peppering the narrative and you see how so much of life is a spider’s web. Just people meeting people, at parties, boxing matches or in court rooms. Governors drink cocktails with movie stars and people fall in love, marry and unknowingly form dynasties. The summer of 1927 was the epoch of much. However I’m not entirely convinced that the same party trick Bryson is so good at, couldn’t be applied to any year in American history. Or British history, French or anywhere else on Earth with a reasonably large population and some international connections. All years, months, weeks and days have fascinating, weird and confounding things happening in them which will inevitably connect and dissipate into larger motifs of cultural identity. However that’s a small point and really shouldn’t at all detract from the sheer delight of this work. Bryson’s style is the same as ever and unfaultable; interesting, romping and sweet in equal parts and once you get used to his slightly-softer-than-expected-New-England-with-a-British-lick accent, he is also a pretty good narrator.

If you have the time in your schedule I would heartily recommend purchasing a copy of this little number, it will remind you that the world is pretty fascinating, because sometimes we all need reminding.

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Audiobook of the Month – Women at the Ready!

Life stuff first. This week I have been mostly moving out of the church and into our new place, which is very nice and sparkly. I’ve also started my first week of classes for my masters. It’s been pretty darn busy in Notebookland and it’s been awesome. I still can’t quite believe that my ‘job’ for this year is learning about pots and hanging about in libraries.

Enough of all of that though because it’s Audiobook of the Month time!
I’ve often pondered what I would have done to help the war effort during WW2. The answer is of course, spy. I would have stolen secret dossiers and made daring escapes on speeding trains whilst wearing a jaunty beret. I would have single-handedly brought down the entire Third Reich and maybe even shot Hitler at close quarters with a pearl handled pistol that I’d cunningly stashed in my vanity case. By the time the Cold War was in full swing I would have been a fully-blown Hitchcockian master, smuggling microfilms out of Soviet Russia in my heels and swishing onto private planes in a mint green shift dress and matching swing coat. I would have been a legendary figure in intelligence circles, half James Bond, half Keyser Soze, and with a natty international moniker such as ‘The Dormouse’.

If for some bonkers reason the Intelligence Services didn’t spot my obvious spy skills (owning a nice beige Mac) and immediately draft me into their ranks I suppose I would have found work closer to home. Maybe as a nurse or driving a wily police detective around Hastings. Or perhaps I would have joined the WVS. I’ve always been a bit in love with women’s organisations like the WI (which I am very much intending to join before I die, if not a smidge sooner). I like the idea of women coming together to share knowledge, skills and advice. I think organisations like this appeal to my dual personalities; the granny and the goth. They are powerful covens of ancient knowledge but also make nice Victoria sponges and appreciate the benefits of a good vest in winter. I’m really interested in the work women carried out at home during the war and groups such as the WVS played an incalculable part in the whole of the war effort.
The Women’s Voluntary Service was founded in 1938 by the Marchioness of Reading who along with government officials had the presence of mind to see that when war came, women at home could play the same important role that women in the ATS and the Wrens were doing within the forces.

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Robert and Patricia Malcolmson’s Women at the Ready is a thorough and concise accounting of the actions of the WVS between 1938 and 1945. It’s really very interesting indeed. So many times I’ve read accounts of people being billeted to such and such a town or going to a British Restaurant with little mention being made as to who exactly were organising these services. Well it appears that the majority of the time it was the WVS.

hLady Reading – the original Linda Snell.

From the off the Lady Reading wanted the WVS to be seen as an official and authoritative organisation and ensured that members had access to a green uniform which served to highlight WVS members in their own communities, in much the same way one would assume a local midwife or warden would have been. The uniform however was not free and so some members would simply wear a badge or lapel pin to identify themselves. They were organised into regional groups with local leaders arranging for the needs of their community to be met. There was no guideline to the work the women undertook and Lady Reading’s catchphrase was ‘if the job needed doing- it was done’.

oWVS uniform jacket.

gArmband.

Much of the Macolmsons research for the book is made up of the newsletters and reports published by the WVS. The newsletters tended to highlight the brighter side of voluntary life; the GI who got to keep a rendezvous with a sweetheart due to the WVS stepping in and sending a telegram or the cheerful knitting of endless socks. The official reports from some regions as well as individual diaries from WVS members show however that at times it was a trying, emotional and exhausting business. Some women were pushed to breaking point trying to find homes for evacuee children, clothes for the bombed and destitute and not to mention the endless long cold shifts serving teas and corned beef sandwiches in mobile canteens. Some women had to give up entirely due to overwork whilst others write passionately about the chaotic schedule of running to meet crisis after crisis in different areas as Britain took whatever the war could throw at it.

bLadies of the WVS with a mobile canteen 1941.

AHelping to organise billetees in East Ham, 1941.

dBehind the scenes at a British Restaurant.

kFixing service uniforms in London, 1943.

eA girl after my own heart – a 4 am start for a shift on the mobile canteen and the lippy’s going on.

