The spinning heart

Never backward about coming forward when asked for my opinion, it usually doesn’t take me long to share whatever it is that’s being asked of me. Occasionally though, very occasionally, I need time to think of an answer. It’s not that one doesn’t immediately come to mind but more that I discount the first half a dozen answers before settling as if I can hear the quizmaster asking: Is that your final answer? Read more

2015 Grateful 50: CJ Sansom

Blessed is [s]he who never expects anything, for [s]he shall never be disappointed. Heady words indeed. Words, in fact, I have mistakenly attributed for many years to being the ninth beatitude. And today I find that they’re not. They were written, apparently, by Alexander Pope, sometime back in the eighteenth century. Read more

The stuff nightmares are made of

WTF?!*  Had I been doing anything more than a sedate 25 mph on this relatively remote stretch of a very minor Austrian road, I might have left skidmarks. As it was, I braked hard, and stopped dead, not sure where I was or what was I was looking at.

IMG_3273 (600x800)IMG_3274 (800x600) Two sentry boxes were positioned on either side or a narrow country road, each containing a harrowing, life-size wooden carving of an emaciated man. We had seen no signs. No billboards. Nothing to explain what we might be looking at. On closer inspection, each had a small metal plate with the name of what we assumed to be the artist and the title of the piece (in German). We had obviously hit upon some old open-air art installation, one that had weathered the test of time with varying degrees of success. Ahead of us, the road stretched for miles, cutting a straight path to the horizon. It was hot. Very hot. The trees were still, the sunflowers and the corn unmoving, fixed with a rigidity that wasn’t just attributable to the lack of wind. My imagination was already running riot.

IMG_3308 (800x600)IMG_3304 (800x600)We were a couple of miles outside Andau, an Austrian village very near the Hungarian border, trying to find the bridge immortalised in James Michener’s book – The Bridge at Andau. [When I first came to Budapest, three books were recommended to get an insight into what makes the country tick. This one, Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog, and Julian Rubenstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, each one worth a read.]

The Bridge at Andau is James A. Michener at his most gripping. His classic nonfiction account of a doomed uprising is as searing and unforgettable as any of his bestselling novels. For five brief, glorious days in the autumn of 1956, the Hungarian revolution gave its people a glimpse at a different kind of future—until, at four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in November, the citizens of Budapest awoke to the shattering sound of Russian tanks ravaging their streets. The revolution was over. But freedom beckoned in the form of a small footbridge at Andau, on the Austrian border. By an accident of history it became, for a few harrowing weeks, one of the most important crossings in the world, as the soul of a nation fled across its unsteady planks.

It was across this bridge that more than 70 000 Hungarians fled to Austria, days after the failed 1956 Revolution. Once they’d reached the other side, they had a five-mile walk to freedom through the swampy no-man’s land along this road,which back then was little more than a bike path.

At Andau there was a bridge. Could someone reach it, he found the way into freedom. Only an insignificant bridge, neither wide enough for a car nor strong enough for a motorcycle. It’s rickety …..

In 1996, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the  Austrian and Hungarian armies cooperated to rebuild the Bridge at Andau, witness as it was to such a remarkable happening.

Those generations who had once built this bridge could not, of course, know the role this bridge of simple planks and beams will play one day….

That year, what had become known as the Road to Freedom, was used as an open air exhibition for 90 pieces by artists from both countries entitled The Road of Woes. And it was the remnants of this that we had stumbled across.

IMG_3280 (800x600)As we drove slowly alonIMG_3282 (600x800)g the road, we began to get some sense of what the journey might have been like. The average age of those escaping was 27; many had young children with them. Some 500 students and their university professors made the trip, too. Michener’s account, told from his vantage point on the Austrian side of the border, makes compelling reading. Although it had been a few years since I read it, it all came flooding back, helped in large part by the sometimes very graphic works of art potted along the way. We were on our own. Not another car in sight. I gave quick thanks that we were doing this in daylight. Had I caught the sentries in my headlights, the one sleepless night I had might have been serialised.

They came out of the reeds of the marsh land, from the mud and the dirt, right across the swamps and via the Einser channel, across the bridge with the rickety beams. Yes, that’s the way they came. Then we heard a dull bang, but nothing was to be seen. A refugee, who had kept hidden until then, took his opportunity. Breathless he came running towards us: “They have blown up the bridge!”