The range of WVS activities is simply staggering; they organised homes for evacuees, arranged billets for ATS, Wrens and other service personnel, manned hundreds of mobile canteens in train stations and for bomb cleanup crews, knitted clothes for soldiers, organised clothes depots and exchanges for bombed out families, likewise with furniture swaps, helped to man British Restaurants providing hot meals daily, arranged meeting rooms for evacuee families to chat and play, organised Christmas toy collections for children, helped with blood drives, helped gather refuge for pigs to be fed in pig clubs and manned general information points at railways stations and towns across the country for enquiries and advice to all. This is not by any means a comprehensive list and not all duties were undertaken be every local organisation as regional needs varied dramatically, however the range and breadth of their work is remarkable.
Women at the Ready is a really good resource for anyone interested in the work of women in wartime Britain. It is at times slightly repetitive and many of the chapters seem rather arbitrary in theme and go over the same ground as other areas of the book. Having said that it’s a pleasure to read/listen to and one which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this period.

lA garden party organised by WVS in honour West Indian ATS women newly arrived in Bicester. The hostess Mrs Coker gives Private Jackman a rose.

mLove this picture.

pFeeding the piggies with salvaged kitchen waste.

cClothing bombed out families in Norwood London 1943. He looks rather pleased with his jumper.

jClothing exchange. Ok so I know this was a result of extreme hardship and is very serious, but on a shallow note I’d kill for ten minutes in that room now!

The WVS is still operational now going under the name the Royal Voluntary Service, removing the gendered part to reflect that about 5% of their members are now men. They provide emergency relief in all sorts of national crises such as mass flooding and have also been present during disasters like Lockerbie and Hillsborough. They also continue to run services in the local community including meals on wheels for the elderly and hospital shops and cafes. What a thoroughly amazing bunch of people and three cheers to Lady Reading.

Next month I’ll be taking a look at the follow up to Ian Sinclair’s brilliant The Secret Life of Bletchley Park with his, The Secret Listeners; How the Y Service Intercepted the Secret German Codes for Bletchley Park. Yeah, more cool spy stuff.

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Images sources: Imperial War Museum

For more info about the RVS and the work they do, clickity-click!

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Audiobook of the Month – In the Shadow of the Sword

All aboard the Audiobook of the Month Train! Destination: Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword.

Audiobook of the Month is somewhat belated this time around mainly because of the book in question. This is an absolute stonker of an audiobook running to a brain meltingly long 17 hours and 50 minutes. I chose this book because I saw Holland talk at the Heffers Classics festival last year and he was simply lovely. I’ve also had my eye on his Rubicon book for a while and have seen excellent things about it. When I start my MA I’m hoping to look a bit into Near Eastern history and so I thought this work, charting the historical power struggles and eventual Arab dominance of the area from the end of the Roman era, would slot nicely into my preparation.

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So, academia and A grades swirling in my head I hunkered down and plugged in. Approximately five minutes into the introduction I found myself quoting Gob Bluth; ‘I’ve made a huge mistake’. Please don’t misunderstand me, In the Shadow of the Sword is probably an excellent book. However that’s the problem, it’s an excellent book, not an excellent audiobook. Maybe it’s just my gin addled mind, or lack of sleep or liquorice allsorts addiction but I couldn’t grasp anything I was being told. Holland is a wonderful, really, really wonderful writer and it’s easy to believe he is a successful writer of fiction as well as accurate non-fiction. His richly textured style is sweeping and thick and he paints maniacal rulers feasting from a table of their foe’s corpses with as much depth and horror as the very Grimmest of fairytales.

The issue I had however is that there was just so much to hear, so many places and dates and names and travesties. Maybe this bodes terribly badly for the coming academic year but I like a nice map or two to reference when I’m getting nose deep into a topic, just a small buoy on the horizon to keep me bobbing along nicely in the right direction. I can see by nosing the Amazon ‘look inside’ button that this book does indeed have a few lovely comforting maps and I felt listening to this book did it a real disservice. I could hear there was so much in it that was just washing over me; as much as I tired and strained to take it all in and focus I knew I’d never really be able to understand it all properly without sitting in an armchair under a blanket with it all black and white in a trusty and tangible hardback edition. The scope of the topic is just so incredibly vast. The narrative felt like a messy tangle of wool being tugged and pulled into corners of map on a desk, but the map’s lines kept changing like oil in water and the wool would get caught and knotted and sometimes doubled back entirely upon itself. I can’t even really talk about what this  book was about because I’m not sure. I know there were a few Caliphs referenced along with several standout acts of megalomaniacal arrogance or debauchery or both, however, apart from a story about a very large pearl earring and the Emperor Valerian being used as a mounting block for his captor I retained nothing. I can honestly say I felt stupider after listening to this. I thought I had a relatively good grasp of Near Eastern and late Roman history but now I feel like I’ve had a lobotomy, I know nothing. It’s quite incredible really that a book can actually suck knowledge out of your head and leave in its place feelings of self doubt and mild loathing. I find myself now at the point where I refuse to let this bloody book defeat me and I’m going to buy a hard copy and try to actually read the damn thing, which I highly recommend you all do to because I have sneaking suspicion it’s probably excellent.

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Well after that massive blow to my intellectual ego I’m going to go this month for something frankly cosier and have opted for Patricia and Robert Malcomson’s Women at the Ready! The Remarkable Story of the Women’s Voluntary Service on the Home Front – and if I can’t get my head around that I’m going to give up altogether and re-read Twilight.

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