IMG_3286 (600x800)The agony was all too visible. I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, to have had to pack up my life into one small bag and then make the break, leaving family and friends, and a lifetime of accumulation behind me, knowing that at any minute, I could breathe my last. This, of course, is what hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees face on a daily basis. [Coincidentally, my book of choice right now is about Mexican illegals feeling across the Texas border into America. The human coyotes they have to deal are just another form of sentry.]

Michener, after witnessing what he had, said that if he ever had to flee, he hoped it could be to Austria, such was the compassion with which the Hungarians were treated.  The humanitarian work accomplished was quite simply amazing – the  schools, the kindergarten, the cinema and all public spaces have been provided for the accommodation of refugees.

IMG_3295 (800x600)The countryside, being what it is, has grown up and over many of the pieces so that they seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Heads swivelling back and forth we went for a fair stretch without seeing anything but so involved were we in the experience that we were imbuing rocks and dead trees with all sorts of stuff that simply wasn’t there.

IMG_3288 (590x800)IMG_3289 (600x800)Perhaps the most graphic  was a series of dismembered limbs, hanging on what I assume is a leftover piece of the original Iron Curtain. Another, a woman, hung suspended from the air, her hair falling away from a face contorted in agony. I wondered if this depicted the agony of what she had left behind or something she met along the road. I began to think of mines, and snipers, and all sorts but as I said, it all appeared without warning – I was clueless. Days later, as I write, what’s to be gleaned from the Internet wouldn’t make a bowl of soup. I did find one page though, that leads me to think that there’s more than just the 1956 Revolution being commented upon. It would seem that the pieces symbolise the rejection of violence, intolerance, inhumanity, contempt of humankind and racism. And their state of disrepair stems from the fact that they remain the property of their creators and are not maintained by the municipality.


IMG_3299 (800x600)IMG_3300 (800x600)Even after the Russians blew up the bridge on 21 November, the Hungarian people kept crossing and the Austrian locals in Andau and surrounding villages kept their doors open.  In a world that is going slowly mad, it’s gratifying to think that compassion for the fates of others existed and that people were willing to do their bit. I wonder how many of those who fled have come back to visit? Where are they now? Is that journey just a fleeting memory or has it shaped the lives they live today?

Standing on the Hungarian side, looking across the bridge to Austria, was a sobering moment. The walk across that second time even more so. Yes, the bridge has been renovated, but the wooden planks still groan, footsteps still echo, and that sense of touching down on terra firma and looking back is all too real.

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Domestic cosiness and blood-curdling horror

Until very recently, Camilla Läckberg played no part in my world. I didn’t know her from Eve. And, had I been pushed to guess where she’s from based on her name alone, Sweden would have been the last place to come to mind.

Billed as ‘the hottest female writer in Sweden’ by the Independent, regaled by the Guardian as an ‘expert at mixing scenes of domestic cosiness with blood-curdling horror’, endorsed by The Times as ‘a top-class Scandinavian writer’ she certainly comes highly recommended. Curiosity got the better of me.

One of the lovely thing about having friends who read is that nine times out of ten they read authors I’ve never heard of. Over with the lovely BC last week, I had a flip through her bookshelf and came across five of Läckberg’s novels (starting with No. 2 in the series). I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

preacherAbout a third of the way in to The Preacher I was ready to give up. The translation was doing my head in. The clumsy English was so far from what we’d say in everyday life that I has having a hard time concentrating on the plot and the characters. Three books later, I’ve gotten over it. I’ve learned to ignore the style and focus on the content. So much gets lost in translation and if I was interested enough, I’d learn Swedish.

Läckberg is a fan of alternating the past and present. Each of the books I’ve read so far flips back and forth and this, too, took some getting used to. Her protagonists are a couple. Policeman Patrik Hedstrom, second in command at the local cop shop in Tanumshede near Fjällbacka on the west coast of Sweden, Läckberg’s home town, is a smart lad. His crime-writer wife Erika Falck is quite something. They make a likeable, readable couple. As the novels progress, the pair increasingly get equal billing. Erika’s sister Anna has hooked up with Erika’s ex-boyfriend Dan and when Erika wants rid of Patrik she sends him for walks with his ex-wife. All very progressive. As for Bertril – Patrik’s bumbling idiot of a Chief – even he’s growing on me. One of a novelist’s biggest challenges is making their characters human, making them real. Läckberg has mastered this.

If you read enough crime novels, you can pretty much see where any book is going. Läckberg’s are no exception, though in fairness, it takes longer than usual. What I like most about them, though, is the backdrop: the accounts of everyday life in Sweden, its social problems, its history.

I’ve long since used crime novels in place of guide books, figuring that if a novelist does their work properly, I’ll learn more about a city or town or area from a novel than I would from a dry account of where to go and what to do. And I’d highly recommend Läckberg’s novels for anyone with a yen to visit Sweden.

hidden childI’m currently leafing my way through The Hidden Child and am thoroughly enjoying the insights offered into Sweden’s politics during the Second World War. I’d no idea that it was of such help to Norway or need that the anti-immigrant front is as far-reaching as it is. I’d somehow thought Sweden to be beyond that. Couple that with how Patrik (on paternity leave to free up Erika to write her latest book) is coping (as a representative male) with the daily routine of child-minding, and you have a very interesting book on many fronts. If you’ve a mind for mystery, then you could do worse than check the good lady out.




2013 Grateful 18

I’ve spent a lot of time this week with the ever-so-lovely Finlay McLeod (Fionnlaigh, to his Gaelic-speaking friends, and Fin to his English-speaking friends). He’s a gorgeous man, prone to fits of melancholy. An islander who struggled for years to settle on the mainland, he eventually succumbed to the tug of home and returned to the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost island of the Outer Hebrides which lie off the coast of Scotland.

From the pen of Peter May, Fin is the main character in a trilogy set in Ness, on the Isle of Lewis. Through his eyes we get a picture of life as it was and is on the Scottish islands. We witness the powerful stronghold of the protestant church. A church that chained the swings in the playground so that kids could not use them on Sundays. A church that forbade women going to the grave site to bury their men.  A church, like many other churches, rife with hypocrisy and made even more polemic by rebellious  teenagers and young men and women who, desperate to throw off the yoke of their inherited beliefs, went wild only to get the curam later in life and return to the church more devout that their parents ever were. Like reformed smokers, their zeal was unmatched.

The fcallanish standing stoneslewis chessmanirst nblackhouseovel – The Black House is a wonderful depiction of the islands, the scenic beauty, and the chasm that existed between those bright enough to leave the island for mainland universities in Glasgow or Edinburgh and those left behind in dead-end jobs, fighting to make a living. May is an artist who uses words as paint. His vivid descriptions were powerful enough to transport me  in my mind’s eye to the barren Scottish land and leave me with a yearning to go see for myself. The so-called black houses were not, as I had thought, a literal description of smoke-filled stone cottages, blackened by years of open fires and poor ventilation, but rather a contrast with the white houses built in later years for occupancy by people only.

The second – The Lewis Mansheds light on that terrible phenomenon: homers. Designed to rid the big cities (Glasgow, Paisley and Edinburgh) of children from poor and homeless families, the ‘boarding-out’ of children has its roots in Victorian times. Many were sent to live in the Highlands and Islands, more still went further afield, to Canada.  Put to work in the fields, tending sheep, harvesting seaweed, or working the boats, this indentured servitude continued to the 1960s. The fates of the homers varied considerably. There was no such thing as vetting potential surrogate parents – suitability was not an issue. May weaves a story of intrigue that shows a remarkable sensitivity for the traditions of the islands and its people and brings to life the sense of despair and hopelessness in which poverty is rooted.

The final in the series – The Chessmen – is perhaps the most powerful of the three, exploring as it does the roots of friendship and loyalty, of family relationships, and of obligations that pass beyond the grave. It is here that Fin comes into his own. By now, in my head, we were friends – good friends. We’d travelled a long road together and I so wanted to be able to sit and talk to him, to unravel his thoughts. I wanted to be on that beach, bracing myself against the sea air, or walking the cliffs, fighting to stay upright in the gale-force winds, or  watching the moon at night as it settled over the lochs. I wanted to witness a bog burst – where heavy rainfall can lead to the disappearance of a lake as the water breaks through the peat bed and drains to a lake below. I wanted to fish for wild salmon, to hear mass in Gaelic, to walk the fells.

May’s deft inclusion of the Iolaire disaster in 1919 in which some villages lost ALL of their menfolk, lends the novel a credibility that makes Fin and his life even more real.  To think that the first book in this trilogy was turned down by all major UK publishers beggars belief. The Blackhouse was first published in France as L’lle des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux where it was rightly hailed as a masterpiece.

This week, I am truly grateful for my love of reading and for those authors whose ability to paint pictures with words transports me to other worlds from the comfort of my couch. I can’t begin to imagine how soulless and empty my life would be without books. If you read nothing else this year, read the Lewis Trilogy.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52.

Photos ‘borrowed’, with thanks, from


Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet

I’m not quite sure what is happening in my head these days. I seem to have developed an irrational fear of a collective forgetting, a fear that once the aging survivors of national and international atrocities die off, the rest of us will stop remembering, or worse still, start denying. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in camps like Terezin and Salaspils. Or perhaps it goes back even earlier to the realisation that things have happened in my lifetime that I simply wasn’t aware of. Like the last partisan in Lithuania emerging from the woods when I was sixteen.

HotelAnd then I think of books and authors, and the role they play in keeping this collective memory alive. I’ve just finished Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet and yes, I realise that the operative word here is ‘novel’ – it is a work of fiction but one that is based on real life events in Seattle, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

This   heart-rending account of how Japanese Nisei (second-generation) and Issei (first generation) and Sensei (immigrants) were treated as spies, collaborators, saboteurs, and threats to national security under the guise of protecting them from the nationals is beautifully written. That much of the West Coast was declared a military zone; that the Japanese themselves built many of the camps they were housed in; that huge numbers of those interned were second-generation American and didn’t even speak Japanese shows just how far we can be carried along by the tide of mass hysteria and collective frenzy.

On February 19th 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, some 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified their action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown disloyalty to the nation. In some cases family members were separated and put in different camps. During the entire war only ten people were convicted of spying for Japan and these were all Caucasian.

hotel 2Harrowing accounts of people burning wedding photos and kimonos and anything that might tie them to being Japanese show the lengths we will go to belong. Stories of some Chinese putting their safety on the line to store precious belongings for their Japanese friends or even hide them, as Jews were being hidden in Europe, testify to the ability of friendship to break through bigoted boundaries. These passages resonated all the more given the title of this blog – unpacking my bottom drawer – and the collection that I have amassed over the years that is very much a mirror of my life.Would I willingly destroy it all?

The novel revolves around the friendship between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, their love of jazz, and a discovery at the Panama Hotel. Henry (the Chinese lad) has to wear a badge saying ‘I am Chinese’ in case someone might mistake him for being Japanese. Imagine. Through the reactions of the various random characters that pop up during the days they spend trying to assimilate, man’s inhumanity to man comes to the fore. It doesn’t elbow its way to the front row as happened with, say, the Holocaust, but rather edges its way forward until it is just as pervasive if not nearly as violent. Boycotting of Japanese businesses, refusal to sell to Japanese consumers, general maligning and debasing of their culture and traditions might seem light enough if placed side by side the trainloads of Jews that were being ferried to their death on the far side of the Atlantic. If we are speaking in terms of the numbers affected, the sheer magnitude of the atrocities committed, and the far-reaching effects that are still with us today, there is no comparison. But neither should have happened.

To my shame, I’ve only just gotten an inkling of what went on. When I was doing History at school we alternated between European and American and my year was on the European roster. While I am growing increasingly cynical about the ovine-like minds of the human race, it was a shock to read about the mass hysteria that cost so many people so much. Yet we saw the same in the 1960s in the UK where every Irish accent heralded a potential terrorist.  We see the same now with Muslims where every hijab masks a potential suicide bomber. I’m just back from Ireland, sickened by accounts from black taxi drivers of how the Irish (my people) openly scorn them and refuse to get into their cabs. This blanket painting of peoples as one collective image is keeping me awake at night. Literally.

The subtle treatment of the Japanese love of swing jazz is woven into the reaction of Black America to what was going on. Whether or not jazz legend Oscar Holden was in fact blacklisted from Jazz Clubs in Seattle for his outspoken protest against what was happening is something I can’t verify. I’d like to think it was true, though. It would go some part way to restoring my faith in human nature.

The Panama Hotel in Seattle is now on my list of places to visit (to think that I lived in  the vicinity for the bones of a year and didn’t know of any of this is disheartening). Jamie Ford is on my list of authors to watch. And the victims of this hysteria have been added to my list of those not to be forgotten.